The real action is upstairs, where the standing-room-only crowd could care less about baseball. They've come to see the reigning kings of sketch comedy in St. Louis. Founded seven years ago, the NonProphets have grown from a small ensemble to a rowdy collective of sixteen. For the past eight months, the troupe's irreverent weekly show, "The Militant Propaganda Bingo Machine," has been drawing ever-larger crowds to the Hi-Pointe.
Admission, determined by picking an overturned playing card off a table when you walk in, runs from five bucks (if you draw a spade) to eight (for a diamond). This buys you a personalized BINGO card with 24 spaces corresponding to the NonProphets' 24 sketches. Group members have no idea what order they'll perform their sketches in -- that's determined by the audience member who screams out his or her preferred number the loudest. The first person to hit BINGO scores a free drink from the bar.
The room is warm -- almost sticky -- tonight, though a breeze from the opened windows cuts the heat and the smell of stale cigarettes. A handwritten placard over the bar offers a drink called "Wreck Your Fuck'n Car." Audience and cast members alike line up for bottles of PBR and Newcastle. Meanwhile, Blaise Azzara, the NonProphets' resident tunesmith, climbs atop a small black stage at the very back of the long, rectangular room and plops himself down on a folding chair. With his thick build and dark features, Azzara specializes in tough-guy characters like Joey Gamboni, a reformed mafioso who writes obscene children's stories. Before he can so much as tune his guitar, a crowd member yells out "Twatley's!" at the top of his lungs.
"Simmer down, chap," Azzara says. "I'm gonna play it." He gives an abortive, out-of-tune strum and shrugs. "It's gotta be out of tune or it wouldn't be Twatley's." With that, he sings softly:
You made it through the day
Now you're almost on your way
All you need is a little buddy to pull you
through the gray
Sit on down and smear it on, in crunchy
or in creamy
With Twatley's peanut butter, life with kitty is so dreamy
Yes, Twatley's peanut butter, it just spreads right on so nice
Plus it's 100 percent natural, so don't you worry 'bout no crabs or lice.
About 60 people have come out tonight, a diverse crowd that includes more than a smattering of tattoos, as well as a few business suits. The most curious pair is an elderly couple. He has carefully combed hair and a breast pocket brimming over with pens. She has a white sweater folded politely in her lap. As they do every week, the pair sings along loudly and clearly:
It's Twatley's, yeah, Twatley's
So much better than just a snack.
It's an aphrodisiac to make your cat munch on your snatch.
Twatley's, yeah, Twatley's.
Twatley's, fuck yeah, it's Twatley's.
Good for your cat
And fuckin' great for your snatch!
The burst of applause that follows Azzara's final verse is about all the reward he'll receive tonight. Although he and the rest of the NonProphets spend hours preparing for each show, they don't make any money from these gigs. For some, the payoff is simply the chance to get their comedy rocks off. For others, the dream is to break into the comedic acting big-time, using the NonProphets as a stepping stone. What they all share is the same basic worldview: Sketch comedy is their reality. It's the day jobs they consider play-acting.
Setting: Huck's gas station on Lindbergh, just north of I-270 and across the street from a much more dapper QuikTrip. Huck's features yellow and purple signs above the gas pumps advertising knives, two for $15, and milk for $2.59.
Time: Sunday, shortly before midnight.
Dramatis Personae: *Josh Rohan, 24, a husky, soul-patched NonProphet, famous for his roles as Becky the Carpet Queen, Hurricane Fabian and anything else that requires a display of irrational exuberance. Rohan, who works the graveyard shift Friday through Monday, wears a wrinkled denim shirt and a half-blue, half-red Cardinals cap.
*Ben Westhoff, who flubbed his lines in the 1988 Saint Anthony Park United Church of Christ Christmas pageant and has had no subsequent acting experience.
Ben enters with notebook.
Ben: I've just got a couple questions, Mr. Rohan.
Josh: It's Josh, man. Call me Josh.
Ben: Okay. Sure. Josh, how'd you get involved --
Josh: (Barking into microphone near his register) Go ahead on pump three. (To Ben) Sorry, what were you saying?
Ben: The NonProphets --
Josh: By the way, feel free to grab some coffee or soda. (Gesturing towards the fountain machines) It's all free. (Takes a gulp of his soda) I swear to God I've put on so much weight. I've got to cut out the Mountain Dew.
Ben: Right. I'm just wondering how you got involved with the NonProphets?
Josh: Before the NonProphets I did a Shakespeare tour of a bunch of different schools, from elementary to high school -- we even did an old folks' home. Kirsten, who started the NonProphets, she was in it as Lady Macbeth. And Blaise and Matt [Kahler] and I made up about everyone else in the cast. (Lights up a Camel Light and takes a puff) It was a full-time gig from March through June -- a sweet little actors' paradise right there.
Josh's soliloquy is interrupted by Customer One, who enters stage left.
Josh: (To Customer One) How you doing?
Customer One, an older woman, doesn't respond. She wears her hair in a tight bun and has a nurse's assistant ID around her neck. She buys a pack of Marlboro Lights, a twenty-ounce bottle of Vanilla Pepsi and a mini bottle of Seagram's. After paying for the items she takes a few sips of her Pepsi, then dumps in the mini Seagram's bottle. She sips, smiles and leaves.
Josh: What was I saying? Oh yeah. So that's how I hooked up with the NonProphets. But then, you know, you have to make money, too. I was unemployed for about a month before I got this job. When they asked, "Do you wanna work the night shift on the weekends?," I was like, "Hell yeah." I'm amped up because I just got my health insurance. First time with health insurance in three years. First time with dental in six. A dentist is going to have a field day with my mouth.
Customers Two and Three enter. Two has a swollen, puffy eyelid, which could be an injury or an unfortunate birthmark. Three has an oversize baby-blue Cardinals jersey. They are friends of Josh's from high school.
Josh: What's going on, guys? (They hug) Nice jersey. Goin' Kool tonight?
(Two nods and also grabs a two-liter bottle of Pepsi. Three gets a box of Black 'n Milds. They pay and exit, downstage right.)
Ben: Do you ever worry about getting held up here?
Josh: There were reports of a break-in before I started, but if someone wanted to rob some place, they'd go across the street to the QT. If they robbed us, I'd be like, "Here's twenty bucks, man. All I sold tonight was a twelve-pack." (Lights another cigarette)
Ben: Who were your first influences in comedy?
Josh: (Shaking his head and smiling) My favorite when I was a kid was John Belushi, and then later Chris Farley. Now it's probably Chris Rock -- I try to bite his style. I like the fact that he can make social commentary funny.
Ben: (Yawning) How do you stay awake?
Josh: A lot of Mountain Dew and a lot of cigarettes. At two I close the store for an hour and a half to stock, and the freezingness of the cooler area usually keeps me up. The newspaper man shows up at 3:30, so that breaks up the night pretty well. After that I write sketches. (Pauses) Yeah, that's the only problem with this job. It's totally ruined my biological rhythm. The night has no effect on me.
(Customer Four enters. He wears a red sweatshirt and a Krooked brand black cap with the mesh pulled down, hiding his hair.)
Customer Four: Cigarillos.
Josh: I'm all outta cigarillos, man. I got Blunts, Black 'n Milds. (Paws through a selection of Phillies Blunt flavors which include regular, honey, sweet, chocolate, strawberry and berry) Philly chocolates?
Customer Four: Yeah. (Pays $2.69 plus tax and leaves)
Ben: So, what's the dream?
Josh: I'd love to be a resident actor in a theater company, but I think that'll have to happen somewhere else. To be a St. Louis actor -- there's nothing wrong with it, but there's just not enough money here.
Josh is interrupted by the sound of a car pulling up outside. This is Customer Five, who desperately hopes to beat the midnight deadline on liquor sales. He leaves his car running and sprints to the door.
Customer Five: Did I miss ya?
Josh: Sorry, man, can't do it. Someone here already got in trouble for doing that. (Shrugs) We're being watched.
Sound of skidding wheels, as Customer Five exits angrily.
Josh: See, Blaise, Matt and I are best friends, and it's always been our plan to stick together. Blaise is going to scout LA, I'm going to scout New York, see if we can find good scenes to plug into, and then the plan is for the others to follow.
Two nights later, Blaise Azzara pulls into a mostly empty parking lot in his gray Crown Victoria, where a few other NonProphets sit atop their cars, waiting for their rehearsal space -- a small chiropractic office in south city -- to become available. One of the docs from the office donates the space to the NonProphets.
While they wait, Kirsten Wylder flips her blond hair to show off her new T-shirt, which features a cartoon boy holding up a Christmas-tree air freshener. "You smell like dookie," he says on the front of the shirt. On the back: "No really, you do though."
Wylder, the managing director, co-founded the group with her husband Bob Mitchell, who is now the artistic director and sometimes directs the shows. The couple has two kids, and she runs the office at Gourmet FoodWorks in University City while he teaches theater at Central Visual and Performing Arts High School.
Once the docs clear out, the NonProphets quickly rearrange the office's Nautilus machines -- Azzara refers to them as "gonad stretching" machines -- and the group launches into a frenzied rehearsal.
Josh Rohan, apparently recovered from his latest overnight shift, has brought in a new handwritten sketch called "Don't Get Madd IV," the latest in a series of Glad sandwich-bag commercial parodies. Almost every NonProphet writes sketches. (After each show, an audience member pulls a playing card that determines how many new sketches the group will have to perform the next week.)
In this one, Rohan plays Rush Limbaugh, unable to open his childproof Oxycontin bottle and growing increasingly furious. Upon being offered a plastic weekly pill sorter -- the kind with seven compartments, one for each day of the week -- he is delighted. "This device is so simple even a Negro quarterback could use it," he declares.
As the name implies, sketch comedy boils down to a series of short one-act plays that combine the spontaneous energy of improv with the topicality of stand-up. The genre dates back to the sixteenth-century Italian Commedia dell'Arte, traveling comedy shows that included stock characters and rehearsed bits. The most popular modern example would be Saturday Night Live, though most NonProphets are more likely to cite as influences edgier programs such as Mr. Show, or the renowned live work of the Chicago troupe Second City.
St. Louis has seen its share of local improv and sketch comedy groups over the years -- Parliament Cheez, Brand X and Mama's Pot Roast, to name just a few -- but none have maintained the enduring esteem of the NonProphets. It hasn't been easy. The ensemble's first show ran for only ten weeks at the St. Marcus Theatre in Fox Park, in the basement of a church. The cast featured seven performers, including Mitchell and Wylder of the current cast. A new incarnation appeared (and quickly disappeared) a year and a half later. In 2000 the group reunited for a run at the Midtown Art Center, which lasted exactly one show before the venue shut down.
Wylder admits that the ensemble's material was not exactly ready for prime time back then: "We had a Jar Jar Binks sketch, that's how bad it was. But we had a lot of people who wanted to perform, so we pushed on. The problem is that theater space that's affordable in St. Louis is beyond virtually impossible to find. Unless you have a sugar daddy or a generous benefactor."
Enter Tyson Blanquart. Blanquart, who studied improv with Mitchell at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, saved the day when he found the Hi-Pointe, convincing manager Lisa Andris to drop the Thursday-night band rotation earlier this year and pick up the NonProphets. The arrangement has been a big success for both parties. Hi-Pointe bartenders report strong drink sales, while the NonProphets are enjoying their longest run to date.
And their largest, as well. At sixteen members, the NonProphets are like a gangly teenager in mid-growth spurt, full of energy but unable to move without tripping over himself. Part of the problem, Wylder says, is the fickle nature of show business itself. Members keep telling her they plan to leave. She finds replacements. Then the departing members decide to stay.
Group members frequently miss a few shows. Matt Kahler and Sarah Cannon, for example, recently took time off to do the City Players' production of Steve Martin's The Underpants. Then, when their schedules allow, they return to the fold.
To some degree, Wylder says, the group is a victim of its own inclusive nature. Ken MacGregor left briefly when he was hit in the mouth with a softball, and Travis Estes was brought in as a temporary replacement. "Travis came in with two sketches he'd written already, and was so good. We were like, 'We can't kick him out!'"
But more actors means less stage time for each, and this has led to some discussion about the group splitting. Wylder has suggested having two shows per week, laying out a complex system involving a rotating cast schedule.
This seems unlikely to happen anytime soon, however. The group members feed off each other's manic energy, and their self-referential writing style has served them well. Their Halloween show featured 30 sketches and took the better part of three hours, an eternity in comedy years, especially considering much of the crowd had to be at work early the next morning. But group members show a distinctly punk-like disdain for such conventional concerns. "Ninety percent of the people who come like it, and the other ten percent can go fuck themselves," Azzara observes.
As the rehearsal winds down, Wylder rehearses a sketch in which she plays an overzealous mom driving with her teenage son, played by Estes. She asks him a series of embarrassing questions about his girlfriend, then brings out a bag of condoms and informs him that there's a beach towel in the back seat. "Sex is messy," she says. "Especially if this is Sheri's first time."
Nearly crying, Estes denies that anything of the sort is going to happen.
"Well, I hope for Sheri's sake you masturbate," Wylder says perkily. "If you don't know how to work it, how well do you think you'll know how to use it?"
Estes cowers for a few beats until Wylder's "out" line:
"So how do you think your sister feels about her vagina?"
Setting: The Fantasy Shop, in a strip mall off Interstate 64 in Fairview Heights, Illinois. The Offspring blasts on the stereo while a sci-fi DVD plays on the television. The shop features items such as the "Make Your Own Dungeon Adventures!" kit, which promises "3-D Dungeons and a totally customizable system" for $29.99.
Time: Friday, 3:30 pm.
Dramatis Personae: *Chris Jones, 30, the self-described King of the Geeks. MC and sometime director of "The Militant Propaganda Bingo Machine," Jones is most famous onstage for his "Star Wars in Five Minutes" sketches, where he reenacts the entire trilogy using plastic light sabers, Millennium Falcon toys, Yoda dolls and wadded-up paper balls to represent asteroids.
*Cory, store manager.
*Ben Westhoff, Star Wars and Lord of the Rings illiterate.
Chris enters in a blue smock and goatee.
Ben: How'd you get involved with the NonProphets?
Chris: I was in Bob's improv class at SIUE, a school I was at for a very long time. Let's just say I was the only student there with tenure. But the NonProphets have been a dream. I consider myself --
The phone rings.
Chris: Sorry -- hold on a second. (Answers the phone) Fantasy Shop...Oh, hi, Charlie...GURPS? Let me check.
Chris walks over to the part of the store where Generic Universal Role Playing System figurines are normally kept. There are none to be found. Chris breaks the bad news to Charlie.
Chris: (To Ben) What was I saying?
Ben, however, has himself become distracted by the bust of a black-haired, red-suited and very well-endowed female action figure.
Chris: That's Elektra from Daredevil, the character played by Jennifer Garner. She's a Greek ninja assassin. You know, all Greeks are ninja assassins by training.
Ben: (Seeming to awaken from his brief infatuation) What's your long-term goal?
Chris: The eventual plan is New York. I just got back from visiting. Some former NonProphets have made it out there; I'd like to set up a sister company to the NonProphets. Walking around, it seemed like everybody was doing improv there, but I didn't see any sketch comedy.
Ben: How long can you see working here?
Chris: I'm definitely not going to do this forever. Don't get me wrong, I love this job. I get paid to read comic books! But I have to grow up and get a real job at some point. There are no 80-year-old comic book guys. More than anything I just don't wanna be sitting in St. Louis five years from now, wondering why I didn't give it a shot in New York. That's the ironic thing about the NonProphets. If the group wasn't going so well I probably would have gone already.
Cory enters. He has long hair and a giant tuft of brown whiskers jutting out of his chin.
Cory: Do you know how much War Beasts are?
Chris: Seven bucks, but that's a total guess.
Ben notices an eight-inch jet-black scarring on Cory's right forearm. It has the curved calligraphy and dense lettering of a Tolkien dialect.
Ben: (To Cory) What's your tattoo?
Cory displays the tattoo proudly.
Cory: It means "One Ring to Rule Them All" in Black Speech, which is a corrupted form of the Sindarin dialect.
Ben: So...you guys meet a lot of girls, then?
Chris: Oh yeah, I'm 30. I live in my grandparents' basement and work in a comic book store. How cool am I?
Cory: It's easy getting laid on Saturdays.
Chris raises his arms and looks around the store triumphantly.
Chris: (Emphatically) Who wants to have sex with me?
The store is empty.
How do you support a family -- or even a bachelor's basic needs of running water and an address to which pizza can be delivered -- on a St. Louis actor's salary?
Most NonProphets will tell you that it's impossible. Matt Kahler, despite his relative success landing parts in local shows, has relied on his girlfriend to pay his rent since June. He owes her $2000.
Wylder says she has done "every damn thing here in town" -- from the St. Louis Black Repertory Company to playing a "biker junkie slut" in a local movie called Manifest of the Heart. She still has to fall back on day jobs. Her husband Mitchell is no stranger to bizarre parts. He played "Junkie #1" in an episode of America's Most Wanted. Although the couple recognizes that their acting prospects might be brighter in bigger cities, strong family ties have caused them to stick it out in St. Louis.
Lori Peeples is a former NonProphet who moved to New York earlier this year. She now lives her dream as a sound designer for Broadway and off-Broadway plays. This is not a vocation she could have made profitable in St. Louis. Still, she says the city does offer some advantages for the aspiring thespian.
"What better place to try something out than in St. Louis?" she says. "It's inexpensive, and people are willing to do absolutely anything." She calls the NonProphets one of the most adventurous groups she's seen anywhere. "God! I showed my ass for six months in 'Plumbers' Ass Gone Wild!'"
And it's this energy that inspires most of the players. "I told Bob and Kirsten, I'm dropping everything for this," Rohan says. "We're all working to make this thing take off. We'll see the money later." He views a bigger venue as the first step: "We gotta get our own place. We love the Hi-Pointe, but we gotta be performing Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights. We need a place like the Funny Bone, where we can perform before 250 to 300 people a night."
He admits the odds of this happening anytime soon are slim. In the meantime, he and the other NonProphets are feeding off the support of their cult following. That following includes Jim and Jean Jones, the elderly grandparents of Chris Jones, who have attended nearly every NonProphets show that Chris has performed in (and sung along to the Twatley's anthem on each occasion).
"We're not offended," Jim says over the phone, relaying questions to his wife in the background. "Sometimes it gets kind of raunchy, but it's in a bar, and you have to play to the crowd."
Even if Chris were to move to New York, Jim says, he and his wife would continue to trek across the river to the Hi-Pointe every Thursday night. They love the group that much.
Setting: The basement of the Missouri Historical Society, recently refurbished with clean white walls and harsh fluorescent lighting. NPR is blaring.
Time: Friday. 5:30 pm.
Dramatis Personae: *Travis Estes, the only NonProphet in Equity, the actor's union. Estes gets special permission to do non-Equity work with the NonProphets. His day job is production manager for Historyonics, the theater arm of the Historical Society.
*Ben Westhoff, a great admirer of union actresses Heather Graham and Elizabeth Berkeley.
Travis enters wearing a plaid, collared shirt tucked into his pleated chinos, and buckled black dress shoes. He seats himself at his desk, munches on a microwave dinner and stares at his computer screen.
Travis: Hold on a minute. I just have to print out this script. (Taps at his keyboard) Everything here goes through the Historical Society. It's all fact-checked and stuff.
Travis: Not that I don't love my job. When this -- a benefits and salaried position -- came up, I took it right away. Arts management positions are few and far between.
Ben: What do you hope to be doing in ten years, and where would you like to be doing it?
Travis: In ten years I'd love to be acting at night and writing during the day, sketches and screenplays.
Suddenly, all the lights in the building shut off. The actors are enveloped in a crepuscular gloom.
Ben: It's dark in here.
Travis gets up and turns his office light back on.
Travis: Sorry about that.
Ben: Do you feel like you have to get out of St. Louis?
Travis: I've lived in New York and Chicago, so I have a different perspective from other people, which is: You can succeed wherever you are if you work hard enough. People who say, "I would be a working actor if I lived in LA" -- eck. If you aren't the type who could make it here or in Cincinnati, say, then you probably couldn't make it in New York, either. (Checks his watch) Are you ready to go?
Ben and Travis move downstage right, to a rehearsal space where Travis will practice "Floodgates," a one-act play on the theme of race relations, to be performed for junior-high and high school students around the city. Co-star Eric arrives, followed by the stage manager.
Travis: (Pointing to the stage manager) The NonProphets could really use one of those.
They begin rehearsal of the two-man show. Eric, who is black, answers his front door. Travis, who is white, has shown up to take his sister out. Obviously uncomfortable with each other, the two undertake a series of role plays: Eric is a cracker white cop to Travis' "driving while black" motorist, followed by Eric as a white BMW driver who gets a flat in the 'hood and is held up at gunpoint by headbanded Travis. The end of the show has Travis delivering painfully earnest lines about needing to see people as people, regardless of race, creed or gender. With rehearsal over, Ben and Travis head outside for a cigarette break.
Ben: Do you find it hypocritical to be busting stereotypes during the daytime and then carefully sewing them back together at night with the NonProphets?
Travis: I don't know about that. I mean, if we're doing our job in the NonProphets, we're making fun of the people who don't accept these views, views of equality. Sure, the NonProphets exploit stereotypes, but the stereotypes are done in a goofy way. We have a fairly liberal view, overall.
Another Thursday night and another full house for the NonProphets' show at the Hi-Pointe. The seating area near the stage is packed, and the overflow runs all the way to the door. The folks standing in back are so raucous that various members of the NonProphets have to shush them on a regular basis.
Josh Rohan orders a Red Bull and lights a Camel Light, only to set them both down as Sketch #14, "Becky & Wanda: What Really Happened?" beckons him to the stage. Darting briefly behind the black curtain, he emerges in a ratty brown wig, bulky pink dress and plastic crown. He mounts a faded slab of carpet in the middle of the stage next to John "Schmack" Virgin for their parody of the infamous local television ad. The two sway their arms rather unconvincingly as if the carpet is airborne.
"I'm Becky, Queen of Carpet!" announces Rohan.
"And I'm Wanda, Princess of Tile!" counters the thinner Virgin.
"We've got good news for you," says Rohan in Becky's falsetto, smiling dubiously. "Our inventory is overstocked."
"You might even say," says Wanda, reaching over and poking Becky in the gut, "we have a 'hefty' supply!"
Becky drops her arms and gives Wanda a momentary look of wrath, then resumes flying.
"Now we must unload all of our quality carpeting..."
"You can even say we're 'trimming the fat!'" Wanda interjects.
"So, join us this Tuesday for our special Mardi Gras sale!" Becky says.
"Every day is Fat Tuesday at Carpet World! See you there!"
Filming of the commercial is cut, and the two come down from their carpets. Becky, stewing in anger, grabs a pair of burgers out of a fast food bag, one for each hand. Wanda lights a cigarette.
"Boy, we sure have been up here a long time! If I hadn't eaten a half bagel five hours ago, I'd be dying by now!" Wanda gloats as Becky stuffs her face.
Becky, incensed, turns toward Wanda and lets out a primal roar, something like an erupting volcano. The lights go down. When the lights come back up, Becky stands onstage alone, gnawing on a spinal column that appears to be about Wanda's size.
"Becky, Queen of Carpet here with another great deal! This weekend only, all tile must go!" Becky grins viciously. "Mention Darwinism and receive an extra ten percent off!"
For a moment, the crowd can't quite seem to decide if this act of gluttonous cannibalism should appall or delight them. But gradually they begin to hoot and laugh. The NonProphets watching -- even though they've seem this sketch dozens of times already -- can't help falling over themselves either. Once again, the group has succeeded not just at cracking up the paying customers, but at cracking each other up -- which, in the end, is just as important.