In a dimly lit living room in Maplewood, the four stand-up comics responsible for St. Louis' strangest live comedy show tap away on laptops and discuss whether a sketch could be improved by adding a turtle penis.
"We can't do it," begins Stryker Spurlock, perhaps the most self-critical member of the group, "but I want to end the scene with Abigail the Tortoise tripping over his own dick. Like turtles do."
Jeremy Hellwig and Jon Venegoni make a sound that's a combination of groaning and laughter. From the far end of a sofa, Amy Milton joins the others in the cackling. But she's not ready to scrap the turtle dick.
"But what if we could?" she says. "It could flop out, and it could be like a sack, a spandex green thing that's weighted at the end."
"Guys," says Venegoni in a mock-serious tone. "I'm going to very disappointed and dismayed that there's nudity in the show. I can be like, 'Time travel, and now with nudity?' This show is going down the trash hole."
Fatal Bus Accident, the group's "live comedy talk show," does much more than pull audiences into trash holes of adolescent absurdity. Since its inception less than two years ago, the show has managed to carve out a niche as a genre-busting production that treats its premise as a loose foundation for comedic experiments.
The audiences haven't been big; typically, the show draws just about twenty faces in the crowd on any given night. But the skill of its performers have made Fatal Bus Accident a comedian's comedy night. All four performers are mainstays of the local stand-up circuit. Spurlock hosts the monthly Contraceptive Comedy show at Shameless Grounds, and Hellwig co-hosts Sorry, Please Continue with Kenny Kinds, both established nights with a history of success, their hosts among the most respected comedians in town. The other two are no slouches either: Venegoni won the RFT's Standup Throwdown in 2013, while Milton made the cut as one of the "75 Reasons to Love St. Louis" in the RFT's 2016 Best Of St. Louis issue. She is credited by the others as the most polished editor, possessing a keen sense of structure.
While each has a successful career individually, their collaboration with each other goes back — way back. In fact, as a fresh-faced fifteen-year-old, Spurlock popped his comedy cherry at an open-mic night Venegoni was hosting at Fitz's.
Years later, in 2014, after several failed attempts at submitting sketch ideas to established groups, the four comedians began noodling with the idea of starting a podcast or producing short films together. Instead, they decided to do a talk show.
"We really fucked ourselves," jokes Spurlock. "We can't do regular sketches. It always has to be us interacting like a TV show."
Since its first show in October 2015, the team has worked to refine their respective characters to better fit the unfilmable, surrealistic television program: Hellwig's character, a casual time-traveler, acts as host alongside Milton. Venegoni, the show's bandleader, lays down beats with a drum machine app, a synthesizer and a loop pedal. Spurlock takes on the various roles of guests, ranging from a 300-year-old tortoise living in the White House to an enthusiastic-but-inexperienced knife-eater named Trunt Whaley who tries to whip the audience into a frenzy of chants to "eat that knife!"
For all its bizarre twists, the show is carefully scripted and rehearsed. At this early January writing session in Hellwig's Maplewood apartment, the comics are trying to polish material for a January 25 show at at Heavy Anchor. After that, they'll take the act to the Improv Shop on February 1 for a collection of the best bits from the previous nine shows. And after that, the road awaits. The group will embark on its first-ever Midwest tour, planned for spring.
Which, of course, can't help but seem potentially hazardous in light of the group's unusual name, Fatal Bus Accident. Spurlock explains that the name was partly inspired by Hellwig's method for beating writer's block — don't know where to take the story? Hit a character with a bus! It's also partly owing to a tragic 1984 Montana bus crash that involved Spurlock's father's high school wrestling team. The crash ended his father's athletic career, but it also laid the groundwork for Spurlock's conception: After the crash, his father joined the Air Force, moved to Scott Air Force Base and met a waitress in Collinsville. She, naturally, became Spurlock's mother.
The universe is a strange place. And thankfully, Fatal Bus Accident is here to steer us right into that strangeness.