He Ain't Heavy, He's My Brother

The levity of sketch comedians Joseph and Joshua Scrimshaw is finding a mass appeal

If something is funny once, it will be funny again--and positively hilarious the third time. It's an elementary theorem of comedy--repetition is inherently funny--and it has firm adherents in the Scrimshaw Brothers, Joshua and Joseph, who are nothing if not dedicated to select themes in comedy. In fact, at a recent performance of their cabaret show Look Ma, No Pants, they passed out a bingo card to keep track of their recurring punch lines. "Certain things keep popping up in our improvs," Joe Scrimshaw explained to the audience. "Mark them off when you see them."

My bingo card had the following listed: Bunny Parade, Voice of God, A Baby in Peril, Beer, Squirrels, Zombies, Southern Imbecile, Humping, Talking Animals, and Hellmouth, among others. Over the course of two improvised Scrimshaw sets with their regular improv troupe the Impossibles, I marked off eight of the twenty-four allotted spaces--fully a third of the themes listed. They were scattered in a random pattern across the card, refusing to form the straight line I deserved. And glancing at other cards, I noticed they were blackened even more than mine, leading me to wonder what else might be listed.

I don't know if pantslessness was printed on any of the cards. Perhaps not, as it is a theme so common to the Scrimshaws' act that it is just assumed. Far from being a senseless title for their performances, Look Ma, No Pants is on many nights a literal description of their act. Occasionally, the Scrimshaws will have a performer stationed at the front of the theater, dressed in a tuxedo, sans bottoms, requesting that the audience check their trousers.

Does the cast of SNL have to do this to get a leg up in the industry? Pantless improvisers Joseph and Joshua Scrimshaw
Diana Watters
Does the cast of SNL have to do this to get a leg up in the industry? Pantless improvisers Joseph and Joshua Scrimshaw

"It became something of a pre-show game," Joshua Scrimshaw explains over a late dinner at the Green Mill on Hennepin Avenue. "People were encouraging each other to take off their pants. Guys were trying to get girls to take off their pants." And how many in the audience did? "I don't know," Joshua shrugs. "Thirty people?"

For most sketch comedy-cum-cabaret acts in the Twin Cities, were 30 members of the audience to remove their pants, the entire crowd would be left in their drawers. But in the two years that the Scrimshaws have been producing monthly shows, their audience has swelled to three, sometimes four times that turnout. The brothers filled the Phoenix Playhouse, and now, having moved several blocks north on Nicollet Avenue, they fill the Acadia Café and Cabaret--so completely that the brothers recently doubled the number of shows they perform. Beginning in March, Look Ma, No Pants will appear twice a month.

A recent performance I attended revealed a fully dressed, but nonetheless energized, audience. They shifted in their seats, calling out across the small Acadia performance space to each other, or sat on the stage, glancing at their watches expectantly. The Scrimshaws draw a particular audience, and it's the same crowd who, ten years ago, would have lined up in front of the Uptown for the midnight screening of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Evidence of slight social awkwardness abounded prior to the show: ungraceful teasing, which sounded snotty and vaguely unfriendly; laughs that came at the wrong moment, surprising in their volume and pitch; ungainly, mismatched wardrobe choices, such as men in conservative slacks and carefully buttoned white shirts, sporting long, unkempt hair. Most in the audience seemed to be college-age. Some looked as though they had spent much of high school stuffed in a locker. Some looked as though they had just emerged from the locker that afternoon.

But if there was a hint of nerdiness to the audience, there was also the usual parallel suggestion of intelligence. Whatever social margin these people lived on, they knew themselves to be marginalized, and congregated around whatever entity might celebrate them.

The brothers, along with the Impossibles (comprising Jill Bernard, Kelvin Hatle, Charlie Horn, and Zvie Razielli), play directly to the brainy nature of their audience. In one sketch written by Bernard, two women who share an identical name, identical threadbare sweaters, and an identical adenoidal voice, show up to the same date with Joseph Scrimshaw. (The pseudo twins are played by Bernard and dancer Adrienne English, who is Joseph Scrimshaw's wife). They bring with them an unopened envelope, addressed to a third woman of the same name, inviting her out to dinner. As long as the envelope remains unopened, they argue, Joseph Scrimshaw has invited not only one of the three out to dinner, but all three at the same time. And when Scrimshaw, in a frustrated rage, tears open the envelope, the two women howl simultaneously that he has disrupted the universe, and begin to spin around each other as though the universe were, indeed, collapsing in on itself. The name of the sketch is "Schroedinger's Date," based on physicist's Erwin Schroedinger's somewhat obtuse paradox of quantum mechanics, involving a cat, a closed steel box containing a radioactive substance that might trigger some murderous device, and the (im)possibility that the cat might be at once dead and alive. This is not exactly sketch comedy that shoots for the lowest common denominator, despite the frequent presence of rubber chickens.

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