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.

"We use rubber chickens ironically," Joseph Scrimshaw protests. But there they are, rubber chickens, in one form or another, in virtually every act. (The night of "Schroedinger's Date," Joseph wore a tie with a rubber chicken emblazoned on it.) "We like old-time vaudeville," Joshua explains. "We like the spontaneity. In some ways, we are trying to do an old-time vaudeville act but update it."

Indeed, there is a hint of the antique about Scrimshaw Brothers shows. It can be seen in their serialized story "The Adventures of Dave and the Frenchman." The mere existence of this feature has a nostalgic tenor to it--as though this were the Thirties and an audience would return every week to see heroes in peril. Joshua, who constantly seems to be smiling and favors extended bits of silent comedy, plays a creaky caricature of a Parisian: beret, black-and-white striped shirt, impenetrable accent, sexual ambiguity. Joseph, who never seems to smile and is often relentlessly verbal onstage, plays Dave, a creaky caricature of the sort of mullet-topped, backward-baseball-capped, beer-swilling good old boy you might find at a trailer park--but for the fact that Dave is a hairstylist, and gets rather finicky about the fact.

As of this writing, the serial was only up to Act Two, though the show has already featured enough plot twists for a Dickens novel. It opened with the two characters crucified in the lair of a Dragon Lady, played in a tasteful blouse and skirt by Zvie Razielli, whose arms sprout mats of thick black hair. In this episode, the heroes stumble across the Dragon Lady's scheme to render everyone in the world sexually ambiguous via a venereal disease that she will introduce through her stable of androgynous prostitutes. Dave and the Frenchman decide to foil this plan, but the episode ends with a cliffhanger as the Frenchman finds himself giving in to the Dragon Lady's indeterminate charms, possibly exposing himself to her dreaded social disease.

We meet the Dragon Lady's prostitutes during this episode, played in berets and goatees by two more dancers--and what the hell are all these dancers doing onstage?! When they appear in sketches, they are referred to as the No Pants Players, but throughout the performance they take the stage as the No Pants Dancers. Between improv sets and sketch-comedy routines (and the brothers' collection of guest artists, which has included origami artists, comic-book illustrators, and comedian Ari Hoptman) they come out and perform silly, but technically accomplished routines. This evening they brought their boyfriends onstage and acted out Valentine's Day fantasies, which included Megan Nelson-Odell donning rubber elephant ears along with a trunk and tusks, and dancing to Henry Mancini's "Baby Elephant Walk." These performers are actually terpsichorean professionals from a variety of local troupes. They perform new routines at every No Pants production--frequently choreographed by Adrienne English.

She closed the evening's performance by taking the stage dressed in actor Tom Baker's outfit from Dr. Who, feigning enormous embarrassment as she staggered through a little striptease number while Joseph looked on with wide, lust-filled eyes. Eventually, he insisted that she flagellate him with her long, striped scarf. The audience erupted with guffaws; it was, as suggested earlier, an ideal crowd for Dr. Who humor.

 

"People ask us where we got our name," Joseph Scrimshaw says. "That's a question that's easy for us to answer: We're brothers, and our name is Scrimshaw."

Joshua is the older of the two--29 to Joseph's 26 years--but meeting them you would not be able to hazard a guess as to who was born first. "We're insanely similar," Joseph says. "People say we're twins."

There is truly a startling physical similarity. Joshua had a long head of hair for years, but during a recent performance he shaved it all off backstage in the middle of a sketch. Now he has a spiky halo of brown hair, and Joseph looks the shaggier of the two, with his long bangs and constant hangdog expression.

In performance the two dress alike: white shirts, black ties, black pants--the costume of the bland everyman, a fragile nebbish trapped in a world of violent extremes and erratic behavior. To this end, the brothers, who share a slight build, often take great pains to make themselves appear tiny and helpless onstage.

"We're two scrawny little guys," Joshua says--a dynamic the pair accentuates onstage. In another sketch from the night of "Schroedinger's Date," Joseph acted as a pool boy with a high, self-satisfied voice. He played the scene shirtless, his chest pulled in, sporting a massive pair of goggles that virtually hid his entire face. "Put anyone next to Joe when he's like that, they seem like they are huge, strapping men," Joshua says.

North Minneapolis natives, they have spent their entire lives in the Twin Cities. They currently hack away at jobs by day (Joshua is a temp, while Joe works at Kinkos) and spend their evenings telephoning each other with ideas for comedy sketches. The brothers share an alert, inquisitive temperament: They grow excited in conversation, often simultaneously, and their eyes shift back and forth in their head, darting around the room and locking in on each other as they speak.

The similarities between the brothers has no doubt built on itself--they've got a long history of performing together, which spans most of their lives. (Their Web site, www.scrimshawbrothers.com points to a childhood act that "consisted entirely of Hong Kong Phooey impersonations and John Denver covers.") The brothers put together a sketch comedy act in college, calling themselves the Bally-Hoo Players and performing at the University of Minnesota ("Their genius was soon recognized and many of their fellow students fled at the sight of them," the Web site notes). The Scrimshaws also performed at the inaugural Minnesota Fringe Festival (of which they note, "City Pages called it many things including, 'lowbrow...infantile...and just plain embarrassing.'")

In fact, if you look back on Minneapolis sketch comedy for the past few years, there is very little that does not have the Scrimshaws' imprimatur on it somewhere: They have produced works with Bedlam Theatre, The Fool's Tree Players, True North Theatre, ThreePenny Improv, The National Theater for Children, Clown Time Productions, and Soylent Theater. At the Fringe Festival last summer, besides producing their own show (which drew appreciably better notices from this paper), Joseph Scrimshaw appeared in the festival's most novel production, a staged reading of Ibsen's A Doll's House performed in a tiny four-by-four-foot cubby in the basement of the Acadia. The show was produced by Jill Bernard, who also starred in it, and Joseph played her self-absorbed husband--so self-absorbed, in fact, that he seemed incapable of noticing that their home was so cramped that they were forced to sit on doll's furniture and double over to communicate with each other.

Bernard and Joseph Scrimshaw also recently produced and starred in The Comic Sutra for the Absolute Originals festival of one-person shows at Intermedia Arts (which they billed as "a one-man show starring Joseph Scrimshaw and three women.") In this, Joseph played a half-dozen men, all comics, all deeply neurotic, on a series of dates with Bernard, who was repeatedly chagrined to discover the deep neuroses that frequently fuel comedy.

These neuroses should be on full display in two cathartic performances of Look Ma, No Pants in March. To celebrate their second anniversary of the show, the brothers will be presenting a series of performances that they call "The Offense O-Rama." Sounding like carnival barkers shouting into a megaphone, their ads declare the performance "two (yes, two!) nights of crude, tasteless, completely uncalled-for comedy."

"The truth is, it's hard for us to come up with stuff for that," Joshua confesses. "We're pretty offensive anyway." For their Mother's Day show, the brothers offered something called the Mother's Day Smackdown, in which they asked the cast to bring in their moms and encourage them to fistfight. The Scrimshaws' own mother came and distributed obscene novelty candies from an adult gift store.

With the two brothers, their mother, and one wife involved, it seems that the Scrimshaws plan to involve the whole family in the act at some point. They have even discussed asking their father, who has dabbled in the whalebone carving from which the family gets its name, to create a scrimshaw logo for the show.

"Oh, that reminds me," Joshua exclaims. "I looked up 'scrimshaw' once, and I found a great definition for it. It said that 'scrimshaw is usually used to alleviate boredom and attract women.'"

"That's good," Joseph answers excitedly, eyes quickly shifting to look at his brother. "We should use that in our ads."

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