Peeing in Lake Wobegon
Geoff Herbach flips open his Mac on a beer-strewn table at Bryant-Lake Bowl. "I'm going to request your friendship as a real person now," he announces, before sending me an official MySpace friend request. We're two feet apart from one another and staring into glowing LCD screens. Gathering friends in cyberspace has superseded boring real-life chitchat.
Without speaking to him, I respond, "I accept your virtual friendship as a real person!" with a simple click.
Sam Osterhout, Herbach's partner in the Lit 6 Project, thinks this friend-collecting episode is great. He leans over, places his fist in Herbach's bespectacled face, and bumps knuckles with him, which reduces Herbach to shivers.
"He knows I hate that," he says. "He loves to shame me."
Herbach has two personalities: one, his corporeal self whose vapid and meaningless online friendship I just accepted; and the other, a Progresso-soup-obsessed sad sack who thinks he's found enlightenment in a can opener. While they both share certain narcissistic tendencies in real life, the soupy sap isn't really his inner child. It's a persona the 36-year-old created for their literary group, whose current Electric Arc Radio Show runs intermittently at the Ritz Theater through December 16.
The four-person show follows the tales of a group of dysfunctional writer roommates whose obsessions run the gamut from porn and Pete Sampras to the earth's demise. Obsession is everything here. One of the many amenities that comes with owning a nonexistent two-story house in a fictional part of south Minneapolis is a special treehouse that hosts a clarinet-playing, wise-talking Alan Greenspan ("G-Span"). The show, featuring musical performances and a narrator, is like a hipster's Prairie Home Companion, but with a lake called "Woeisme" instead of "Wobegon."
Since first trying to cultivate an audience by offering boxes of frozen meat at the 400 Bar a few years ago, Lit 6 has moved on to a monthly gig at Creative Electric Studios in Northeast. And they've tossed the meat offers aside for musical performances from local artists such as Faux Jean and Kid Dakota. A Camper Van Beethoven-esque house band adds to the playful radio-show mood. It's a shaggy and often goofy affair. Consistent with the fake house, the fake tree-fort, and the fake former Federal Reserve chairman, this radio program doesn't air on the radio.
Herbach and 29-year-old Sam Osterhout formed the Lit 6 Project in 2002, and later brought in writers Stephanie Wilbur Ash and Brady Bergeson. Herbach and Osterhout like to spin tales about the group's origin: The seed for the project, they'll claim, was sprouted at a vegan convention. But the true story is a little less quaint: The two met while obtaining their MFAs in writing from Hamline.
Yet the pair do share quirky links beyond that initial mundane meeting. They're both ordained ministers in the Universal Life Church and have clergy cards to prove it; they both look forward to the day when they'll be the super-fit dudes at the gym, scornful of lesser physiques; they both hate Murder She Wrote because as kids the CBS show signaled the death knell of the weekend; they both have books in the works (Osterhout a narrative cookbook about a motocross vegetarian, and Herbach a book of fictional suicide letters); and they both teach writing at an undisclosed college where students often turn in compare-and-contrast papers about the virtues of PlayStation 3 vs. Xbox.
"In the students' defense," Osterhout says, "they parse the games in an imaginative and creative way."
In real life and cyberspace, Osterhout is a gregarious and positive dude who's suited for radio and the stage. When he gets nervous, he tugs at a lone tuft of black bangs that swoops across his forehead and tickles his eyelashes. His Lit 6 character is sex-obsessed (obsession truly is key) but Ostherhout swears that's just a clever writing device.
"We sort of write our own personas in cartoon form," Osterhout says. "I have sex in every single show. With everyone. It's great."
Osterhout and Herbach insist that their 90-minute radio show is not based on simple sketch-comedy devices. And for the most part, they're right. While the show airs only as podcasts on Lit 6's website, the live performances possess all of the old-timey allure of an old radio show. This approach extends all the way to Wilbur Ash's collection of 1940s bulbous dresses and the book-sized sketches the writers flip through simultaneously, as if timing their script down to the last second before a word from the sponsor.
The show is literary, with narratives and characters instead of simple punch lines. While there are one-liners and laugh-out-loud moments, Herbach and Osterhout would never define themselves as part of a comedy troupe.
"The difference is that we're writers," Osterhout says. "We write. Every conflict that's in our stories is sort of life-threatening in that literary sense. We're all on the verge of dying. We're all on the verge of failure. We have to make some kind of decision. It just happens that it's very funny."
Herbach agrees. "Okay, maybe it's the narcissism speaking, but it is funny," he says.
Along with believing he possesses a keen sense of humor, Herbach also believes he's an exceptional bowler—a theory we put to the test after closing our laptops and moseying over to the BLB's state-of-the art lanes. When in the eighth frame his score is 120, Herbach turns from his chair to revel in his accomplishment like a gloating six-year-old.
"I'm having a good game," he says. "I'm bowling very well."
Osterhout, who took bowling in both high school and college at Kansas University, offers him the affirmation he craves. "You sure are," he says like a proud parent. He puts up his fist.
Herbach shakes his head. "I'll give you 'knuckles' later."
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