Do you occasionally feel like you’re missing something? As though the frat party isn’t the end-all-be-all of good times? Perhaps the Busch Lite just isn’t doing it for you anymore? Well, that eerie feeling can probably be attributed to some kind of psychic awareness that the Scrimshaw Brothers are playing across town. And you couldn’t figure out why you were so dissatisfied with your current entertainment. So go watch them drink Colt 45!
With very little research (a quick trip to their Website: www.scrimshawbrothers.com to be precise), I discovered that the Scrimshaws began performing on our beloved University of Minnesota campus, in 1994 while pursuing academic degrees. The brothers (Joseph, who is thin, short, and goateed, and Joshua, who is thin, short, and occasionally goateed) seemed rueful when I first announced the topic during an interview, but they quickly turned to blissful reminiscence. They modeled their act after the Marx Brothers’ anarchistic style of comedy (despite W.C. Fields’ famous warning that Marx Brothers; styles antics would destroy a stage), and the brothers recall getting asked to leave several campus establishments as a result. People simply didn’t understand their off-the-wall sense of humor. The brothers delightfully recollect the time they got kicked off Radio K and were told never to return. Was it because Joshua dropped his pants on the air? Or because they over-stayed their welcome? Or perhaps because their sound effects over the traffic announcements agitated some people? Nevertheless, this obstacle didn’t impede their relentless pursuits.
Starting out doing their shtick in the bowels of Coffman Union and performing full-length shows in a corner of Espresso 22, the Scrimshaw Brothers (known then as the Bally-Hoo Players) became well-knownñnotorious, evenñ on campus and were asked to perform at Open Arts Day for the 100th anniversary of CLA. During a photo shoot, they were once again asked to leave the premises. A photographer asked some dancers to do an arabesque, but the dancers were unfamiliar with the steps, so the brothers stepped in to demonstrate. The Star-Tribune photographer loved their candor, but others apparently did not. Incidentally, part of this event was to re-name the West Bank the “Arts Bank.” The new name didn’t catch on, but the brothers did, and, despite their tendency to be ejected during performances, were also allowed to perform in Rarig Center.
The Scrimshaws lament that most students didn’t understand their style of comedy back then, and many just didn’t like it. Old-style vaudeville comedy heavily influenced their acts. And they didn’t use any dirty words (how different from now!), but focused rather on the physical comedy style as fashioned by Laurel and Hardy or Martin and Louis. Incidentally, their only professional training was in the Acting for Nonacting Majors class at the U.
Back in those days, they had a different attitude. Joshua remembers thinking, “Fuck you if you don’t think it’s funny.” But now they take their audience more seriously. When they started out, they wanted to be different, weird, artsy. Now they just want to be funny.
After graduating, they began performing around town, doing improv with the Bryant Lake Bowl and a video project with Bedlam Theater. They even guest-lectured for Professor Gary Thomas’s Comedy: Text and Theory class. But their style solidified with the development of Look Ma, No Pants! in 1999, a contemporary variety/vaudeville show that feature sketches comedy, improv, dancers, and a seemingly endless amount of pantslessness.
I asked them about this, leading to a small discussion, as follows: Joe: “Pants are symbolic of security-having your naughty bits put away … removing your pants is a cathartic release.” Josh: “It’s a take-a-break style of comedy … smart people having fun.” Joe: “Funny matters, but the subject matter doesn’t have to be offensive.”
At a Fringe Festival show, someone printed that they would let people in free if they took off their pants. It wasn’t true, buy the spirit of this typo continues to haunt the brothers. At their monthly Look Ma, No Pants! shows at the Loring Playhouse, the audience is routinely asked if they would like to check their pants prior to the show. With any luck, the audience usually gives an enthusiastic response. One proud man in the audience last month removed his pants to reveal his freely swinging anatomy. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this occurred at an annual Offense-O-Rama show.
But the brothers are comfortable with partial nudity. Joshua says “If it’s drama, it’s okay to be nude, but it’s cheap if it’s comedy … if we came out completely naked, all comedy would go in a black hole.” At the Offense-O-Rama show for example, the boys spent several minutes on stage wearing only socks-their unmentionables cleverly hidden by wine jugs.
The brothers constantly strive to use everything they have in their shows-and their bodies offer up myriad character possibilities. Yes, they are scrawny, but in the sake of showmanship, they see their emaciation as potential. There may be no other performers in the Twin Cities who make such extensive use of their physical shortcomings, if you will.
Unexpected incidents occur on-stage as with alarming frequency. During a recent performance that involved handcuffs, the brothers found themselves locked together when the keys would not open the cuffs. They were forced to do an improv sequence working around the handcuffs, Joshua suffering greatly from a too-tight cinching, until one of the cast members (Mike Swanson, who they call “the real man”) broke them apart.
Another challenging performance involved Joshua in a silent sketch concerning a typewriter that trapped his tie. The entrapment was intentionalñJoshua frequently performers long, silent scenes), but in this instance he accidentally stabbed his thumb while cutting the tie loose. He arduously spent the rest of the eight-minute sketch bleeding on-stage while completing the scene.
The next night, Joseph went on-stage with a bloodily lip after getting punched by his loving brother during a sketch. An audience member shouted, “They’re like animals!”
The brothers will next perform upcoming weekend in an uncommon space, The 4 Seasons Dance Studio, right around the corner from their usual venue,the Loring Playhouse. They are using this unusual location for a “dramatized re-enactment of their actual rehearsal process.” The approach entails reconstructing the tech rehearsal without acknowledging the audience and reading through the sketches, including squabbles between the brothers over finicky details. Some sketches may go all the way through to the end, and some may break down in the middle, capturing the spirit of a their unconventional rehearsal process. Also, since this show will be in a dance studio, there will be no distinct division between the stage and the audience.
Beside their work together, the Scrimshaws also make themselves busy with supplementary performances. Joshua is currently rehearsing for an upcoming performance of The Theater Gallery’s production of Sunrise Café, which will showcase at Patrick’s Cabaret during the last weekend in April. In this dark comedy, Joshua will play a mysterious chef competing for the affections of a waitress. In the meanwhile, Joseph will be guest-starring in a production of Mama Earth Loves Lace presented by the Ancient Traders Gallery. Joseph plays a professor whose only knowledge of Native American culture comes from textbooks.
Look Ma No Pants! plays April 5 and 6 at the 4 Seasons Dance Studio, (612) 839-3119.