Introducing 20Q(-ish). A new feature in which Sketchcenter, and it’s intrepid
, interview the best and the brightest in the sketch comedy community.
Sketchcenter Staff member Kevin Chesley sits down to sip soda and get schooled on sketch with Los Angeles superteam Ten West.
Chateau Marmont had been brought up somewhat as a joke, but everyone involved was wicked glad to call the bluff. We got a relieved smile from our waiter (who probably goes by something French-er than that) when he came by our table for the fourth time and we were finally ready to order – having comes to terms with the fact that what we really wanted from the famous bar of this revered Hollywood landmark was an order of coffees, Cokes, and iced teas.
I had brought my cousin’s Flat Stanley to lounge there with Jon Monastero and Stephen Simon, the two better halves of Ten West – one of my favorite sketch duos. Also presiding was Bryan Coffee, Ten West’s director and not-too-secret secret weapon. The Chateau, steeped in celebrity history both glamorous and dark, was the perfect place to interview these three. Their work is admiringly classic in feel, fun yet sinister, always intimidatingly hilarious, and held in the highest of regard by anyone with a sharp wit and the luck to have seen them live. Even those with a dull wit tend to dig it, too.
The group’s pedigree is multi-dimensional and this is a major part of their appeal. Jon’s resume contains as much Shakespeare as it does sketch. Stephen’s work with Ringling Bros. is a colorful, physical add to an already-impressive focus on theatrical training. Their partnership with Bryan Coffee is, perhaps, the most successful actor/director relationship in underground sketch. When they met, taking classes together at IO, Coffee was a part of The Class Project, a brilliant trio whose work still informs much of the current scene. Coffee has worked with groups across the country like MEAT and TROOP!, but Ten West is his first work with a group that has two words in its name. His vision has honed the duo immensely. Their character shines brighter because of his work at editing them down to core-funny. You can tell he doesn’t go easy on them and the audience reaps the reward. Tight and snappy pacing, Clown work - with a capital ‘C’, and a focus on creating timeless well-performed theatre keep Ten West consistently ahead of the pack and always steeped in variety.
An average Ten West soundtrack is equal parts Perry Como, Trent Reznor, Puccini, and Tom Waits. That range is mirrored in the comedy as well. Their material mines the goofy as cleverly as it does the painful. This is a show you can bring home to Mom but then take out for drinks with your edgiest of pessimistic friends. It’s smart, sure, but with room for slapstick. This universality is why their show plays gangbusters to children and dancers of the Velvet Hammer burlesque alike (a tested fact). Everybody gets it when a clown punches a kid. Backflips and knifefights over sandwiches know no critic.
And it should come as no surprise that a group this unique has an origin all its own – so don’t be surprised. Jon and Stephen met because they were a teacher / substitute team for what I can only imagine was the luckiest middle school class of all time. That experience prepared them well for a meeting with my visiting Flat Stanley – a school project where kids send a cut-out version of themselves around the world to take pictures with landmarks and, in this case, comedy teams. They posed with the thing while musing about the first sketch work they ever performed together - a Faculty Follies show at Lincoln Middle School in Santa Monica. It was a lip-synching bit.
“I must have written 27 lip-synching sketches,” remembers Monestero. And whereas usually such an idea would make me cringe, from the West it just makes me wish I could watch them all in a row. Okay…maybe, like 18 of them. Either way, this particular lip-synch would lay the foundation for a long-lasting theme in Ten West’s Modus Comerandi - the relationship between comedy, movement, and music. Two watershed pieces in the Ten West repertoire use music as their focus:
The Coatrack Has Been Drinking leaves me slack-jawed every time. Using precise physical skill, Stephen communes with his wise longcoat about a lost lover and the result is a far more truthful relationship than many you’ll see between two live non-garment performers. It’s an amazing scene: poignant, soaked in pathos, and funny throughout. It plays like brand new to me every time.
And from the “new school” of Ten West’s sketches, Jon’s rendition of Johnny Cash’s Hurt – a dramatic soap opera of suicidal Barbie dolls – is a fresh gem. Monastero milks the melodrama here. It’s a blissfully wicked piece of work. When I saw it performed, a little girl left right in the middle. “Too disturbing” the snickering Nine Inch Nails fan in me wondered? But no, she came back minutes later. She just needed to pee.
It’s a common mistake, however, to consider Ten West to be all physical. Whereas a majority of their work is – by choice – sans their own voices, when the two choose to dialogue the writing is sharp, original, and thick with meaty character. Jimmy & Jeb, two loyal fishing compatriots with a flair for philosophical discourse, is perhaps their best pair of “talkers” to date. Snakebites, oppressive heat, and Homeric Similes abound in a typical Jimmy & Jeb sketch. The original has made a very successful round of the Festivals, but a series of scenes in which the two travel throughout time has been running repeat performances at The Sacred Fools Theatre in Los Angeles over the last few months. Be good and they may tour the newer installments near you real soon.
The road, lately, has been a jolly gauntlet for Ten West. They’ve hit the Fests in Seattle, Portland, San Fran, LA, and Toronto; but their performance at last year’s Sketchfest NYC is still one of the best I’ve ever seen. Especially to someone who has been watching them a while, 2005 was a galvanizing year for the duo. And so far Ten West is looking to tour ‘06 just as hard, with a return slot at this year’s Sketchfest NYC and appearances this very month at Benefest in Seattle and Sketchingham! in Bellingham, WA. (a first-ever event that will feature the West alongside The Cody Rivers Show…a pairing that this writer thinks is sexy sexy gold).
But sketch alone may not be able to hold Ten West forever. As they formulate new material, the idea of long-form work is peeking out of their prop trunk more and more, a shift that many great groups are considering as of late. Coffee’s work with The Class Project laid plenty of the groundwork for today’s bevy of seamless blackout-free sketch shows (yeah, transitional work has been around forever, but TCP made it punk and live and fiendishly smart). Whatever form he and the West come up with in their next incarnation, it will certainly be a major part of the future of comedy, from the grass roots right on up.
As we all took final sips at the Chateau, we realized that the place was far too dimly lit for a decent Flat Stanley picture – especially with my sub-par digital camera. To add insult to inadequacy, a tarted-up concierge lady rushed over at the first sign of a camera to tell us that pictures aren’t even allowed on the premises. We pretended to be outraged and immediately left in a fervent huff…after paying and tipping generously.
Kevin Chesley uses dashes too much and is a founding member of TROOP! - where all members are “founding” ones. He apologizes that the above article is not very funny, though he does not apologize very hard. For funny, go to www.tenwest.net
and find out when you can see them live.