We Wanted To Wear Turtlenecks
“Wait, are we trying to make a play?”
“What is a play?”
When New Team Honeybear sketch comedy duo Jeff Mondoro and Anthony Jackson sat down to write their newest production, That’s Not A Play: A Play, they didn’t know it was going to be a play, actually, at all.
Previous to this production (which concluded last month at the People’s Improv Theatre), you might have caught NTHB performing sketch comedy at the PIT, or in one of their hilarious short films on Funny or Die. But this time around, the dynamic duo set out to experiment. They questioned every decision they made as writers, constantly asked each other what the piece was meant to become in the end, and then sized up that end goal before making each narrative decision. They even found inspiration from their own conflict with feeling secure as artists. I recently met up with them to discuss how this experimentation influenced how they think about their artistic identity, how they present themselves, and how it pushed them forward into that ever-challenging question of: Is this show the show I made, that I’m performing, or does it become what the audience sees?
“We wanted to created something longer than our typical 25 minute sketch shows. We wanted to play with form,” Jeff and Anthony explained. A questioning of form led them into an inquiry around how, or whether, the context of performance changes based upon location. As Anthony put it, “Something that makes a piece of theater ‘theater’ is the context in which it’s understood.”
How does the location of where the work is performed influence the work itself? “One of the things that kept That’s Not A Play in the comedy realm was that we performed it in a comedy theatre.” Jeff explained. And if they were to present the work at a theater outside the comedy circuit, how would that change the work itself? How might they have to adapt it yet again for new audiences? The transformation of a sketch, into a play/sketch, into a play. This is what these two were seemingly most passionate about during the interview – the exciting and clearly liberating idea that they can continue to change how they present themselves as artists, their work, and the form their work takes on outside the boundaries of genre. That they can become playwrights as much as they are comedic sketch writers. Who knows what’s to come? What more they can pull into their amoebic identity in future shows?
But for right now, much of Jeff and Anthony’s experimentation is focussed around their audience and how the work is received (in particular when removed from the comedy venues and placed in a more “play-like” setting).
“With our sketch shows we have a standard audience, and they know what they are getting into. ‘It’s funny, I’m going to laugh.’ But this was different,” Anthony explains. “Now that we aim to perform for people that don’t necessarily know the NTHB brand of comedy, how important will it be that they understand us as sketch comedians?”
The guys recognize that there is an element of elitism when it comes to plays over comedy. So part of this new transition came from the fact that their audience was limited to comedy fans and the demographic that the PIT usually serves – part of the impetus for all this change came from an element of frustration with audiences in general. “I’ll see a play but I won’t see a sketch show.” Jeff mimicked, to which Anthony retorts,“Your mom in the show is willing to go see a pre-defined good play, but is not willing to go see a sketch show that is a play.” (This refers to a character mom, not Jeff’s real mom.) Price points play into that perception as well. “I’ll say it was good before, and I’ll say it was good after -150 dollars later,” Jeff explained. “Hey, you can come check out our play for $153 dollars less than Sleep No More.” To which Anthony quickly responded, “But that’s not a play.”
As audience members, do we fall into a routine of seeing one form of performance over another? Do we have artistic clubs that we align ourselves to? Where does comedy stand in the hierarchy of the performing arts here in New York? Is one really more profound than the other, are plays a ‘higher’ form of art? And reversely, is there an audience that solely sees comedy and ignores other forms of theatre?
“There’s this expectation of going to see a play…and if the play was only 5 minutes long, that would signal to people that ‘oh this is not a play,’” Anthony observed. “In the end we came up with this very absurd realization: tell us why it’s not a play. Tell us why a shorter version of this feels like a sketch, and a longer version feels like a play.” “Also,” Jeff added, “how funny is it that there is someone who goes around and sees all the shows, and says ‘this one is a play, that one isn’t, this one is a sketch show, that one is a play.’”
In probing this elitist impulse, New Team Honey Bear found themselves creating That’s Not a Play: A Play. The production imagines a scenario in which a New York Times theater critic attends a recent NTHB performance and then issues a scathing review that proclaims, “That’s not a play,” which forces Jeff and Anthony to question everything.
I had a chance to catch a performance, and found it hilarious, wacky, and heady (in an innocent sort of absurd way). Amid much grappling and wild extremes (“We are literally chasing this thing to the point that I become a blubbering idiot and shoot Anthony,” says Jeff), there’s a deeper root to the show’s inspiration than just questioning our artistic society’s definition of valid work. A lot of the show’s impetus comes from seeking validation from the theater world in general.
Jeff, who didn’t go to theater school, found a sort of quest with this piece. He felt removed from the “club”, and he had this desire to give the theater community something that he owed it, and hoped that in doing so that it would put him on their level. He quipped, “Just picture a photo of me in jail, and I’m just holding a sign that says ‘didn’t go to theater school.’” So, at the start of this process, Jeff became his own critic. The piece positions itself as a response to external criticism, but its impetus came from the deeply internal.
Artistic hierarchy is interesting to think about when we evaluate not just how audiences see the work, but also maybe how we support each other as artists. We certainly don’t want, especially at this time, for the club of creating to become exclusive. What is the temperature of the creative climate here in New York? What is it about our community that makes people like Jeff feel like he has to prove something? What is it within the creative artist that falls so easily into invalidating their own work? That writing sketch shows isn’t enough? In the end, maybe the optimist would say that the boundaries we feel as artists push us to evolve: desperation breeds creativity. That whole thing. Is our need for validation one of the biggest logs in the fire?
“We wanted, within the plot of the show, to really validate our characters as artists. We thought that would play well into this narrative,” says Anthony. Jeff adds, “And then, we wanted to prove to our audience that yes, there is an answer, yes we discovered it, and we have been able to use it arbitrarily and it made us very successful.”
Is there really one key secret answer to making a play successfully a play? Of course not. But in their story, there is. “The total absurdity (is) that if you find the secret, it unlocks everything for you. And that the secret is just one thing,” chuckles Anthony. When they realized that their whole show was narratively based on this one secret, Jeff remembers feeling incredulous. “Oh my God, we just wrote one joke. We wrote an hour long joke with one punch line.”
After all is said and done though,my experience of the piece boiled down to being about their relationship. They started as brothers-in-arms against the deadline of writing a piece and wove a story about collaboration and friendship and its many ups and downs. That’s how this piece, for me, was able to take on a narrative form resembling a play. During the chase of finding the secret to writing a play, to finding that validation, they lost themselves.They lost their collaboration. It becomes about finding that relationship again.
“Almost all our stuff becomes about our relationship as friends and our relationship as creative partners,” Anthony explains. Jeff interjects, “We get lost in a task, be it writing a show or something else, and we end up coming around to the fact that ultimately the most important thing is the relationship.” Anthony agrees with this.“It’s important in a grounding way. Bringing the focus on the relationship takes it a bit further than traditional sketch,” he says. At the end of the day, that creative partnership provides the magic in their writing. When I asked them how they would feel if a NY Times critic actually showed up to review their play that’s not a play, Anthony said, “With this, and the work that we do, I am so freaking ready for someone to review it. I stand behind this stuff with all of my person.” Perhaps they have found some resolution towards that universal need for us artists to find self-validation.
As a fellow creator, it’s inspiring to observe how New Team Honey Bear is challenging themselves to grow and play with boundaries while remaining grounded moving forward. “Who we are isn’t changing, but we are exploring new forms, new packages,” Anthony explains. And they feel great moving forward as they shift between different types of theaters and audiences. Making theater for a comedy audience, and making comedy for a theater audience has its perks. Anthony continues, “When you throw a little bit of stage magic, good theatre trickery, comedy audiences are blown away. And similarly, if you do something that is funny in the way that sketch shows are funny, theatre audiences are similarly impressed. It’s fun to play with those two worlds and be somewhere in the middle.”
“We also wanted to be wearing turtlenecks the whole time,” Anthony quickly adds.
“Yeah, we had to figure out how to do that,” Jeff proudly responds.
Check out New Team Honeybear at www.nthbbcomedy.com and keep a lookout for upcoming That’s Not a Play: A Play shows, and more!