Bumberblog: Meet Charles!

Sketchfest is spreading Seattle Sketch Comedy across Bumbershoot this year, so we’re talking with all the performers playing under our banner at the festival! Check out this space as we drop not one but TWO Bumberblogs leading up to the big show on Saturday (seriously? You don’t have tickets yet? Go here and get them!) This week: chatting with Charles!

(editor’s note: Charles is busy touring their fantastic new show Moby Alpha across the frozen expanse of Canada, so we conducted our interview via email. Just imagine them speaking in unison.)

How was Charles born?

We met in college working on The Chaparral, Stanford University’s humor magazine. Charlie was editor and Chuck was a writer. After college we both lived in San Francisco where Chuck was a member of a sketch group called The Wooden Robot. Charlie wrote some things for them as well. When The Wooden Robot broke up on account of graduate school, the two of us realized we wanted to keep working together so we moved to Seattle (Chuck’s hometown) and conceptualized a local-focus satire web series, similar to a Seattle-specific version of The Daily Show. We called it Seattle Untimely and put out an episode a week, just ourselves, but the whole process felt largely Sisyphean when you consider the response we got was generally a couple of likes on Facebook.

"Cerebral." - Sketchfest blog writer

“Cerebral.” – Sketchfest blog writer

So Seattle Untimely didn’t exactly become what we’d hoped, but it got us involved in the burgeoning comedy scene in Seattle circa 2007 or so. Dartanion London of Dart-Mondo and Laff Hole fame was kind enough to show a bunch of our videos at a festival he ran called “The Week of Fun.” A month later Megan Hescock asked us to perform in a show she was putting together called “Sketch Prov.” That was the first actual Charles show, and it went surprisingly well. After that we started performing around town more regularly and appeared on some People’s Republic of Komedy shows, which was a massive boost for us. Without hard working folks like Derek Sheen, Kevin Hyder, Emmett Montgomery and the late Tristan Devin it’s unlikely Charles would exist. We owe a lot of whatever success we’ve had to those wonderful and very driven folks.

What’s the typical creative process for Charles?

When one of us comes up with an idea, we chat about it extensively and usually banter some dialogue around. Being housemates helps in this regard. Our ideas crystalize in a highly collaborative fashion, but when the first draft of a sketch is written it’s almost always done by either of us working alone; we rarely do any pair writing when we’re putting words and actions onto the page. Once the draft’s finished the other one gives it a rewrite and it gets passed back and forth like that until we feel it’s close to complete.

We’ll then rehearse some blocking, usually rewrite it again, discuss and try to iron out any differences in opinion, and eventually put it on a stage. After which is almost certainly gets another rewrite, and the revision/rehearsal/performance cycle starts anew.

Is the lure of LA eventually going to take you both from Seattle?

So long as the professional comedy-writing world remains an impenetrable cabal we’re happy in the 206. More seriously, in an ideal world we’d continue in the Seattle scene while taking advantage of professional opportunities in LA. Realistically though we’re still trying to figure this whole thing out. We don’t know what the future holds, especially as the traditional entertainment business model is being turned completely on its head via the Internet. All that said, Chuck is splitting time between Seattle and LA so we suppose the soul suction has already begun.

You guys  are widely respected in the sketch comedy scene for being kind of “cerebral” with your humor. Is that a conscious choice, or is it just the style you prefer to write? Is there ever a time when you write something and think, “This is too dumb for a Charles show?”

We tend to write from a premise-first mindset rather than through character or physical humor, and the exploration of premise can have an academic feel. It’s not something we consciously strive for, but it happens to be the kind of comedy we’re most drawn to. We’ve written plenty of silly, stupid sketches but the stuff we most enjoy has a cerebral feel and we try to avoid making easy jokes. Andrew Connor and Mike Mathieu from The Cody Rivers Show talk about sketches needing to stay two steps ahead of the audience. I think for us that often manifests as a kind of heavily thought-through premise.

That said, the most important rubric is whether we think something is funny. As long as we think it’s funny, into the show it goes.

What inspired you to tackle a project like Moby Alpha? Is it easier or harder to write a play based on classic literature versus a run of the mill sketch show?

We were really inspired by Peter ‘N Chris from Vancouver to try and write a full-length narrative comedy play. Chuck had been kicking around the idea of “Moby Dick in Space” for the better part of a decade, back with his friend Jeevan and a now-defunct NYC sketch group called the Sam Park Revue.

As sketch writers we initially approached the work in terms of individual scenes, not unlike sketches. From there we went back and forth between the scenes and deciding the big beats of the narrative. The characters started taking shape as the scenes were written, so having a preexisting structure (the form of Moby Dick) to plug everything into was tremendously helpful since we didn’t have to invent a new story. In that way the writing process felt not too dissimilar from our normal writing process for sketch shows. The biggest difference was focusing heavily on making sure the characters are consistent and discernible from beginning to end, and that the pacing of the story made sense.

So, the short answer is even though we kind of cheated and made it into a sketch show, it was harder to write Moby Alpha since writing a full narrative is completely new to us.

Which of the two of you is more likely to get a big head and go solo?

We’ve both worked solo before, but we tend to think that neither of us on his own is as good as both of us together. Being the louder, blustery-et member, Chuck is probably more likely to get a big head, but those emotional proclivities also make him more open to self doubt. Charlie, the greedier one, would probably go solo because that’s where the big money is.

Honestly though, if we were to work on something solo it would probably take a different form. Charlie has done some writing for McSweeney’s and worked on several animation projects. Chuck has dabbled in standup and improv over the years. Solo projects for either of us would be more about the necessities of the medium than a desire to leave Charles, unless we get into some kind of Cheech/Chong or Simon/Garfunkel -type feud. In which case one of us would end up Chong and the other Garfunkel.

Where can people see you guys besides Bumbershoot?

We’re performing at Seattle Sketchfest this year, and we’re looking forward to having a run at Clayton Weller’s Pocket Theater once it opens. We’re planning to bring Moby Alpha back to Seattle for a short run once our travel schedule settles down, too. Other than those spots, the best way to keep up with what we’re doing is to check our Facebook Page.

How does the Seattle sketch scene differ from what you see in LA, NYC, or even Winnipeg?

We’re by no means experts on the topic; our knowledge of other cities’ sketch comedy is limited to the opinions of other groups and the little we get to observe while on the road, along with Chuck’s eight months in LA. But compared to other cities with active sketch scenes, Seattle is basically three things: very supportive, very good, and very small.

By very supportive, we mean the extent to which groups work together and support each other. In Seattle, the collaboration amongst groups is incredible. Some cities have more of a vigilante feel where people are interested in showcasing their own work and trying to find or even poach collaborators for individual projects. By contrast, Seattle folks understand that different collaborations yield different voices, and everybody wants all of those voices in the scene and genuinely wants them to succeed.

“Very good” is self explanatory. For a city this size, the average quality of any given sketch show is surprisingly high. We tour the US and Canada quite a bit, and while we’ve seen some amazing acts on the road we have no problem saying that every regularly-performing group in Seattle could hold their own in the scenes of any city in North America.

By “very small” we mean both a smaller collection of groups and smaller artistic footprint in the broader community. Sketch as an art form has faded from consciousness after the heyday of groups like The Habit and Bald Faced Lie, largely because everyone from “The Second Wave of Seattle Sketch Comedy” moved away or kind of hung it up. As a result the infrastructure for, and general awareness of, sketch has kind of eroded. It leaves us with a smaller scene than you’d expect from a city this creative.

Luckily that’s changing, as Sketchfest has been doing some amazing work producing shows and getting people involved in the scene. Both Princess and Worst Case Scenario, two new groups on the scene, have thunder-dunked their way onto the stage with awesome shows this year. The Pocket Theater will be opening soon too, giving us all a new place to perform, and The Habit has started doing shows again. Things are getting bigger and better.

Finally, what would you be doing if you hadn’t found sketch comedy?

We’d almost certainly both be working jobs in software and writing esoteric comedy pieces on blogs in odd corners of the Internet.

Check out Charles this Saturday at Bumbershoot and again next month right here at Sketchfest! Follow them on Facebook and Twitter for more insights into just what makes them tick. And check this space later this week for our final Bumberblog conversation with the new kids in town, Princess!

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