Saving Lives; One Sketch at a Time

Whatever you do, don’t yell “Is there a doctor in the house?” Saturday night during The Comic Thread’s performance. Why? Because 3 1/2 of the members of The Comic Thread (TCT) are doctors: Matt Birnholz, Charles Turck, and Daphne Scott. And Matt’s brother, Justin, is a mere months away from being awarded a PhD in Clinical Psychology.

But Justin won’t even be in the house because he’s in New York doing an internship. But, as he told me, “Anything you laugh at, I wrote.”

That’s the beauty of TCT. Members of the troupe might not even be in a performance, yet his or her contributions will. Justin says, “It’s how the writing process works for us. One person will write a sketch, everyone else will edit it, both in writing and in rehearsals, and in the end it changes into something else.”

With their demanding “day job”schedules and geographic challenges I wondered how they each have time to collaborate in TCT.  Charles says, “Some of it is the opportunity to chip in and shoulder the burden of work adopted more frequently by a group of people I love.  Oftentimes I collaborate in sound design for shows in which I’m not performing, because that work can be done from anywhere in the world.”

Charles continued, “Sometimes there’s even engagement in real time: Nic once found himself in a bind; he needed to procure some props last minute – on opening night – but he didn’t want to abandon his office phone and the ability to take reservations for a show TCT was doing locally.  So I said forward the calls to me and I’ll take reservations for you so that you can do what you need to do.  So on a Friday night in 2008, I took phone reservations for a show in Highland Park from my apartment office in Worcester, Massachusetts.”

But who knew doctors were so passionate about being so painfully funny?

Matt says, “Our backgrounds pretty much cover the entire spectrum of health and wellness, but our shared love of comedy brings them all together . . . or not, but it’s nice to envision. I think the comedy we do provides a sort of balance to our respective work areas. Yes, our costumes on stage are often ridiculous, and our characters rarely “normal,” but what better environment to embrace those opportunities than a medium where normalcy is, if anything, the exception?”

Matt continues, “The potential for earning greater and greater awards for our brand of comedy and performance has always been appealing, but nowhere near as strong a driver in what we do compared to the sheer enjoyment of it. We’re in it for the experience, the way it adds something immeasurable to our lives and makes each day feel fuller. There is nothing quite like it, and that is certainly its own reward.”

I ask Daphne, “What’s the deal with all the doctors?” She says, “I don’t know directly but I can say that beyond our collective intelligence there is something incredibly healing about laughter; no matter how cliché that may sound. In my work as a physical therapist this was a critical element in allowing people to keep their motivation and to know that they were capable of accomplishing their goals even in the face of sometimes very painful conditions. And there is possibly no better experience than laughing-crying. I have witnessed several people having this experience over the years.”

I ask her what keeps the group together. Daphne says, “While the group has had different performers come in and out when needed and as available, we never seem to lose a core connection that we have with each other which is clearly grounded in our love of comedy and our desire to create the best shows possible.”

So, I ask Charles, “What’s up with all these doctors?” He answers, “TCT has ensnared a wide range of healthcare practitioners in its admittedly lengthy tendrils because so many of us, both within TCT and without, yearn for a degree of balance in our lives.  On the balance, healthcare practitioners that belong in their field have a tendency toward being serious about what they do for a living; patient’s demand and deserve care from someone who is passionate about what she or he does.  I do agree, though, that all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy, and TCT is but one of the outlets its group members use to channel their creative energy.”

I ask him, ”What is it about TCT that compels you to travel from Massachusetts to perform with the group, as well as Montreal and LA?”

“Schedule and resources permitting, and a love of travel aside, there’s just nothing quite like performing for an appreciative audience (or, for different reasons, an unappreciative one too).  From my perspective as a performer, the audience is such an interesting, unique entity.  As I actively engage in the art form on stage, hopefully successfully a microcosm of reality to which my fellow humans might relate, this group of individuals in front of me delivers a collective energy in the form of laughs, gasps, and even silent reaction to the spectacle before it.”

“In my mind, the group seemingly melts into an amorphous, single mass – the audience – that’s every bit as complex a conversational partner as the individual people who comprise it.  And yet at the same time I can, at any moment in a planned or spontaneous manner, begin to interact with an individual member or a small group within this larger entity while the larger whole remains intact and responsive just as before.  I’m no doubt describing a process that many performers experience routinely and consider as natural and perhaps easy to forget as breathing.  But for those who have never performed or attained a level of comfort with it that allows for reflection, it’s worth describing here; it’s a phenomenon that’s quite remarkable.”

Meg Grunewald, who is performing with TCT Saturday night, is also a member of the all-female comedy sketch group “Just the Tip” along with Jessica Antes, Bess Boswell, and Julia Lippert.

Meg became friends with the cast members of TCT because they realized, as they sat with each other to see Sktechfest every year, that they actually enjoyed each others’ company. They decided they didn’t  like just being “camp friends” who only saw each other once a year, so they decided to hang out and become “show buddies.” Meg subbed for one of TCT’s actors one year and ended up going with the troupe to New York for a competition.

She says her group is more loosy-goosy, whereas TCT is meticulous when it comes to making every part of every scene as funny as it can possibly be. “Watching them edit their script is something to be seen,” she says. Sometimes she will bring a fresh idea into the mix, which is always appreciated.

Meg feels honored to be able to help TCT pay homage to their friend, Elana Ernst Silverstein, who passed away this past December, by reprising one of her roles. “By doing this character it’s like she’s still in the show.”

While gathering research for this blog post, two things stood out about the cast members of The Comic Thread (TCT): 1) They respect each other and can’t say enough nice things about one another, and 2) They all worship Nicolas DeGrazia. According to each and every person I contacted, without Nic’s energy, focus, and sheer will to make things happen, TCT would not be onstage Saturday night at the 12th Annual Chicago Sketchfest at Stage 773, on Belmont in Chicago.

Each member of the troupe e mailed or called me with answers to questions I had e mailed, so they weren’t all sitting in the same room together answering my questions and being kind in front of each other; but it was as if they were all sitting in the same room together answering my questions and being kind in front of each other. It’s clear that these people would do anything for each other, except maybe for Justin Birnholz. He’s known as the arch-nemesis of the group, but I can tell he’s a softy at heart.

Like the other cast members of The Comic Thread, Nic has a day-job as Creative Director and co-owner of Bitter Jester Creative, Inc., the Emmy Award-winning digital cinema company. However, he manages to make TCT happen each year because, as he says, “I can’t not do this. I feel fortunate to work with such great friends and talent.” As Nic told Matt Birnholz in high school, “We’ll be getting Oscars someday.”

Matt says, “A solid comedy troupe needs a champion to keep us moving forward. As someone whose work in film and television complements the aspirations of a comedy group directly, there is no question that Nic has been responsible for much of The Comic Thread’s rapid growth and recognition over the past several years. He’s taken us from a ‘summers when we’re all free’ group in the schooling days to a widely known, cross-country seasoned, year-round presence on the professional comedy scene. That is a remarkable achievement. Could any one of us have taken The Comic Thread to our current level? Perhaps, but not without Nic’s help, and certainly not anywhere near as effectively. He is a networking and marketing machine, a savvy acting and tech director, a focal point for all festival and media communications, and a creative genius to boot. We owe a LOT of our success to his tireless work on the group’s behalf.”

“Nic is a great judge of potential, and we all do believe that there’s no cap to what we can accomplish here with enough practice and refinement of our signature style. This is a skill-driven profession, and the more we experience, the more we can draw from to enhance those skills. In this respect, I share Nic’s view that the sky’s the limit for us. Further, in fact. We intend to kick the sky’s ass.”

I ask Charles how the work has evolved over the past 20 years. He says, “Creativity and energy have not changed, but our work is informed by additional life experience to which a hopefully increasingly large age group in our audiences and peers can relate.  And in a related fashion, we set higher standards for ourselves than ever before.”

Nic had told me that Charles used to dry heave from stage fright, so I ask him if he still does. “I have overcome it in much the same way as we are able to condition our bodies to overcome severe, allergic reactions: repeated exposure.  I had seen performance for years – I had been a fan of televised comedy shows from late childhood and was a member of stage crew in high school.  All the while I thought, I can do that (although no one said well).  So when the opportunity arose to participate in a children’s production of Alice in Wonderland at the Attic Playhouse with many of the same people who were starting Super-Natty* in the summer of 1998, I took it.”

“It’s funny, it’s all about repeated exposure and the commitment to see that through.  The mind’s a powerful thing; I’ve gone from being the boy who dry heaved to only one in the group whose ever done nudity.”

As impressive as that sounds, Nicolas says. “The Comic Thread wouldn’t be anything without Ben. (He) still brainstorms with us, but more important, we have been performing re-writes of his original material at ALL of our traveling festivals. His work has garnered us much positive critical acclaim and has even helped us to win several awards.”

Ben, who lives in L.A. and produces music videos, is currently working on a documentary/dance film. He says, “Like Nic said, my material still gets performed, and I try to brainstorm when I can. It’s tough though. Comedy is so so so so so hard. I think jokes come to comedians like melodies come to musicians, through some inspired lighting strike osmosis.”

Ben continues, “I don’t consider myself witty, though I’d love to think so.” He credits Woody Allen, Whit Stillman, and Armando Ianucci as his favorite humorists, but says, “My comedy (when I did comedy) was much broader, much more influenced by major 90’s comedy forces; SNL, Mr. Show, The State, and even (I dare say) people like Jim Carrey and Adam Sandler.” He says at the time he thought he was being like Monty Python or Andy Kaufman, but confesses, “but the end result was probably something more pandering and, like, ‘wakka-wakka’-funny, you know?”

I ask Ben, “What the heck is Super-Natty?” He says, ” The term Super-Natty is from a Tricky song called ‘Brand New, You’re Retro.’ I always liked the name Super-Natty. Perfect for a sketch troupe actually. Like, it’s sort of nonsense that at the same time sounds like a pre-existing cultural term.”

I tell Justin that Nic calls him the arch-nemesis of the group.  “Ah, the arch-nemesis thing. I’m not sure entirely when or where that started between me and Nic, but I do know why: as the group’s resident supervillain, I have a reputation of nemesising to uphold. That and the frequent use of doomsday devices IF MY DEMANDS ARE NOT MET.”

‘The Cosmic Threat’, as I believe they’re called, is a Heck of a troupe, I think. They’re all, like, funny, and stuff. And sometimes they do my stuff! I haven’t written anything for them in a year or two, sadly, but that’s more because of my crazy-ass schedule than anything else. Getting a phony doctorate takes some work and time, it turns out. I was shocked to learn that myself. But I write little funny things down when I can, and sometimes they turn into scripts and sometimes they turn into songs and sometimes, if they’re really short, they turn into texts or Facebook status updates. But comedy is important to me, and I hope I can get back into the swing of writing sketches again soon.”

“But anyway, don’t let that mawkish sentimentality fool you: I’m a villain first and a writer second, and I am actively working to destroy TCT both from within and without. And, according to my writing, apparently trying to feminize and gay up the troupe as much as possible, since my scripts *always* have female leads and tend to include gender/sexuality as main concepts. I’m into that. And it has lead to all three of ‘The Karmic Thread’s’ same-sex kisses on stage (off stage, I am not responsible for). I take great pride in that.”

You could say these doctors have no borders.

Chicago Sketchfest runs from Thursday to Sunday January 3rd-6th and January 10th-13th at Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont, Chicago, 773/327-5252. Nic told me there are 4 stages with shows going on at the same time every hour, so it would be impossible to see every show.

But tonight at 6:00 PM is The Comic Thread’s night! And I can’t wait to be there to see what people on Facebook mean by comments such as, “Please don’t scare my girlfriend!”

* Super-Natty was the group’s name until it morphed into The Comic Thread.

1/23/13  This is an edited version of the original post.

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