Class Clowns

Fresh from the Farm, a group of young comics take to the stage in L.A. But they're keeping their day jobs.

May/June 1998

Reading time min

Class Clowns

Courtesy Fred Ward

It's Saturday night at Luna Park, a trendy Hollywood nightspot. A crowd of stylish twenty-somethings, who look as if they belong at a Quentin Tarantino premiere or a Pearl Jam concert, jostle for a closer view of the decidedly preppy-looking troupe onstage.

Not so long ago, The But Franklies were 16 Stanford students – English and psych and engineering majors active in campus theater and music groups. Now they're taking on the world's entertainment capital with an offbeat combination of improvisation, comedy and a cappella singing.

Pulling the audience into the act is part of their appeal. Tonight's show, "Sham Radio," features three long-form improv scenes that depend on suggestions from the floor for themes, characters and settings. One member of the troupe plays a radio announcer who keeps things moving.

Interactive theater can be tricky. If the audience wants something the actors object to, they risk losing control if they give in – or losing their rapport with the audience if they resist. Tonight's crowd wants to see a scene about a leper. The title: "Don't Touch Me." The Franklies are unfazed. They pick up cues deftly and rarely interrupt each other. Another scene has everyone in stitches: Deepak Chopra cast as the real author of the Declaration of Independence. At least half the laughs come from Greg Chun's eclectic sound effects on the synthesizer.

In what may be a Tinseltown first, the Franklies punctuate their improv performances with original a cappella. Complex rhythms and bright lyrics support their claim to "the highest combined SAT score of any L.A. comedy group." They can find a rhyme for thoracic cavity ("believe in gravity") and sprinkle a refrain with grammar tips ("My nose smells good" – "You mean well, you mean well"). A ditty on Hollywood types who are full of false promises, "Definitely Maybe Try," hits home with the horde of hopefuls in the Luna Park crowd. And the rain-weary Angelenos love tonight's doowop-filled finale, "Blame El Niño."

All this is gratifying to a two-year-old group whose namesake is a cliché improvisers use when at a loss for words. "At first we worried that only our friends would show up," says Lolly Ward, '93, the troupe's producer. "But we've found receptive audiences. We're a viable L.A. group." That means, on average, 150 paying heads and $500 profit per show, which gets ploughed back into costumes or other extras. Last year, the group produced a CD, The But Franklies.

The newcomers offer something unique. Most live L.A. performances are one-off "showcases" – disjointed scenes and monologues aimed at attracting the attention of agents and industry types and performed by actors who often barely know each other.

Not so for the Franklies. Virtually all of them have known each other since their days at Stanford, where they worked together in Gaieties, Mendicants, Fleet Street, One-Acts, Spontaneous Generation and The Stanford Improvisers. Today, almost a third of the group live together in a big, rented house in Hancock Park. Many long-standing improv groups, springboards for sitcom actors and shows like Saturday Night Live, have reputations for in-fighting and cattiness. But the Franklies treat one another like family. When recent recruits Ben Evans, '94 (musical director), and Hilary Ryan, '93 (improvisation director), moved down to L.A., the group hooked them up with day jobs and places to live.

Says Ward: "I thought I was going to go to New York or Chicago for theater and for comedy, and then a bunch of them said, 'Hey, come out here. We'll do something. We'll get you a job. Just come out.' I came out. And they did. It's a very supportive environment."

Indeed, the main reason for starting the group, says founder Jason Mayland, was to establish a close-knit creative community for performers and writers trying to get their legs in L.A. Mayland, '94, says the hardest thing about Hollywood is how easy it is to become disconnected. "You end up sitting in a room by yourself writing your screenplay," he laments. "Not only is it a lonely endeavor, but you don't get that chance to bounce ideas off other people."

Most members of The But Franklies are pursuing creative careers in Hollywood. Ben Evans, Tineke Van Berckelaer, '94 and Lolly Ward are working actors. Raphe Beck, '92, Jason Mayland, Hilary Ryan, Matthew Swanson, '93, and Adam Tobin, '93, each have scripts in the works with major Hollywood studios, while writing partners Gabe Miller, '93, and Jonathan Green, '95, enjoy steady gigs on the new television series USA High. Kevin Bleyer, '94, writes for Bill Maher's Politically Incorrect, while Greg Chun, '93, doubles as a computer hacker for Dreamworks SKG.

But they are all committed to their Franklies moonlighting. In two years, they've written nine or 10 different shows and performed about every six weeks. They get together at the Hancock Park house a couple of hours a week for songwriting and once or twice weekly to work on improv – more when a show is imminent.

How do you prepare for spontaneity? Exercises include rehearsing a range of genres (Greek myth, sci fi, mystery, kids' books), working on narrative, playing games as different characters or animals.

Their first gig was at the now defunct Upfront Comedy Club in Santa Monica. "We kept wondering, are we ready? Finally we just decided to go out and rent a theater and do it," Ward says. When they did their first anniversary show, a revue called "Cirque du Soufflé," at the same venue, the L.A. Times listed them as "Best Bet" in a Sunday supplement.

Daytime commitments prevent The But Franklies from touring any farther than Stanford, where they performed in April this year and last. But what would they do if rich patrons ever did come along? Pipes up Hilary Ryan: "Whatever they wanted us to."

Josh Preven is a writer based in Los Angeles.

You May Also Like

© Stanford University. Stanford, California 94305.