By: Alexandra Levine
“They’re hilarious testicles you hang on back of your truck! Go truck nuts for Truck Nuts!” Billy Bob Thompson says in the voice of an over-enthused infomercial salesman. In this particular skit, he’s trying desperately to film a thirty-second spot for a local Truck Nuts dealership. His supposed acting coach, dressed in a tight white turtleneck and even tighter white pants, becomes borderline abusive as Billy struggles with his line: “Take it from me, you’ll go truck nuts for our Truck Nuts!” Take two after take three after take four, he still can’t strike the right tone or twist his face into the perfect expression. The acting teacher – strangely similar to Romanian gymnastics coach Béla Károly – loses his cool and brandishes a pair of plastic testicles in front of Thompson’s face. That’s basically it, but the crowd goes nuts – pun entirely intended.
“Truck Nuts” was one of four skits that sketch-comedy group, Camp Woods, put on that evening. Their fifteen-minute gig was the grand finale of Comedy Dreamz, a show featuring sketch, stand-up and improv comedians from across the greater Philadelphia area. This month’s Comedy Dreamz was hosted at The Barbary, a grungy late-night hotspot in North Philly. Think: hipster dive-bar meets eighties dance-party. The room was cozy and dark, except for a glowing EXIT sign and the red lights illuminating the sides of the bar. Oh, and the low-hanging, over-sized disco ball. Just before Camp Woods took the stage, the MC’s offered club-goers two specialty drinks: the ‘Panty Destroyer’ (one shot more than ‘Panty Dissolver’) and, my personal favorite, ‘Ryan Gosling’s Bathwater.” Circa midnight, Camp Woods made their Comedy Dreamz debut.
Catchy opera music drowned out the noise of clinking beer glasses. (Who knew opera music could be catchy?) It was an operatic jingle from a mundane insurance commercial: the song looped, “Call JG Wentworth, 877-Cash-Now.” As the song repeated, Camp Woods actor Sam Narisi removed his ill-fitting khaki pants, waddled across the stage in briefs, and began putting on stockings over stockings over stockings. Until he reached about ten pairs. Audience in suspense all-the-while, he finally exclaimed, “It’s pantyhose time!” Narisi was JG Wentworth himself, and when he finally received a call from someone who had heard his promising hotline jingle, he had no “cash” to give them. At least not “now”. Whoops.
Next, Camp Woods’ Madonna Marie Refugia and Patrick Foy took on the roles of Cassandra and Bartholomew in “Millionaire-Billionaire.” She, the millionaire, and he, the billionaire, they sexy-talked about net worth and got off just verbalizing their wealth. “Say it slow,” Cassandra demanded seductively, as Bartholomew responded, “Twenty…two…billion.” His net worth sounded so delicious that Cassandra had an orgasm. To return the favor, Bartholomew asked for her net worth: “Say it slow, and like you’re from the South,” he insisted. “Two-point-one…million…dollars,” she responded sensuously. She reached a second sexual climax when Bartholomew recited all the celebrities whose net worths were lower than his. “Oprah mother-humping Winfrey!” he added, last but not least, sending his lover over the edge.
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Transcribing Camp Woods’ short, out-there stints just doesn’t do them justice. “We go for absurdist and weird stuff,” explains Thompson. “We try to stray away from what you’d see in mainstream comedy like SNL or Colbert-type shows where they lampoon politics.” The seven-person troupe boasts the witty-yet-quirky writing and acting of Billy Bob Thompson, Rob Baniewicz, JP Boudwin, Brendan Kennedy, Patrick Foy, Sam Narisi, and Madonna Marie Refugia. They’re all in their mid-to-late twenties, but Camp Woods is pretty young itself. Launched back in 2009 by Boudwin, Foy and Narisi, the group remains relatively new. But since then, the four others have jumped on the Camp Woods bandwagon after meeting at variety shows and comedy workshops around the city.
We’re all huddled in a booth upstairs at the Barbary, beers in hand. A vintage Pacman machine seems to enthrall Rob (who introduced himself to me as “Robot”), but he’s drunk and equally as excited to fondle the table lamp and twirl it around is finger. “We’re the good comedians in Philadelphia,” he proclaims, “and that’s exactly how we found each other. It was just that simple. Billy and I were in other sketch groups and Brendan’s a brilliant standup. Pat and Sam went to college together and did video and web-comedy. We all met Madonna in a sketch workshop and loved her stuff.”
When it comes to humor, the group shares the same sensibilities. “We all have the same sense of humor, just have different ways of writing it,” Rob explains. The group has no ‘one’ creative artistic approach; they come together with pitches and bounce ideas off each other. And it helps that Boudwin, Kennedy and Thompson live together. They even have a green screen set up to keep their creative juices flowing.
In fact, one of Camp Woods’ most publicized, hyped web-clips was produced at home in front of that green screen. The video, “Mystery Science Andre 3000,” remakes a one-minute excerpt from Satellite of Love with a raunchy voiceover from Outkast’s Andre 3000. The homemade video was re-tweeted by Questlove from The Roots, which bumped up viewership and scored Camp Woods some much-deserved attention both online and in the Philadelphia City Paper. “Mystery Science Theater has a cult following,” explains Thompson, “so Andre 3000 ended up being our most well-known work outside this city.” He and Boudwin conceived of the idea while high, and it sure is a short-and-sweet masterpiece.
Despite the popularity of Mystery Science Andre 3000, Camp Woods agrees that web-comedy doesn’t quite compare to live sketch and stand-up. “I was initially partial to video stuff because I went to film school,” says Thompson. “But part of the beauty of doing it live is knowing people’s immediate reactions, whereas online you can really only judge how much people like it through view counts. It’s just not as gratifying.”
To date, Camp Woods’ biggest and best live-shows have been at the Chicago Sketch Fest (January 2012) and the Boston Improv Festival. They have also performed at the North Carolina Comedy Arts Fest, Philly Sketchfest, Philadelphia Fringe Festival, New York’s ABC No Rio, and the Chicago Snubfest (which grants admission only to those who have been rejected from other festivals). But Thompson’s personal favorite was a performance at New York’s Upright Citizen’s Brigade (UCB) last fall. “We crushed that,” he laughs. “It was the best feeling I’ve had in a while.” At the UCB, Thompson starred in a Camp Woods favorite known as “Rude Sloth.” The premise? A rude sloth. Guy shows up to a hotel called the Rude Sloth Hotel. Guests at said hotel are given a rude sloth to hold onto during their stay. Said guest refuses the sloth, and the animal acts rudely. Easy enough. With Narisi as the guest, Boudwin as the concierge, and Thompson in a head-to-toe sloth outfit, “Rude Sloth” is generally a crowd hit.
It’s not always that easy, though – especially with a flat crowd. The group works effortlessly to predict and read its audience. “There are times when we do things like Comedy Dreamz at bars where people really are only laughing at the pussy/dick/fart jokes,” Boudwin says. “But then you go to a crowd in a theater and do that, they don’t pick it up as well. Knowing when and where to add it in is a big part of what we do. Our ideas are funnier than curse words or messy parts of the body.” So what to do with a dead crowd? “I start yelling my lines!” Narisi interjects. (“Shock them!” Thompson adds, shaking as if electrocuted.)
Every month, the group discusses which sketches have worked with audiences and which haven’t. This Saturday, at the Walnut Street Theater’s F. Harold Festival, Camp Woods will be doing a “Best Ofs” set. In addition to the Rude Sloth, Millionaire-Billionaire and JG Wentworth shorts, they’ll be bringing back four more treats for the crowd. “Homeless Haiku” will feature three homeless men in a quasi-poetry slam, cursing their blunt, stream-of-consciousness thoughts ala haiku. In “Laser Arm,” a man who works for the mob realizes he’s invincible because he has…wait for it…a laser arm. In “Farting Magician,” Brother A tells Brother B that their father’s in the hospital, but Brother B is too distracted to care. He’s intrigued by a magician who, with a press of a button, will fart, and fart, and fart again. Finally, “Glitter Pocks” is about a coal miner’s family, wondering how they will deal with the father’s sickness, glitter pocks. He works at a glitter mine, and by God, he can’t stop coughing up glitter! (With Thompson as the miner, each time he sneezes into his hand, glitter explodes around his face. Obviously.)
Alexandra Levine is a recent graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, and she is now an aspiring writer living in New York City.