By: Alexandra Levine
PART ONE HERE
In “Edwardo the Crab,” a guy wakes up on a beach to find that there’s a hermit crab living in his butt. “I play the crab,” Thompson adds proudly, eyes wide. In his black leather jacket and with hair slicked to the right of his forehead, I somehow imagined him differently when I heard his voicemail answering machine the day before. “Youuu’ve reached Biiiiilly Bob THOMPSON!” Beep.
Thompson attributes his comedic sensibilities to the Muppets. While growing up in Vermont, he was an avid Muppet-follower. “I was never the class clown because I was too shy,” he admits, which is partly why he started his career as a puppeteer in New York. He now does voiceovers for three Pokemon characters including Luke, Burgh and Shamus, “and a bunch of other little creatures.” He takes a sip of his drink, clears his throat, and when he speaks he suddenly sounds like a seven year-old boy. And then, for lack of a better term, like a “little creature.” I had to restrain myself from asking him to belt the Pokemon theme song. Although Rob probably would’ve been amused, eyes glazing over from one shot too many.
At 1AM, this now-snoozy-boozy Rob describes himself as a once-hyperactive kid. “I was annoying. Insanely annoying,” he says, shooting me a skeptical look from his side of the booth. “Dad, Dad, Dad, Dad, Dad, Dad, Dad, Dad, Dad – I’d say. For two minutes. Straight.” He never played House; he and his siblings did SNL parodies instead – a nice cultural alternative! “Whenever I think about sketch comedy, I think of Jan Hooks and Nora Dunn as lounge singers, singing ‘Clang, clang, clang with the trolley’ and laughing their asses off,” he remembers, nearly breaking the table lamp this time. And now, twenty-or-so years later, this once-hyperactive child has formed his own sketch group, Meg & Rob, moved on in 2009 to Camp Woods, and currently writes for the Animal Planet hit, Tanked.
Madonna, the only woman in the group, holds her own in the booth. From Baltimore. Wavy, black hair and thick, black eyeliner. “As a kid, I did whatever the fuck I wanted,” she says nonchalantly, the expression on her face not changing from one word to the next. “My parents didn’t give a shit and they still don’t, which is why I’m doing what I’m doing.” The beauty of having Madonna’s sass-and-circumstance (and her strong theater/sketch-writing background) in Camp Woods is that her style is no different than that of the men in the group. Having written JG Wentworth and Millionaire-Billionaire, “Madonna writes and plays some of the raunchiest stuff we have,” adds Thompson. Camp Woods saw Madonna perform at the Philly Improv Theater’s open-mic, “Sketch Up or Shut Up,” and it was love at first sight.
And then there’s Narisi, with his blue zip-up and a head of regal, JFK hair. “When I was a kid I was quiet enough that people were worried about me in school,” Narisi says. “People would ask me, ‘Why are you so serious and quiet all the time?’ I just didn’t like talking, so it’s strange that I’d now do these things on stage. I always wanted to write.” But Narisi does more than simply writing for Camp Woods; he also stars in a group favorite, “Narcoleptic EMT.” Self-explanatory: an ambulance driver who falls asleep all the time. Oh, and he’s also JG Wentworth 877-Cash-Now himself.
Kennedy, beneath a sea of curly brown hair, leans his back against the arcade machine and chimes in ever-so-politely and eloquently. He seems to be the wise, older brother of Camp Woods. “I was a good student. Very polite,” he says of his high school days – no surprise there. “I was an honors student and I played sports. I liked comedy but I kept it to myself.” Until he began doing improv and stand-up, that is. Hailing from Upper Dublin, Kennedy hit the Philadelphia comedy scene before sketch had really taken off. In the interim, he was a featured guest on comic radio shows, Opie and Anthony and KiddChris. But just a few years down the road, it’s now safe to say that Kennedy’s improv/stand-up background has come in handy as a great source of inspiration for Camp Woods. “Brendan’s was one of the first groups I saw doing stand-up, and I was like Yes! That’s what I want to do,” exclaims Boudwin. “All our short videos stemmed from Brendan – his stand-up style and the way he presented his humor added a whole new dimension to our group.”
As he continues to rave about Kennedy, Boudwin’s squeezed onto the end of the booth. He leans in. Eagerly. His long, black hair cascades out from beneath his black beanie, and a very becoming amount of stubble wraps around his mouth and chin. “When I was younger, I was sent to therapy in first grade for saying everything in my brain. I went to Catholic school so they thought that was bad,” he begins. God, this guy’s awesome. And he already reminds me of Jack Black. At his Upper Darby high school, he was the TV news anchor, intent on filming and producing a “better version” of Nickelodeon’s 1990’s hit, All That. “I wanted to call it Da Bomb. Like Rob, I was an obnoxious kid trying to be a star. But to be fair, two years later, Kenan and Kel tried to name their grocery-store-turned-nightclub ‘Da Bomb,’ so I felt validated.” The guys all raise their glasses and drink because they can relate: we’re talking about the 90’s here. If only I had ordered a “Ryan Gosling’s Bathwater” to clink with Camp Woods, or with Boudwin at the very least.
* * *
Greg Maughan, founder of the Philly Improv Theater (PHIT), met each individual member before they actually became Camp Woods. He’s seen them evolve from a flopped first-show at the PHIT to a highly ambitious sketch group that “can pack a show with a young, boisterous and hard-drinking crowd,” says Maughan. “They have matured a lot.” Since 2009, Camp Woods members have hosted PHIT shows and been through the theater’s writing workshops. A few have even given back by teaching those same classes. “What honestly makes them stand out to me is their ambition. They really want to go someplace with this.” says Maughan. “I think they want to be touring the country and on TV. I admire the hell out of that and want to do anything I can to help them achieve that.”
The Philly Improv Theater was one of the first theaters of its kind to hit the Philadelphia comedy scene in 2006. Camp Woods has been extremely supportive in the theater’s efforts to get a permanent space, according to Maughan, which in turn would generate more exposure for sketch groups like Camp Woods and might increase the chances of scouts traveling to Philadelphia to see them. Either way, “I think they will certainly be one of the top group in Philly as the comedy community here continues to expand,” Maughan adds.
As far as future plans go, the group will continue traveling around the city – putting on their longstanding, monthly shows at L’Etage. They’ll also be traveling across the country to gain exposure and build up their repertoire at large-scale shows and festivals in Boston, New York, Chicago and possibly Los Angeles. “Were a set seven and we don’t have auditions,” says Thompson, in case you were as interested as I was in joining them for the ride.
Any other recipes for success? “We need to write and perform what makes us laugh,” Madonna says. “It always goes better when we’re pleasing ourselves.”
* * *
Camp Woods’ most recent press release reads, “The group blends sharp absurdism and energetic performances with homemade props, sets, puppets, and costumes to create a memorable live experience that is sometimes smart, sometimes stupid, and always fun.” The humor is described as a mixture of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, The Kids in the Hall, Mr. Show, and Chappelle’s Show.
But Maughan puts it even better. “Their brains are not wired the same way as everyday people,” he says. His experience at an open mic/party at their house, ironically called Hate Speech Hall, pretty much sums it up. “You really don’t get their vibe until you find yourself drunk watching them do a sketch about taking Pickleback shots at 4:00 a.m. on a Sunday morning.”
Before I leave, I ask these funny guys to tell me a joke. Rob references a scene from Ghostbusters. Narisi recounts a scene from The Simpsons. Boudwin, a great line from Futurama. Thankfully, Kennedy throws in a Dumb and Dumber quote. And finally, Thompson comes up with a classic Fozzy the Bear one-liner. Ba-dum-chhh, and out goes Camp Woods from the Comedy Dreamz after-party to an after-after-party.
Camp Woods will be performing at their monthly sketch showcase Camp Woods Plus tonight at L’etage (6th and Bainbridge, Philadelphia)
Alexandra Levine is a recent graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, and she is now an aspiring writer living in New York City.
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.
* * *
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.)
Camp Woods will be performing at their monthly sketch showcase Camp Woods Plus tomorrow night at L’etage (6th and Bainbridge, Philadelphia)
Alexandra Levine is a recent graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, and she is now an aspiring writer living in New York City.