If you didn’t know ahead of time, you wouldn’t guess that The Clay & Calhoun Sketch Comedierie’s first show was Monday night. Despite tech problems that plagued each of the night’s performances, Clay & Calhoun put on 15 minutes of tight, well-acted sketches and videos that featured faces familiar to anyone who follows comedy in Philadelphia. Perhaps that’s because the man behind the outfit, Vincent DiCostanzo, isn’t new to Philly comedy. He’s been part of the city’s sketch scene since 2003, and in addition to Clay & Calhoun, he’s one of the writers for Philadelphia Improv Theater’s house sketch team, The Flat Earth.
Vincent led the night with a sketch that tested the limits of an NPR presenter’s willingness to stay true to the source material during banned book week. Awkward moments continued through sketches that touched on dating, the news and birthdays, before the set wrapped with Secret Pants’ Paul Triggiani on stage to help with a new take on the bit made famous by Abbot and Costello, “Who’s on First?”
I spoke to Vincent after the show and then again on Tuesday.
Peter Rambo: How do you think the debut went?
Vincent DiCostanzo: I think, all in all, the show went well. There were some tech set-backs, but you have to accept that some things are out of your control. I jokingly told Hillary [Rea] downstairs that “my set is 90% awkward silence—so the crowd will be nice and warmed up for ya.” I didn’t realize how accurate I would be. One GOOD thing, though: There was an outro and a credit sequence set to play after “Huckleberry Finn,” then I added “Happy Birthday” at the last minute to pad for time and give myself time to change clothes. The tech skipped the credits and jumped right to “Happy Birthday,” so it’s a good thing I took my shirt off before my pants or the next sketch would have been very awkward, or—awkwarder.
PR: What kind of prior sketch experience do you have?
VD: I started doing sketch comedy back in 2003—or thereabouts—with a group called SKITSoid. It started as part of the Fringe Festival and there were only a handful of shows after that, and I didn’t start writing until late in the game. As SKITSoid wound down, I started writing and producing my own work as part of The Gentlemen’s Rotary Auxiliary.
PR: And how long have you been working on Clay & Calhoun?
VD: Clay & Calhoun started making its way into my brain just over a year ago. I had a stack of sketches left over after the Gent’s Rotary’s demise and ideas just kept populating in my brain. I kept going to shows and really missed making comedy. I jumped at the chance to write for a PHIT House Team, now known as The Flat Earth, to get my legs back under me. Unfortunately, halfway though the process, my hours at work changed and I couldn’t make as many meetings, rehearsals, etc. That panic and anxiety over the loss of control over my material—which I expected to an extent—lit the fire under my ass. I had challenged myself to start writing sketches that could be performed by one person, but ended up failing at that pretty quickly. I think the only two good ones I came up with were performed Monday night. I’ve always preferred performing with other people, plus, there are too many voices in my head for a one-man show. I applied for Philly SketchFest on the last day submissions were being accepted to sort of force my own hand.
PR: What are some of the benefits and/or pitfalls of running things by yourself?
VD: Well, I haven’t been doing everything myself. When I sat down to start to dive into the work for SketchFest, I invited a few friends over for B.S. sessions. Matthew Schmid, whom I met while working with The Flat Earth, has been at my side the whole time—acting as a sounding board, cheerleader and helping hand. Also, as corny and cliched as it is to say, the comedy community is very supportive. Anyone and everyone I approached for a hand was happy to offer.
PR: So, how many people did you end up working with on Monday’s show?
VD: In total, I was able to harness the talents of nine different people—10 if you include Miss Nikki Black whose sketch was cut at the last minute.
PR: Where did the name come from?
VD: Anyone who knows me knows that I am a history junkie. Henry Clay and John C. Calhoun were the two polar stalwarts of 19th century American politics. When he was leaving the Presidency, Andrew Jackson said he had “but one regret: not shooting Henry Clay and not hanging John Calhoun.”
PR: Is it hard splitting your time between two sketch entities?
VD: It hasn’t been hard yet. The Flat Earth is on a hiatus—which gave me time to work on Clay & Calhoun material. But rumors (and email threads back and forth) have it that The Flat Earth will be starting back up soon. I don’t expect it to be too difficult, because as any good parent knows: It’s easy to tell which of your children you want to raise on your own, and which you want to give away to be someone else’s responsibility. Disclaimer: I am not a parent.
PR: What are some of the difficulties of living in New Jersey and performing in Philadelphia?
VD: Honestly—the parking.
PR: Are you looking forward to any other Sketchfest events?
VD: Unfortunately, I have to work every night this week. So here’s what I’m looking forward to regretting that I missed. Specific Jawns: watching Chip Chantry’s transformation from stand-up to sketch comedian is like watching a butterfly turn into a butterfly. ManiPedi: Their No More Wire Wangers set blew my mind. What I’m really looking forward to is when I finally have Friday and Saturday nights off: grabbing a seat 15 minutes before the first act of the night and not leaving until after the last.
PR: Do you have any upcoming shows, or anything you’d like us to plug?
VD: Currently, nothing. But I’ll let you know ASAP.
You can watch Clay and Calhoun’s videos at vimeo.com/vdicostanzo.
Peter Rambo writes and performs with American Breakfast. (Catch them at the next Camp Woods Plus on Thursday, December 6th.) You can follow Peter’s quiet Twitter feed via @gunnarrambo.