The other week I stumbled into StageWerx Theatre in the Mission on a Friday night. I'd taken an improv class through EndGames improv last summer and was excited to see their new show space in the Mission. So when my coworker/friend Nick invited me to see his brother's sketch comedy group, I jumped at the chance. He'd been telling me for quite a while how funny his brother and the group were. A huge comedy fan myself, I knew only I could be the judge. Go ahead, I thought. Make me laugh.
And oh! did they make me laugh. The show was raw, the timing was impeccable and each cast member carried their own weight, something not always easily achieved by an ensemble cast. I was impressed, so much entertainment for only $5. It kind of blew my mind that they were able to produce such a quality show on their own. I wanted to know more about what these guys were up to. I decided to invite them to brunch to chat.
As a general rule you should be prepared when you invite comedians to a meal. First, they are going to make fun of you (but in a good-natured way, kinda). You should also know that they are probably going to make fun of other people in the restaurant, loudly, and will likely completely embarrass you at least twice. And don't think your pleas to, "please quiet down" are going to do anything. There is no "off" switch. You'll be lucky if you can go from 10 to nine but the roar usually hangs out around 11. Therefore it is imperative that you only dine with comedians who really crack you up, otherwise you're in big trouble. Thankfully, Narcissists Anonymous cast members Frankie G and Shaun Plander fit the bill.
With my friend Ashley in tow, I met Frankie and Shaun outside of Boogaloos on Saturday morning. The hostess foolishly sat us inside the tiny dining room. It would be a good 25 minutes before she realized her error.
We sat down, flipped our coffee cups over, and began talking. "Tell me everything you want me to know," I say enthusiastically. "Worst interview start, ever," bellowed Frankie G before he and Shaun erupted into laughter. It pretty much was. And so it went.
"I wanted to be a comedian when I was a kid," Frankie said. "Then I was like 'ahh, that's not reasonable.'" So he continued down the scholarly path, pursuing his PhD in the History of Medicine. He is currently a PhD candidate, but way back while working on his Masters at SF State, Frankie was invited to an improv show on campus. "So I went to this improv show; it was four hours long, I sat in the front row and didn't laugh once. It was that bad." When the improv club passed around a sign up sheet for new participants Frankie emphatically singed his name. "I was like, 'you know what? I'm funnier than that!'" and with that, a star was born. Frankie's quick success in the improv club lead him to snag a role in every show he auditioned for and introduced him to his friends and future collaborators, Nick, Bryan and Kyna.
Meanwhile in SoCal, Shaun was finishing up his studies at UC Santa Barbara. He called up his childhood friend, Bryan Seabert who was studying at SF State; they'd done some improv together in Ventura and decided it was as good as time as any to get back in the game. Shaun packed up and moved north. The stars were aligning. One night, after a few cocktails, the gang wound up at Sparky's and got to talking about where they wanted to go with their improv. They'd been participating in Improv Nation but realized there wasn't much opportunity for growth there. "We wanted to do more comedy, more improv," Frankie explained. "How do we do that? We formed our own group." Now's there an attitude I can get behind; if there's something you want to do and it doesn't already exist, create it. That's exactly what Narcissists Anonymous (NA) did, and that's pretty darn cool.
The guys told me about their first show. It commenced in Bryan's backyard in November 2010 and was lit exclusively by tiki torches. There they gathered to drink and perform improv in front of their friends. "It was fun-weird," Shaun described. "I would never do it again." But it got them started. From there they group moved on to a regular gig at 50 Mason St. The early days were a bit tough. With a 4 hour time slot to fill, midweek, the group would often call in a stand-up or two to do a few minutes and would fill the rest of time with their own material. It was here that they really learned the ins and outs of producing performing. After about a year of performing at 50 Mason they wanted more. They'd discovered EndGames Improv, who hosted a one and month improv competition called the Thunderdome. Here, two improv teams each performed for 20 minutes and then the audience took a vote on their favorite. The winning team secured a headlining spot in the next month's show. Around February of 2012 NA set a goal for themselves; to win the Thunderdome showdown within six months. They contacted EndGames, signed up for the next month's show and wiped the floor with the competition. That's right, they won their very first Thunderdome and were headlining within a matter of weeks."I mean, I don't wanna sound like a narcissist," Shaun said, "but we swept the floor with them." I guess some people just have it.
From there it was like a freight train. NA cast members went to as many shows as possible, getting to know the folks behind EndGames quite well, volunteering to help out with whatever possible whenever possible to get their faces out there and keep the shows going. When EndGames made their move to their new home at Stage Werx Theatre in the Mission, the Narcissists followed suit. Eventually, EndGames needed someone to fill a time slot on their Friday night schedule. NA's Frankie and Shaun took over producing the time slot in January 2013. The pair have been working to take the time slot in a different direction. "They have improv for their other shows," Frankie explained, "so let's have one show that's just weird stuff. Like, whatever."
"Exactly," Shaun mused. "Weird stuff."
So what does that mean exactly? Well traditionally, all comedy is not created equal. Spend one night at an open mic night and you're sure to hear some stand-up knock on improvisors. Usually these groups do not intermingle. Narcissist Anonymous are working to change that by bringing in a variety of acts from sketch groups, to stand ups to improvisors, to fill their prime Friday night time slot at Stage Werx. What that means for we the audience is that each week we're in for a new treat. This group is really working to bridge the gap between comedy communities and cracking people up in the process. "We're trying to bring the worlds together," Frankie said. Not a bad racket, if you ask me.
I told them about the numerous times I'd been to open-mic night's in SF at Rockit Room, Brain Wash Cafe and 800 Larkin, but how I'd always been too fearful to get on stage. They laughed at me and told me to just go for it. I felt encouraged.
In the middle of an anecdote about an NA cast member who is notoriously late to practice, Shaun said something that triggered Frankie to mutter "push-ups" under his breath. Shaun sighed, shook his head and slid out of our booth on to the the floor of Boogaloos cafe. In the middle of brunch he dropped to the ground and did 10 push-ups. Servers sidestepped him, never missing a beat. Other patrons lazily glanced over, most unimpressed. A father in the booth next to us noticed the commotion and clutched his child close to his chest as if the wildness of Shaun's mid-brunch push-ups was contagious. I clasped my hand over my mouth in shock. "What's going on?!" Ashley demanded. "We can't tell you," Frankie resonded, "unless you want to play also." "No!" we shouted in unison. Now we were really starting to attract attention.
The coffee was refilled as Shaun settled back in to the booth. We continued to discuss the groups forward momentum. Narcissists Anonymous has moved past just improv and are now writing and performing sketch comedy shows as well, which is what I had the pleasure of seeing at Stage Werx. Like many ensemble casts, each member contributes to the writing process. They share and build upon one another's ideas, use parts from successful improv scenes and write original material. This pool of different perspectives and experiences makes for some excellent sketch writing. As they continue their shows in the city, they're also looking to move onto the world wide wide, hoping to film some of their work for YouTube in the near future.
As we finished up our brunch I felt excited for the future of NA. Surely new shows, new material and lots more laughs await their audiences. We continued talking and laughing until a red-faced server approached our table and, just as Frankie's voice reached its crescendo, asked us to PLEASE use "inside voices." We all knew this was impossible.
Since our conversation last weekend, Narcissst Anonymous have been accepted to perform in the biggest improv festival in the world, the Del Close Marathon which is presented by the Upright Citizen Brigade (arguably the most notorious of improv groups and the starting place for some of the greats like Amy Poehler and Matt Walsh). They take the main stage on June 29.
If you'd like to catch these local hooligans in action you can do so by checking their performance schedule on their Facebook fan page. Or follow them on Twitter for daily quips and show details. You should probably see them now before they become über-famous.
For arts stories you won't read anywhere else, come to KQED's Arts and Culture desk.