Friday, April 10, 2009

Interview: Stefan Lawrence of "Elephant Larry"

Sketch comedy in NYC is a vicious business. Many groups try to hack it but few survive. However, the hilarious comedy troupe Elephant Larry has not only survived but thrived in the New York comedy scene for over six years now.

Starting tomorrow, Elephant Larry presents its newest show at the People's Improve Theater called "Elephant Larry Presents Con Air" -- yes, that's right, an entire comedy act based around the 1997 Nicholas Cage action flick. As you can see, this group has one active imagination.

Stefan Lawrence of Elephant Larry dishes to Mr NYC readers about this most original of NYC comedy groups.

Tell us a little about Elephant Larry -- how you guys got together, how long you've been performing, and where?

Elephant Larry was formed in the winter of 2002, so we've been together for a good 7 years or so. We all met each other at Cornell, where we were members of the long-running sketch comedy group, the Skit-O-Phrenics. We all enjoyed working with each other so much that we decided to keep it going when we all moved down to New York City. At first, we mostly did shows in rented theaters in the East Village (the Kraine, the Theater Under St. Mark's, The Red Room) but now we do most of our performances at the PIT, which is right by Madison Square Garden. The bars nearby aren't as awesome, but it's a great theater that lets us have the space for free - always a plus.

There's a lot of sketch comedy groups out there. What makes Elephant Larry unique?

Well, first off, there aren't as many sketch groups now as there once were. Somewhere in the height of the sketch boom, round 2004 or so, we counted about 65 active groups, just in New York City. Now there are maybe two dozen or so. But that's beside the point. I think what makes Elephant Larry unique is our voice -- we've been together for long enough that we have a pretty established group sense of humor. We try to keep it crisp, keep it fast and keep it funny. Also, we try to do something different with every show. Our last show, we set entirely at a garbage dump. This new show is all about Con Air, the Nicholas Cage blockbuster.

Would you consider Elephant Larry's humor subversive, satirical, surreal, or something else?

We're not necessarily subversive -- I'll go with satirically surreal. We don't exactly have a message or a purpose really -- if it makes us laugh, and we think it'll make the audience laugh, we put it on stage. Lately, we've been concentrating a lot on pop culture satire, which I think makes sense, since we're now in an age of constant pop culture criticism, all the time. We do like taking everyday occurrences and twisting them to weird or dark places, which I guess is what you'd call surreal.

Who are your influences? Who would the members of Elephant Larry consider their comedy gods?

Strangely, in the group, we don't tend to do too much talking about comedy that we like. I think all of us had formative influences (like from high school or college) that made us want to do comedy. I don't think I'm speaking out of school if I say that we all love The State, Mr. Show, Monty Python, Kids in the Hall. The Muppet Show, at least for me, is in the mix there somewhere.

How does Elephant Larry go about writing a typical sketch? When do you know you've created something brilliant and when do you realize that it's just not working?

Most of our sketches are written by two of us. We started out doing a lot more solo writing, but I think this entire show was written by duos. It's just something that's evolved. A lot of our sketch ideas come about just by mishearing things -- one person will say something, somebody else was distracted or is hard of hearing, and then we spend fifteen minutes making fun of whatever ridiculous mangled phrase results. Seriously, it's embarrassing how many of our ideas come out of puns. For Con Air, it was slightly different. We really sat down and watched the movie over and over again until ideas presented themselves. Luckily, it's such a goofy movie that almost every line could be a sketch idea.

Once a sketch comes in, we have a really rigorous editing process -- most sketches will be read for the group, and then go through about two or three rounds of revisions, where we plus it up with new ideas and suggestions. And even then it's not guaranteed to get into a show. We overwrite for each show by at least double. So hopefully once we've found our favorites, our audience will like them too. Not to say that we don't have our clunkers (sometimes things that make us laugh end up just being inside jokes), but as we've gotten more experienced, our hit ratio has gone up.

You guys sometimes use video in your sketches and The New York Times called your work a "multimedia mix." What inspired you to include video and when do you decide to use it?

We let video happen organically in our shows. Sometimes, we have ideas that we write that just won't read on stage and, if we like the idea enough, we make the time to film it. Other times, video fills in the gaps between sketches, and other times still, like in this new Con Air show, we're using it to give people context for our sketches. We realize that not everybody will have seen Con Air fourteen times in the past two months like we have, so we're giving the audience the key moments they'll need to get the sketches. Plus, video serves as the backdrops for several of the big production numbers. So we use video in a lot of different ways. Also as a sketch comedy group in 2009, if you're not using video (if only online) you're some sort of ridiculous loser.

What are some of your favorite sketches and what have been your biggest audience pleasers?

I think our biggest stage hit is probably our Chanty Battle sketch, which is basically taking the rap battle world of Eight Mile and bringing it to the hard-living world of sailors doing sea chanties. We've done that sketch more often than any other sketch. Our biggest online hit as got to be Minesweeper The Movie, which imagines the game Minesweeper on Windows PCs as an epic war movie. That one's been seen over five million times, and remains our calling card to people who don't know us. We filmed that one with, who regularly feature us on their homepage.

Your newest show at the People's Improv Theater is based on the 1997 action movie Con Air. Tell us about this and whose brilliant idea it was.

You know, people keep asking us that, and I don't think we really know where this idea came from. When we were brainstorming ideas for theme shows, this one kept coming up, almost as a joke. But then we decided to commit to it. But the who and the why, no idea. All I know is that it's probably my favorite themed-show we've ever done. I'm pretty damn excited about it.

Elephant Larry is based in NYC. How does the city affect your work?

I think it affects our work in the same way it affects most people -- by being a fast, driven city, it makes us into more driven, passionate people. We work really hard and we're really committed to what we're doing. It's hard to imagine that being the case in anywhere but New York City. The other thing that's great about NYC, is that, as opposed to Los Angeles, we can put on a sketch comedy show and have it be taken seriously on its own, without it being seen as a stepping stone to something else. Here you can do art for art's sake. At the end of the day, we feel like we're a successful comedy group, because we're putting out sketch comedy that's on our terms, just because we want to. And this city has so many opportunities to show who you are and what you love to do.


To get more of a taste of Elephant Larry's shtick, check out their College video "Minesweeper: The Movie" that's had over 2.8 million hits on YouTube."Elephant Larry Presents Con Air" will be at PIT on April 11, 18, and 24th.

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