Bananas in pyjamas
Is it comedy, improv, mime? This double act from America is hard to define, but so easy to laugh at, and it has Brian Logan in stitches
Sunday 24 July 2011
What are you looking to see on the Edinburgh Fringe? A play? A comedy show? Or something more left field – improv, physical theatre, clown or mime?
In which case, prepare for good news: in this year's best value – if unofficial – special offer, all the above are available for the price of one ticket. The act is The Pajama Men, the hottest twosome in world comedy. (Oh, and world mime, clown, etc.) Mark Chavez and Shenoah Allen aren't just one of the funniest acts in Edinburgh this year, they are – thanks to this fusion of unrelated comic styles – the most indescribable, too.
They know as much. In conversation, you'll get plenty out of Chavez and Allen – reminiscences of their fledgling careers in Albuquerque, New Mexico; insights into the process whereby their shows come together – but you won't get promotional soundbites. The Pajama Men are no better than anyone else at pinning down what they do. But whatever it is, it works. In their previous guise as Sabotage, they were Perrier Award-nominated on the Fringe in 2004. As the Pajama Men, their show Versus v Versus won the Barry Award at the Melbourne Comedy Festival, and its follow-up, 2009's Last Stand to Reason, five-starred by critics on its debut, became the best-selling show ever at Soho Theatre, London.
Last month, their new offering, In the Middle of No One, sold out three weeks at the same venue. Now coming to Edinburgh, it's as good an illustration as any of The Pajama Men's shtick. It is, in the loosest sense, a comic play starring the pyjama-clad Chavez and Allen. They play all the characters – stiff upper-lipped explorers, aliens with talking foreheads, randy Amazonian birdlife – zipping between each in a rapid-fire sequence of scenes. And they do so without props, a set, blackouts – or any support except for musician Kevin Hume, underscoring sweetly stage-left. The plot is loopy and engaging – but less integral to the show's appeal than Chavez and Allen's dotty wordplay and their digressions into mindbending conceptual comedy. (Sample one-liner: "I never had children of my own. It skips a generation in my family.") Not to mention their cast of outré characters, each brought to life with minutely disciplined physical skill.
It's the characters that come first, says Chavez. "We love doing voices and pulling faces. When you find a good character, it does the work for you. We write through the characters." Both are (in Chavez's words) "theatre people who moved into comedy". Says Allen: "we want people to leave our shows going 'there was something theatrical and exciting about that, that I don't expect from a comedy show'." He credits drama school with his taste for larger-than-life roles. "I remember having the phrase 'truth in size' drummed into me – which means doing characters that are as big as you can make them, but still honest. I hung on to that."
Just as striking is their teamwork: it's no surprise to learn they grew up together. In one of their funniest on-stage jokes, in Last Stand to Reason, Allen's character says "We know each other so well, we finish each other's ...", and Chavez's character chimes in with: "sandwiches". But the point holds: they dovetail magically. "When we started working together," says Chavez, "there wasn't a lot of explaining to do. We knew immediately why certain things were funny. Or why [there were] certain things we would never use." The bond persists off stage: in conversation, they have the same laconic rhythm, wariness of pretention and no need to contradict or clarify what the other says.
The pair met in an improvisation troupe in Albuquerque, and improv is still key to what they do. Their shows are "10 to 15 per cent" different from one night to the next, says Allen. They're determined never to be stale or mechanical. Chavez has no time for conventional sketch shows "with costumes and sets and blackouts" and asks: "Why would we have a long set-up if the pay-off isn't good enough? And if something looks familiar, we don't do it. There's a lot of stand-up out there about sports and periods and stuff like that. I find that boring. Sometimes I think comedy isn't even funny any more, it's just people talking in a certain rhythm."
But their style is also a product of their upbringing in "a weird little town in the desert," says Allen, "where there wasn't really anything going on." Growing up starved of outside influences, the pair found inspiration "not from other comics, but from the people around us and their idiosyncrasies." That explains much – but so too does Chavez's enthusiasm for Warner Brothers cartoons ("Bugs Bunny and stuff") and the Naked Gun movies. Like the latter, The Pajama Men find daft humour in taking figurative speech literally. Like the former, their shows can head off at any moment in any elastic-limbed, dynamite-kabooming, unconstrained-by-physics direction.
That's partly why Chavez and Allen have had so many offers of kids' TV. "It's like, 'you guys are physical and crazy and imaginative. Do a kids' show!'," says Chavez – as if adults aren't interested in freewheeling imaginations. That said, their live work won't flit easily to telly. "It is proving to be problematic," Allen admits. "Producers look at our show and go, 'it's full of mime' and all this stuff that would never succeed. So it's up to us to figure out the right key to that lock."
It's not a bad problem to have, though, for a duo who five years ago were asking themselves "where can we go to perform so we can afford our rent?," Chavez recalls. "And nowadays," he says, with an ironic smile, "we don't have to pay rent, because we're travelling so much." Last Stand to Reason toured the world for 18 months. "Right now," he says matter of factly, "I haven't seen my parents in a long time." And "when it comes to romance," says Allen, "we've both had a lot of relationships fall apart."
"What we put on stage," says Chavez, in a final bid to pin the act down, "is our personalities. We're trying to translate what's going on in our brain all the time, and put it on stage. We never switch off. How we deal with good and bad situations, there's always an edge of comedy to it." And this – collapsing love lives notwithstanding – is a good situation. "We could die tomorrow," says Chavez. "We could fizzle out. But right now, I'm really enjoying what we're doing."
The Pajama Men, Assembly Hall, Edinburgh (0131 623 3030), 4-29 Aug
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