At 50 miles an hour, Wham City takes comedy tour on the road

Ben O’Brien’s stand-up includes all the standard bits. There are as many poop jokes as there are one-liners about farts.

But the 26-year-old also has an absurdist sensibility. On a recent Sunday, the skit he and three other performance artists rehearsed on the third floor of a sprawling Greenmount West loft didn’t poke fun at Christine O’Donnell, or other current event like the guys at Magooby's might have. 

Instead, it satirized Tim Allen’s seminal 1990s white-bread sitcom “Home Improvement.”

The term “performance artists” should provide the first clue that O’Brien and company aren’t your average comedians.

Mason Ross is a monologist, Dina Kelberman is a cartoonist and Caroline Marcantoni is a choreographer. They’re just a few of the members of Wham City, a Baltimore arts collective that has supported and cultivated experimental artists in all types of media since 2004. Dan Deacon, the experimental musician, is one of its founding and best-known members.

On Thursday, 11 Wham City members are kicking off their first comedy tour at the Bell Foundry and will then travel to nine cities in a vegetable oil-powered bus with a two-hour show of old and brand-new material.

Though most of Wham City’s events, like Whartscape and the Wham City Round Robin Tour, are music-centered, several of its members are also comics, or have developed pieces over the years that have a humorous bent. “Over time, as we’ve all gotten older, we’ve developed these acts. It’s the first time we can say, ‘Look at all of these things we can do,’” O’Brien said.

O’Brien, for instance, wrote a 15-minute monologue called “At the End of Infinite Rope,” where Ross plays Mister Dizisterstriss, a drunken professor who rails against the world collapsing around him.

It sounds grim, but it’s the kind of uncomfortable humor the troupe has made its specialty.

Adam Endres perfected a character called Egg Schrader who delivers his stand-up with a series of tacky egg-related puns (“I’m so eggcited to see you!”). And April Camlin performs a ventriloquist act.

When O’Brien, Ross and Deacon completed a successful tour earlier this year at several local venues, such as the Hexagon Space, they decided to take all the comics in the collective on tour.

It would also allow them to dispel the notion that the collective is just about music.

“There’s been more ambition to have a presence that isn’t just music,” O’Brien said. “This is plays and comedy. It’s a bunch of stuff.”

The show they’ll take on the road will be two hours, consisting of 18 to 22 skits that will include slapstick and uncomfortable humor. Among the bits: Cartoonist Kelberman will do a video animation of one of her comics and Dan Deacon will do a follow-up to the “Drinking out of Cups” video he made with musician Liam Lynch. Local band the Creepers will also tag along.

Though the comics have thought about it for a year, plans for the tour solidified only a month ago, when O’Brien started booking venues. The 11 members will hit 250-seat venues in cities like Chicago, New York and Cleveland, slowly making their way on a vegetable oil-powered bus.

Emphasis on 'slow.' The bus, which is owned by Deacon, can travel 50 mph and only for 500 miles a trip.

A week before the tour kicks off, nine of the tour’s players were at the Annex rehearsing the opening and closing skits of the show for the first time. They were confined to a colorful, seldom-used stage in the middle of the chilly, junk-littered loft where O’Brien and eight others live.

Scripts in hand, Ross directed them as they went through the lines, quiet enough that they didn’t disturb the fat cat making its way through the clutter or the person sleeping on a nearby couch under a grimy quilt.

Kelberman played dead on the floor, suppressing a laugh. “Are you going to laugh during every performance?” Ross asked her. “I think I will have to get really stoned,” she replied, jokingly.

Not many comics would glean fresh material out of a decade-old sitcom that probably wasn’t too transgressive to begin with. But the comics like bastardizing a piece of popular culture to suit their purposes.

“‘Home Improvement’ is exactly five minutes of a two hour-long show that’s comprised of the cheapest jokes around,” Kelberman said. “There’s no way someone wouldn’t get them.”

If you go:

The Wham City comedy tour will open Thursday, November 11, at the Bell Foundry, 1539 N. Calvert St. All ages welcome, though there might be nudity. Doors open at 8 p.m. Tickets, $5, are sold at the door. 

Photo: Mason Ross, Ben O'Brien and co. at The Annex in October (Gabe Dinsmoor/Baltimore Sun)

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