The turning point for the Wham City Comedy Tour came at a gig in Buffalo, N.Y. And, in typical Wham City fashion, it took some unexpected chaos and quick improvisation to reach it.
On Monday, the tour — which consists of six comedians from the city's experimental arts collective Wham City and a director, all traveling the Northeast and Midwest in a white van for about three weeks this month — played an arts gallery/performance space called the Vault. In the middle of the group's set, a computer malfunctioned and threatened to derail the show, which relies a lot on projection screens and laptops.
The show appeared doomed until Wham City comedian Robby Rackleff grabbed a simple prop — a stick — and came up with an impromptu bit that turned the show around. It saved the day — and, in the process, proved the Comedy Tour could handle any situation.
"We talked to people afterward, and they didn't even know about the issues" with the computer, tour organizer and comedian Ben O'Brien said. "It felt like us hitting a new level."
This is the third national outing for the comedy tour, which stops at Baltimore's Area 405 on Thursday. But this year's trek operates differently from past tours. For one, a tour director has been brought on — Lola Pierson, 30, a friend of the collective but not a member — to streamline and structure the show. As a Towson graduate student pursuing her master's degree in theater, Pierson says she brings an "outside eye" to the show.
O'Brien and Dan Deacon, the electronic musician who is also Wham City's most prominent member, created the tour three years ago. While Wham City was initially known for music and art, O'Brien says the goal has always been to provide a platform for the group's aspiring comics.
"When I started the tour, I was excited because it was an aspect of our collective that's always been the most exciting to me," said O'Brien, 28.
O'Brien says incorporating a director, as well as the group's overall refinement of its brand of comedy, has made this the strongest tour yet.
"We have a much tighter show," O'Brien said. "Everyone that's been on the tour for the past few years is getting tight in their aesthetic and style."
The performers are pushing themselves in new ways. Alan Resnick, a 26-year-old Wham City member who has performed on all of the tours, says the most challenging part of the night is also the most rewarding. He says pieces written by Dina Kelberman, a founding Wham City member and comedian, have forced performers out of their comfort zones. They started out "pretty rough," Resnick said, but the bits have improved through notes and critiques the members share with each other every day in the van.
"Dina has written these monologues that are very challenging for us because they are very actor-ly," Resnick said. "They're not outright funny. They're more subtle. They have a weird use of language. ... It's been really satisfying to see them grow each night."
"Actor-ly" bits and the addition of a director might alarm longtime fans of the collective. Is Wham City going mainstream? Has it lost its trademark zany edge?
No, say the members. The Wham City Comedy Tour is still an underground, DIY comedy troupe, and one that had one of its best shows this tour in a Rochester, N.Y., living room in front of 40 people. Each date, they riff on relatable topics — including technology and video games (Rackleff skewers "Skyrim" fans) — but they deliver jokes in off-kilter ways, such as homemade YouTube video tutorials.
It helps that there are no egos clashing on tour, Pierson said. Each member encourages constructive feedback from her and the other performers, in an effort to push the show to its funniest limits.
"Anything I can do to make their work better, they're completely open to," Pierson said. "It's not like, 'Lola doesn't get comedy because she's not a comedy person.' They just want their work to be as good as it possibly can be."
So far, it's paid off. Resnick said audiences seem "genuinely excited to see weird comedy" not headlined by A-list stars.
"People who like comedy and seek it out, they get mainstream stand-up and improv, and [those are] kind of the only options," Resnick said. "Our show is much weirder than what is easily accessible, especially in small towns. People are being very grateful. We went to Toronto, and it seemed like they were much more open to bizarre humor."
Wham City has been associated with bizarre since its creation in 2004. But what began as a group of college graduates creating outsider art has become a brand with greater ambitions, according to O'Brien.
"We're kind of all adults now," he said. "Instead of throwing parties and destroying rooms, we all have our own businesses now. ... I'm almost 30. You start to realize, 'I have to plan to do this when I'm 35, 40.' And it's like, 'What will it look like?' "
But that doesn't mean the comedy tour members are praying for a major breakthrough that may never come.
"My feet are on the ground," O'Brien said. "I really do believe in this tour and really think we're doing something unique. Something could happen, but I'm not waiting around for it. I'm not waiting for a big break or to get discovered."
Members sound so at ease and confident in the show, especially after the problem-filled Buffalo date, that they say the performance itself is fulfilling enough.
"My goal is to make something fun for an hour and a half in one room in one city every day that's worth between $5 and $8," O'Brien said.
If you go
The Wham City Comedy Tour performs Thursday at Area 405, 405 E. Oliver St. in Greenmount West. Baltimore music acts the Creepers and Mickey Freeland will also perform. Doors open at 7:30 p.m. Tickets will be on a sliding scale between $5-$10. Call 410-528-1968 or go to whamcity.com.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun