Baltimore's Wham City is known for organizing an experimental art festival that became one of the city's premiere music events in the mid-2000s.
When Ben O'Brien joined in 2008 with a background in video and performance art, he found that many of the performers were involved with some type of comedic performance, from loud, bizarre acts between bands at music shows to stand-up and experimental theater.
O'Brien and co-founding musician Dan Deacon decided to combine all the acts into one, dubbing it the Wham City Comedy Tour. The first one had 11 people traveling in a school bus powered by vegetable oil and was, according to O'Brien, a fun and insane experience.
Soon, O'Brien began managing and booking tours with a rotating cast of performers. Around the time they started making videos for Adult Swim, the adult cartoon show, the group had crystallized into O'Brien, Robby Rackleff, Alan Resnick and Cricket Arrison.
Ahead of Wham City Comedy bringing its absurdist brand of crazy to Gallery 5, Style spoke with O'Brien about what to expect and the secret to making people laugh.
Style: How would you define the group's brand of humor?
O'Brien: It's a variety of presentational style performances, meaning we always acknowledge the existence of the crowd and often include them in our shenanigans. It's been described in the past with words such as unpredictable, terrifying and absurd. I'd just call it nice and fun and cool. Please sit in the front row.
Were you the funny kid in school?
I was a funny kid but not the funny kid. I was sensitive and often felt inhibited by low self-esteem, probably until after college, though I did perform here and there. I think performance has always been a way for me to get out of my head. It forces you to be present and in the moment, but horrified and out of the moment every second leading up to it. Maybe there's something about the drama of that I enjoy. This literally just reminded me that I have to return a call from my therapist.
Do you find that audiences are different?
All audiences are great, but there are definitely cities where audiences are more inhibited and quieter and cities like Chicago where the audiences are almost always raucous and the loudest, which I enjoy. Richmond is consistently one of our best shows. I'm not just saying that. Richmond was the first place we had a fan base outside of Baltimore and we really don't know why, but thank you, thank you, thank you.
Describe mainstream 2018 comedy versus Wham City Comedy in 2018.
Mainstream comedy for the past few years has been a battle between the old guard and the new — respectability politics versus "I can say anything because it's comedy." While at the same time, the idea of mainstream comedy is less and less relevant because of Twitter, YouTube and especially podcasts. We started out in an art scene, blissfully ignorant of the comedy world and focused on just doing our own thing. I don't think we've ever liked or fit very well into the genre and the word comedy makes us a little uncomfortable deep down in our hearts.
Yes, we do realize that the word's in our name.
What's the secret to making people laugh?
With an intention to capture realness in your performance, rather than obsess over making people laugh. When you do that, the performance feels surprising and the laughter feels like a side effect. Robby takes this idea to the ultimate degree sometimes, talking to the audience for 10 minutes with no laughter, only intensity. Then suddenly, it all comes into focus and the audience erupts in laughter for the rest of it. That said, Robby will also sometimes go up and make fart noises and tell the audience he's Sonic the Hedgehog.
Has your Adult Swim affiliation changed your focus?
I would say mostly no, but also definitely yes. The work we're doing with the tours has been on a certain spectrum since the beginning and has not changed in kind, only by degree. So our focus hasn't changed but more people come to our shows by finding us through our Adult Swim and IFC work, which keeps touring a viable option for us.
Why should people go to this show?
We're poor, middle-aged artists and we desperately need money and power. Not to take over the world, just to eat, pay rent and keep making art. This is, very sadly, the only way we know how to get those things. We're too old at this point to turn the ship around. Coming to see us is like going to a nursing home and playing gin rummy with an elderly, childless widow.
You should come to our show if you're a merciful person with a shred of decency in your heart. S
Wham City Comedy takes place May 6 at Gallery 5, 200 W. Marshall St. Doors open at 8 p.m. $8 in advance and $10 at the door. Tickets available at Steady Sounds and Eventbrite. gallery5.org.