There’s a fine line between heckling and helping, and it’s drawn via invitation.
A shout from the audience? Unwarranted. No, thank you. You don’t have a microphone or a spotlight on you, nor audience members paying to see you, so please, do keep your comments to yourself. Replace those word noises with giggles and laughs and we’re all happy. Some shows deflect any negative impulse by incorporating feedback into their very structure, either from the host or from other performers. Think of The Benson Interruption on Comedy Central or in theaters, where Doug Benson sat onstage with microphone still in hand while his guests told jokes or stories. MST3K made it all about the performers enhancing sub-par movies with top-notch riffing.
Now picture this. Or, rather: Picture This!
Hosted and co-created by Brandie Posey (co-host of the Lady to Lady podcast) with Sam Varela, Picture This! features animators and cartoonists on the side of the stage drawing up art on an overhead projector that accompanies, illustrates or comments upon what the stand-up comedian is saying in real time. Or not, even? Picture This! began in Los Angeles in 2012 and since has franchised monthly or regular shows in New York City, San Francisco and Portland, Ore. — traveled to Melbourne’s International Comedy Festival in 2013 and hit five different comedy festivals in 2015.
“This is a super cool show, I’m proud to be a part of it,” Jay Larson said after his performance last weekend at SFSketchfest.
A special RIOT LA festival edition of Picture This! on Sunday will feature comedy by Ron Funches, Eddie Pepitone, Guy Branum, Phoebe Robinson, Chris Garcia and The Puterbaugh Sisters, paired up with the likes of animators Mike Hollingsworth (BoJack Horseman), Mike Mayfield (Mr. Pickles), Jenny Fine, Freddy Christy, Aaron Long, Elizabeth McMahill and Colin Heck.
The animators and the stand-ups are not always on the same page, nor the same pacing.
Amy Miller’s animator couldn’t seem to keep up with her, despite her giving elaborately detailed descriptions of what she was wearing to set up a joke — which led to Miller cracking wise at the animator’s expense — while “Hombre McSteez” (Marty Cooper) quickly drew up a severed foot that Bucky Sinister was wondering about that had been recently found along the Bay Area’s BART lines. The rest of Sinister’s set seemed tailor-made for animation. Anna Seregina, after describing one hell gig that put her in a painful corporate party alongside a clogging troupe of men who look like Criss Angel, turned to see what Sean Keeton had drawn. “You’re not wrong!” Seregina replied. Earlier in her set, she even made requests of Keeton to illuminate her imagined older self: “Can I get a lover behind me breathing? Perfect!”
Jason and Randy Sklar, whose wonder twin powers already seem wonderfully activated, truly shone as they called back to a previous joke about relative levels of fame to explore the premise of people who may not quite recognize Jesus Christ — then turning to see what their animator had drawn, and discovering themselves high on the cross, too. Together.
“Even in crucifixion we only get one cross?!” Randy Sklar quipped. “In death, can’t we get our own thing?”
You see but don’t hear the animators. They’re usually off to the side, or behind a curtain.
“The illustrators hiding actually came from our first animators, who said they would only do the show if they could be hidden so they weren’t held accountable for the things they’d be drawing,” Varela told The Comic’s Comic. “Since then we’re a little more flexible on it depending on our group of animators and what the venues will allow but generally it seems the animators are more comfortable behind the scenes, so to speak.”
The concept itself, though, originated with the illustrators.
Posey told The Comic’s Comic that Titmouse Inc. (makers of cartoons and more, including Black Dynamite; China, IL; Metalocalypse; Motorcity; Randy Cunningham; Superjail!; The Venture Brothers) used to do a slightly similar monthly show called The Tongue & Pencil. After they stopped, she approached them about modifying the concept and carrying it forward.
“Our first year we ran it at The Little Modern, a now defunct black box theatre in Hollywood, Posey told me. “Our head animator at the time was an artist named Grif Kimmons (China IL), who works for Titmouse. After a year, he handed over the reigns to our current guys, Mike Mayfield (Mr. Pickles) & Mike Hollingsworth (BoJack Horseman) and have hopped around venues a few times in L.A. — The Nerdist Theatre, The Steve Allen Theatre, The Satellite, and now our home is The Virgil.”
Mayfield and Hollingsworth sometimes travel with the show, too, to help first-time participating animators orient to drawing for a live audience and live-wire comedians.
Posey said hosting Picture This! has prompted her to riff more, and literally see old jokes from new perspectives.
“Our animators are joke-tellers, too, they just process the same bits visually versus verbally,” she said. “It’s always so cool to see your bit from a different angle you hadn’t thought to explore! I always feel like I’m dealing with the most talented heckler in the room on the show — once you surrender yourself to the idea that you’ll never be as dynamic as the giant dick being drawn behind you, you get to really play around. It takes the ego out of stand-up, which I’ve always thought is the death of good comedy anyway.”
The dynamic between comedian and illustrator can be push and pull, but when it works, they’re ultimately moving in the same direction.
Posey described it to me as driving while allowing someone else to also have his or her hands on the wheel. She added: “The sweet spot for me is when the show feels like 30% anarchy.”
Here’s another percentage for you to consider, though, whether you’re a performer or an audience member: “Every show is 100% unique – even if I use the same bit, whoever my artist is will interpret it differently, which leads me in different tangents, and it turns into a completely different set than last time,” Posey said. “I love that about it so much.”