No More Funny Business!

Local sketch comedy troupe the NonProphets are in it for the laughs

It's game seven of the American League Championship Series. The Yankees and Red Sox are tied at five in the ninth inning. And yet the ground floor of the Hi-Pointe bar, at the junction of McCausland and Clayton avenues, is nearly empty on this recent Thursday night, spotted only by a few middle-aged sports fans.

The real action is upstairs, where the standing-room-only crowd could care less about baseball. They've come to see the reigning kings of sketch comedy in St. Louis. Founded seven years ago, the NonProphets have grown from a small ensemble to a rowdy collective of sixteen. For the past eight months, the troupe's irreverent weekly show, "The Militant Propaganda Bingo Machine," has been drawing ever-larger crowds to the Hi-Pointe.

Admission, determined by picking an overturned playing card off a table when you walk in, runs from five bucks (if you draw a spade) to eight (for a diamond). This buys you a personalized BINGO card with 24 spaces corresponding to the NonProphets' 24 sketches. Group members have no idea what order they'll perform their sketches in -- that's determined by the audience member who screams out his or her preferred number the loudest. The first person to hit BINGO scores a free drink from the bar.

Despite the NonProphets' expanding numbers, co-founder Kirsten Wylder hopes to keep the group intimate
Jennifer Silverberg
Despite the NonProphets' expanding numbers, co-founder Kirsten Wylder hopes to keep the group intimate
Equity actor Travis Estes never puts the NonProphets number two
Jennifer Silverberg
Equity actor Travis Estes never puts the NonProphets number two

The room is warm -- almost sticky -- tonight, though a breeze from the opened windows cuts the heat and the smell of stale cigarettes. A handwritten placard over the bar offers a drink called "Wreck Your Fuck'n Car." Audience and cast members alike line up for bottles of PBR and Newcastle. Meanwhile, Blaise Azzara, the NonProphets' resident tunesmith, climbs atop a small black stage at the very back of the long, rectangular room and plops himself down on a folding chair. With his thick build and dark features, Azzara specializes in tough-guy characters like Joey Gamboni, a reformed mafioso who writes obscene children's stories. Before he can so much as tune his guitar, a crowd member yells out "Twatley's!" at the top of his lungs.

"Simmer down, chap," Azzara says. "I'm gonna play it." He gives an abortive, out-of-tune strum and shrugs. "It's gotta be out of tune or it wouldn't be Twatley's." With that, he sings softly:

You made it through the day

Now you're almost on your way

All you need is a little buddy to pull you

through the gray

Sit on down and smear it on, in crunchy

or in creamy

With Twatley's peanut butter, life with kitty is so dreamy

Yes, Twatley's peanut butter, it just spreads right on so nice

Plus it's 100 percent natural, so don't you worry 'bout no crabs or lice.

About 60 people have come out tonight, a diverse crowd that includes more than a smattering of tattoos, as well as a few business suits. The most curious pair is an elderly couple. He has carefully combed hair and a breast pocket brimming over with pens. She has a white sweater folded politely in her lap. As they do every week, the pair sings along loudly and clearly:

It's Twatley's, yeah, Twatley's

So much better than just a snack.

It's an aphrodisiac to make your cat munch on your snatch.

Twatley's, yeah, Twatley's.

Twatley's, fuck yeah, it's Twatley's.

Good for your cat

And fuckin' great for your snatch!

The burst of applause that follows Azzara's final verse is about all the reward he'll receive tonight. Although he and the rest of the NonProphets spend hours preparing for each show, they don't make any money from these gigs. For some, the payoff is simply the chance to get their comedy rocks off. For others, the dream is to break into the comedic acting big-time, using the NonProphets as a stepping stone. What they all share is the same basic worldview: Sketch comedy is their reality. It's the day jobs they consider play-acting.

Setting: Huck's gas station on Lindbergh, just north of I-270 and across the street from a much more dapper QuikTrip. Huck's features yellow and purple signs above the gas pumps advertising knives, two for $15, and milk for $2.59.

Time: Sunday, shortly before midnight.

Dramatis Personae: *Josh Rohan, 24, a husky, soul-patched NonProphet, famous for his roles as Becky the Carpet Queen, Hurricane Fabian and anything else that requires a display of irrational exuberance. Rohan, who works the graveyard shift Friday through Monday, wears a wrinkled denim shirt and a half-blue, half-red Cardinals cap.

*Ben Westhoff, who flubbed his lines in the 1988 Saint Anthony Park United Church of Christ Christmas pageant and has had no subsequent acting experience.

*Selected customers.

Ben enters with notebook.

Ben: I've just got a couple questions, Mr. Rohan.

Josh: It's Josh, man. Call me Josh.

Ben: Okay. Sure. Josh, how'd you get involved --

Josh: (Barking into microphone near his register) Go ahead on pump three. (To Ben) Sorry, what were you saying?

Ben: The NonProphets --

Josh: By the way, feel free to grab some coffee or soda. (Gesturing towards the fountain machines) It's all free. (Takes a gulp of his soda) I swear to God I've put on so much weight. I've got to cut out the Mountain Dew.

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