No More Funny Business!

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

Wylder, the managing director, co-founded the group with her husband Bob Mitchell, who is now the artistic director and sometimes directs the shows. The couple has two kids, and she runs the office at Gourmet FoodWorks in University City while he teaches theater at Central Visual and Performing Arts High School.

Once the docs clear out, the NonProphets quickly rearrange the office's Nautilus machines -- Azzara refers to them as "gonad stretching" machines -- and the group launches into a frenzied rehearsal.

Josh Rohan, apparently recovered from his latest overnight shift, has brought in a new handwritten sketch called "Don't Get Madd IV," the latest in a series of Glad sandwich-bag commercial parodies. Almost every NonProphet writes sketches. (After each show, an audience member pulls a playing card that determines how many new sketches the group will have to perform the next week.)

Co-founder Bob Mitchell discovered many of the group's members while teaching improv at SIU Edwardsville
Jennifer Silverberg
Co-founder Bob Mitchell discovered many of the group's members while teaching improv at SIU Edwardsville
Matt Kahler as Christopher Walken in his "fancy bear" Halloween costume
Jennifer Silverberg
Matt Kahler as Christopher Walken in his "fancy bear" Halloween costume

In this one, Rohan plays Rush Limbaugh, unable to open his childproof Oxycontin bottle and growing increasingly furious. Upon being offered a plastic weekly pill sorter -- the kind with seven compartments, one for each day of the week -- he is delighted. "This device is so simple even a Negro quarterback could use it," he declares.

As the name implies, sketch comedy boils down to a series of short one-act plays that combine the spontaneous energy of improv with the topicality of stand-up. The genre dates back to the sixteenth-century Italian Commedia dell'Arte, traveling comedy shows that included stock characters and rehearsed bits. The most popular modern example would be Saturday Night Live, though most NonProphets are more likely to cite as influences edgier programs such as Mr. Show, or the renowned live work of the Chicago troupe Second City.

St. Louis has seen its share of local improv and sketch comedy groups over the years -- Parliament Cheez, Brand X and Mama's Pot Roast, to name just a few -- but none have maintained the enduring esteem of the NonProphets. It hasn't been easy. The ensemble's first show ran for only ten weeks at the St. Marcus Theatre in Fox Park, in the basement of a church. The cast featured seven performers, including Mitchell and Wylder of the current cast. A new incarnation appeared (and quickly disappeared) a year and a half later. In 2000 the group reunited for a run at the Midtown Art Center, which lasted exactly one show before the venue shut down.

Wylder admits that the ensemble's material was not exactly ready for prime time back then: "We had a Jar Jar Binks sketch, that's how bad it was. But we had a lot of people who wanted to perform, so we pushed on. The problem is that theater space that's affordable in St. Louis is beyond virtually impossible to find. Unless you have a sugar daddy or a generous benefactor."

Enter Tyson Blanquart. Blanquart, who studied improv with Mitchell at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, saved the day when he found the Hi-Pointe, convincing manager Lisa Andris to drop the Thursday-night band rotation earlier this year and pick up the NonProphets. The arrangement has been a big success for both parties. Hi-Pointe bartenders report strong drink sales, while the NonProphets are enjoying their longest run to date.

And their largest, as well. At sixteen members, the NonProphets are like a gangly teenager in mid-growth spurt, full of energy but unable to move without tripping over himself. Part of the problem, Wylder says, is the fickle nature of show business itself. Members keep telling her they plan to leave. She finds replacements. Then the departing members decide to stay.

Group members frequently miss a few shows. Matt Kahler and Sarah Cannon, for example, recently took time off to do the City Players' production of Steve Martin's The Underpants. Then, when their schedules allow, they return to the fold.

To some degree, Wylder says, the group is a victim of its own inclusive nature. Ken MacGregor left briefly when he was hit in the mouth with a softball, and Travis Estes was brought in as a temporary replacement. "Travis came in with two sketches he'd written already, and was so good. We were like, 'We can't kick him out!'"

But more actors means less stage time for each, and this has led to some discussion about the group splitting. Wylder has suggested having two shows per week, laying out a complex system involving a rotating cast schedule.

This seems unlikely to happen anytime soon, however. The group members feed off each other's manic energy, and their self-referential writing style has served them well. Their Halloween show featured 30 sketches and took the better part of three hours, an eternity in comedy years, especially considering much of the crowd had to be at work early the next morning. But group members show a distinctly punk-like disdain for such conventional concerns. "Ninety percent of the people who come like it, and the other ten percent can go fuck themselves," Azzara observes.

As the rehearsal winds down, Wylder rehearses a sketch in which she plays an overzealous mom driving with her teenage son, played by Estes. She asks him a series of embarrassing questions about his girlfriend, then brings out a bag of condoms and informs him that there's a beach towel in the back seat. "Sex is messy," she says. "Especially if this is Sheri's first time."

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