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Wednesday, June 10, 2015

How Magic Smoking Monkey Is Taking on Its Biggest Target Yet: Game of Thrones

Posted By on Wed, Jun 10, 2015 at 8:00 AM

  • Photo by Steve Truesdell

I. Watch the Throne

Game of Thrones, like many figures in the entertainment biz, had to change its name before it really became successful. It began life as A Song of Ice and Fire, George R.R. Martin's trilogy-cum-septology of high-fantasy novels. Martin is often praised for bringing realism to the genre, a compliment that should probably be taken as tongue-in-cheek, considering his realistic world includes dragons, icicle zombies, giants and a 700-foot-high wall of ice that spans most of a continent. (So, you know, just like Green Bay.)

The books were solid sellers that spread mostly by word of mouth, eventually growing into a cult classic that crept into the gyre of mainstream readers by the time the fourth volume, A Feast of Crows, was published in 2005.

But when David Benioff and D.B. Weiss adapted the books into a serial drama for HBO, Martin's baby hit the big time. The fantasy-reading cognoscenti who lauded ASOIAF, as it's often short-handed in online forums, suddenly discovered that hipsters, housewives, chick-lit lovers and young-adult readers were ready to play in Martin's big back yard. All it took was a weekly TV series with massive production values, a beautiful cast and more blood and tits than your average grandmother could tolerate in one hour and et voilaGame of Thrones became a pop-culture juggernaut.

So it would follow that Magic Smoking Monkey, the comedy cult hidden within St. Louis Shakespeare's voluminous robes, would choose to perform a live-action, low-budget send-up of the show. MSM has in the past skewered Star Wars, lampooned Lord of the Rings and roundly mocked Kiss Meets the Phantom of the Park.

Game of Thrones is a big target now, and the big ones fall the hardest.

II. Building the Wall

Just how big is difficult to gauge from an outsider's perspective. The total number of Game of Thrones episodes currently stands at 48, each roughly an hour long. The five published novels total (more or less) 1.77 million words. There are literally hundreds of characters — thousands if you include all of Walder Frey's offspring. It's safe to say that Martin's tale of dynastic struggle requires a reader not only to recognize multiple names, but also to comprehend how each major character is connected to dozens of other people through filial and matrimonial bonds, as well as those of loyalty, enmity, amity or political expedience. And while the list of players is somewhat streamlined for television, the show still spends between $6 and $8 million per episode on cast and crew, costumes, props, special effects, fake blood and dragon insurance.

So, if you're going to parody a behemoth such as this, you damn well better have deep pockets and a solid grasp of who all those people (and dragons, and zombies) are, along with why they're doing what they're doing, before you even start writing your own version. Right?


Well, if you're smart and determined and perhaps just the slightest bit ambitious, you could limit yourself to just the first season of the show, and perhaps pull off a fairly convincing version with 17 actors playing 109 characters. Give it a respectable twenty full rehearsals and a budget one-tenth the size of what the average small theater company spends on a typical show, and perhaps you could still succeed, so long as you know your subject material intimately — like, Cersei and Jaime intimately (wink, wink).

Which is why it's surprising how very little Donna Northcott and Jaysen Cryer knew about Game of Thrones before they decided to direct and write, respectively, Magic Smoking Monkey's parody of Game of Thrones — a show they intended to mount with, yes, just seventeen actors, twenty rehearsals and a fraction of the usual theater-company budget.

"I'd taken on the challenge of writing this before seeing the actual show," admits Cryer. He adds helpfully, "And I have no knowledge of the books — but I know they exist."

"Oh, I hadn't seen it either," confirms Northcott.

There is a long silence — not long enough for Martin to finish the long-overdue sixth volume of the series, but pretty long — before the duo laugh innocently and Cryer continues the back-story.

"Way back when were rehearsing Harry Potter, I said to Donna, 'I'd really like to have a go at writing one of these.' I kept pitching her ideas, but it didn't go anywhere. And then one day she called and asked, 'What could you do with Game of Thrones?'"

"My girlfriend is a fan of the show, and she has HBO Go, so I started binge-watching them," says Cryer in his Cornish accent. "She was able to contextualize the shows for me, and I really got into it because the writing is so good. The actors, the production values, it all sucks you in. I've now seen everything up to the most recent episodes."

"I've only watched the first season," Northcott interjects. "You watched all of them?" It's a toss-up whether she's impressed with Cryer's enthusiasm or ashamed of his time-wasting.

Next: How the company is attempting to pull off the impossible.

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