I am talking with the Defiant Thomas Brothers and they are all of those things. They are Thomases, being Seth Thomas and Paul Thomas. They are brothers in comedy, creativity and fame, if not genetics. They are also defying my terrier-like attempts to get them to spill the secrets of their magic.
There has to be a secret to success like theirs. Between 2001 and 2005, Paul and Seth went from bonding backstage at Second City to forming the Defiant Thomas Brothers to creating a show that ran for eighty consecutive weeks in Chicago to soaring to international acclaim at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe and at the 2005 U.S. Comedy Arts Festival in Aspen where they won the award for best sketch group and were promptly signed by the William Morris Agency. Shortly after, they were named “Sketch Artists of the Year” at the Chicago Improv Festival.
In 2006 they broke up. Seth, a talented actor and hip hop artist, pursued theater and music. Paul continued his rise in sketch, stand-up and filmmaking and as the front man of one of my favorite bands of all time, post-grunge-acoustic comic rockers, Lola Balatro.
Although Seth and Paul’s first partnership dissolved, the magic and mystique never did. On August 11, they announced their reunion and a new Defiant Thomas Brothers show to debut on September 4 at Second City (details below). They’ve written new material, but are also revisiting their popular classics.
Chicago newspapers and comedy sites immediately picked up the news. Chicago Tribune theater critic Chris Jones wrote, “ …they could have well rivaled Key and Peele, I have long thought, especially since they were similarly formidable writers.” Second City improv guru Rachael Mason tweeted, “This is fucking huge.”
If you’re wondering about the name “Defiant Thomas Brothers,” they took it, well, from their last name, but also from the movie The Defiant Ones, starring Tony Curtis and Sidney Poitier (or Robert Urich and Carl Weathers, depending on which Thomas Brother you ask) as chain gang escapees forced to work together after a daring escape.
Like their cine-namesakes, the Defiant Thomas Brothers are known for daring escapes, mainly from artifice and pretense and anything else people get too serious about and forget to question. But their comedy is not about grand statements of social outrage. It’s about real life and what happens to the humans who have to grapple with it. As they say, they are proud to “land laughs all along the sensitivity spectrum.”
And their magic? It is magic, but unlike magicians with their sleight of hand, the Thomas Brothers’ comedy is no illusion. As we spoke, it became clear that comic alchemy can’t always be defined. It just is. The secret of their chemistry, rave reviews and success is simply that it’s what happens when stars – two stars, in this case – align.
Paul and Seth kindly spoke with me by phone about their past, their reunion, the behind-the-scenes and their mission to defeat political correctness.
Q: What drew you to comedy?
Seth: I did a lot of theater growing up. I was in my first play when I was six and minored in theater in college. When I moved to Chicago, I realized that Second City was here and comedy seemed more attractive because it was creating your own material and finding your own voice. I always enjoyed comedic pieces more than tragic pieces in theater, so I chose the comedy over the tragedy.
Paul: I think I’m hardwired that way. It just took me a long time to figure out. Where I grew up it wasn’t an option. I’m sure I would have taken that path if I’d known it existed.
Q: Who or what inspired you?
Seth: If I have an idol, it’s Eddie Murphy, but there wasn’t anyone where I was like, “Oh, I want to do what he’s doing.” It wasn’t anything like that. Performing is my skill set. In my heart, I believe I was born to entertain. So it was a natural progression. I’ve done a lot of things and nothing felt as good as comedy. I started taking classes and performing and knew this is where I needed to be.
Paul: For me, it was once I started working a desk job. When you’re in school, you think “I’ll get this degree and that [corporate] job.” Everything looks cool. Then you start working and learn, “Oh, that’s what this is?” The things that looked good on paper turn out not to have the same intrinsic reward of doing something like [comedy].
Q: How did you meet and when did you know you wanted to work together?
Seth: I’d say 2001. It was as early as Second City’s [Conservatory] Level 2…
Paul: … during a variety show in Second City Outreach. It was a cast of twenty-eight. I was the token white guy.
Seth: With a cast that size, there’s a lot of downtime back stage. In a room full of comedians, there are jokes and comments and after a while you gravitate towards certain people. By week three, I would look forward to seeing Paul. We had the same sensibilities.
Paul: It was also like, “Here’s our name. We’re a group.”
Q: Are you bringing back material from your first run for your current show?
Paul: We broke everything down to decide what holds up. We think everything did. We also have a lot of new things. But a lot of that is also writing on top of what we had before, breaking it down and rebuilding. We have to re-introduce ourselves to people. Luckily, we have tapes of everything. It’s been a process of rediscovery for us, also.
Q: It sounds like a lot of fun.
Paul: It is. With another ten years of wisdom as performers and experience with more types of comedy, we see we missed a lot of opportunities for laughs that we definitely want to revisit.
Q: Going back to your former material, how did you perfect the timing and delivery of “drug dealer street names”?
Seth: First thing, “drug dealer street names” is not a name we gave it. Somebody, whoever posted the video, named it that and it kind of stuck. If you listen to the routine, only three of the people sell drugs. But it began simply by saying we wanted to tip our hats to the greatest two-man comedy team, Abbott and Costello.
Paul: There are a couple of differences between that sketch and everything else. Typically, we don’t sit down and type a scene. First, we work out the beats and give it some reps on stage. But with this one, we had to have it written before we committed it to memory. If you change it after you’ve committed it to memory it jams up your wires pretty bad.
Seth: Every term had to sound like a name and it was getting your nouns and verbs, proper subjects, proper predicates …
Paul: Making sure everything matched as much as we could.
Q: I’d be embarrassed to tell you how very many times I’ve watched it. It’s beautiful how it fits together. How long did it take you to write?
Seth: Six months.
Q: After you won the top award at Aspen, what was the next year like? And if it’s okay for me to ask, why did you break up?
Paul: The answer to the second question is that’s for us. If you want a quote, I’ll say we couldn’t agree on the same MySpace background.
Seth: The year after Aspen was mostly sitting around waiting. We got signed with an agency. We did our round of pitches and then it was just a waiting game. It was very not glamorous.
Paul: Yeah, a lot of it was anticlimactic because we had been running for all these weeks on our own, begging people to come out and then the run was done. That’s when people started asking, “When are you doing your show?” And you go, “Remember we ran for eighty weeks and I emailed you?”
Paul: We definitely had a chip on our shoulders, too, for better or for worse, but I think we kind of earned that chip where we were asking people to come … We did get opportunities from it, but that was our ethos. We were going to keep honing it and running it, rain or shine. We ran a lot of shows for single digit people and we did one for one person.
It gives you a sense of confidence. We’re not relying on having a hundred people there. But if there’s one person for this opening night, I probably will cry a little bit.
Q: How did you guys decide to get back together now?
Seth: MySpace just played out.
Paul: I agree with that. Over the last five years, we’ve been approached but we were busy with other projects and it never made sense. This time it made sense.
Seth: There’s an underlining theme to the Defiant Thomas Brothers, Teme. It’s just organic. Like how we got together is very organic and how the show came about and it’s the same with ending and with the re-birth of everything.
I think I speak for both of us when I say we believe in vibe and universe and stuff like that. When it feels right it happens. I can’t even quite think of how we made the decision to begin. It was just organic. Before I knew it, we were looking for a practice space.
Paul: His answer is way better than mine.
Q: So what is your key to successful sketch writing?
Seth: Believing that it can work.
Paul: We don’t leave ideas on the floor. If it’s there we believe there’s something there. You figure out the beats of the scene and you don’t give up on it. You try every angle and you push it and push it.
If we do leave something on the floor, it’s not that it wasn’t funny. It just didn’t fit us. It’s often stuff that wasn’t grounded, that had a fantastical element to it. You realize your style after a little bit.
Q: How would you describe your style?
Seth: We’ve been talking about it a lot lately. For me, our style is fun. You don’t want to be like, “Oh, we’re edgy.” It’s not like that. Some scenes are basically, I just want to go “YEEEEHHH!” Okay, great, how do we build a scene around that? So everything is not, “I’m trying to make a statement.”
We’ve read reviews where people put so much extra thought on what we did and we’re like, I never saw that coming.
Paul: I read one today. We’re in the googling stage just to see where we show up. I want to read this one [from 2003] to you, Teme. It is insane. We had a lot like this. I’m reading it going, “What is that?”
Alright, it’s this paragraph right here:
“The duo’s refusal …” [Much laughter from both Thomas Brothers.]
Paul [beginning again mock seriously]: “The duo’s refusal to rely on media generated material lends a refreshing innocence to their personae even as their impeccable timing exhibits a confidence free of adolescent braggadocio. Smart and playful this is an act not yet infected by the superficial sophism that so frequently characterizes a genre too often reduced to TV-wannabilia—and isn’t THAT worth a sighting?”
Seth: WHAT? WHAAAAAAAAAAAT? Okay, cool, but what did you see that I didn’t see? When you talk about style … okay, I was just telling somebody about this yesterday and I was like, sorry if this sounds wordy, but bear with me.
Both Paul and I have a respect for people and the theater. People pay to see you and then they submit their will for over an hour. One of the most important things for us is that we respect your time and your money. THAT’S our style.
You’re going to leave feeling, “My money and time were well spent.” That undertone, respect for the art form, the theater, the people and just being fun translates. You can make any statement you want. But if you don’t have a good time at the end of the hour you leave feeling like, “I wasted my money.”
Our style is fun and respectful. We’ve been labeled a lot of things that we’ve never said. I’d never be like, “We can’t do this scene. It’s not edgy.”
Paul: I hate the word “edgy.” You have to cringe.
Seth: I cringe every time I hear it.
Paul: To me, it’s like “skit.” It’s the same reaction. Edgy skit.
Seth: Please don’t ever say we do edgy skits.
Paul: Sometimes people start out thinking they want to be shocking or edgy and it just ends up overwrought and preachy and it’s because they’re not starting from wanting to be funny first.
Paul: They usually self-select themselves out of comedy pretty quickly. They’re just trying to cut through, but …
Seth: … they ain’t got no knife!
Q: I think people want to dissect it because for me, I look at great comedy and it’s like watching a magician and wanting to ask, “How do you do that?” Not everybody can do it. How does it happen?
Seth: Well, I will say this. Paul is my brother from another mother, so we go in with a high level of trust. When he says, “Hey, I have this idea,” I trust that the idea is going to work. And if I don’t think the idea is going to work, I say, “I love that idea, but what if we did this?” He has the same respect for me. There’s not a high level of denial in our brainstorming process.
Paul: That’s a big thing. You don’t get that with everyone. Even if we don’t agree right away, nobody is throwing a fit.
Q: How do you work out your timing?
Paul: Timing is an interesting thing. Even cutting a film or a short or a web series, it’s knowing things like if I put an extra pause in here, it’s going to be funnier. You can talk about whether it’s nature or nurture. I feel it’s innate. Much of that you had before you started becoming a comedian.
Even directing people I’ll say, “If you have a pause here, you’re going to get a bigger laugh.” I love that stuff. It comes from experience, but also you have to have the instinct to try for it.
When I first moved here, I saw Tim Kazurinsky at a Second City forum. I remember him saying he used to audiotape their sets and then splice to show how it could be timed better and that stuck with me. We have audiotapes from even our first shows. When you’re listening to something versus listening and watching, you can pay more attention to silence.
Q: What are the topics of your show?
Paul: Human nature.
Seth: That’s what it is. It’s humans in situations. It literally is a scene. Dropping in on some humans and seeing what happens to them for about five minutes and then we leave.
Q: What do you see as comedy’s role with political correctness?
Paul: Political correctness is fear-based. If comedy comes from fear, good luck.
Seth: I don’t care too much about political correctness. I’m not running for anything. That’s all political correctness is, protecting votes. Somebody told me one time that’s the stupidest thing they ever heard. I was like, great. Now I can be the guy you remember saying the stupidest thing ever. I don’t care.
For me, the root of comedy is truth. As soon as black people stop being born with big lips that joke will go away, but as long as just one is born with massive lips there’s a little bit of truth and we can milk that comedy out of that. And that’s just how that goes.
People are looking dead at the world and deciding what I’m looking at doesn’t exist. They make up something else which then becomes that thing, but that thing still exists. In L.A. they changed grading from giving out grades to giving out numbers because people don’t want to feel bad, but if a number five is a low grade, then sooner or later somebody is going to feel bad when they get a five. The reality is kids fail and they should feel bad.
This whole thing of trying to protect everybody’s feelings is eerie to me. It’s very much like Fahrenheit 451. They’re burning books because they don’t want anybody to feel anything. It has no place in comedy. Comedy is a reflection of where we are. Jokes work because they’re true at the time.
The person who played Grady in Sanford and Son, Whitman Mayo, he was my theater teacher in college. He said our role as stage players is to show people who they are, where they are and what condition they’re in. You don’t do that being politically correct.
Q: Have you ever been concerned about how a sketch will go over?
Seth: [Annoyance Theatre founder] Mick Napier has said that the most important thing is to protect the audience. If the audience feels protected, then they’re in a position to enjoy what you’re doing. So that’s part of the artistry. You’re creating the sense that people feel protected so they can laugh. No one wants to feel attacked. People who attack their audience are people who end up failing. I think we do a good job of protecting the audience which allows them to enjoy the show.
Paul: It’s the same in stand-up. If you have something you want to delve into, you still have to start out remembering that people don’t know you. Give them fifteen minutes, past the first impression part, to see how you’re approaching stuff. You’re getting them on your side so they say, “I might feel differently if someone else said this, but I trust these guys. My first instinct is not that they’re being a-holes. They’re actually making a point here.” Once you’re on the cool side you can work with impunity.
Q: I think audiences don’t always realize how much hard work goes into what they see on stage.
Paul: That’s when it gets frustrating. Knowing you’ve put so much thought into what you’ve done versus their quick reaction. “Oh, you shouldn’t have …”
Well, we’ve been working on this and we put so much thought in. You at least have to put thought into your post. It’s a new media thing where you have to read comments where they didn’t exist before. I always wonder, if there was outrage ten years ago did that many people write letters to the editor? “I’m so mad, but it’s really convenient for me to type a comment here versus typing a letter and sending it in. I’m not quite that mad.”
Seth: “I’m not that upset about it.”
Paul: “I’m not that upset.” Are you mad enough that you would actually write a letter? At least I could respect that. You went to the post office and mailed it. Political correctness in that respect is a lack of critical thinking.
Seth: The other part of political correctness is it denies me as an individual. I refer to myself as a Negro. I can’t get anyone around me to do it. So every time someone calls me “the black one” or even worse, “the African-American” like I’m Charlize Theron or something, I’m the one who has to suck it up because you’re being politically correct.
No one thinks about it. So now someone else has decided, “I’m going to ignore you and your own desires about how you identify yourself. I’m being politically correct.” That to me is probably the worst part of political correctness because it’s not about the individual. It’s about trying to fit in with what everybody else says is proper.
No one even stops and thinks about how ignorant “African American” really is. It’s a continent, for God’s sake, with forty-seven different countries.
Paul: As a European American, I agree.
Seth: No one ever says “European American.” And then black and white is politically correct. If I say yellow, red and brown, which are the other three colors in the race game, then I’m being racist, right?
Paul: Political correctness doesn’t change what people think, either. People just express themselves with the people they know they can express themselves with and then public discourse is not a reality and nothing changes. I’d rather someone says something ignorant and then at least it’s out there.
Q: I could talk to you guys for hours, but is there anything else you’d like to add?
Paul: Come to the show, come to the show, come to the show. Come to the show.
Seth: Yes. Please come to the show. Tell everyone you know, “Come to the show.” Tell everyone you don’t know, “Come to the show!”
*Headline courtesy of Defiant Thomas Brothers’ press release
The Defiant Thomas Brothers’ new show is Fridays at 7:30 p.m. from September 4 – October 23 at Second City’s Donny’s Skybox Theatre, 1608 N. Wells, Chicago.
NOTE: Due to the Second City fire, opening night originally scheduled for Friday, September 4 at Second City will now be Saturday, September 5 at Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont at 8:00 p.m. Tickets purchased for Friday will be honored. For future shows or to purchase tickets for September 5, please link here: http://www.secondcity.com/shows/chicago/the-defiant-thomas-brothers/
For more information about the Defiant Thomas Brothers: http://www.defiant-thomas-brothers.com/
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