Gaahhhhh! Arrgh! AHHHHHHH!!!!!! How do you deal with fear? How do you face phobia? Do you explode in nonsensical exclamations of terror? (Raising hand.) Anger? Tears? A lobotomy? (All tempting, too.)
The Bosom Friends have a better way: laughter.
The Bosom Friends are Brookes May, Kelly Ann Johnson and Rachel Pokay. They met in Second City’s writing program in 2015 and their work and friendship were forged in fire. Three days before their graduation show was set to open, Second City was ablaze.
“I was watching Second City catch on fire on the internet,” Brookes said. “I felt like I was watching my dream go up in flames.”
The damage forced Second City to close for weeks. At first, the friends weren’t sure their show would happen. But Second City found them a space for every performance and honored all the tickets. “It was this adrenaline rush the whole time. It ended up adding a whole level of intensity to the process,” Brookes told me.
After graduation, they formally became The Bosom Friends. Bosom Friends’ first show, This American Lie, consistently sold out Second City’s Donny’s Skybox Theater and enjoyed an encore last summer at The Revival in Hyde Park.
They are now back with their second successful show, Lobotomy Myself and I. Lobotomy addresses that rare thing all Americans can agree on: fear. We’ve all got it and not just because Halloween’s on the horizon.
Brookes kindly took time to speak with me by phone about how The Bosom Friends created their new show and found a sure comedic path through our worst and silliest fears.
Teme: How did you get started in comedy?
Brookes: I grew up doing theater and improv, actually in the same town Brad Pitt is from, Springfield, Missouri. I went to American University in Washington, D.C. and studied journalism, but I was on the improv team all four years. I moved to Chicago with friends from my improv group who were moving here to do improv.
I ended up getting a job and thinking I wanted to be corporate. It took a few years to sort myself out and get my priorities in order and now I’m back and doing a lot of writing and performing.
There’s something happening every night in Chicago improv. It’s a very diverse group, and I’ve just had the time of my life.
Teme: How did Bosom Friends come up with its tagline, which I love: “Sketch comedy that will give you a lift.”
Brookes: Well, we’re The Bosom Friends. It’s really important to us to encourage women in comedy. Around the time we were forming there was a lot happening with harassment policies in the comedy scene nationwide, but also in Chicago. I haven’t had any negative experiences, luckily, but we were reading about it.
Also, as an all-female group, we write a lot of scenes that are for women and about women, although our style appeals to a wide range of audiences.
And it’s comedy that will give you a lift, I mean, come on. Paired with “The Bosom Friends,” it’s perfect!
Teme: It really is! How did you cast the show?
Brookes: We held auditions in June because we wanted our process to include writing for the actors we cast and to play to their strengths. We ended up with four women and two men. We’re ladies writing, so we tend to write a lot of female characters.
Rebecca Gold was in our last show. Very, very funny. Just finished Conservatory at Second City. Theo Allyn is a trained actor who is in the Second City Conservatory now. She’s a fantastic actor. She plays an old woman with dementia in our show in one scene and it’s very heartfelt. We’ve been getting a lot of comments from people saying, “I teared up during that scene, and it made me think of my mom, or my grandmother.”
Andrew Kudla is an actor in Chicago. He was just in a Sears commercial. He is also amazingly talented. We didn’t know him before. He just came to our auditions. Neftali [Morales] is in Conservatory now. He’s great. Katie Perry, fantastic. She finished Conservatory a few months ago and is on a Harold team at iO. We didn’t know Allison [Taylor], either. She is wonderfully funny. We’re very lucky to have all of them, and they are a tremendously talented group.
Our director Megan Johns is a teacher, performer and director at Annoyance where she does a number of shows each year and also at iO. This is one of her first shows at Second City, so we are really excited to work with her.
Teme: How did you come up with the title, Lobotomy Myself and I?
Brookes: The title comes from the struggle that modern man has navigating fears in a fearful world. Do we face our fears and become empowered by them or do we hide and numb ourselves to what scares us?
Teme: Please tell me about the show! I was looking at the show’s description on SecondCity.com and at some of the fears you mention. I was thinking, Spiders. Check. Flying. Check. Death. Check!
Brookes: Are they resonating with you?
Teme: All of them, yeah!
Brookes: Our first rehearsal was a conversation with the actors about what they’re afraid of. Everything from everyday things like spiders to existential things like aging to disappointing your parents.
We took the point of view that fear is necessary and even good. Much about fear makes us who we are. As long as you don’t give in to it, it’s a good thing. Being afraid of nothing is bad.
It’s especially poignant right now in the election cycle. There’s been so much capitalizing on fear on both sides. Whether it’s terrorism or unemployment or whatever it may be, people seem so afraid and it’s driving so many of their decisions politically. You need to be able to laugh at your fears. It helps you be less afraid.
Teme: What would you say is the upside of fear?
Brookes: To be fearless, to have no fear, is bad. You would get yourself in situations that are unhealthy and dangerous. Our fears exist to a degree to keep us safe and to help us navigate in this world. I would say fear is pretty necessary as long as you manage it.
One of our characters is afraid of everything and has to figure out what that means, how to manage it and how to get over it. I don’t want to give anything way, but the end of the show leaves the choice up to you. What are you going to do? What do you think is going to happen? How are you going to handle your fears?
Teme: How did you decide on the topic of fear?
Brookes: It’s Halloween and we wanted to do a timely show for the season, but also because of the election conversation. Fear seems to be all around us.
One of our writers, Rachel, is a mother of two. She talks about how scary it is to raise kids and have a family and to be responsible for another human life. It is a fun and unique perspective that she especially brings to the show. She’s like, I wake up every morning and I worry that my whole family is going to die.
How do you function when that’s one of your first thoughts of the day? It’s a pretty normal thought for a mother who wants to take care of her family and keep everyone safe, but it’s also something that’s very much out of your control most of the time.
Teme: That’s the thing I find about fear that’s so challenging. When it’s out of your control, what do you do? As the writers and cast, how have you have faced fear?
Brookes: That’s a really good question. I grew up being a performer. I tend not to be afraid to get on stage. The part that’s shocked me is how much more nervous I get watching a show I’ve written.
When you’re [acting] in a show you’re doing the best with the material you’re given. But you didn’t write it. It’s not your material.
But watching a show you’ve written … that’s my brain and those are my thoughts. Those are my experiences. It’s me, not “me the character.” I have found that to be incredibly scary, but also in a good way. I think it’s good to scare yourself and to push yourself outside of your limits and boundaries.
Trying to have a satirical point of view, and trying to have a point of view about anything, that is also scary. You work through that in the process. You bring ideas and you write these scripts. If it’s read and it’s not funny, you think, I thought this was so funny, but it just doesn’t work. That can be scary. It’s fascinating seeing it from the writing side.
It’s also scary to put up a show and hope it’s successful and that people like it and that you can make back the money you put into it. A lot of shows don’t check any of those boxes, so that’s kind of scary, too.
Teme: What advice would you give people who would like to create a show, but are held back by fear?
Brookes: My advice would be to just do it and don’t be afraid to fail. Actually, be a little afraid to fail, because it will make you work harder. It took me a while to start doing this in Chicago because I was so afraid of being bad at it and failing. This is something I’ve dreamt about and really wanted to do my whole life. What if I try it and it doesn’t go well?
It kept me from doing it for so long. The first time I did it was scary, but the world didn’t end. My life didn’t end. Really, it went pretty well. The worst thing you can do is not try.
Teme: What was the turning point when you knew you had to do it?
Brookes: At a certain point I’d taken enough classes and thought, okay, I’ve invested enough money in this. I’m going to see it through.
In the middle it gets hard. You get a little tired of it. You feel like “I haven’t come that far.” Just normal things you feel when you’re trying to do something.
I decided I’m going to finish this writing process. I’m going to finish these classes because I put “X” number of hours in and “X” dollars. I’m going to do it. Then I loved it so much and it was so fun watching our work come to life. Talented actors. Watching people laugh at the jokes you wrote. That feels so good.
Teme: What are some of the phobias and fears in the show?
Brookes: We deal with aging and death. There’s a scene about a woman with Alzheimer’s. That one we tried to make a little more emotional and less “ha ha” funny, although it is also funny. It’s still a comedy show! That is one of the existential ones, this fear of forgetting who you are. This fear of losing a connection with a loved one that’s so important.
We deal with sillier fears also, like of monsters and micro-aggressions. We deal a little bit with racism and sexism. We have a scene about being bad at your job. That’s a fear I think a lot of us have.
It’s a lot of fears you’re really going to recognize. We have a scene about bloggers who are revealing their fears to their readers. One of them goes too far. It’s funny and scary.
Teme: I can understand that. I really love talking to other people and hearing their stories, but I have a fear of revealing my fears.
Brookes: Yes. Just sharing your fears is scary. I agree.
Teme: Even though I love it when other people share because I appreciate the honesty and the connection. But then I’m afraid to say mine. What if everybody thinks I’m crazy, you know?
Brookes: Yes. It was funny in our initial conversations between the writers and cast, someone would name a fear and then the other people would say, “Oh, me, too. Oh, that’s me.”
You would be surprised how much people will identify with you. It’s like when you’re afraid to ask a question in class. I had a teacher who said, “Always ask the question because if you’re thinking it, someone else is thinking it also.” There are no stupid questions because someone else is wondering the same thing. Fears are kind of similar.
Teme: What is your advice for finding humor in difficult things?
Brookes: I have been blessed with a family who values humor. My grandfather who is 94 had a heart attack and was in the hospital. He needed a pacemaker and the doctor said, “We’ve got to do surgery, but you’re going to feel so much better.” He said, “Yes, but will it improve my love life?”
I think one of the beautiful things in life is that even in the most horrible situations you can find humor. Sometimes the most horrible situations bring up this awkwardness that is inherently funny.
Like why would you have the urge to laugh at a funeral? It’s just that life is so weird. You get in these weird situations that can be really funny if you look at them the right way.
Teme: That is so true. I think it requires being open to it. Sometimes I get so tense I forget there might be a perspective that’s funny.
Teme: Then when someone says something that’s funny I’m like, oh, right. There is that. Thank you.
Brookes: Yeah, so true. I get like that too. You know, we all get like that. Our lives are stressful and they’re hard, and we’re working really hard all the time, and trying to make stuff happen. Then something goes wrong and it’s like, okay let’s just laugh about this for a second. It will make everything better.
Teme: It really does! What is your writing process?
Brookes: Typically, we bounce ideas off each other at the beginning. Then we bring them to the actors and have them improvise a scene. It can be anything from “Here are the beats of the scene that I want you to hit,” to “okay, you are a nurse and you are a patient, and go.”
It can be vague or hyper-specific. We like to do that because we want the actors to get really comfortable. We also want to learn how to write in their voice because I think a scene will always be better if it’s something that the actor is going to say naturally.
Our actors go places you would never think to go. They come up with character choices that are like “Wow. That is not what I was thinking, but it is so funny and works so well.”
We did a lot of that in the beginning, just playing with these ideas, and playing with a lot of different fears and situations. Then bringing them back to our writers’ room and asking, what worked in that scene? Or why don’t we try it this way? Then we write the script based off of that and bring it back to the actors.
There might even be a few more tries at improvising to see how we can pull out the characters even more or heighten the situation more or enhance the funniness. We’re always trying to find the funny.
We also write a lot individually and share the editing and feedback.
Teme: I can imagine how it’s very cool when surprises and things you weren’t expecting come out of the process.
Brookes: Yes. It’s a beautiful thing. I love when I have a specific vision in my mind for a character and we give it to the actors and someone makes a choice that’s the opposite of what I pictured, but works even better.
Our process of writing and then handing it over to actors isn’t typical of the Chicago scene. It’s certainly not typical of Second City. Usually if you’re acting you’re also helping to write the show.
We wanted the actors to feel like this is their show too. We wrote it, but there’s so much of them in it from their fears to their personalities to the way they phrase things.
First and foremost, I hope it makes the audience laugh.
Teme: Which comedians and shows make you laugh?
Brookes: I’ve been re-watching The Office. In fact, I was doing that just before you called me. It’s a genius show.
In terms of shows in Chicago, I see a lot of shows at Second City. Once you get to a certain point in the Chicago scene, you’re doing really well if you can keep up with your friends’ shows.
Teme: Anything else you would like people to know about the show?
Brookes: Yes! Who should see the show: it’s PG-13, but our style of writing appeals to men, women and a variety of age groups and life stages because we are a diverse group writing together. It appeals to people who like cerebral satire and also people who like laugh-out-loud stuff.
We like funny, funny jokes, but we also like jokes that make you think. We hope we might introduce a new perspective and that when you leave the theater, you think, “Wow, I never thought about it that way.”
Lobotomy Myself and I is Saturday nights at 8:30 p.m. at Second City’s Donny’s Skybox Theater, 230 W. North Ave., Chicago through November 5th. Tickets here
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