There’s a new comedy show in Chicago this weekend. The show is innovative and fresh even in a town known for reinventing comedy. There’s nothing expected about it including what I’m about to say, which is that the show was created by Actual Murderers.
Actual Murderers are Joe Fernandez, Chris Hauser, Danny Patton and Matt Riggs. Joe, who was an Andy Kaufman Award finalist, founded Actual Murderers in 2015 with Chicago Underground Comedy’s Ed Hansen. For the past two years, the sketch group has appeared at Beat Kitchen, both independently and as part of Chicago Underground Comedy’s weekly showcase.
The Actual Murderers have a definite point of view. They fearlessly shine a comedic light on human darkness and inanity. Their work is so diverse and prolific that they produce a new sketch video every two weeks and their comedy has been featured at both the Chicago Sketch Comedy Festival and at Massacre, the 24-hour horror film festival. Actual Murderers’ shows never repeat. Each one is unique.
The group’s new series kicks off this Sunday, July 9, at 8:00 p.m. at @North Bar, 1637 W. North Ave. and will be every second Sunday of the month.
Joe kindly spoke with me for a behind-the-scenes look at Actual Murderers, their new format, and how they became a standout in Chicago’s comedy scene.
Teme: I would love to hear about your show on July 9th!
Joe: We’ll have three stand-up performers who will do eight to ten minutes and then do a couple of sketches with us. It’s like a “Comedy Central Presents/Saturday Night Live” vibe. Half of Actual Murderers are stand-up comedians, so it’s fun to combine the two forms. Reena Calm is this month’s guest performer. In August, our guest performers will be Marty DeRosa and Sarah Shockey.
Having guest performers is a fun challenge because then we have to write for them. You can get complacent if you are working with the same folks over and over. When you have new people coming in you think, “I wonder what I can write that would be good for this person?”
Teme: How did you all meet and decide to become Actual Murderers?
Joe: I was talking with Ed Hansen, the producer of Chicago Underground Comedy. Chicago Underground Comedy wanted to start a house sketch group, so I said, “Sure!” I came up with a name that was terrible, but we held auditions and put it together. No one really cared for the name that I had. It’s pretty embarrassing, but I’ll say it: it was Hole in the Fourth Wall.
So everyone started suggesting names and we made a final list of the ones we liked. I wasn’t there for the meeting when they chose the name, but when they read the name “Actual Murderers” people started laughing because it was so dark and weird.
I also do stand-up and whenever someone mentions Actual Murderers as a credit, you can see people’s faces get very confused and perturbed. It does the job in terms of people perking up and noticing. Because it’s so absurd and weird, it really fits our style of comedy.
Teme: How would you describe the group’s comedy?
Joe: It’s not for everyone. We have some weird dark stuff, but we have broader themes, too. We recently did a video sketch that makes fun of the way basketball games are called, but it’s with two players who are awful. That’s more a silly one. There’s no dark undertone. The main thing for us is definitely weird and silly. Whatever we do has a very absurd feel.
We have a live sketch called “Drinking when you bomb.” One of our cast members goes up and intentionally does bad jokes for a minute or so. The audience actually thinks it’s a person bombing. It gets really awkward. Then the music to “Singing in the Rain” starts and I come up on stage as Al (Coholism) and teach him how to drink and do cocaine so he can feel better about himself after he bombs.
It’s all to the soundtrack of “Singing in the Rain,” so it’s an upbeat jolly song as a person with a substance abuse problem deals with the fact that he’s not good at stand-up. It’s a mix of upbeat energy with a dark undertone.
Teme: As an Andy Kaufman finalist, would you say his style of comedy is an inspiration?
Joe: We do have fun playing with the audience and seeing what they’re willing to accept. We may bring someone on stage, interact with the audience from the stage, or do a scene with five cast members in the audience.
We make sure the audience is on their toes, so he would be a big influence in that way. We don’t want to be another group where the audience sees a sketch on the stage, lights up, lights down, blackout. A lot of sketch comedy is the same. There’s a set-up that starts where everything is normal, someone says something messed up, the other people are shocked, and then the pattern repeats. We stay away from that.
We make sure that there are deeper levels to what we’re doing. When we do our live sketches and our video sketches, there are no patterns. Andy Kaufman was someone who definitely didn’t have a pattern. He was very erratic. You didn’t know where the next turn was coming from. So for sure that was something of an influence.
Teme: I noticed that your sketches really build up suspense. I’m not just waiting for the next punch line. Your comedy is actually suspenseful where as an audience member I’m holding on, wanting to see what happens next.
Joe: That’s what we’re going for.
Teme: What’s your collaboration process? Are you all compatible in your comedy, or is it more important to be compatible personally?
Joe: Sometimes someone will have a fully written sketch and we’ll read it and give notes after that. We have to have a level of comfort with each other to give notes because your work is something that’s personal to you, even if it is just a two-minute sketch.
Sometimes a sketch gets completely redone. The intent of the sketch will still be there and the meaning behind it, but after the notes it may be presented in a completely different way. I remember my buddy brought in a sketch about “The Jersey Men.”
Teme: It was great. I saw that one.
Joe: It started in a completely different fashion. Initially, it was just making fun of people talking to the camera. Then we added elements of every band’s tragic story. The abusive parents and the workaholic sleazy manager. There’s the friend who tags along who likes being part of the gang.
As we added more elements, it became more than making fun of people talking to the camera. It’s commenting on how strange it is that it’s like a real, current “Behind the Music.” The more elements we can add, the better. So it started as something completely different and ended up as that sketch.
We have the willingness to adjust our sketches. The biggest thing is being able to accept the notes. It can be really hard to do that.
Sometimes someone just has an idea and we riff off of it. Or someone has a premise and says, “Help me out with it.”
Like you were saying, we’re working on a professional and personal level. You have to have that connection where you know how to give notes. It has to be clear it’s coming from a helpful place where you want to put up something good and that’s why you’re giving suggestions.
Sometimes we have differences about how to do something. That’s why we sometimes use “live” as a testing ground. After we put up a sketch or video in front of an audience, we’ll sit down and discuss what we could have done differently, what worked and what didn’t and where we could improve it.
Teme: Where is your writers’ room?
Joe: It’s whoever’s living room has enough space and where their significant other isn’t home, so we don’t impose.
The hardest thing for us is finding time. Some of us have other jobs. Some of the group does stand-up and if they get booked for a show, maybe they can’t be at rehearsal or can’t be at the show that night. Some of us run a regular open mic or showcase. We don’t struggle creatively, though sometimes we disagree. The challenge is more balancing life with the performance stuff.
Teme: That must be challenging because if you have a day job and you’re doing stand-up and writing for a sketch show, it’s like three full-time jobs.
Joe: It can be rough, but it’s also super fun. We wouldn’t be doing it if we didn’t care about it. When you have a good show, it makes it easier. The parts that aren’t fun are the most annoying: scheduling, and trying to figure out shoot locations and how much money we need costume or prop-wise.
We have a really great filmographer, too, Ryan Jackson, who works with us for free. He does a really great job.
Teme: I noticed that your videos look great! How would you say stand-up and sketch differ in their skill sets and how do they overlap?
Joe: We talk to the crowd as characters or as ourselves. We took that from stand-up because we wanted to do something that wasn’t like the standard format sketch show.
The biggest difference is when a sketch doesn’t go well, you can at least bounce what went wrong off other people. Not that you can’t do that with stand-up, but it’s not the same because in sketch we created this piece together. With stand-up you’re on your own and [when it doesn’t go well] it’s very painful.
I’ve grown to just have fun doing stand-up and not worry. If you’re not having a good time, the audience can tell. T.J. Jagodowski [of iO] has a quote: “Effort is ugly.” I think of that with stand-up. If you’re having fun, the audience is way more willing to come along with you than if you’re trying to impress them.
It’s the same with sketch. If the audience sees we’re having fun, they’re on board. If we’re tired of the sketch or don’t have any connection to it, or we don’t feel comfortable, the audience can read that. The material has to be truly authentic to you. That’s why our style is not for everyone. We have a weird, dark sense of humor. When we’ve shown our “Pay Your Respects” video, it has gone very well a couple times, and a couple of the times people have been very disturbed by it. Understandably so.
We can’t fault anyone for not liking what we do. It’s the same with stand-up. If you are giving a true representation of yourself, you may not be for everybody.
I think stand-up is tougher than sketch. It’s the difference of being alone on stage. At least with sketch, if you’re doing a full show and it’s not going well, there’s a different sketch coming up. You may have a chance to get off stage and take a mental break and say, “Okay, let me refocus here.” With stand-up, it’s just you up there and you’ve got to figure out a way to make it work if it’s not working.
Teme: There’s no one else to rely on at all.
Joe: Stand-up is tougher even when talking to the crowd. When I do, I feel like I’m opening a Pandora’s box for drunk people. It’s not necessarily heckling. It’s just that people are drunk and they think you’re speaking to them. With sketch, people don’t feel a compulsion to shout out.
Teme: So true. What are Actual Murderers doing before you go on stage and after a show?
Joe: I’m super anal before a show. I triple, quadruple check costumes and I’ll go over lines with people. Everyone else is a little looser. I’m very “Where are the props?!” I’m sure I’m super annoying when it comes to that.
Someone may suggest, “We can riff this part of the sketch.” I’m like, “Only if the sketch is written in a way where it’s loose enough that it will still work!” Otherwise, that’s a good way to have a sketch look more like a bad improv scene.
Other than that, we’re just goofy and hanging out. At our last show, we were opening for another group and they came in and asked us to keep our time on the lower side. So we had to decide where to cut. The nice thing is we have a level of comfort with each other that makes it easy for us on the fly. We’ve been asked to do sketches the night of a show on a certain theme and we’re able to pull it off.
Teme: How about after the show?
Joe: We mostly sit around drinking, having a whisky or a beer or two. We’ll have a lot of fun, although I’m someone who wants to talk about the show. Once I moan about what I could have done differently, like “Why did I move my hand to the right during that sketch? That’s not where it’s supposed to be!”, then it’s all good and we just have fun. When a show goes well, the vibes are so great.
Teme: What is something people might be surprised to know?
Joe: Chris Hauser is the member of the group with the biggest dichotomy between what he’s like on stage and off. He’s a very soft spoken, very intelligent, polite, nice dude who is just fun to be around, but on stage he has characters who are the most absurdly bizarre over-the-top.
One time at Paper Machete at The Green Mill, he did a character who was extremely over the top. It was when they were going to put Rosa Parks on the $20 bill. His character was a 1920’s-style counterfeiter who is pissed that he now has to make new counterfeit money. He started going off on lists of who’s going to be on each bill, making all these references.
People don’t recognize him after shows because he is so different. He even looks different somehow.
On our Funnyordie.com site, we have a sketch where he is a New Zealand minister. Again, he’s larger than life.
I think that’s the most interesting thing. Most of us, when we get offstage you’re not surprised by our personalities. But with Chris, it is so interesting how calm and measured he is as a person, and then these characters he does are so flamboyant and large. It’s amazing to see that transformation in a second.
Teme: What else should Actual Murders fans and fans-to-be know?
Joe: Our style is very unique both in terms of the type of comedy and format. We’ll never have the same show twice. We’ve never even come close. I’m most proud of that. We’ve created a format that is uniquely ours. We like to do everything differently. It’s fun and challenging to take a format, subvert it, and make it your own.
Actual Murderers’ new show is the second Sunday of every month. First show is this Sunday, July 9 at 8:00 p.m. (doors at 7:30 p.m.) at @North Bar, 1637 W. North Ave., Chicago.
You can stay up to date with Comedians Defying Gravity by typing your email address in the box and clicking the “create subscription” button. My list is completely spam, spam, spam, spam free, and you can opt out at any time.