By Christian Viveros-Fauné
By Miriam Felton-Dansky
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The five-member Brooklyn-based troupe is one of the funniestand increasingly successfulensembles performing on the New York sketch-comedy scene. They play to enthusiastic crowds on Sundays at the Lower East Side club Pianos, they won the Jury Prize for Best Comedy Troupe at last year's Aspen Comedy Festival, and they've landed a Tuesday-night Fuse network TV show (aired at 11 p.m., when impressionable minds are sleeping). Not bad for a group of guys still in their mid-twenties who sing children's songs about how to replace your daddy by taking naked Polaroids of yourself and leaving them in his sock drawer.
The Whitest Kids' humor somehow manages to be both fun and innocent no matter how raunchy the subject, and it's infused with an absurd logic that works hilariously. Videos uploaded to YouTube, CollegeHumor, and their own site have helped boost their notoriety, as has support from comedy sites like the Apiary. For a taste of their sublimely twisted approach, check out their "Sexy Fawn" skit, where a female deer "presents" itself to a group of hunters with some unexpected results, or their "Hitler Rap," where a reformed Führer rhymes, "What I bet y'all didn't know is now I'm down with the Jews/the gypsies, homosexuals, and retards too/Because I stopped burning people, started burning CDs/stopped battling the world, and started battling MCs."
While the Whitest Kids U Know are uniquely talented, their increasing success is also due to a fresh wave of interest in sketch comedy. Alex Zalben, a sketch performer in the group Elephant Larry, feels it's a particularly fertile time for the form. "I don't want to say we're entering a golden age of sketch," he says. "But there's definitely a ton more things going on now than there ever was before." Zalben has been involved in sketch for almost a decade, and is a producer of Sketchfest NYC, a festival of sketch comedy from across the countrynow in its third yeartaking place June 7 through 9 at the East 13th Street Theater. The event will feature 21 groups, including the Ivy League stylings of Harvard Sailing Team, Fearsome's continuous-flow skits, and The State-influenced A Week of Kindness.
Zalben credits a lot of sketch's renewed popularity to the rise in demand for short-form entertainment (usually humorous) driven by online video posting sites. But he says there's also been a genuine groundswell in comedy troupes, especially here in New York. Performers like Meat, Greg Johnson, and the twosome Kurt & Kristen, creators of "Penelope: Princess of Pets" on SuperDeluxe.com, appear regularly at venues like the Peoples Improv Theater, Rififi, Mo Pitkin's, and the Upright Citizens Brigade, among many others locales. And it seems like new groups are popping up every week.
The group Human Giant, spawned from the Upright Citizens Brigade and now with their own MTV show, have also been shining a contemporary light on sketch, but their approach is much different than the Whitest Kids U Know; where a lot of Whitest Kids' material consists of an overarching theme filled with a series of subtle comic touches, Human Giant's humor is based more on a specific premise or running gag taken to extremes. Other groups prefer to build their acts on specific characters, like Sue Galloway and Julie Klausner's retro folk duo Free to be Friends, who elicit huge laughs from their '70s feminist personae.
The Whitest Kids started after Trevor Moore, Sam Brown, and Zach Cregger met in 2000 while living in the same School of Visual Arts dorm in Brooklyn. They began the group as a school club, so they could have a dedicated place to perform and a way to score beer and cigarette money (the school provided a $600 budget for each club). Timmy Williams joined about a year later, and then Darren Trumeter, after working with Cregger on a low-budget film that both are still too embarrassed to talk about. Each member has a particular quirklike Moore's penchant for outlandish physical comedy and Brown's oddball vocal outburstsbut it's the whole gestalt that really makes the group work.
The troupe honed their skills with monthly shows at the always-packed SVA auditorium, then started performing in various other spaces around the city, eventually landing a weekly Sunday night gig at Pianos in 2004, which was then one of the few non-comedy venues hosting a comedy night. David Cross, of HBO's Mr. Show, had been previously co-hosting a variety show that night, but left for Arrested Development, and the club needed a replacement. They booked the Whitest Kids after watching a demo DVD Cregger had given them, though at first the group wasn't getting much of a carryover crowd. "It wasn't like people were going because they loved Pianos on Sunday night," says Moore. "They kind of liked David Cross.
"We always felt kind of outsider-y," Moore notes. "But we kind of like being the underdog a little bit. When you're the underdog, you have a lot more freedom to do what you want."
The group's popularity has grown through word-of-mouth buzz from their live shows and viral videos. The live shows and video work, though, remain fairly distinct. A lot of the live material relies on audience participation and interaction, while the videos use visual elements that can't always be reproduced onstage, like a skit about astronauts trying to drink soda that relies on camera perspectives.
The Whitest Kids' executive producer, Jim Biedermanwho's produced Kids in the Hall, Howard Stern, Tom Green, and Andy Dickclaims they're the freshest thing he's come across in 15 years. "What's brilliant about this material," he explains, "is that they create this logic in every sketch, and it's so solid that you go with it wherever they're going. ... It's just a pleasure to work on something that has so many levels going on." Though their more shocking material tends to get greater attention and go viral more quickly, their moments of slapstick can be just as hilarious, like when an inept John Wilkes Booth quotes Latin and throws a phone book at Lincoln's head.
The Whitest Kids have established their name, but with so many other comedy nights around New York now competing for attentionsometimes with names like "The Fuck Monkeys Unite" and "Gay Christ Figures in Cinema"it's getting harder for newer acts to stand out. Sketchfest's Zalben thinks there'll soon come that inevitable moment where corporations co-opt all of it and turn it to shit, but he still feels like we're in some halcyon days of sketch comedy, where pretty much anything is possible. Meanwhile, the Whitest Kids are maintaining their relentless work ethic, taking their gig seriously, but not too seriouslythey're just trying to be funny.
That, and freak out adults. "We want to be that dirty little show," Cregger smirks, "that you hide from your parents."