Ten bodies barrel onto the Upright Citizens Brigade stage as the Stooges pound from the speakers. One lanky, towheaded guy cheerily goads audience members to swig from bottles of Jack Daniel’s. A burly man points at the obscure horror movies projecting on a wall and chants, “Think about that!” The rest of the cast—the ones not busy moving chairs and shedding clothes—dance ferociously. It’s the height of a messy bender about to get messier. It’s also just another evening with the sketch troupe Murderfist.
Five years ago, after an inauspicious start at a seedy gay bar in Tallahassee, the comedy collective migrated to New York, fearful of becoming pathetic fixtures in their collegiate town. Since then, the group has scratched its way from being unknowns to in-demand: They regularly play alt-comedy staples like Tearing the Veil of Maya and Whiplash. This year, they were named best sketch group at the ECNY Awards, given for excellence in local comedy. On July 10, they return to the People’s Improv Theater for their monthly residency.
Troupe member Henry Zebrowski describes Murderfist as “a 20-armed stand-up with a fearlessness bordering on selfishness.” Their sketch premises—revolving around depressed porn stars and molesting father figures—come across like crude announcements scribbled in crayon; as characters flood the stage with more and more audacious bits, these premises are occasionally abandoned outright. The troupe’s acting veers toward caricatures so committed and broad, they’re quivering at the edges, threatening to come apart at any moment. All that’s to say: Murderfist isn’t guided by profound thought or theatrical principles. Their only loyalty is to the next joke and how best to sell it.
“What’s the funniest possible thing that can happen right now?” is the company’s modus operandi. An office sketch coyly entitled “Boardroom,” for example, features a foiled suicide attempt, a heated make-out session, an aborted Shakespearean duel, and sing-song references to the Shirelles and Michael Jackson before the Chris Farley–size Zebrowski bursts onstage wailing, nude, with his junk in his hand. And that’s just the first minute.
Such dark lunacy is bound to push buttons. “We’re so over-the-top, I don’t consider us offensive,” says Zebrowski. “Though I don’t know the last time a genie showed up at your house and made your parents fuck each other.” Some affronts are more visceral. During their set at June’s Sketchfest NYC, Jackie Zebrowski—Henry’s sister—eviscerated a criminal while playing the ferocious primate cop Sergeant Bing-Bong, accidentally tossing “a bag full of uncooked meat and spaghetti all over these vegan girls in the crowd, and they fucking flipped out.” Her moral here: “Don’t fuckin’ sit in the front row, man.”
Despite outward appearances, Murderfist’s chaos is controlled: They write, revise, and rehearse several times a week; every seemingly sloppy rant is another carefully crafted bit. “A lot of people think, ‘Oh, they’re filthy, hairy dudes who are just reckless and wasted all the time,’ ” says another troupe member, Holden McNeely. “But we spend so much time on this material. It’s extremely specific.”
Above all, what Murderfist wants is an audience both exhausted from laughing and feeling as if they’ve been to a highly experiential rock concert. It’s a rare and energetic notion for comedy, and it’s possible their verve could land them a television show or an opening slot with GWAR. In the meantime, New Yorkers get to enjoy the bourbon, meat showers, and madness in close quarters.