“GIU-li-AN-i …” Just the seesaw, hee-haw way Brett Robinson pronounces the name, braying out the syllables, is a laugh line in its own right.
Never mind that in this sketch, Giuliani is the seventh of the seven dwarves (Grumpy, Dopey, Grabby, Gropey, Sleazy, Skeezy, and Giuliani) in a kingdom ruled by Queen Melania and King Pinocchio, who turn to the seven little men with shrinking hearts to protect them from their biggest fear: Nancy Pelosi, the Wicked Witch of the ... LEFT.
This is the writers’ room at 1812 Productions, where the rewrites, tweaks, updates, cuts, changing voices, and improvised jokes are in midstream for the Philadelphia theater troupe’s annual comedy sketch production, This is the Week That Is.
This madcap writing process will continue on through the 14-year-old show’s annual run, from its Dec. 4 opening to its Jan. 5 close, a looming winter impeachment vote and yo-yoing lineup of Democratic contenders just more things to keep their arched eyes on. (Previews began Nov. 29.)
The actors, writers, and director who are gathered around two tables pushed together upstairs at the Our Lady of Mount Carmel School at 3rd and Wolf definitely trust this process. It is a Philly institution in and of itself.
You should hear them all just say the name Kellyanne, in this case a Goldilocks-channeling spewer of fake porridge played by Pax Ressler, trying out lies to find one just the right size.
Here, every word is a possible punch line, and the punch lines are always evolving.
“There’s definitely segments of the show where we’re memorizing lines in the dressing room and then we’ll be doing them on stage,” says Dave Jadico, who will be somehow bathed in green for his role as Pelosi during the fairy tale sketch.
“It’s a living organism,” says Justin Jain, who, among many roles, plays Queen Melania and one-half of a Hamilton song parody involving Bernie Sanders plus Pete Buttigieg and the Schuyler Sisters. (Put the GOP on notice/ I’m coming for the POTUS/ and I’m not giving away my spot!).
During the run, the second-half news segment is constantly updated and rewritten by Don Montrey, writing the bits remotely from an undisclosed suburban location (his home).
On show days, the ensemble gathers an hour before curtain to go over updates and learn new lines.
“It’s nerve wracking, but as a performer you have to relinquish the need for control,” says Jain. “It’s nice to be a little bit messy and a little bit aggressive with it."
Jennifer Childs, cofounder of 1812 Productions and cowriter for the show with Tom Shotkin (who also serves as stage manger for TITWTI — even the initials are funny), says the annual plunge into the deep end of sketch comedy is thrilling.
“This is easily the most high-pressure and exhilarating thing that we do,” Childs said. "This format is just the sheer terror of going in with one page, bullet points, at the start of rehearsals, and knowing in three weeks, this is going to be 67 pages of really good stuff.
“And it’s hard because sometimes the thing that gets the biggest laugh in our room, it’s like, ‘Is that rehearsal funny or is that audience funny?’ ”
The ensemble has four veterans of past shows. Robinson, 35, who teaches freshman acting at University of the Arts, and Ressler, a gender nonbinary musician and actor, are new this year.
Ressler, 30, and Tanaquil Márquez, 27, give the show a younger vibe than past years, members say, though that will not necessarily translate to 1812′s audience, which, like most Philly theater audiences, skews older.
Last year, Márquez recalled, she created a sketch about a “millennial couch,” that played to silence during previews and was cut.
This year, she’s trying again with a Gen-Z-ish “Self Care” sketch with Robinson.
In the writers’ room, the writers tried to decide if the audience would understand the implications and easily satirized tropes this younger generation has given to the term, or if it was inferable. (A tenet of comedy writing is if you have to explain the joke first, it probably won’t work, 1812′s skit where Jerry Seinfeld explains gerrymandering notwithstanding).
“We need a strong enough structure so that every one can get on board,” Robinson said.
Alas, the five values of self-care Márquez and Robinson advise to their imaginary Youtube-ish audience, on a set that will embrace both minimalism and narcissism (one white orchid, smoothies), had to be chopped to three. (Affirmations, gratitude, and social media break were early favorites).
For Márquez, associate artistic producing director for Teatro del Sol, 1812 is a welcome change of pace.
“It’s funny,” she said. “A lot of the things I do are Spanish plays, which are usually dramatic.”
Jain says the collaborative process is unusual in the hierarchical theater world, but consistent with a close-knit Philly scene.
“You have to be really malleable and really game to play and a good team player,” Jain said. “Actually, all of Philly theater is very collaborative."
One dynamic that distinguishes a night out at TITWTI from, say, staying home and watching Saturday Night Live is being part of a live Philly audience. (The writers note that sometimes their jokes, or versions of them, will show up on “Weekend Update,” as everyone digests the same material for jokes.)
Jadico, Shotkin, and cast member Sean Close say their show’s musical-theater backbone also elevates their material.
“The role of music has grown,” says Close. “It lofts these jokes in the air in a heightened way, and lands in a different way than just joke and character.”
Some years lend themselves more than others to Philly-centric jokes. Former Mayor Michael Nutter was a favorite, if only for his funny name. Despite a history of elf costumes, Mayor Kenney hasn’t inspired in the same way.
Handsome at the podium
What rhymes with Fi Fi Fo Fum?
This and other urgent questions consume the writers room as the “Melania and the Seven Dwarves” sketch is refined. (Also: Should the Fox in the Fox & Friends interlude be an actual fox (in a costume)? Should the gingerbread man be an actual cookie? The writing gods are generous as the gingerbread man’s tag line (You can’t catch me …) begins its journey into the script as "You can’t catch me, I’m a Republican).
"Fi Fi Fo Fum ... He will overcome?” starts Márquez.
“Pinocchio will overcome,” director Dan O’Neil suggests, to get the rhythm.
“He’s eloquent at the podium?” says Jadico. “Podium is a great rhyme.”
Then, the one that sticks: “Fi Fi Fo Fum. He’s handsome at the podium.”
Two days later, O’Neil has a request. He’s thought about the fairy tale, the dwarves, the way the cast is voicing them. Are they giving comic life to the iconic seven? Or the politicians? Whose voice is the joke on anyway?
“What are we satirizing here?” says O’Neil. “Try it with actual voices, not fairy tale voices. Talk like Nancy Pelosi.”
The actors take a moment and make mental adjustments. Robinson’s hilariously hoarse Grumpy interacting with Giuliani may be left behind in South Philly once the cast moves uptown to Plays & Players Theatre.
“I was doing a really realistic Giuliani,” notes Close. “I’ll pull it back into the realm of human.”
This is the Week That Is
Performances by 1812 through Jan. 5 at Plays & Players Theatre, 1714 Delancey Place.
Information: 215-592-9560, 1812productions.org