The Pajama Men: In the Middle of No One

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Editorial Review

Tuck into high hilarity with the Pajama Men
By Peter Marks
Friday, December 14, 2012

The condition known as laughing oneself silly is, it turns out, no medical myth. Doctors of comediology can observe, nay, can experience the syndrome themselves, right here, right now, thanks to the groundbreaking exertions of a couple of young men in lab coats. Well, actually, not in lab coats. In pajamas.

The Pajama Men is the professional title this rascally duo goes by. And the results of their guffaw-inducing experiments -- a show called “The Pajama Men: In the Middle of No One” -- are ready at Woolly Mammoth Theatre for your inspection, delectation and altogether rhapsodic examination.

I am still recovering from my exposure to their antics, which oscillate at something on the order of 1,000 jokes per minute. Or maybe it only seems like that many. I couldn’t keep count because at one point in the progress of this 60-minute show, I was doubled over in a kind of hysterical agony. I felt as if my lungs had migrated into my throat and that my anatomy would soon be inside out.

The paroxysm was occasioned by a physical bit by the Pajama Men -- Shenoah Allen and Mark Chavez -- that I found so tickling that my laughter reflex got stuck in the “on” position. It’s a blissful problem to have. In the interest of keeping their gags absolutely fresh for you, I will bite my knuckle and refrain from describing in any detail what convulsed me (and many of those around me). In fact, I’m not sure I actually could. Nothing kills a joke faster than trying to explain it.

Okay, you forced me. Allen’s impression of an exotic bird with an erotic screech virtually did me in. The impenetrable logic of an intelligence test administered by one Pajama Man to the other is a priceless riff on a classic bit of double-talk. And the sight of the Pajama Men as marionettes whose strings get crossed thanks to an inept puppeteer is a level of uproarious that should require the theater management to have a physician in the house.

Allen and Chavez are a pair of accomplished actor-mimics, originally from Albuquerque, who’ve honed their act at Edinburgh Fringe and other top-drawer comic laboratories and now -- lucky us -- bring it to Washington for the first time. The men look nothing alike and yet are completely the psychic yin to the other’s yang. They appear so at ease, so in their element, that they can come up with what seem to be newly improvised bits -- who knows if they really are? -- that momentarily break each other up. And still, they never fail to sustain the evening’s momentum.

Their breakneck rhythm feels entirely their own, too. To the onstage accompaniment of musician Kevin Hume -- who sits at a keyboard, trying to maintain the appearance of not hearing a word that Allen and Chavez are saying -- the Pajama Men riff at incredible speed. (Some of their interconnected skits last no more than
40 seconds.)

The comic influences of yore and now, from the well-oiled gags of Abbott and Costello to the banter of Nichols and May to the absurdist skits of Monty Python to the blood-spattered satire of “South Park,” are detectable in their impressionistic style.

They apply a thin layer of unfolding narrative: something to do with a baby and time travel and aliens with multiple mouths and sexy zebras and speaking in a lost language called “Chinese French.” (As I said, explaining a joke kills it.)

If you and I tried to do this material, the customers would come after us with pitchforks. As it all remains safely and hilariously in the keeping of the Pajama Men, what an audience wants to do is present them with bouquets.

PREVIEW: No jacket required for these laughs
By Stephanie Merry
Friday, December 7, 2012

The road to success is often paved with potholes. Take it from the Pajama Men, the sleepwear-clad sketch-comedy duo of Shenoah Allen and Mark Chavez, whose first performance at the famed Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 2004 morphed from a jittery ad­ven­ture into an all-out debacle.

Their initial venue fell through at the last minute, and they had to perform in a 450-person auditorium. But, the festival’s programs had already been printed, so no one knew where to find the improv up-and-comers. During the month-long run, the American pair performed daily in the massive hall to audiences of five or six people they “would wrangle off the street,” Allen says.

“You don’t go to Edinburgh to make a lot of money,” Chavez admits. “But we lost about 20 grand -- or 17, something like that -- and that’s money we didn’t have.”

But the gut punch of potential financial ruin diminished with the appearance of the vice president of Chicago’s Second City, the comedy group known for kickstarting the careers of Tina Fey, Bill Murray and Stephen Colbert, among many others. Allen estimates there were four people in the audience the night Kelly Leonard entered the cavernous performance space, but that didn’t keep Leonard from appreciating the pair’s prop-free and boisterous theatrics, which involve quick character changes, wacky sound effects and imaginative pantomime.

“We’ve had a few kind of benchmarks in our career, and that was one of  them,” Chavez says.

Leonard was keen to collaborate and offered the duo the chance to debut a work at Second City’s Toronto theater, which ultimately led to a four-week run in Chicago in 2006 at Steppenwolf Theatre’s Garage venue. By the time the two returned to Edinburgh in 2008, their star was on a much different trajectory than four years earlier. The pair’s show was met with glowing reviews in the Guardian and London Times, with one critic proclaiming the show “one of the most dazzling displays of comedy theatre I’ve ever seen.”

“Our manager at the time was like, ‘I don’t want to be overly dramatic here, guys, but this is life-changing,’ ” Chavez says with a laugh. “And it kind of was.”

Since then, the comedians took home prizes at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival and the Time Out Sydney Comedy Awards, and had a couple of sold-out runs at London’s Soho Theater, which is known for cutting-edge comedy. Now the Pajama Men have turned their attention to television and film while making more stateside performances, including their upcoming show at Woolly Mammoth Theatre, “In the Middle of No One.” The loose narrative involves aliens and time travel and is a good excuse to showcase their motley cast of characters.

“It’s kind of a love story, and it’s also about family,” Allen says, leading both men to start laughing, clearly sharing an inside joke. “It’s not wholesome, but it does have a lot of heart. I think that’s something that’s kind of interesting about what we do. It’s ridiculous and absurd, and comedy is the number one objective, but we take on a lot of characters, and all those characters have a lot of heart. People can empathize with them.”

The pair marvel at the positive reviews but also delight in detailing their more outlandish walkouts. There was the Seattle hippie who rushed onstage to yell at the audience for laughing at her brethren, and an inebriated gentleman who gave the performers a hug mid-show before falling down the stairs just outside the exit door. One Fringe audience member fidgeted and groaned for 10 minutes and then rolled onstage in his motorized wheelchair to say, “I’m sorry, I just hate this” -- followed by something unprintable -- before leaving the theater.

The good news for the comedians was that everyone else applauded the man’s departure. “We kept the audience on our side,” Allen says.

The better news was that there was an audience at all.