The walls are Nickelodeon slime green, and surrounding them are file cabinets jammed with script books as well as random costume pieces—Hey, a straw cowboy hat!—and props—and an autographed photo of Maya Angelou?
This is the San Francisco Mission home base of the area’s longest-running sketch comedy troupe, Killing My Lobster.
On this particular evening, the members of the group have allowed a journalist to enter their realm as they tinker with brood-based sketches for their latest show, “Killing My Lobster Chops Down the Family Tree.”
Transforming folding chairs into a family minivan, the Lobster folks tear through a piece in which a hot-headed stepfather takes his wife and kids to a war recreation festival. Then the cast switches roles for a skit in which a household of Russian immigrants attempts idlyllic 1950s happiness, despite that their daughter is getting the ire of Joseph McCarthy.
Of course, these sketches may or may not appear when the show opens on April 26, as the lineup can go through many changes from the rehearsal process until when an audience is in the house.
This production’s director, Rana Weber, was drawn to Lobster because, she said, there wasn’t much making her laugh lately. Teens being bullied into suicide, Prop 8, treatment of the LGBTQ community and the mix of church and state on the campaign trail had left a grimace on her grill.
Weber’s pitch for this show: “I want to explore what family means to a progressive society. I want to hone in on the nuclear family, Wile E. Coyote my way in with a homemade dynamite kit, then sneak out the back door and light the fuse.”
She said she had to cut some pieces that really resonated with her but weren’t “sketch comedy gold.” There are a few that hit close to home, Weber said.
“’A Very Manning Thanksgiving’ reminds me of the epic food fight my then-uptight dad started one night at the dinner table. It all began with a spoonful of rice and ended with a beer being poured over my head. I'd never had so much fun in my life. ‘Prop 8 Police’ is also close to my heart, as it conveys its absolute ridiculousness,” Weber said.
Killing My Lobster turns 15 this year, and Andy Alabran, Creative Director of Sketch Shows, gave a peek behind the scenes—and a hint at the traditional way the group will be celebrating its anniversary.
Corey Andrew: Do most of the Lobster performers end up writing?
Andy Alabran: Although it’s not a typical path, it’s an encouraged path within the group as far as trying on different creative hats. I performed for a year, and the artistic director at the time sent me an e-mail, saying, ‘Hey, Andy, have you thought about writing?’ I had never written sketch comedy. ‘I’m happy to try anything for you. Just don’t expect.’ That became my new creative outlet. It was so much fun and fodder. It created something on another path. I kept churning out sketches. Some of them started turning up in shows, which is its own positive reinforcement.
Corey: Can you talk a little about the process of putting together one of the shows? What’s the infancy?
Andy: From start to closing night, it’s a three-month process. Part of my job is to find a space and a director, and then the rest starts to take care of itself. The writing process begins after we find the director. The director usually comes to the table with a theme, an idea for the show, a concept. The writing process is about four weeks. They usually meet twice a week, and there’s usually about 10 writers per show.
Corey: When they get together is that to pitch ideas, read sketches?
Andy: Totally. The first meeting is usually a brainstorm/pitch session, where it’s no-holds-barred. Each show usually has a head writer, so there’s the head writer and director and 10 writers. They meet for about four weeks, pitching their ideas and generating sketches. Each meeting becomes a reading of all the sketches they have generated.
Corey: As they go, are they punching each other’s sketches up?
Andy: Totally. Each sketch gets feedback from the group, and that writer can move forward with editing, or they can move forward with other sketches they have. There’s no real, one, concrete way of doing it. Sometimes the director is part of this process and will know right away if a sketch can move forward or can say, ‘It’s not gonna be in this show.’ Each sketch gets its own life within the writing process. At the end of that process, we generate about 60 sketches. At the end of the four weeks, we’ll have a big read with all the sketches, though, generally, the head writer will whittle those down to something more manageable, like 30. From those 30, the director will pick maybe 20 and will start rehearsing. And during the rehearsal process, they will get whittled down to about 15.
Corey: That sounds a little bit like the process ‘Saturday Night Live’ goes through.
Andy: We like to think so, although who knows how they do it? It’s sort of the dream of being part of that world. The director will rehearse for about four weeks, a few nights a week. Then tech rehearsal is three nights, and then we open. Then the shows usually run three weekends, Thursdays through Sundays.
Corey: What’s the length between sketches?
Andy: The faster the better. We realize that if the length between sketches runs too long, we will find a way to fill it. Our shows also have live music as another entertainment value. We’ll also write things like audio bits for those interstitial moments. Each show also has two videos or so for super-long costume changes. That’s also been something that’s been a nut to crack, to figure out the order of sketches. You start to realize who’s in what sketch and who’s in the next and how long that’s gonna take. The flow of the show is important, too—what kind of humor to what kind of humor from sketch to sketch. Something political to something intellectual to something physical.
Corey: Is that something the director strictly does, or do you step in and assist with the pacing?
Andy: It’s part of my job to assist. I am there to make those suggestions and help someone figure those puzzle pieces out.
Corey: Will things change as late as tech nights?
Andy: Absolutely. In our experience, even when you open, you have to stay open to the show changing and morphing along the way, realizing your audience will tell you a lot about what they like. No one wants to be onstage if something isn’t funny. So cutting something after opening is absolutely OK.
Corey: How large is the troupe?
Andy: It’s about 20 to 25, mostly actor-writers. Again, there’s lots of hats being shared. We have a lighting designer, and he’s also a fantastic writer, and he’s going to direct our fall show. It’s a great way for someone to get their feet wet.
Corey: Is there a length of time most people stay?
Andy: No one really leaves unless they move. That’s part of the joy of the group; we all want a laugh. After our day jobs, we all want to make something funny and hopefully sell it really well, but the process is very joyful. There’s not too much attrition.
Corey: You are planning a quinceanera for the group’s 15th anniversary, which is hysterical. Do you know when it’s going to be?
Andy: We’re looking at early September. It will most-likely be at the Verdi Club, which is where we had our last big fundraiser, which was a prom night. It had a Little Mermaid feel to it. People dressed in tuxedos, but we had one woman go full-tilt and dressed as a Titanic survivor—barnacles on her face. There’s a big dance floor, proscenium stage. We’re turning 15 this year which is a major milestone. How can we make it funny? Calling it a quinceanera. All the creative ideas are starting to hatch around that, like a mariachi band, getting all those big dresses and going in that direction. It’s kind of a nice coincidence that a lot of our audience base is in the Mission, so that’s our flavor, the demographic of our audience.
For more information on “Killing My Lobster Chops Down the Family Tree,” visit killingmylobster.com
Corey Andrew has been interviewing comedians and writing about comedy for the last decade and a half. In 2011, he published the book, “Laugh Lines: Conversations with Comedians.” Corey was a writer and performer with Midwest sketch troupe, The NonProphets, before moving to the Bay Area with his family a few years ago. If you have ideas for future columns about comedy, you can send them to email@example.com or follow him at twitter.com/coreywrites.