Laugh, or We Kill the Lobster

Ben Westhoff gets inside the odd mix of cerebral and naughty humor that's taken S.F. comedy troupe Killing My Lobster to the edge of national fame

(We hear the sounds of a couple engaged in lovemaking. Tossing, turning, soft grunting. Rene is a French prostitute. Pedro is a Spanish stranger.)

Rene: Oui! ... Yes ... Paco ...

Pedro: Pedro.

Rene and Pedro go at it in rehearsal.
Anthony Pidgeon
Rene and Pedro go at it in rehearsal.
Tales of a Lonely Planet director Daniel Lee 
says the troupe tries to offset its cerebral humor with 
some "naughty, dirty sketches."
Anthony Pidgeon
Tales of a Lonely Planet director Daniel Lee says the troupe tries to offset its cerebral humor with some "naughty, dirty sketches."

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Rene: Pedro ... Pedro ... Parlez anglais, si'l vous plaît...

Pedro: Eh ... No hablo inglés.

Rene: Hablo inglés! PLEASE! Ohhh ... J'adore la langue d'anglais... It make me CRAZY!

(Intrigued but reluctant, Pedro reaches for his knapsack on the floor, pulls out an enormous and unsexy Spanish/English dictionary, and tries to place it somewhere discreetly on the bed ...)

Pedro: (reads) Where can I buy a postcard?

Rene: OOOOhhh!

Pedro: (thrusts) I am attending a convention.

Rene: Oui! Yes! Convention!

Pedro: (thrusts again) I want to press these clothes!

Rene: Oui... Oh! ... OH!

(Rene rolls over so that she is now on top.)

Pedro: Is there a cost for children?

Rene: Parlez, parlez, vite! ... Plus vite!

Pedro: (frantically flipping through the pages) Do you have a safe for valuables?!

Rene: AAAiiii!


Don't let the edgy sketch fool you. The members of Killing My Lobster are not the punk rockers of sketch comedy. They do not have messy or greasy hair. They lack the brazen cool of the Ramones, the "fuck you" attitude of the Clash, the technical ineptitude of the Sex Pistols.

No, if Killing My Lobster were a band, it would be Weezer: larger than life onstage, borderline geeky in person, and evidencing a surprising longevity.

The revolving cast of about 12 members of Killing My Lobster has produced at least two full-length shows of new material every year since the group's inception in 1997. Their last, Circus of Failure, sold out three-quarters of its 20-performance run at A Traveling Jewish Theatre, which houses 88 seats -- despite competition from the World Series -- and some shows were so crowded that people had to sit in the aisles. Film versions of their sketches have been shown at the Sundance Film Festival and featured on Comedy Central's Web site, where they were described as "An orgy of comic genius." The critical response to the Lobsters' shtick has been almost universally positive, and they count Robin Williams among their fans.

So does that mean, as suggested by the title of their 2001 show, that the Lobsters are Breaking the Bank?

Not exactly.

"They're paying me 200 bucks," says new Lobster Gabe Weisert of his two-month commitment for the group's newest show, Tales of a Lonely Planet. His duties include four or five rehearsals a week now, and five performances a week when the show opens, all on top of errand-running and envelope-sealing duties.

If being a Lobster in 2003 is a labor of love, when things got started back in 1997, there was even more labor for even less love. The Lobsters' first show was at the Grasshopper Palace, a tiny performance space in the Mission where they recruited 20 of their friends to fill the seats. The group's nucleus was just forming, and even the name itself had only recently been conceived.

"We'd all had a few drinks," says Daniel Lee, describing a get-together where the group was playing the name game Celebrity. "Some of us had had more than a few drinks. I wrote down Lauryn Hill on a little slip of paper."

The task fell to group co-founder Paul Charney to describe the singer without using her name.

"She sang the song 'Killing My Lobster,'" blurted out an intoxicated Charney, referring to the song "Killing Me Softly," then a hit for Hill's band, the Fugees. The phrase was oft repeated by the group, and members used it to mean "bumming me out," as in, "Cheer up, man, you're killing my lobster."

Before it became the troupe's name, Killing My Lobster was actually the title of the group's first show. Back then, they called themselves "Are You There God? It's Us, The Art Collective."


The first script read-through for the Lobsters' new show -- Tales of a Lonely Planet -- is conducted on a rainy mid-January night in their office on the second floor of the Digipop building at the corner of 17th Street and Folsom, a corner popular for, among other activities, prostitution.

The cast and crew -- writers, directors, DJs, costume and set designers, and five new actors -- are by and large clean-cut, with jeans and tennis shoes the favored fashion statement. Individually, in passing conversation, none of them comes across as particularly hilarious. But the neon-green walls of the office seem to draw comedy out of these middle-class Ivy Leaguers.

Tales of a Lonely Planet has a travel theme, and promises "sketches and shenanigans all about the hazards of over packing, under budgeting, and being a Middle American in a far away land." In addition to the Spanish spoken by Pedro and the French of his prostitute Rene, British, Scottish, Japanese, and Inuit accents make appearances in the show. Exotic locales are the norm; complicated premises that depend on semantic miscommunication abound. If you were to accuse Daniel Lee, the director of the show, of having a penchant for highbrow humor, well, you wouldn't be the first.

"A lot of our humor can be a little bit cerebral, in good and bad ways," he says, admitting that he almost majored in art semiotics before focusing his studies on political science at Brown University in Rhode Island. "Language seems to be a thing that we're interested in: the use of language, the communication issues."

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