The Defiant Thomas Brothers are bringing their no-limits comedy to Chicago’s Stage 773 every Saturday night at 10:30 p.m. from now through November 19th and when they say no limits, they mean it. This show is not for anyone who gets offended easily, and yet, there’s nothing actually offensive about Seth and Paul Thomas. They just know how to craft comedy around even the most sensitive of topics. I first had the chance to see them perform at Second City’s 2nd Annual Break Out Comedy Festival in Chicago last Spring and to call them “break out” is to do so in the strictest most industry-sense of the term. They’ve got it. They are out. They just haven’t yet landed that gig that will make them famous in the capital F sense of the word.
Something you may have guessed from their photo- they’re not actually brothers- but this black and white duo do share a last name. In fact, that’s how they met each other back in February 2002. They were backstage in an all black cast for a diversity show at Second City Outreach. “I was the token white guy,” Paul told me. “So we were backstage, same last name, we’re both in the conservatory at Second City together, so we just decided to start writing.” Paul and Seth were not only a good match, they were a hit getting rave reviews for their comedy. They even landed a sweet development deal in early 2005 and were getting real critical attention. They won’t say specifically what went wrong, but seemingly at the height of their collaboration, they broke up in May 2006. Paul’s official statement on the subject, “We couldn’t agree on when we were going to get back together.” Okay so maybe they’re not ready to talk about that just yet but the important thing is, they’re back together now and they say their working relationship is stronger than ever. The chemistry is still there, and as Paul told me, they’re older now, and wiser. Even on the phone, the chemistry comes through, they have the kind of comfort with each other that you need in order to be a successful comedy team.
Paul and Seth had a difficult time defining the show. They describe their sensibilities as very physical, and define themselves as having elements of vaudeville and somewhat inspired by Abbott and Costello-esque comedy. Paul describes the show as something that seems a bit throwback, old-fashioned even in a way, but totally new, and loves that audiences never can predict what’s coming in the next scene. There are songs, themes and routines- all funny- and in some instances shocking. “It’s about us,” Seth explained. “We’re the Defiant Thomas Brothers. The show is about us.” But most of all they describe the hour-long show as an experience. “We want you to come and experience a night with us. Everything you do from the time you walk in to the time you walk out is designed. Nothing is by mistake. Up to our pre-show music, our transition music which is original. It’s an experience.” You can hear some of the music from their last show here. You can expect about 12-13 vignettes, keeping the show moving quickly.
We talked a bit of shop when Paul and Seth had just performed their first show on October 1, and were already adapting the show to keep it as sharp as possible. And their experience has taught them never to keep something in the show that isn’t working, even something they love. Seth explained, “Nothing is safe. If a line is holding up a scene it can go. If positioning is holding up a scene it can go. If a character is holding up a scene it can go.” Performing a sketch show is different from stand up, though, where you’re really working out material as you go, doing small shows in small venues to perfect your jokes. That can be frustrating before opening night, Paul said, because you don’t have the same opportunity for feedback. “Even a Second City Mainstage Review, they can work stuff out, all these nights and extra sets and work material in. We’re flying a lot more blind, but a lot of it just comes down to having confidence. And having layers in scenes too,” he said. “We had a very few of those opening night actually,” he said, “But it was more about stuff that was better on paper.” One of the things they learned opening night was it was time to move on from a crowd favorite. Although the show is mostly new, they performed their modern take on the old Who’s on First? Abbott and Costello routine which has been a signature bit. “Everyone’s seen it,” they agreed. “Maybe there was three people seeing it for the first time. We did it because it’s our classic bit, but even today we’re both like, you know…we don’t’ need to do it again.”
They did decide to stick with one classic, a song called “Jews” that we saw kill for them last Spring. In fact, they told me that our review of their performance at the Breakout Festival was what convinced them to keep it in the show. “We were debating whether to do ‘Jews’ again,” Paul said. Our review of the song made it into their marketing material and they decided to keep it in. I don’t want to give away too much, but the title doesn’t even begin to describe what makes the piece so outrageous. There’s another word- one that has nothing to do with Jews- that comes up in the song more times than I could keep count of. To call it a bold piece is an understatement, but it works, and not just for people who delight in offensive language. It’s a scream, but it’s also well crafted, and Paul and Seth know exactly how to ride the line of off-color comedy.
That’s part of what defines their comedy in fact. They know how to take potentially controversial content and make it work. Paul chalks the success of their edgier material up to good writing, and timing including the timing of where in the show to place a segment. “We know how to protect scenes and the content,” he said. “There is stuff where it’s a running order thing. Is the audience ready for it? In our last show, the abortion scene– they need to buy into us and what we’re doing,” he explained. “There’s nothing funny about abortion, but we’re in a comedy competition where the topic is abortion. So we have it protected.” But you can’t just place your edgiest bits up front. “If you start the show like that, people are like what the hell are these guys doing? But once they buy into you and they’re laughing…so that’s the stuff. Moving stuff up in the order, or is it served better later. We’ve seen that happen where you just move the same scene later in the show, and it works. It didn’t get a reaction one week and it’s because it’s coming off something else. It’s arts and crafts. It’s science,” Paul explained.
They know whether a bit is working or not based on the crowd more than from feedback from friends and family. “Opening night usually has your Machiavellian circle in attendance and so you gauge honest responses, because they are in a place where they can say hey, that was too long,” Seth shared. “But I will say when you have a hot crowd and you expect to get a laugh on something and you’ve got the quote unquote easiest crowd, and something doesn’t hit then you know it doesn’t work.”
Off stage they each add something different to the mix. Seth tends to take a broader look at things, providing arcs and connectivity, Paul focuses on the moments. “Seth is the one where it’s like..why does this guy do this? What is the motivation? I’m looking at the big picture stuff. Where I’m more, we need funny right there, we need funny right there. So I’ll be doing something that maybe doesn’t make sense. Seth always has the thing to tie stuff in. Why is this happening? Why are we even doing this scene or things that I don’t think of. I’m just going– let’s get from funny point A to funny point B and then just keep hitting like that. So that even happens combing over the scenes, so that’s a really good Yin Yang, a mix of broad strokes making sure the whole ship is floating.” Seth agreed, giving an example where he might sketch out a scene, explaining what the people on stage will be doing. “I’ll email it to Paul and he’ll come back with 15 joke bombs there.”
The show runs through November, but they’re already thinking ahead, talking about possibly a trip to New York, or maybe recording some music down the line. They also have an interesting side project in their sights. “Our thing for this year, we have acoustic rap. It doesn’t fit in our show. Seth’s an amazing rapper. We’ve got 25 minutes of that. It just doesn’t fit in our show. As fast and how many words he has, it doesn’t work in a sketch show because people laugh and they have to listen. So that’s a separate piece, so hopefully we’ll perform them live and also film them.”
For now you can see them every Saturday night at Stage 773 in Chicago at 10:30 p.m. through November 19th. And I highly recommend it.