“Who is better, Billy Joel or the Beatles?” On one hand, you have one of the most influential and diversifying bands. On the other, you have the piano man, Mr. Long Island. Even the most cynical Beatles naysayer would have a hard time claiming Joel over them with a straight face. Who would even compare the two? No one, that is, except for comedic writers and performers Dru Johnston and Don Fanelli. Their latest sketch show, Sketches from an Italian Restaurant: A Billy Joel Sketch Show, opens by posing this very question, proceeding by scolding the audience for obviously answering the wrong (the Beatles) way.
Opening its run at Upright Citizens Brigade in Chelsea, the sketch show built a steady momentum. By its closing night, it was playing to sold out audiences. Upright Citizens Brigade, co-founded by Matt Besser, Amy Poehler, Ian Roberts, and Matt Walsh, has become known for its innovative approach to sketch comedy and improv, producing some of today’s leading comedic writers and performers. Dru and Don’s show, with its absurdist and scattered nature, fits perfectly into the UCB mold.
Their last show of the initial run was full of energy. From the moment Dru and Don kicked through the curtain, the jam-packed audience experienced Dru and Don’s absurd and creative show. With jokes ranging anywhere from a few minutes to a few seconds, the show keeps its vigor by failing to adhere to a singular form. There are times where Billy Joel’s presence is explicit in a joke, and other times where the team creates mini-sketches out of a phrase or line from Joel’s lyrics, all of which is loosely strung together by a trilogy of videos mocking the lyrics for Joel’s “Captain Jack.” Playing off the succession of lines, “And you just sit at home and masturbate. Your phone is gonna ring soon but you just can't wait. For that call,” the videos build a back-story, edited from different parts of the song, that increasingly gets more and more absurd; climaxing (no pun intended) with Dru masturbating, despite having just heard the news of his father’s death. Clocking in around thirty minutes, the show is perfect, not just for self-proclaimed comedy nerds, but for fans of music as well. Its high energy and quick quips, paced by a few longer segments, really allows for a natural and entertaining flow. The duo set their task at making Billy Joel, a man not known for humor, funny.
While the show has finished its first run at UCB New York, there is still life left, according to Dru and Don. We caught up with them to ask them about the show, their working relationship, the connection between sketch comedy and music, and what possible future the show has now that the initial run has ended.
Noisey: How did you two come together, when did you begin writing and performing as a team?
Dru: I actually don’t remember exactly when we met. We both were taking improv classes at the Upright Citizens Brigade back in like 2008 or 2009. We had a lot of mutual friends but we never had a class together, so I think we just got to know each other through them and then eventually started hanging out in the indie improv scene. Don was on a team called Dreadnaught that was also full of a lot of my good friends. They would put together these bizarre shows that aimed to push the limits of improv and I always admired them. A few months later, Don asked me if I wanted to be on a new improv team he was putting together. Half the team, myself included, wanted to be called “Dr. Banana’s Funnybone (A Comedy Team)”, the other half, including Don, wanted to be called “Fuck That Shit.” We ended up agreeing on Fuck That Shit (A Comedy Team). I only tell that story because I think it highlights both me and Don’s different sense of humor and how we try to make it work together.
It seems that there are a lot of sketch shows that involve musical performance. Further, music seems to be an integral influence on comedians. What connection do you think sketch comedy shares with music?
Don: There is a real similarity when you perform live in both mediums. Whether you are performing a song live or performing sketch live, there is this intimate experience that is shared by all, you get instant feedback from the audience. I definitely get the same rush performing this show as I did when I used to play in clubs with my band. Also, sketch and musical performance both take a lot of rehearsal and discipline. Writing a song with someone is similar to writing a sketch with someone, in that they both tap into that spontaneous creativity and riffing muscle.
Dru: From a structural standpoint, a lot of sketch teachers here at UCB actually equate sketches with pop songs. Like a fun, three to four minute ditty where we hit the joke a few times, enough for the audience to get it but not get sick of it; very similar to coming back to the chorus over and over again. A lot of sketches can break that, but I think at its core all art is very similar.
In the show, Don plays piano, and Dru harmonica. I would assume that you were in bands? What are your musical backgrounds?
Don: I sing a little and play guitar and piano. I was in a band in high school named Vital Element and college named the Watertree. Super-solid names. I always wanted to be a rock star and still do.
Dru: I played saxophone and was a musical theatre kid, so I sang a lot of show tunes. In middle school, I was in a band called Blind Gofer. I was the worst part of that band, and I’m including the name.
I am not sure who had the worse band name. I can assume that you are both Billy Joel fans. So let’s get this out the way early, who likes Billy Joel more?
Dru: Don’s been a fan longer, but I think right at this moment I like him more.
Don: Dru got it. I definitely have loved Billy Joel since early in my childhood. My dad would just play the A-side of Nylon Curtain over-and-over again during road trips. I have a slow cooker, nostalgic love for Billy Joel, whereas Dru has that stir-fry passion right now. All you chefs know what I’m talking about.
Dru: Yeah, as a kid, I really only loved his hits really: I used to fall asleep to "Captain Jack." But, I didn’t know any of his deep cuts until recently, since my parents were the type that would only own the greatest hits of any artist. Now I’m obsessed with all of it.
Some people probably see the show only as a joke at Joel’s expense, but in talking to you guys before your final show it became clear that you do have an immense respect for him. What is it about Joel that inspires you? And in contrast, what are the funniest aspects of his character?
Don: The highest respect for him, no doubt. It’s more fun and often easier to roast someone that you love and respect, because you usually don’t come across as mean or superficial. He is a hit master and one of the best American songwriters to ever live. He has so many catchy fucking tunes it is insane. But, he is a cheese ball and I love that. Some of his lyrics and rhymes are downright silly. But it’s his style, his aesthetic that is just so cheesy. I mean just watch the music video for “Keeping the Faith” and I think you’ll understand what I am saying. It is the white version of Lionel Richie’s “Dancing on the Ceiling."
Dru: Cheese ball one hundred percent… but in an unapologetic way that reminds me of a lot of Paul McCartney’s work. I don’t think Joel’s music is groundbreaking or overly profound in any way, but he’s still prolific in a way I could only hope to be. I had so many people come to the show saying they didn’t really know Billy Joel and then, over the course of watching it, they realized they knew all of the songs. It’s hard not to, since most of us grew up with him, without even realizing it.
When did the idea for creating an entire sketch show about Billy Joel come up?
Dru: I came up with that title as a joke title years ago, kind of a default joke answer whenever people asked me what I was working on. “What’re you working on?” “Sketches From an Italian Restaurant, it’s my one man show entirely about Billy Joel.” I had no idea what the content would be, other than maybe a sketch about a guy singing “Piano Man” that didn’t know how to play the piano. Then, during a UCB touring show I did with Don up at UMass, we were singing along to his greatest hits and talking about how great he was and it dawned on me that we might actually be able to do it.
What were some of the initial challenges you faced? Did you ever think that it wasn’t going to be possible to make it work?
Don: I mean, the initial challenges for any sketch show is to see what sketches and jokes hit consistently. We hit a wall with some sketches, but really just kept re-writing them and putting them up in front of audiences outside of the UCB. We would audio record them, and I would sit with the script and star what jokes worked and what didn’t. We had to audition the show three times at the UCB before it got a run. After each rejection we would be upset for like a day, but then work even harder to make it better. We kept tweaking little things up until the last three months of the run. I don’t think we ever thought it wasn’t possible to pull off or else we would have stopped after the first rejection.
In our initial talk you mentioned that the show has encountered numerous changes, and the final production is almost entirely different. Are there any jokes, any sketches that you still wish worked? Anything that looked good on paper that you couldn’t get to act out right?
Don: Yeah, I had this no dialogue/choreographed idea of two chefs one-upping each other while “I Go To Extremes” played. We had that in our second version of the show. It was funny on paper and fun when we were rehearsing it, but it just didn’t work in the show. And so it goes.
Dru: We had this sketch about “Piano Man” that was like my white whale. It was called Piano Man & Singing Man and it was about this lounge act where one dude could play the piano but was tone deaf, and the other could sing but his hands were too small to play the piano. We would get pissed at the audience for suggesting “Piano Man," because we thought they were making fun of us. It worked once and that was enough for me to keep saying “It will work again!” but it never would. Thankfully, Don finally put his foot down, and we moved on, because our “Piano Man” sketch is so much better now. Even reading this back I realize how overly complicated that sketch was for no reason.
Have the reactions to the show changed since its debut?
Don: I think so. We definitely got a bigger audience almost every show, which was cool. We promoted the show a good amount and sketch teachers at the school said that their students really enjoyed it and told their classmates to go. So, I think there was a good word of mouth that was developed in and out of the community. We also got listed in Time Out New York, The New York Times, and The Village Voice, which helped spread the word. Billy Joel never came so that stayed consistent.
Dru: I wanted Billy Joel to come so badly. It’s funny because at first, we only had comedy fans and as the show went on we were getting more Billy Joel fans. The first sketch of our show is us coming out and declaring that Billy Joel is better than the Beatles then arguing with the audience about it, and obviously we thought that was funny because it’s such a bold, untrue statement. No one is better than the Beatles. The audience used to guffaw when we said it, but as more and more Billy Joel fans came out I think the audience started to agree with us, and we were like wait this doesn’t work for the joke...
Performing in front of live audiences does leave room for inappropriate crowd reactions, have there been any unwarranted reactions during the show’s run?
Don: One time, a woman in sweatpants sat in the front row and texted for most of the show and asked loud questions to her friends. Other than that, we had awesome crowds. I can’t thank people enough for checking out our shows.
Dru: She also seemed offended at everything we said, and it’s not an offensive show. We never had any inappropriate crowd reactions. In the show’s start, when we declared that Billy Joel was better than the Beatles, we’d ask the audience to shout out their favorite Beatles songs and then we’d make fun of that song, telling them a Billy Joel song that was way better. Some people have weird favorite Beatles songs, and apparently “Helter Skelter” is a huge hit. So many people said “Helter Skelter.” It made no sense. But we both itched for weirder and weirder Beatles songs, my favorite was “Hey, Bulldog.” I can’t thank the audiences enough.
You’ve just finished the final performance of the show for UCB New York, what is next for the show? Where can it go from here?
Dru: Yeah, I would love to keep performing this show forever, since it is so fun to do and the audiences have been incredible, but outside of renting a theatre and putting it up there I don’t know where else we can go with it. I’m hoping that we’ll be submitting it to a few festivals here and there, and maybe another show in LA. Oh, and if Billy Joel wants to see it, we will find a way to put it up whenever and wherever he wants to see it.
Sketch is unique in that it lives and dies within a relatively short frame of time. Of course you could film it, but I think that Sketches from an Italian Restaurant lends itself best as performance. Unlike other entertainment art forms, like a band for instance who can tour on the same material for years, sketch is required to constantly be creating new ideas. What happens when a sketch reaches its last run?
Don: Great question. Well, we worked really hard on this show and it seemed to be received really well, so the best thing it can do is give you confidence in your ability moving forward. It proved to me that hard work pays off. I think we have to embrace that it is over, and use it as a stepping-stone to keep creating together. We set the bar for ourselves with our work ethic and our collaborative creativity, so now all we can do is try to push ourselves even further. I am never satisfied with my work. I always think it can be better. We filmed the show, so it will exist in that format, and I am sure we will put it up again somewhere, at some point. But when it’s over, it’s over. You use it as another learning experience and push yourself to make something better.
Is it sad to see something you’ve worked so hard on reach its end, especially when momentum seems to be at its highest? Or are you happy to move on to new endeavors?
Don: Absolutely, sad to see it end. I had such a blast doing this with Dru. From writing, to re-writing, to finding our groove once we got our run. Right before we’d go on every time we’d say something like, “Let’s just have fucking fun” and we really did. We had a blast and looked forward to doing every show. Definitely happy to move on to new endeavors, but you never forget your first. I will have Billy Joel withdrawal for a couple of weeks.
Dru: I’m bummed to see it end. I think there was a lot more we could have done with it as word spread and I think we had just reached a momentum that felt like we might possibly get Billy Joel to come catch it, or at least hear about it. That would have been an absolute dream come true. That being said, you can’t rest everything on one show. You always have to be producing new content. It’s always a bittersweet thing to move on to new projects, but it’s necessary. I already called Billy Joel prolific, and it’s something I admire about him, and I think we have to take a page out of his book. Let’s make our 52nd Street.
What is next for the two of you? Do you plan on creating more work together?
Dru: We jokingly say we want to write a Beatles sketch show called Lucy in the Sky with Sketches, which is the joke, used to set-up our characters up top in this show. But, I think both of us want to wait a bit for another live sketch show, so we don’t get caught up in trying to make it too similar or too different from this one. When we approach it we want it to be fresh. We also talk about writing a sketch show where we take down Monsanto. But web content has to be the focus now, as we try to build our audience.
Since we last spoke, Dru and Don have assured me that there is a future for the show, and plans have been set into motion, but it is too early to say. All that can be assured is that when it does surface, it will be something to keep an eye out for sure. The show appeals to Joel fans and critics alike, equally allowing the audiences to laugh both at and with Joel (even if he has yet to make it out to a show).
Joe Yanick is on Twitter - @Joe Yanick
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