Three Busy Debras, the one-act play that caps the Annoyance Theater's Saturday show in Brooklyn, sounds a bit like a fairy tale. As with certain fabled trios of pigs and bears, the Debras have different characteristics to set them apart. But unlike Mama, Papa, and Baby Bear, in the case of Three Busy Debras, the first Debra is a white supremacist, the second one thinks she can "fuck the autism" out of her son, and the third says there's no such thing as rape.
The 45-minute show—created and performed by the Not 27 Club (Sandy Honig, 23; Mitra Jouhari, 22; and Alyssa Stonoha, 19)—delves into incest, necrophilia, the Holocaust, 9/11, Kony 2012, kidnapping, pedophilia, suicide, matricide, masturbation, infidelity committed with ghosts, and brunch.
Despite the amount of objectionable multimedia visuals, no one in the audience at the June 27 performance of Three Busy Debras that I attended seemed personally affronted. Perhaps that is because the three (busy) Debras have no idea they hold controversial beliefs. "They have no historical or cultural context for anything," said Stonoha. "They're not consciously trying to be terrible—they just are because they're dumb," adds Jouhari.
Comedian (and occasional VICE contributor) Jake Fogelnest, the show's LA-based director who calls himself more of a "spiritual adviser," said that very likable members of the Not 27 Club can get away with shocking plot points since each one is supplemented with pointed commentary on life in the digital age.
"I think we're in a sort of outrage culture right now," said Fogelnest, who is also a writer on the Wet Hot American Summer series, coming to Netflix at the end of the month. "There's something about three young women who are clearly brilliant writers and clearly brilliant performers, who are also clearly strong feminists. In a way it's sort of like, 'Let's take all of the worst things that we're afraid of and that we're sick of, embrace them, and reflect it back to people.' You can joke about anything. It just has to be smart."
Fogelnest argues that his cast is still playing to the top of their intelligence because the exaggerated sight gags are placeholders for sharp criticism. "The last thing I said to them is, 'Just make sure you know what your target is. Don't be offensive and crazy for the sake of being offensive and crazy.'"
For example, Stonoha's Debra (none of the three characters have last names) turns on her friend's television and exclaims, "Check it out! America's Funniest Home Videos is on" when she comes across a clip of the smoldering Twin Towers.
"People love to watch it," said Stonoha. "They've just been trained to be so afraid that they're, like, addicted to watching it... They're not sickos sitting in their basement jerking off to 9/11 footage—everybody watches it a lot. They play it over and over on the news."
Honig, Jouhari, and Stonoha, all part of the Upright Citizens Brigade improv and sketch community, became fans of each other at the beginning of 2015 over Twitter ("When you're just starting out in sketch and in improv in New York City, you sort of have to find your tribe," explained Fogelnest). In February, they decided to meet up and perform together at Bring Your Own Team, a weekly Sunday night show at UCB where acts put there name in a bucket to vie for five minutes of stage time.
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Although they had just met, the three—who took the stage last—bonded as the most raucous members of the audience. "We were just kind of like yelling the whole time and as the show got longer and longer, anytime anybody onstage would do something misogynistic we would just be like, [all three chime in] 'Woo! Nice! I like to suck dick!'" said Honig. "So we had definitely gone nuts. "
At one point, the group onstage asked for a suggestion, and Honig, Jouhari, and Stonoha shouted, "Misandry!" defined as a hatred of men.
"This one white boy steps off the back line and pretends to be reading or something, and he goes, 'Just another day in Misandry, Massachusetts,'" laughed Honig.
"It was horrifying," said Stonoha.
Jouhari added: "It was amazing because no one else onstage knew what it was so they were like, [scoffs], 'Probably is a place.'"
When it was the women's turn, they initiated a scene about three friends enjoying a meal. "Someone said, 'My name is Debra,' and then someone called the other one Debra, and then one of us was like, 'We're all named Debra!'" remembers Jouhari. Within five minutes, they had a road map grounded in three tenants: "All Debras are small, all Debras are busy, all Debras are quiet." Debra Messing, whom Jouhari loves and dreams of one day spotting in the audience, might have inspired the name.
Soon after, while working on a script called The Myth of Misandry, Massachusetts, the Not 27 Club was invited to participate in a Thursday night show called Fourplay at the Annoyance, which opened a New York outpost six months ago. Operating out of Chicago since 1987, Annoyance was founded by Mick Napier, a legendary Second City director who wrote the beloved handbook Improvise: Scenes from the Inside Out.
Three Busy Debras is probably one of the most offensive shows I've ever seen, and what is amazing to me is that they pull it off charmingly. —Philip Markle of the Annoyance Theater
Fourplay consists of four ten-minute plays. "And we were just like,Oh! Let's do that Debras thing that we kind of improvised," said Stonoha. They wroteThree Busy Debrasin less than 45 minutes at a diner.
Philip Markle, the artistic director at the Annoyance in New York, encouraged them to expand the play to 20 minutes for the show Triple Feature before eventually awarding them a coveted Saturday time slot.
"Three Busy Debras is probably one of the most offensive shows I've ever seen, and what is amazing to me is that they pull it off charmingly," Markle wrote in an email. "The audience loves them because they commit unabashedly to their characters. It takes risks: three innocent-acting women unafraid to play vile, vulgar, yet also whimsical characters who vacillate from singing show tunes to fucking a dead corpse. I was excited to give this show an audience because it represents how the Annoyance is an uncensored, uninhibited space where artists can push boundaries."
The Debra characters themselves are parodies of Stepford Wife-esque WASPS who speak like GPS systems and seem unexpectedly aware (at times) that they're being watched.
"I think that we're all kind of robot women who are also demons," explained Honig. The Not 27 Club's alter egos are also humorless, which is a shame because Honig, Jouhari, and Stonoha are constantly cracking each other up in real life. There's not a cackle among their three laughs—instead their laughter recalls children who've fallen victim to violent tickling and are gasping for breath.
Very quickly, the ladies learned to establish groupthink by mining each others' comedic voice. Honig, who is from Connecticut and works as a photographer for Rookie, favors wordplay, puns, and "corny dad jokes," as well as Harpo Marx-style physical comedy. Meanwhile, Ohio native Jouhari says she infuses the group with her "hyper-emotional" moments and passion for socio-political discourse a la The Daily Show (her father immigrated from Iran during the Revolution, and she recently visited the country for the first time).
Stonoha's comedic muse is Andy Kaufman for his mix of "fearless antagonism" and "pure silliness." "I think I tend to lean dark in a way that's sometimes people think is just upsetting," said the rising junior at Marymount Manhattan College. Comedy is a tool for Stonoha—who became a recurring guest on The Chris Gethard Show at age 16 when she still lived with her family in Connecticut—to work through emotionally triggering media coverage. "I get really affected by really horrible stuff, to the point where I'm like turning it over in my head so much that the only way I can get it out is by putting it in my comedy. Otherwise I'm just like trapped in my mind, freaking out about things. So then [onstage] I'm being a woman who fucks her autistic son, which is horrific."
Besides the aforementioned Myth of Misandry, Massachusetts (Jouhari's summary: "There's a prophecy that, when three girls start their period at the same time, anyone who harasses women or treats them poorly gets killed"), the Not 27 Club is writing two additional projects.
"'Three Fuckable Men,'" Honig says, will be thinly-veiled caricatures of actual men who've "treat[ed] us like shit;" "Kidz Bop Live" will focus on the underage hookups that happen backstage on the eponymous tour. When asked about their prolific ability to generate ideas, the three credit genuinely liking and having respect for one another.
As for Three Busy Debras, Markle wrote, "I'm hoping to extend the show for quite some time."
"What's so incredible about it to me is that it's this little crazy show at the Annoyance, and literally I got an email from my agent at William Morris Endeavor like, 'What's up with this Three Busy Debras thing? I'm hearing great stuff,'" said Fogelnest. "That made me very happy because I was like, Oh, people should take notice of them. Because it's just so unique."
A video version of Three Busy Debras has already been written, and the script includes a new fourth character, a non-Debra named Mail Lizard. Dragging a full-size letter, Stonoha said he is "a real lizard"—"With a tiny hat," added Honig. The logistics of acquiring a reptilian deliveryman have yet to worked out. Jouhari finds her words after nearly choking on giggles. "It's so funny—can you imagine?"
Performances of Three Busy Debras will take place at the Annoyance Theater every Saturday in July—July 11, 18, and 25—at 8 PM. For more information, visit the Annoyance Theater website here.
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