The Defiant Thomas Brothers are back for a new season from October 1 to November 19 at Stage 773.
With that news, 2016 is looking brighter.
The Defiant Thomas Brothers’ comedy is about life and reality and their scenes are always undiluted by agendas, messages, and caution. Musically masterful, improbably hummable songs also play a prominent role and cover all sorts of landmines, like the Jew Song, which I’ll just say highlights the absurdity of racist language and you have to hear it live.
In 2001, Seth Thomas and Paul Thomas met backstage at Second City and realized their sensibilities were a match made in comedy heaven. They’re too wary of hype to say anything like that themselves, but all you have to do is look at what’s followed.
The first Defiant Thomas Brothers show in 2002 began with a run that would last eighty weeks. As word caught fire, demand carried them to destinations as far-flung as the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, where they brought down the house with their seamless tribute to “Who’s On First” and to Aspen where in 2005 they were named “Best Sketch Group” at HBO’s U.S. Comedy Arts Festival.
A contract with the William Morris Agency was next. Then they broke up. The reason remains a mystery.
In September 2015, they reunited. The Chicago Tribune’s Chris Jones, echoing the thoughts of fans, said they rivaled one of the greatest comedy duos of all time, Key & Peele.
Their return to Second City last fall was initially for a limited time, but as new and old devotees filled the theater every week, their run became open-ended. Early last summer, they took a hiatus to develop new material and again responding to demand, began traveling. Recent appearances include the North Carolina Comedy Arts Festival and the Out of Bounds Comedy Festival in Austin.
They were in Austin when I caught up with them by phone. They had performed the night before and in a few hours would be teaching a master class and performing again. They kindly took time out to talk about their first year back together and their new show.
Teme: What were your favorite things about getting back together as the Defiant Thomas Brothers this past year and what was most challenging?
Seth: Most exciting for me was realizing that all of the chemistry of Defiant Thomas Brothers was still there. It was finding out that we were still very relevant. Very on time. Very now.
The most challenging thing for me is the flip side of that. I don’t know how to say this, but it’s accepting the fact that the asses of today’s kids are as tight as they are.
Paul: The sphincters are tight in 2016.
Seth: The area of taboo has grown. Things I didn’t think were out there, turned out now are out there. For me, that was very difficult. When you open with, "I dedicate this song to priests that molest children," that used to get a huge laugh. Now it's like, GASP!
That's what you go to see comedy for, to channel things. In my mind, comedy was never really safe. You look to comedy to break through all of the safeguards. The idea now that comedy is supposed to have safeguards ... Wow. What's going on?
Teme: Yeah. Comedians are the people who are telling the truth. You have to be able to tell the truth.
Seth: Yeah, straight up.
Teme: How are you thinking about political correctness this year? After seeing it last season, is it any kind of factor as you write?
Seth: So comedy is still a craft. People don't have fun when they feel like they're being attacked. You don’t laugh when you’re feeling attacked. No one's going to be attacked, but as far as us being PC, no, it's not there for us. No need for that. It's about what serves the scene and what brings the funny. If you’re writing like, "Oh, we're going to be PC or we're not going to be PC," that ends up dictating the pen and that's not the purpose.
For us, it's about what’s funny first. Our discussions come down to deciding will we say Uber or Lyft? Well, people know Uber more. Those are what our conversations come down to, not whether something is PC or not.
Paul: We don't have to bring it, because the audience is going to bring it.
Seth: They can't help themselves. They're trapped in this 2016 where “I’m not allowed to express how I feel because I'm so worried about what label's going to land on me for my feelings.”
Paul: We talk about the psychology all the time. It goes with running order. First, you get the audience on your side, where they know, (a) we’re funny, and (b), we know what we're doing. The same scene, you move it up higher and people don't laugh. You move it later and it's gold. Exact same scene.
Teme: How has reuniting last year as Defiant Thomas Brothers changed your life?
Seth: Well, first of all, it added another layer of joy. I enjoy performing things that I create or help create. It also opened up a lot of doors. It opened up some teaching doors, too.
It's changed everything. I wasn't in North Carolina in 2014. We're traveling around, people are talking to us. I wasn't doing phone interviews, Teme, two years ago, right? It's fun. It's changed by giving me a really great performance avenue and a way to express myself and get out of the house and do some shows.
Paul: Now I can make all my racist jokes and it's okay. I can just go, "No, I have a black partner."
Seth: There it is.
Teme: I'd love to hear about your new season, however much you can say!
Paul: We have a few scenes that we're revisiting that weren't in our last show. We're putting in some pieces from back in the day and reworking them. We've kind of discovered, more … would you say vaudevillian?
Seth: Yes, more routines for sure.
Paul: I think this one feels more comedy duo-ish. It has more of a vaudeville feel.
Seth: Our show last year was a reintroducing of ourselves. People who had never heard of us, they met us. People who had heard of us, they were reintroduced and they were happy to see us again. Now everyone's caught up. "Okay, everyone, you know who we are."
Teme: Cool. Like continuing the conversation. You meet a friend for the first time and get to know each other and then you get back together and you continue where you left off.
Teme: Which topics, which situations will we see?
Seth: Yeah, God and politics.
Paul: Politics usually we don't have, but we have a little bit. But there's a lot of God in here. We didn't realize until after we wrote. We're like, "Oh. Huh. How about that?"
Seth: We’re still the Defiant Thomas Brothers. We still mine our own experiences. We look at the world through our own lenses. If you look back at our lives, both Paul and I have a lot of run-ins with the Lord.
Teme: Yeah, me too!
Seth: So at some point there's no way to get away from it. But we seek to entertain. There are people who want to comment on the world and in the process, try to be funny. We try to be funny, and in the process we might comment on the world. For us, it's still about being funny. It's just when you mine these things, the Lord's pretty funny. It just comes up.
Teme: What made it a prominent issue?
Seth: It wasn't a prominent issue at all. We believe funny is funny. People put more on us than we put on it. You see a Defiant Thomas Brothers show and think we have a checklist of social ills or woes or situations and we're checking them off. "Okay, we got the abortion one. Check. Oh, wait. We need more God." It's not like that at all. We're just firing out ideas and when they land, we go, "Hey, let's work on that."
But it does come up in the running order. When we start putting the running order together, we go, "Wait."
Paul: “There are two God things right there."
Seth: "There're two God things right next to each other, so space those out."
Paul: The audience probably wouldn't go home saying, "They had two God things in a row!" but we're conscious of it.
Seth: It's not until we start working on the running order where we're like, "Oh, these things are similar!” And then you step back and go, “Oh. There is a lot of God in the show.” It wasn't like when we were going forward we said, "Hey, let's put in a lot of God” or “the Lord struck me down at Mariano's and now that's all I want to write about." It's not like that.
Teme: I was wondering if the God material came up because it seems like the world's going crazy and it raises questions.
Seth: I don't know if the world's gone crazy or if people just have more social media close to their thumbs that's crazy.
Paul: It's the same thing as always. People are dying everywhere the same as always. I don't really need to see more pictures of it.
Seth: What's happening right now? "Oh, the Trump/Hillary race." I'm like, "Yeah, what was it, the George Bush/so-and-so race?" We've had political races before.
Paul: It'll happen this football season with the Redskins. "It's racist." But it's been like that for a long time. It's because it's on social media, everybody's weighing in with their opinions. It was always there.
Seth: For example, our opening number with the cop and the guy running ... In that scene, we use the song "100 Miles and Running," and in that song, the rapper says, "Police and little black niggers don't mix.” That song is almost 30 years old. Nothing now seems brand new to me.
Teme: I've been getting really stressed out with everything on social media. But the fact is I probably always should have been stressed out.
Seth: Or you just turn that social media off.
Teme: That's really good advice. Are you guys on social media a lot or have you concluded not?
Paul: We have to be, but I do “likes” and I don't comment on anything. If I have a discussion, I'll have a discussion at the bar. That's what bars are for. On social media, you take an hour to write your big-worded comment and nobody can talk to you or have a back-and-forth. To me, it's just wasted time.
Seth: I do Twitter and that's it. I have a Facebook simply because I can't access our Defiant Thomas Brothers page without it, but I don't use it for anything. We're in this post-repost world where everyone wants to just repost what someone else said. There's just so much crap. No one's even checking sources. It's fueled by B.S.
I’m fact-based and it's just way too emotional for me right now. Everything's about “who I like and who I don't and what makes me some feel sort of way” and it's all just really, really emotional.
Teme: What about the God thing? What brought it in?
Paul: I had a really conservative upbringing. Most people would say if you had a conservative religious upbringing, you get great things from it. You also get other stuff that once you’re older you're like, "Whaaat?"
Most comedies, it's always like this attacking God thing. It's the same thing when you have comedians ripping on Trump on stage. It's so easy to do. You get a whole crowd hootin’ and hollerin' with you. It's an echo chamber of pandering. I respect a person more who's taking the alternate point of view. What hasn't been done? We always lean toward that. We don't want to be just jumping on the pile.
Teme: You take the angle that's not just running with the crowd.
Paul: We take the angle that's true to us.
Seth: Yeah, an angle that's true. For me, I was raised Buddhist, so at seventeen I went on a conscious search for God because I had heard about it. I joined a church and was in a church for a while. I left that. I read Message to the Blackman and was getting ready to join the Nation of Islam, but I really couldn't wrap my head around God coming back in the person of Master Fard Muhammad in 1937 in Harlem. Something about the idea of God told me he was smarter than to show up on earth as a black man in the ‘30s.
I did orthodox Islam for a while. Got out of that when I realized that it was just as tainted as everything else. And I mean by that I loved the message of the Koran. I have no desire to be an American Arab-looking dude, you know what I mean? The inability to separate Arabic culture from the doctrines in the book just bothered me, so I stepped away.
It's probably my Buddhist upbringing that made me want to see the oneness in everything as opposed to the differences in everything. When I look at Judaism, Christianity, Islam, I see a relay race as opposed to three people fighting each other. I see them all running towards the same direction.
Between Paul's conservative route and my outsider search through it, we both have a perspective on this whole religious thing.
Paul: It’s not the easy criticism.
Seth: We're not commenting on anything religious. The point is to be funny and entertaining, not preachy. You're not coming to Defiant Thomas Brothers to be preached at.
Really, when I say that we found out that there was a lot of God in this show by looking at the running order, that's what I mean. In no way did we set out to comment on religion and God. We're just writing scenes.
The downside of the Defiant Thomas Brothers is that we're not as deep as people make us to be. I think as writers we're smart. I think we assume that our audiences are smart, so we have to be smart. We want to be funny. You know, wit is a spice and clever is a spice. We're spicing it up with that stuff.
Paul: That's a big point right there. That's pretty distinct from preaching.
Seth: For me, I love joke bombs. I love that thing where I drop it on you, you think about it and go, "Oh!" If you look at it like boxing, easy jokes feel like a guy's just standing there with his hands down and you just punched him in the eye. There was no work involved. It's so easy.
I taught a class one time and the idea was for the group to be Trump supporters. They immediately went into, "Trump hates gays. Trump hates this. Trump hates that.” I stopped and asked, "Is that true?
I remember watching a video where a lady said, "Everyone thinks they're the good guy," and that to me is the truth of it. Everyone thinks they're doing the right thing. Whether they are or not, they think they are. Let’s have less bashing and let's be earnest. This person really thinks they're doing something good. It’s taking that perspective.
Like Paul said, it can become just half-assed pandering. That's why you stay away from it. Our scenes aren't about God and politics. Our scenes are about people in a relationship being funny.
Paul: Our stuff is always grounded in reality. It's just our style. We won’t be like, "he's an astronaut going back in time." That's just not us to do something that’s fantastical. Any of those ideas are valid ideas, but we put them on the shelf of "not for DTB."
Teme: Speaking of styles, I love the music from the show. I like how as the audience my mind never wanders because there’s always a beautiful note or an interesting lyric and I don’t want to miss anything. What's your process for writing your music?
Seth: For songs in the show, again, mining our own experiences. I was in marching band my whole life, and my father was a musician, so I've grown up with this deep appreciation for music.
If I had to choose between ... I want to say stereo but I don't have one. If I had to choose between my Bluetooth speaker and my television, I would choose my Bluetooth speaker. I would listen to music over watching television every day of the week. Paul's the same way. You were in band, right?
Paul: I was the drum major. My mom was the music teacher.
Seth: There it is. Two guys coming from music backgrounds. A couple of things we know: after so many bars, we have to change. How does the second verse heighten the first verse? Is it necessary? If there are three verses, the third one has to be bigger than the other ones. What can we do that’s musically different?
I want our music to move. I want it to grab you and pull you somewhere. When it comes to our music, the first thing is it has to be good musically, then funny, and then possibly comment on something.
Paul: But it's still a scene. If the second verse is similar to the first or doesn't get a laugh or add a new element, then [by the second verse] everybody's like, "Ok, I get it." New things have to come in because otherwise if you're doing the third chorus and there's not something new, it's like you’re just completing homework on the song versus surprising the audience.
Teme: I was listening to your songs on YouTube and one keeps running through my head. It’s like the feminist rap song.
Teme: Yeah. How did you guys decide to write that one?
Paul: That goes back to a character I did in our [Second City] Conservatory show. It was based on a real person. I’d worked at a grocery store and one day I was stocking liquor. There was a guy standing there. I got a lot of mileage out of this guy in that one day. He said, "Hey, you seen the Nancy Sinatra Playboy? Nice face. Nice legs. Nice beaver." I'm trying to work and he's telling me this.
So I created a character, Steve Beaverman who says stuff like that. But I didn’t start out from, “Let’s look at the dichotomy of a man’s mind.” It was, here’s a character. What have you got?
Seth: I remember when we played it at William Morris. [The agent] was like, "Oh, a misogynistic song." I said, "Just keep listening.” Then as she kept listening, she was like, "Oh, that's different."
I started out as a rapper. When I got to Chicago, I started doing more comedy, but I've always been a rapper. For that song, I let Paul and the hook provide the comedy. What I wanted to do was juxtapose it with some really good rap. When you listen to comedy rap these days, they try so hard to be in the joke, which ends up ...
Paul: … bad rapping.
Seth: Right. I want the song to force you to have to stop or afterwards go back and listen again. But we didn’t set out to be, like, "Oh, the feminist rap." It was simply stating, "Pay attention, talk to her" while meanwhile, the other guy's like, "Nice beaver."
Paul: God bless that guy. He was probably a registered sex offender, but he gave me a lot of mileage for that character.
Teme: I did actually go back and listen to that song many times. Are you bringing some of those songs and material back to your new show?
Paul: We're closing with "The Jew Song," I can tell you that. We have to do "Who's On First." It's kind of a signature piece and people want to see it. But it’s a slippery slope. You're going to have people coming back who saw the last show and want their friends to see something from before, but we can't just have a show that has half the old show. "Jews" is a good closer. We also have new songs.
Seth: We're still students of the game. Walking down the hallway, we’ve had people we have mad respect for say, "Hey, are you ...?" We're like, "Yeah, we're working on stuff. Maybe a couple old things." They go, "Jews?" You just go, "Ahhh. Fuck!"
Paul: They’ll say, "I miss that one thing," and you're like, "All right, you convinced me." With both of our loves for music, we wanted to do more acoustic rap. We just didn't have time this year. But we are building up songs like that right now to the point where I dream in hooks, you know? Seth is probably writing raps in the back of his head right now.
Marrying those two things [rap and comedy] is a little tougher onstage, because [with songs] you can't slow down for laughs. If you have something that's funny, you can't play the same song twice in a row or slow it down. Hopefully next year, we'll build up some material where we can just do some acoustic rap sets, 20-30 minutes, even film it in somebody's basement. Some kind of little intimate coffee shop acoustic rap session.
We’re also working on transition track music. That's something that's just fun to do. We crack ourselves up, because it's kind of disposable, but we take it seriously, just making those little 15-second transition tracks between songs.
Teme: Really looking forward to it! So if you could have a day to do whatever you wanted, what would the perfect day look like?
Seth: The perfect day would be I get up and I don't have to go to work because Defiant Thomas Brothers is paying the electric bill. I enjoy what we're doing. It's a really fun journey. I'm in Austin, Texas, and the Defiant Thomas Brothers got me here. I kind of feel like I'm living the great days, you know? It's just when it's over, you go back to the grind.
Paul: I'm the same. That perfect day will be that moment where ...
Seth: I can get up and write today …
Seth: … as opposed to get up and go make somebody else some money. Yeah, I think for me that would be the perfect day. Waking up Monday and all I've got to do is work on some scenes.
The Defiant Thomas Brothers will be at Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont, Chicago on Saturdays at 10:30 p.m. from October 1 thru November 19. Tickets and more information here.
My 2015 interview with Paul and Seth is here.
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