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The Duke Chronicle
Wednesday, February 14, 1996

Don't call them a troupe
by Alex Gordon

They've been making noise since their first show in April 1992 — literally. But it wasn't because of talk show appearances or magazine write-ups; rather, it was when they were leaving a dorm at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where they performed-they accidentally exited through the wrong door and set off the fire alarm.

Then, they just bolted.

Welcome to the world of the Van Gogh-Goghs, a Chapel Hill-based sketch comedy group, where zany antics, whether intentional or not, are the rule.

The Van Gogh-Goghs — six close friends with a penchant for popular '80s music, 19th century Dutch Expressionist painting and, above all else, just having fun — are Alan Benson, 25, Galen Black, 28, T. Michael Childs, 28, Charles Rempel, 24, Robert Terrell, 28, and Jason Torchinsky, 24, and have been performing their act on the local Chapel Hill comedy circuit for almost four years.

Lounging on the cushioned chairs in the upper level of the Bryan Center, the Van Gogh-Goghs explain the unique components of their name's origin.

"Yeah, we're huge Go-Gos fans," Torchinsky says.

"Big Van Gogh fans, too," Benson chimes in, "but not of Vincent. We named ourselves after his rich brother Theodore, who financed Vincent-besides, Theo kept both ears."

"And after all, The Van Morrison-Morrisons was just too cumbersome," Black jokes, pleased to have the last word.

This charmingly peculiar character of the Van Gogh-Goghs was immediately apparent from the outset of the interview when the group members conducted a search for an open phone jack to use their phone, equipped with a 50-foot extension cord, in order to call Terrell, who was unable to make the interview. The search, though fruitless, proved to be amusing.

As they demonstrated, the Van Gogh-Goghs' playful mischief transcends the performance stage. Midway through the interview, Torchinsky whimsically tossed Black's glove down into the crowded Cafe.

While the Van Gogh-Goghs, who tout themselves as the "mama's boys of comedy," realize that sketch comedy is rare in the comedy industry nowadays, they nevertheless relish the niche they have carved out with their distinctive style.

Creating the absurd out of the ordinary has been a constant throughout the Van Gogh-Goghs' existence. "We like to take everyday stuff and make it weird," Benson says.

The Van Gogh-Goghs' formula for producing their own characteristic comedy has materialized into 165 sketches. "That doesn't mean 165 successful sketches, only 165 total sketches," Rempel notes humorously.

Unlike "Saturday Night Live," perhaps the most recognizable sketch-comedy cast, the Van Gogh-Goghs do not use cue cards or any other comic safety nets. But that's the way they prefer it; such a style allows for opportunities to ad-lib and maintain a certain amount of relaxation on stage.

"We toyed with doing improv, but we just weren't satisfied with the results," Black says.

"Anyway, I think you get more laughs from sketch comedy," Torchinsky adds. "We try to avoid the clicheacute;d crap when we write our sketches. They say you should write about what you know; for us, that involves stuff like job interviews, television and arcade games-and prison," he says, chuckling.

And, prison experience aside, the Van Gogh-Goghs manage to incorporate what they know into their sketches with an impressive wit. At a recent show last month at The Cave, a cozy underground club nestled on Franklin Street, they entertained the 20-person audience with 12 brand-new, and quite clever, sketches.

The sketch entitled "Brothers of the Arcade," depicts various arcade personalities — Pitfall Harry, Donkey Kong, Super Mario and Ms. PacMan — gathering at a birthday party. Ms. PacMan informs the party-goers of her divorce from her husband after discovering his affair with Inky, adding: "Mr. PacMan is now doing ads for Nuprin: little, yellow, different... fuck him!"

Leave it to the Van Gogh-Goghs to portray arcade characters like they've never been portrayed before.

Before they even take the stage, though, the group devotes a good deal of their time to devising, writing and rehearsing the sketch material. Oftentimes, their ideas for potential sketches occur to them at random moments: while going to sleep, driving, or at work, for instance. The initial idea for the group's "Radio" sketch struck Benson while at work at the Raleigh News and Observer.

In the sketch, a stereotypical redneck "James Boy and Willy Morning Show" joins the National Public Radio station. The ingenious fusion of the two polar elements produced a radio station like no other — one that plays the "classic classics, the best music of the 1700s, 1800s and 1900s." In accordance with the radio station's celebration of "Bachtober," James Boy and Willy, described in the sketch as "two guys who laugh at the name Slobodan Milosevic," announce they have a "Bach Block" lined up for the occasion.

The Van Gogh-Goghs take pride in their approach to the material, which unlike many popular comedians, does not rely on degradation.

"We really have no axes to grind," Childs remarks wryly. "Well, except for [the comic] 'Family Circus' — we just hate it."

The group grinds their "Family Circus" ax in a sketch entitled "Comic Juvenile Court," in which the comic character Dolly finds herself on trial for bludgeoning her younger brother Jeffy to death with a toy truck. In the courtroom, the judge awards points to the lawyers for the use of Latin legal phrases and the stenographer keeps score.

In all this on- and offstage humor — visual and verbal — a cohesion appears to surface, a quality that is a result of their longtime camaraderie which began long before they became the Van Gogh-Goghs. Nurturing a friendship that started in adolescence, each developed a common, genuine affection for comedy that was influenced, in part, by frequent viewings of Steve Martin and "Monty Python."

Several of the members developed their comedic interests in college. While attending Chapel Hill, Black and Childs wrote and produced "Off the Cuff," a student-run cable-access show. Just down the road, Rempel, who graduated from Duke in 1993, directed and starred in a sketch comedy show on Cable 13 called "Happy Head." Although it ran over a three-year span, due to a number of personnel glitches, only one show was produced each year.

"In the end it didn't really matter," Rempel explains, "because on my resume, it says that the show lasted three seasons, which is technically true."

Torchinsky's own three minutes of collegiate fame, when he was chosen to open for George Carlin at an on-campus show at UNC in 1993, proved an accurate forecast for his present comic career. In the recent show at the Cave, he assumed the spotlight for one skit as "Shlomo, the Drunken Rabbi." Torchinsky elicited guffaws from the audience by portraying an Orthodox figure in such an unorthodox manner. "We [Jews] can't eat pork because we don't have the incisors," he proclaimed, stumbling about with a bottle of gin in hand.

Since their debut in 1992, the Van Gogh-Goghs have expanded their performance venues to various Chapel Hill and Greensboro locations, predominantly frequenting the Cave and the Skylight Exchange, also in Chapel Hill. They have even appeared at Duke's Coffeehouse, which, the group concurred, ranked as one of the low points of the group's still fledgling career.

"No one was there and so it felt like we were just rehearsing," Rempel says.

Over the past four years, the group has performed before both scant audiences and packed crowds. Recounting their most memorable experience together, the group members tell of the time an audience member continuously heckled them last year at a performance in Chapel Hill's Skylight Exchange. After the show, the heckler approached the group's members and, much to their amazement, apologized for his behavior, confessing that indeed he had enjoyed the show.

"I had never seen anything like that before. I couldn't believe that the guy actually recanted his heckle — only in North Carolina," Torchinsky comments, smiling and shaking his head.

Perhaps somewhat surprising — even to the Van Gogh-Goghs themselves — is the fact that all six members have outside jobs: Benson works for the News and Observer; Black is a production assistant for UNC-TV; Childs works in the audiovisual department at the Searle Center, part of the Duke Medical Center; Rempel is a software tester for Software Designs, Ltd.; Terrell is the founder and president of Fringe Multimedia; and Torchinsky works with Terrell as a graphics artist.

Hoping to increase their exposure beyond the Triangle area, the group members have utilized their computer proficiency and collaborated to create their own World Wide Web page which, according to Rempel, was their "debutante coming-out party." The page includes everything from photographs of the Van Gogh-Goghs and a "Van Gogh-Gogh Smart Ladder," in which they sardonically measure each other's intelligence, to a randomly included picture of Sally Struthers.

After almost four years, the harmony of the group is now quite apparent — Black attributes it to the individual eccentricities of each group member. The Van Gogh-Goghs have maintained their enjoyment for comedy and laughter, and for spending time with one another. Because of their cohesiveness they are, to make a Sally Struthers sitcom reference, an "All in the Family"-type of sketch comedy group.

Since last May, Benson, Childs and Rempel have been living together, though the entire group congregates regularly at the roommates' abode to hold crab-chip fests, generic soda taste tests and just to hang out.

So, in one word, how would the Van Gogh-Goghs describe themselves?

"Group," Rempel answers definitively.

The members all agree adamantly about this characterization: They are a group, not a troupe. They proceed to launch into a hilarious schtick focusing on the clarification, the Bryan Center their stage.

"The term 'troupe' pisses me off," Benson says.

"'Troupe' sounds like guys from the Renaissance, wearing berets and shit," Torchinsky asserts.

Perhaps the Van Gogh-Goghs will in corporate this "group/troupe" routine into a sketch for the upcoming Improvisation Festival in Austin, Texas in April, where the group received special approval to perform sketch comedy. They regard the trip to the Lone Star State as a meaningful opportunity for them.

"We are hoping to get noticed by agents, or the like," Torchinsky says.

Maybe we'll even get to meet Ross Perot there," Black adds, not to be outdone by his fellow Van Gogh-Gogh. But whatever the future holds in store for the group, the Van Gogh-Goghs hope to attract attention wherever they may travel.

Even if that happens to entail setting off another fire alarm.

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