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The Daily Bruin
Feb. 11, 2000

Comedy a go-go
by Megan Dickerson

THEATER: The Van Gogh-Goghs explore topics from 'furniture porn' to aliens in 'Are You Being Probed?'

You know a sketch comedy group is good when a casual conversation turns to:

A. The idea that seven deadly sins just aren't enough.
B. The word "tomfoolery."
C. Pants.
D. Magicians.

The Van Gogh-Goghs fit all these requirements, and more. In their Westwood office, the Los Angeles-based sketch comedy group also has a fake brick wall, a mural of their silhouettes and — above all — furniture porn.

"In case our telling you we were dorks wasn't enough, we provide the data," said Jason Torchinsky, pulling up one of the stools the group uses for skits.

The Van Gogh-Goghs — Galen Black, Charles Rempel, T. Michael Childs, Alan Benson, Rob Terrell and Jason Torchinsky — are dorky in the very best way. Like the edgy, chaotic Impressionist painter that is one half of their namesake, an interview with the six guys from North Carolina is a little ...different. In a way, it's like hanging out with the tertiary funny kids from high school. The Van Gogh-Goghs are the smart guys in the back, the ones who could always make the cool teachers laugh and outwit the other kids.

The new show "Are You Being Probed?" marks the second sketch grouping the Van Gogh-Goghs have performed at Masquer's Cabaret since they came to L.A. It's about aliens and Los Angeles, God and auto customization. There's even a strong technical element, which comes as no surprise considering the highly successful Van Gogh-Goghs Web site.

"The show will have the highest percentage of computer-generated special effects in a sketch show, in probably the entire Southern California area," Torchinsky said with a knowing nod.

"That night," Terrell elaborated.

"On the Masquer's Cabaret stage," Rempel finished.

"For the sadists out there who really want to watch us screw up, this is a great show to see," Torchinsky said.

Cocky comedians they are not. Still, while they recognize the power of self-deprecating humor, they aren't afraid of going out on a limb for comedy. After all, their Web site has funerary orations for each of the members and also includes a tantalizing selection of furniture porn.

You know the stuff — Chippendale chair-on-chair action, a little camelback revelry. The Van Gogh-Goghs show you that when the owner's away, the sofa will play.

Of course, the Van Gogh-Goghs have more to offer than home furnishings caught in compromising positions.

"Here's our collection of 'Dr.' sodas from throughout the country," Galen Black said proudly, pointing out a neat line of Dr. Pepper knock-offs. There's Dr. Star, Dr. Stripes and even a bubbly Dr. Rific.

With a museum-quality collection like that, the Van Gogh-Goghs may be better than your average Los Angeles sketch comedy group. In fact, other than The Groundlings, they may be the only Los Angeles sketch comedy group. Whether it's due to high turnover, bouts of "clinical sadness" or the inherent fragility of the comic ego, most sketch comedy performers don't stick around that long.

But, as Childs pointed out, most groups don't have the benefit of being long-time friends.

The Van Gogh-Goghs met in North Carolina, where Torchinsky tested out his stand-up legs at clubs around Chapel Hill. A promoter asked if he did any improv, and he lied and said yes, he did. He then rounded up some of his best friends to form an impromptu comedy group, temporarily, and aptly, titled "Jason and Friends."

The group's first show was for downtrodden students left alone over spring break at the University of North Carolina. The performance space was a glum little basement, and the competition was fierce.

"We had some competition from the magician, with the coconut," Benson said.

"Oh, yeah, the coconut," the group echoed, murmuring quietly.

Five years later, after amassing a staunch following of North Carolinians, the Van Gogh-Goghs left for the greener fields of L.A. comedy.

"And look at us now," Benson said, glancing around the office. They laugh riotously, and then they cry. Such is the nature of a sketch comedy powerhouse.

"The road not taken," Terrell said, shaking his head.

The Van Gogh-Gogh's newfound Los Angeles visibility derives in part from the group's critically acclaimed Web site which U.S. News and World Report named one of the three best humor sites on the Web.

In addition to furniture porn, computer users can randomly pair different members of the group on a digital stage. Sometimes this function will recreate Abbot and Costello's famous "Who's on First" skit, fresh from a Norwegian translation. Sometimes it will provide viewers with a droll primer on Samuel Beckett's "Waiting for Godot."

Abbot and Costello is a definite influence, at least for Black, who grew up watching old television.

"They didn't have cable where you were?" Rempel interjected.

"No they didn't!" Black shouted back. "Shut up, shut up!"

Other influences come in more varied forms. They learned from Saturday Night Live that it's a good idea to end the sketch when the jokes are done. "Mr. Show" taught them the beauty of comedic randomness, and Monty Python continues to give them its special brand of British buffoonery. The one comedy influence they all agree on, or at least think they do, is Chris Elliot's pivotal '90s TV show "Get a Life."

"You've brought us all together," Benson said of 'Get a Life.' "We're not going to break up after all!"

The Van Gogh-Goghs will keep pressing on, presenting a smorgasbord of new skits on Saturday. There's the Shakespearean talk show, all in iambic pentameter. There's "God and Me," where some random guy rooms with the big guy himself. There's the world where both a heterosexual and a homosexual Superman exist. The Van Gogh-Goghs even envision a World War II awards show, where historical notables vie for "Best Supporting Fascist."

"A lot of these don't explain too good," Benson said, glancing at an office white board filled with sketch plans.

"Yeah, 'Guy on Phone,'" Torchinsky said, trailing off. "If that's not a recipe for excitement..."

From here, the Van Gogh-Gogh's dream is to collect more Dr. Pepper knock-offs, and maybe make their way into the pantheon of TV sketch comedy.

"Our dream is to have a TV sketch show," Torchinsky said.

"Or at least a woman-to-woman talk show," Benson added.

Either way, the trademark tomfoolery of the Van Gogh-Goghs won't end with "Are You Being Probed." Like the end of the Mary Tyler Moore theme song that they just might sing at random, they're going to make it after all.

"We're going to try this until we end up on the streets, sad and broken," Torchinsky said.

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