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The Independent Weekly
December 7, 1994

Trouping along
by Paul Malcolm

As the minutes tick away, four members of the Van Gogh-Goghs wait nervously for people to filter into the Cave, the little underground club on Chapel Hill's Franklin Street.

By quarter past 10, there are only a handful of people in the place. Suddenly a fifth member of the comedy troupe bursts through the front door, splitting the subterranean ambience with an excited shout, "A tour bus just tipped over, help me carry in the wounded."

Alas, it's only a fanciful wish. But the plucky quintet goes on anyway, unleashing its comic vision on the sparse crowd before them. And my companion and I, along with the rest of the unsuspecting, soon find ourselves laughing, chuckling and outright guffawing at the spectacle before us.

Made up of local boys Galen Black, T. Mike Childs, Charles Rempel, Robert Terrell, and Jason Torchinsky, the Van Gogh-Goghs have a smart, sharp sense of the absurd and an approach to comedy that has evolved well past the standard cliches of the form.

Theirs is a world where young parochial students sell their souls to the devil to win the "Creationism Science Fair" and martyrs get into retail at "Jesus Christ Superstore."

Religion isn't the only target. Everything is grist for the Gogh-Goghs' comic mill — from the real and imagined torments of childhood to the illogic that rests beneath the surface of adulthood.

In one skit, a husband and wife hold a casting call to find the perfect monster to terrify their child. Three creatures duke it out, one-upping each other, until the parents come to a decision and hire two boogiemen. "Honey," says the wife, "isn't it time we did something for ourselves?"

In another bit of turnabout, a group of mythical creatures, elves, wizards and half-orc/half-Smurfs sit around playing a board game called "Suits & Salaries," which inverts the Dungeons & Dragons paradigm. They must move their accountants and stockbrokers through a large city, gathering "material possessions" while trying to avoid the dread "homeless person."

All this comic charm has not come easy to the Van Gogh-Goghs. They've paid their share of dues on the thankless Triangle comedy circuit

The troupe came together in late 1992, when an entertainment coordinator at a UNC dorm asked Torchinsky, who was doing stand-up on campus, if he had more material.

"I told him 'of course,'" Torchinsky says, "and he fell for it."

The group dabbled in improv at first, developing a rigorous, experimental form they called "10-syllable theater." But they quickly settled into sketch comedy, becoming the only such group in the Triangle. Innovation, it seems, was in their blood.

At first they played in dorms — where they once accidentally set off a fire alarm — and at an occasional fraternity party. They abandoned the fraternity circuit after a fight broke out at one of their shows. Then in early 1993, at an amateur night at a "not-to-be-named" local watering hole, they watched with dulled amazement as another "comic" on the bill literally quoted Andrew Dice Clay and got more laughs than they did. It was, needless to say, a low point.

But lucky for us, they didn't give up. As their performance at the Cave proved, the Gogh-Goghs will do their thing no matter how many people show up. It's just a shame more people don't.

Their shows are diamonds in the rough, and all the more enjoyable as a result. Even though it isn't improv, the constant asides and jabs of the dialogue turn in unpredictable directions, bubbling with spontaneity.

It might have something to do with the troupe's approach to learning their lines. "Memorize is such a strong word, "says Rempel. But it probably has more to do with the fact that they refuse to shrink away from being just plain goofy.

Even when the Van Gogh-Goghs borrow conventional set-ups — the movie-genre parody, the game show — they turn them inside-out. What was once irredeemable, thanks to the fill-in-the-blank comics of late-night weekend television, becomes suddenly and hilariously relevant.

In one scene, a Greyhound Bus traffic controller copes badly when four interstate charters align on a collision course in a major metropolitan area.

"Driver, get all the passengers in the back and ditch your bus," he screams into the CB, pathos dripping from every word — it is a tough call, his daughter's on that bus.

"Can't I just pull over?" is the response.

"Damn it, man, there isn't time," sobs the controller, all torn up inside.

That moment is indicative of the kind of barely controlled mayhem the Van Gogh-Goghs can muster. And it's proof that there's plenty of chaos — and laughs — to go around.

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