Seattle Sketchfest 2012: A Conversation with The Cody Rivers Show’s Mike Mathieu

[Erica Zurek] The Cody Rivers Show is Mike Mathieu, at left, and Andrew Connor. Their new show ONCE AND FOR ALL FOR ONE could be seen during this weekend’s Seattle Sketchfest 2012.

The Cody Rivers Show is a dynamic sketch comedy duo who came to Seattle from Bellingham, Washington–where half of the team currently resides. The team is comprised of Andrew Connor and Mike Mathieu, who first met each other on the stages of Ohio Wesleyan University as part of the Babbling Bishops, a campus improv group known for mixing disciplines. This heterogenous approach was soon found in the group’s material, which is characterized by intelligent writing, wordplay, deft physicality and an absurdist approach to comedy and comedy structure.

If we hypothesize that KING 5’s legendary Almost Live! show began the First Wave of Seattle Sketch comedy, it would follow that groups like Bald Face Lie, Kazoo!, Up In Your Grill, Pork Filled Players, among others, would comprise the Second Wave. Taking this further, current groups like Drop the Root Beer and Run, Ubiquitous They, Charles and The Entertainment Show are part of the Fourth and Fifth Wave. The Cody Rivers Show stands alone as the only group in the Third Wave. (Some might argue that Flaming Box of Stuff is there with them–inasmuch as anyone would argue about arbitrary groupings that were made up by your correspondent–but they’re more of a mutation of a number of Second Wave groups.)

Imaginary arguments aside, there is no doubt that the Show (as they refer to themselves) were the only game in town for a stretch of time, and they owned it. Beginning in 2007, the duo began the arduous process of touring small theaters across the nation, gathering accolades from all manner of media outlets and winning the Stranger’s Genius Award in 2009; though the duo never seemed to revel and bask in this adulation, they honestly seemed to take the greatest satisfaction from the act of creation and the positive response of their audience. Then, early in 2011, the group went on hiatus for an indefinite time, with promises of coming back around.

They have followed through on those promises, and have just commenced on their first tour of new material. The Cody Rivers Show is presenting Once and for All for One, the group’s 17th Volume of material, which can be seen as part of this year’s Seattle Sketchfest, taking place this weekend at Theater Off Jackson.

The Star sat down with Mike Mathieu and talked about some of the duo’s experiences during their busiest period, how much more valuable it is to stick to one’s artistic principles, their approach to creating new material, and how this current volume is less like a concept album, and more like a regular grouping of songs.

Seattle Star: You guys were inactive for a little bit there, how long has it been since the last Cody Rivers Show?

Mike Mathieu: We debuted our last original piece in November of 2010, performed it through the winter, and we performed it last in January 2011.

SStar: Did you still get together to create/perform in the interim?

MM: We have been 100% inactive since January 2011.

SStar: You guys were pretty active throughout the Aughts, how many shows did you create during that timeframe? How many performances?

MM: This is our seventeenth “volume” of new material. We started touring for real with Volume Thirteen, and on those tours we would do between twenty and fifty performances of each volume. This was a mixture of festivals and one-night or one-weekend stops we (Andrew) booked ourselves.

SStar: Climbing the “comedy ladder” in the process.

MM: You might say that.

SStar: How would you put it?

MM: Hmmm…I’m not super in touch with any ladders, because I don’t feel like we have much greater access to opportunities in “the biz” than many colleagues do.

SStar:
 When you guys landed on A.V. Club I knew you’d attained a level a lot of groups aim for. [Editor’s Note: The AVC’s Chicago branch used to have a full length feature on their pages, but it seems to have been expunged; no cached copies could be found.–ed]

MM: I’m happy to say we have been successful, but I would measure that by our batting average with audiences. That gives us a certain amount of popularity, which raises our profile, which “elevates” us in a career sense.

SStar: Would it be fair to say that the touring, all of the work that you do, isn’t “career-oriented,” exactly?

MM: Well, we’re not fielding calls from booking agents and TV people; to me it still feels DIY and small-scale. The Show was my one and only job for a few years, and touring sustained that, so it was definitely career-oriented, just not exactly in terms of upward mobility.

SStar: Landing a contract with FX or Comedy Central wasn’t the primary goal.

MM: Right. Although, it must be said, we did encounter some offers and opportunities, and they did inspire a now-amusing combo of satisfaction/excitement and soul searching about “What do we stand for?”

SStar: When was this?

MM: Winter of 2006-07, I think.

SStar: What happened?

MM: We were invited to audition for HBO’s Aspen comedy festival, which is touted as Every Comedian’s Doorway to Hollywood, and the experience sucked total ass.

SStar: How so?

MM: Well, the HBO rep requested certain sketches (which he’d seen on video), so we assembled a line-up just for this gig, even though we were currently performing other (i.e., fresher) material. And we had to set up the show ourselves.

SStar: So, no tech help, no venue assistance, all of that?

MM: Right. So we flew to LA and rented this little theater that our friends hooked us up with, and did our show for six panelists and maybe 2 paying customers. It was just crickets and cringing the whole time.

SStar: This isn’t even at Aspen, this is just the audition?

MM: Yeah.

SStar: A couple of other local groups met with similar fates. [These would include Bald Faced Lie, Some Kind of Cult, and Flaming Box of Stuff. –ed]

MM: We bombed, basically, and that pain was exacerbated by seeing how many sacrifices we were willing to make for this opportunity. I mean, letting someone else choose our material?

SStar: Ergo, the “What do we stand for?” philosophical discussion?

MM: Exactly. What do we want? What are we willing to do to make it possible? Mostly, we wanted to afford total commitment to our show, so dedicated our energy to booking and delivering good shows in small theaters.

This all took place before we really got into the groove of touring, which got going the summer of 2007.

SStar: Did all of the attention I mentioned come as the result of being in the groove?

MM: Yes, during the years of heaviest activity we would pass through Chicago and NYC, where we tended to do pretty well, in terms of attendance and laughter. The shows would be in small theaters. We blurb this quote from VH1’s Best Week Ever a lot, and I’m pretty sure some VH1 blogger must have seen us in NYC.

SStar: The “best sketch group I’ve ever seen“?

MM: Yeah. “As physically impressive as they are funny…beyond creative…” A dream review, really.

SStar: As a critic, I love it when a piece makes me say things like “beyond creative”
because it’s such a pure piece of enthusiasm. It makes no objective sense. What the hell is beyond what we identify as creative?

“It’s nucleic in its awesomeness!”

MM: “It’s so creative, it’s destructive!” “It’s the kind of creativity that babysat the Big Bang!”

SStar: The review does point to something that’s pretty intrinsic in your approach to comedy, in that your background in improv and movement help to shape the form and content of your shows.

MM: On behalf of the real dancers of the world, I need to say that our background in dance is pretty limited, but it was formative. We did a couple dance classes at Ohio Wesleyan University, including choreography.

SStar: This was rooted in Babbling Bishops?

MM: We toyed with pantomime and stuff in that group, but we also studied modern dance a bit, choreographed and appeared in the dance concerts on campus. Which gave us the willingness to move expressively, which I think a lot of comedians/people feel insecure about.

SStar: That’s probably a fair statement.

MM: And so, in our first batch of material it was something we knew we wanted in the mix.

SStar: Is it still an important element in your shows, or has it been emphasized less?

MM: It is still really important. We saw early on how well audiences responded to our movement. The pure dancing seems to delight a good number of people.

SStar: It isn’t expected in sketch, and when it’s pulled off well, it’s all the more impressive.

MM: But we also saw that infusing scenes with some kind of physicality just gave them so much zip, for us and the audience, and they have tended to be the ones that people remember. We’re definitely aware that, in a way, the mere notion of doing our dances is charming, but for the most part we choreograph them with sincerity in mind. We aim to do them well, not make fun of ourselves or anything.

SStar: Do the movements inform the written material, or vice versa? Is it a chicken/egg question?

MM: Nowadays I try to write stuff than I can tell gives us the opportunity to be physical.

SStar: So it’s more like “Here’s a spot for something.”

MM: It’s got some game or setup that will require us to manipulate our bodies or the space in some active way, yeah. We are always looking for ideas that actually require us to move, that won’t work if we just stand around, because most ideas are stand-around-and-talk-about-something ideas.

SStar: At least in sketch.

MM: In stand-up, too. In stand-up, you can talk about the thing you think is funny; in sketch you can inhabit that thing more readily, but often that thing itself is static.

SStar: “Two guys at a bar,” or “A couple fight during their date.”

MM: Right, exactly. Most of our ideas are ideas like this, things that are funny but that sort of just sit there. We have plenty of those in our shows, and we wrack our brains to balance that with stuff that makes us run around and do weird things with our bodies.

SStar: Does improv play into the generative process?

MM: You know, it really came through for us this time Generally it hasn’t played a part. We were short for ideas, though, and so at one rehearsal we kind of “jammed” on a couple things, and what’s nice about that is when you make the other guy laugh you figure you’re on to something. One whole bit came from something Andrew improvised in-between rehearsing other stuff. It’s kind of a song, and I can guarantee you he wasn’t doing it to pitch something for the show.

SStar: Just goofing around during down time.

MM: Yes, goofing off, definitely, but with shades of madness and desperation. It was more like blowing off steam, some weird outlet of the giddy/angsty feeling that comes over us when we drill material together over and over and kind of lose touch with everything.

SStar: In the “beyond creative” zone.

MM: Yes! Actually, it really is kind of meta-creative.

SStar: How do you mean?

MM: Well, it was kind of a joke of an idea, like a parody of something we or someone might do. Born out of the feelings one has when working hard to create something honest. The honest work isn’t coming easily, so you break out and goof on something “random” and unattached.

SStar: Let’s talk about Volume Seventeen. Does the piece have a title? Is there a thematic throughline that you could share?

MM: We named the show Once and for All for One, which, like previous titles, is pure wordplay. And no, there’s no throughline.

We have enjoyed threading sketches together in the past, and have enjoyed talking endlessly about the pros and cons of doing so. This time it just worked out that we weren’t turned on by the idea. Only once, for Northwest New Works at On the Boards, have we chosen a topic or theme beforehand. It felt very very weird.

SStar: You mean before you sat down to create?

MM: I think it was then that we learned our natural process is to cast lines in all directions.

SStar: And then pull it together as you get closer.

MM: Yes. Although we didn’t do that this time. This time it’s a bundle, a platter.

SStar: Like jam sessions for bands.

MM: There’s no way to make “an assortment of different scenes” sound as cool as “a dozen comedic riffs on the notion of reciprocity.” But think of the latter as a concept album, say The Who’s “Tommy,” and the former as a regular album, “Who’s Next?” Regular albums still kick mega butt, sometimes more.

SStar: Anyone who has listened to KISS’ “Songs from the Elder” will agree that regular albums can kick the ass of concept albums.

So, this is Cody Rivers’ “Who’s Next?”, in essence.

MM: You heard it here.

SStar: Has it been good to get back in the mix with Andrew?

MM: Yes, it’s like we only had a month off. The chemistry bubbled right away.

SStar: How long ago did you start the process for this show?

MM: We no longer live in the same city, so, knowing our time together would be limited, we both started writing scripts in June. We set deadlines, emailed back and forth, read stuff and discussed rewrites over Skype.

SStar: You’re still in Seattle?

MM: I lived in Bellingham until this March.

SStar: Where did Andrew go?

MM: Well, he spent the summer in Montana, his gf was studying there, but he lives in Bellingham.

SStar: Here I was thinking he’d moved across the globe.

MM: Makes a better story. Print whatever you want.

SStar: That’s a dangerous proposition.

MM: I take it back.

SStar: I’ll see if I can come up with something strangely plausible, like he spent a year working with the KONY people.

MM: Anyway, we rehearsed for a week in August, did some more writing and rewriting, and then rehearsed daily again in September.

SStar: Will there be a tour after that?

MM: We also have some dates in Bellingham and Portland. Nothing planned beyond a stop in Vancouver and more dates in Seattle.

SStar: Was the break simply a matter of taking time away from Cody Rivers? Did you both need time to work on your individual projects?

MM: Yes. Mostly spending time, though, without moving around a lot and living in our own little bubble. The show was so dominant in our lives it felt out of balance. And it was becoming a grind, to keep up with it.

SStar: Reconnecting with the “real world” outside of the Show.

MM: Yes. Our art was doomed to self-reference if we didn’t get out and experience life outside our art for a while.

SStar: This would be where I came up with an appropriate Who album reference.

MM: I don’t blame you for not having one quick on the draw.

SStar: Pete Townsend’s “Face the Face.”

MM: “Can You See the Real Me” might be about fame and alienation.

SStar: Pink Floyd’s “A Momentary Lapse of Reason.”

MM: Yes’ “90125.”

Seattle Sketchfest Showcase: Thursday through Saturday, October 4 through October 6, at 7:00p.m. and 9:00p.m. // Theatre Off Jackson, 409 7th Avenue South // $15, available at Sketchfest’s website and at the door