Back Again…Again: An Interview with The Habit

[John Cornicello] The Habit’s John Osebold, Luke Thayer, David Swidler, Mark Siano and Jeff Schell. Courtesy of The Habit.

The Habit is a goofy, well-oiled machine. The local sketch comedy troupe has been together since 1996 where they met at UW. Since then, it would be fair to say that their sense of humor hasn’t really grown up. That’s part of the trick, as their writing is slick and smart it only looks effortless. This is a large part of The Habit’s charm.

Because the group has been together for such a long time, they really know how to play on each others’ strengths: Luke Thayer makes a good lady, as there are no women in the group — he is also the master of crazy voice and goofy expressions. He is as adept at playing “Judy the court stenographer” as he is at playing Albert Einstein. Jeff Schell is the deadpan Everyman, though he can also pull off a Bond Villain or a disaffected bee. John Osebold knows his way around an impression, i.e. David Bowie, and a sound effect. He is a stellar pantomime and provides the audio for a one-man-drunk-driving sketch. David Swidler is always still just a little bit “David Swidler” — all wide eyed wonder and bouncy energy, whether he’s playing Sherlock Holmes or a would be terrorist. Finally, Mark Siano is the suave one, comfortable playing James Bond or a singing “Doctor Without Priorities”. (Ryan Dobosh was unfortunately not able to do the show this go around.) They are all pretty adept at playing old guys.

Through the years, their chemistry still shows. This is most apparent in a tightly choreographed ode to losing stuff and when they “rewind” sketches at the end.

The Star interviewed Luke Thayer, Jeff Schell and Mark Siano recently and talked about their creation process, the group’s temporary sojourn to Los Angeles, and what their future is going to look like.

Seattle Star: Knowing you guys for as long as I have I know you don’t subscribe to the silly “Women aren’t funny” rule, but there are no women in your group, why is that?

Jeff Schell: We did have a woman in our group when we first started out, Mara Siciliano. She was brilliant, but the problem was that we tend to treat women better than we do each other. As in, not act like our dumb, sometimes gross, boy selves in front of them.

Luke Thayer: We are kind of assholes to each other.

JS: What’s that we say? Oh yeah, we hate each other like brothers.

Mark Siano: Also, we had twelve members in the group, we needed to whittle it down to those who were most dedicated as far as time commitment went.

SS: So now you just put Luke in a wig.

All: Yup.

SS: You did go on to have an all girl version called The Habette, starring the likes of Shanan Kelley, Kim Nyhouse and a few other brilliant, female sketch comedians in town. How did that go?

MS: I think it went well. In some cases their interpretation of some sketches were better than ours, and they were able to squeeze more laughs out of different places. But some sketches may not have gone over as well, because we really write for each other’s personalities and strengths that unfortunately can’t translate.

JS: Yeah, we really admired these super funny women and wanted to showcase their talents. All in all it was a good experiment.

SS: Soon after that show you moved to Los Angeles. What were your experiences there?

JS: It was a huge ego blow for all of us. We were coming off a successful few years in Seattle and we really didn’t respect the amount of work it would take to make it down there. There was literally nobody at our first two shows. It didn’t get much better after that. We disbanded after about a year and some of us left to go back to Seattle or move elsewhere. Luke and I stayed and he had some luck with commercials and we both did improv at Upright Citizen’s Brigade and Improv Olympic West.

[The Habit took a 10 year long break in that time, and many of the members moved on to other successful projects. Siano wrote his own musicals (Mark Siano’s Soft Rock Spectaculars, and the recent Modern Luv — productions that have consistently sold out at The Triple Door). These productions often featured Luke Thayer and David Swidler. John Osebold went on to create the art/math/prog rock group “Awesome” and the Jose Bold project. — KD]

SS: So after the almost decade long break, how did you all decide to get back together?

MS: During our 10 year hiatus we had been meeting once a year for drinks in Vegas and we decided that we missed doing the shows. We were still making each other laugh, so we decided to go ahead and do a show every year.

SS: I remember that some of you weren’t living here at the time. How did you all communicate with each other?

MS: We emailed back and forth, bouncing ideas off each other and writing the bones of the sketches. We would then get together, sort of improv the rest and continue writing from there.

SS: What is your normal writing process when you are all together? Are they written or pitched by individual members or is it done off the cuff and with improv mostly?

JS: Usually the initial phase of a sketch begins with David Swidler making a joke. Or someone will, but it’s usually Swidler. Then we build on it together. It doesn’t necessarily need to be in an official writing meeting, sometimes we are just together, shooting the shit, and an idea will come about. Sometimes we will look at like 6 pages we wrote while we were drunk and high and say that’s stupid. We were drunk, but it’s still funny so let’s keep it in.

LT: Yeah, if someone comes in with a sketch ready to go it will invariably be shot down.

JS: This is so nerdy, but everyone is all on the same floor when we are building this a sketch together. If someone comes in with a sketch already written, it’s almost impossible to get the nuance and rhythm of that sketch until we all have a hand in crafting it.

MS: I would say it’s fifty percent hanging out and fifty percent actively trying to write. We will actually build while hanging out in the process, and we will usually write for an hour and then play bocce for 2 hours. While we’re playing,we’ll come up with ideas or remember shit from earlier that one of us said that was funny. Then we’ll add it to the show.

SS: I feel like watching you guys and others of my friends in sketch groups, or those who do standup, come up with amazingly funny stuff just through riffing when we are out somewhere. Though usually, it’s just left to die because nobody writes it down. Have you ever used an idea that’s conceived that way?

JS: That does happen. I used to sort of follow David Swidler around at parties and was in awe of how funny he was. Pretty much anything he says is hilarious and would make a good sketch. Speaking of David, he really shined in our last show, like in the bank robber sketch. The line in that sketch that goes, “Bad news, guys. The safe. It’s locked” was ten times funnier with his delivery.

SS: What would you like to convey to the audience that you haven’t said in an interview before?

LT: Just that we want to do a fresh show every year for the audience. As much as we enjoy doing the old sketches, we feel the audience deserves a new show, and as long as we can continue to stand each other’s company, we’ll keep doing it for years to come.

[The Habit has been selling out all their shows this time as well so it appears this recipe is working, although I will miss The Peeps sketch. — KD]

Through Sunday at 8:00p.m. // The Bathouse Theatre at Greenlake, 7312 West Greenlake Drive North // $17.00; the group’s site lists the last shows in the run as sold out, but encourage patrons to get on the standby list