By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
How do you capture a sense of humour in words? On the eve of their new (mostly) live web series httpeepee, launching Tuesday, the queer sketch comedy duo Gender? I Hardly Know Them is brainstorming on a description.
One of Elena Belyea’s favourite sketches is about a bank stepping up to Queer Pride … while trying to get you to buy their rainbow credit card.
“We like stuff that is political, and engages with the complexity of what it is to be human in the world today!” says Belyea, half of the duo that made their debut last summer with a hit Fringe show. “Political and queer theory, mixed with dad jokes and stupid bum joes that make us laugh,” says Sydney Campbell, the other half of Gender? I Hardly Know Them. “A very funny mix…. We love to make each other laugh.”
“We like ridiculously over the top,” Belyea continues. “And Syd and I have a deep, encyclopedic knowledge of The Office (the U.S. version).… ‘Michael? Michael?’” They both appreciate and reference Tim Robinson’s Netflix sketch comedy I Think You Should Leave.
We’re backstage with Gender? I Hardly Know Them. Which is to say I’m at my computer, Belyea is in Calgary at her partner’s family’s place, and Campbell is in their tiny Edmonton one-bedroom apartment. Suddenly, Belyea’s head turns into a hamburger, loaded. And then, voilà, she has a tiny dog on her head.
In one way they’re a study in contrasts. Belyea is an actor/playwright, National Theatre School-trained, of experimental stripe and sharp edges. Witness such Tiny Bear Jaws productions as Miss Katelyn’s Grade Threes Prepare For The Inevitable, a solo show that explores apocalyptic anxiety, and Cleave, a multi-character play that explores gender anxiety. Campbell’s background is improv, as a Rapid Fire Theatre performer, mentor, and teacher.
Belyea’s experience tilts her towards the intricacies of the text (“why this word and not that word? or, the second part of that line isn’t doing anything to advance the sketch…”). Campbell’s experience is weighted in favour of embracing the performance moment and its spontaneous inspirations: “we’ll just figure it out when we get onstage….”
Gender? I Hardly Know Them was, for both, a sketch comedy debut. “So we’ve able to develop our own process together,” says Belyea. “When I started writing comedy, my sketches were 10 pages long!” She credits Rapid Fire’s sketch/ improv star Paul Blinov with pointing out, “in his gentle way, that if the joke is in the last five lines, maybe the sketch is only five lines long.” Forget exposition: “No no! Get in, tell the joke, get out.”
The pair met in Tiny Bear Jaws’ production of Everyone We Know Will Be There, a site-specific play set at a teen house party in the suburbs. Campbell was one of the assistant stage managers. And they were assistant director of Cleave. “It turned out we have the same humour and we love laughing together,” says Campbell.
Things were starting to happen for the pair at Fringes and comedy festivals when the pandemic struck. “We were at the Toronto Sketch Festival, and the pandemic was declared the day before we opened,” Belyea says. Twenty people came anyway, and the second (and last) night, 50. “Which felt good but….” She and Campbell had just finished shooting the pilot for a web series, under Telus’s Storyhive initiative. Gigs at upintheatre’s rEvolver fest in Vancouver and several other live dates, including the commission from the Pride Centre in Edmonton that turned into httpeepee.
With httpeepee, Gender? I Hardly Know Them moves into the online alter-ego world of theatre, learning as they go. They ventured forth onto Zoom via TikTok, one video a day for much of April and May. “Love it or loathe it, it’s easy to edit and use,” says Campbell. “Some are great; some are duds,” says Belyea of their TikTok archive. “But even if it’s a dud, it’s (a case of) ‘I learned this new thing’…. And once we got into the rhyme of it, the audience response was very positive very quickly.”
Their sketch comedy mentor and director is award-winning Toronto-based Second City alumnus Rob Baker. “He has taught us so much, in such an extraordinarily short period of time,” says Belyea of his comedy ministrations. “We’re very excited about working with the constraints of being in a digital container instead of just working against them….”
It’s a crash course in what is possible, and Belyea and Campbell are grateful. Everyone who’s worked on the show, including assistant director Caleigh Crow and technical consultant Toni Morrison, gets a dramaturgy credit.
They’ve created scenarios that embrace the platform — friends talking over Skype or Zoom, for example, or a sketch that’s actually set on Google Docs. And “the rhythm is really fast,” says Belyea of httpeepee, with its non-skimpy offering of 18 sketches and 20 scenes in less than an hour (their Fringe show had 25 sketches). “Momentum is so important to comedy…. We struggle with the medium but try to make that struggle part of the show.”
As Campbell puts it, “we’re trying to ask how we can be excited about how this is a completely new platform.” One thing they’ve learned is that perpetual motion is the way to go. “If we’re sitting, it feels terrible,” says Belyea. “We try to find as many opportunities as we can to stand, and have full physicality…. By the end we’re always pooped!”
What comics are bound to miss is the validation of audible laughter and the more intangible kinetic charge any performers get from a live audience. But “if we can’t have a live audience, what are the things we can do in this medium that we can’t do live?” Belyea says. “For example close-ups; the audience can see the minutiae of my face,” eyeball to eyeball. Or quick changes of “venue,” room to room.
They hope their audiences will react via the online chat boxes that accompany every performance. Says Belyea, “hearing the ping-ping on the chat box is the best way we can feel an energy exchange; you need an audience to tell you if it’s working….”
Contingency plans are de rigueur, she says. “What if something goes wrong? We try to make it as slick as possible but be transparent and honest about knowing that in every show something will go wrong…. If one of us freezes, the other has to do something they hate, to entertain the audience in the meantime.… I might have to eat something disgusting, say.”
The form is a challenge. As for the comedy itself, the pair cite the CBC sketch show Baroness von Sketch and the Australian comic Hannah Gadsby as inspirations. The question for Gender? I Hardly Know them is “how do we make sure queerness is never the butt of the joke. Queer people are centred; they’re never the butt. They’re being bolstered.”
The spine of their Edmonton Fringe show was six short monologues, surrounded by jokes about growing up queer in Alberta, which is, as billed, “not for the faint of heart.” The narrative arc of httpeepee is built on monologues from Campbell and Belyea about their first Pride Parades.
Says Belyea, “If I did my monologue onstage it would resonate differently than if the audience is sitting at their computers while watching…. There are enough queer stories that orbit trauma. We do get into shit. But we really try to make it complex rich territory … in an optimistic way.”
In the end the mantra is “follow your joy,” she says. “I only want Syd to do things that are gonna make them happy, make them laugh. Not just what’s gonna get us more followers…. That would be an excellent way to lose your voice.”
Theatre: Gender? I Hardly Know Them, in partnership with Tiny Bear Jaws and Rapid Fire Theatre
Created by and starring: Elena Eli Belyea and Sydney Campbell
Running: Tuesday through Sunday, 7:30 p.m.
Tickets (come with Zoom invitations): pay-what you can — $0, $5, $11, $23, $50, at rapidfiretheatre.com