Comedians get personal about their backstage dramas.

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If you’re doing comedy or funny theater, what’s the last thing you should include in your show? For years (in fact, for most of entertainment history), the answer would have been: behind-the-scenes fighting. No one wants to watch that show about how you’re drifting apart as a double act, how live comedy tours just don’t pay the bills, or how your company is in the advanced stages of collapse. Remember Morecambe and Wise’s show about the tensions in their off-stage relationship? Of course not. It didn’t happen. I wouldn’t have brought you sunlight.

But times change. In the age of autofiction, reality TV, and trauma comedies, the lines between reality and fantasy, on and off stage, are blurring. For a long time, the duo Max and Ivan were grateful that their chosen artistic niche, narrative comedy, gave them characters and fictions to hide behind. “A lot of comedians feel compelled to look for material in their inner lives,” says one half of the duo, Max Olesker. “Or they live their lives with an eye toward ‘how does this become a comedy?’ That can be harmful to your health; you can lose sight of [difference] between you the artist and you the real person. That’s why I’ve always smugly thought, “we’re lucky, we don’t have to exist in that unhealthy space.” Until now, when we’re suddenly checking emails, uploading personal photos to the stage, and exploring our lives in more detail than ever before.”

He’s talking about the couple’s new show, Life, Choices. No spoilers here: suffice it to say that, after years of performing their own made-up comedy skits, Max and Ivan have now taken on their own lives as their subject. The raw material for Life, Choices (sometimes very raw) is the difficulty of maintaining a comedic relationship into middle age, when parenthood, unpaid bills, and “a sitcom that was canned” (or, in the Olesker’s paraphrase, that “he is still waiting for the second time”). -season call”) everyone starts taking you in other directions.

His impulse to dramatize these things is not unique. One of Max and Ivan’s occasional directors, comedian Tom Parry, was behind a great example of this subgenre, when his sketch group Pappy’s performed their Last Show Ever in 2012. That landmark set showed this trio of idiots growing up. and going their separate ways, while celebrating the camaraderie they had enjoyed along the way. Just last month, mavericks Sh!t Theater presented a work-in-progress Or What’s Left of Us, which pulled out the bones of a year marked by painful personal and professional loss. This month, comedy theater mainstays Spymonkey premiere a version of Aristophanes’ The Frogs that also explores the fortunes of a company rocked by the voluntary exile of one member (Petra Massey, who left for Las Vegas) and the unexpected early death of another . , Stephan Kreiss, in 2021.

After Massey left, the company began to devise, with playwright Carl Grose, a version of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, in which one of the horsemen had gone to work in Las Vegas. When Kreiss died, that was shelved, leaving surviving artists Toby Park and Aitor Basauri wondering, “what do we do now that there are just two of us?” What are we going to do now? And The Frogs came about because of that,” says Park. “It is the first double act in the Western theatrical canon.” It is also a journey to resurrect a recently deceased and much missed theater maker (Euripides).

“The struggle of these two characters” – Dionysus and his slave Xanthias – “is similar to the struggle that Toby and I are enduring now that Stephan and Petra are not here,” Basauri says. Which might have been enough in an earlier era: Spymonkey could have staged the play and kept his own behind-the-scenes struggles subtextual. But in this production the ancient Greek story (in a Grose adaptation) is combined with scenes depicting the disintegration of the company. “In the show we go back in time to revisit Spymonkey’s office,” says Park, “and there’s a little shrine to Stephan and a defaced photograph of Petra.” (“I’m afraid,” he adds, “that Carl won’t get much royalties from other companies for doing it.”)

Why do this? Why not let Aristophanes do the work? On the one hand, making theater in this way – with the artists’ stories as prominent as the story of the play – is consistent with the way Spymonkey has always worked. “Whenever you put a group of people on stage,” Basauri says, “you want to consider the dynamics that govern those people.” What is the story behind the story? “Exactly. There’s always one. And if the creators don’t take that into account, they won’t make as good a show.

“It also fits very well with the clown world,” he adds, and as a fantasy clown, he should know that. “The clown will try to tell a story that is important to him, even if it is really bad.”

Max and Ivan had also taken previous steps in this direction. His 2019 show, Commitment, portrayed the spectacular job Olesker did with his organizing partner Iván González’s real-world bachelor party. That hour had enormous emotional payoff, and as the couple searched for heart in their current circumstances, they couldn’t see past the topic of their middle age (González had recently become a father), their relationships with their aging parents, and the difficulty of putting on, once again, another show in Edinburgh. “We kept coming back to the idea,” Olesker says, “that if we were going to do a show, it had to be about this. And to do it justice, we ended up exposing our inner workings in a way we hadn’t before.”

Is that an uncomfortable process? When you watch Life, Choices, you wonder how candidly Max and Ivan describe their off-stage relationship. “There are areas of our lives that are not in the program,” Olesker says, “and that was the result of negotiations and conversations.” There were also things in early drafts, Gonzalez says, that seemed too real or not funny enough, “so we cut them out.” Even the truth has to be fictionalized. “It’s all true,” he says, “but it’s a selective truth that works for the show.”

Is it a therapeutic process? Well, partly to the extent that, if you want to address your personal crises on stage, you first have to open up about them off stage. The Spymonkeys are a little allergic to therapy: they expose themselves in The Frogs because it’s fun, not because it’s healing. “We feel that tragedy and comedy are very close,” in the words of Basauri. But he does admit that the show could “let the emotion run” more than the company’s previous work. “Because we think it’s okay for the audience to experience that in a theater show, with a story that explores the pain that comes with losing a friend. And then we’ll break it up with comic relief, in the best sense of the phrase.”

The risk here, of course, is complacency, and both sides express their aversion to navel-gazing in the strongest possible terms. “We didn’t want anyone to have to worry about the economics of putting on a two-man narrative comedy show,” says Max Olesker. “We want to be accessible to people who have never seen us before,” González says. “A lot of people have to grow up and face adulthood, not just us.”

Spymonkey (half a generation older than Max and Ivan) has no doubt that their situation is relatable, because these are “aging white men in crisis,” Park says. “Aging as white men, not knowing how we fit in, and reevaluating where we are seems like something worth addressing right now.” He speaks for both companies – for all artists who do this kind of work – when he says: “If all the frustration and not knowing how to remake ourselves and how to deal with loss means anything to us, we have to trust that we can do it”. You are not alone” and that also means something to the public.

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Surely it will, because 21st-century audiences are saddled with “the truth,” whether or not they are in a complex dance with (2,500-year-old) fiction. Such is our particular cultural moment, whose currents pull towards identity and authenticity (some would say solipsism), while metaphor goes out of fashion. The artists involved are aware of those currents (“exposure and reality seemed like something exciting to play with,” Olesker says), but they are not enslaved by them. “Just because it’s true doesn’t mean it’s worth interpreting,” Gonzalez says, as Spymonkey defends its decision to filter real-world problems through ancient Greek fiction. “It’s more fun to have a story to tell,” Park says, “and then that story overlaps with your own stories and situations. And then there’s the theatrics. We’ve always had a lot of fun trying to do ‘good theater’ and failing, and that’s our kind of clown.”

“Maybe that’s what we should learn to do now,” he adds, a little regretfully: “make a show with just us.” After all, the company is looking for a new role. But that wouldn’t work, Basauri sighs. Real-world truth works best in small doses. “For some people, if they bring an amazing personality, the truth might be enough. But I’m very boring offstage,” he deadpans. “Toby and I are funny on stage, but in real life we’re pretty boring.”

• Max and Ivan’s Life, Choices will be staged at London’s Soho Theater from January 15-20. The Frogs will be at Royal & Derngate, Northampton, from January 19 to February 3.

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