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Television and Radio: Outside the Box

Comedy troupe is reaching out for new audiences on cable TV

By P.F. Wilson · April 7th, 2004 · Television and Radio
Shadowbox Cabaret is exporting its stage shows of comedy and Rock to cable TV.
Shadowbox Cabaret is exporting its stage shows of comedy and Rock to cable TV.

"Comedy is not pretty," Steve Martin once said. It's not easy either. The challenges of succeeding on television in the science-fiction genre have been detailed in these pages (see Spaced Out, Issue of Feb. 18, 2004). For very different reasons, sketch comedy shows have had a rough go of it, too.

In Living Color, The Downer Channel and The Dana Carvey Show, just to name a few, were all decent sketch comedy shows that simply could not find their audiences. Last year Shadow-box Cabaret, the theater company that does live comedy and Rock & Roll shows in Columbus and locally at Newport on the Levee, established a beachhead on television with their program, WIRED.

Airing on Time Warner's channel 20 on Thursdays and Fridays at 11 p.m. and on Northern Kentucky's Insight channel 6 on Thursdays at 11:35 p.m.

and Fridays at 11:40 p.m., the program mirrors the troupe's mix of entertainment with a few extras added for television.

Most of the sketches, as well as the musical numbers, are shot onstage before a live audience at the troupe's flagship theatre in suburban Columbus. Wrap-arounds and externals fill out the half-hour. Aiming to compete somewhat with Mad TV and Saturday Night Live, it's a serviceable 30 minutes of entertainment, if you're grading on a curve. If you're a "tough room," you might find it lacking. Of course, the same is true of Shadowbox's peers.

The production values for WIRED are surprisingly crisp, especially considering how little TV experience Shadowbox had when it started. "We learned so much our first time out, " says Newport general manager and performer Stacie Boord. "We went in there going, 'Well, here we go.' "

With a full season in the can, the troupe has begun to master the nuances of things like editing to help pacing. "In live theater you wait for the laughs to crest," Boord explains, "but in television, it moves a lot more quickly. We (would say we) need to move through this a little bit more."

For folks who were primarily theater people the small screen was uncharted territory. "I love live theater. I love the immediacy. I love the risk involved," Boord says. Television, though, offered new challenges. "I really enjoyed the process, so much more than I thought I would. It seemed almost athletic to me. You're working under very tight conditions, you're required to do three or four takes in a row and keep it fresh each time."

From a writing standpoint there were also adjustments that needed to be made. Some sketches work well onstage but not on TV, and vice versa. Ideas have to be relatable to most of the audience as well.

"It's gotta be universal. No obscure references. They have to be global for the audience," says Mark Slack, marketing coordinator/percussionist, who also writes the occasional sketch. That can often be a logical path to follow, but sometimes people enjoy the obscure and feel a sense of satisfaction that they got the joke. It also runs a risk that can polarize audiences. For example, Dennis Miller is someone most people either love or hate.

On the marketing end, Slack has recently taken charge of the effort to expose WIRED to the rest of the country via college TV stations and cable systems. "We're trying for that 18-25 demographic, to get word out about the show." The first round of tapes just went out this month, and he's waiting for feedback.

That would seem to put WIRED in the trajectory that Second City navigated in the late '70s when they branched out from the live performances in Chicago to television. "My first love will always be live theater," Boord says, "but I'm interested in hitting a wider audience with television." ©



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