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Comedy Spotlight: The Rocket Scientists

June 6th, 2013

If you frequently check out comedy shows in the Toronto area, you may have seen Ephraim Ellis, Brandon Hackett, Kevin MacNeil and Chris Small making their mark as The Rocket Scientists. Having recently been awarded the Steam Whistle Producer’s Pick Award during the Toronto Sketch Comedy Festival, the troupe will be performing alongside She Said What and Deadpan Powerpoint this Friday, June 14th, as part of TOsketchfest and NXNE’s Best of the Fest Encore Show.

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I had the chance to e-mail the group a few questions and pick their brains about the Toronto Sketch Fest Experience, the group’s history and what they think about “nerdy” comedy.

First off, congratulations on your Steam Whistle Producers’ Pick Award win. What was it like being part of the Toronto Sketch Fest? Were there any other performers you were particular excited to see?

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BRANDON: Being a part of Sketch Fest was great! We’d never really performed to such a wide audience before, so the exposure was really encouraging if also a little intimidating.

KEVIN: I am still taken back by the award, as we are a newer group and unlike the rest of the Rocket Scientists I am still pretty new to the Toronto scene.

CHRIS: Being such a new group, we were honoured enough to just be sharing the stage with so many talented individuals and groups that we look up to. For me personally, I was really excited for Tony Ho’s performances. We shared the bill with them on our performance date, and Ephraim and I went to catch their first performance at Comedy Bar to kick off Sketch Fest. They are so twisted, and had us in fits of laughter.

EPHRAIM: I was also really pumped that Deadpan Powerpoint had a show before ours at the same venue – they’re freakin’ amazing and I’m incredibly excited to share the stage with them at the Encore show on June 14th!

When it comes to big comedy festivals, is the experience of performing onstage different than when it’s just a single show? Is there more pressure, less pressure? Do you find the audience reacts differently?

BRANDON: I’d say there’s much more pressure, because you’re performing for many different people who don’t likely have the same sensibility. Prior to our Sketch Fest show, we had been performing mostly to friends and family, so I was afraid of appearing anomalous and inadequate — especially compared to the more established groups in the festival.

KEVIN: Working in a festival has a more exciting atmosphere. There is pressure for sure but it’s that pressure that allows us to put on such a fantastic show.

CHRIS: More pressure for sure, but that good kind of pressure that makes you just want to hit it out of the park. The audience feels it too I think. They may have come for just one certain group, but discovering a new group they’ve never heard of that they really enjoy is part of the excitement of going to a festival like this.

EPHRAIM: It was weird because though there was more pressure, for the Festival show we definitely rehearsed a heckuva lot more than normal because we knew about it so far in advance – because of that I think it was our tightest performance to date.

How did the Rocket Scientists form?

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BRANDON: Chris and I are friends from high school, though post-University we used to be in a sketch troupe called Etched-in-Sketch. Maybe eight months after Etched disbanded, and when I started to take classes at Second City, I asked Chris if he’d like to do sketch again. He said yes, and recommended his friend Ephraim, with whom I’d worked on a play before (directed by Chris!!).

EPHRAIM: It was a production of Neil Simon’s Rumors at Ryerson. I was really honoured that Chris thought of me as I literally had no sketch experience before.

CHRIS: I knew Ephraim had amazing comedic timing (even if he didn’t think so at the time!) and he’d be perfect with us. We did a couple of shows at the Comedy Bar together and got an amazing turnout and reaction for them.

A couple months late my co-worker Kevin came from Nova Scotia to pursue comedy in Toronto, and we offered him an audition with our group. The four of us clicked, and here we are today!

KEVIN: I went to see a performance and really enjoyed it, so much so I wanted to be a part of it. They gave me a chance to shine and I’ve never felt more welcome in a group before.

What are your major comedic influences?

BRANDON: As a kid, it was The Simpsons, Futurama and the British Whose Line is it, Anyway? Later on I got into the comedy records of Steve Martin and the movies of Woody Allen. TV shows like SNL and (early) Mad TV. People? Bob Odenkirk, Conan O’Brien, Tina Fey and Mick Napier — I compare any revue I see or do to his work with the Second City, notably Paradigm Lost and Red Scare.

KEVIN: Most of my influences come from stand-up as it was what I originally wanted to do, I grew up watching late night comedians. Bill Hicks, George Carlin, Patton Oswalt, Richard Pryor, Doug Stanhope, Michael Ian Black, Jack Handey – however the biggest influence would be watching Kids In the Hall and Monty Python with my older brother Keith when I was younger. If not for his warped sense of humor I would probably not be doing comedy at all.

CHRIS: I grew up with the early seasons of MAD TV and The Simpsons. I started getting into stand-up in high school and discovered Mitch Hedberg, who is hands down my favourite comedian of all time. Also, before Dan Harmon made Community, he ran an L.A. based webisode competition called Channel 101, which featured some of the most bizarre and out-there comedy shorts I’ve ever seen. Watching these on weekends with my friends in my high school years definitely shaped my comedic voice.

EPHRAIM: I kinda grew up with comedy since my dad used to stage manage and teach sketch comedy and improv at Second City back in the eighties. So, obviously the whole early Second City and SCTV style was a major influence. It’s oddly specific but when I was a kid I had a cassette tape of Bob Newhart’s classic stand-up – and that definitely left an impression. Eddie Izzard is a favourite of mine as well.

The Toronto comedy scene is probably one of the biggest, if not the biggest, in Canada. Our city tends to breed a lot of comics and troupes – plus, we’re home to the only Second City venue in our country, and we have Humber’s unique Comedy Writing and Performance program. That being said, as a comedic performer, do you think it’s necessary to have an x-factor or something that you makes you stand out from other performers? If so, what would you say Rocket Scientists’ x-factor is?

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BRANDON: I think people should write from an honest and personal place as possible in lieu of finding that “special thing” that distinguishes them from other groups. Let your “x-factor” be your unique voice. I think the same can be said of The Rocket Scientists.

KEVIN: One thing that I feel drives us is the connection we have with our audience, we have a love for comedy and a strong desire to grow that it bleeds into our work.

CHRIS: Definitely. I think if there’s any x-factor in comedy, it’s creating that intimate relationship between the audience and performer.

EPHRAIM: I think our senses of humour as a troupe really clicks which allows us to feed off of and enhance in individual material we bring to the table – I think especially in sketch there needs to be that feeling of being in sync. I guess our x-factor is that we get along pretty well? I guess?

I read a bio that stated you guys have a nerdy sense of humor? Would you say that’s true?

BRANDON: As the person who wrote that bio, I would agree.

CHRIS: Brandon wrote that bio, and since Brandon has known me longer than most people, I’m comfortable with letting him speak for me. So yes!

KEVIN: Yes, very much so.

EPHRAIM: They don’t always make it into the show but I definitely hand in at least one nerd-themed sketch at every pitch meeting. Being a huge sci-fi / comic fan it’s kind of a write what you know thing.

Speaking of nerdy comedy, with shows like Big Bang Theory being very popular, and performers like Chris Hardwick and Patton Oswalt making such a huge impact, do you think that the whole geeky/nerdy persona is becoming “a thing” in comedy?

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BRANDON: For better and worse, yes, I do think that “nerdism” is becoming more of a thing, though not just in comedy, but in a lot of mainstream entertainment.

I balk a little bit when I hear about “nerd being the new cool.” It generalizes “the nerd” as someone who’s into comic books and sci-fi, etc. when all a nerd is is anyone who cares very deeply about something. Because we’re only looking at the superficial aspects of what a “nerd” is, the whole “movement,” such as it is, doesn’t end up being empowering but rather fashionable and maybe a little disingenuous.

I’m a nerd about a lot of things, but only because historically it’s been easier for me to become obsessed with, say, the Beach Boys’ discography than to have a conversation with someone where I feel like I’m contributing in a meaningful way. So, I’d say the undercurrent or underlying theme in many of my sketches is the feeling of anxiety, awkwardness and a slight reluctance if inability to connect with people. And that’s often filtered through referencing TV, books and movies that maybe only I and a few other people know a lot about.

But I guess the “nerd” aspect in our comedy is largely because people in the group do tend to be into comic books and sci-fi, and do write a lot of scenes that use those and other pop culture references as a way of exploring the personal or the intellectual. So, despite my reluctance at the overabundance of “nerd comedy”, I do think it’s great that it’s becoming more of an acceptable way to be, in the mainstream — just as long as it’s coming from an earnest place and not a calculated one.

KEVIN: It is very easy for someone to take an idea that by itself isn’t all that interesting add a few comic book references. It feels dishonest, and in the case of Big Bang Theory feels a little bit insulting. Whereas you have Patton Oswalt and Chris Hardwick who are themselves huge nerds, but who don’t let that define who they are as comedians which broadens their appeal.

CHRIS: It’s funny, because Patton Oswalt has been around since 1988, but is only recently getting the mainstream recognition he deserves as one of the finest stand-ups around. I think that comedy revolving around comic books, and anime, and sci-fi is definitely a fad now – but even if that trend fades away, comedy “nerds” will always be here. I hope that makes sense.

EPHRAIM: Like I mentioned before, I do think you have to write what you know so, and since I like Star Wars and The Princess Bride and Marvel Comics I often write stuff that riffs on those things. I think as long as it comes from an honest place and, like Kevin and Brandon said, doesn’t completely define your comedy, you’re fine.

Where and when can people check you out? Social media, you guys do that thing?

BRANDON: Yes! You can check out our Facebook page and also our Twitter feed, @RocketsComedy.
EPHRAIM: I really need to update that twitter more! Brandon and I have twitter for ourselves as well, @brandonhackett and @ephraimellis respectively. Brandon has one of my favourite weird comedy twitter accounts. He gives @nottildaswinton a run for her money. I’m also on instagram and usually post a couple backstage pictures the day of our shows for giggles.

Thanks again to The Rocket Scientists for their time!

Don’t forget to check out ‘em out, as well as She Said What and Deadpan Powerpoint, during the Best of the Fest Encore Show – 8pm this Friday, June 14th, at Measure (296 Brunswick Avenue).