What’s happening in Washington can seem like a joke these days, and Esther’s Follies, the campy political sketch comedy troop from Austin, Texas, is raking in the material.
Interview Highlights: Shannon Sedwick and Ted Meredith
Sedwick on how their comedy show works in Austin:
“Sometimes in Austin, I mean, we are the little blue dot in the red sea of Texas, but we do have enough people that are Republicans and Democrats that we have to balance our material …. But these days, when we say ‘Ted Cruz,’ they’re all up in arms and they’re all relishing not liking him.
Meredith on one of his recent Ted Cruz sketches:
“We’re doing a sort of summer-beach-blanket-bingo-themed sketch and Ted Cruz would come out riding on his motorcycle and say, to the effect, ‘Alright, hold it right there, liberals. I would have been here sooner, but I had to circle the block because I never turn left — Cruz control.’”
Sedwick on her inspiration to create the show 30 years ago:
“It was a very fertile time for comedy, really, in ’77 because there were a lot of different groups doing things. We were not improv-oriented as much, but we definitely like scripts and we liked taking the news into a parody or satirical kind of view. And, of course, everything fell right into place with all of the presidential people that we got to make fun of — up to Bill Clinton and the Bushes — it all just became a never-ending area of comedy.”
- Shannon Sedwick, founder of Esther’s Follies. She tweets @EsthersFollies.
- Ted Meredith, cast member for Esther’s Follies.
JEREMY HOBSON, HOST:
It's HERE AND NOW.
And what's happening in Washington can seem like a joke these days, but Esther's Follies, the political sketch comedy troupe from Austin, Texas, is raking in the material. Joining us from the studios of HERE AND NOW contributor station KUT in Austin, Shannon Sedwick, founder of Esther's Follies, and cast member and writer Ted Meredith. Welcome to both of you.
TED MEREDITH: Oh, thanks for having us.
SHANNON SEDWICK: Thank you.
HOBSON: Well, have you ever had such easy material to work with?
SEDWICK: Well, yes, of course. Washington is a never-ending fount.
MEREDITH: What really makes this one special is that right in the target sites of this is our senator, Ted Cruz...
MEREDITH: ...who we, of course, have known for a little bit longer than the national scene. He's really become elevated to a level that we never - I don't think we ever imagined. I remember him during the primaries, thinking, this guy is a little bit crazy. And...
HOBSON: Well, what do you - do you do Ted Cruz?
SEDWICK: He has, yes.
MEREDITH: I have. Yeah. We kind of - sometimes we have to rotate. But I have definitely played Ted Cruz. It's a lot like playing the heel in a wrestling match.
MEREDITH: You just kind of go out there. And especially right now, like, people are actively booing this character.
SEDWICK: Yeah. Sometimes in Austin, you know, I mean, we are the little blue dot in the red sea of Texas. But we do have enough people that are Republicans and Democrats that we have to balance our material and be equal-opportunity bashers. But these days, when we say Ted Cruz, they're all up in arms, and they're all relishing not liking him.
HOBSON: Well, Ted, give me a little bit, if you would, and something that you've done over the last few weeks with Ted Cruz.
MEREDITH: Well, OK. So the main thing, we were doing a summer, sort of, "Beach Blanket Bingo"-themed sketch. And Ted Cruz would come out riding on his motorcycle and say to the effect: All right, hold it right there, liberals. I would have been here sooner, but I had to circle the block because I never turn left.
MEREDITH: Cruz control.
HOBSON: Cruz control. See, that's - you even see that on CNN. That doesn't even have to be in the realm of comedy these days.
MEREDITH: No. Well, you know, they do their best to try and beat us to the punch on the puns.
HOBSON: Well, let's listen to one of the songs you are performing currently. This is "Sequestered" sung to the tune of Macklemore and Ryan Lewis' hit "Thrift Shop."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SEQUESTERED")
UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing) Normies(ph) out of cash. Our money got sequestered. Ain't no joke, we're all broke. We need to go thrift shopping. The military...
HOBSON: We need to go thrift shopping because we're broke.
MEREDITH: Yeah. That one - so, obviously, Macklemore's "Thrift Shop" is kind of a big song. And it originally occurred to me back when the sequester first kicked in in March that the military was basically are now on a fixed budget. And it was Donnie Loa, who you actually hear in that intro, who was like, why just stick with the military? Let's add some teachers and senior citizens. So by the end of it, you've got a nice, healthy group of people all very upset that their government funding is being cut.
SEDWICK: Everybody feeling the pinch.
MEREDITH: Yeah. Plus, it's really fun to watch teachers and senior citizens rapping.
SEDWICK: And dancing.
HOBSON: Shannon, you founded this company more than 30 years ago. What inspired you to do that?
SEDWICK: Well, it was a very fertile time for comedy, really, in '77 because there were a lot of different groups doing things. We were not improv-oriented as much, but we were - definitely like scripts, and we like taking the news into a parody or satirical kind of view. And, of course, everything fell right into place with all of the presidential people that we got to make fun of (unintelligible) Bill Clinton and the Bushes, and it just all became a never-ending area of comedy.
HOBSON: Well, how do you write? Do you have to be watching the news all the time and just find little nuggets?
SEDWICK: Yes. Definitely. We're watching the news constantly. Every week, we have writers meeting on Monday. We work on it again on Tuesday. And then we start putting things together for that week. We don't put in brand-new shows every week. We run the same show and just kind of fold in material as we go.
MEREDITH: Yeah. We have the luxury of being able to kind of write and rewrite. So we can kind of update it and evolve our process as we go. I'm sort of the resident news junkie. I think I probably watch, you know, four, five hours of news a day...
HOBSON: Lucky you.
MEREDITH: ...also constantly on my Twitter feed. I know. I can't get enough of it, though. I probably should be running for office. But instead, I'm just making fun of everybody who is braver than me to do it.
SEDWICK: I think that's better for your psyche.
HOBSON: We are talking with Shannon Sedwick, founder of Esther's Follies in Austin and cast member and writer Ted Meredith. And you're listening to HERE AND NOW.
And, guys, I want to play another clip from one of your recent shows. This is President Obama playing the part of Dr. Frank N. Furter in a spoof of "The Rocky Horror Picture Show," which you call "The Baracky Horror Picture Show."
(SOUNDBITE OF SHOW, "THE BARACKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW")
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Rapping) Thanks for coming tonight. You're the only ones I've invited. I hope that you don't go ballistic. But it's quite a special day. Glad you made the soiree. I hope you're all feeling social...
UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: Say it.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Rapping) ...listic.
HOBSON: So I want to ask you how the politics is different in Texas. You're playing to an audience in Austin. Yes, it is a blue dot in the red sea of Texas, as you say, but it must be a different audience than what you would have in Chicago or New York.
SEDWICK: Actually, the audiences are fabulous down here in Austin. They really like - they don't mind sitting right next to somebody who is of a different mental, you know...
MEREDITH: Mental - I think you're being political then.
SEDWICK: Political. Yes. Yes.
MEREDITH: But, yeah. You might have played your hand a little bit.
MEREDITH: No. I mean, we have plenty of sort of conservatives that come, and it's almost like their dirty little secret that they come and watch all of us liberals jump around on stage making fun. And like Shannon said before, we're equal opportunity offenders. There's plenty of stuff to make fun of on both sides. Plus, ultimately, we don't want anybody leaving feeling bad about themselves for what they - how they vote or what they believe politically. So that really informs our comedy. We don't - we're never doing it at - within an eye to offend.
SEDWICK: And we're also pretty much staying on a national level most of the time because about half our audiences are from out of the state, the tourists. Though we want to give them an idea of what Texas humor is about. So we'll make - we'll talk about our good old governor, Rick Perry, and Wendy Davis and her filibuster and things like that just to inform. But, of course, a lot of people in the national news know about that as well.
MEREDITH: Yeah. Well, and for the last, you know, 20, 30 years, Texas has really been on the national landscape ever - you know, George Bush helped that a lot.
MEREDITH: And you could argue all the way back to LBJ. Our presidents start more wars is actually a line that we put on the show.
HOBSON: Well, what are you going to do if a debt ceiling deal is reached and the crisis is averted at least for now?
MEREDITH: Well, I think a beer and maybe a glass of whiskey.
SEDWICK: A high five.
MEREDITH: Yeah. You know, like, we're not, you know, we really have to live in this world with everybody else. So we don't - definitely don't root for destruction of the economy, even though it might give us better jokes.
SEDWICK: However, I think Congress, being in its all-time low in the ratings, is not going to go away, and there's still going to be posturing. And we only have this, what, a couple of months that they're going to - we're going to have this oasis, and then it's going to be back to bad times. So there's a lot of good writing material there.
MEREDITH: There's always January and March for another shutdown.
HOBSON: Ted Meredith is a writer and cast member of Esther's Follies. Shannon Sedwick is the founder. Thanks so much to both of you.
SEDWICK: You bet.
MEREDITH: Thanks for having us.
HOBSON: And, Meghna, for people who cannot make it to Austin to see them, plenty of fodder on late-night TV.
MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI, HOST:
Oh, yes. They have been having a field day. From Jimmy Kimmel, quote, "I want the names of the idiots who elected these people. Oh, wait. It was us."
HOBSON: And Jay Leno had this: I'm glad the government is shut down. For the first time in years, it's safe to talk on the phone and use email without anybody listening.
CHAKRABARTI: Listeners, I'm sure you can do better. Share your jokes with us at hereandnow.org.
HOBSON: Probably. From NPR and WBUR Boston, I'm Jeremy Hobson.
CHAKRABARTI: I'm Meghna Chakrabarti. This is HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.