After three popular turns at Piccolo Fringe, Los Angeles improv duo FrankenMatt (commonly referred to as "the short guy and the tall guy") had to skip the 2011 edition because the festival schedule conflicted with Frank Caeti's wife's due date. A year later, Caeti and comedy partner Matt Craig return to Charleston with American Imperil, an evolving, politically themed sketch show that takes their familiar brand in new directions. Given the mutual affection between the performers and the local audience, Caeti and Craig are particularly looking forward to trying out their new material on Holy City fans.
Which is to say that they're excited, and also maybe just a bit nervous.
Now in its fifth year, FrankenMatt is a partnership between two alumni of Chicago's Second City. If each looks vaguely familiar, that's because they've both had just enough national television exposure (MadTV, Saturday Night Live, The Office, etc.) to plant their faces in your subconscious, but not quite enough to help you remember why. On this visit to Charleston, they're out to leave a mark.
"I would easily say that it's an edgier show than the last one we brought," Caeti says. "It's a satirical show that's a reflection of our current political climate. What are the things that endanger America? Things like greed and hypocrisy and indifference, things that exist everywhere. So it's satirical of our society, with a couple of scenes that are political."
How edgy? Edgy enough that Caeti and Craig, interviewed separately, don't yet characterize it quite the same way. Craig calls it "politically neutral" and speaks about feeling fatigued by comedic preachiness. Caeti disagrees with the idea of neutrality, suggesting instead that it's a satire that's "as hard on the characters, themes, and ideas that we concur with as those things we disagree with."
If that feels like a subtle point of distinction, well, it is. But it says something about the significance of American Imperil to the performers — and the radioactivity of 2012 politics within the culture — that both men took pains to define the terms of their show. This is, after all, a comedy duo that values fart jokes alongside more subtle forms of humor, and they're venturing into issues-oriented subjects that some people take very seriously.
Work on the show began last year with some basic ideas and a plan to develop them through improv. After each show, the two would review the results, returning to the stage to reimprovise their skits until the themes they were looking for emerged. Caeti and Craig have performed the resulting sketches as American Imperil since February, although its improv grounding means there will never be a formal script.
Reactions to the show elsewhere have been good, though some critics seem to be withholding judgment. A reviewer from a Los Angeles website, discussing the challenges of applying FrankenMatt's inspired silliness to serious subjects, wrote that "the result is a show on a leash that can't determine how far to run in either direction."
Still, both men like where their new direction is taking them. Caeti points out that it's the first time they've ever worked with a director, and he feels the piece is both cohesive and "a different voice for FrankenMatt."
Identifying a distinct voice in any improv group has always been a bit like the old adage, "You never swim in the same river twice." For all its high-wire tension, improv remains a stage discipline that preaches teamwork and creativity, and in recent years improv artists have replaced stand-up comedians as the hot talent pool for television and film.
"I think improv is certainly in its heyday," Craig says. "The 2000s were owned by improv. Even the people who are established in comedy are taking improv classes out in L.A. It's become this thing that everyone thinks they should have on their resume."
Caeti concedes that L.A. audiences can be a tough nut to crack, but ranks Charleston audiences among the best in the country. Both men credit Theatre 99 for that development, and say that Fringe is one of the highlights of their year.
"The audiences are hip," says Caeti, who will be making his seventh appearance at Fringe. "They're great. And they turn out, even in the midst of everything that's going on. Piccolo Fringe is a big festival on its own, but then you multiply that by what's happening in Spoleto (and Piccolo Spoleto), and it's a ton."
And hey, whatever the show, it's still FrankenMatt. "We want it to be funny and entertaining, first and foremost," Caeti says.