October 31, 2011

What Is the Wham City Comedy Tour?

Wham City is...” begins Ben O'Brien, before pausing to laugh for a spell and continue, “...a group of people...” To be fair, it's the audience's job to put artists in boxes. So it can be forgiven if O'Brien has a hard time encapsulating what the general intent of his Baltimore-based collective exactly is. “It took us so long to actually define ourselves because we're all collaborating, we're all doing stuff, and the boundaries were really loose,” says O'Brien. “And they still kinda are. We kind of put the name Wham City on stuff that we do and then we pull people in and they eventually become Wham City and then they put it on their stuff. So it's kind of an ever-changing collective or group of artists.”

Wham City's embryo took shape at SUNY Purchase, a relatively small and isolated state school a little ways north of New York City, around the turn of the millennium. It was there that O'Brien and many others first became enamored with the noise rock scene that was at the time thriving in Providence, Rhode Island. Bands like Lightning Bolt, Arab on Radar, and Pink & Brown were coloring outside the lines of punk and keeping things equal parts fun and abrasive. Many of these Purchase students (whose peers included many current Athenians, including Cara Beth Satalino and Michael Clancy of Witches) decamped to Baltimore upon graduation, set up shop in warehouses and set about creating their own outsized art community.

While plenty of hard-to-categorize creative acts have grown out of Wham City—including Ed Schrader's Music Beat, Teeth Mountain, and Nuclear Power Pants, to mention a scant few—the biggest name to have emerged from Wham City is undoubtedly Dan Deacon. Over the past five years, Deacon succeeded in developing his earlier work in utterly goofy electronic pastiche into an outsized blow-up of the house party aesthetic, essentially bringing everyone-on-the-floor egalitarianism to full-fledged rock clubs. But what folks may not remember is that Deacon's first brush with exposure to the masses at large was not a song, but rather a “viral video” for Deacon's “piece for voice” “Drinking Out of Cups.” The rambling quasi-prank call, rendered visual in all its free-associative glory by otherwise Wham City-unrelated auteur Liam Lynch, became a sensation, and rightfully so—it's hilarious.

This moment in Wham City's development as a well-known entity is key: while the group works in the arenas of theatre, visual art, music, and video art, it's first appearance to many was in the realm of the joke. O'Brien, who is the star and co-creator of Wham City's creepy/cute sorta-children's show “Show Beast,” took it upon himself to organize the Wham City Comedy Night in Baltimore. As Wham City's name began to resonate in ever-larger circles, O'Brien looked to bring their brand of comedy outside his city's regions, booking the first Wham City Comedy Tour, a collection of offbeat stand-up, experimental theatre, video work, and other myriad disciplines of the fine art of goofing off.

True to the organization's punk-centric ethos, the first tour sought out unconventional venues with unpredictable results. “The first [tour] was dynamite, it was amazing,” says O'Brien. “It was a great experience, it kind of brought everyone closer together, it definitely strengthened the comedy thread throughout the group. Because before then, we'd never collected all of the funny things that we do into one name, into one beast. After that, it was like, wow, this is good, we've got something here. It just went really, really well. “People were really receptive to it, except Cleveland,” he continues. “We had this really crazy house show in Cleveland, where we showed up to this dude's house, and the person who booked it wasn't there, and there wasn't any promotion really, and everyone who was going to come went to this girl's birthday party, and it was just really funny. It ended up being four people, and we set up outside and it started raining and thundering, and we had to rush everything inside. So we had a limited setup, and we just performed this theatre show in the dining room. And everyone sat in the living room, and they had to watch through the door from the living room into the dining room. The people actually started heckling us, because they got drunk. But it was definitely one of the most memorable trips.”

The group, which will include Deacon and many other Wham City-associated acts, will be selling a DVD of last year's tour and perhaps other baubles. In addition to a Wham City television show pilot that's in the works, O'Brien mentioned one other point of interest for potential audiences regarding this year's tour. “We're touring with a funny clown this year,” he says. “He's a pretty amazing clown.”

WHO: Wham City Comedy Tour
WHERE: 40 Watt Club
WHEN: Tuesday, Nov. 1, 8 p.m.