By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Carol Cheh
By Keegan Hamilton
By Bill Raden
|Photo by Debra DiPaolo|
You guilty scientists will destroy the world with your shameful secrets.
--Joe Orton, What the Butler Saw
I'D KNOWN THE INTERVIEW WAS GOING TO BE different. My subjects, after all, were a quartet of sketch comics who liked to wear lab coats and burn things. Then there'd been the greeting from their e-mail that had arranged today's meeting: "Let Our Guns Do the Talking!" Such were my thoughts as I was led, more or less blindfolded, from the lobby of a reflective-glass high-rise in West L.A. into an awaiting SUV. Only moments before, the building's receptionist had admitted that her request for me to sign in was merely a way to keep me "busy." "A satanic ploy," I joked back. One minute afterward, the cell phone that a ministry minion had handed me rang. A satanic ploy, its screen announced.
After a short, disorienting drive, I was brought to a corporate patio (Alphaville concrete, Sepulveda Boulevard noise), where I was allowed to see again and to meet the four 30-ish men who make up Ministry of Unknown Science, just as they removed their white biohazard suits and sat down to a table covered with Happy Meals, Transformer toys, glass beakers and a stainless-steel lab tray containing an E.T. figurine costumed in a dress.
Clearly, my faux-Huell Howser/wonderstruck-interviewer technique would be useless here. MOUS, as the group is acronymically known, consists of Dr. Fistula, Minister of Pink (Jason Berlin); Armitage Shanks, Minister of Joy (Rico Gagliano, who sometimes freelances for this paper); Professor T, Minister of Rage (Eric Trueheart); and Cap'n Shady, Minister of Water and Power (Timothy P. Walker). Describing them is easy and yet elusive. On the one hand, their elaborate stage identities as dubious scientists engaged in Mephistophelean experiments evoke memories of the band Devo. The ministers' preoccupation with pyrotechnics suggests at least some influence from San Francisco's Survival Research Laboratories, and their cross-cutting conversation also brings to mind the Marx Brothers and Firesign Theater.
On the other hand, their muse is comedy, not research, and science is merely a means to an end -- a TV show on the Sci Fi Channel or on HBO. Talking to MOUS is like getting caught in the crossfire of four weaponized clowns who are constantly engaged in topping one another. Subjects cartwheel from the digestive byproducts of Crunchberry cereal to an inflatable sheep the group had exploded in the Mojave -- as the ministers interrupt each other (and even themselves) while occasionally speaking into invisible microphones.
"We're not just a bunch of guys with a bottle of scotch and some gunpowder," Walker tries to assure, when asked about the group's safety precautions.
"We rule by allowing chaos," Berlin intones, to which Gagliano adds, "We don't believe in chaos theory, we believe in chaos practice."
"We're an oligarchy of plausible deniability," caps Trueheart.
When I inquire about the nature of the ministers' portfolios, each rattles off a résumé, while his colleagues mutter, "Lies, lies, lies."
"I'm basically the unstable mastermind behind the show," says Walker/Cap'n Shady. "I was a professional Boy Scout for a time, but then I decided to dedicate my life to drugs and alcohol, and came to California."
"But," counters Trueheart/Professor T, "he was asked to leave because of his religious beliefs -- he thought Sammy Davis Jr. was Christ."
BACK IN THE LATE 1990s, THE FOUR HAD BEEN toiling individually in the fields of the entertainment industry, making independent films, performing in sketch comedy and theater, or writing for TV. What brought them together was Gigsville, an L.A.-based community of desert-oriented artists, seekers and pyros who each year set up their own town within a town at Burning Man. "One year," says Walker, "we had a theme camp called Burning Scouts, which was everything the scouts weren't. We gave out demerit badges in homosexuality, lap dancing and unfocused rage." Walker's kaboomtown projects had already included "Morricone v. Esquivel," in which Cap'n Shady choreographed 100 explosions to music of the seminal composers, and "Burning Vanna White."
"I saw Star Wars 11 times," Gagliano notes.
Certainly, the ministers appreciate science's power and sex appeal.
"The greatest minds of the world are working really hard so people can take photos of their dicks," Trueheart points out. "People see scientists as the scary tools of industry or the government. These guys do incredibly powerful things to incredibly helpless people, day in and day out, for no apparent reason other than amusement and to line the pockets of George W. Bush. And we play completely into those fears."
To MOUS, the world's open to inspection, probing and experimentation. And so the ministry needed a laboratory -- a place big enough to live in and present performances, big enough to construct large sets and props -- and out of the way enough to avoid the prying eyes of fire marshals. More important, there were certain theoretical considerations: "We had a dream that involved chicks seeing the place and thinking it was really cool," remembers Gagliano.