Two weekends ago, a re-run of cult L.A. comedian Brendon Small's bildungsroman Adult Swim cartoon Home Movies appeared, a reminder for his absurdist, neurotic stylings. But what was Brendon up to nowadays?
Small (@_Brendonsmall) arrived in L.A. during the early aughts from Boston, jumpstarting the alternative solo show scene just as avant-gardes like Fred Armisen and David Koechner were respectively trading in Largo gigs for Saturday Night Live and prolific film roles, respectively. He hosted the cult, late-night extravaganza The Tomorrow Show at the Steve Allen Theater from 2005 until 2008.
But recently it seemed he was slowly leaving lady comedy for the buxom model that is the heavy metal music underworld. In the wake of his second Adult Swim series, Metalocalypse, Small has been living the dream as a renegade guitarist, becoming a touring sensation at head-banger fests with his Dethklok band. Heck, Gibson named a line of high-end guitars after Small, designed to his specifications.
Then, like a splash of water to the face in a sweaty apartment, Small resurfaces in mid-May at his old stomping ground the Steve Allen Theater — via its resident organization the Trepany House — in The Top Secret Brendon Small Experiment. The show, set to run through late July, is a staged sitcom, where every week is a different episode.
Like director Nicolas Winding Refn, who drew inspiration from romantic comedies like Pretty Woman to fuel the underbelly of his crime-drama Drive, Small, too, is piqued by the genre, particularly as he deconstructs the TV sitcom on stage every week in Top Secret.
Each episode is scripted ahead of time, but, once onstage, becomes a live work-in-progress. If jokes don't click, Small and his team re-write them spontaneously, re-running bits and repeating lines back and forth until they're blue in the face. No, not in a fastidious or procedural way like those sitcoms on the Fox or Warner lot; rather, the onstage-backstage antics are part of the gimmick. After his dog misses a cue, Small bickers with his bespectacled co-producer (the multi-faceted Pat Healy, taking a beat here from his onscreen sociopath persona in films like Compliance). Small then reprimands the audience for talking, followed by Ron Lynch's (as the show's announcer who reads all the stage directions) resonant baritone belting, “People, in the front row: Shut the fuck up!” When Brendon wants to say something poignant to us, he steps forward melodramatically, away from his dramatis personae.
“Top Secret wants to be autobiographical, but when I got further into it, I wanted to write a complicated show with a complicated format,” explains Small in an interview.
At Top Secret's heart, Small grapples with the question posed in last Saturday's episode by his married best friend, Andrew Donnelly, “When was the last time a girl made pancakes for you in the morning?” (Andrew, like Lorenzo Music's Carlton the door man in the '70s sitcom Rhoda, never appears and speaks through a speaker phone). While cult celebritydom has blessed Small with many female callers, quite often they're saddled by prescription drugs or filicidal mothers, leaving him single. At the top of the show on Saturday, Small warmly receives an embrace from a pajama-less, dress-shirted bombshell (Alison Agosti). We think it's one of his evening conquests, but alas she is only a tease who slept with his friend the night prior while Small was confined to the couch.
Top Secret is in part inspired by the Marx Brothers' traveling shows which were mounted and re-written based on the audience's reactions. Additionally, Small points to Showtime's 1990 half hour It's Garry Shandling's Show, which mined its laughs from Shandlng smashing the fourth wall and sarcastically commenting on the pseudo-autobiographical storyline he played out.
Says Small, “What I love about It's Garry Shandling is that instead of poorly hiding exposition in clunky dialogue, he could rifle through exposition quickly. He'd turn to the camera and say, 'Okay, here's what's going on right now.' [This format] helps me while I'm trying to figure out what I'm doing and explain to the audience what's happening onstage as it may or may not fall on its face.”
In last Saturday's episode, Small was all too content to accompany the singing mailman Tom (Matt Kaye) on his routes. But that was shot to hell after the audience and the co-producer persuaded Small that he should go out on a date with Amanda (Hari Leigh), a TV network executive with mommy problems.
The plot change paid off, not just because Small can feasibly turn situations upside down, but also because he's fearless whenever he goes blue, no matter how offensive: A stagehand (Kaye) gives his thumbs up to the romantic storyline, bluntly advising Small, “Dude, you should try to fuck her and pee on her and humiliate her so she doesn't push you around at work! Then kill her!” to which Small deadpans, “Umm, OK.”
In this clip from the show, which previews some of the audience participation, Small tries to scare off his date Amanda, who wants to have sex in a dumpster, as Andrew interrupts (unlike Rhoda's Carlton, Andrew is mobile).
“It's a fucking weird romantic comedy about the vulnerability of the human condition, a guy entering into the world in a way he never wanted,” Small says over the phone. His onstage doppelganger agrees, wailing, “I wanted an innocent show about a mailman and dogs and now all I have is Californication!”
The Top Secret Brendon Small Experiment runs every Saturday until July 27, except for July 6, at the Trepany House at the Steve Allen Theater, 4773 Hollywood Blvd., Los Angeles, 90027. $10 tickets can be purchased here in advance.