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January 2, 2011

Cynthia Carle and Mark Nutter: How Your Christmas Smackdown Gets Made
by WomenInComedy - 0

By WICF Editor Liz McKeon

Reviewers can be too quick – or lazy – to label comedy shows “irreverent” and “witty.” So what am I to do when trying to describe Cynthia Carle and Mark Nutter’s Christmas Smackdown? They’ve produced an irreverent, witty, well-paced send-up of the traditional Christmas show. And if I took out the trite descriptors and only called the show “well-paced,” well, I’d be doing its authors a disservice.

I spoke with Nutter and Carle in December, after their show opened at iO Chicago. They graciously told me of Christmas Smackdowns past, present, and hopefully, future, as well as upcoming projects and their individual writing styles. And they were, yes, witty and irreverent while doing it,

The Cast of Christmas Smackdown.

WICF: I know you guys have performed the Christmas Smackdown in North Hollywood for several years.

Cynthia: Yes.

WICF: Is this a different version? Have you rewritten songs?

Cynthia: Yeah. We’ve spread our stuff – it’s just been me and Mark and a small chorus of people, so we just wanted to see what it would be like as a four-person review, eliminate the chorus and spread our songs out over four people.

Mark: And there are songs in the show that weren’t done ever, it’s a world premiere. “Severed Swedish Heads” is new, with the quartet, and–

Cynthia: “Here’s Your Present” is new.

Mark: “Here’s Your Present,” “The Gift of the Magi” are all new.

WICF: I was wondering – I figured, this is a really tight show, and it just seemed like that would be an amazing– if you guys rewrote this every single year, that would’ve been incredible.

Cynthia: No, just those three are brand new.

Mark: It actually started, we kind of added songs each year, that’s kind of how it grew until we got enough to make it a real live show. Smackdown was a couple of Christmas songs, and then our other stuff, which is also hilarious, but not holiday themed.

Cynthia: Right, and then we began to just sort of shoehorn everything into Christmas land, and it works.

WICF: It did. And it’s hard to do Christmas, because it’s so easy to lampoon it but it’s hard to maintain that level for an entire show.

Cynthia: Yeah, yeah it is.

Mark: There are some obvious places you can go to with Christmas, again and again, you know ... yeah, we know it’s too commercial.

Cynthia: Yeah, yeah yeah yeah.

Mark: We know it’s commercial, okay.

Cynthia: Yeah, we know that there’s endless emotional blackmail, that time of year. So we just try to come at it from many different kind of spiky spokes. Wow, did I just say spiky spokes?

Mark: That’s very eloquent of you.

Cynthia: Wow.

WICF: So, um, yeah, spiky spokes, sounds good. I have to tell you that the one that hit home for me was “The Sky Mall Song.”

Cynthia: Oh, cool! We have experience with the Sky Mall. Have you ever actually ordered anything from the Sky Mall catalogue?

WICF: No. Although I wonder, now that a lot of flights do have wifi online, I wonder how that’s gone up for them.

Cynthia: I don’t know. I kind of like that – as you said that, I was imagining watching a Sky Mall plane race alongside the plane as soon as you order your trampoline to come and shove it in the window.

Mark: It would cost a lot of extra shipping.

WICF: I wonder if they could just get it to show up at the gate. And, maybe if the adorable puppies also are included?

Cynthia: Oh yeah! And the 9 Volt Personal Dog-Off Deluxe to make sure the puppies never really get near you.

The Sky Mall, mall in the sky, how glossy the pages, how eager my eye, the wonder of retail thirty thousand feet high, my beautiful Sky Mall, mall in the sky. –Cynthia Carle, The Sky Mall Song

WICF: So how do you guys share or split the writing, the lyrics and the songs, do you have a method or is each song different?

Mark: Oh boy.

Cynthia: Yeah, this is kind of the “Brady Bunch” show. He brought nine songs and I brought nine songs, and we wrote two of our own together.

Mark: Yeah, there’s no real method, I wouldn’t dignify what we do – we’re not saying there’s any better method, we kind of like each other so if there’s a question or note that one of us has about another’s song, it’s taken to heart and changed, so there’s little tiny rewrites–

Cynthia: Oh yeah.

Mark: –you know, all throughout everything. Some are Paul McCartney’s exclusively and some are John Lennon’s.

Cynthia: That’s right. That’s very well put.

WICF: How long have you guys been working together?

Mark: Five years.

Cynthia: Five years, I think.

Mark: Yeah.

WICF: I read on, oh I’m not sure whose bio., that you guys sometimes appear together on the Comedy Central Stage’s Sit ‘N’ Spin.

Cynthia: Yeah.

Mark: We’ve done a bunch of Sit ‘N’ Spins. We did the Christmas stuff there too.

Mark: I was just going to ask you – where are you now, Liz?

WICF: I’m in Ukrainian Village.

Cynthia: Wow.

Mark: We can see you from our apartment. We’re on the 27th floor here, so we’ve got, you know, sweeping landscape of the west side.

Cynthia: It’s just silly up here.

WICF: Where are you guys?

Mark: We’re at [redacted].

The joy I got from giving gifts is now a distant memory, but the obligation still remains like the phantom limb on an amputee. –Mark Nutter, Here's Your Present

WICF: So how did you guys – I know you said you were interested in seeing how this worked as a review, and here you’ve got the four-part harmony, when did you decide to just take yourselves out of it entirely, performance-wise?

Cynthia: Well, it’s funny you should ask, I would’ve been very interested in doing it here, except I’m Equity, and iO is a non-Union joint, so that was not an option?

WICF: Does that mean you could never perform for them?

Cynthia: Apparently. I guess that’s right, although I guess, every so often Charna [Halpern]’s kind of done a union contract thing, but they’re going to be moving soon, to a new location, so I’m sure a lot of things will be, you know, sort of chaotic until all that, but I’ve never talked to her about that.

Mark: The other aspect is we kind of wanted to create something that could be franchised, something that we wouldn’t have to show up to do, and you know, for future Christmas’ something that we could take to other theater companies and have them to do it.

Cynthia: Yeah, this is one of those, well, I can picture it happening in a lot of places at once and basically, as the alternative Christmas thing. While the main stage of a lot of theaters, they run Christmas Carol because they have to, to survive, or The Grinch, because they have to, so this could be the other thing, sort of on their second stage.

Yes, there are recorders involved.

WICF: Sounds wonderful. So Mark, I know you did The Bicycle Men, at iO.

Mark: Yes.

WICF: Is that along the same lines, where it would just travel, or is this more of a yearly franchise?

Mark: The Bicycle Men hasn’t gotten there yet, but we’d like to see that happen as well, and yeah, it’s very similar.

Cynthia: Can I just – I want to say one thing about The Bicycle Men and about Mark Nutter, I – the way I met Mark Nutter was, a mutual friend said, “You’ve got to come and see The Bicycle Men.” I saw The Bicycle Men seven times before I ever met Mark Nutter. That is how much I loved The Bicycle Men.

Mark: And our mutual friend said, “You must meet my friend, Cynthia Carle, she’s seen your stuff seven times,” and I said, “Why would I want to meet her? She sounds insane. She sounds like a stalker.” But she wasn’t. And it worked out rather well. In fact, we even kind of suspect that we’re distant relations.

Cynthia: Yes, we think it’s actually possible. His mother’s side of his family comes from an area where my mother’s family came from, and I think if we went back far enough, we would find out that there’s some genetic relation.

Mark: Yeah, my mom’s from Paducah, KY, and apparently Cynthia has people in Possum Trot, which is not too far.

Cynthia: And Benton.

Mark: And Benton.

Cynthia: Which is not too far.

Mark: It’s just across the IL border, south of Carbondale.

WICF: So Mark, you’re from Chicago?

Mark: Yeah, I grew up near Joliet, and I came to school, I went to Loyala here in Chicago,

WICF: And then, Cynthia, you’re from NY, right, originally?

Cynthia: Yeah, I lived in NY for a really long time, it’s kind of the home of my heart. I’m originally from LA and I’m living in LA right now, but I miss NY every day. And I like Chicago a lot.

WICF: It’s sort of an interesting cross between them.

Cynthia: Gosh, I wouldn’t even have thought that, somebody said it’s like The American City, I get that part, I don’t know, NY’s many things but it’s not really America.

WICF: Can you tell me a little bit about the process? How was casting this show, was it this labor of love and you have to find the correct people, or did the perfect people just walk in and you knew them?

Mark: Well, that’s a long story. We had auditions. You know, we put out ads here in Chicago and had open casting. I used to do a lot of theater here but I left in 1987, so you know, I wasn’t that well-connected anymore. And it was kind of a way to get back into theater since I’m relocating here again. But we had to have open auditions to see who was available.

Cynthia: And then you had seen some stuff at iO that had a couple of people in it, who for sure we wanted to see.

He sees you when you're sleeping, he knows when you're awake, he knows that you're maturing with ev 'ry breath you take. He knows that you've had feelings that make you warm down there, when thinking of a teacher, or straddling a chair. –Mark Nutter, Santa Claus Lives in Your Mind

Mark: Yeah, Tim Soszko’s in the cast, he’s also in Cupid has a Heart On, The Cupid Players’ musical that runs at iO on Saturday, and I said, ooh, I want this guy, for sure.

Cynthia: He walked in and Mark had said, there’s this guy, and there was indeed. Tim’s astonishing, he’s just great.

Mark: And I also had seen Lyndsay Hailey, because she performs with the Deltones at iO. And then, some other people that I saw, we asked to audition, but we needed more than two or three people.

Cynthia: We finally saw about forty/forty-odd people, some odder than others.

Mark: And then when we found David Wrigley and Molly Todd, both of them just kind of recent Chicago residents.

Cynthia: And they’re great, Lyndsay is fantastic, David and Molly are just wonderful, I just love our people, I really do.

WICF: How long has it taken you to decide that you were going to perform this as a review, up to Tuesday night?

Cynthia: A couple of, um, three months? I guess we talked about it sort of randomly for awhile, and then we actually just sort of sat down at the end to organize it. I guess about three months, does that sound right?

Mark: I think Charna said, “Come on in and do it,” in June, so that’s when we really started.

Cynthia: Really?! That long ago? Okay, I’m hallucinating, it was June.

WICF: So was it always going to be at iO?

Mark: It could’ve been anywhere, and then we were trying to figure out where we could do it and, duh, I said, I’ve got to talk to Charna.

Cynthia: Charna is great and the space is wonderful.

Mark: She’s a great host.

Cynthia: Yeah, she’s lovely.

Mark: You know, and we had some luck with The Bicycle Men at both her theaters, you know iO in LA and iO here, and I said, this makes sense.

WICF: So how did you guys find Lisa McQueen?

Mark: Lisa played for a musical I wrote that was here in Chicago and off-Broadway in 1993, called Wild Men!, it was a musical based on the men’s movement, and – do you remember the men’s movement?

WICF: Drum circles?

Cynthia: There were these men, and they had a movement.

Mark: There was this book called Iron John, on the New York [Times’] Best Seller list, by Robert Bly, and that kind of sparked things off, and men who felt emasculated in modern society would all go into the woods and beat drums and–

Cynthia: And something about sweating.

Mark: Sit in sweat lodges and then go off and talk to the ghosts of their fathers, you know, and then come back $600 poorer, but more in touch with their masculinity. And so it seemed like a premise to write for a musical. So that played here, George Wendt was in the cast here, and Dick Lewman and Joe Liss, who became part of The Bicycle Men, Peter Burns, Rob Riley, and Lisa played piano.

WICF: Wow, that’s quite the beginning of a relationship there.

Mark: Well yeah, that’s where it started, and then I hadn’t seen her for 17 years, and then I was asking around, looking for a piano player, and her name came up, and I was like, oh, I hope we get her, and we did.

Cynthia: Yeah, she’s great, she’s like a fifth cast member, she’s got an amazing feeling for the show and ability to pick up dropped stuff and kind of run – she’s like this kind of great spirit and shepherd over there – that really sounds sort of nauseating but it’s really true, she’s just wonderful.

Lyndsay Hailey, David Henry Wrigley, Tim Soszko, and Molly Todd,
in their element.

WICF: When you guys were talking about how this would be great, to franchise it, it’s sort of the real life version of “Christmas Standard.”

Cynthia: Yes! It is. And I never thought of that! That’s terrifying, but you’re right.

WICF: Are there plans to record this, or sell it outside of this particular run?

Cynthia: Yes, there are. I’m not sure exactly how and precisely when that’s going to happen, but it is going to happen.

Mark: It will happen. Finally. Finally, we have enough to fill a CD, so yeah, it’s going to happen. We’ve gotten a lot of requests from the last few LA Smackdowns for it so we’re going to do that, but we wanted to do this first.

WICF: Do your friends in LA feel like you’ve abandoned them, now that you’re not performing it for them this year?

Cynthia: We are performing it for them this year! We’re going to go back and do the Smackdown three nights in the same place, and it’s, ah, weird. It’s going to be a weird feeling.

Mark: Yeah, we go back, and then I’m coming back here for the last two nights of Smackdown. Maybe I’ll even play one of these here.

Cynthia: It’s the 16th, 17th, and 18th of December, in LA.

WICF: So that’ll be the two of you performing it in LA, while your cast is performing it here.

Cynthia: Yeah.

WICF: Wow. You should simulcast that.

Mark: It’s like the Blue Man Group, but you know, without the blue faces.

Cynthia: We could do that.

Mark: We could do that, though.

Cynthia: I have the blue stuff.

Here we come a'wassailing, tell me, what the hell was that about? In days of yore you'd break down a stranger's door and drink 'til his wife would throw you out. –Cynthia Carle, Severed Swedish Heads

WICF: So I was looking at both of your websites and listening to your songs and stuff, and I was wondering - and this is for both of you, separately – is comedy your true love? It seems like you both focus on that, but you’re really Renaissance performers.

Cynthia: Gee, that’s a nice thing to say.

Mark: A very nice thing to say.

Cynthia: Mark, you can field that first.

Mark: Oh yeah, it’s never not been comedy. Yeah, I’ve never even had a thought of doing anything other than comedy. And even when I have attempted serious things, they were funny, so I really have no choice.

Cynthia: It’s funny, you really intended to write War and Peace, and it came out Wild Men! I do write other stuff, I do write serious stuff and I have friends who like my serious stuff more than they want – like they’re saying, can you take one of your CDs and peel out the comedy, and just send me the serious stuff? And I said, sure.

Mark: Her serious stuff is great.

Cynthia: I like it all. It depends, really, on what’s going on on a given day in my head, or I’ll wake up with some little idea, it sort of has to be one thing or the other. So no, I can’t really say that I have a first love, I guess–

WICF: And what is it?

Cynthia: –it’s whatever.

WICF: Oh! Well, thank you guys very much. What’s up next?

Cynthia: Oh, tell her about Re-Animator.

Mark: Well yeah, I’m going back to LA to mount a musical that I wrote with Stuart Gordon, based on the film Re-Animator, a 1985 horror film. And yeah, I’ve been working on that for the last couple of years. We’re going to do a production of that in February, in Los Angeles.

Cynthia: And, I just have to tell you that his score for this is just amazing, just fantastic. And I think it should be a huge hit.

Mark: Oh thank you. And Cynthia Carle may be in the show too, which is really cool.

WICF: Awesome. And Cynthia, do you have anything you’re writing coming up?

Cynthia: Yeah, my husband and I write together a lot, my husband is Chris Reed, and we write together –

Mark: We’re not married, did you know that?

Cynthia: We’re not, did you know we weren’t married?

WICF: I did know that.

Cynthia: Oh, okay.

WICF: Just because I looked it up.

Mark: Okay. Because somebody asked us, one show, after we did “All the Best,” you know, they said, “Are you two married?” And we said, “Not anymore.”

Cynthia: They seemed pleased with the answer, so we’ve said it a couple of times. But yeah, my husband and I write mostly features together, and we’ve got interest in some stuff and we’ll be out pitching some stuff, just the usual kind of, you know, groveling sort of stuff that we do. You know, it’s really almost like we don’t like LA, but we have to live there, because even though you can write anywhere, you have to be in LA for the groveling.

WICF: Sounds like a life lesson.

Cynthia: Yeah, yeah, probably a song about kneepads in there somewhere.

WICF: So where are you both staying right now for the run of the show?

Cynthia: In Mark’s penthouse. Wheee!

Mark: And again, we will go out on the porch and wave.

Cynthia: Yeah, it’s blue, can you see us? I’m waving now.

Mark Nutter and Cynthia Carle, on stage in LA.

WICF: Is there anything that you wanted to say, or anything that you never get asked?

Cynthia: Wow, um, jeez, nobody’s ever asked me why I shop at thrift stores? Mark, is there anything you want to talk about?

Mark: There is another thing, you know, please come see our show, it’s really funny. And may I list some influences?

Cynthia: You’re going to have to – you list your influences, but you’re going to have to speak for yourself, because I don’t even know who my influences are. I mean, I know who I love, but I don’t know if they’re my influences.

Mark: I know who I love, too, and I guess that they could be considered influences.

Cynthia: Okay, go.

Mark: Tom Lehrer, Randy Newman, and Harry Ruby.

Cynthia: Of those, I’m a huge Randy Newman fan.

Mark: You’re a Harry Ruby fan, too.

Cynthia: I’m a huge Harry Ruby fan, too, that’s true. And Tom Lehrer, I appreciate the groundbreaking-ness of Tom Lehrer, but I don’t find that I actually end up howling when I hear it.

WICF: Fair enough. And just a question on process, for both of you: What usually comes first, the music or the lyrics?

Mark: That’s a good one.

Cynthia: For me, I’m really happy when they show up at the same time. And the next best thing for me is just a little chunk of music that has some rhythmic hook in it, and it’s a little piece of rhythm? And then some music and then lyrics on that. Unless, I’m just obsessing about some idea that actually does kind of roll out in words first – that’s kind of rarer for me, but it has happened. But I love to start with musical rhythm.

Mark: For me, it’s usually concept and then a word, and then if there’s words that kind of sing, with the title, and then if there’s three good jokes that can be mined from that field, then I go ahead and write the song.

Cynthia: There are some things that you’ll get – I can’t even think of a good example, but sometimes you can get an idea that’s really a great one liner, and just doesn’t – you can’t spin it out into anything.

Mark: No, and we talk about this too, you’ll hear a lot of novelty songs out there that are one idea, repeated ad nauseum, because there’s just kind of no drama to it–

Cynthia: –done to death.

Mark: Yeah, done to death.

Cynthia: And you can make a list of songs, you know, there’s a lot of political stuff that’s going to end up feeling like that, where various people just sort of say the names of some people in Washington, and I guess that’s actually kind of the joke, and it always makes me a little puzzled.

Christmas Smackdown at iO Chicago Theater
Tuesday, Wednesdays, and Thursdays, November 30-December 16, 2010
Written, Directed, and Music & Lyrics by Mark Nutter and Cynthia Carle
Starring Lyndsay Hailey, Tim Soszko, Molly Todd, and David Henry Wrigley, with Lisa McQueen at the piano
Lights & Tech by Michael Balzer

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