Keeping New York Weird
About twenty minutes into Showgirls! The Musical! at Theatre 80 in the East Village, the cast is already topless. The show, a bawdy satire of the 1995 cult classic bad movie Showgirls, features April Kidwell as troubled dancer Nomi Malone. With her curly hair, high cheekbones and wide, wild eyes, Kidwell looks like a clone of the movie's star Elizabeth Berkley. Behind her, two smiling chorus girls, both bare-breasted and donning black leggings, cheerfully mime hand jobs on stripper poles. And behind them, past the scenery, out of reach of the lights, is the house band comprised of Tobly and Bob McSmith, who also co-created, co-wrote, and executive produced Showgirls! The Musical!
The McSmiths, a comedy writing and performing duo, have become Off Broadway hit makers over the past year: The New York Times lauded both Showgirls and the duo’s Saved by the Bell spoof Bayside! The Musical!, and the McSmiths recently debuted their third musical, JonBenet Ramsey: Murder Mystery Theater!!! The cast of Bayside! even performed at the New York Stock Exchange Christmas tree-lighting ceremony. Of their newfound success, Tobly McSmith says, "I spend half of it just fucking terrified. And that's the best."
The McSmiths are unlikely theatre wunderkinds. They are self-taught writers, comedians and musicians who went from antisocial drifters to Off Broadway sensations. And it only took them ten long, hard years.
Depending on whom you ask—coworkers, friends, members of the press—the McSmiths are cousins, lovers, roommates, or all of the above. But in fact, the pair are not related, not dating each other, and not living together. McSmith, for that matter, is not even their real last name, though they prefer it because it reflects how much they feel like family.
The two met a decade ago when they moved into a crowded Park Slope apartment on the same day. They say that neither had plans to make it big in comedy. Tobly, thirty-three, is a blue-eyed, swaggering Texan woman with a Justin Bieber haircut and a LOGIC e-cigarette almost always in hand. Bob, also thirty-three, is quieter, more contemplative, clad in a cardigan and jarringly baby-faced. Tobly vapes on an e-cig in her tiny Williamsburg apartment while thinking back to the first time they met.
"New York was the first place I could be really gay,” she recalls. “So you must have been like, ‘Who is this crazy gay person?’"
"No, it was never like that," intervenes Bob. "She'd come in at six a.m. with stolen bread, stumbling through the door. I was like, 'I want to know her.'"
Before work, they would smoke pot in their apartment, and in the evening they drank forty-ounce beers. In 2004, the pair moved into a two-bedroom apartment on Avenue B in the East Village and "slowly went insane together," says Tobly. At this point, they both had entry-level day jobs in Midtown. However, most of their money went towards alcohol. "I'd walk to work, eat off the dollar menu, walk home, immediately start drinking," says Tobly. Like many young, broke twentysomethings in New York, they thought they might try comedy or start a band. Except that these two followed through with their "drunken ideas," as Tobly puts it. "We got really focused for two drunk monkeys."
They searched for open mic nights in the East Village. At places like Club Midway, Korova Milk Bar, Apocalypse Lounge, Under St. Marks, and the weekly variety show Reverend Jen's Anti-Slam, they pushed the boundaries of cringe comedy and performance art, eventually adopting the McSmith pseudonym.
One of the more tame acts, “Pretty Doll, Powerful Scooter,” was inspired by a blurb that Bob spotted on the packaging for a girl's toy. "We just screamed 'Pretty doll, powerful scooter!' over and over for about four minutes," he says.
“And then everyone came onstage and started dancing with us,” adds Tobly, “and I peed in my pants. But everyone loved it so much! We were like, 'Now we have to do something horrible. We have to tear this down.'"
Onstage the following week, “Bob took off all his clothing,” recalls Tobly. “I put on a pair of yellow kitchen gloves and I lubed up a tampon and stuck it up his ass. And then Bob took it out of his ass, and he put it in his mouth, and he spit it at the audience. And then we ran out of there."
"We wanted to push people, and we wanted to push ourselves,” says Bob. “So every open mic it was like, ‘Well, we tried to piss ourselves at the last one, so what are we going to do next?’"
There was the time Bob drank their jar of kitchen grease; the time he stripped down to a thong and ate raw meat out of a piñata ("part of it was still frozen"); and the time they threw up on each other. "Our staple was drinking [unused] douches," says Tobly. "We would just show up to places and fuuuuuck with everybody."
"People were either horrified, or they loved us," says Bob.
* * *
Why go to such extremes? Maybe it had to do with both of them losing their fathers when they were kids. "That definitely shaped us both," says Bob.
"My father passed away when I was eleven, and I went into this crazy depression,” says Tobly. “I couldn't relate to people." Back home in Texas, she watched hours and hours of Comedy Central, trying to cheer herself up. "I got out of it by learning how to make people laugh. I was just an ugly kid. And when you're ugly, you have to be funny."
When Bob was in eighth grade, his father also died. "I got really dark then. I was obsessed with death." He was living in Maine, "not in a trailer park, but in a trailer." Unpopular, he surrounded himself with fellow comedy nerds who liked to recite Monty Python routines word for word. He was also particularly fascinated by Weird Al Yankovic, to the point of celebrating the comedian's birthday. "My friends and I would actually get a birthday cake and eat it with my mom."
Looking back on their days creating anarchic, transgressive performance art in the East Village, Tobly now realizes that “we were self-destructing."
"We both had those day jobs, too,” she says. “We would go and throw up on each other and then show up at nine a.m. the next day at work and try to be normal." Their drug dealer, a fiftysomething man whom they called Daddy, would even crash on their couch on weekends. "He sold dime bags and cocaine, and he would feed us cocaine off a knife," Tobly says.
While high on mushrooms, the two decided to write a musical based on the campy ‘90s show Saved by the Bell. At the time, they had never even written a song together. Because they didn't have any theatre connections, they staged the very first show at the East Village dive bar Apocalypse Lounge. "We didn't even know if there would be an audience," says Bob. They didn't charge admission, and they offered free Sparks, a caffeinated malt liquor, as an incentive to attend.
Despite the McSmiths’ lack of experience in theatre production, Gawker recommended an early incarnation of their Saved by the Bell spoof, Bayside! The UnMusical, in 2005. The two were so low-budget then that the ticket reservation line was Tobly’s cell phone number. After the Gawker review, "I was like, 'Why is everyone calling me?'” she says. “It was amazing."
As the show got bigger, Tobly invested earnings from her day job into the production. "I put my whole life savings into it. And that wasn't trust fund or family money; that was money I had saved," she says. "That's putting it all on the line and believing that it will work.”
Around the same time, the McSmiths created a slew of other eccentric projects: an offensive comical website called Pretty Pony Party, a band whose best and most clever song was titled "We're Ripping Off the Pixies," and a comedy web series loosely based on Tobly’s experiences in Alcoholics Anonymous.
"My mom was not proud of us back then," says Tobly. Bob’s aunt still hasn't forgiven him for a lewd photo that she discovered on Pretty Pony Party, which he describes as "me having sex with mayonnaise."
In the meantime, Bayside! The UnMusical was growing more popular thanks to word of mouth and online buzz. The McSmiths continually improved it, rewriting the script at least five times from scratch. It went from small, sweaty bars to slightly larger bars to the Off-Off Broadway Kraine Theater, and finally to Off Broadway’s Theatre 80 on St. Mark's Place, where it has been extended through March, with the new name Bayside! The Musical!
Saved by the Bell star Elizabeth Berkley famously went on to star in Showgirls, so "We got a Showgirls reference in Bayside!” Bob explains. “It would bring down the house every night"—which got the duo thinking about a Showgirls parody. Berkley doppelgänger April Kidwell was "such a standout that we had to write this for her," says Tobly. So during Hurricane Sandy in late 2012, the McSmiths cooped up in Tobly’s apartment and wrote a spoof of the so-bad-it's-good film.
The movie Showgirls—widely panned when it was released—has developed a cult following among fans who celebrate its campiness at midnight screenings across the country. In creating Showgirls! The Musical!, the McSmiths turned many fans' favorite lowbrow moments into high comedy, such as Nomi's mispronunciation of Versace ("Versase"), her claim that she's originally from "different places," and, of course, her spastic swimming pool sex scene, complete with the refrain: "You paid twenty dollars / to see us fuck in the water / so here we go!"
"We actually started incorporating heart, too, into our pieces," Bob says. "You need that sweetness—before you have a song about someone fisting their pussy." They made Nomi more sympathetic than she was in the film. “We gave Nomi the eleventh hour song, 'The Whorrier'—the whore and the warrior,” explains Tobly. “That was the song that took us forever—it took weeks—and it was the last song. We wouldn't settle, and then we wrote 'Whorrier' and we knew that was right."
The popularity of Showgirls! The Musical! even led Rena Riffel, a cast member from the movie, to reprise her role as Penny on stage. "She was just like her character," Bob deadpans.
The McSmiths say they’ve learned a lot from their days as extremist performance artists, from the simple—poop jokes don't work; fart jokes do, sometimes—to somewhat more reflective lessons. "We learned where that boundary is,” says Bob, adding, “It’s still fun to throw things across the line."
The two have never had the feedback of a community, like comedians in the improv comedy scene or sketch comedy scene do. They've never workshopped their scripts; there are no test audiences. Instead their rule is, if it makes both of them laugh, then it's funny, and it stays.
It's this commitment to a smartly smutty comedic sensibility that draws enthusiastic young crowds who typically don't watch live theatre, although these two are not exactly the type to revel in success.
"It's more uncomfortable to succeed than fail,” says Tobly. “I think if you grow up a loser and an outcast and ugly and not accepted, then you question when you are accepted."
Referencing a classic horror film in which the lead character is doused in pig blood, Bob says, "It's like, 'Are you going to Carrie us?'"
Despite their success here, the McSmiths have since moved out of Manhattan to Brooklyn. "We can’t afford to live in the East Village anymore," says Bob.
Artists getting pushed out of ascendant neighborhoods is not a new story. However, in just the past decade, rising rents in Manhattan have particularly throttled small venues that once embraced weirder acts like the McSmiths' earlier work. More than fifty of New York City's roughly 200 Off-Off Broadway venues have closed in the last ten years, including the McSmiths’ old East Village stomping grounds Club Midway, Korova Milk Bar and Apocalypse Lounge.
“Venues are dropping off. There's not a lot of different places to see different things,” Tobly says. It's unclear whether the next generation of experimental comedians will get the space they need in order to develop their craft.
As for the former dive-bar comedy punks the McSmiths, this is just the beginning. "We're going to keep doing this for the rest of our lives," says Bob.
Adds Tobly: "Even if no one is watching."
* * *
Grace Bello is a lifestyle and culture reporter based in New York. Her work has appeared in The Atlantic, NBCNews.com, Jezebel, and NYMag.com, among other publications. Follow her on Twitter at @grace_land.
Jessica Bal hails from a two-stoplight town in Massachusetts and now resides in a city with too many lights to count, where she produces media for an arts education organization and looks for any excuse to write, photograph, and film stories that she’s curious about.