Interview: Daniel Shar of Phat Beethoven

Phat Beethoven, whose dark, absurdist show at the Chicago SketchFest a few months ago was one of my favorites of the festival, is gearing up for a run at The Playground Theater. Catch their new show, Boy Geniuses, every Saturday at 10pm, starting tomorrow night, through May 25th alongside John O'Toole's one man show Split.

I talked to Daniel Shar, one of the members of Phat Beethoven, all about the group's background, as well as another show he's working on, Listin Up, a hybrid standup and improv show, which debuts at the Upstairs Gallery next Wednesday. 

The Steamroller: How long has Phat Beethoven existed, and how did you come together in the first place?

Daniel Shar: We first met in the Comedy Studies program at Second City in 2008, but our first show as a group was in March 2011. We met up, each pitched a four-person sketch idea, improvised and then re-improvised those, and then I think that night, did them all at a show at Ginger's Ale House, which is no longer a place.

It was not a particularly good show, and there was almost no audience, but we all laughed through our entire set and just had so much fun being idiots together that I think we all realized we would definitely want to operate as a group.

TS: Before SketchFest, Phat Beethoven rarely performed outside of the Upstairs Gallery and a few other small spaces.  Was that a purposeful thing, where you kept yourself to these sort of workshop-friendly, performer oriented spaces to hone what you were doing or was it not that pre-planned?

DS: It was sort of deliberate, but I think we basically just followed the path we accidentally stumbled upon for ourselves in 2012. Both years, we kind of treated Chicago SketchFest as the first real preview of what our next full stage show would be. So for both years, in the months leading up to the festival, we would do as many guest or opening sets as we could at Upstairs Gallery, The Playground, the recently relocated/renamed Public House Theater, and anywhere else we could. SketchFest would then serve as the first show we could call our own to do all of our newest and best stuff in a longer set. 

So we took our 2012 SketchFest set and turned it into Party Bus Stop, which ran for six weeks that spring at the Apollo Theater Studio. We also took some of that material to festivals in New York, North Carolina, and South Carolina.

Then we spent most of the summer creating and performing what ended up being a one-act play called The Academy, which I really hope we get to remount at some point. It was Phat Beethoven plus Gary Richardson, with Andy Miara (who is now the head writer for the Onion News Network) as our director. Andy is a hilarious genius who should really follow through on rescheduling that lunch with me sometime soon, don't you think, Steamroller readers?

Anyway, after that, we all got really busy with different projects (and I'm talking Andy Miara-level busy where we couldn't even find time to have lunch with each other), so we weren't really able to start working on new stuff again until November. We crammed in as many guest sets as we could before January, and then 2013 SketchFest was the first time any of those bits had seen an audience bigger than 20 people. We got to see what really worked and what really didn't in a less workshop-friendly environment, and we've adjusted things accordingly while repackaging and honing that material for this upcoming run of Boy Geniuses.

TS: This upcoming run at the Playground is paired with a performance of John O'Toole's SPLIT, how did your two shows come together? How do your two styles complement/contrast against each other?

DS: The whole night is being presented by Scott Goldstein, who has had a hand in a ton of great shows all over town. We worked with him on Party Bus Stop and enjoyed it. He helped us out before SketchFest this year, and was working with John on his solo stuff, and then at some point, he had the idea to pair our shows up, which we were all totally game for since we'd seen some of John's stuff at All Of It All The Time at CIC and liked it.

Since Scott is directing both shows, I just asked him how he thinks they complement/contrast against each other and he said, "I think both shows are in that rare category of 'dumb/smart' which is my favorite style of comedy these days. John and the Phat Beethoven guys have a really good understanding of classical comedy conventions, and how to tweak them in a modern way that doesn't feel forced or dishonest."

TS: You promise an "energetic, bit-heavy, dumb show" in your writeup of Boy Geniuses. Was there anything TOO dumb to be included in the show?

DS: We love to toe that line, to the point where I'm not entirely sure that anything we cut is substantially dumber than anything that stayed; it's more just a matter of what is the most fun for us to do while also seeming to amuse audiences. One sketch we had to lose that I loved was about a plumber more focused on getting enough signatures to run for mayor than on fixing a toilet. There was poop everywhere by the end of this scene, which ate shit at SketchFest (pun clearly shamelessly intended).  

TS: You and Dan Friesen just announced Listin Up, a new hybrid improv and standup show at the Upstairs Gallery. How'd that show come together? The improv/sketch and standup scenes are pretty segregated as it stands today, do you see this as a means of bridging that gap?

DS: I did a run at Upstairs Gallery in March called Sharnanigans, where each week was an improv show with a different conceit or framework that I had at some point only joked about doing. One of the ideas was just a spin on what I understood of Setlist. I wanted standups to come do improvised standup based on set lists created for them by the audience, and then I wanted improvisers to use those standups' actual set lists as source material for improv sets.

I immediately reached out to Dan, who I was friends with from the comedy show he ran back in Missouri, and thankfully he was on board to help make it happen. It was a blast when we did it for Sharnanigans, and Dan and I both felt like it could have legs as a monthly show, so we are thrilled that we were able to secure this spot at Upstairs. 

Bridging the gap wasn't an explicit goal that I had for this show, but I do think it would be great for both communities to be more aware of and supportive of one another. I am all for funny people befriending and collaborating with other funny people, regardless of what lane they tend to stay in. So yeah why not? Let's start bridging that gap on April 24 at Upstairs Gallery at 8. It's free (donations accepted), BYOB, and Dan's birthday!