From left to right, Pat Thornton, Bob Banks, and Jason DeRosse are PB & J. Detail of a photo by Richard Young.
“Sketch promises laughs, whereas improv doesn’t promise anything, because it’s a theatrical experiment—you can have a very successful improv scene that isn’t particularly funny. We can’t.”
Both Pat Thornton and Bob Banks laugh out loud at Thornton’s admission. We’re talking with the two comics, two-thirds of “sketchprov” troupe PB & J, about their monthly show’s upcoming special edition, “The Easter Funny.”
Both men have just come off stage from doing substantial stand-up sets at a new showcase to talk about their hybrid show and how the three of them (Jason DeRosse rounds out the trio) combined their comedy backgrounds to create it.
“In an improv scene, Jason and I would build a barn, and then Pat would tear the barn down, which would get a huge laugh,” explains Banks (and indeed, his example elicits a roar of laughter from Thornton), talking about their early days of working together. “But then, we’d be, ‘Oh, quick, build the barn back up, because otherwise the challenge hasn’t been met.'”
“Now, we start out with the premise—’three guys in a barn,’ say—so once that’s been established, we can just pull out our joke guns and go crazy on the audience.”
The three performers come from fairly different comedy backgrounds. Banks is a experienced improviser, originally from Winnipeg, who’s an alumnus of improv troupe Big in Japan, and a founding member of Mantown; so is DeRosse, who has a long-standing association with Second City. Thornton, a founding member of The Sketchersons and the creator of the Comedy Network’s Hotbox series, had an extensive background in stand-up and sketch but very little as an improviser before hooking up with Banks and DeRosse.
“I just liked to stand there and say jokes in the early days, and all the responsibility was on [Bob and Jason] to build a scene and story around that. They just wanted me to move out of the way so they could do other things [laughs]. But we slowly figured it out; my number-one agenda, early on, was always about getting lots of laughs from the crowd; we still do that, but now we’re delivering a show that’s good improv across the board, with more ‘jokes per minute’ than most improv shows.”
Both funny men credit the structure of the show, and the supporting team off-stage, for honing their comedic sensibilities. “Mark Andrada [our technical director] takes our show to another level,” says Thornton. “Because it’s a sketch revue within an improv show, the lights are crucial to accentuate the laughs”—and to stop and start new scenes, which Andrada will sometimes do with a blackout just a few sentences in. “He’s working as hard as us at making the audience, and us, laugh.”
Banks agrees: “Mark’s our director on the fly. We also have a musical director, Chris New, who’s a very funny comedian himself. So they’re both improvising too, and we never know what they’re going to pull out…it keeps the whole show on its toes.”
“We start with a bunch of sketch titles,” explains Thornton, “with blanks that the audience fills in, in the first few minutes of the show.” Once all the suggestions have been taken, the three rely on Andrada—and their host, “Batman”—to choose the order of the sketches and who will be taking the audience’s challenges. Sometimes, they’ll play to each other’s strengths; other times, they’ll try and trip each other up.
“We love making each other shine, but we also love hanging each other out to dry—because it’s funny, and really, two sides of the same thing: make the best of this moment, and if you fail, that’ll be hilarious, too,” chortles Thornton.
The trio have been on tour before; last year, they embarked on the “Milk and Cookies” tour, travelling across Ontario, Quebec, and the Prairies. “We’d invite the audience to bring cookies, and we’d bring the milk, and do a really relaxed show, in a comfortable environment,” says Banks. “Now, we’re building a rock-solid show and format that we could tour North America with, that will be our calling card.”
PB & J’s “The Easter Funny” Sketchprov Show, with guests Sara Hennessey, Punch Drysdale, and Jay McCarroll, plays at 9:30 p.m. on Thursday, April 21, at Bread and Circus (299 Augusta Avenue) Tickets are $10.