Off Key Comedy Aims to Fuse Stand-Up and Song

A musical-comedy showcase tries to shake the genre's lame reputation.

Robert Keller and Rush Zilla enjoy a pre-show cocktail. Photo courtesy of Robert Keller.

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Even with the success of acts like Lonely Island and Flight of the Conchords, people still tend to view musical comedy with some suspicion, and not without reason. Those high-profile success stories aside, at the club level, musical comedy is too often the province of people who aren’t quite good enough to make it as musicians, but not quite funny enough to make it as comedians.

Two local comics, Robert Keller and Rush Zilla, are out to change that perception with their show, Off Key Comedy, which features a wide variety of acts whose only commonality is that they combine music and comedy in one form or another. The third edition of the monthly show will take place on May 23, at Comedy Bar.

“It’s comedy with a musical twist,” says Keller. “Basically, it’s an opportunity for comedians who have a musical side to use that in furtherance of their comedy and, ideally, to create comedy that is heightened and more multi-dimensional.”

“It’s like one of those super fun ’70s comedy variety shows, but as if Weird Al had some sort of musical say in it,” adds Zilla. “It’s tongue-in-cheek, it’s risqué, it’s sexy.”

Keller says the idea for the show came to them after they did some karaoke following a stand-up show.

“One night, after performing at the Laughter Luau, a stand-up show that Rush runs, she and I stopped by the Comedy Bar for a few drinks and stumbled upon a karaoke night there,” says Keller. “On a whim, we got up on stage and sang ‘A Whole New World’ from Aladdin, but we did it in a humourous way…[because] we are both comedians.”

“Somehow, people really responded to the combination of the earnest song and the humourous asides, and that’s when we realized we might be on to something.”

He adds that part of the show’s goal is to showcase all the different forms musical comedy can take.

“This is definitely not your grandpa’s musical comedy. We strive to find real innovators, performers who are looking to push the envelope by incorporating music into their comedy acts and vice-versa.”

“We’ve tended to focus more on booking comedians who aren’t sure they can pull off a song, but who are willing to work hard and give it a try. That’s what has produced some of the most original and entertaining performances we’ve seen so far. My personal favourite has to be stand-up comedian Sarah Grange’s heartfelt rendition of the 2007 R&B hit ‘Smell Yo Dick.’

Heidi Brander is one of the comedians who will be performing at May’s edition of the show. She says her set will consist entirely of song parodies, most of them aimed at skewering celebrities.

“Most of it is just me very artfully shitting on celebrities,” she says. “I do one about Sarah Jessica Parker set to Willow Smith’s ‘I Whip My Hair Back & Forth’ called ‘I Get Compared to a Horse.’ If you read or you’ll love it.”

She adds that, in her mind, Toronto is a hotbed of musical-comedy talent.

“Toronto has some of the best musical-comedy acts I’ve ever seen, like Rick and Chuck, Chelsea Manders and The Sues,” she says. “I think Off Key Comedy will do a great job of showcasing all of Toronto’s musical-comedy acts while forcing awesome stand-ups with killer voices like Sean Cullen and Rhiannon Archer to wail on the microphone.”

Zilla says that so far, the response to the show has been overwhelmingly positive.

“People who love musicals or concerts definitely love this show, and people who love comedy definitely love this show,” she says. “It’s a really cool middle ground for comedy nerds and musical nerds to coalesce.”

Keller adds that he’s been told that the show has already turned sceptical audience members into musical-comedy converts.

“We’ve heard a lot of good things and have had a number of repeat audience members,” he says. “Some people have told me that they didn’t quite know what to expect going in and were totally blown away by what they saw.”

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