We first saw the D.C. based sketch group Bad Medicine as part of Philly Sketchfest a few years ago. I was immediately drawn in by the cohesiveness of the group despite the large size of the troupe. Since that initial meeting I’ve been lucky enough to run into them a couple more times at festivals around the country and they seem to get even better each time I see them as both their writing and performances grow in complexity. They’re fresh off a big festival run which included Chicago sketchfest and sold out shows at SF sketchfest, and in addition to live performance they also pump out the analytical sketch podcast Sketchnerds (which we have been lucky enough to be guest on). Their video catalog of both animated and live action content also continues to grow which you can check out on their website or youtube channel. I can’t wait to see what they come up with next. A number of their members were kind enough to answer a few questions for us so let’s get to know the good folks in Bad Medicine.
(A photo of us with some Bad Medicine and proof we have friends- pic stolen from their facebook)
CURRENT MEMBERS OF BAD MEDICINE: Elizabeth Kemp, Emily Price, Leila Drici, Shoa Appelman, Jess Randazzo, Sharon Kang, Ashley Nimmo, Andy Weld, Michael Alvino, Julian Morgan, Sean Robinson, J.P. McElyea, Bethany Stokes, Tammy Hineline, Colin Chocola and Isaiah Headen
How did Bad Medicine originally form, did you guys all take a class together? Or did someone in the troupe more or less will it into being?
ISAIAH HEADEN: If you have ever seen a heist movie like Oceans 11 then you’ve seen how Bad Medicine was formed. Danny Ocean is played by EK. She had the dream and a heart for revenge, so she recruited people she met in sketch classes and sketch jams. Our initial meeting had four members and then every month we added a new member. Of the initial 13 members there are only 4 of us left, but everyone who has ever been in this group has contributed something to it as we chased down every opportunity to perform and get better. If laughter is truly the best medicine then we’re Bad Medicine.
Is everyone in the troupe a writer slash performer or are the roles more separated?
EMILY PRICE: Yes, to my knowledge everyone is a writer slash performer. The chips fall such that some people end up performing more than they write or vice versa, but we encourage each other to do all things. It’s healthy because it reinforces to writers that scripts should feel natural and reinforces to performers that the writers have a vision we need to stick to executing to the best of our ability.
JULIAN MORGAN: About a year after BM started, I was taking the sketch classes at UCB and I was trying to find some or any resources on sketch writing, but couldn’t find any. There’s so much material and philosophy on improv, I thought our team should start a blog where we write about sketch, in an a sort of academic way. I brought the idea to the team and it was well received but we were still getting started so it kind of stayed in limbo for a while, but Isaiah always stayed keen on it, saying it should be a podcast. Later I got the idea that, as a part of our blog we could interview other groups while at festivals and put it on Youtube, like a round table discussion and maybe post the video inside of our blog. Isaiah, loved the idea…as a podcast. And I’m like, hey man, what’s with you and podcasts?? PEOPLE WANT THEIR CONTENT ON THEIR YOUTUBES, STUFFED INSIDE THEIR TUMBLRS, JAMMED IN BETWEEN THEIR TWITTER FEED LIKE A GODDAMN TURDUCKEN! By then Andy had joined the team and was also interested in talking in depth about sketch comedy…on a fucking podcast, so we met up and he had some interesting ideas on how the show would operate, which would eventually become the format for the show. We brought it to Isaiah, who is unbelievable at all things production, and met with EK and Seth, whom we thought would round out the panel because I’m intimidated by their intelligence.
We don’t really have any restrictions on who or how involved anyone in the group can be involved with the show, we have members on as guests or even as panelists. Sometimes people just come and hangout. However, I don’t think anyone helps Isaiah with the production side, maybe Colin?
What is the D.C. sketch comedy scene like? Do groups support each other etc or are they more competitive?
ANDY WELD: The DC sketch scene is small, but growing. It’s a little strange, the city has a huge improv scene, with multiple theaters offering many levels of improv, but the sketch scene is just not as developed. However, between the handful of groups, there is a lot of support. Bad Medicine members make a point to go to the shows of other groups, and we often see other groups at our shows. There is definitely some competition, but it’s all in pursuit of making better comedy. Who can make the audiences laugh the most? Having a small, but high quality community pushes each group to be better.
You’ve told me you guys actively avoid focusing on politics in your sketches, have there been exceptions to this? And/or is the lack of politics its own statement for your group?
JESS RANDAZO: In a town like DC, all of us are surrounded by the political world, daily. Many of us, comedians and audience, work in it up to our elbows, so when it comes to sketches, we may occasionally take a knock in one direction or another, but that’s usually tongue in cheek, like an inside joke to the city. We don’t theme sketches with a political angle. Ultimately, the audience wants to get away from the day’s stresses, be entertained and enjoy themselves – we like to entertain is ourselves too, which we hope comes through on stage. If we did our job right, we check all those boxes, like good DC Wonks should.
Do you guys operate with a single director for a set/show or is it more of sketch by sketch basis?
SEAN ROBINSON: It varies from performance to performance, depending on how much people can fit onto their plate. Most shows have two people in the director’s chair to ensure the administrative burden is shared and light enough for both that they can focus on getting each sketch just right, making tweaks were necessary to make use of the unique talents within each cast member to really elevate a sketch beyond what the text offers.
“Wolves” is one of my favorite sketches. That’s a statement rather than a question but I’d love to hear some back story on how it came about.
(“Wolves” at the NC Comedy Festival pic stolen from Bad Medicine’s Facebook)
ELIZABETH KEMP: I wrote “Wolves” after a conversation during one of our podcasts about game show sketches and how there hasn’t really been that much evolution over time despite the fact that are a lot of different levers to push and pull that are often taken for granted. I had also just watched the, “The Grey,” a movie about Liam Neeson doing a really crap job battling a pack of wolves. And so the idea of a game show about trying to battle a pack of wolves was born. If you could resolve the obvious legal, insurance, and animal rights issues, what network would say “No” to that? None. Not even the Hallmark Channel. It’s the stuff of the Colosseum.
With the premise established, we took a gamble on that sketch and improvised the first couple of performances. The final improvised performance was at NYSketchfest 2018 and that performance shaped what is now the scripted version. It’s always a fun sketch to perform but it’s not necessarily easy or comfortable. It’s success depends entirely on the discipline and confidence of the performers to let the many long silences in the sketch run their course. Silence is usually a bad thing in comedy so you have to get out of your head and really focus on the energy and pulse of the room and let the audience guide the pace and timing.
Do you guys hang out when you aren’t doing sketch comedy or is it business only?
LEILA DRICI: Yes! We do hangout outside of Bad Medicine. In fact, several of us have been in each others’ weddings and met through comedy. It is a gift to work with people you wholeheartedly trust on stage, in the writers’ room and at 2 am in a shared Airbnb. This relationship makes it easier to try new material, take risks, and invest your time and money into each opportunity. It takes time to get to know everyone as we do have new faces coming into the group, but at some point you watch enough comedy with someone you begin to understand what delights them. The writers’ room isn’t all chuckles all the time, we strategically work through jokes, sometimes beating them into the ground, but understanding that the people in the room have your back and are trying to guide your work to a more complete state keeps things going. Our leaders and directors are extremely supportive and make sure to celebrate and recognize everyone’s talents after every show and during rehearsals.
You guys have fairly sizeable numbers and also have been hitting the sketch fest circuit like crazy. San Francisco, Chicago, North Carolina etc…Do you have any tips for other large groups looking to start going to fest?
J.P.McELYEA: Attend as many festivals that you are accepted to as you can. My rule of thumb is to always attend a festival at least once, even if it is small and not well known. Sometimes these festivals are real gems and you meet higher caliber performers than at the big fests like NYC/Chicago. If you don’t like the festival, easy enough to mark it off the application list for next year. Since we are such a large group it makes it easier for us to send multiple festival casts at the same time. This allows us to maintain relationships at many more festivals than we could if we were just 4-5 people that had to pick and choose every year. Fact is the more you attend these festivals the more likely you will be invited back so it is important to maintain those relationships.
One additional thing to note is when you are just starting out you might want to target which festivals you apply to a bit more. No use applying to the most selective festivals when you don’t have a name yet. Start applying to local/nearby city festivals and as you gain more creds start increasing those applications. Also be sure to video your performances so you can use them in your festival applications!
How do Bad Medicine’s sketch videos get made?
ISAIAH HEADEN: Sketch comedy troupes should play to their strengths and we’re lucky to have members who work professionally in the video world. That means we have access to production equipment and an experienced crew, so there’s a natural push to create quality sketch videos. Colin Chocola and Shoa Appelman direct a lot of our videos and I produce, so if there is a sketch that is doing very well on stage we try to turn it into a video. Our process takes months of planning, rewrites, casting, location scouting and rehearsals before we even get to shoot anything. Yet we feel the quality of the product shows the care we put into it. It’s always a team effort and we even try to include members of the local sketch community as well. This how-it-got-made video does a great job of explaining the process: https://youtu.be/8B-3MjPavLs
Do you have any personal favorite sketch comedy failures?
SHOA APPELMAN: Yes: I wrote a sketch about an improv group that keeps rejecting suggestions from the audience. Everyone was in stitches throughout rehearsal, and I thought it would be a big hit. The first time we performed it, we followed an incredible improv group with an audience that was seeing improv for the first time, which was unusual. The audience was silent throughout the sketch.
EMILY PRICE: Performing a sketch, yes. Once, midway to my mark on stage, I realized I had blanked on all my lines. Usually, if that happens, I focus on recalling the first line and just trust the rest will follow–but no matter how hard I tried I could get that first line. I barely remembered the sketch at all. I had zip. Bupkis. Crap, it was my turn to talk because everyone was looking at me, and all I could do was stare blankly back at my scene partner. I couldn’t even squeak out an improvised line related to what we were talking about. Thankfully my scene partner was Julian, secretly a top-notch improviser, and he didn’t miss a beat. He delicately spoon-fed me my lines throughout the entire sketch without making it painfully obvious to the audience. That’s a super tricky skill to master, but he did it. After this failure, I learned that I’d trust my life with that man.
SEAN ROBINSON: We had a sketch with the old “the call is coming from inside the house” premise, and all the killer’s over-the-phone lines were pre-recorded. During the show, the lines got played out of order, so that the punchline that the killer was in the wrong house was played way before he was really threatening the babysitter. I still laugh at that one.
JULIAN MORGAN: My friend and I, Aaron Singer, had this idea for a fake live podcast a couple of years ago called, The University of El Paso Sports Podcast. It was a talk show format where he and I played super fans of all things UTEP sports and is recorded outside of random UTEP sports events. We made our characters so delusional and insane, thinking that they were cool with all of the teams and everything associated with them, that they couldn’t see how uncool and dangerous they were. For our first, and I think only show, we were given 20-25 minutes at Charm City in Baltimore, the episode was being recorded outside of the women’s swim team’s swim meet, so we were wearing floaties, had beach balls etc. There’s always a reason we weren’t allowed in to the event–I think we forged a form to get our team in to regionals and the team got banned from competing for the year, our special guest was an 8 year old played by our friend Audrey Maittano (former Bad Med) who was a star little league baseball player, our characters thought the new recruits were horrible this season and thought coaches need to scout harder, turns out Audrey’s character was just there to get away from her mom because she thinks she made her dad disappear. Our segment piece was a video we made of how we were invited to a star basketball players house party, but when we got there, there was no party. So we broke in and just started taking pictures of everything, including the basketball player in his room writing a paper.
For this show we were on second after an improv group that sold out, and it was expected that the audience would stay for the next block. Problem our set ran for 45 minutes, working and even some people in the audience tried to let us know we were over our time. Second we were done the entire audience got up and left, some people may have been trampled during the escape. The only people in the audience for the next group was us, and we were grateful they didn’t wait for us outside, follow us to our cars and beat the shit out of us. I STILL WANT TO DO THIS SHOW! Also, the UTEP athletics dept. liked our fan page on FB.
J.P. MCELYEA: There was one time I was on stage and had to put a face-mask on. I soon realized I forgot the face-mask, so I ended up taking the hood from my hoodie and wrapping it around my face instead. It was pretty stupid.
ISAIAH HEADEN: I think anytime when a joke that kills in the writers room bombs on stage is my favorite failure. It’s a harsh reminder that sometimes we can be an echo chamber and we’re not as funny as we think. It’s humbling in the right kind of way.
Favorite unexpected success when performing?
SHOA APPELMAN: Chicago: absolute strangers from a different town laughed at our sketches and videos, and it felt great. Festivals are great for gauging whether your humor is working.
EMILY PRICE: Every time I don’t break next to my hysterical scene partners is always an unexpected success. Especially if I’m playing the straight character. It’s very hard because all I want to do is giggle and laugh along with the audience.
SEAN ROBINSON: One thing I personally struggle with is looking engaged in sketch during moments when I’m neither speaking nor being addressed; it’s a tough balance where you don’t want to look bored waiting for your next line or overcompensate and accidentally upstage your cast mates. My favorite unexpected success came in rehearsals for a sketch about why Apollo 11 astronaut Michael Collins didn’t get to set foot on the moon during that mission (because he annoyed Armstrong and Aldrin with nonstop games of I Spy about the moon). At the time the sketch was mostly improv’d, and I was so worried because I don’t feel like I can make good jokes on the fly. I’m listening to one cast mate just rattle off these fantastic threats, and all I could think was “c’mon say something, anything, but don’t just rehash what’s been said.” So I blurt out something about being nice to Collins’ family and being a better person than he was so he’d be forgotten by everyone he loved. The group burst out laughing. I didn’t realize what I was doing, I just wanted to keep up, but that line became a must for every performance of that sketch.
JULIAN MORGAN: I don’t know why, but I’ve never really written about or channeled or referenced anything in regards to the minority experience, I guess I was worried that I didn’t have anything to say or that I don’t have a strong enough voice, but I decided just to write something for one of our shows that turned out to be Loan Applications. The premise is: Bank of America has partnered with Ancestry.com to help with loan applications. It didn’t blow anyone’s minds but it went surprisingly well, and made me feel a little more confidant.
ISAIAH HEADEN: I hate performing on stage, but in Seattle is was a lot more fun than expected. Nerves had me shaking, but when I walked out on stage everything got washed away. When a crowd is really into it all of the sudden you can perform with ease without any restriction.
J.P McELYEA: When we performed our Comcast sketch at Philly SketchFest. The thing about the sketch is the first half is scripted and the second half is improvised so we never know how it is going to turn out. We played off each other just about perfectly in Philly though and I was actually crying at the end of the sketch as opposed to the fake crying I had done in rehearsals. I still really enjoy performing this sketch, it’s always exciting to see what we can do with it.
What’s the future of Bad Medicine?
ISAIAH HEADEN: I think moving forward we’re going to focus more on growing the DC sketch comedy scene through local shows and classes. We’ve been blessed with the opportunity to perform in many great comedy cities and be welcomed by their communities. DC is a growing city full of really smart people that need a creative outlet. It’s prime for a golden age of sketch comedy and maybe one day we can welcome folks to the district with our very own sketch comedy festival.
What other sketch groups that you’re not involved in do you wish more people knew about?
SHOA APPELMAN: Lady Mary and the Marquis Van Shyzer. They’re a singing duo of fallen aristocrats. Super talented!
SEAN ROBINSON: We often perform with this fantastic group Brick Penguin, and one sketch of theirs has stayed with me years later: a recording artist is in the studio and one of the guys at the mixing board is making suggestions and keeps putting in the worst sound cues where the beat drops.
JULIAN MORGAN: The Dress Up Gang. They’re a darker, slightly more absurd Good Neighbor, unfortunately they got a TV pilot a year or two ago and took all of their stuff off of the internet, even more unfortunate, their show was canceled before it aired. They are on Instagram though!
ISAIAH HEADEN: People need to follow The “Responsible” “Adults”, Marv n’ Berry, Chlane, High Drama, Not Oasis and of course Unstoppable Failure. They’ve all done sketches so brilliant that it made me mad.
J.P. McELYEA: The “Responsible” “Adults”, Unstoppable Failure, Harvard Sailing Team (not sure if they perform anymore and they were big at one point, but they were one of the groups that originally got me into sketch comedy)
Anything you wish we had asked?
JULIAN MORGAN: How do you keep a group together, most groups fall apart pretty fast, what’s the secret?
If so what’s the answer to that question?
JULIAN MORGAN: No idea.