Imagine a world thousands of years in the future where comedy has ceased to exist. A team of scientists floating in outer space is determined to find out the secret to making people laugh with a little help from a visitor from the past. Sound absurd? Welcome aboard Laugh Station.
“Laugh Station: Papaya” opens tomorrow at the Maryland Ensemble Theatre. “Papaya” is the third installment in the “Laugh Station” series from directors Matt Lee, 22, and Jack Colliver, also 22. After meeting the futuristic space crew in “Laugh Station: Infinity,” which opened in January, and following them on their first adventure in “Laugh Station: Turbo” in April, “Papaya” finds the crew in a bit of a trippy situation literally. The scientists have accidentally ingested a batch of hallucinogenic space fruit, propelling them into a bizarre dream world.
Although it was only last year that Colliver approached Lee with the idea for a script for the wacky, offbeat and often raunchy “Laugh Station,” the show’s been in the making for years.
“[‘Laugh Station’] is a relatively new idea,” Colliver says. “But ideas for jokes, characters or sketches are things we’ve been talking about for a long time.”
Friends since their first acting roles together, playing dwarves in a production of “Snow White,” Lee and Colliver attended Governor Thomas Johnson High School in Frederick County, where they both participated in TV and improv clubs.
Lee now is a student at Hood College and a member of the Maryland Ensemble Theatre, while Colliver is finishing up his associate’s degree in philosophy at Frederick Community College. Although the two had worked on smaller projects together, “Laugh Station” presented the opportunity for the directors to produce a professional show.
“We’d always wanted to have some kind of bigger, higher concept,” Lee says.
With a style of comedy inspired by ’80s television shows Lee and Colliver watched growing up, like “Kids in the Hall,” “Tim and Eric” and even some slasher films, “Laugh Station” essentially is a series of comedy sketches strung together in TV episode fashion. The live performance is broken up by video segments directed, shot and edited by the cast.
In addition to directing, Lee and Colliver star in the series. Colliver is the ship’s disgruntled captain, while Lee plays himself, a visitor from thousands of years in the past whom the crew is depending on to help them to understand humor.
“It’s an absurd idea,” Colliver says. “I don’t think anyone can imagine what it would be like to live without comedy.”
But Colliver and Lee do their best to help the audience imagine with a group of talented actors cast as the clueless crew members of the “Laugh Station” spaceship.
“The characters we made up to be in the show became very compelling for me and Matt,” Colliver says.
And who better to play a group of compelling characters than your closest friends. The directors recruited actors they knew from high school, fellow members of the Maryland Ensemble Theatre and even family members; Colliver’s younger brother Joe also stars.
To pull off “Laugh Station’s” absurd plot lines and R-rated jokes, it was important the cast was on the same page.
“First and foremost we’re all friends,” Lee says. “From a directing standpoint, it takes some of the pressure off.”
“I’ve worked with strangers before and you always feel kind of uncomfortable,” says Brian Artusio, who plays the female Admiral Fistvictor in “Laugh Station” and graduated from high school with Lee and Colliver. “Working with people I know, I don’t hold back.”
Artusio is a student at Syracuse University, making it difficult to review the script with other cast members or even adhere to a normal rehearsal schedule. But like the rest of the “Laugh Station” cast, Artusio has found a way to make it work.
While he was able to participate in January’s episode of “Laugh Station” thanks to the semester break, Artusio says he wasn’t able to make it home for the April show. Instead, he appeared in one of the play’s previously recorded video segments.
Ultimately, Lee says a show like “Laugh Station” wouldn’t be possible with any other cast.
“A lot of these people have an improv background,” he says. “You can trust them to do what you want them to do. It makes the whole process a lot smoother and a lot more fun.”