Go Deeper

It’s Always Funny in Philadelphia: Wawapalooza is Back for More Laughs

Posted July 27th, 2010

Why is it that the second installment in a series doesn’t live up to the first? I may be treading on dangerous territory by saying this, but Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets was the most boring book in the series, ditto the movie version of Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers—don’t even get me started on New Moon. Whatever your opinion, the sophomore effort—however great the series—can be disappointing, and Wawapalooza, IdRatherBeHere‘s hilarious series of videos and sketches that have lovingly examined Philly’s particular brand of crazy for the last three years at the Philly Fringe, wasn’t immune to this effect.

“At a show the second year a sketch just dived,” says Eric Balchunas, creator/writer/director of this year’s iteration of the Fringe show Wawapalooza 4: Damaged Goods. “There’s nothing like sitting backstage and hearing people not laughing when you expect laughs. It hurts.”

Eric has a pretty foolproof plan to prevent that from ever happening again. At his job as a financial analyst he takes raw data and makes something with meaning out of it. It may seem like there’s nothing funny about that, but creating a comedic show, as it turns out, isn’t so different from crunching numbers.

“People need to have at least one drink, they need to be sitting close together, and there needs to be air conditioning,” he says of the three essential factors for successful comedy. “That gives the material a head start.”

In terms of tracking audience response, IdRatherBeHere uses techniques a lot more sophisticated than the old laugh-o-meter. Eric sets up a focus group to screen the show a month before the festival, with a cross-demographical audience that watches and ranks the material so that he knows what, if anything, to cut. “We try to figure out what’s universally funny,” he says. They also sent out a survey this year to audience members of the last three paloozas asking for feedback on not just the shows, but venues, too.

There is, of course, the most essential factor—material—but it seems like Eric’s got that covered. Click more to read about it

All year he pens 20-25 short scripts that parody local culture, which he and the other eight cast members whittle down to about 10 in April. A sampling of this year’s fodder: A Clockwork Green, an experiment in reforming an Eagles fan; EnvironMental, in which treehuggers try to out-green each other (“It’s sad when animals get killed, but its even sadder when vegetables get killed because they don’t even have a chance to run away”); and The Mustache, wherein a hipster moves back from the city to South Jersey and discovers that his facial hair isn’t so relevant. Mockumentaries are IdRatherBeHere’s forte, like this cultural comparison of the Whole Foods and SuperFresh that sit across the street from each other on South Street from Wawapalooza 3:

This year IdRatherBeHere is also celebrating local culture in a less satirical way—Bonnie Quick, one of the cast members who’s also a painter, is putting together an exhibit of local artists’ work that will play before the show.

“If anything I want the show to be a postcard of Philly and what its like to live here,” he says. He adds that though Wawapalooza‘s humor can appeal to anyone, the culture they parody is decidedly Philadelphian. “We throw in something like how people around here pronounce the days of the week: ‘Sundee, Mondee, Tuesdee . . .’ and we’ll see how many people pick up on that.” Then he tells me a story that he says sums up the Philly attitude:

“I was playing a pick-up game of basketball at 10th and Bainbridge. This guy makes a sweet jumpshot. Another guy goes, ‘Yo, nice shot! Oh wait, you’re on the other team–fuck you!'”

Wawapalooza 4: Damaged Goods runs from Sept. 3rd through the 11th at Society Hill Playhouse, 507 South 8th Street.

–Ellen Freeman

Photos courtesy of Eric Balchunas