The Return of The Defiant Thomas Brothers

Seth Thomas and Paul Thomas (no relations) of The Defiant Thomas Brothers were known for their social satire, not being afraid to talk about race, and their hilarious music. They were the acclaimed sketch comedy duo that in a very short amount of time took Chicago, and then New York at the HBO’s U.S. Comedy Arts Festival, by storm – they won the award for best sketch group alongside best alternative act Flight of the Conchords. After scoring a development deal with Regency Television they continued to appear in festivals such as the Edinburgh Festival Fringeby and popup in places like the cover of Time Out Chicago. In 2006 after four years of working together, the two split, leaving a hole in the sketch duo world.

Almost nine years later the two have reunited for a run of shows from September 4th through October 23rd in Chicago. Due to the recent Second City fire, their opening night was held at Stage 773, and their next show is a matinee performance this Saturday at the Annoyance Theater. Check their website for info on the remaining shows in the run. I talked to them about their original run, their new reunion, and the current state of sketch comedy.

You made a huge splash in Chicago and beyond that, but then you broke up. For those that don’t know, give us a brief background of where you two started, and let’s hear your side of things.

Seth: (Laughing) Alright. We started back in ’01. We were both in a Second City outreach show called Words. It was a diverse cast meaning twenty-eight people, twenty-seven of color, and Paul. Paul was the token white guy of the show. There was just a lot of downtime backstage and so we kind of just started hanging out and cracking jokes and by the end of the run of that show we had this idea that we were going to form a group and start doing some work. We ran for about 80 weeks out of a small black box in Uptown and then I want to say, was it [Brian] Posen who told somebody they should check us out?

Paul: Yeah, we had kind of gotten on people’s radar, because even people from Second City would come over to do Unhinged, which doesn’t exist anymore, but they had a Tuesday night thing of outside groups coming in. I’ve said it before, but I believe we were the first independent group that wasn’t affiliated directly, like you know, TourCo people and all that. Somebody had seen us through whatever, coming to our show, but really our weekly show was just… I would say in almost 80 weeks we averaged 12 people a show. It’s just an upstage theater in Uptown. People are like, “I’m not going to Uptown on a Saturday night.” So we just ground it out up there. Whether was just one person, or two, or three and we just kept rolling. Then Posen over at Second City, when the US Comedy Arts Festival, which doesn’t exist anymore, people called and said, “Who do you recommend?” we got recommend. Then you do a couple auditions, one in town, showcase here, showcase in New York. Kind of the standard thing like that, and then went out there and came home with trophy.

How long was your hiatus or your “breakup” before you got back together?

Paul: About nine and a half years.

Was there an official thing that jump-started the reunion?

Paul: It’s kind of related to astrology. (Laughing) No, we’ve been approached either separately or whatever every once in a while in the last five years and just timing wasn’t right. We were busy or had other projects. This time around it’s like, “Okay, that’s something that makes sense.” Pretty organic.

You probably have a standard answer that you give to everyone, but for your friend Monique here, why did you break up?

Paul: Well, even for our friend Monique, that one’s for us. It really is. My thing now is I try to come up with new ones for each person. So, I have a good one for you if you don’t mind.

Seth: He kind of heard about Facebook and was scared.

Paul: That was the last one. I’ll put it back to you, Monique. Why did Dave Pirner and Winona Ryder break up? Stuff like that happens. Do you know who Dave Pirner is?

I don’t.

Paul: He was the lead singer of Soul Asylum. (Laughing) I just heard them on the way over and that’s what I came up with, but you didn’t get the reference.

I’m sorry.

Paul: Seven people will, seven people will.

Talk about your new show. Are you doing revived sketches or new material?

Seth: It’s kind of a hybrid. We looked at everything we had. It’s a different process, because most the time when you’re going into stuff, you don’t have anything, so you’re creating. Whereas with this situation we’re reintroducing ourselves and so it’s kind of looking back at everything we had. You can’t just ignore your library of work. Then you go back and realize we missed a thousand things. It’s brand new stuff or really old, new stuff.

Paul: People say “Are you doing new or old?” And I say, “What do you remember?” and that becomes three things, you know? So, even people who saw us a couple times, even my wife, she only remembers a few things. The other side is that we’re lucky enough to have a few tapes from showcases, because when we were going we were audio taping, because you had to pay somebody a hundred bucks to videotape you. We watched tapes and I’m going, “I don’t remember how this scene goes…or ends” If I don’t remember and I performed the damn thing a hundred times… you know what I mean? So, revisiting those, but it’s interesting, because like Seth said, there was stuff where we were like, man we had a sketch of a sketch there and we really need to fill that out.

Do you feel like because it was ten years ago there are sketches where you’re like, “Oh, that’s not relevant” or “That’s been done now”? Are you nervous about things feeling outdated?

Seth: Not at all.

Paul: Not at all.

Seth: And the reason is, because you know, a hamburger is still a hamburger. Fifty years ago the bun might’ve been toasted with straight up lard, and now it’s 2015, so they’re going to use some non-preservative gluten-free, free-range butter from a free chicken, but it’s still going to be a bun on a burger.

Paul: Did you get all of that analogy, Monique?

They both burst into laughter

Seth: I think the meat and potatoes of it are still relevant. We never really went for topical scenes. We did human nature and human situations, so those type of things still happen and still exist, so the fixins’ might be a little different, but…

Paul: Yeah, there’s stuff you would watch and you would go, “Oh, that has to be brand new because of what’s going on now” and we’re like, “Oh that one? That was written thirteen years ago.”

Are you self-directing it?

Paul: Yeah.

How do you balance that and make that partnership work?

Seth: You’d be hard pressed to find a director who’d want to direct us. Our director was always the tech guy, basically bouncing stuff off, but no… the way you balance that is, “Okay, and let’s try it.” We’re kind of a “show you, better than I can tell you” type of team. It’s, “Okay, look if we do this, this, this and this…” then we run through it and we can both be like, “How did that feel?” “Nah…” or “Yeah, that’s great…” Everything’s golden. We think it’s gold until we think it’s not, as opposed to the other way. We just try it. We just work it. It’s a lot of give and take. There’s a high level of trust between Paul and I.

You guys took this long break, and I know you’ve both done cool things on your own separately. Are you glad you took that time off or when you see things like The Chicago Tribune comparing you to Key and Peele is it hard to not say, “Agh, we could’ve been this or that?”  

Seth: I have absolutely no opinion of the time off, you know what I mean? I haven’t really thought about the time off. That whole time is a blur. It’s so weird, but I don’t really get off into the “Should I? Shouldn’t I?” There’s so many people that we have worked with that I’ve watched become crazy, insane successful, but I’m not a hater, so it’s been like, “Oh, I’m glad she’s doing well. That’s awesome.” As far as the last nine years, I had a blast watching Paul. He’s funny. I don’t know if I’m happy about or sad about it. It is what it is and I think it’s all lead up to this point and I think we’re both better performers and writers then we were before.

Paul: Here’s something where it’s good in the sense of who knows if we had stayed together – maybe we would’ve finished in 2008 and then we wouldn’t be here in this moment. So, being in this moment is great, and wisdom and experience for me, I mean we were right at that YouTube starting time. If we had been going, look at early YouTube videos. We would’ve had our stuff out there in a much lesser form due to money constraints and you remember our first videos. Just quality wise, you can look at the stuff and see that it came out at the beginning of YouTube. So, we benefit from the timing. 2006 is a lot better than 2009 as far as having stuff out there that’s maybe a lesser form, like I said due to financial constraints or also, now people in comedy they know how the industry works. They can get themselves out there. If you’re going to skip 10 years, these are the right ones.

That’s a great point. Do you have specific plans to utilize YouTube now?

Seth: It’s so weird. We’re very tuned into this live show and we’ll probably have to write some new scenes and new stuff, but we really like making music. So, I wouldn’t be surprised if the next thing was some music. I feel like YouTube is still a great place for tunes. If there’s something next social media wise, it’ll probably be some jams.

What would you say that you’re both most proud of that you did that the Defiant Thomas Brothers did in their time together?

Seth: For me, the whole thing was just really, really big and fun. One of the really great moments was when we went to Aspen, the first night, everyone was there they had a show called “Blue and Ballsy” and there were a bunch of comics and they were all blue. We were the musical guests and there was a house full of agents and managers and representatives from all over the place, and we did our song “The Jew Song” and it just murdered. Looking out over the sea of people, they just all froze and leaned forward to listen to what we were going to say next.

Paul: Patrice O’Neal introduced us for that.

Oh wow!

Seth: Yeah. It was really such a great moment. Other than that I think everything else is pretty even. Winning in Aspen, going to Fringe, being in LA pitching. All of that was really, really fun. But if I was to tell stories, the “Blue and Ballsy” night is the story I would tell over and over again.

Has there been anything surprising or frustrating this round?

Paul: Surprising there was a fire in the theater, yeah.

Seth: What to me has kind of been surprising has been the disappearance of sketch groups. I looked up and was just like, “Where are the groups?” There are a lot of sketch shows, but it just seems like they’re getting together, writing a show and when the show is over they’re done. I look back on the Chicago Sketch Fest site, they have a history link and I looked back and was like, “Man, there were just straight groups.” These guys worked together, they ate together, slept together, you know Animal Club lived together. Now there’s ten times more shows, twenty times less groups. So that’s been interesting.

Paul: Yeah, people don’t understand that. They’re like, “No there’s a lot of great sketch everywhere.” A lot of it’s YouTube. If you want to be noticed you initially make videos where groups before you had to be seen live and then somebody goes, “Oh what can you do on tape?” The other side is with all the solo sketch and standup, that boom I think has hurt sketch. Because the fastest way to do it now, I guess blame, would be the word, is social media. If you’re a standup or solo sketch, you can get your name in all these showcases. You can get your name in quick. You don’t have to worry about working in a group dynamic, that type of frustration. If you’re doing twenty standup shows a week you’re on twenty flyers you can post, versus being on a show where you have to have a lineup and it shows up in the Reader physical paper and not many people look at it. There’s instant gratification of doing solo stuff, where your name is just on there, but it used to be sketch groups, you know, you do a run. That doesn’t happen like that anymore. When people say sketch is big now, because of what Key and Peele is on?

Seth: It’s just a bunch of dead Twitter handles, you know what I mean?

Well them maybe you guys are bringing it back!

Paul: In a weird way, I mean you hope to do something where people go, “Hey!” We kind of got that back in the day when duos popped up, “Oh I like what you’re doing.” If we can help one child join a sketch group and frustrate his parents…

Finally, to get a little mushy here, what’s something that each of you really admire about the other person, professionally or personally?

Seth: I’ll go first. What I most admire about Seth is his commitment to character… no I’m joking. No, I believe and I want you to quote this correctly, okay. The greatest comedy writer that has ever lived is Paul Thomas. I believe that in my heart and soul. I am just a fortunate man to be able to work with him. He’s a comedic genius. He really is.

Paul: I was just going to talk about Seth’s green eyes, now what do I do?

Yeah, good luck topping that one.

Paul: Well, first off he can fuck off for saying that. I have a thought. It’s going to come out in a scramble of words here. It’s this: I don’t know anybody who thinks like Seth does. He has zero fear in worrying about what other people think, but that’s not in a “Fuck you” way, it’s in a, “I’m not just going to accept, whatever.” And at the same time he’s not like a conspiracy theorist who automatically has to take the other side of something, but he will beat something around in his brain and work it over so you know he’s thought it through. He goes against the grain a lot with people. That’s hard to live like that. I know, as myself growing up as a black man. (Both laughing) I remember, like in that Word show there was some stuff he  wanted to do that maybe didn’t make the cut, because it maybe wasn’t as celebratory as the show wanted, but it was his point of view. So if there’s somebody I know who has the most distinct point of view, it’s Seth… and his beautiful green eyes.

The Return of The Defiant Thomas Brothers