When you think of today’s comedy duos, you think … wait, comedy duos? Is there another Abbott & Costello, a Burns & Allen, an Allen & Rossi out there?
The sketch comedy show “Key & Peele” on Comedy Central is one way TV fits the bill. And in Pittsburgh this week, from City Theatre, which last summer brought us The Skivvies singing duo, come The Pajama Men, who are, well, covered up, for one thing, and a bona-fide comedy duo for another.
An internationally acclaimed act in loungewear is pretty far afield from two guys who met during high school in Albuquerque and started out calling themselves Sabotage. One half of the team, Shenoah Allen, first suggested that spandex would be a good way to trademark themselves.
“That wasn’t for me,” explains his partner in humor, Mark Chavez, laughing. “We wanted to have a basic uniform. We change characters quite a bit, and there were no wigs, no costumes, so we wanted just something basic. The pajamas were loose and comfortable and the idea was it was something that would be forgotten about eventually. Fourteen years later, we’re stuck wearing them. They’re unflattering — which is good, we’re doing comedy — but it’s this funny kind of trap we’ve given ourselves.”
This summer, the PJ-clad comedians have played Second City in Chicago and venues on the West Coast, but they found their early success abroad.
Early on in their professional lives, the two made waves mostly overseas in the United Kingdom where they were a hit at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, and at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival in Australia, where Time Out Melbourne said, “It’s sublimely ridiculous how funny these two are.” The Guardian of London described their comedy as “delightfully left field.” Closer to home, Washington Post critic Peter Marks was effusive in describing a 2012 show by the duo at D.C.’s Woolly Mammoth Theater, writing that The Pajama Men could bring on “the condition known as laughing oneself silly.”
Straight out of high school, Mr. Chavez and Mr. Allen had no notions of creating an alt-comedy show that would take them on a global journey. Back then, they joined an improv troupe together and started doing late-night gigs where they were the closing act for a variety show.
“From there we built an hourlong show that was pretty much the same thing we were doing there — loosely written sketches where we improvised — and we started touring that. Then we went to Edinburgh, but that was the genesis of …”
Of what? A Pajama Men performance is not a sketch show and it’s not improvisational, although there are times when the duo does take the plunge into improv. There are no props, so there’s some mime involved. Characters are fleeting and may change moment to moment, Mr. Allen to Mr. Chavez, man to man, man to woman.
“It’s also not that confusing,” Mr. Chavez says. “We develop an hourlong story and everything ties together; it’s all related. Some things are probably related in a very tertiary way, but the king is comedy. We try to keep that as the running thing while not losing the thread of the story.”
Their shows have won acclaim for originality. In their writing, they are constantly paring down, finding new ways to get to the point.
The two play off of each other’s strengths. Mr. Chavez describes his partner as ”the driving force, the go-getter,” and Mr. Allen’s characters as “very precise, so well done.” He describes himself as affable and easygoing. When it comes to his characters, “I’m very much in that gray area,” Mr. Chavez adds. “What I do have, I’m very much into the connection with the audience, and the translator in that way. It’s a great dynamic. We butt heads a lot, but he’s my best friend.”
For Pittsburghers, The Pajama Men will return to a show that’s been on the back burner for quite a while, Mr. Chavez says.
“It’s going to be fun to go back and kind of reinvent it. The show is about the loneliness of travel, how our lives are as we’re going after our dreams, the sacrifices we make … that’s kind of underneath. The show itself is about a guy who believes he’s found aliens.”
When it comes to the choice of themes, there’s one important outcome, Mr. Chavez says: “They are just containers for us to be funny.”