[img]http://hits.guardian.co.uk/b/ss/guardiangu-feeds/1/H.20.3/78200?ns=guardian&pageName=The+revolution+of+the+Pajama+Men%3AArticle%3A1309034&ch=Stage&c3=Guardian&c4=Comedy+live+%28Stage%29%2CStage%2CCulture+section&c6=Brian+Logan&c7=09-Nov-23&c8=1309034&c9=Article&c10=Feature%2CInterview&c11=Stage&c13=&c25=&c30=content&h2=GU%2FStage%2FComedy[/img]The Pajama Men are turning physical theatre on its head – for laughs
The Pajama Men are coming to Britain and they're worried about how I'm going to describe their act. "Improv? Mime? Clown? Physical theatre?" says Shenoah Allen. "Any description is going to make us nervous. People will be like, 'A couple of clowns from Albuquerque? Why would I want to see that?'"
Well, there's the fact that The Last Stand to Reason, Allen and Mark Chavez's show, was the funniest in Edinburgh this year. There's their 2004 Perrier award nomination, and their Barry gong in April at the Melbourne comedy festival. There's also the fact that, when commandeered by two whip-smart but unpretentious young men, with abundant skills and an off-beam sense of humour, improv, mime, clown and physical theatre can – whisper it – be hugely entertaining.
Like the best twosomes, the Pajama Men have an almost telepathic relationship. "We know each other so well," Chavez jokes in The Last Stand to Reason, "we sometimes finish each other's . . ." And then Allen butts in: "Sandwiches?" The duo, who first met in a New Mexico improv troupe, are not a sketch act. I'd say their shows are, at least in part, theatre – but ask them their theatrical influences and you'll get short shrift. "When we watch things at the theatre that we don't like," says Allen, "we try to imagine that everyone on stage has a razor-thin, pink Mohican that's about a foot high. That can get you through some hard times."
On stage, the duo wear only pyjamas, and their anything-goes plays are mounted without props, costumes or sets, with some parts improvised. How much? "Do you want a percentage?" asks Allen. "Give him a percentage," says Chavez. "I would say," says Allen, "it's 10-15% different night to night." "We have to have improv," adds Chavez, "or the show will feel a little bit dead."
It's hard to imagine a lifeless Pajama Men show. Versus Vs Versus, which preceded The Last Stand to Reason, featured Roman centurions, new age hippies, and a father and daughter on the run. The Last Stand to Reason takes place on a train called the Stanton Bullet, with a teenage boy government-engineered to be invincible, a criminal mastermind lost inside his own disguises, and an unidentified "small thing" forever threatened with defenestration.
The plots are secondary to the idiosyncratic characters the two create. "We both really like doing voices and pulling faces," says Allen, unnecessarily. "We'll start by screwing around and one of us'll come up with a voice," adds Chavez. "You know a character is working when it's got its own voice. And then the character itself comes up with the material."
Chavez and Allen do have an uncanny ear for the verbal markers of a vivid personality. And their skill as they morph between characters is a joy. It's also (whether they like the term or not) a mime skill – and Allen admits they have become "nerdy" about it. "If I'm miming something, be it a knife, a gun or a glass, I can't just let it disappear. I have to put it down on some invisible surface." Chavez clarifies: "It's not a superstition. It's not like you think, 'If I don't set the mimed glass down on the mimed table, the mime gods will be mad.'" After a pause, he says: "But there are mime gods."
How you convert this act to TV – the conventional next step for successful live comics – is anyone's guess. "We're developing a TV show right now," says Allen. "And we find that you lose something when you start putting costumes on. You lose that element of the audience's imagination being engaged, where everything we're doing just comes to life in their heads."
It's true that their audiences are often amazed by what seems to be a paradox: because the Pajama Men have nothing, they can do anything. "We used to do this bit where I would slit Shenoah's throat, and blood would spit out," says Chavez. "The audience would be like, 'Oh no, it's too much,' and turn away. But it's just our hands, and their imagination doing the work. It's funny when people say, 'You really created this world' – because it's you, the audience, doing that. We're just letting you."
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Guardian: The revolution of the Pajama Men
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