Like many late-night theatrical troupes around the country, Punch 59 presents sophisticated sketch comedy on a variety of odd topics. But unlike most other groups, this one is named for a torn-off section of an election poster urging voters to punch a certain key in a voting booth. Director/ writer/actor Jen Ryan explains that the troupe came into being four years ago around election time. Founder Marty Hill kept passing around a ripped poster bearing the message "Punch 59," and the phrase stuck when it was time to baptize his new group.
Hill, a pharmacologist and novelist, has since departed for a teaching job in California, but his theater project thrives. The troupe now features 18 regular actors and writers and this week presents its 100th show, a rare feat for a group in which no one is paid. Like other Punch 59 shows, the 100th will most likely feature a hodgepodge of funny skits, original music, and "Aye Papi," a parody of a Spanish-language TV telenovela. If the title is odd, well, that's just part of the troupe's legacy. Cast members once handed out fliers about their show in a crowd full of people participating in a scavenger hunt. "They thought it was a clue," says Ryan.
Ryan is happy that the public doesn't know what to expect. "Punch 59 was originally founded as a showcase for writing and [acting in] short skits. It was for anything, not just comedy," she says. Recent offerings have included songs (one called "Tickle My Nipple") written for a work in progress called Oversexed in Texas, a collaboration between Ryan and troupe member Dagmar Bergan. What kind of musical would feature such a song? "It's about a Texas girl in her mid forties whose boyfriend leaves her and takes all her money, and she does a radio sex talk show," says Ryan. "This is the sort of thing that comes out of Punch 59."
One thing that doesn't come out of Punch 59 is improvisation. "People tend to lump sketch comedy in with improv and standup," notes Ryan, a screenwriter and onetime Rollins College theater major. "We have performed at comedy clubs, but our material doesn't go over as well. We're not interested in doing improv, because it's either very funny or it doesn't work. I'd rather put a sketch together and rehearse it four or five times and know it will work." She cites the sketch comedy of the Steve Martin/Gilda Radner years on Saturday Night Live as an example of what the troupe is doing. If that bold assertion invites comparison to people who were geniuses, Ryan responds, "I don't know of any other group that stages a different show every week."
Like Saturday Night Livetroupers, Punch 59 members thrive on the chemistry that develops when people write and perform together for an extended period. And if performing for free seems thankless work, Ryan acknowledges significant payoffs: "I think the group is held together by dedication to creating an atmosphere where people can go completely over the edge and do things they might not ever be able to do again."
Chemistry also pays off in other ways. For example Ryan recently had to give two actors a new script half an hour before a show began. Luckily the piece featured the Buttknobs, two recurring Punch 59 characters who are Siamese twins formerly joined at the upper lip. The actors were able to pull off the unrehearsed material because of their experience in portraying the duo. What were the Buttknobs doing? "A send-up of The Blair Witch Project," Ryan says.
Punch 59 recently found a permanent home at the Hollywood Boulevard Theatre, where they now perform every Saturday night. The arrangement brings a certain security, but the rapid-fire nature of putting on a new show means that each production is still seat-of-the-pants. "We rehearse twice a week. You've got 15 minutes to rehearse each sketch," Ryan explains. "If you're an actor, you have to make a lot of quick decisions . Some things don't go as well as you want. But the audience doesn't know that."