The Sklar Brothers: The Hardest-Working Twins in Showbiz
In the time it took you to finish this sentence, Randy and Jason Sklar have already come up with 10 jokes about LeBron James.
If it's true comedians are narcissists, imagine what it's like to be Randy and Jason Sklar. It's not just because they're identical twins, though they most certainly are that. It's because they're brothers who work – and travel, and perform, and hang out -- together, and the banter is so innate in their live performances that it's only natural it spills over into their post-show conversations. Perhaps a funk over how a recent performance went might have lasted half as long if there weren't two of them volleying it back and forth.
Last spring, the Sklar Brothers came to New York for a handful of shows as they prepped material for their latest album, Hendersons and Daughters. On a Friday night, they performed a pair of shows at Gotham Comedy Club, a wide room set up like a carpet-covered coliseum, with overly intimate tables and overpriced drinks.
The first show was dynamic, with the brothers hitting a rhythm early and riding it to the end. The second show, by their own account in its immediate aftermath, was a mess. It was late and the crowd was a combination of drunk and disconnected.
"It kind of bummed me out, I hate to say it," Jason admitted. "Sometimes certain jokes go over better, but I felt like it was fucking work. It was so brutal. We were battling up there and it was not fun."
"The mics were way too low," added Randy. "Your mic should be powerful so you can make it hard for people to have a conversation, period. That's the way it should be, to the point where if they're rude enough to want to talk to each other, they'll have to talk as loud, and then they get spotted and they're fucking gone. Why did you come to a comedy show if you wanted to have a conversation? There's a great bar downstairs."
Later, in a sorta-okay-but-not-great bar next door, the Sklars held court with a few friends and a few fans. They're really nice guys, Randy and Jason. I met their former accountant, maybe. Also a nice guy. The Sklars surround themselves with impenetrable niceness, perhaps, because it shields them from lunatics and assholes, from people shoving a business card in their hands, or giving them the vague celebrity recognition patter.
"I know you, don't I?"
This was more slur than statement, and it came from a woman who leaned over a bar stool putting her frosted hair between Jason and I. She was in a group of two couples, the dudes growing increasingly hostile as she struggled in vain to put a name to the face.
"I know you … you're from ..."
"That happens all the time," Jason said later, and I'm sure he's right. Earlier I'd told him a story about visiting my father's apartment in Chelsea in the brief months-long window when the Sklars starred in their short-lived MTV series Apartment 2F. On our way to a since-shuttered Cuban diner, I spotted the brothers coming out of a building and realized I'd seen them before. Unlike our new friend in the bar, I hadn't bugged them at the time. I did later, though.
The Sklar Brothers as they're collectively known on comedy albums and in comedy clubs recognize the value of being cool to their fans. I crossed that threshold during the first season of Cheap Seats, a sports comedy show on ESPN Classic. The show, which ran for four seasons between 2004-06, starred Randy and Jason as network tape archivists commenting on clips from old sports broadcasts (with a very loose interpretation of "sports," as evidenced by episodes on spelling bees and poker tournaments. If it sounds a bit like Mystery Science Theater 3000, the Sklars acknowledged that, and the stars of that show appeared in an episode of Cheap Seats, evoking some sort of comedic M.C, Escher painting (a reference point familiar to fans of the Sklars as well.)
In the third season of Cheap Seats, the show held a contest with the winner having an episode of the show shot in their home. I entered, but didn't win. I did receive a signed photo and a t-shirt, both of which I still have somewhere.
Right around that same time, I sent them an e-mail asking them if they'd wish my then-wife a happy birthday. She'd become a fan through Cheap Seats, and I figured maybe there was an outside chance they'd hit her up with a MySpace comment, which should at least tell you how long ago that was. Instead, the Sklars sent her an e-mail, two or three paragraphs of the most hilarious shit I'd ever seen. That's how cool these dudes are.
Randy and Jason talk about their fans a lot on their podcast. They read letters they receive in a segment which used to open the show but has since been moved; the advice came from a fan. They talk about the fans who come to their standup performances and shout out "Henderson!" and "Osbaldiston!", both of which have their origins in hyper-enthusiastic sports play-by-play calls.
With Sklarbro Country, the brothers' weekly podcast devoted to sports, comedy, and indie rock, Randy and Jason are fulfilling a destiny hinted at by the Beastie Boys, circa Check Your Head/Ill Communication, when the hip-hop/punk collective rocked vintage Knicks tees, built a basketball court in their recording studio and sporadically published a magazine devoted to music, comedy, sports and popular culture called Grand Royal.
"This is the dichotomy that lives inside of us and has always lived inside of us," said Randy. "We are at once kids who grew up playing catch in the front yard for hours and hours and hours and hours and hours. And we are also perfectly at home watching Mel Brooks on TV and learning every line to Airplane! and loving standup comedy, and loving musicals and Broadway shows. That's who we are."
Jason said he sees that dichotomy as part of their bigger picture goal of dealing with perceptions and misperceptions.
"Our career has been spent deconstructing what people's assumptions are of twins," he said. "We have spent a career trying to mold a different perspective on twin-ness and a more nuanced, real perspective on twins that isn't just for show, joke and what we all sort of know. And I feel like we've applied that to everything we do. Why does a sports show have to have Joe Satriani as the opening guitar riff for it? It doesn't at all. In fact, it could start with a Belle and Sebastian song that makes you sad. Or a Best Coast song, or a Mazzy Star song, or something that makes you sit down and go, 'Huh, that's really thoughtful. That's really neat.'"
"When we look at [Phoenix Suns point guard and raconteur] Steve Nash, I bet there are friends in Steve Nash's life who don't even know he plays basketball," said Randy. "I like that. I like when guys say, 'This sport is not my entire life.' And that's what we're trying to get people to do."
The Sklars' journey to becoming standup comics began in St. Louis, Missouri, where they grew up as fans of local teams like the Cardinals.
"It was high school," said Jason, before citing an early inspiration. "Richard Lewis; loved that special with the piano and the brick wall. It was at the Improv I think. He was so good that special, and showed what comedy could be."
"[Jerry] Seinfeld, [Garry] Shandling," Randy added. "We loved Shandling. We just were into that stuff, so we would do people's bits not knowing that's not what you're supposed to do. We would just do it for our friends in high school and whatnot and get huge laughs because these are phenomenal bits that people came up with. And then there was a talent show in the school. A lot of it was material which we just stole, which is just terrible. We didn't know that wasn't what you were supposed to do. But some of it was stuff that we wrote and we were encouraged by it."
Soon, the Sklars were comfortable enough with their act to put it on videotape, a recording which they sent to the Disney Channel in the hopes of making it on to a young comedians' special.
"I remember Skippy from Family Ties was going to be the host of the show, Marc Price," said Jason. "The production company called us back and I'll never forget talking on the phone with them. They didn't talk to our parents, they talked to us. And they were like, 'We've looked at thousands of tapes and you guys were in the top ten of tapes we saw.' I think that stands to reason. How many kids are doing standup?"
The show was never produced, but it was enough to get Randy and Jason interested in taking it further. Though on course to become attorneys, the brothers continued honing their act during their time as undergraduates at the University of Michigan. After graduation, they were accepted to law schools but instead moved to New York to pursue standup. Which, in a very roundabout way, brings us to the present.
The Sklars are the hardest working twins in showbiz. They regularly travel the country performing standup and have three albums to their credit, the most recent -- Hendersons and Daughters -- released in 2011. In addition to their own forays into television (Apt. 2F, Cheap Seats), they've appeared on Law & Order, CSI, Grey's Anatomy, Entourage, It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia and plenty of other scripted TV shows. They've been regulars on Chelsea Lately and on radio on the Jim Rome Show. They've done a handful of films, though the less said about most of them the better. They've done internet series (Back on Topps, Held Up), been on cartoons (The Oblongs) and guested on podcasts.
An upcoming History Channel series, The United Stats of America, will see Randy and Jason using statistics (and, presumably, comedy) to figure out where the country has been and how it got to where it is today. Six episodes have been produced, though there's no indication on the network's website as to when they might air.
Outside of semaphore and puppetry, there are few avenues they haven't traveled down as performers. And, I don't know: Maybe they actually have done puppetry.
Sklarbro Country, the weekly podcast, is perhaps the twins' greatest labor of creative love. It shows in the comfortable rhythm they have, not only with one another but also their guests, often a fellow comedian, sometimes one from their close circle of friends. But there's also a lot of hard work that goes into producing an episode of Sklarbro Country, and perhaps larger ambitions than one might realize.
"What we're trying to do as well is extrapolating the human story, and what is it saying in a larger theme, and how can we attack a larger theme so it's not totally based in the story," Randy said. "Like where does all the championship memorabilia go for the team that loses? That's an interesting concept for us, and how is that deceiving for the people who live in villages around the world?"
They also understand that it wouldn't be an easy transition, melding the material in the podcast with their standup performances.
"I think we're even kind of afraid to do some of the stuff we do in the podcast on stage with a regular crowd, but I would love to," said Jason. "We would love to figure that out."
What you hear when you download an episode of Sklarbro Country -- which is free, by the way -- is the result of a lot of hard work behind-the-scenes.
"The first 20 minutes of that show, we write," said Randy. "That's super rare. It's written based off of us improvising. First we'll start talking about the story and say, 'What's the angle?' And we start talking and coming up with jokes and write them down. And then we'll tighten it and make it a little clearer. We write a very detailed outline, which a lot of times has fully written out jokes. But we also go off it."
No matter how hard they work, though, they still have to deal with what every performer faces: Negative feedback.
"I've heard criticism where people say like, 'These guys don't disagree with each other,' but I don't know that we have to," said Randy. "There's enough of that shit on the air right now. There's Around the Horn if you want disagreement, and sometimes PTI. But that's not necessarily what we do. Maybe there is some merit to what people are saying. We take every little criticism as though there's some truth behind it and we've got to figure it all out. I think it's who we are."
The criticism may have directly yielded another sport-comedy endeavor with Point/Point, a series of video shorts on Jockular.com where Randy and Jason spoof the standard charged patter of sports shows by vehemently agreeing with one another.
In an effort to bring their many worlds together, Randy and Jason have dipped their toe in the water with the odd live performance of Sklarbro Country, including an appearance at this year's SXSW. Festivals, they explained are a lot of fun. But for responsible family men, they're also tough to justify.
"What's hard for us is that we have families, and it's hard for us to be like, 'We're going away this weekend. We are going to make a total combined $50. They're paying all our expenses, though,'" Randy said. "That doesn't mean anything in a marriage. 'You take care of the kids. What I'm going to do is hang out, listen to music, smoke some pot, hang out with all my really fun comedy friends. You deal with the kids and I'll talk to you periodically, but it'll probably be too loud because bands will be playing and you'll feel completely alone.' You can't do that unless you have the most understanding spouse ever or unless … unless nothing. It's just too much to heap on somebody, and we have to ask ourselves what does it do, to what end. Yes, it's super fucking fun. There is no more fun than performing at a festival in front of a thousand people who are psyched."
Jason picked up the thread.
"You go to a festival, and they're like, 'The car is ready for you,' and you hop in the car with Tig Notaro and Kyle Dunnigan and Rich Fulcher and we sit there and we fucking gag around and we just honestly do Carson impressions and joke around and just are so silly and laugh our asses off," he said. "It's so much fun, it's what we love. There's something about that that I miss. So we've got to do one every once in a while."
Connecting with other comics is important to the Sklars. On the night of their appearance at Gotham Comedy Club, Jay Mohr -- in town to film an episode of Law & Order: Criminal Intent -- turned up between sets and staying for much of the second performance. It meant a lot to Randy and Jason.
"Richard Lewis is up at Caroline's tonight, and he could have easily gone up there and hung out," Jason said. "He could have done nothing, he could have just hung out with people from the set, from his crew. He came here and hung out and gagged around with us and made fun of us while we were selling t-shirts from the table. And it was fucking great. That's part of this business that we truly love. We feel like we've worked hard in this business to achieve a certain level of respect from our peers. And I think we've got it for the most part. I mean, there are always going to be people who don't like what we do or think we're funny."
"I think that's diminished a lot, because we've hung around and kept making stuff," Randy said, and to prove a point, the Sklars talked about a work-in-progress idea, the practice of constant consideration of material that could both make them laugh and move their careers forward.
"The Jersey Shore people went in and negotiated their contracts for a lot more money, and I would have just loved to have been a fly on the wall for that negotiation," Jason said. "They're saying like, 'Snooki wants $50,000-per-episode, she wants a percentage of international sales and back end DVD stuff.' And the business affairs person from MTV is like, 'Alright, well there's got to be conditions.' And the lawyer is like, 'Fine, what are the conditions?' and she's like, 'Seven drunken hookups.'
'Obviously, fine. She'll do that in one night.'
'One condom-rip pregnancy scare.'
'Who rips the condom?'
'Fine. What else?'
'She's got to take a shit in the bed.'
'No, she's not going to shit in the bed.'
'Fart in the minifridge?'
"We're just beginning to work that out," said Randy. "I think there's something funny in that, but we don't know what the answer is yet."