Arts | Comedy

June 29, 2005

Home Again

Two years after a big break brought them a TV show, The Hollow Men return to their comfort zone on stage, though they have to dodge the occasional projectile bottle or cat.

Keith Huang

In 2003, a mostly unknown sketch troupe from England called The Hollow Men performed at the U.S. Comedy Arts Festival in Aspen.

The Hollow Men
Keith Huang
Left to right: Nick Tanner, Sam Spedding, Dave Armand, and Rupert Russell
The Hollow Men, four clean-cut twentysomethings, hadn't planned to attend the festival, but on the advice of contacts at HBO, the troupe trekked to Colorado to perform a greatest-hits version of the sketch pieces they'd been honing in London for years.

The troupe struck a nerve almost immediately: By the end of the week, festival attendees were lining up by the hundreds to vie for seats to The Hollow Men's sold-out shows.

An array of high-concept sketch comedy, The Hollow Men's work can be intricately choreographed, but also can be as simple as a pantomime. One bit involves a snazzy rendition of a James Bond film sequence, while another features round-faced troupe member David Armand acting out the lyrics to Natalie Imbruglia's pop-classic Torn.

Not long after the Aspen festival, a brief video clip of the Torn pantomime was leaked on the internet. In the clip, you can hear the laughter build as Armand bawdily interprets each of Imbruglia's lines—"I thought I saw a man brought to life/He was worn/He came around"—which he quickly follows by forming a ring with his thumb and forefinger and holding it to one eye like a monocle, as Imbruglia sings, "Like he was dignified." (You can watch the clip at

On the merits of the sold-out festival shows, The Hollow Men earned not only the festival's coveted Jury Prize that year, but also an offer for a television pilot from Comedy Central, which they would ultimately parlay into a six-episode deal.

The troupe, who are in New York this month to perform a three-week run of their self-titled stage show, sat down with Gelf on the eve of their opening night to discuss their work.

The Hollow Men met at Cambridge University in 1996 and have been performing as a troupe for seven years. Two other members have joined and left the group since the early days, but it is the current four-man ensemble—Armand, Rupert Russell, Sam Spedding and Nick Tanner—that has performed at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and numerous comedy clubs in London, Armand says.

Now, thanks to the TV show, which launched in March, the Hollow Men have garnered far more exposure in the U.S. than in England. And they'll add to their overseas portfolio next month in Montreal as headliners at the Just for Laughs comedy festival. The Hollow Men have broken a longstanding convention in which U.K. comedy acts first gain popularity at home before U.S. producers either rebroadcast the program (such as Monty Python's Flying Circus, Benny Hill, and The Young Ones, to name but a few), or re-create the show with American actors (most recently, Coupling, The Office, and Men Behaving Badly).

The Hollow Men
Courtesy The Hollow Men
"No one likes it in the U.K. when people become successful in America," says Russell. "It's not a popular thing to be at all. It's sad when we got bottles thrown at us because of it."

"That's why we have to go back home and play tiny theaters above pubs to get our credibility back," says Armand, to which Spedding, who bears a faint resemblance to actor Kyle MacLachlan, adds: "And also to limit the number of bottles that get thrown at us."

The Hollow Men may still be more comfortable on the tiniest stages than on TV; so far, the reviews for their Comedy Central show have been mixed. New York Times critic Virginia Heffernan balks at some of their material that "gets raunchy too steeply and too suddenly," while Terry Morrow of The Knoxville News Sentinel writes, "The Hollow Men aren't peers to [Monty Python & Kids in the Hall], though they do draw great inspiration from them. It's a good place to start, but they aren't there yet." The Ithacan's Alex De Los Rios was more positive, writing that the Hollow Men "should be praised for being able to do on its own terms what thousands of comedians dream of doing."

It is apparent that after six episodes, the troupe is still finding its feet on the small screen, and coming against the limits of America's sense of humor and the boundaries of U.S. censorship in the wake of Janet Jackson's "Nipplegate." "[Comedy Central] gave us a lot of space to get on with things, which was good, but also they had to guide us because we'd never made a TV show before," Armand says.

One sketch involves the nebulous phrase "monkey spunk" as a popular flavor of soda, while another relishes absurdist wordplay, beginning inside a shoe store and concluding with a frenetically choreographed song-and-dance number centered on the nonsensical phrase: "It weaves itself a protective canopy out of muff hair. Anal lemmings. No, we just sell shoes."

The group had "pretty good creative control," Tanner says. "You never have 100% control, but we were allowed to develop our ideas from scratch a lot." He adds, "But I regret spending money on sets and extras and not paying myself loads of money." Indeed, the TV show is glossy, with high production values, mixing exterior footage with intricately detailed studio sets.

It is on the stage where the troupe cut its teeth—and where they can use "rude words" and have more space to explore and experiment with their comedy. "It's good to get back to doing a nice theater run," Russell says. "It's good to come back to the stage because there's stuff that we can do that presumably wouldn't work on TV—the more visual stuff, some of the stuff we do to music, which is a big part of the [stage] show."

"And people can throw things at you on stage, which they can't do when you're on TV," Armand quips.

Spedding quickly replies: "They can, you just don't feel it."

"Yes," Armand agrees, "But you feel it morally—you feel it emotionally."

Spedding reverses: "Actually, I can feel it, and every time it happens, I think a small part of me dies."

"You mean every time someone throws a cat at your face on TV?" asks Armand.

"We like American audiences, as well," Russell says.

Armand shouts: "They laugh! They laugh and they clap!"

Spedding says: "They give it up."

Russell says: "They step up to the plate."

Spedding adds: "And I mean that in a ..."

Spedding pauses.

Tanner fills in the blank: "a pejorative sense."

Spedding: "No, in a chemical sense. They're sublime. They turn from a solid to a gas."

Armand (to Spedding): "You have to stop. You happen to be making me twitch."

The Hollow Men will perform at the Village Theater at 158 Bleecker Street, New York, through July 16. See The Hollow Men's blog here.

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