Interview: Sam Dinkowitz explains ‘Spectravagasm’

Post5's sketch comedy deviser unleashes his fourth installment of the "45 minutes of ruckus."

Remember the raucous “audience member” who took over the stage during Portland Center Stage’s Twist Your Dickens? Or the hooded vagrant soothsayer slumping through the crowd in Post5‘s Caesar? Sure you do! And that was actor Sam Dinkowitz. When he’s not busy acting for well-known productions, however, Dinkowitz moonlights as the writer, devisor and director of Spectravagasm, a laugh-packed late-night sketch comedy. The series just premiered its fourth installment, a sendup of religion co-written by Cassandra Boice.

In case you haven’t had the pleasure, please note: Spectravagasm is scripted and blocked; it’s not improv. Spectravagasm is—as it warns—raunchy and irreverent, but it can also be absurd, daffy, sweet, and even occasionally profound. It tends to make its audience laugh without trying—and, bonus, it’s more fun to say than “Supercalifragilisticexpealedocious.” After catching Spectravagasm 4 last weekend, I caught up with Dinkowitz to tell us more about his hilarious brain-spawn.

Dinkowitz in "Sandy Blvd," a spoof movie trailer he created for Spectravagasm.

Dinkowitz in “Sandy Blvd,” a spoof movie trailer he created for Spectravagasm.

IN THE BEGINNING…

The latest Spectravagasm opens with an epic origin story, so let’s do that, too. How did Spectravagasm start? And what had been your prior comedy/sketch/theater experience?

I had just moved to Portland after dropping out of the Penn State MFA program, and my friends Orion Bradshaw and Ty Boice encouraged me to start doing stuff with their company, Post5. Beyond their Shakespeare endeavors, the boys had just borrowed this idea from a Seattle company called Death/Sex—a sketch show focused on, you guessed it, death and sex. The producer had backed out the month before the second Death/Sex was set to open, and I took on the project. Then I thought that instead of sticking to the Seattle idea we should just create our own, and Spectravagasm was born! Now, a year later, we’ve put up four all-original sketch shows.

Prior experience…? I don’t have any training that has to do specifically with sketch comedy, but I do have a BFA from Southern Oregon University, and I watch a sh-tload of Mr. Show and Kids in the Hall. I was in Twist Your Dickens this Christmas at PCS, and it was inspiring to be a part of the Second City process. Comedy is a weird kind of math, and those cats from Chicago definitely know the formula. Working with Matt Hovde, Craig Cackowski, and Beth Melewski was like going to school. I love doing all kinds of different plays, but nothing fluffs my feathers like comedy.

What is Spectravagasm, and what should your audience expect to see?

I think that Spectravagasm is the kind of late-night show that makes you feel like a naughty kid laughing at dirty jokes in your friend’s basement. In terms of the format, using projections and filmed scenes between the live action means the audience has no time to take a break from laughing. One reviewer guessed that the title was some mash-up of Spectacle, Extravaganza, and Orgasm….I’d say that’s pretty much it.

That was ArtsWatch! Thanks for listening.

The first Spectravagasm I saw, it seemed like there were more actors than audience members, and a LOT of sketches. This time, the audience/actor ratio was appropriately reversed, and was the show shorter? Explain what influenced these changes, and how else you’d like the series to evolve.

The first Gasm had 12 people, which was too many. And that show clocked in at an hour and a half, which is too long. So we’ve made it smaller and shorter every time. I’d much rather leave people wanting more. If it goes too long, you get people playing Candy Crush in the middle of the second act. Now, Gasm 4 has seven people and the show is 45 minutes, with a 15 minute intermission to re-drunk yourself. I wouldn’t want to get any shorter than that, but I do want to keep shifting the cast and playing more with the multi-media aspects. I had a crazy plan about teaming up with some friends in San Fran for a live Skype-based show…but I have a lot of crazy plans.

THEMES

The latest installment has a religious theme, and the prior one was camp/outdoors, right? What was the one before that—love and sex? Oh, nevermind…can you remind me of all of the themes?

The first show was around Halloween, so I jumped on the zombie train. There was these hipster Zombies that only ate people that smoked American Spirits, and we had the “Sandy Blvd” Trailer, and we ended with the “Thriller” dance, but it was a pretty fragmented motif. The second show was kinda future-based…I was just looking for an excuse to make giant robots out of cardboard…but it also had this tiny Wizard of Oz-ish through-line about a girl who drank to much NyQuil, and the show was her tripped-out dream—or was it? And the third one, Camp Spectravagasm, was less of a sketch show and more of a short play about this kid getting separated from his camping troupe, summoning his power animal (a wolf giving a gorilla holding a snake a piggyback ride) and saving his friends from Jason. I like picking a theme for each show because it presents a cohesive product. I mean, it’s fine to do a bunch of random scenes, but you break your link with the audience every time you switch gears. The theme helps to create this silly world for the cast and the audience.

Is this one more tightly adhered to its theme than the prior shows were?

Yeah, I have found that the tighter we stick to the chosen theme, the more willing the audience is to join the party.

Do you have your next theme picked out yet?

I haven’t chosen the next theme, but we’ve been talking about doing a “best of,” and letting the fans of the show vote for which scenes they want to see again.

VARIETY and TECHNIQUE

One thing that’s striking about Spectravagasm is that, even for a sketch show, it’s diverse. You use every style of humor, from slapstick/physical to witty/punny to silly to sarcastic. Do you have a comedy formula? Like, “how much of what,” and “in what order?” What makes something funny to you?

Comedy is a fickle mistress, and I would be arrogant to say that I have some sort of recipe. I write things that I think are funny, and I’m always excited to find that other people think it’s funny too. In comedy, it’s so important to not let the audience get ahead of you. If they see the punch line coming, it’s not going to hit them as hard. The audience kind of wants to have their expectations pleasantly violated. And the best way to do that is with variety. In Camp Spectravagasm, when the camp leader asks if any of the campers need a potty break, one of the campers stands up with like three cups of water pouring out of her shorts. All you need is a Ziploc bag. I challenge you to find another show in Portland that has “fake piss” on their prop list. Little bit of slapstick, a dollop of word play, a scoop of vulgarity, and some cross-dressing, and you’ve got yourself about 45 minutes of ruckus.

What can you tell us about the video components of the show?

I try to gather a variety of video options, including: animated fake commercials that I make with frickin’ Windows Movie Maker, filmed scenes that are written by me and filmed/edited by Andy Chandler, and clips that I grab from YouTube and cobble together with the hope that I won’t get in trouble. The first two shows had these fake trailers (“Sandy Blvd” and “Pogtown”), but they were so detached from the theme…I found it to be much more effective to use the filmed elements to support the through-line. Overall, I think that the combination of live stuff and video stuff is the future of the theater. You see a lot of companies around town implementing projection, because it freshens up the show, and more importantly, it works.

In the latest (religion-themed) show, you guys have a running meta-joke about how you can’t joke about Islam. Do you have a short list of things you’d never joke about?

Ultimately, comedy is situational. A group of friends sitting around can make jokes that cross all kinds of lines, because they trust each other. When you’re dealing with an audience made up of people, each with their own sensibilities, you have to earn their trust, and then you can cross lines together and laugh like friends.

“It’s not okay to make fun of things that you know nothing about.” That’s the only serious line in Spectravagasm 4. But the point is that it’s perfectly fine to make fun of your own ignorance. You can’t make fun of someone just because they’re different, but you should definitely recognize the humor of finding out how similar we all are. There’s so much intense sh-t swirling around about religion lately. Who’s wrong? Who’s right? Which country’s ancestors chose the right god? If you can’t laugh at the ridiculous state of things, then you may as well stay in bed.

I’ve been fixating on the concept of “too soon” lately. When does it become socially acceptable to make fun of a specific tragedy? 9-11, the Hindenberg, the Holocaust, Slavery, the Civil War, Pompeii. Yes, these are all horrible, horrible things. But I could probably get away with a Hindenberg joke these days, if the situation was right. Definitely a Pompeii joke… The other super-important rule is to make sure you know who is the “victim” of the joke. There’ve been some fiery discussions about rape jokes. It isn’t okay to make rape jokes. Hands down. But what about victimizing the rapist by mocking the absurdity of their absolutely unacceptable behavior? I would say yes.

PASS THE HAT

At the beginning of Friday’s show, you were tottering around in a wig and heels, bemoaning the fact that the show had no sponsors. By the end of intermission, you said you’d gotten one! What did you get, and what else do you need?

Most theatre in this town is a labor of love. Post5, like many other companies, is struggling to have enough money to make the kind of art that they want to make. I mean, Ronni LaCroute is the patron saint of Portland Theater, but there’s only so much that one woman can do. Spectravagasm fully embraces the glory of low-budget-ness to the point that it becomes part of the joke. I spent $75 on fabric from Goodwill and wigs from Lippman’s and that’s it. That’s the show. I made a joke at the beginning of the show about not having a sponsor, and the lovely Marica Reyes comes up to me at intermission and says “I wanna be your sponsor.” And she writes a check for $100. That’s community. Everyone involved in these projects works super hard for super cheap, and we do it because we love it. But I can only imagine what would be possible if the show was fully funded. I really want to get a live dolphin for the next show…so we’re gonna start collecting cans now!

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A. L. Adams also writes the monthly column Art Walkin’  for  The Portland Mercury, and is  former arts editor of Portland Monthly magazine. Read more from Adams: Oregon ArtsWatch | The Portland Mercury
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