There are two real gauges to measuring success in the entertainment world in America today: the first, natch, is money; the second is an appearance in the Arts section of The New York Times.
The five Cornell University grads who comprise the sketch comedy group called Elephant Larry have big, big hopes for the first of those, but in the meantime they're quite content to revel in the glow of a brief but breathless feature about them in the newspaper of record last May, when they were packing houses for a sold-out run at the People's Improv Theatre in Manhattan with their original 60-minute show Boom.
The short piece described the show as "a hilarious multimedia mix of the deadpan and the maniacal. The sketches call to mind, variously, Monty Python, Kids in the Hall, and Second City, yet they don't feel like knockoffs. Perhaps that's because they ricochet so fearlessly from subtly savvy to aggressively lowbrow."
Since their New York debut in summer 2002, the group has filled clubs and comedy festival theatres in San Francisco, Chicago, Boston, Seattle, and, of course, New York, where they've taken the stage at Madison Square Garden, the Gotham Comedy Club, Caroline's on Broadway, the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre, and several others. The awards have followed apace: Best Sketch Comedy Group from the Emerging Comics of New York; New York's Best Comedy Writers from Caroline's Comedy Club; they've been finalists at the U.S. Comedy Arts Festival, and snagged prizes from under the noses of competitors like UCB Theatre and comedy writers from The Daily Show. Their most recent show, Boom, was sponsored by no less an arbiter of funny than The Onion.
Without using a lot of profanity, politics, or "blue" jokes, EL evidently manages to play smart and clever without being terminally hip or irritatingly esoteric.
"It's high-energy, its explosive, but it's also idea-driven," says member Alex Zalben of the group's material. "If you watch Saturday Night Live, it's very character-based. We start with the idea of, 'Wouldn't it be funny, if'...' and we go from there. If a character comes out of that, great, but we come up with the idea for the sketch first, rather than having a character drive the idea for the sketch."
Much of the press about Elephant Larry manages to touch on words like "brainy" and "intelligent" to describe the quintet's brand of sketch comedy.
"There's definitely some smart guys in the group," he laughs. "But we're more focused on the writing than on character stuff."
When they're home in New York, Elephant Larry perform Saturday nights at the People's Improv Theater on West 29th Street — an intimate, 50-seat space they share with a slew of other comedy groups who do improv, sketch, stand-up, and variety shows. During the week, they write new sketches and work them into the show so that the performances change on average every month or so.
For their two Charleston Comedy Festival appearances, EL will be bringing the best of their best — material from their sold-out Boom, which garnered them high praise across the spectrum of New York, a city famously hard on its struggling comics.
Elephant Larry has even heard of the Festival, not just from neighborhood friends and Piccolo Fringe vets Upright Citizens Brigade but from regular New Yorkers.
"One of the guys in the group was getting his hair cut and he was talking to his hairdresser here in Brooklyn," Zalben recalls. "He told her he was going to the Charleston Comedy Festival, and she said, 'Oh, really, I hear that's a really good one.' So it's renowned among hairdressers in Brooklyn."