Wrestling Team has birthed several remarkable projects, including Beginnings, an interview podcast that never ceases to amaze. Now it’s your turn to meet Wrestling Team and to judge for yourselves if they’re in it to win it! (Trust us, they are…)and are two of the funniest guys we have ever encountered. Their comedic chemistry is palpable almost immediately, which is why it comes as no surprise that they have been at it for a while now. Formed in 2003, their comedic venture
Serial Optimist: You are both seriously funny guys. How did you each decide to go into comedy? Was there a moment where you just knew, or did the idea take time to develop?
Mark Bisi: First of all, thank you for saying that we are funny and reminding me that we are “in” comedy. I needed that boost, as I am currently at my horrible day job ordering bulk soda and Kashi bars over the phone.
Andy Beckerman: And I’m at my day job with anxiety running through my veins, wondering if they’re going to can me at my performance review tomorrow. It’s nice to remind myself that this is just a day job.
Mark: Not that we’re huge celebrities or anything – or celebrities at all, so it’s not that weird – but it’s a little weird that I was just rushing to pass out lunches to rich jerks so that I could be on time to be interviewed by a comedy magazine. Anyway, I would say that I have always felt, for as long as I can remember, that I would create things in my life and hopefully one day get paid for it. The realities of living up to that premonition have been slower to form for me. Specifically where comedy is concerned, I’ve always loved comedy and been drawn to funny things, so the things I would create, be they comic books, artwork, songs, videos, live performance things or whatever tended to be comedic in nature. So I’ve always wanted to make comedy.
Andy: I’m a bit different. I always wrote sketches and made videos, but I had kind of had it drilled into my head that I needed a career – one that in my parents’ estimation came with health insurance. I was in a band in college, and really loved performing, but decided to go to grad school for philosophy, which, despite the fact that it sounds like what shitty hippies do, can lead to fairly lucrative professorships. But the fact that I spent most of my time writing comedy when I should have been studying Heidegger led to me being kicked out. With a faux-depressed sigh, I said, “Well, guess I’m moving to New York to make comedy.”
SO: How did you two fine and fancy fellas meet?
Mark: We met in Pittsburgh, where I’m from and where Andy went to college. Andy was the roommate and good friend of my sister’s boyfriend, who would go on to be my sister’s husband and my brother-in-law. I met Andy through them, and we eventually bonded over shared comedy interests (Mr. Show, Stella, UCB) and decided to try writing together.
Andy: I got an easy job after college at the school library and hired Mark as my student worker. Because I could get my work done in two hours, that left us the rest of the day to write over Instant Messenger and film sketches since my supervision was so lax. I also got really good at online chess for a while. Now I wouldn’t know a Ruy Lopez from a King’s Gambit.
Mark: I also worked nights at Chess Barn. I whittled the Rooks. And yes, that is a euphemism.
SO: Wrestling Team was officially formed in 2003, but you lived in different cities for the first six years. As you probably know, this was pre-Skype, etc. How did you keep your comedic working relationship fresh?
Andy: Well, I don’t know how fresh we kept it. We did a lot of work over that time – wrote some spec scripts and wrote, produced and filmed two short films, but not being in the same city meant there wasn’t a ton of back and forth with comedic ideas. We started out as an absurd sketch group, but by the end of us living across Pennsylvania from each other, we turned into a surreal version of Snuff Box. I like the last short film we made a lot, but it barely makes any sense at all!
Mark: When you describe something as “a surreal version of Snuff Box” that’s really saying something. Yeah, we did a lot of work, and we occasionally had writing “meetings” over the phone or e-mail, and while we both had ambitions to do this stuff professionally, during those years Wrestling Team was more or less “just for fun”. It wasn’t until we moved to New York in 2009 and decided to pursue comedy seriously that we got any traction.
Andy: We were like Stella, if Luis Buñuel had directed them.
Mark: Sounds hilarious, right?
SO: And the cultural references just keep rolling in! Tell us about Cents and Cents’ Abilities.
Mark: I can’t remember now if we did Cents & Cents Abilities specifically for Channel 101 NY, but we did submit it there and got brought back to make a second episode. The germ of the idea was, we were living paycheck to paycheck in New York in the middle of a massive recession, and we wanted to make comedy out of the anxiety of that experience. We wanted to do something in the mode of infotainment, and I think the idea of the police opening up cold case files to the public was the first idea that I spit out in our pitch session. That one ended up being really great. We wrote a full 6-episode series of Cents and Cents Abilities that we ended up not making, but I don’t think any of them lived up to that first cold case files idea. That one really clinched the absurd spin on complete desperation that we were trying to achieve.
Andy: I think it was also us trying to make something that was grounded and relevant, but that also fit our sensibilities. But – our early days in New York are characterized by a kind of undisciplined lunacy – by the end of the series, Mark and I have won the lottery, a rival web series about the same topic takes over Cents and Cents’ Abilities, and in the last episode, I believe an orb in Central Park predicts our own deaths.
Mark: Yeah, fear of imminent death is a constant motif.
Grumpkin Hollow Trailer
SO: But of course! Your pilot for Grumpkin Hollow is a finalist in the New York Television Festival/Comedy Central Short Pilot Competition. The trailer is a riot. Where did the idea for this pilot come from, and where can you see it going if (or just when) it gets picked up?
Andy: Mark and I wrote a musical called Rockefeller Centaur and auditioned it for UCB in the spring of 2010. Anthony, the Artistic Director at the time, hated the show itself, but he thought we were funny and said he’d like to see something else of ours. We bounced some ideas off him, and the one he seemed to really respond to the most was a sketch show about a small town called Grumpkin Hollow. Mark and I then spent the next five months writing sketches that we neither liked nor were excited by.
Mark: Yeah, it was a miserable experience. The most fun for me was that the characters I played in the Grumpkin Hollow sketches (specifically a Nazi florist and a gay slug monster) were the most character-y I had ever gotten to play in the history of Wrestling Team live performances. But a successful show cannot live on German accents and slug monster body language alone. So after slamming our head against the wall for a couple of months, we decided to scrap those sketches. We still liked the core idea of the small town of Grumpkin Hollow, so we started writing it as a filmed piece and it became 100% different from the sketches. The only thing that remains at this point is the name “Grumpkin Hollow”.
Andy: We were really writing very hollow games for the sketches, instead of doing what we do particularly well, which is build expansive worlds. Grumpkin Hollow was written as a treatment for a four-season show that was kind of like a cross between Gilmore Girls and The Wire.
Mark: It’s a murder mystery centering on rival snack companies in the American heartland, which is a synopsis that endlessly delights me. Our characters are food bloggers who get caught up in this whole mess. We didn’t win the NYTVF contest, but if we ever did anything more with Grumpkin Hollow, I imagine we would just keep peeling back the onion to reveal a far-reaching and insidious conspiracy.
Andy: I believe in the original synopsis, it’s revealed that the CEO of a cupcake manufacturer from a rival town is the culprit, and in season two, tensions between the two towns lead to actual war. And we become war correspondents at the behest of the VP of Digital in control of the food blog that employs us.
Mark: This shit goes deeper than you could ever imagine.
SO: That’s amazing. I’m giggling just thinking about it! At one point or another, we have all wondered how our favorite artists, comedians, musicians, etc. got started. You two embarked upon a podcast journey and now host Beginnings, an interview show where you ask those questions to some very influential and fun people. When did the wheels for Beginnings start turning, and how did you two get started with it?
Mark: We started Beginnings for a few reasons. We started it because we were struggling, trying to forge a path toward making a living from our creativity, and that just seems impossible. We were both kind of sick of the showbiz creation myths you hear, like Chris Farley wandering into Second City off the street and immediately getting up on the main stage and blowing everyone away, or Dick Cavett barging into Jack Parr’s office with some jokes on a cocktail napkin and being hired on the spot. These are great stories, but they are also frustrating, because it’s never really that easy. We wanted to talk to people about what the path toward these things is actually like. But we also started the podcast because we wanted a creative outlet where we could be more ourselves, because our stage personas are so heightened and absurd. Eventually, we started to look further back in our guests’ lives to where they first started expressing themselves creatively, and how those early creative experiences lead them to where they are today. It evolved more into getting a snapshot of these creative people we admire as just people.
Andy: Yeah, the two big flashpoints were Mike Sacks’ wonderful book And Here’s the Kicker, and Steve Martin’s memoirs. One of the things missing from a lot of people’s stories is how they struggled – not just in the business, but also creatively. How did these people find their voice? What’s the reality of making things for a living, as opposed to the fantasy where you get plucked out of a Schwab’s drugstore because you look good in a tight sweater? These are the fascinating questions to me. I mean, I guess if you just want to hear about success, the Entourage box set just came out. I mean, Mark and I hug it out at the end of every podcast.
Mark: We hug our Entourage box sets. Which we got ahead of the release date. Perks of the biz, baby.
SO: Jealousy ensues. Have either of you had a favorite episode of Beginnings or perhaps a best memory?
Andy: There’s definitely a thrill from the episodes where we get to interview our heroes: Rich Fulcher from the Mighty Boosh, Jon Glaser, Ian Roberts, Tom Scharpling, but I think it’s some of the “smaller” episodes that stick with me. Ethan Berlin, the creator of Bunk, is one of my favorite people. Halley Feiffer from Bored to Death. Devin Clark, the creator of Ugly Americans. And any time we have Elliott and Dan from The Flophouse Podcast/The Daily Show is a treat.
Mark: Yeah, agreed. We’ve had the opportunity to talk to some amazing people, people who have influenced us immensely, and they have all been uniformly kind and full of incredibly valuable advice. But the selfish answer would be that my favorite episodes are the ones where I get laughs.
SO: If you could take any one bit of information or advice from any one of your guests on Beginnings and apply it to your own lives, what little gem would that be?
Andy: I think the thing that’s helped me the most was talking to Matt Besser. My first few years here in New York were kind of aimless – I was learning the ropes of making comedy and finding friends and all that garbage that’s great for you emotionally and developmentally, but that won’t get me a writing job on whatever shitty sitcom is hiring this season. Anyway, Matt talked about the UCB4 specifically coming to New York with the goal of having a sketch show on Comedy Central and working tirelessly towards that goal. It was really inspiring and also eye opening. Show business is pretty random, but you can create goals and then work towards them, and if you work your butt off and catch some luck, you can actually do it. I mean, the luck part is a mindfuck, but Matt really was instrumental in teaching me that you can take the reins to some extent. And also because it’s so random, if you’re not having fun just working at whatever level you’re at, you should probably ask yourself why you want to make comedy.
Mark: One of the side effects of doing Beginnings is that I now have a list of incredible mantras from our guests that have legitimately helped me in the process of sorting out what the hell it is that I am doing with my life. One that I really try to keep in mind comes from another UCB founder, Ian Roberts, who basically said “Find what you love and do it”. He said it in a way that didn’t sound so trite and Robert Evans-esque, but that’s the basic idea. And as simple as it sounds, it’s an easy thing to forget. You get so caught up in trying to be what you think other people want you to be, like we were trying to do with the Grumpkin Hollow sketches, that you lose sight of what it is that you yourself want or love about what it is that you are trying to do. Ian Roberts is amazing. I highly recommend that episode of Beginnings for some real, genuine wisdom.
Andy: Oh yeah, Ian was incredible. The other thing he said that’s really kept me going is that the UCB started because they wanted to do their own thing and there was no theatre in Chicago that was doing exactly what they wanted. There’s a lot of great established comedy places, in New York, online, etc. but if one doesn’t fit your voice, you shouldn’t despair. You should use it as an impetus to do your own thing.
Mark: Yeah, definitely. I sometimes worry that I’m not “joining the team” as much as I should, but I feel like I’m predisposed to follow my own weird muse, and I shouldn’t resist that or think that it’s wrong.
SO: Well said! And now we just HAVE to ask… What is Rachel Dratch like in person? How much fun was she on the show?
Mark: Rachel Dratch is one my all-time favorite SNL people. It was a lot of fun having her on the show. She had to leave early, but she was very nice, funny and super self-deprecating.
Andy: One of the things I’ve noticed is that you don’t seem to make it past a certain level if you’re not a decent human being. I mean, I’m sure if you’re superhuman-ly talented or you look like a sculpture or something, you can get away with being a 10-foot wide asshole, but I think those people are rare. Rachel was on SNL for how long? 30 Rock, King of Queens, she’s a published author – but also she was kind and gracious, and she also ate one of the cookies that I brought for the guests. I spent like $14 on all those cookies, and not a lot of people ate them. They were good cookies.
Mark: She was decent enough to eat one of Andy’s shitty cookies.
SO: You host a monthly live taping of Beginnings at the Upright Citizen’s Brigade East. We are sure you have met many fun characters there. How did you get involved with the UCB, and what’s the best part about performing there?
Andy: I’ve loved the UCB program since it debuted on Comedy Central. I remember constantly quoting the Friar Infestation episode because it was so weird. And when I first moved to the city, taking classes there was one of my first priorities – at first cynically, just to have an entre into the comedy world of New York. Although, I did spend the first year working shitty temp jobs until I could save up the scratch to take a class. 350 bones is steep when you are unemployed. But I met a ton of funny people and friends and collaborators taking classes, and if you’re performing and writing a lot, you just naturally tend to find people on the same wavelength as you.
Mark: I’ve never seen $350 in one place in my life that wasn’t already earmarked for rent or student loans.
Andy: Well, get a Master’s Degree in philosophy and a whole slew of $20+ an hour temp jobs opens up. They’re still shitty; they just pay more for your misery.
Mark: I’ve yet to rise above the level of work that’s normally reserved for donkeys. But when we moved to New York and Andy started taking UCB classes, we did the sketch open mic at the theatre a lot, which is called Liquid Courage. And as we met more people, we started doing more shows there, like Andy Rocco’s Underground Americana and Backyard Brawl. And eventually we auditioned Rockefeller Centaur at UCB. All throughout this, our profile was rising due to Beginnings, and Andy heard that UCBEast was looking to do live podcast tapings so he pitched Beginnings: Live to them.
Andy: Yeah, again, it was – one of the things I realize about all of this entertainment stuff is that it’s as much about having talent as it is about having friends and being a nice human. A friend of mine, who’s a house performer at UCB, heard through the grapevine that the incoming Artistic Director at the time, Nate Dern, was looking to do some live podcasts at Beast. He suggested I pitch Beginnings, so I wrote up a four-page dossier outlining what the show was and what the live show would be like, etc. Beast is built out of an old movie theatre, and it’s a better place to have stand-up shows and live podcasts and things like that vs. sketch and improv. But, if my friend hadn’t said anything to me, I don’t know if this would have happened.
Mark: As far as what’s the best part of performing at UCB, those theatres just have a real energy in the air. I think it is the result of all of the comedy history wrapped up in UCB that was very important to my development, but they also attract a great, receptive, high-energy crowd. And I just love the stage at UCB Chelsea. I always get a huge charge walking out of those doors and seeing that audience right up in my face.
Andy: Yeah – I feel like a tender dipshit saying this – but so many people I admire have been a part of the theatre and have performed there that there really is a magical feeling for me when I get to do something at Chelsea or Beast. And the chance to be part of a community of people who are funny and talented is nice. Since there’s no comedy diploma or decoder ring you can get that says You’re a Comedian, it’s nice to be part of a group that give you a little confidence inside.
SO: What are your favorite websites to browse (you know, in your wealth of free time)?
Andy: AV Club, Splitsider, SO, Matt Ruby’s blog Sandpaper Suit is great, Alan Speinwall’s TV criticism, and then a lot of political stuff: Matt Taibbi, Glenn Greenwald, Naked Capitalism and Counterpunch. I’m just looking through my feeds now. There’s a lot more. Though I really only get to look at shit when no one is paying attention to what I’m doing at my day job.
SO: Your Twitter feed is quite hilarious, if I may say so myself. It’s given me lots of reasons to giggle during this election season, to say the least. Are there any tweets you two have seen lately that made you laugh?
Mark: Andy is solely responsible for the Wrestling Team (@wrestlingteam) twitter account. I have a serious aversion to Twitter. I’m not sure what it is exactly about Twitter that gets me so hot under the collar, but I think it may have something to do with my reclusive nature. Facebook already makes me uncomfortable, I don’t want to have another direct line to people. I want to be able to disappear, get off the grid. I do see Twitter’s potential as a joke-writing challenge, and I think I might be coming around on it a little bit in that regard. I’ll probably join it very soon after saying all of this. I don’t read Twitter much at all, but I did look at Megan Amram’s feed the other day and thought it was really funny.
Andy: Thank you for saying that. Since I’ve gotten my rage in check, my political tweets are a lot funnier and a lot less full of sad, impotent anger. I am writing this on Friday, so I will say, in a follow Friday fashion, that my favorites on Twitter are Aaron Burdette (@AaronBurdette), Rich Fulcher (@Rich_Fulcher), Gavin Speiller (@Gavinspeiller), Ethan Berlin (@EthanTBerlin), and of course my lovely girlfriend Naomi Ekperigin. A lot of others too, but those are the ones that spring to mind.
Mark: I just think there is such a thing as too many jokes. I start to glaze over. But there are people who tap into a deep, dark, visceral vein of weirdness that is really satisfying to me. Like our friend Aaron Burdette. What a Tweeter.
SO: Who have been some of your most memorable guests, including comedians and musicians?
Andy: Memorable for me means either funny or wise or both. A lot of the people we’ve already named fall into this category. Mark and I have an unofficial Pantheon of comedians we look up to: Bob Odenkirk and Ian Roberts, so talking to Rich and Ian was certainly memorable. Also, I’ve been a huge fan of since 1995, so meeting James McNew was a thrill. A lot of the people that we seem to have natural chemistry with like Halley or Ethan make for memorable episodes, or episodes where we learn something like with Ian or Greg Barris or Sam Lipsyte. Eddie Pepitone, of course. OH! John Lee, Mike Sacks and Tom Scharpling. Katie and Leah from Skinny Bitch Jesus Meeting. Fuck it; they’re all good.,
Mark: I totally agree. As a fan, Yo La Tengo is my all-time favorite band, so having James McNew on our show was immediately one for the old mental scrapbook. The fact that he performed a duet of “Night Moves” with Jon Glaser was just icing on the cake. Other big, big highlights for me were Rich Fulcher, Eddie Pepitone and my personal hero Tom Scharpling.
SO: If you could do your podcast with anyone in history as your guests, who would be on that podcast?
Andy: Jesus. I mean that as an exclamation by the way. I would not want to interview the historical Jesus.
Mark: He was probably a real snooze.
Andy: I think…I mean, authors that I love that passed away maybe? Kurt Vonnegut? Stanley Elkin? Mark Twain would probably be funny. Oh, I got a good one – Alfred Jarry. He’s one of my favorite writers. He’s completely nuts. Maybe the Dadaists…weren’t they all rich kids though fucking around on their trust funds? And of course, my personal hero: Josef Stalin.
Mark: Fuck it, I’m going to say Rick Moranis, because he’s been on my mind a lot lately. He’s alive and well and he lives in New York, but he has been relegated to history by his own choice. I just think he doesn’t quite get his due. Before he retired, he was an incredible actor and comedian and writer, and I feel like most people just think of him as the guy from “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids” and “Little Giants”. Geez, I’d love to talk to Rick Moranis.
Andy: Wait, are we talking about living people too? I have a laundry list. Bob Odenkirk is on the top of it.
Mark: Well, the question is “people from history”. I chose Moranis because he took himself out of the game and left an amazing legacy.
Andy: Technically, “from history” could include the future too. So, I choose Easth-Master Krizor, a space artist from the year 3013, who invades the Earth as part of a cosmic art prank.
Mark: I’d love to interview Daxtron Obama, Sasha Obama’s great-grandson. He’s the frontman for a Nü-Reggaeton band called The Laser Guys.
Andy: They fucking blast it, bro.
SO: Can either of you solve the lifelong riddle of why hot dogs come in packs of 10, while the buns come in packs of 8?
Mark: Those extra two hot dogs are collateral damage. They’re cannon fodder. If you’re cooking out, some hot dogs are going to get lost or destroyed by any number of threats, it’s just a fact of life. Peckish children and senior citizens, radical vegan Uncles, vengeful pigs… Hobos, explosions, the elements… you name it! Those cursed extra two are never going to make it to the bun. Also, some people like a “Double Dog” or the “Duo Diablo” which is two hot dogs on one bun. In the UK they call it “Two-on-one Bun Fun”.
Andy: It’s called capitalism, dickhead. Open your eyes. Oligarchical collusion. You have to continually keep buying these things. Big Hot Dog and Big Bun working hand in hand to suck the blood out of your meager paycheck until it’s a gross dead husk and their GMO-infused nitrates are winnowing their way through your veins. Lifelong riddle? More like lifelong noose, the sausage-link rope closing around your throat. CUT THE CORD.
Mark: The fat cats over at Big Irish O’Garlic Bratwurst are doing the same thing.
SO: Thank you for finally explaining that conundrum. What’s it like being made of “succulent crabmeat”? Do you ever almost eat each other?
Mark: Andy and I were both found as babies on the banks of the Chesapeake Bay. Our biological parents were never found, so we were sent to live in an orphanage. We didn’t find out that we were Crab Men until we turned 18 and started growing barnacles in weird places. I never understood why I had the desire to spray Andy with melted butter every time I saw him. I soon realized it was because I was a Cannibalistic Crab Man. God, it feels so good to say it out loud now. I’m a Crab Man and I want to kill and eat my Crab Brother, but not before letting that savory butter saturate his stupid crabby body!
Andy: Look, it’s 2012. I don’t think being a Cannibalistic Crab Man is that big a deal. I think you certainly have identity issues, as do I, since at 18 everything changed, but that’s what therapy is for. I think Mark and I, through good old Freudian talk therapy are really uncovering some root causes to our behavior. I mean, I’m just a Crab Man – I don’t wish to eat my Crab Brother – but that doesn’t mean I don’t have my own neuroses and problems. I mean, for some reason, I find matches sexy. Explain that, Dr. Goldbraith.
Mark: Shut up and get in this bubbling pot, you tasty little crab you!
[It was at this point that Mark and Andy scuttled sideways out of the room, Mark brandishing a brass claw cracker and a sprig of parsley.]