The first time I saw Wham City Comedy, their performance consisted of ultra-specific jokes about train maintenance, a troubling read-through of a post-apocalyptic The Simpsons script, and a vicious back-and-forth with an audience member—which turned out to be completely staged.
It was one of the best shows I’d ever seen. It also created a possible fire hazard.
The guys were guests of a monthly comedy show I used to run, called The Hustle. It ran in the bar attached to the Creative Alliance. On a good night, the comic revue would see a crowd of maybe 30 people. That night, some 100 people crammed into the bar. They were there to see Ben O’Brien, Robby Rackleff, and Alan Resnick. Somehow, the trio even look like a comedy troupe: Resnick, 29, is short and lean with a trim beard, while O’Brien, 30, is a bit taller and in surprisingly good shape for a comedian. Rackleff, 34, looks like he might work on utility poles, or possibly be a utility pole—he towers over the other two performers. Wham City musician Mickey Freeland rounded out the bill, and I served as your humble emcee. It made for a memorable night and most likely a solid fire-code violation, according to bar staff. Luckily, the only thing on fire that night was the comedy.
“Wham City is alternative comedy without the pretension,” says veteran Baltimore comedian Mike Moran, who was there that night, explaining the group’s success. “That’s why they have such a rabid fanbase within Baltimore, and, increasingly, the country. Plus they’re just cool folks.”
Attendees who hadn’t seen Wham City Comedy live still knew their act, from cult YouTube videos or late-night television spots on Adult Swim. For certain segments of my generation, Adult Swim—a block of cable programming consisting of a modestly budgeted circus of outsider art and all-around silliness—is the height of art and comedy. And it’s a perfect fit for these rising stars.
Wham City Comedy evolved out of the ramshackle arts collective known as Wham City, which was cofounded by electronic music superstar Dan Deacon. The collective originated in the early 2000s at SUNY Purchase, the artsy public college just north of New York City. Upon graduation, this group of artists and musicians found a home in Baltimore. Cheap rent and a thriving DIY arts community seemed to agree with them. The larger arts collective would eventually break into several sub-groups, including Wham City Comedy.
“When Ben [O’Brien] and Dan Deacon put the tour together [in 2010], that was the first time all three of us started to work together as Wham City Comedy,” Rackleff says. “And something really clicked with all of us.”
“Wham City is alternative comedy without the pretension.”
They were energized by the live musical performances they saw on tour and wondered if a similar vibe could be created through comedy: “One of the things that brought the three of us together was a lot of our friends were musicians,” Rackleff explains. “I know I envied that, and I wanted to do more visually exciting comedy that could compete in a music show context.”
Then and now, their shows are a mix of standup, bizarre improv, and carefully scripted skits, punctuated with bits of digital video. Each member takes a turn in the spotlight. Sometimes, it’s O’Brien or Rackleff playing straight man to Resnick’s silent “MEmime” character. Sometimes, it’s one of the other two barely making it to safety as Rackleff storms around stage wearing a Sonic the Hedgehog costume. Every performance is different and every performance has a zeitgeisty energy.
Their live performances drew the attention of Dave Hughes, creator of Adult Swim’s Off The Air, who eventually worked with them as executive producer on a few video shorts.
Since then, it has been something of a whirlwind for the trio. When they’re not doing live comedy or making videos, they’re pitching shows in Los Angeles and working closely with Adult Swim executives. The group’s latest project? Filming a pilot presentation for Fox—well, sort of. Fox has teamed up with The Lonely Island—the cheerfully irreverent comedy-music troupe featuring SNL alum Andy Samberg—for a comedy development project called Party Over Here.
“Party Over Here approached us and said, ‘Give us some ideas for shows,’” says O’Brien. “It’s funded by Fox, but it’s a show incubator. With this deal, they can sell it to other places like Netflix, Hulu, etcetera.”
He can’t let on too much about the show itself, but shares its intriguing working title, The Internet. And yes, they got paid for the pilot presentation, but O’Brien wants to make it clear they are hardly raking in the cash. No one’s really committing to these projects; they’re just kind of taking fliers.
“I joke that we’re like the adjunct professors of TV,” O’Brien says.
This is literally true for Rackleff, who’s balancing his comedy duties with an adjunct professorship at the Maryland Institute College of Art in the fall. Appropriately, he’ll be teaching video.
As for O’Brien, he’s also teaching video at MICA and working on personal projects. His latest venture is producing a concert film for longtime collaborator Dan Deacon, about Deacon’s most recent tour. In keeping with the group’s multi-platform ethos, O’Brien did standup as Deacon’s opening act.
Resnick, a visual artist, has had his work shown in some local galleries. For him, jumping from medium to medium is part of the fun. “I like site-specific projects that only make sense in the context of the medium,” he says via e-mail. (“My phone is all broke,” he explains.) “Sometimes a new platform will inspire an idea.”
The group also has another video for Adult Swim in the works, their fourth. “It’s one of our strangest ideas yet,” Resnick promises. (Then it must be very strange, since one of their videos is a nature film that abruptly segues into an over-the-top miniature horror film about a suburban mom and her evil doppelgänger.) “We’re very lucky they keep letting us make this kind of thing.”
For a couple of years, O’Brien and Resnick lived in the Copycat warehouse on Guilford Avenue. The Copycat is a storied Baltimore institution, a former factory and industrial space that began renting out art studios in the ’80s. Artists started moving into their studios full time and it eventually turned into an apartment building. Rackleff lived in the City Arts building, a similar setup nearby.
O’Brien liked the creative energy of the Copycat, but says it could be stressful to be surrounded by so many working artists. “When you live there, you have to convince yourself you’re not at work. You end up obsessively working, and getting anxious.”
“We’re lucky they keep letting us make this kind of thing.”
Just this past year, O’Brien and Resnick moved into “real” houses in Hampden and Station North, respectively. Rackleff still lives in the City Arts building.
O’Brien says the move has been good for him, psychologically. “Because then you can take work off, instead of always being at the office,” he explains.
Still, the last year or so has been a constant grind. With The Internet, the guys have traveled a few times to California. O’Brien jokes that it’s actually cheap to stay in Los Angeles because they just couch surf and stay with friends. But being from Baltimore has proven to be something of a secret weapon.
“People in Los Angeles love that we’re from Baltimore,” O’Brien says. “They tell us not to move out here. It’s something people remember.”
Which suits the Wham City Comedy guys just fine.
“I can’t see myself moving to L.A. unless I decide to make a drastic lifestyle change,” O’Brien says. “Unless I decide to stop struggling, to move there and get a normal job, an industry job.”
He uses the word “struggling” with fondness. “This is our home,” he explains. “Baltimore speaks our language. We know people who do lighting, who do videography and editing. We understand the kind of resources that Baltimore has to offer. We still like [being] the underdog.”
And Rackleff likes the fact that Baltimore is a place where you can cut through red tape and just do stuff.
“Baltimore is a city a lot of people come to because they want to work on some kind of project or they have an idea and the city is still raw enough [to make it work], even now. You can get something done and feel like you’re accomplishing something.”
Toward the end of our interview, O’Brien gets contemplative. “Who knows where the world will be in 10 years?” he muses. “[These days], people have three jobs and hobbies and everyone has a brand. It’s a different world than I thought it would be. I’m just having fun and working with friends. There’s so many different ways to be funny and reach people.”