Writing Craft Q&A, Vol. VI: Sean Devereux of The Pushers (Part Two)

Sean Devereux of the comedy and improv group The Pushers during a rehearsal at his condo in Norfolk, Va. Photo by John Doucette.

NORFOLK, Va. – This is the second part of my talk with Sean Devereux of comedy and improv group The Pushers.

Devereux serves as the group’s co-producer, manager and co-head writer. Additionally, he and fellow founding Pusher Brad McMurran teach classes on improvisation and comedy writing at The Muse Writers Center in Norfolk, and also are involved in Improvageddon, a long form improv competition between local teams. Additionally, he recently was featured here in a Belligerent Q&A.

This discussion includes some adult language and frank discussion of jokes you may find offensive. It is toward an end. Additionally, one of the video clips contains adult language and probably is not safe for work. This Q&A had been edited for clarity and length.

It helps to have read the first part for context. You can find it here at this link.

Q: How did you get into the group?

My wife and I broke up and once that happened there was about a six month period of time where I was moping on the couch, and then I picked up Portfolio and saw auditions for a play over at The Little Theatre of Norfolk, and I said, ‘You know, I might as well.’ I did theater in high school. I was always more on the tech side but I did some acting in high school, but at least going out and auditioning beats sitting on the couch. So I went out and auditioned and got the role. … I think I had two lines …

I was really immersed. Afterwards the cast would go out drinking and meet whatever cast was rehearsing at the Generic. I just really fell into that community theater world. … I was actually kind of surprised I did fall into it. The cast I was in was kind of an all-star cast as community theater goes for the early 2000s in Hampton Roads.

Q: That, by the way, is the most specific Wikipedia page.

(Laughs.) It is. Not even Hampton Roads — early 2000s Norfolk community theater.

Q: It’s just a list with no links.

Exactly. Through that I just met a whole bunch of people. … I was having a good time with that. I started dating a girl who was involved in theater. I started a run of like four shows in a row, which is probably like a year and a half, and had just gotten burnout. The second to last play I was in was where I met Ed and Lauren Rogers, who is now in (another Hampton Roads area improv and sketch comedy  group) Plan B. We struck up a friendship. Through them I met Brad and Jeremiah (Albers) and a couple other people who would actually go on to form The Pushers.

Q: Rob Wilson (now of Plan B)?

He came in pretty close to the beginning. In fact, I wrote ‘Justice Crusaders’ with Rob in mind. For his audition, we knew he was going to be in but made him audition anyway. I’m pretty sure he read the Captain Pirate role at the audition. I’d also written another role with him in mind. …

At some length, we then discussed a sketch from an early show. Devereux wrote a sketch featuring two new characters. The following week he wrote a new sketch featuring the same characters, thinking both the original sketch and the new sketch would make it into the show. When the original sketch was cut, however, there was no context for the recurring characters. The Pushers went ahead with the new sketch, which bombed.

Q: There was no context?

It was eight or nine minutes of crickets.

Q: What did you learn from that?

Number one, we weren’t as big as we thought we were. We didn’t have a loyal crowd who would come to every single show. We learned that when you’re writing a sketch that has a recurring character, which I think is something definitely SNL has learned, you have to write the sketch almost as (if) it’s the first time people are being introduced to these characters. Which is why it’s so easy to take the game of the scene and apply it to a different setting.

Here’s ‘Justice Crusaders,’ a sketch we will discuss in some depth. This is a repeat of the link from the first post, for context. Again, NSFW:

Q: I think the writing is good. How do you build that scene?

I started that with Captain Pirate. Brad and I, we always have a couple of notebooks to jot down ideas. (He pulls one out of a bag.)

Q: Your brand is Mead.

Actually, one brand I have Mead. (Pulls another one out, reads the cover.) Downtown Norfolk Council – I’m not sure how … that was actually a work meeting. Moleskines, I actually have a couple in there. Something I can just kind of stick in my back pocket. It started with Captain Pirate. I just thought that was kind of an absurd name for a superhero. …

From there it just kind of grew. I think we came up – We don’t do it as much today, but back then we would meet and just toss out ideas. I think somebody else actually came up with Low Self Esteem Girl. Another actor was going to play Aquaman. I did notice there are some cheap jokes, like making Aquaman gay. That only happened because Jeremiah was in it. Well, Jeremiah’s playing him so obviously you’re going to have to make gay jokes. You know, never has a gay man played a character where there weren’t gay jokes.

Q: Well, stop there a minute. There are couple things there. There’s kind of a throwaway moment where Jeremiah leaves where he says something to Low Self Esteem Girl, he says “bitch” and walks out the door. How do you feel about those jokes a few years later?

Some  of them are, I would have to go back to cheap. There’s another one in there with Low Self Esteem Girl, and the reason I say we need Captain Pirate is because he’s a minority and we need a minority in the group. And Low Self Esteem Girl, Sandra (Hernandez), who is Hispanic, says well I’m a minority, and I go, ‘What do you want? A medal and a taco?’ And nowadays I don’t think I would write (that). You get a cheap joke. It doesn’t really do anything to progress the story of the sketch.

Q: Did you talk about it at the time, or was the idea just to push push push?

At the time it was just push push push. Rarely did we ever – The only sketch we ever thought maybe this is too far was a sketch I wrote called the Terri Schiavo diet where it was kind of an infomercial. There’s a new diet plan and the way it works is, you know, get into an accident so you’re in a coma and then have your husband remove the feeding tube and watch the pounds just melt away. Yeah. That was the only time we were, ‘Maybe that’s a little too far.’ But we put it up.

Q: Wait so you –

Oh yeah. We did.

Q: See, for me, that would just be too much for me. (Schiavo’s brain damage and the resulting vegetative state may have resulted from an eating disorder; she lost 65 pounds in her late teens, then struggled to keep weight off, subsisting on liquids, apparently.)

Exactly. We debated that almost until the night of the show. That sketch came from my uncle’s kind of dark sense of humor.

Q: I guess I wonder when you’re writing a sketch are you thinking this is satire? What are you satirizing?

Back then I wasn’t. I was just kind of writing whatever popped into my head. Nowadays it’s definitely more of satirizing I wouldn’t even say social conventions. Now it’s finding everyday situations that kind of bug people and just kind of take it to the absurd. Like I’m a big offender of always being on my phone. It drives Brad up the wall. So right now I’m working on a sketch where it’s two couples out on a date and three out of the four people are carrying on conversations with each other that are strictly on the phone. …

Q: Sometimes when I’m writing and trying to write toward something, if I’m commenting on a social thing or something about a (racial or ethnic) identity, it just kind of reinforces the notions some people have about those groups.

I think it is a fine line. I think back in the day, I don’t think we cared. I don’t think we ever really thought about it. We did a lot of racial humor, which we would always run it by Rob or Saeed (Wilkins), who was the other black guy. That would be our litmus test. You know, if we turned in a sketch and they didn’t punch us in the face then you know we were good to go.

Q: But that’s not much of a bar.

It’s not. Again, I think we – We had no bar. It definitely got us a reputation that we’re trying to shake now — of doing things for almost like shock value. The ‘God is dead line,’ that character, I like the idea of a priest losing his cool in the middle of a sermon. We haven’t done that sketch in two, two and half years. If we were to do it again I don’t think we would go to the ‘God is dead’ line. There’s no point to it. There might be one atheist out there who thinks it’s funny, but the rest …

Q: I mean, what do you want to do? Do you want to make people laugh or – What do you want to do with your writing?

I would say, first and foremost, laugh. I would like to say that we’ve done some satire as of late. Our Ghent hipster characters. I did one video for AltDaily where I play a politician. I do like that. Every time I write something like that I have a fear of, you know, becoming pretentious.

Q: I’m not saying it has to have a message. … One of the things I think writing of all kinds doesn’t do well is address differences, and I’m very conscious about writing in a way that reinforces differences that have been inflicted on people, not developed within that community. So I guess what I wonder is when you’re writing, not just in that context, is there something you want to accomplish with what you’re writing? Do you want to just make people laugh or do you want to keep turning back expectation? One of the things about the ‘Justice Crusaders’ is I think it does take the expectation the audience has and turns it back and it builds. There’s another sketch I was going to ask you about where you play the dad and Brad’s your son and he’s got to be gay (because his dad wants him to be). I think that sketch is about expectations turned around and it kind of builds.

It is. That sketch started out as an improv scene I did with a girl when I was taking classes in New York at Upright Citizens Brigade, and I do like looking at political correctness. I think that is a scene of like taking I wouldn’t even say political correctness, but taking it too far. Now the hip thing is to have somebody gay in your family.  You know, Queer Eye For The Straight Guy and all that. … When Queer Eye For The Straight Guy came out there was like, you know, people I knew who would watch it who would be fag this, fag that, but thought it was a great show. It was that way, and by saying they watched that it was like ‘Oh, no. I’m cool with gay people because I watch Queer Eye For The Straight Guy.’ Again, it’s taking political correctness to the – I wrote another one for Rob where a woman takes home her boyfriend to meet him for the first time and they’re shocked not because he’s black, but not black enough. They start quizzing him on Malcolm X and you know the black power movement and black authors. …

Rob a lot of times would get upset that he would always have to play the black roles. Like he couldn’t just ever play a doctor or a lawyer. It was the black lawyer or the black doctor. I was guilty of it in ‘Justice Crusaders.’ He couldn’t be just a pirate; he had to be a black pirate. And this was a sketch where he’s just supposed to be a boyfriend bracing for the fact that because he’s black a white family might be upset that their daughter is not going to be dating a white man. But they’re like no, if he’s black we want super black. …

It’s weird for a white person, you know, giving my perception of something black people have to deal with, but it almost seems that if you’re black you have to know the history of rap and hiphop because that’s your culture.

Q: In the mind of white people.

Exactly. In the mind of white people. It was kind of an exaggeration of what white people expect black people to be.

Q: Let me ask about Upright Citizens Brigade.

I think the most training I got that has helped my writing has been at Upright Citizens Brigade. They’re whole main focus — and this is applied to improv though it could be applied to all comedy — is finding the game of the scene. Stripping away everything, all the characters and things like that, what is this scene really about. That’s not that you can’t have a really funny scene that’s nothing but a bunch of crazy characters, but it seems the ones that are most successful are the ones you can break down into a simple sentence – what is this really about?

I think that’s something that has helped me the most with my writing, you know, stripping away all of the fluff. Which is hard. Nowadays when we write a scene there will be a lot of great lines and jokes and whatnot but sometimes they end up getting cut because they really have nothing to do with the game of the scene.

What does this character want? … Do they get it? Even if they don’t get it, what are they doing to get it. This other character, is he there to help him out? Is he there to be the voice of opposition? …

My process is so I’m wearing so many hats now, I have very little free time to do actual writing. I have my notebooks. I would say normally 99 percent of my sketch is written in my head. … I write almost like the nuts and bolts. I do find that because I’ve been thinking about it so long a lot of the funny bits of dialogue come out while I’m writing. I try to get out at least the nuts and bolts of the scene and go back and write in jokes later. …

Usually my premises are more relationship based ideas and usually autobiographical. One of the last scenes I wrote was right around Valentine’s Day, the day before my girlfriend apropos of nothing said, ‘You know what I really want? I want you to write me a love letter.’ I had written her a love letter, but now I’m screwed. Now when I give you the love letter on Valentine’s Day, yeah you’re going to be happy that yu got it but you’re going to think the only reason I gave you this love letter is because you told me you wanted a love letter. So I wrote a scene were a guy takes his girlfriend to a really fancy dinner and right as he’s getting ready to get down on one knee to propose she says, ‘You know the only way this could get any better is if you proposed to me.’ And then it just becomes absurd. … That actually got a pretty good response.

Q: So how did Valentine’s Day go?

It actually went well. She’s very understanding. Luckily I had other stuff to go with the love letter. …

Q: What are you plans long term?

We would love to open our own performance space, possibly a 60-seat theater. During the day we could have classes, then at night sell PBRs for $2 a bottle and put up shows. We’d like to own a theater and teach classes. And this is the pretentious part – maybe legacy. We haven’t given up the whole some day we could have our own show, but it’s not something we’re actively pursuing. We’re pretty good being a big fish in a small pond. But teaching comedy and improv, it’s kind of like making my name go on. Even if the theater is something that doesn’t make it, it’s something people will remember. …

We’re teaching. … I got pretty lucky. Hopefully we’re going to be helping people who have a similar type of dream and point them in the right direction. And it’s just fun.

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