Catch Improv Rock ‘n’ Roll Band Oil in the Alley at the Hawai‘i Sketch Comedy Festival
Oil in the Alley is an improv rock ‘n’ roll band that literally makes it up as they go along. Find them among other funny folks at the Hawai‘i Sketch Comedy Festival this weekend.
Photo: Dom Malcolm
Expect hits like “Free For Oil” or “Just Add Water,” when rock band Oil in the Alley takes the stage tonight as part of the Hawai‘i Sketch Comedy Festival. Or more likely expect riffs based on the audience at the Honolulu Museum of Art’s Doris Duke Theatre.
That’s because Oil in the Alley is the invention of R. Kevin Garcia Doyle and Sean T.C. O’Malley, two nationally recognized local improv artists who have been performing as part of O‘ahu’s theatre scene since the early 1990s, with stints with improv groups such as Loose Screws and On The Spot. Their latest creative collaboration has Doyle and O’Malley performing together as fictional aging rock stars looking to reclaim their former glory on stages in Hawai‘i, as well as occasional visits to theatre festivals or improv events in Los Angeles, Seattle, Portland and Washington, D.C.
Remember the eponymous band of This is Spinal Tap or The Rutles, a parody of The Beatles, created by Monty Python alum Eric Idle and Neil Innes? Oil in the Alley—which is named for a mispronunciation of bandmates Doyle and O’Malley—may be fake but the music is real. The duo call upon 16 different original melodies played by a slew of rotating backing musicians, which has included Brian X, Dan Cutter, Eric Folk, Jordan Savusa, Art Koshi, Tina Yap and even O’Malley’s parents, T.J. and Julie, while visiting on vacation. Doyle and O’Malley improvise new lyrics for every show and are always in character on stage, with larger-than-life personalities and equally oversized, Flock of Seagulls-style hairdos to match. They receive suggestions from the audience in the form of banter as they wax on about their once-brilliant careers and ask for phrases hinting at their greatest singles or past epic live concerts. In 2016, they released an (actual) album, Sacred Snail, which was nominated for a Nā Hōkū award for best comedy performance.
In advance of Oil in the Alley’s latest gig tonight as part of the Hawai‘i Sketch Comedy Festival this weekend at the Honolulu Museum of Art’s Doris Duke Theatre, we caught up with Doyle and O’Malley to talk about their “infamous” hair metal rock band, two decades of performing in the Islands and their thoughts on the evolving Hawai‘i improv scene.
HONOLULU Magazine: How did you get started with improv in Hawai‘i?
R. Kevin Garcia Doyle: I moved to Hawai‘i in 1989 and met a gentleman named Ernie Figueroa, who was teaching a series of workshops at UH Mānoa based partially on [L.A.-based sketch comedy troupe] The Groundlings. I got involved with that group and started teaching that workshop after Ernie left. Around this time, Lynn Ackerman was running the Lizard Loft in Kapahulu and she wanted to have an in-house improv group there. So she invited me to help gather a few people from UH, she brought in a few people that she knew and Loose Screws was sort of born from that.
Sean T.C. O’Malley: This is around the time I joined the narrative. When Loose Screws started back in ‘93, we didn’t like to use blue comedy or profanity because it was cheap, ugly and tended towards a certain kind of audience. Maybe it’s because so many of us came out of theatre, but we preferred to play to a theatre house.
Doyle: The group’s emphasis quickly became storytelling and narrative instead of just getting up and doing funny bits. But funny stuff is totally legit, too! My background and interests have just always been to use improv as a tool to create theatre and whether people laugh or respond in another way is a little irrelevant to me as long as it’s effectively creating theatre. And way before Loose Screws, there were also many groups doing improv and sketch comedy from way back; Kitty Heacox produced an improvised Japanese Kyogen show at Kumu Kahua for a number of years in the ‘70s, Penny Bergman had the “incredible instant theatre” and Ray Bumatai hosted the 808 All Stars in the early ‘80s. Then there were the 60 or so of us who passed through Loose Screws in the ‘90s.
HM: Has local interest in improv comedy remained steady over the years? It seems like in the greater pop culture lexicon, improv goes through phases where sometimes it’s more popular (such as when Whose Line Is It Anyway? was on TV) and sometimes it’s less popular, if improv falls off people’s radar. Is it the same true for Hawai‘i?
O’Malley: When Laughtrack Theater opened in 2009, that was a big boost. Both in visibility, as a stunning brick-and-mortar venue doing improv that had three-act-shows, two shows a night, but also through educational workshops. I think a similar thing is happening now with Improv Hawai‘i and Think Fast Improv, which is helping to build a critical mass by having classes on a consistent basis and training new people who want to perform. On The Spot will host specialty shows here and there, while Improvaganza and the Hawai‘i Sketch Fest happen annually.
Doyle: The times we get a lot of attention seem to be when we go to the Mainland. For example, Garrick Paikai, who started On The Spot and founded Improvaganza, will travel to Chicago, Paris, or London to perform for a sold-out house and Garrick is treated like an improv visionary, which he absolutely is. But maybe the average turnout for a regular improv show in Hawai‘i is 20 to 30 people. There are different improv companies in Hawai‘i but they don’t really conflict with one another. Nobody is really playing to houses of more than 60 people or so and if the various groups can’t attract 60 different people on a Saturday night in a city of a million people, we have bigger problems than each other! We have to compete with Netflix and people staying at home to do laundry or make dinner. Unless an improv show has a specific identity and finite run, like when Loose Screws put on an improvised Kabuki show that ran for only three performances, it’s easy for people to put off seeing the show “until next time,” especially if it’s happening once a month.
Photo: Courtesy of Oil in the Alley
HM: Do you see new people attending shows? Or is it mostly just people who are already in the local improv scene?
Doyle: Many are regulars but there are visitors. And at almost every improv show you see in Hawai‘i, you usually have someone asking the audience, who has seen an improv show before? You don’t always have this on the Mainland. We recognize that this might be your first encounter with improv and we want you to understand what you’re watching. I remember a show we once did at the Lizard Loft in 1994 and there were these two ladies in the audience. One turned to the other and said something like, “Mildred, let’s leave. I think they’re just making this up.” It was funny at the time but it was also a revelation that we need to offer context. Ultimately, the goal is to put on a great show. It’s somewhat less important that people understand that Oil in the Alley is improvised. What’s important is that the performance had an impact on someone, whatever that might be.
O’Malley: We played as a full electric band for about five years and, when we were monthly at the Dragon Upstairs in Chinatown, there would be an announcement at the beginning of the set to explain what the show was about. But people would still be coming in throughout the night without necessarily knowing what was going on. We would hear people saying how incredible it was that this rock band has a song with the same specific name as a person in the audience, what are the odds of that?
HM: What’s an Oil in the Alley performance like, compared to other improv shows?
O’Malley: Well, once things get started, we don’t let on that this is a show. We speak to the audience as rock stars in the band and perform assuming the crowd is there to have the time of their lives, getting to see their favorite band at the greatest concert ever. Style-wise, I think the band is closest to something like Bon Jovi. There’s a structure to our songs where we alternate on creating verses and the chorus. As soon as we get the concept from the audience, we basically only have around 15 seconds to throw around rhyming words in our head to create lyrics. We’ve performed over 500 songs live at various gigs and had two residencies, where we played once a month at Downbeat Lounge and the Dragon Upstairs. I think I’ve only flubbed once, where I couldn’t come up with a word to sing.
HM: Last year, we interviewed local comedians about social media and whether new digital platforms helped to attract bigger audiences or proved to be detrimental. What’s it like for improv?
O’Malley: Improv seems to work best when you’re about five feet away from someone having an epiphany on stage. Where suddenly, through the turn of a phrase or a raised eyebrow, everyone in the room connects and knows what’s going on. That’s the magic. We’ve tried shooting video and recording short segments that get posted online but whenever we use a device, the audience becomes distanced from the creative center of the performance. I think digital media complicates the challenge of getting the point across, of just two improvisers creating something out of nothing.
Doyle: Improv doesn’t usually translate all that well to video. Whose Line Is It Anyway? does because that was designed to be a recorded TV show. I think part of the joy of improv is that you’re present at the moment of creation. One additional challenge with social media, which is the same challenge that everybody sort of faces, is that social media can make it harder to reach new people but easier to reach the same people.
HM: Looking ahead to the future of improv in Hawai‘i, what would you like to see?
Doyle: As the world becomes more connected, it’s becoming more and more important to maintain a sense of place. This is what I want to see in all the arts. Any of us can turn on Netflix and watch something set someplace else. But Hawai‘i has its own identity and culture and the more we try to be like everywhere else, the more we lose that sense of who we are. In 2019, it still sometimes feels like there’s a perception that a local show is considered “niche” because it’s about Hawai‘i. That’s not niche; we’re in Hawai‘i! A niche play would be doing something that was an off-Broadway hit in 1987. But it’s often treated like the Broadway thing is the main thing and Hawai‘i is the side thing. When you’re doing an improv scene and something is suddenly set in Hawai‘i, there’s a completely different connection with the audience. There’s a difference between people that are creating art using their authentic voice and expressing something genuine about themselves and their culture, compared to something that might be the equivalent of—just to give an example of a trope—a stand-up comic asking, what’s the deal with airplane food?
The Hawai‘i Sketch Comedy Festival continues this weekend at the Doris Duke Theatre at the Honolulu Museum of Art. Tonight, catch “Two Scoops Funny,” featuring local improv performers, including Oil in the Alley, The Taro Patch Kids, live sketches by Trevor D. and Waikīkī PD, as well as video presentations by Jeff Orig, Anthony Silano and (!!!) Rap Reiplinger. Tomorrow, Filipino AF presents “A Filipino Comedy Variety Show!” with Allyn Pintal, Joy Regullano and Erich Tamola of LA’s Filipino AF Company; local performers Kimee Balmilero and Jose Ver; and special guests Ian Anthony Dale of Hawai‘i Five-O and Comedy Central’s JR De Guzman. Doris Duke Theatre at the Honolulu Museum of Art, 900 S. Beretania St., (808) 532-6097, hisketchfest.com.