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You had to be there: Lessons from drunken cartoons

YouHadToBeThere

The audience packs into their seats, sips complimentary bottom-shelf champagne and settles in for a night of drunken cartoons.

This is Drunktoons.

Described as "a live cartoon sketch comedy show" Drunktoons is, in my opinion, one of the most innovative comedy shows happening in New Orleans. A small cast of character actors stand at a row of microphones and perform the voices of original animated sketches playing on screen before an ever-more-inebriated audience. If NPR’s Prairie Home Companion had a funny, sloppier younger sister who swears she’s gonna get her sh*t together, it would be Drunktoons. New Orleans audiences have a chance to see the magic this weekend as Drunktoons stages its hour-long holiday show, “Jesus Bells,” at 10:30pm on Friday, December 12 at The New Movement.

#TheEarlyDraft recently sat down with Drunktoons founder and director Lynae LeBlanc to discuss how Drunktoons was developed and what lessons that story might hold for anyone looking to produce a unique show experience.

Lynae LeBlanc (Photo: Brian Tarney)

Lynae LeBlanc (Photo: Brian Tarney)

Solving a problem

The inspiration for Drunktoons came years ago right after an exhausting Halloween sketch comedy show. Like most Halloween sketch shows, this one had a cast of fifteen performers and an endless prop list -- wigs, cauldrons, rubber bats -- you get the picture.

Shortly after the show, LeBlanc found herself buying a new Mac computer and eyeing a basic animation program.

“I immediately thought ‘holy crap! What if everything in the Halloween show had been cartoons?" LeBlanc says. "Animation was a solution to so many of the logistical questions I had been struggling with in staging my weird sketches: 'How can I make a cereal box talk? How do I construct a full-body Sea Cucumber costume in two days? How am I ever going to find a cat, teach it english, and then teach it how to rap?' With animation, literally anything was possible.”

Getting better inch-by-inch

“Our first full show was really just poorly-done clip art bobbing up and down on the screen,” LeBlanc recounts. “It was so bad that people actually liked it. The limits of my animating skills became the the joke.”

In the show’s second year, LeBlanc faced a new problem. The animation had improved enough that audience expectations outpaced the show’s ability to deliver. “We had written these killer sketches - ones that might have actually been more successful if we had staged them with real people. Yet the performances we being held back by my inability to animate things like expression, gesture and subtlety.”

This year, LeBlanc has dug deep in to the genre and found new ways to bring the animations to life. Watching from the audience at a Drunktoons show this November, I noticed a new precision to the show’s comedic timing. The animations now make use of silence, eye movement and suggestion, all of which serve as fuel that the show’s talented cast -- Carlos Valezquez, Tiffany Wolf, Jay Tombstone, Chris Carrington, and LeBlanc, herself -- use to set the stage ablaze.

“I’m also teaching myself how to create camera movements with the animation,” says LeBlanc. “ This 'let’s me be my own cinematographer and create the type of shots that would otherwise require a film crew and thousands of dollars to make'.”

 

Remembering what matters

The first staging of Drunktoons was in a living room.

“We were having an Easter Party at my house," LeBlanc says. "Everyone was hammered, and we started voicing an animation I created. We thought: 'What if we could build this out into a full show? And what if we could always make the audience feel like they were sitting in our living room?'”

Sprinkled among the animations are live sketches, reminding the audience that the show’s cast of voice actors are just as compelling on stage. These elements combine to form a comedic alchemy that I still struggle to describe.

“The time you’ve laughed hardest in your life was probably not watching someone on a stage,” says LeBlanc of the show's indescribable, underlying chemistry and appeal. “It was probably in someone’s kitchen, rolling around on the tile floor with your friends, losing your mind about something dumb. Afterward, you can only describe these moments to others as ‘you had to be there’.”

As a comedy writer, I often lament how safe sketch comedy feels. With their props and memorized lines, sketch shows lose the thrilling spontaneity that audiences feel while watching the high wire act of improv comedy. The dangerous feeling that anything can happen. Drunktoons has somehow recaptured that thrill. The show turns every moment -- including the flubbed lines and janky stretches, within which voice actors struggle to sync up with the animation -- into an inside joke between the performers and the audience.

“Of course I want the comedy to be excellent,” says LeBlanc, “but more than anything, I want the audience to feel like they are at some sort of weird Easter party. Having the time of their life with their best friends.”

View one of LeBlanc's sample animations below:

Drunktoons stages its hour-long Holiday show “Jesus Bells” 10:30pm on Friday, December 12 at The New Movement.

*Correction: An earlier version of this article erroneously cited the video as an episode of Drunktoons. The video is one of LeBlanc's sample animations.

CJ Hunt is a comedy writer and performer living in New Orleans. His NolaVie blog and personal brand, The Early Draft, is dedicated to comedians-in-the-making. It’s a look into the career decisions and creative processes of funny people chasing the dream. You will hear from comedians with big names. And those with names you haven’t heard of…yet. Check back each week for a look into that weird cluttered back-room workshop where comedians are made. Watch CJ work at GOcjhunt.com. Follow him on Twitter @gocjhunt.