Were it not for a roving pack of wild Mexican dogs terrorizing the cats, chickens and goats outside Waynesville, one of Asheville’s premier sketch comedy troupes would have been called either Kumquat or Footskin Follies.
Instead, Tommy Calloway overheard a friend’s account of these strange savage attacks and promptly dubbed his group The Feral Chihuahuas. A decade later, the name holds strong. On two Saturdays, Nov. 15 and 22, Calloway and current members Wyman Tannehill, George “the” Bastard, Drew McDermott, Adam Meier and Dickie Davis celebrate their anniversary with a new live show at Asheville Community Theatre.
Ten years ago, frustrated with yelling over rowdy crowds at Fred’s Speakeasy, the Chihuahuas opened their own performance space known as “The Shed.” It was a converted two-car garage at the Woodfin rental where three of the members lived. The spot’s secret location was disclosed only after attendees called or emailed the group. The performances became so popular that neighbors complained and the cops showed up. That prompted a move to 35below, ACT’s black-box stage, where the Chihuahuas took their shows to another level.
Upstairs, on the theater’s main stage, the anniversary performances will include a retrospective preshow PowerPoint presentation, an opening song in homage to the Chihuahuas’ history and a medley of the group’s favorite songs culled from the 40-50 they’ve written over the years. As with their sketches and graphics, all of the music and lyrics are the group’s own creation. It’s this commitment to inventiveness, plus being mindful of when to make the rare pop-culture reference, that has been instrumental in sustaining the Chihuahuas’ popularity.
“We try to remain completely original as much as possible,” Calloway says. “Sometimes the Elton John song is the right choice, but there’s no direct parody. We feel like it’s cheap. We ask ourselves, ‘What can we do that’s still going to be funny five years from now?’”
Tannehill concurs: “It pushes us to better places. There are easy outs that you see in sketch comedy shows, but when you have that rule where you can’t do that, it really pushes you creatively.”
Among Calloway’s and Tannehill’s favorite works are “Past Present Time Cop from the Future: The Musical,” the stereotypical ’90s boy band The Douche Boys and detective Laser McSteel. The latter is often featured on the Chihuahuas’ LaZoom bus shows, most recently disguised as “American Idol” winner Caleb Johnson in order to catch a criminal.
Not all sketches go over well, however, a factor Calloway attributes to humor’s regional nature. “A Brief History of Social Networking” was a hit in Asheville, but the crowd at the Shadowbox Sketch Comedy festival in Columbus, Ohio, simply didn’t get it. The jokes of “Religious Lemons,” in which a used-religions salesman peddles his goods, were lost on a conservative Midwestern crowd unfamiliar with such faiths as Unitarianism — yet were like catnip for the Chihuahuas’ hometown audience. “It’s just the game of comedy — trying to figure out what will connect with people,” Tannehill says.
Part of that game also means knowing when to let go of beloved material. At the anniversary shows, the Chihuahuas will retire one of their most popular sketches, “Gangsta Rap for the Hearing-Impaired.” Introduced during their first show at Fred’s Speakeasy, the sketch has been performed so many times that the group is bored with it. “It’s like a band doing their most popular song all the time,” Tannehill says. “We’ve written 400 to 500 sketches since then.”
The Chihuahuas have remained comedically nimble through their annual Sketchfest (where they play host to visiting comedy groups), the occasional LaZoom show and by incorporating videos into their performances. In his seven years with the group, Tannehill has directed, shot and edited 74 short films, such as an ’80s-style advertisement for “Suazenge,” a throat lozenge that’s a little sausage. “The audience sometimes needs a break from a live performance,” Tannehill says. “Where you place a video helps their overall experience.”
Also motivating the Chihuahuas as they hit the 10-year mark is the assurance that their method is in line with the holy grail of sketch comedy. Over the summer, Tannehill served as Lorne Michaels’ assistant driver when the “Saturday Night Live” producer was in town for the Zach Galifianakis film, Untitled Armored Car Project. In addition to overhearing Michaels conduct business (including discussions for the current season of “SNL”), Tannehill had the opportunity to ask how Michaels deals with the show’s cast and production and was stunned by the producer’s response.
“There are so many similarities over the years with The Feral Chihuahuas. We are doing all the same stuff as them, dealing with the same issues and problems. It’s very interesting,” Tannehill says. “We were invigorated by it. Just to hear that the whole process is the same — we’ve been doing it right the whole time, without a budget.”
WHAT: The Feral Chihuahuas’ 10 year anniversary show
WHERE: Asheville Community Theatre, ashevilletheatre.org
WHEN: Saturday, Nov. 15 and Saturday, Nov. 22, at 8 p.m. $18.