Portland is a standup town. Although the city has more festivals devoted to improv and sketch comedy than dedicated standup, one look at audiences makes it abundantly clear this town has a specific idea of how it would like its jokes: one person, on a stage, wearing whatever they put on that morning.
And yet two of Portland’s most well-regarded comedians, Phil Schallberger and Anne Zander, work solidly in the realm of sketch comedy, with scripts, props, costumes and only enough improv to keep things spicy.
Presented by Kickstand Comedy, this weekend debuts their fused comedy sensibilities, scripted sketch one-hour show Zäanderberger! We sat down to talk about the show, the pandemic and the true essence of clowning.
WW: How did you two come to work together?
Schallberger: We’d seen each other perform, but I actually reached out over like Facebook. Messenger. It was during the pandemic. “When all this is over, do you want to make something?”
Zander: I was definitely a fan of Phil’s work. I moved here from London in 2017, and I had just started doing solo character comedy. And I was like, “Oh, nobody does that here.” So Phil was definitely one of the first people I saw—I can’t remember where I first saw you—I think it was probably at Kickstand. But you did like a Cockney accent.
Schallberger: The British guy.
Zander: Oh my God—first of all—it’s so funny. So I respected it. But it was also like, oh, like there’s a kinship here. Like I get what this person is doing.
Schallberger: We’re both kind of doing something a little bit weirder than other people, maybe. I’m not sure that’s the right word. It’s grounded, but maybe more absurd. We both like taking things to a different level of absurdity.
Is your show two separate shows back to back? Or are you performing together?
Zander: We have a few things that are together. The meat of it is us doing our own solo things, so it’s kind of a mishmash.
Schallberger: And there’s also some video elements in it as well. I think we’re actually maybe doing more together.
Phil, I frequently see you perform with standups. Is your work standup? Is it scripted? Is it improv?
Schallberger: Scripted, but I do perform with standups because that’s generally what’s happening and what I get invited to do.
Standup preparation seems like show up and make jokes. But with you, Phil, you work with a projector, a laptop, and someone to run your laptop.
Schallberger: Oh, I do it all. I don’t trust anyone.
One of your characters is a conspiracy theory-obsessed duck fanatic, and that whole sketch seems primed to go viral. But while your work is pretty visual, you’ve historically been opposed to recording it, right?
Schallberger: It doesn’t translate as well to video. I tried shooting a full hour in 2019, just me and a couple guys playing around with video and editing. I realized that if you aren’t doing standup, you have to have almost a thesis, an artistic visual design.
Maybe the same problems of standup on Zoom.
Zander: There’s a special kind of pain watching a standup on Zoom. Their face is always, “I don’t know. Are people laughing? I don’t know.”
Schallberger: And the audio on Zoom tries to combine all the channels and it all gets crushed immediately.
Will the show have an overarching story? The press release made it sound like it’s about the pandemic.
Zander: It’s not centered around it. But it’s kind of a part of the show.
Are there specific characters?
Zander and Schallberger: Different characters. [They look at each other.] Different characters.
Do they know they’re in a show? I only ask because you both have such a history of breaking the fourth wall.
Zander: It depends on the character, honestly.
Schallberger: I always try to write sketches that happen here and now. If you go up and you just start addressing the moment as if it’s the 17th century and we’re all about to go on a carriage ride—I don’t like it. It’s not my style.
Anne, you have this extensive background with clown work. Was clown college a deeply experimental space? Were you pushing the boundaries of radical clowning?
Zander: Well, I didn’t go to a specific clown school. I did a Masters of Physical Theater. So we did a lot of like, very tense Eastern European body work. But I did a whole term on clowning, and I just sort of fell in love with it—I hated it at first because it was so difficult. You have to completely let your guard down. But once you learn to turn off your brain, there’s so much interesting body work to do. It can be really clear and precise.
Do you have a succinct way of describing clowning that is not just face makeup and a red nose?
Zander: It’s vulnerability, precision and audience connection.
GO: Zäanderberger! shows at Shoebox Theater, 2110 SE 10th Ave., kickstandcomedy.org. 8 pm Friday and Saturday, Dec. 10-11 and 17-18. $15-$25.