There's a world of difference between good bad taste and bad bad taste, and most of it boils down to self-awareness. Think back to that hysterically funny roommate you had in college -- the one who prided himself on knowing the exact wrong thing to say in any social setting. Good times, right? Now ponder your hopeless Uncle Pete (that boorish bum on your mom's side of the family), who never fails to ruin Thanksgiving by passing sadly inappropriate comments at the dinner table, simply because he doesn't know any better. How you hate him.
Todd Feren, thankfully, is a lot more like your old roommate than your Uncle Pete. A writer/performer whose penchant for sick wit recalls the glory days of National Lampoon, Feren is building a new sketch-comedy franchise with the warning-shot moniker of "Doodie Humor." And he, too, knows exactly what he's doing.
Consider the scene in which an innocent session of VHS viewing accidentally exposes a family's bizarre history. ("Honey, put your dick in his mouth while I hold the camera!") Or the one about the physician who discovers that his patient has been knowingly (and habitually) ingesting anthrax. Or the war of words fought by the two male participants in a three-way sexual encounter, one of whom keeps calling time out to accuse the other of inappropriate behavior. That sketch climaxes (so to speak) with the display of a highly incriminating DNA stain -- a huge emission mark that Monica Lewinsky herself couldn't duplicate. Not even on a holiday weekend. It's a sight that moves audiences to simultaneous guffaws and groans of disbelief.
Either reaction is fine by Feren, who's prepared to offend people of all religions, ethnicities and disabilities.
"If you laugh at one thing in our show that makes fun of someone," he says, "you really have no right to get upset when the table is turned, and we're poking fun at something that you care about."
Not that an indignant reaction would bother him too terribly, either. For the troupe's inaugural live performances last May (presented as part of the Orlando International Fringe Festival), Feren strongly considered rehearsing a ritualized salute the cast could deliver every time an audience member walked out in disgust. The idea wasn't used, but Fringe-goers who stayed to the bitter end (all but seven or eight of them, as it turned out) learned that there's more to this "Doodie Humor" business than met the eye. As one Fringe veteran put it, "I expected them to just be throwin' colostomy bags around, but it was really, really funny."
Unlike a lot of "politically incorrect" comedy -- the kind, say, that traditionally clogs up the movie multiplexes whenever school lets out -- this material is smartly written and performed. Feren composes the basic scripts, which are punched up in rehearsal by the talented cast he's assembled via his work at attractions like Sleuths Mystery Dinner Shows and Universal Studios Florida. There's A. Ali Flores, the self-announced token Hispanic; Mike Aiello, the doughy butt of everyone's jokes; Jay T. Becker, a clean-cut nice boy who professes profound misgivings about even being there; and Michelle Simms, a spunky comedienne whose confident character work transcends the usual requirements of her job, i.e., Somebody Needs To Play The Girlfriend.
The onstage lineup is rounded out by Feren and Brad Tremaroli, an occasional performer who spends most of his time running the show from the technical booth. He has his hands full with "Doodie," which makes copious use of TV-commercial parodies and other videotaped segments. In another break from custom, these prerecorded vignettes are integrated seamlessly with the live bits, making the show an unbroken, Pythonesque stream of comic consciousness.
The Pythons are a major source of inspiration for 27-year-old Feren, who claims to be picky about his comedy: "I hate watching stand-up comics, because they don't make me laugh." One exception is Richard Pryor, whose records he considers himself lucky to have discovered at an early age. Also significant to this Jacksonville native's development was his enrollment at a private Episcopalian school, an experience that helped to foster his irreverent sensibility.
"A lot of it comes from me getting yelled at by teachers for asking how Noah got two of every animal on a boat," he says.
He's been writing his own material since the second grade, when he won a talent show with a sketch about a crazy dentist. (Ironically, the bit will be resurrected in a future edition of "Doodie Humor," albeit with the addition of grown-up details like "anal bleeding.") In high school, he and pal Tremaroli joined the TV-production program, which allowed them to film daily commercials for the school yearbook. Many of these spots, he admits, were never shown, due to their excessive level of Three Stooges-style violence.
Yet when Feren graduated, he didn't immediately try to hook up with a comedy concern. Instead, he took a singing job at Busch Gardens, a gig he followed with extensive touring on the Florida dinner-theater circuit. Given his "Doodie" output, it's easy to assume that these engagements were sheer torture for Feren, but he claims that no-holds-barred humor is only a part of his creative personality. Since settling in Orlando, he's written and produced a handful of original plays, several of which were wholly or partially serious in tone. Two years ago, he staged "Sweet Sorrow," an HIV-themed love story, at the Theatre Garage. Becker was in the cast, and the production was announced as a fund-raiser for an AIDS charity. The turnout, Feren recalls, was horrible.
"I've written what I thought was a sweet show for a good cause," he remembers thinking. "But I bet you if I put some dick jokes and potty humor in there, more people would show up."
That epiphany led to the launch of "Doodie Humor." It started as an entertainment website (www.doodiehumor.com), a place for web surfers to download videotaped sketches and read jocular mini-essays. Sometimes the volume of work has been as high as two new sketches a week, sometimes only one a month. One segment, "How to Convince Your Girlfriend to Have Anal Sex With You," was sent to the LimeWire file-sharing system -- at first to zero response. But as soon as the file was retitled "Hot Teen XXX Rape Porno," Feren notes, it scored 50 downloads in the first hour.
Fan mail started rolling in at a rate of 10 to 15 letters per day, much of it from England, France, Spain and other far-off locales. The content?
"'You guys are funny.' 'You're crazy.' 'I had to tell my friends about you.' But in foreign languages."
Taking the act to a stage was always Feren's goal, and the Fringe afforded the ideal opportunity for audiences to discover the true depth and breadth of the doodie. Perhaps the most surprising lesson they learned was that the group's forays are seldom simply gratuitous. More often, they employ extreme scenarios to make valid points about modern peccadilloes. It's easy to draw back aghast, for instance, when the cast visits a theme park modeled on Nazi war atrocities -- until you realize that Feren is actually decrying the commercialization of tragedy, not exploiting it. Strange as it may seem, he's a moralist at heart.
"One of the ideas for that came from Michelle and me driving down the road," he recalls. "And at a church, they were having an autumn fair. They had an inflatable Titanic slide -- of the ship actually sinking. And kids [were sliding] down the deck. We said, 'In 60, 70 years, do you think they're going to have two towers that inflate, and kids [will] slide down that?'"
At the moment, Feren is looking for a performance site for "Doodie Humor v. 1.5," a follow-up revue that will augment sketches from the Fringe run with new material. Two fresh concepts: a children's show hosted by a virulently fundamentalist talking Bible, and an "American Idol" knockoff with an all-deaf lineup of contestants. Then there'll be "Doodie Humor Number Two" (what else?), which should see the return of Megan Moroney, an original cast member who had to drop out of the project to perform in the Broadway production of "Mamma Mia!" And in between, there'll be a DVD for fans to purchase, with live clips and special features like a commentary track supplied by Feren's grandmother (!).
The overall goal is to establish an ongoing sketch-comedy presence, perhaps the first great one this town has seen since Discount Comedy Outlet pulled up stakes and headed west. And all it's going to take is a handful of venue managers courageous enough to book an act that open-minded audiences have proved themselves willing to support. This doodie's not for everybody, but to the rest of us -- well, what a dump.