I spoke with the boys of NYC-based sketch comedy group Elephant Larry (Alexander Zalben, Geoff Haggerty, Stefan Lawrence, Chris Principe, and Jeff Solomon) before the premiere of their brand new sketch comedy show, “Elephant Larry Presents Con Air.” The themed show is a set of all-new sketches inspired by and set in the world of the 1997 blockbuster film Con Air, which asked the question: “What would happen if you took the world’s worst convicts and put them on one airplane? Wouldn’t that be awesome?”

What would be even more awesome is adding some sketch comedy to the action. Sure, the movie had Nicholas Cage, John Malkovich, Steve Buscemi, John Cusack, and more of the biggest stars of the ’90s. But “Elephant Larry Presents Con Air” has… Elephant Larry. The sketch group has been performing together since 2002, and was selected as one of Back Stage’s “Top 10 Comedy Best Bets” in 2004. There are no elephants involved, nor is anyone in the group named Larry.

Read the full Q&A for more about Elephant Larry, Con Air, and learning to be funny. “Elephant Larry Presents Con Air” debuts April 11 at 8 p.m. at The PIT in NYC.

How has being a part of Elephant Larry and the sketch community led to more creative opportunities?

Stefan Lawrence: Sketch comedy isn’t exactly a cash cow. This is definitely a way for us to do exactly what we wanna do. So I don’t think we’ve ever even considered doing it any other way, because it’s a way for us to have total control over the kind of stuff that we like.

Alex Zalben: I work freelance as a blog writer when I’m not doing Elephant Larry stuff. Most of the jobs that I’ve gotten, at least in part, have been because of Elephant Larry – because people have heard of Elephant Larry, or I’ll mention it and they’ll say, “Oh, you’re in sketch comedy” and we’ll talk about that for a little bit. It’s been every facet of my life, and it’s creeped in like tentacles. That’s good right? Tentacles are a good thing?

Geoff Haggerty: Tentacles are always good, Alex. It’s been the same thing for me. Through the sketch community, I got a chance to write for The Onion on a freelance basis… because I knew sketch comedians who worked there. That definitely would not have happened without Elephant Larry.

Was sketch comedy always your focus, or was it just a fun thing to do on the side when Elephant Larry formed?

Geoff: I think it was always the focus. I mean, we started in college. We really enjoy working with each other. Sketch was the thing we wanted to do, and I think that definitely continues now. Obviously, we wouldn’t say no to other opportunities, but if we had our druthers – and let me tell you, we do have our druthers – we’re gonna just try to keep doing sketch.

Stefan: There’s always been a real intensity about our focus that I think comes from all of us coming from the same place and all going to the same school, and so when we started a sketch group it wasn’t like when you meet people at a comedy class or something, where other people have different ambitions. We kind of all have a single-mindedness about us, which is I think why we’ve been together for so long.

Some performers see stand-up and/or sketch comedy as a way to get seen and eventually “make it” as an actor. Do you think that’s a viable path to success?

Alex: Well honestly – and I’ve always thought this, and it’s not to slam anybody else – but I think if you get into it for another reason, then you are not gonna be doing it for that long. We would not have kept doing it, and we would not have stayed in a group, if our goal was, “We’re gonna do this to become famous!” Because what is famous for a sketch group? There’s getting a TV show – and there’s been maybe three or four groups in the history of American sketch comedy that have gotten a television show. So we would obviously love to do that, but what we love more is working with each other, creating sketch comedy, and making each other laugh.

Stefan: It’s certainly not a path to surefire fame and glory.

Where did the idea for “Elephant Larry Presents Con Air” come from?

Geoff: We do a lot of cinematic stuff on stage to begin with, so whenever we wanted to use something from a soundtrack, we would always be like, “Well, let’s pop in the Con Air soundtrack. That’ll provide the glorious music.” And then we would be quoting Con Air during meetings, and we’d always talk about how much we loved Con Air, and we decided to do an entire show about it.

Stefan: I don’t know if you’ve seen it recently, but it is the most awesome movie ever made.

Absolutely. Any time it’s on TV, I don’t miss it.

Jeff Solomon: Why would you wanna miss that? We were kind of, for the last couple of shows, going over things and thinking, “Hey, let’s do a show based on this kind of theme, or let’s do a show that’s all based in one location or one world.” For the show before this, we decided, we’re gonna set every sketch in a garbage dump [for “Elephant Larry Presents The Dump”], and just have it based there and all the sketches would be based inside that world. And we were talking about what other themes we could have, and then we just thought, “What if our show took place inside the movie Con Air?” Which struck us as a funny idea, since we can’t get Con Air out of our minds.

Who gets to wear the Nicholas Cage hair?

Jeff: That’s me. I’m gonna stop shaving right now, also.

How closely do the sketches resemble the movie? Are you trying to recreate Con Air on stage?

Stefan: It’s not like reading a Mad magazine parody of Con Air. It’s not like we’re taking the entire plot and lampooning it, but… any time there is something funny about [the movie] we decided to write a sketch, and then we took those sketches and placed them roughly in chronological order. And we’re filling in the blanks with clips from the movie, so even people who haven’t seen Con Air recently will still be able to understand what’s happening. All the sketches should be understandable, even if you haven’t seen Con Air. But there are a couple of “Rosencrantz & Guildenstern” moments, where people are just in the background for a second [in the movie], and then we have a sketch about them.

What if you’ve seen Con Air, but don’t like it?

Stefan: Oh, well you’re gonna love our show!

Jeff: Same thing with the people that hate garbage dumps – they still loved our garbage dump show.

Chris Principe: Yeah, we’re gonna make those people hate themselves instead, I think.

You guys hosted a Con Air viewing party to prepare potential audience members for the show. What was the response like?

Alex: We had a really nice audience of people making fun of the movie when we did the viewing party. I don’t know about you guys, but I was actually sitting there a little worried, because I was like, “Oh man, don’t say any of the jokes we’re doing in the show!” Luckily they didn’t.

Geoff: Well they clearly aren’t brilliant sketch comedians, like we are.

Are you thinking of writing more single-themed shows after Con Air? Or has writing this one killed you guys?

Geoff: I don’t know. We’d have to find a movie that we like as much as Con Air to do anything like that again.

Stefan: I think we’ve been enjoying doing the theme shows, for sure. There’s something really focusing about writing about one thing and teasing out all the possible funny out of one idea.

Alex: I love doing that, and I think we all love doing that. Working within constraints almost makes you better, most of the time. There’s the famous story about George Lucas working on Star Wars, and the reason that the first movie was so good is that they had no budget to do anything, so they had to find ways of working around it. And I think “Elephant Larry presents Con Air” is like the Star Wars of sketch comedy shows.

Chris: Next: “Elephant Larry Presents Star Wars.”

Alex: Because there haven’t been enough Star Wars parodies yet.

Stefan: Exactly. Listen, it’s Darth Vader, but he works as a waiter!

What’s next for Elephant Larry?

Alex: We decided to write and produce an original pilot for ourselves — which is really smart at the same time we’re writing and working on the Con Air show. So we’re doing both at the same time, and as soon as we’re done with the Con Air show, we’re working hardcore on the pilot, and then we go right into SketchFest NYC [a three-day sketch comedy festival in June], and then we all die.

Why did you decide to create a pilot now?

Alex: Why not, I guess? It’s not like we had extra time to do it, but every year we sit down and decide, “What are our major goals for the year?” We actually settled on a bunch of extremely large goals for the year… and one of them was like, rather than just having pitch ideas – because we have pitch ideas for pilots, we have pitch ideas for movies, pitch ideas for web series – let’s actually try to write some of these over the course of the year. At a certain point we were like, “Well, we’re gonna write it, why don’t we shoot it, also? Let’s just do it.”

Geoff: We came up with an idea that we were very excited about. Excited about to the point of writing it at the same time as our live show, and we’ve never done anything like this before. So I think that provided a lot of impetus and motivation to be like, hey, let’s do this – this is awesome!

What will the pilot be like? A sketch show like MadTV or Saturday Night Live? Or more of a narrative sitcom?

Alex: Picture the 20-minute pre-show before a movie, where they do those things like “The Twenty” or the “AMC Movie Watcher First Look.” We saw that as a perfect opportunity to try these entertainment package things that people are doing. And they’re essentially sketches, so they’re stuff that we do on a regular basis – parodies, fake trailers, and things like that.

Stefan: So it’s like a parody idea that we can also have parody ideas inside of.

Jeff: And we’re treating you, the viewer, as a guy sitting in the movie theatre waiting for the movie to come on.

Stefan: It can be everything from commercials to theatre announcements, to movie trailers and behind the scenes looks, and that sort of stuff. Since the only thing we like making fun of is movies.

Alex and Geoff, you both teach classes at The PIT (The Peoples Improv Theater). Can you describe those classes?

Alex: Both Geoff and I teach different sections of Intro to Sketch. You can come in with absolutely no knowledge of sketch comedy, and by the end of six weeks be able to write sketch comedy. That’s the idea. Also, for people who have been writing sketch comedy for a while – I know I’ve had a lot of people who have been in sketch groups for a good long time will take the class as a way of just getting refreshed. Because it’s really about breaking it down to the basics, and forcing people to do sketch comedy the way we at Elephant Larry like to do sketch comedy.Because what we’re doing is for us, it’s for making us laugh, but it’s also about making the audience enjoy themselves. Making is a terrible word to use there…

Can you teach somebody to be funny?

Geoff: Well, I can. Alex cannot.

Alex: No, I don’t have that skill. That’s why Geoff started teaching the class. He picks up the slack.

Stefan: So Alex, you teach the funny ones and Geoff teaches the un-funny ones?

Alex: Yea, pretty much. Once Geoff makes them funny, then they come over to my class. I think you can [teach people to be funny], to a certain extent. Basically, what you can do is you can get people to a place where they know what the structure is. For the most part, audiences have not taken sketch comedy classes, and audiences don’t know that a game show sketch is something that everybody in sketch comedy does. So if you’re (hopefully) good as a teacher and you teach someone how to do the game show format and how to write a game show sketch correctly, they’re gonna be able to do something that will make people in the audience laugh. Will they go on to create brilliant original sketches? Maybe, maybe not.

But at least they’ve got the building blocks.

Alex: Yeah. Anybody has ideas. I don’t think the problem is people having ideas, it’s how to format their ideas and get it out there in a way that it works in a sketch on stage.  

“Elephant Larry Presents Con Air” runs three performances only: April 11, 18 & 24 at 8 p.m .at The PIT, 154 W. 29th St. (btwn. Sixth and Seventh aves.), NYC. Tickets are $10. For ticket info, visit www.BrownPaperTickets.com or call (800) 838-3006.

This Q&A was published April 10, 2009 online at Blog Stage.