I was introduced to the sketch comedy troupe Changing Channels late one evening after a couple of drinks. To detach myself from the interminable buzz of a local bar, I stepped outside to write in my small notebook. I didn’t get to finish a sentence.
“Stop following me, you fuckin’ creep,” I heard as I sat.
Enter Sandy Vaughan, one of the nine foul-mouthed, core members of Changing Channels. She sat in a chair across from me on the deck and threw back her drink.
“I know you’re writing about me.”
Like the best types of comedians, Vaughan launched me into her humorous world. It’s an evocative approach the comedy troupe thrives off of: Changing Channels doesn’t just act for the audience, they act with them. Everyone becomes a part of the show.
After her friend, Valerie Watkins (another core member), gets in on the joke, our conversation turns to the fact that I do write occasionally.
“Perfect,” Vaughan said. “Then you can write an article on us.”
And here we are…
On November 5 through 7, Changing Channels (CC) will host their first annual comedy festival. Though they’ve only been onstage intermittently over the last few years, including last year’s sold-out reunion show at TheatreNOW, they’re offering new and original sketches over three nights. They’ll be bringing back some of their classics, too, including fan-favorite “Fishsticks and Mayonnaise.” The recurring bit involves a family dinner of more than just fishsticks and mayonnaise on the plate. The description of the feast is repeated multiple times by the characters. Its repetition turns ridiculous when the characters ultimately begin to speak in a completely different, absurd version of another language. The skit always comes with crew mess ups, too. “I can hardly do it without laughing,” Vaughan says.
Each night during comedy fest, Vaughan, Watkins, Jef Pollack, Brandi Laney, Cullen Moss, Madison Moss, Sam Robinson, Chris Hendricks, and Jason Hatfield will bring intoxicating laughs, special-guest stars, whiskey, and guerrilla theatre at its finest. Changing Channels flourishes among the unpredictable and chaotic—sketch comedy that’s not quite improv, but with players who can’t quite stay true to a script.
Having formed in 1998, Pollack and the CC gang came together after a show he co-wrote with his late friend, Patrick Crawford, fell apart.
“Why don’t we make a group of our own?” Crawford asked. He came up with an idea: Perform as if someone is changing the channel on a television set. “That’s the best way to watch T.V. anyway,” Pollack says.
They wanted to perform in the same vein as spurts of news, sports, dramas, sitcoms, and other varying subjects that take life on the screen. An ADHD methodology, Changing Channels operated with sporadic topics and themes. “I told Patrick I was in,” Pollack remembers. “But I didn’t think it would last.”
They would do skits on political issues (as seen on CSNBC), perform overly sexualized and dramatic poetry in “Bilingual” (per soap operas on CBS), and throw in the occasional fart joke (Comedy Central). They even provided break-away segments, a la commercials. Pollack wrote a knockoff Verizon commercial, called “Suicide Hotline.” A severely depressed man is convinced he has nothing to live for after he is abandoned by the operator because the call was dropped.
Changing Channels debuted at Bessie’s in July of 1998 to a loyal crowd. Not only did the audience come back the next week, but when they did, they brought their friends. The Tuesday-night shows in the basement became so popular that management moved them to the premier slot on Thursday nights.
When the group began, they caught lightning in a bottle. They conceptualized during a magical time when comedy was fresh in Wilmington, and the town was yearning for laughs. Coming from a folded comedy troupe, Shelf Life, most of the original members Vaughan, Watkins, Pollack, Jason Summers, Sam Robinson, Dean Jones, Opus J. Miller, and Chris Hendricks already formed a bond with the Port City. Each was able to bring a specific crowd of their own. And the bond deepened between comedians and audience. Changing Channels suddenly became Wilmington’s force with which to be reckoned.
“It was a good time for comedy,” Pollack says. “It seems that when music sucks, comedy is good. It’s the best kind of outlet to say, ‘Fuck you!’ to the world.”
Pollack’s point is an interesting one. When the disco scene emerged in the late ‘70s, SNL roared with the likes of John Belushi, Dan Akroyd and Steve Martin. In the late ‘90s, after Cobain and grunge burned out, the bubblegum pop scene started to rise and expand. This opened the door for comedy to return as a novelty. The Farrelly brothers invented a new type of gross-out comedy with the hit film, “There’s Something About Mary.” SNL became funny again with the characters of Canteen Man and Chris Farley’s Motivational Speaker. This, too, was during Changing Channels heyday, as they channeled characters of their own, like Ray and Donnie, Lanell Swallop and Bath Oil featuring Vaughan. In fact, Bath Oil will make a comeback in the festival, involving a presumptuous woman’s group where a gal does anything but fit in.
After Bessie’s closed, the troupe continued Changing Channels at City Stage/Level 5. Their shows ran on a weekly basis for 10 years. Throughout time, members would wax and wane. Core comedians would move on, and others would fill the space; rising star Moss became a permanent member, along with his future wife, Madison. Laney and Hatfield also came into the picture, all the while Vaughan, Watkins, Hendricks, Robinson, and Pollack glued the group together.
After a large turnout and positive reciprocation of the reunion show last year, CC decided they could make it an annual event. Though some members are hours away in Durham (Hatfield), or even time zones away in Las Vegas (Hendricks), they’re coming home for the festival. A once-a-year reunion allows members to balance their own careers and families. Laney is a New Hanover County school teacher. Pollack owns The Scoop in the Cotton Exchange. Vaughan works at the local humanities and fine arts center downtown and raises her teenage son. Watkins has a teenage and tween daughter. Local actor Cullen Moss (“The Walking Dead,” “Eastbound and Down”) and his wife even find a way to practice skits while rearing a 1-year-old. “Cullen called me earlier this morning,” Pollack says. “He did a sketch for me while he fed his kid.”
Moss has been working his ass off for an impression of Donald Trump. In the skit, featuring both Pollack and Moss, Trump travels to a small town in West Virginia to speak to coal miners. The laughs are limitless in imagining how wrong it could go.
After over 10 years together, Changing Channels have relied on trust while performing. “You just let the skit ride out,” Pollack says. “We trust that one of us will make it shine.” Each member writes multiple skits, and they’ve written three times as many as normal for this festival. Some they workshop together, some are conceived in small one-on-one groups. Then there are some individual “surprise” skits in store, too. Vaughan enjoys staying tight-lipped. She saves hers until rehearsal, and otherwise sits back and watches the comedy unfold.
Each member has been influenced by classic Marx Brothers and Monty Python, and even the modern-day humor of Amy Schumer and Key and Peele. Pollack credits Netflix’s comic endeavors, and YouTube and Vine for churning out some noteworthy laughs. “Funny is funny,” he says. Sometimes he can’t hold it together during CC’s shows. A closer peek into past performances would often have Pollack breaking character and laughing uncontrollably. “I can’t help it,” he says. “These are the funniest people I’ve ever met, and I’ve got the best seat in the house.”
Comedy just comes natural to Changing Channels. And they’re good at it everywhere they go, whether in the basement of Bessie’s, in the historic theater at City Stage at Level 5, in the intimate space of TheatreNOW, or even while off stage at a local bar … heckling a perfect stranger.