Pictured Above: The Main Thing’s Vicki and Steve Farrell and Brett Ihler (from left).

 

Time your visit to the Argenta Arts District just right and you could walk into THE JOINT, a cabaret theater and coffee house, when a comedic trio is on stage whose work has been featured on “Saturday Night Live”, HBO and Dick Clark’s United Stations Radio Network. The Main Thing, featuring Steve and Vicki Farrell and Brett Ihler, has been entertaining audiences with its unique take on live performance and comedy for decades.

 

The Farrells got their start in theater at a young age and met in 1972, the summer before Vicki graduated from Fontbonne University in St. Louis, while working on a showboat on the Mississippi River. They married the following year and have performed together ever since. Their comedy careers began in 1976 when Steve began working at Dudley Riggs’ Brave New Workshop in Minneapolis,  the longest-running satirical sketch comedy theater in the United States.

 

The following year, while Riggs was in Houston shooting a movie, he asked Steve to be the director and head writer for a comedy club he planned to open after noticing the absence of a comedic scene in the area.

 

“Vicki and I talked about it and decided ‘Alright, let’s pack up and go on this adventure’,” Steve said. “And that really made our comedy careers the permanent thing we were going to do in our lives.”

 

With the decision made and the offer accepted, the two traveled 1,200 miles south to work in The Comedy Workshop, originally opened as a cabaret theater before adding on space dedicated to stand-up comedy. The Comedy Workshop would launch the careers of Sam Kinison, Bill Hicks and Janeane Garofalo and hosted the likes of Rodney Dangerfield and Robin Williams.

 

Steve and Vicki, meanwhile, were not stand-up comedians, but crafted performances more of the sketch comedy and improv variety, learning to play lots of different characters for which they are still known today. Steve drew inspiration for the concept of playing multiple characters after seeing Peter Sellers’ role in the 1964 film “Dr. Strangelove” in which Sellers played distinctly different characters in the film. From a young age, Steve tried developing his own different characters, something that found a home The Comedy Workshop.

 

“When I finally started doing comedy in 1976, my first impulse was to not just come up like a regular comic who does their own personality for everything and every scene, but to create a character that would suit whatever scene we were improvising or rehearsing,” Steve said.

 

“That evolved into this idea of what if there were just three of us playing all these different characters? Which was a great business model because instead of having to hire a whole lot of actors, it only took three of us to do the entire show.”

 

By 1984, Steve’s writing had changed from sketch-length pieces to longer ones including one acts and full-length two-act comedies in which each performer would play multiple characters. The play called for super-fast changes, mostly to the face, the way characters walked, removing a pair of glasses or putting on a wig or a hat.

“[We wanted] something you could do in five seconds,” Steve said. “We wanted to create this kind of miracle onstage where, in the case of our act, three people would come out and play 20 to 25 different characters in the course of the play.”

 

Steve and Vicki spent the next seven years building their comedic craft working for The Comedy Workshop. They aspired to become a permanent, established act, something that audiences would know what they were getting versus the more fluid club dynamic. The duo became a trio in 1984 when Ken Poke became the original third member of The Main Thing. Music was essential to their performances and all three played instruments including keyboards, drums and guitar. They also added a tech person to the group who was a musician, too.

 

“Now being a four-piece band, we could provide any music we needed for our shows ourselves, making our act even more unique than other comedy acts that were around,” Steve said.

 

After leaving The Comedy Workshop, Steve and Vicki stayed in Houston to begin the new venture as The Main Thing, building their own theater which included a recording studio, Radio Music Theatre. It was here that Steve implemented a new writing style that exclusively featured original two-act comedy plays. Within two years, Steve had created 10 original full-length comedies and caught the attention of NBC’s Lorne Michaels which led to the opportunity for Steve to create for “Saturday Night Live”.

 

During the 1986 season, Steve’s original “Pango, Giant Dog of Tokyo” aired on November 8th which he wrote, produced and performed with Vicki and Ken. Steve continued to write for “Saturday Night Live” including the popular “Eggshell Family” that starred Steve Martin and Martin Short. The success with the groundbreaking late-night show opened more doors, including an opportunity with Dick Clark Productions for syndication on its United Stations Radio Network that continued over the next decade and was recorded at the Farrells’ Radio Music Theatre, reaching 67 stations across the country.

 

With success rising and consistent opportunities, the trio’s routine was back-breaking, including multiple shows every week and working 50 weeks a year. By 2011, it was time to reassess.

 

“We wanted to slow down and do something with our kids who were now grown and married,” Vicki said. “And we thought it would be fun to all join up and put all the things we do together.”

 

The Farrells’ son and daughter-in-law were running a coffee business while their daughter and son-in-law were in marketing. By meshing coffee, marketing and comedy together, THE JOINT was born, or what Steve laughingly refers to as “semi-retirement.” However, it took Fate to chart a route to central Arkansas, as the family had zero ties to The Natural State.

 

But they also had no particular location in mind and as they began scouting for this next chapter of their careers, except what they wanted to avoid: hurricanes, harsh winters and heavy traffic, all elements of their previous stops.

 

“We just wanted to, in the spirit of this ‘semi-retirement’, go to a place more manageable in size and less traffic, but still have the amenities of a metropolitan area,” Steve said.

 

With plans in motion, they scouted areas from Santa Fe to Athens, Ga., and on one of their trips through Little Rock, they found the area to be very attractive. Over time, the Farrells continued to visit and vacation here, thus building a familiarity with the city and area until Steve and Vicki agreed it fit the bill for what they were looking for.

 

On one trip, they were peeking through the windows of an empty building of where THE JOINT is now, and the individual representing the building for lease came down to talk to them. At the time, some ambitious local developers were looking to turn one of North Little Rock’s original neighborhoods into an arts and entertainment magnet, now known as Argenta Arts District. The couple was sold and made the move from Houston to Little Rock.

 

The pair – Ken Poke passed on the move – then took a year off to get to know Arkansas and allow Steve the opportunity and creative space to write the first show. That performance, inspired by The Natural State and called “Little Rock and a Hard Place,” debuted in 2012.

 

Steve’s writing style varies greatly with the project; some being comedy reviews while others are short comedy sketches like his “Saturday Night Live” approach, plus funny songs, fictional commercials or film shorts. In comparing the different styles, he said it’s easier for him to write an hour and a half of short sketches than it is to write a two-act, full-length comedy.

 

The writing process typically takes several weeks of brainstorming and writing down any ideas that surface before laying them all out in a storyboard, placing them in logical order, and seeing how the plot and storyline work. Once this process is complete, Steve spends the next three weeks on the storyboard writing dialogue. The troupe only spends a little more than a week in rehearsal before opening.

 

During the Farrells’ year off, they scouted multiple comedy clubs looking for a replacement third member. On one outing, they attended a Brett Ihler show, and within several minutes of his act, they knew they’d found their guy. Ihler signed on and has been part of the group since the act launched in 2012, playing bass and performing multiple characters. As with their time in Houston, they added a fourth member, Andy Smith, who provides lightning, sound effects and props. Andy is also a member of THE JOINT’s house band, the Big Dam Horns.

The Fertle Family

Now entering its 12th year, THE JOINT is a successful collective between the Farrells and their children, including a 100-seat cabaret-style theater with a coffee shop and bar. During its first decade, performances ran 50 weeks a year, built around five different shows, including popular sketches based on the Fertle Family, a large, rural multigenerational family and the people in town who know them. Though fictional, the Fertles are based on Steve’s own relatives.

 

“You’re watching a play that feels like you’re watching a large cast, but it’s being done by three people doing everything, including any music that is needed,” Steve said. “That’s what makes it unique and it’s worked for us for four-plus decades now.”

 

The shows that aren’t written around the Fertle Family tend to touch on Little Rock politics and current events, material that Steve says is directed towards the interests of locals and the community. Additionally, each election year, The Main Thing performs “Electile Disfunction” in which the trio portrays a wildly divided suburban family from Little Rock featuring staunchly right-winged Dad, equally strident left-winged Mom and a radical young rebel of a son.

 

“We try to do things that the audience can come in and say ‘Boy does that remind me of my family’ or ‘That reminds me of growing up in a little Arkansas town,’” Steve said.

 

This year, they’ve cut back to just four shows to allow for more travel and additional time off, but THE JOINT is still open year-around. Open dates are filled by a variety of acts, including touring standup comics, an acoustic guitar series, a jazz series, a singer-songwriter series and weekly improv acts that Ihler coordinates.

 

Over the last 39 years, Steve and Vicki’s success with The Main Thing has continually risen in each aspect of its journey. Its nostalgic connection to the legendary acts and performers from almost a century ago has held up to the evolving technology of today and the social media trends that continue to rapidly change.

 

“What we provide, that you just can’t get with social media, is the live interaction between an audience and performers who can see one another and respond to one another live,” Steve said. “There’s nothing that can replace the live contact and the magic that happens spontaneously and improvisationally when you’re working before a live audience.”

 

They have even been approached to take their Fertle Family act to film, but for the Farrells, trading the live performance for the movie screen just doesn’t translate to the same experience. Even as technology continues to evolve and social media continues to create viral trends, for the hometown troupe of The Main Thing, the magic will always be in live performances.

 

“The magic of live entertainment is lost when it becomes a recorded video experience,” Steve said. “If you were in a room and a musician made an elephant appear, that would have a tremendous impact. But if you see a musician standing on stage on your handheld device and an elephant appears, you think ‘Big deal, you can do anything on video.’”

 

Catch The Main Thing as they return to the stage with two more Fertle tales; “Birthday From Hell,” through August 26 and “A Fertle Holiday,” November 17 to December 31. For ticket information, contact THE JOINT box office at (501) 626-7181 or visit thejointargenta.com.

 

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