Local Duo Harvests Up Some Hilarity in Texas Gothic

Booker & Maykus are sure ’nuff sharper than a pitchfork

Tom Booker’s got a big ol’ pitchfork and he’s not afraid to use it.

Except that he’s not actually Tom Booker when he’s holding that pitchfork – he’s Pa Gothic, the other half of the farming couple known as Ma & Pa Gothic, the duo of rural-route provocateurs whose Texas Gothic show plays the first Friday of each month at the Institution Theatre.

“Well, unless it’s around the Fourth of July,” notes Janet Maykus, “when I think we’re doing the second Friday.”

“And this month we’re doing the second Friday, too,” says Booker, “because the first Friday was too close to New Year’s.”

“So, yes,” says Maykus, “it’s definitely first-Friday-of-the-month-unless-otherwise-noted.”

(Note: This month it’s tonight, Friday the 10th, at 8pm.)

Janet Maykus is Ma Gothic, of course, and she (and her character) are sharper than the tines of Pa’s everpresent farm implement.

Pa is pretty sharp, too, mind you, although he’s much more laconic than the opinionated Ma. Right, Pa?

“Yep,” says Booker.

Tom Booker is not an obscure figure in Austin performance circles. The affable funnyman founded the Institution Theater back in 2007 (and brought it to prominence by welcoming transplanted New Yorker AsafYESand.comRonen on board in 2009). He was part of the legendary Mamet-homaging improv troupe Confidence Men and has been brightening the boards of local theatres in one antic guise or another for years now. And, hell, back in the Eighties and Nineties, the man was living in L.A., doing that Real Live Brady Bunch show and popping up on various TV commercials and sitcoms like some kind of primetime Whack-a-Mole.

So Booker is what the scientists who’d like to throttle the shit out of our country’s current president, he’s what those scientists would call A Known Quantity.

But this Janet person? Janet Maykus, right? Who plays Ma Gothic. Who sits in her rocking chair next to Pa in his rocking chair and cuts loose with all manner of highly informed and passionately felt spiels about contemporary life?

What, as they say, is her deal?

“I’m an ordained minister,” says Maykus, “and I worked about 13 years in a hospital, in a hospice chaplaincy, and then in higher education. And now I’m a senior pastor at a church. And I was doing a writing workshop with Ann Randolph here in town – Ann was a Groundling, and she does these workshops – and she incorporates improv with the workshops, to make you open up your head and stop thinking so much and just write. And we had a little performance at the end of the workshop, and she looked up and saw this man standing over to one side, and she said, ‘Is that Tom Booker? What is Tom Booker doing here?’ So she went over to him, and then came back and said, ‘Tom Booker has moved to Austin, and I don’t know what he’s doing here, but he’s a deal in L.A. You should find him and do whatever he says.’ So I found him, and started taking improv classes at the Institution. And I realized that I don’t have a very good filter. And improv was the only place where not having a very good filter is an asset.”

And now, together, these two well-honed talents are the stars of Texas Gothic. And how did that come about?

“I was part of this sketch comedy show called Over the Lege,” says Maykus, “which is a show about the Texas Legislature. And Tom and I were trying to figure out what we could do together for the show – something that we could write ourselves and wouldn’t require a whole lot of planning, that we could do just by being there. And we thought, Texas Gothic, like a Lone Star version of Grant Wood’s American Gothic painting, that we could just stand there and do our thing. We only had to flesh out who these people, who Ma and Pa were. So it was really out of a desire to participate, but a kind of lazy participation.”

“Although,” adds Booker, “I did put a lot of effort into making sure I had a four-tined pitchfork. And that our rocking chairs matched.”

“Tom is into props,” says Maykus.

“I’m into fun,” says Booker. “Which is really why we’re doing this – for fun. We don’t expect anything to come of it. After all these years, Lorne Michaels probably isn’t going to call.”

“But it turned out that people really liked the Ma and Pa Gothic thing,” says Maykus. “They responded to it. So that was fun, and we started really liking Ma and Pa ourselves – because they’re, you know, they sound like they’re hicks – because we do judge people by their accents – but Ma and Pa are very smart and capable.”

“They’re liberal-minded and have common sense,” says Booker. “And it’s kind of strange, but until now I’ve never attempted satire before. And that’s what we’re doing with Texas Gothic: taking everything to its absurd conclusions.”

Ma and Pa won’t just be taking things to absurd conclusions once a month at the Institution Theater, though. In addition to those regular shows … in addition to tackling the issue of “Texans and Their Guns” at tonight’s Institution show with guest Will Roman of Chisos Boots, for instance … they’ll also be part of FronteraFest’s Short Fringe lineup this year. That Short Fringe gig will happen on Thursday, Jan. 30th, when Booker and Maykus perform a sort of “Best of Ma and Pa” show for the gathered crowds.

“It’ll be about guns, vaccinations, and sexual harassment,” says Booker, grinning. “You know – the three topics that make for really great comedy!”

And, after that …well, after that, aside from the Institution gigs, not even the ghost of Grant Wood knows.

But you can be sure that Ma and Pa will be around somewhere with their homespun and pitchfork-sharp skewerings of all the topics that, by gum, need some skewering. Right, Pa?

Booker smiles, stroking one of his big ’fork’s scary tines. “Yep,” he says.

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