Back in their salad days at the University of Texas, where they met some seven years ago, Leon Mandel and Andy Fischer -- forever after shorthanded to "Leon and Andy" -- bonded in a college comedy troupe. There, they began to hit on the particular brand of inspired insanity that would define their later work.
"We did this one show called 'Hooray for Gregory Peck's Ass,'" Leon -- the bigger, more gregarious of the two -- begins. He lingers on the "aaaaaa" of "ass," as if to emphasize just how taaaaacky-glorious it all was. "This platoon of soldiers gets lost in the jungle, and ultimately they get saved by Gregory Peck's ass. And we built this enormous ass that everybody walked through."
Through the crack?
"Yeah." He's starting to get a little dreamy-eyed. "I had the honor of doing the last salute and walking into the ass. It was fantastic."
It was an auspicious moment for two kids who continue to find hilarity between, if you will, the cracks of what's normally considered fodder for comedy. That offbeat sense of humor is readily available at local video stores in a series of tapes they've made, called Delirium.
The genesis of Delirium, like so many great ideas, can be traced to sleep deprivation. The two were doing some improv shows around town and stumbled across an idea that landed somewhere between genius and mutual masochism: Why not stay up for 24 hours straight, and then go perform a live set? The only hitch, Andy -- the shorter, bespectacled one -- points out, was what to do with all that dead time.
"It became a matter of, how do you pass the time between 2am and 6am, when there's nothing on TV and there's really nothing to do?" says Andy. "So we started making these little videos that were just us dubbing [dialogue] over [already existing] movies."
They began to show the What's Up, Tiger Lily?-type tapes (When Harry Met Sally and The Shawshank Redemption were part of their repertoire) to a live audience, and the audience reaction was phenomenal. So the duo decided to make films during those sleep-deprived hours, based on the material they had come up with in their improv show. Then they'd show the tape to an audience that was quickly filling with repeat customers, eager to see how the last improv show had mutated into film.
The Delirium series comprises four episodes, all improvisational sketches conceived by and starring Leon and Andy, with original music by Eric Cline and some superb cinematography by Mike Washlesky. Each episode was filmed after at least 24 sleepless hours, although the usual count was closer to 36. (The last episode took almost 55, a fact they point out with a hint of pissing-contest pride.) Little unites the four episodes, other than a lack of sleep and a consistently, wonderfully weird sensibility.
Episode 1.0, "Uganzai," is an introduction to Leon and Andy's warped world, and a quick lesson in modern absurdism. Episode 2.0, "Another Day on the Street," which is a hard-boiled look at the "life of the American ho," could easily work on one of those HBO specials on the seamier side of life ... if it weren't for the fact the prostitutes are played by Leon and Andy and a pair of khaki pants ("I worry about Khaki ... smack is her best friend"). "A Thang Between Two Hearts," the third episode, details a love affair between a down-on-his-luck country singer, T. Hardy Beaughmann (Andy), and a saucy, gum-smackin' young lady named Amanda May (Leon).
Episode 4.0, "The Absence of Everything," which played at this year's SXSW Film festival, features a variety of sketches with no real overarching theme. (Highlights include Andy as a very convincing Oompa-Loompa giving a snarling, Jim Morrison-style singing performance, in a concert to benefit bottled water.) The tape was made after what they refer to jokingly as "the Bob Odenkirk Situation." Bob Odenkirk is one part producer/writer/star of HBO's Mr. Show With David and Bob -- the other part being David Cross -- and Odenkirk's success is an example of what aspiring young comics would very much like to happen to them. In explaining the Bob Odenkirk Situation, Leon and Andy trade off sentences, Andy's face twisting up painfully every once in a while.
Andy: We have a lot of friends in L.A., and we would send them [Delirium] tapes. And they would have these viewing parties and watch the tapes. Our friend Chip [Pope, late of Austin Stories] came to one of these viewing parties, and he saw the prostitute episode, and he said, "I gotta take this show to Bob."
Leon: Bob really liked them, and he flew us out there. We got to meet some HBO folks. We set a date for a live show and a presentation of the episodes, to basically audition for the Aspen comedy festival.
(Andy grimaces. I quickly learn that the words "Aspen comedy festival" -- more officially known as the U.S. Comedy Arts Festival in Aspen -- invoke in the two a sort of Pavlovian response: usually a scowl, a sigh, or a forced smile.)
Leon: So we show them the whores episode and then we did a 20-minute [sleep-deprived] set. Staying up in a strange city for 24 hours was nuts.
Andy: And we were sick.
Leon: The first improv we do, I start playing a tune on the ukulele. Andy takes a huge gulp of DayQuil and starts gargling a song to my tune, and he ends it by standing over me and spitting all the DayQuil into my mouth. That sort of encompasses what our shows are like. And it went over well.
But not that well, unfortunately, with the guy in charge of who gets into Aspen -- "who even knows who this guy is?" Andy inserts. Andy and Leon were called into Odenkirk's office two days later, where he gently let them down, telling them that they would not be going to the festival. It was a tough thing to hear after the past days' heady excitement.
Leon: It was a fucking roller coaster.
Andy: [Delirium] wasn't a TV series, it was an experiment ... But when someone like Bob Odenkirk says, "You guys should have your own show," you go, "Well, of course we should."
The two seem to have made their peace now with the high hopes and even lower letdowns of the L.A. trip, and they still count Odenkirk as an important adviser and friend. They haven't given up on the idea of Aspen, but they no longer insist upon seeing the festival as the end-all, be-all to their every comic endeavor. "It's never really a goal that's disappeared, but it's nice to not put all your eggs in that one basket," Leon diplomatically puts it.
So where are the eggs going instead? Well, in addition to the improv shows they still perform regularly, the animation project they're currently producing, and the film camp they run for local kids, they're working on a new television series -- 'cause when Bob Odenkirk tells you that you should have your own show, then dammit, you listen. The two have been writing for several months and hope to start filming the new, independently funded series in September. The premise of the show is similarly absurd in spirit -- its theme is that of vicarious living, "all the stuff that happens in your life that doesn't even really happen to you" -- but this time they won't starve themselves of sleep. They also intend to open up their private universe of "Leon and Andy" to include some close collaborators to act in the series: Leon and Andy and Friends. No word yet on whether Gregory Peck's ass will cameo.
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