If you watched the hilariously funny yet simultaneously sad "Eunice and Mama" sketches on The Carol Burnett Show, you have some idea of what Mark McCombs is up to in Ten Jumps Ahead of a Fit, his breakout hit show. "In a place where the rich traditions of the old south peter out, several hundred miles before the glamour and excitement of The Sunshine State begin, lies the Florida panhandle," reads a teaser for the show. "Here you'll find a brand of American unlike any other." With the help of director Lennie Watts, musical director Steven Watkins, and others, McCombs brilliantly brings several horrifyingly amusing, deeply dysfunctional characters to life. I spoke with McCombs recently, just after the show returned to Don't Tell Mama's for what is sure to be another highly successful run.
THEATERMANIA: Did you initially feel that the show might be a little too special, too specific, to be a hit?
MARK McCOMBS: Yes, I did think at first that it had a limited audience. I wasn't sure if it would go over, if the humor would translate. But born and bred New Yorkers seem to identify with it just as much as Southerners.
TM: Were your characters directly influenced by "Mama's Family?"
McCOMBS: I think the character that comes closest to that is Myrtice Pooley, the gossip on the telephone--just because she's so catty. I do kind of think that the stuff we do is more like the early sketches with Eunice and Mama on The Carol Burnett Show. They had a darker undercurrent. Once Mama's Family became its own series, it left a lot to be desired. It was just a big cartoon.
TM: So, you did watch The Carol Burnett Show as a kid?
McCOMBS: Yeah, ever Saturday night. I had special permission to stay up--and I also had permission to get my parents out of bed if there was a family sketch. They went to bed after Bob Newhart but, if there was a Eunice sketch, they said, "Come get us!" We tried never to miss one. Back in those days, there were no VCRs. If you missed it that week, it was gone, unless you caught a rerun.
TM: Exactly where did you grow up?
McCOMBS: In the Florida panhandle, right outside of Pensacola--a town called Milton.
TM: Are the characters modeled after specific individuals?
McCOMBS: Most of them are an amalgam of different people that I've met over life, except for the guy that I start off with: Click Hollis, the old country music legend. I just kind of brought him in to open the show because he's a show business personality.
TM: Has Ten Jumps Ahead of a Fit changed much since you first started performing it?
McCOMBS: The only character that's had a major overhaul is Myrtice. The first time we did the show, in October of last year, she was completely different--a lot more put-upon and crabbier. Now, she just has a blast and she's very playful. She enjoys being a gossip. You can't have two women in the show and have them both be like the Treva Pitts character that I do. She's dark enough!
TM: It's a hard call, but I think my personal favorite of all your creations is Little Terrence.
McCOMBS: It's very interesting about him. There was this family that lived in one of my uncle's rental houses behind us in Florida and they were just textbook examples of white trash. It was sad, because there was violence involved. But what always struck me was that the children were at an age where they were oblivious. I could tell they were going to grow up and see how horrible their lives were, but when they were kids they would just laugh and eat terrible shit out in the middle of the street--you know, they'd eat Jell-o out of the box, or cake mix, or whatever.
TM: Isn't it Kool-Aid in your show?
McCOMBS: I chose to eat Kool-Aid because it's red and it shows up well on stage, but these kids ate anything. The Little Terrence section is actually the hardest one for my dad to watch, though my mom thinks it's funny. We thought we had to set up the character, so we decided to play a Dottie West song about "Mommy, Can I Still Call Him Daddy?" It's a terrible song, unforgivably bad. I love Dottie West, but those country singers love to push people's buttons. And Southerners love to suffer--I don't know why, it's just something that they enjoy. I found out, after setting up Little Terrence with that song, that I'd come out and do the same material I'd been doing and I wasn't getting any laughs. I thought people were hating it; come to find out that it just made them very sad.
TM: And you prefer that response?
McCOMBS: No! We ditched the song!
TM: I think the only one of your characters we haven't talked about is Bit Mullins, the guy who works at the bait and tackle shop. He's pretty colorful.
McCOMBS: I was scared to death to do that character. For the longest time, I thought I'd cut him and replace him with someone else. I'd been used to doing standup comedy and he's not jokey, whereas characters like Myrtice and Treva have their little gimmicks. Bit Mullins is more of an acting thing and I wasn't comfortable with that, but I read it through for Lennie [Watts]. It turned out to be his favorite, and I think a lot of the audience feels the same way. He's the character they enjoy the most. I like that scene because of the pacing and because it's dark; I'm really photosensitive, so I like it when they turn the lights down and we have those crickets and frogs in the background. You know, my parents actually went out and taped those crickets for real. Now we've got them burned onto a CD!