Freight and Salvage
August 29, 2015
Duck's Breath Mystery Theatre - a longtime San Francisco screwball comedy troupe that achieved notoriety on National Public Radio -- reunited all five original members for a grand finale, one last time onstage together, on Saturday, August 29th at the new Freight & Salvage Coffee House in downtown Berkeley.
The award-winning, Iowa-bred ensemble unleashed its unique brand of semi-dangerous theatrics in celebration of the quintet's 40th anniversary with its final live performance.
"We celebrated our classics, squeezed in some new stuff, and made the world slightly more askew than you thought it was," claims troupe member Leon Martell.
The final August 29th show was a Saturday night sell out. Tickets were $25.
Doctor Science emerged from his Fortress of Arrogance at an unknown location to answer audience questions including "Why do Angels dance on the head of pins?" during the hilarious two set performance by the veteran comedy thespians.
"There is a thin line between ignorance and arrogance," claimed Dr. Science, at the end of his appearance in the show "and only I have managed to erase that line."
Duck's Breath started in Iowa City in 1975 as a lively theatrical "new vaudeville" act featuring recycled costumes, odd props and flying non-sequiturs. The comedy writing team spawned a stream of one-act shows including "Gonad The Barbarian," "A Midwestern Night's Dream," "Senseless Cruelty: A Ravioli Western," and "A Cliff Note's Hamlet."
In its early days the troupe found itself becoming part of San Francisco's fabled '70s busking scene when it regularly appeared as a "pass the hat" five man comedy troupe the Cannery, Ghiradelli Square, and Fisherman's Wharf.
Troupe members include Jim Turner (the eccentric folksinger Randee of the Redwoods, a 1980s MTV regular), Dan Coffey (Dr. Science), Merle Kessler (NPR's ascerbic mile-a-minute sneer artist), Leon Martell (the beleaguered art instructor) and Bill Allard (the flustered nun Sister Mundi Mr. Johnson).
Turner was feared in an HBO series for six years as the sports agent comedy "Arli$$" and most recently performed in the acclaimed three season cable ensemble drama "Granite Flats."
Duck's Breath produced a series of audiocassettes, albums and compact discs as well as a 30th anniversary DVD (2005), and five books from Dr. Science and Ian Shoales.
Called "an American Monty Python" by Newsweek Magazine, Duck's Breath rarely performed together after the comedy team stopped touring in 1988 to concentrate on individual projects. The five last emerged as a five man theatrical ensemble in 2007 for a two performance "tour" to the old Freight & Salvage Coffee House in lower Berkeley and Mill Valley's Throckmorton Theater.
On public radio, the troupe regularly contributed sketches and satirical commentaries to NPR's "All Things Considered" during the 1980s and two members created the long-running "Ask Dr. Science" series of "misinfotainment" that has aired on over 200 public radio stations during a marathon 25-year-run.
The five writer, performer, directors cut their comedy teeth by mounting one act plays at the Intersection, a pre-punk Mabuhay Gardens, the Haight's Shady Grove and Other Cafe, and eventually at such classic performance friendly venues like San Francisco's Boarding House and Great American Music Hall and Berkeley's Julia Morgan Theater.
In their rare recent public appearances, Duck's Breath concentrated on their rapid-fire series of short sketches. The quintet contorted themselves into famous works of art from "The Birth of Venus" to "Nude Descending a Staricase," became a parochial school demonstration of "How To Carry Chairs," performed a used car opera to impress a skeptical customer, and even offer death-defying marshmellow tricks in their absurdist theatrical style.
Some other troupe factoids:
And then there was the time Duck's Breath was the opening act for The Ramones' first San Francisco appearance, which later inspired the troupe's the Marones garage band. "After seeing Duck's Breath," intoned singer Joey Ramone, "gimme, gimme shock treatment."
Plus they had a hit song, "Herb Caen Blues," sung to the tune of "Cocaine Blues" that became a hit "so fast on KSAN Radio that we didn't have time to get a single made of it," recalls troupe general manager Steve Baker.
Oh, and how NBC censors made "Laugh-In" producer George Schlatter remove a Duck's Breath sketch filmed at the Cannery from the late night "Great American Laff Off" national television special that featured San Francisco comedy talent.
And a Fox TV kids television version of "Dr. Science" won an Emmy for best local television series in Los Angeles. It also got a rave review in The Village Voice, except few children apparently read the Voice.
Submitted by Steve Baker who has been writing, submitting, booking, and being Duck’s Breath Mystery Theatre since 1976.