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Keenan Revue in Review

Jordan Gamble | Friday, February 11, 2011

    Dreary winters are yet another Notre Dame tradition. Football season divides up the fall with six or seven jam-packed gamedays, but come second semester, the weather is gray, the snow is piled high and there just aren’t that many campus-wide events to get swept up in.

That’s where the Keenan Revue came in.

“It started as a dorm event in the basement here in Keenan,” said Chase Riddle, a junior in Keenan and the Revue’s producer this year. The first Revue was a talent show thrown together because the men in the dorm were bored with campus life, he said.

That first incarnation didn’t show many signs of greatness.

“Turns out Keenan wasn’t as talented as they thought they were,” said Grayson Duren, a junior and this year’s director. The talent show angle soon morphed into a scripted sketch comedy show, similar to “Saturday Night Live,” which premiered on NBC the fall before the first “real” Keenan Revue in 1976.

The show has become one of the biggest campus events of the spring semester. After outgrowing Washington Hall by the 1980s, it took up residence in Saint Mary’s O’Loughlin Auditorium until last year, when the College’s administration did not renew the Revue’s contract. The 36th Revue premiered last night in Stepan Center and continues tonight and Saturday at 7:30 p.m.

At least a fifth of the men in Keenan directly participate in some way, Riddle said. Though the Revue comes off as “so college” in its often-obscene humor and bare-bones set design, the Revue staff starts work in October by choosing a theme and sifting through different skit ideas. Anyone in Keenan can submit a script — and the staff receives roughly 45 every fall and whittles the program down to 15 or 20 skits based on quality and content.

“The entire Revue is all Keenan,” said Patrick Mines, a Keenan president and one of the Revue’s head writers, responsible for perennial features like the Revue News. “So, if you write a skit, you can pick your friends to be in the skit.”

At least one freshman is generally assigned as historian, and gets the task of documenting the production and archiving all the printed materials – from programs to t-shirt designs to the letter sent out to Keenan alumni requesting donations to cover the technical aspects of the show. Riddle says that in recent years, these donations have climbed toward $13,000, mostly because “so many people in the past have been so strongly affected and excited about it,” Riddle said.

One of the reasons the Revue is still so popular is because a lot of things at Notre Dame just never change — including the drudgery of the early spring semester.

In a feature on the Revue in the 1982 Dome yearbook, director Paul Callahan said Notre Dame and Saint Mary’s students “were tired of the same party or bar routine on Friday and Saturday nights … The success of the Revue is due to the fact that it continues to offer an alternative to the social life at ND/SMC.”

“Keenan Revue has its own vacuum,” said John Siegel, who directed the show in 2008 as a junior. “Nothing else is really going on, so people can look forward to that in the winter months.”

This year’s Revue staff promises to keep up the beloved brand of lowbrow humor: the Breen-Phillips jokes have apparently been a mainstay for at least 20 years, at least according to a story in the Feb. 3, 1989, edition of The Observer. Other themes have also stood the test of time.

“Sensitive viewers should be forewarned of the phallic themes of several acts,” The Observer’s features editors wrote in a short article accompanying several photos of the 1989 Revue. “Freud would have a field day studying such sketches as ‘Keenan Size’ and ‘Three Member Piano.'”

Like the Digital Shorts on “Saturday Night Live,” many of the jokes enter the Notre Dame vernacular after Revue weekend. Current seniors probably remember the “Ubiquitous Girl” skit of 2008, which Siegel said practically wrote itself after several Keenanites realized they all kept running into the same girl around campus. (Siegel said he went to the Notre Dame football game in New York City last fall and even saw Ubiquitous Girl in Yankee Stadium.)

“The whole intention is to get people talking about it,” said Tae Kang, a 2008 graduate who was head writer of the show his senior year. “We make skits that people talk about throughout their time at Notre Dame.”

Kang said he and other Revue writers tried to make a point of balancing the humor between “being intelligent and clever and being completely grotesque.”

Although pop culture and current events get stage time, in the opinion of Revue staff past and present, the best skits draw on the college culture specific to Notre Dame and Saint Mary’s — whether it’s “Ubiquitous Girl,” a raunchy parody of campus favorite “Harry Potter.”

“Another thing that sticks out about Keenan Revue is how identity-driven our dorm culture is,” said Nick Burley, a junior and one of Keenan’s three hall presidents. “If you think about it, what other college would be able to do this?

“Here, everyone has their own idea of what a hall is.”

But getting to the final production takes months of work and lots of discarded ideas. After the staff decides what skits to scrap and which ones to keep, what lines need to be changed, what will be funny to a few people or an audience of close to 4,000 people over three nights.

Few of the students running the show and acting in the skits have any experience in theater, so their learning curve is steep once people return from winter break and the real work on rehearsals begins.

“It’s special how it takes all these people with different interests, a lot of them not being creative, performing interests, and puts together something that people for the most part enjoy,” Siegel said. “It’s crazy how it comes together in a two week period.”

“Tempers flare and egos get hurt,” Kang admitted, but he also added that it’s worth it when the audiences are roaring with laughter.

“I just know that every time a freshman class gets in, they hear about the Keenan Revue, they get excited about it,” he said. “But it’s something that you can’t really take ownership in until you participate or you see it … You want to pass that on, and make that next group of guys have that positive experience.”

Riddle said this year’s Revue will continue that trend.

“Being funny — anybody can do it, but we’ve made a tradition out of it.”