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A Monologue For Two: An Interview With The Creators of ‘SLURP’

| Wednesday, March 30, 2016

slurp webSusan Zhu

Two young women sit on a park bench, phones in hand. It’s a familiar scene in any public place. Each woman frequently glances at her screen, never making eye contact with the other. They eat large ice cream cones as they talk at each other, never pausing to wipe the white residue from their faces. As their conversation escalates, so does the amount of ice cream running off their chins down to their clothes.

This surreal tableau is the subject of “SLURP,” a short film written by and starring Catherine Cohen and Patti Harrison. The duo released the film on Vimeo in February. Since then, it has attracted more than seven thousand views and coverage by New York Magazine. The Observer spoke with the Brooklyn-based comedians about the film’s origins and their plans for a follow-up.

Catherine Cohen plays Tanya Claire, who vents about her mother dating her ex and spending her grad school fund on jet skis, yet responds to her acquaintance’s entire bloodline having cancer with merely a cooed “babe!” As a Princeton theater alum, Cohen credits the comedy community in New York with helping her break away from her musical theater roots. “People are making their own stuff, and I’m not waiting around for someone to cast me in some play,” she said. As her other videos can attest, she has done improv, sketches and stand-up. Cohen also does commercial voice-over work by day.

Patti Harrison’s character Jamie-Lynn Jennifer ignores her friend’s woes to pontificate about her four years in graduate school that ended without a diploma when the dean announced at commencement that she had never actually been enrolled. Her dreams of underwater welding are crushed. Discussing her background, Harrison jokes that she swore a blood oath to her improv troupe at Ohio University. “We were long-form though, so it was worth it,” she said. “I lost a lot of family members because I was prioritizing improv.” Since moving to Brooklyn, she has instead performed character monologues in variety shows. “SLURP” marks her first sketch to be filmed and released.

The sketch began as a live performance at the Peoples Improv Theater, part of a comedy duos show called Peas in a Pod. Despite barely knowing each other, Cohen asked Harrison to partner up. They wrote the sketch in just 40 minutes. “I tend to over-plan and ask, ‘What is the intention? What is something possibly negative that someone can perceive from this?’” Harrison said. “Everything’s eggshells in 2016. Everything I do is calculated.” Cohen’s approach was to instead take a simple premise and try a barrage of bizarre jokes, then mold them together. “When I work alone, I’m so precious,” Cohen said, “but with someone else, I trust their sensibility, so it’s easy to bounce ideas back and forth.”

The premise stemmed from seeing someone eating a giant ice cream cone in a public park. “Eating while trying to do something else is always funny,” Cohen said before pausing to flip a fried egg. The logic behind the characters’ names was similarly self-evident. Cohen had been ruminating on the phrase “Tanya Claire: Fashion Girl” for a year, while Harrison likened three word names to animals given very specific human names, like a fat old Labrador named Bianca.

Though the characters are not based directly on any real-life people, Harrison was inspired by a college friend. “She was one of the nicest people, motherly and pleasant,” Harrison said. “She would show people she couldn’t laugh at an offensive or off-color joke, even though she really appreciated it. She would say the bleakest things and not react at the appropriate capacity. Just flippant.”

Tanya Claire and Jamie-Lynn Jennifer’s self-centered perspective drives the conversation. “They are acknowledging the sound coming out of someone without truly responding. They’re instead thinking about what to say next,” Harrison said. “I say this as someone who has all the responses for this interview planned, regardless of the questions asked,” she quipped. The result is closer to a series of monologues than it is true dialogue. The emotional distance between the characters is juxtaposed with their physical proximity on a park bench.

After the sketch’s live debut, director Grace Naw approached them, eager to film it. Naw set up a 4K camera in a park at a wide angle and cut in from there for individual shots. “SLURP” was filmed in only one take, and the actors had the luxury of reading their lines from their phones during shooting. “Patti arrived an hour and a half late. I was wildly hung-over and really heartbroken. I had a meltdown the night before. We both showed up damaged,” Cohen deadpanned.

The actors both praised Naw for understanding the tone of the sketch. “When a writer takes something near and dear to their heart to a director, that partnership doesn’t always work,” Harrison stated, “Grace was on the same wavelength.” The director even chastened them for listening to each other too much.

The film ends by revealing that Tanya Claire and Jamie-Lynn Jennifer have been licking up acrylic paint. The live incarnation ended differently, with both characters announcing lethal allergy to vanilla ice cream and whipping out EpiPens. Knowing they needed a conclusion and hoping to avoid stabbing each other again, the duo simply thought of what other white substance they could be holding in sugar cones. They credited Naw with editing the result in a way that made it feel like a punchline.

Cohen and Harrison excitedly announced that they are working on a follow-up to “SLURP” with Naw returning as director. There is currently no title or release date, but the film is being edited. “I know fans are dying to know, ‘What white substance did they slap on this month?’” Cohen said. “No spoilers, but there’s a lot of Greek yogurt in the mix.”

“We actually put time and thought into this one,” she continued, “so it’s probably not gonna be as good. We’re both in good moods and feeling okay with ourselves.”

The duo plans to continue performing together live. On April 8, they will be at Over the Eight as part of “It’s A Guy Thing,” a so-called lecture series where performers satirize traditional masculinity. Describing past iterations of the monthly show, Harrison said, “It’s the dumbest show with the dumbest sets I’ve ever seen, and it’s beautiful.” They are even writing songs for the event.

Harrison and Cohen are also planning a June show at a rented church called “Hunchback of Notre Prom,” a prom for hideous people. There will be comedy, music and even a crowning of king and queen. “Ugly people should get to feel a good feeling sometimes. Not all the time, but sometimes,” Harrison said drily. Cohen chimed in, “It would be fun to know for one night what it’s like to not be debilitatingly gorgeous.”

The comedic chemistry between these two is clear, even in conversation. After explaining that they have to work on only one laptop due to a string of computer failures, Cohen dipped into a lilting charity commercial tone to pitch a Kickstarter campaign. Harrison insisted that she needs not just a laptop, but a nice one, like the futuristic displays in “Minority Report.”

Their relationship is like the polar opposite of the distance they portray onscreen. “I love Patti,” Cohen said. “When I don’t see her for two days, I text her I miss her and she replies, ‘Don’t make me say it back,’ because she can’t.”

“You’ve gotta earn it,” Harrison replied.

With one short film under their belt and much more on the horizon, Cohen and Harrison are excited to continue creating together. “People have started calling us the Slurp Girls,” Cohen said. “I think we might run with it.”

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About Jack Riedy

Jack Riedy is from Palatine, Illinois, a town with sixty-seven thousand people and no movie theater.

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