- Brian Chilson
- FROM FARRELL TO FERTLE: Vicki Farrell, Brett Ihler and Steve Farrell are "The Main Thing," a comedy trio that began in Houston with the Farrells' long-running stage comedy, "Radio Music Theatre."
The show program at The Main Thing says this about Steve Farrell, head writer, composer and artistic director: "Steve's writing has been featured on MTV, "Saturday Night Live," Off Broadway, NPR's "All Things Considered," the USA Network's "Night Flight," "The Today Show" and NBC's "Nightly News." Flashy career accomplishments are one thing, but then, you see Steve Farrell in action — and you're wowed.
So first-timers at one of The Main Thing's performances must wonder, "How have I never heard of this place — and this guy?" Why isn't Farrell routinely cited as one of the treasures of the local arts community, right up there with Bob Hupp, formerly of the Arkansas Repertory Theatre ; or Philip Mann, conductor of the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra? Heck, more people seem to know — and be proud — that Judge Reinhold settled in Little Rock 30 years after his heyday than know about a guy who arguably is as good at writing and performing sketch comedy as almost anyone who's ever done it.
Fame seemed assured when The Main Thing debuted in June 2012. "We had both mayors and a huge crowd. We thought we had it made after opening night," Farrell says. And then, he says, reality set in.
"It's so hard to explain to people what we do. They have no frame of reference. It's comedy theater. It's not improv. It's not amateur theater. It's not stand-up comedy. It's not The Rep." Here's what it is: hilarious, fast-moving, character-driven, long-form comedies, often featuring the 15 or so members of the Fertle Family, a dysfunctional bunch living in Dumpster, Ark. Steve plays lots of those characters, adopting voices, mannerisms and affectations, and the comedy itself is tied to a sense of place; you'll hear references to local spots, people and events, and you'll learn that almost anything can be linked to "a little baby owl." Oh, and Steve's a hell of a musician, too — his fingers fly all over his guitar or keyboard as he leads The Main Thing trio through the original music performances that punctuate each show, with Steve's wife and decades-long collaborator Vicki Farrell on drums and local Brett Ihler on bass (Steve taught him how to play it).
Their brand of comedy has been hard to explain ever since Steve and Vicki opened Radio Music Theatre in Houston in 1984, the logical next step for the Farrells after they met on a riverboat cruising the Mississippi in 1972 while performing in "You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown." After Steve got his master's in fine arts at the University of Minnesota, the two moved with a friend to Houston in 1977 to open the growing city's first comedy theater, eventually developing Radio Music Theatre in 1984, where Steve developed the multiple Fertle family characters — all played by Steve, Vicki and Brett, master quick-change artists — and all based on "my 15 aunts and uncles and tons of cousins" in Chariton, Iowa, where Steve grew up. RMT helped Steve's work find its way to the impressive outlets listed in the Joint's program, notably "Saturday Night Live," for which he wrote "Pango, Giant Dog of Tokyo," and "Eggshell Family," starring Steve Martin and Martin Short.
Meanwhile, RMT was thriving, regularly filling its 180-seat theater for four Main Event shows a week. Living in Houston was wearing on the Farrells, though, and they decided to slowly pull the plug. "We gave our fans in Houston five years' notice" that RMT would close, Steve says. "Houston had just gotten too big, too trafficky. When we were raising our kids, it took us 25 minutes to get to the theater. That commute was one hour by the end." So, the fleeing Farrells "started traveling to see where we wanted to live," Steve says. "We ruled out hurricanes, and we ruled out hard winters. That leaves a latitudinal bar from about Santa Fe to Atlanta. We didn't want earthquakes or water rationing. We liked Austin, but traffic is terrible there. We liked Chattanooga, but it was too small." Impressed with the beauty of Little Rock, Steve and Vicki "liked the Clintons and the impact they were having here. Adam, our son, and Sarah, our daughter-in-law, were in the coffee business, so we decided to join our skills and open a family business." With a mission in mind, the search for a location was on, the family "peering into the glass of what then was an empty shell in downtown Argenta. [Real estate professional] Fletcher Hanson saw us. He took us up to [developer] John Gaudin's office. We gave him DVDs from Radio Music Theatre. He loved the idea, and we immediately hit it off. He liked our shows and viewed them as art." The coffee shop, which also features wine, beer and snacks, opened May 15, 2012, and the theater came a couple of weeks later.
Their years at RMT in Houston are still a professional highlight for the Farrells and radiomusictheatre.com lives on, telling their story and offering multiple DVDs for sale. Houston fans come here to see The Main Thing, so many that their impact on local hotels and restaurants led the North Little Rock Convention and Visitors Bureau to become a sponsor of The Joint, the Farrells say. And though their shows haven't yet consistently sold out, word-of-mouth recommendations have things moving in the right direction, they say. In the current show, "Forever Hold Your Peace," Steve introduces Rev. Jiffy Dillard, a new character with tons of comedic potential, and the political climate today is perfectly suited for the trio's next production: "Electile Dysfunction," featuring "a family where Mom's a Hillary supporter, Dad's a Trump supporter and the son is an anarchist," Steve says.
"If people come, they are going to like it. Whatever their preconception is, it's probably not going to be what they think it is," Steve says. "If they think they are going to be checking their watches to see when it's going to be over, they won't. If they can only take the leap of trust, and only come see one show, they will understand the concept. And then they'll find themselves struggling to explain it to someone else."
The Main Thing's "Forever Hold Your Peace" continues its run at 8 p.m. each Friday and Saturday through Sept. 2, $22. For tickets, call 501-372-0205. For a full schedule of events at The Joint, visit thejointargenta.com.