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Sibling ribaldry

The Walsh Brothers take their comedy act to the next stage

The Walsh Brothers perform at the People's Improv Theatre in Manhattan on February 18, 2006.
The Walsh Brothers perform at the People's Improv Theatre in Manhattan on February 18, 2006. (Photograph By Casey Kelbaugh For The Boston Globe.)

The Walsh Brothers' jokes don't follow the traditional comedy formula of a quick setup followed by a hasty punch line. Neither brother is interested in playing straight man to the other, and it's impossible to pigeonhole them by saying they have an easily identifiable shtick.

''There's really no specific market for us," says older brother David Walsh. ''Except for people who want to go to a show and be entertained. We enjoy anything that has any trace element of comedy, and because of that we're all over the place. We're like a case study for ADHD in comedy."

In other words, they're a reporter's nightmare. With no shortcuts for describing David and Chris Walsh's comedy, aside from the obvious ''edgy" or the eye-roll-inducing ''envelope pushing," there's nothing else for a writer to do but become a regular at their weekly shows and, finally, go to the Walsh ancestral home in Charlestown, sit at their kitchen table, and prod the brothers to articulate why their hard-to-characterize act -- which in a typical evening can consist of sketches, storytelling, videos, and a touch of nudity -- has landed them a much-coveted slot at next month's prestigious HBO-sponsored US Comedy Arts Festival.

''Our comedy is a very specific thing," says David, 32. ''It's like we're sitting in someone's living room and making jokes, but multiplying that by 10, hooking up a curtain, a stage, and doing the exact same thing. We want everybody to like it, but that's never the case. Oh, why can't they just like us?"

He can afford the self-deprecating humor because the duo's comedy career is about to reach a new zenith. For the past two years they've been fine-tuning their act with weekly shows at the Comedy Studio and ImprovBoston. Surreal skits such as the attack of the naked Yeti and stories such as the angry man who pleasures himself in front of City Hall at 3 a.m. have helped the brothers develop a loyal local following. Next month's festival in Aspen, Colo., presents an opportunity to bring their comedy to a national audience.

The Aspen festival is to the comedy world what Sundance is to film. Casting agents and talent scouts from the major networks, film studios, and cable outlets descend on the annual gathering to sign budding comedians to development deals and get them jobs both in front of and behind the camera. Sketch comedy acts such as the Upright Citizens Brigade, David Cross and Bob Odenkirk of ''Mr. Show," and ''Saturday Night Live" regulars Tina Fey and Rachel Dratch all performed at the festival before they found national fame.

''It's pretty huge when you think about it," says Judi Brown-Marmel, a consulting producer for the festival who suggested that the Walsh Brothers be placed in the lineup. ''Out of the 2,000 acts that auditioned for the festival, the Walshes were just one of five sketch comedy acts that were picked."

It's a fact that's not lost on the Walshes. They've been preparing material for Aspen, in addition to working on longer-form sketches for a pair of shows this weekend at Jimmy Tingle's Off Broadway. They've been preparing so much they've neglected to take down the Christmas decorations in the Charlestown home where they live with their parents. Other than the out-of-season decor, there are no early indicators that an interview in the Walsh kitchen (their parents are wintering in Florida) should be different from any other. In fact, the interview is looking more promising than most because the duo has ordered pizza (three kinds), and David, the brother who sports the kind of no-fuss, no-muss haircut favored by on-the-go fourth-graders, is sitting at the end of the table in a flower-print upholstered wing chair that practically begs for a series of good Edith Bunker jokes.

Chris, 28, the gangly younger sibling who has a talent for looking like a startled baby giraffe onstage, has popped open a tall can of beer -- another good sign of a successful interview -- and starts setting out plates. With food and beverage in place atop the vinyl poinsettia tablecloth, the brothers look content and ready.

They approach the interview like they approach their comedy: by telling stories. A question about how they got their start in comedy leads to a story about a gay friend of the family who crashed at their house for a year. Another question on siblings prompts a tale about sneaking into Canada. The Walshes aren't being deliberately circuitous, it just appears that their minds work differently from other comedians.

''We used to have this joke where we'd tell the audience 'You're not going to find us funny until minute 13, but we've only got seven minutes,' " Chris says. ''We would get onstage and establish our personalities. It's not about cramming as many jokes as we can into five minutes."

Despite their chatty, nonlinear thought process, some basic facts about the brothers emerge: They share the same sense of humor. They both attended the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. Chris made his comedy debut at UMass opening for ''Police Academy" noise impressionist Michael Winslow, and bombed. Both Walshes worked at the State House -- they started as Senate pages, David eventually became a Senate court officer -- until last spring, and then quit. Since then, they've been living off their retirement funds and focusing solely on their comedy.

''We don't have health insurance, so no skiing at Aspen for us," David says.

The fact that the Walshes have made it this far is striking because comedy can be very rigid. New acts are usually given five or six minutes to audition in comedy clubs. For comedians, that means a tedious process of telling the same jokes repeatedly, weeding out the jokes that don't work, and hanging on to those that do. Instead of following the formula, the brothers started their own Thursday night show at ImprovBoston, which feels more like a house party where they hang out, show crazy videos of strangers kicking snow, sing odes to Fung Wah buses, and drink Colt 45.

''Chris and I feel like we're doing something that hasn't really been done," David says. ''We're two brothers with two separate personalities, and we get bored telling the same jokes over and over again, so we just do what we like -- videos, sketch, stories -- whatever works."

They also don't have the training and backing of professional sketch comedy troupes such as the Groundlings or Second City. But festival consultant Brown-Marmel, who flew to Cambridge to see them perform, said their unique perspective, plus the fact that they've been refining their act for two years, could be more advantageous for their careers.

''In New York and LA, you have a lot of people who are performing solely for the purpose of getting discovered," Brown-Marmel says. ''But these guys are doing it for the right reasons. They're doing it because they love comedy."

Love may be an understatement. The Walshes are comedy fanatics. Chris always knew he wanted to be a comedian. David has known almost as long.

''I can't talk about comedy enough," says David, tripping over the words in a moment of pure enthusiasm. ''It's so fascinating, and you're dealing with so many different things. Crowds, personalities, minds. . . ."

''The universe?" interrupts Chris. ''The cosmos?"

''Yeah," David says, playing along now that his train of thought has been permanently derailed. ''It's alchemy, we're turning words into gold."

''We're like the Rumpelstiltskins of brother comedy teams," Chris says. ''We're sitting on a regular Fort Knox."

Christopher Muther can be reached at

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