Funnel shots, office romances and disregard for the politically correct might sound like a Human Resources nightmare, but for Bob’s Holiday Office Party such things are par for the three-ring-circus-comedy course. Inspired and created by two natives of Middle America, Bob’s spin on small-town charm has returned to LA for its 17th year at Pico Playhouse on the Westside.
Much like cult films, such as The Room or Rocky Horror Picture Show, Bob’s re-appearance every holiday season has developed a following of dedicated Los Angeles audiences, with some making the show an annual tradition.
The very first incarnation of Bob’s started at Theatre Theater in 1996. Over the years — with an evolving script — it has graced several small stages throughout Los Angeles including the Hudson, Company of Angels and the Elephant Asylum, to name a few. Its creators and lead actors, Rob Elk and Joe Keyes, express a mix of gratitude and humility that the show has endured.
“Back [in 1996] Jeff Murray [owner of Theatre Theater] called me up and said he wanted to do something for a holiday show, but he wanted it to be more than a stand-up show or sketches,” says Elk.
As actors with experience in both sketch and stand-up, Elk and Keyes called upon other Midwestern transplants they knew in Los Angeles to help build the very first version of Bob’s. They started with the simple premise of a holiday party in a small-town Iowa insurance office. Elk (playing the title character) and Keyes (who plays the town sheriff) didn’t set out to create a major hit. They simply took the opportunity to do something they loved with fellow artists they enjoyed.
“In fact, the original was just characters coming in and telling stories,” says Keyes. “We knew the right people, and so we really built the show around that. And it was a lot of fun.”
Elk and Keyes decided to take the ideas from that first production and commit to the more permanent form of a script. The following summer they wrote a first draft which culled the best material from the original, with most of the characters inspired by — and literally named after — real people from Elk’s small home town back in Iowa.
“In the early days of producing the show, we were really fixing the stuff that was broken,” says Elk, describing the process of cultivating new material for laughs while cutting jokes that fell flat. Each show had variables, but a solid story spine supported with comic elements emerged. By 1999, the Los Angeles Times was calling the show a “zany, rollicking brainstorm of a comedy” with several years of critical acclaim and growing audiences to follow.
Elk and Keyes believe the show’s success with audiences and critics is the result of striking a balance between meeting expectations and exceeding them in just the right way.
“It’s not as sketchy as other shows created like this and I think that’s unexpected,” says Keyes. “These are [actors] creating realistic characters through their performances. But they are also talented comics”¦.so they’re also characters with some really bad behavior.”
“Yes,” adds Elk with a laugh. “Sometimes I have to stop and think, did we really just do that? It’s that kind of show”¦but it still has a story people can follow and relate to.”
This year many of the original actors have returned to reprise their roles, but each year brings at least one new cast member. Getting brought up to speed with the rest of the tightly-knit Bob’s Office “family” might seem daunting for any new cast member. Elk and Keyes do their part to work in the new performers. Under the direction of Matt Roth, this year’s cast prepped the show with only about three days of rehearsal.
“It’s more like a reunion now,” says Elk. “It’s everyone getting back together to do the show.”
With so much success happening in Hollywood’s backyard, it was only a matter of time before the show and its creators got noticed. Elk and Keyes describe the Hollywood angle from their realistic and seasoned experiences with the sometimes fickle “industry.” Keyes is a playwright who has also written for television, while both Elk and Keyes boast long lists of acting credits for radio, stage and screens of all sizes.
“When we first were doing [this show], we were trying to get agents and producers to come out to it,” says Elk. “And we’ve had various times where there was heat on it and we’d get close to something more happening.”
But the Hollywood heat would ebb and flow over the years before attracting the attention of producer Charlie Loventhal (Deuces Wild) and actor/producer Julian McMahon (a regular cast member on Nip/Tuck).
“I wandered into the Zephyr Theatre four years ago, and I was amazed to hear an audience roaring with laughter for two full hours,” says Loventhal of his first Bob’s Office experience. “I mean”¦just roaring. I’d never experienced anything like it in the theater.”
Loventhal returned to the show four years in a row, introducing his producing partner McMahon to the project. The two of them joined forces with Elk and Keyes as this year’s co-producers, intent on finally adapting it for the screen in 2013.
Transforming any successful stage play to the screen creates several challenges, and the added pressure to somehow replicate the essence of the source material is not taken lightly. Elk and Keyes draw on their combined film and television experience to transfer the heartfelt moments and zanier pieces of comedy. Structure, casting, shooting style”¦suddenly the story has new options to shape it. But the team embraces the challenge.
“Technology creates all kinds of options to move forward now. We’re going to see where the universe takes us,” says Loventhal of the transformation from stage to screen. “Most importantly, we respect that [Elk and Keyes] created a gem with this show. We want to keep the integrity of what they’ve created.”
That integrity will be celebrated at this Saturday night’s performance, dubbed a special “17th Anniversary Celebration” and featuring a Q &A session with the full cast after the performance. The team looks forward to engaging more fans with the process and widening the circle of Bob’s audience following.
As two performers who have seen it all and done it all over 17 seasons of performing the same show — including assisting a female audience member across the stage to find a bathroom mid-performance — Elk and Keyes still look forward to performances with giddy expectations of what might unfold.
“It really is a tightrope walk,” says Keyes. “There are those moments where something happens and a moment is improvised because it works and then we come back to the script. It really means that anything can happen.”
“I also think people find [the show] comforting,” says Elk. “We all know these characters. I think people like coming back to their stories.”
“And the characters have an earnestness to them,” adds Keyes. “They are not at all hateful people or bad, just a little clueless or inexperienced”¦.and there’s honesty in that.”
Bob’s Holiday Office Party, Pico Playhouse,Â 10508 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90064. Thu””Sat 8 pm, Sun 7 pm. Through Dec 22. Tickets: $20″“25. www.bobsofficeparty.com. 800-838-3006.