Some Vaudeville, Some Clowning, No Balloon Animals; Comedic Duo’s Form Of Fun Isn’t Easy To Label

From The Marin Independent Journal

January 10, 2006
By Rick Polito

Stephen Simon doesn’t wear his clown nose on his sleeve.

He is a clown. He’ll admit that. He just doesn’t drop it into casual conversation more than he needs to. “I don’t know if I’d come out as a clown,” Simon says. “I just think of myself as an actor.”

But when the Novato native climbs onto the stage at the 142 Throckmorton Theatre for the San Francisco Sketch Comedy Festival — San Francisco’s annual festival of mostly ensemble comedy — and his triumphant Marin homecoming, he’ll be unleashing his inner clown, sort of.

“It’s always a precarious label,” he sighs.

Labels, it seems, have never been easy for Simon and Jon Monastero, the brains and buffoonery behind Ten West. Their Web site says “Sketch Comedy” but they both say it’s not “traditional sketch comedy.” Simon went to Clown College but he doesn’t know many balloon animals. They’re almost neo-vaudeville but really more neo-neo-vaudeville.

“We are comedic performers,” Monastero offers. “How’s that?”

It’ll have to do. There is some clowning, some silent pantomime interaction. But there’s also dialogue. A lot of physicality. Monastero will actually use the word “pathos.”

San Francisco Sketchfest publicist Jesse Thorn isn’t sure what to call it either, describing Ten West as a combination of sketch and clowning “that improves both of those things.” Thorn saw Ten West at the Seattle SketchFest. “It’s much better than it sounds.”

“We watched their 45-minute show once and then we stayed and watched it again an hour later,” Thorn says. “And I hate clowns.”

Whatever it is they do, Ten West would seem an unlikely combination made more unlikely by the circumstance of their pairing. Monastero was teaching middle-school history in Los Angeles and Simon was the substitute, both men playing to the same captive and occasionally surly eighth-grade audience but, by the defining feature of the substitute/teacher relationship, never meeting.

And then they did.

They started talking.They had similar performing drives, Simon with his acting and clown college background and Monastero at the L.A. Improv Olympics. When Simon got a long-term assignment at the same school, they began working on material. Then they got their big break at the Faculty Follies show.

Not a lot of talent gets discovered in the Faculty Follies, but Simon and Monastero discovered they could work together.

“Eventually it all morphed into Ten West,” says Monastero.

Since then, they’ve taken their label-defying act to shows like the Seattle SketchFest, the Velvet Hammer Burlesque and the L.A. Fest of Sketch. They spent this past weekend at the Chicago Sketchfest.

But the Jan. 24 show at 142 Throckmorton is the first time Simon has played to Marin. He grew up here. He just hasn’t been on stage much since his San Marin High School days.

Simon’s excited about it. And he’s excited he’s not being billed as a clown. Simon calls his mother “super supportive” but adds, “I think she may stay away from the C word (clown) and say, ‘My son is an actor.’ “

Clown, it seems, is a loaded label. “When you say clowning they think of birthday clowns or scary clowns or balloon animals,” he says.

Simon is not that kind of clown. He’s some other kind of clown. And he doesn’t wear his clown nose on his sleeve.

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