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Laughing Matters 

The Human Zoo favors sketch comedy with a decidedly twisted slant.

Mrs. Schmickle can't take it anymore, so she drowns her troubles in a bottle of Stoli every night. When that doesn't work, she bolts out of class and has a mental breakdown in the teachers' lounge. Feeling contrite the next day, she indulges the class by letting everyone bring in pet boa constrictors, tarantulas, and even a rapist for show and tell.

This is the brand of dark humor Ernest Hemmings writes for the Human Zoo, a six-man comedy troupe he founded three years ago. He calls it "subversive sketch comedy."

"A better word would be 'perverted,'" he explains. "It's a perversion of what people are expecting." To say the least. From a podiatrist who dispenses psychiatric advice to a CEO who calls a phone sex line during an employee evaluation, the characters veer way into the abnormal, blindsiding the audience with absurd twists on everyday life.

The cast of characters includes the recurring Melvin and Debbie Numbula, who obsessively pamper their whiny daughter, and neurotic Claude, who answers a personals ad and proceeds to go ballistic on his date when she orders a glass of wine.

Hemmings, a proponent of written sketch comedy, is no fan of improv. "We're pulling away from improvisational comedy, since, in reality, improv is a bunch of secondhanders asking for help from the audience. They've made it these fraternity party games."

By contrast, sketch comedy allows audiences to explore the art of comedy as well as be entertained, Hemmings says. Since the end of June, when they opened at the Powerhouse Pub, Hemmings and his troupe have attracted a steady following of twentysomethings for their Sunday-night gigs. This week, they're also beginning an independently produced movie, and they'll follow that by taping a television pilot. If all goes well with those projects, it might be a while before the ensemble returns to the stage once their Powerhouse run is over.

But in the meantime, Mrs. Schmickle and the gang are still around, twisted sensibilities and all.

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