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Time Out New York, 2002

Comics gather onstage to play poker, drink beer and share their Sickest F***ing Stories
by Joe Grossman

Lesson 1: You can't get puke out of a dryer; all you can do is make it hot.
Lesson 2: Never watch porn with your mom.
Lesson 3: If the potato gets stuck in your vagina, see a doctor--before it begins to sprout.

Audiences learned all this and more last month at the New York debut of The Sickest F***ing Stories I Ever Heard, an exercise in comedy vérité that's as bluntly provocative as its title. Five comics play poker onstage, betting real money, drinking real beer and telling real sick fucking stories. Imagine if the Algonquin Round Table were to trade Dorothy Parker and Robert Benchley for Howard Stern and Al Goldstein, and you get the basic idea.

New York's version of Sickest is produced by local comedy impresario Asaf Ronen, but the show was born last year in Chicago, when comics Shaun Himmerick and Don Hall combined two half-formed premises. "Don had just seen The Weir," says Ronen, referring to the hit play that was built around spooky stories told over drinks in an Irish pub. "He was looking to do something like that, and Shaun had the idea of doing a poker game onstage." Their hybrid grew into a cult hit in Chicago before Ronen franchised it here, and soon L.A., Seattle, and Memphis will also be getting Sick.

Much like the reality-TV fad, the show taps into people's desire for entertainment that's drawn from everyday life (you'll even find one noncommedian playing most nights). "It's people letting down their inhibitions and just talking about anything," Ronen says. And he does mean anything. Eddie Pepitone explains that the show started off slowly the night he participated, so he took it upon himself to get things moving. "I said, 'I took a shit in my pants on a date once!'" he recalls. "I wondered about the tone I set; it was kind of a low thing." But the other players followed suit. "It was like, 'Oh, you've got a shit-your-pants story? I've got a shit-my-pants story!'" says Ronen. "Everyone went through their story. It was great."

When all the ingredients add up properly, Sickest becomes a startlingly candid round robin of inventive filth, with obscenities and esoteric sexual jargon (e.g., donkey punch, Cleveland steamer) spurting back and forth across the stage. But it offers more than mere scatology. Anecdotes can range from awww-inspiring (a kitten playfully bats at someone's scrotum) to nauseating (a man jumps into a river and lands inside a barely submerged and considerably softened cow corpse); from friend-of-a-friend tales to chilling confessions. "I said some personal things that I'd never relay now," Ronen says. "You forget your boundaries when you're onstage."

You could chalk that up to the heat of the moment or to the show's nonjudgmental atmosphere--or perhaps to the free drinks that each player gets during the game. And on top of the hooch, participants have the chance to win some mad bank. "I actually won $27," says Pepitone, although he's still reflective about that night's performance. "Near the end, I suddenly thought: Oh yeah, I remember this tapeworm hanging out of this girl's ass! I don't know for the life of me why I couldn't remember that earlier."

Monday-morning quarterbacking aside, Sickest has gotten off to a good start, and the buzz is spreading through the comedy commmunity. "I just want to hear some embarrassing stories about these people," says Adam Felber, one of the comics scheduled for the July 7 show. "Everybody's got organs and bodily functions, and most people have sex drives, too. I've got nothing to hide." review, 2002

Beautiful Stories for Ugly People: A spotlight on The Sickest Fucking Stories I Ever Heard.
by Jill Bernard


on't you love it when it's all in the title? Cats is about cats, Les Miserables is about miserable people, and The Sickest F***ing Stories I Ever Heard? Well...

The monthly WNEP Theater show, the brainchild of Shaun Himmerick and Don Hall, was featured on the CIF Blue stage with ComedySportz's Hot Karl. Speaking of hot karl -- well we very well could be; no topic is too sick for Sickest..., be it sexual, medical or just plain gross. The premise of the show is five people - Chicago improvisors and the occasional 'Wild Card' - playing a real game of poker and telling “really sick fucking stories.“

Although the CIF performance featured Annoyance Theater performers (Mick Napier, Dan Izzo, Lisa Lewis, Joe Bill and Ike Barinholtz), since last September the show has featured a cross-section of the Chicago improv community. “When we started we tried to be very politically correct and have one person from all of the major improv theatres,” says Himmerick. “After the first couple shows I stopped worrying so much about equity of players and theatres, but it still seems to work out to bring players from all over.” The roster's included the Playground, IO, the Annoyance, Second City, Noble Fool, Frankie J.'s, WNEP and....the United States Air Force? “We had an Air Force Pilot [Matt Martin] recently returned from Afghanistan and Japan,” says Himmerick. Throwing in the occasional wild card player - a 300-pound personal trainer or a former strip club owner - he claims takes the improvisors out of 'performance mode.'

Even more than these wild cards, being engaged in an actual poker game keeps the improvisors on their toes.  Players win or lose real money while drinking real beer. Joe Bill, who performed opening night and at CIF says, “When I did the show the first time we were much more conscious about playing the game,” and not holding on to cards to tell their stories. He adds, “I don't know if I just noticed [at CIF] because I was winning.” Seeking truth in comedy couldn't get much truer than actually anteing up.

Then there are the stories. “The shows, without trying, usually end up with a theme,” says WNEP Theater's Rebecca Langguth, who participated in the December 2001 Sickest... “Shit stories, puke stories, health stories, sex stories...because people starting riffing off each other, are reminded of a similar gross-out tale or attempts are made to one-up each other.”

The show exists on two levels, according to Himmerick. “One is for the drunk midnight crowd that wants to hear dirty stories and people swear and drink while they do it,” he said. “The second level are the people honestly expressing a side of themselves they probably would normally -- to a group of poker players -- but also to a very public audience.” Although the drunks will always be satisfied by the tales of failed three-ways and unsanitary vaginas, sometimes the poignant honesty takes the forefront “whether the drunks realized it or not,” says Himmerick. In these moments the stories are simultaneously open and honest, raw, sick and funny. Says Langguth, “You get a glimpse into the 'behind closed doors' experiences they've had. What they're willing to share and how they share it, it's amazing. I now know things about some people that make me shake my head with laughter and despair simultaneously.”

Improv Review, April 5, 2002

Speaking of Eating Shit. . .
Sickest F***ing Stories I Ever Heard
CIF Blue - Playground
April 5, Midnight
Reviewed by William McEvoy

Sickest Fucking Stories I Ever Heard lives up to its name, in spades. As a critic, I can approach the piece in two ways: either high-falutin', or low brow. In the high-falutin' review, I would talk about how it's a postmodern piece of theater, utilizing the idea that some of the best improvisation in the world is done over smokes or at the water cooler. Or I might portray the work as improvised storytelling, borrowing from yet another art form to find itself.

Fuck that. I'm going low brow. There was some nasty shit being talked about on that stage.

Here's the set-up: five improvisers sit around a card table on a stage and play poker, during which they tell the sickest stories they can think of, all presumably true. The evening was hosted by Dan Izzo, who was able to keep both the stories and the poker game moving with some good one-liners. He was joined by Mick Napier, Joe Bill, Ike Barinholtz and Lisa Lewis. The stories they told ranged from odd things found in women's vaginas (I never knew, or wanted to know, about the process of cauterizing cervical cysts), to ejaculation in socks, to the self-administration of enemas, and finally, as the headline of this article implies, to the wonderful world of ingesting feces. (Not for the weak of stomach.) All five performers did a great job telling their stories, and when one was telling a story, the others chipped in with interruptions, quips, and tangents, just as your friends might when you're telling a tale. It was hilarious, and you felt relaxed as if you were invited into Mr. Izzo's basement.

If the material doesn't offend you, you'll love this show. It may not be theater, but it's easily worth the price of admission.

Sickest F***in' Stories I Ever Heard