Duck's Breath Mystery Theatre

With tours that covered over 30 states, national radio exposure and various cable/public TV and other media projects, the troupe has been dubbed by some as the country's best unknown comedy group.

Many people associate the troupe with its popular renegade comedy sketches on National Public Radio's "All Things Considered" (1980-88), the ongoing Q&A parody "Ask Dr. Science", and the troupe's various "Duck's Breath Homemade Radio" incarnations.

Dr. Science -- a smug, pompous apostle of misinfotainment portrayed by Dan Coffey -- boasts "I Know More than You Do" as he answers listener questions. Over 3,000 episodes deep, the series is heard on 80 public radio stations. It has spawned two books, a variety of audio cassettes, an Emmy-winning Fox TV series (1987-88) as it has alternately entertained, enlightened and enraged audiences nationwide. Coffey is currently teaching radio theater and television at the University of Iowa -- in addition to his Dr. Science activities.

And mile-a-minute sneer artist Ian Shoales -- created by the quintet's Merle Kessler -- now has a column syndicated to 600 newspapers, a regular slot on ABC-TV's overnight "World News Now" and a near-fanatical radio following for his humor essays on KCRW-FM, Santa Monica, where he's heard 9:35 a.m. Sundays. Shoales previously was heard on NPR as well, and Kessler co-created the "Ask Dr. Science" series, co-authoring the books culled from the shows. He has been a story consultant to Hollywood director Joel Schumacher on several films, including "Falling Down" and "Batman Forever."

One troupe member even jumped onto MTV. Jim Turner's dead-on portrayal of '60s refugee Randee of the Redwoods catapulted him before MTV viewers (he was even the network's official presidential candidate in '88). Now a Los Angeles actor/writer, Turner is currently co-starring in the HBO series "Arliss" and the upcoming Geffen Films/Warner Bros. production, "Joe's Apartment." And he just starred and co-wrote an independent feature for Beacon Films based on Turner's manic stage portrayal of an adult magazine publisher (tentatively titled "365 Girls a Year"). Other film credits include "The Ref" and starring in and co-writing "Shelf Life," an offbeat comedy directed by Paul Bartel. Most recently you could see Jim in the short-lived CBS sitcom "If Not For You" portraying the always lovable Cal.

Also in the mix are Bill Allard and Leon Martell. Allard, a University of San Francisco drama instructor, won a Bay Area cable ACE award for directing a kids energy special and has a short subject comedy making the major film festival circuit. Active on the Los Angeles theater scene since 1983, Martell has acted internationally and honed and taught his playwrighting at the Mark Taper Forum and Padua Hills Playwrights Festival.

Collectively, though, the troupe roamed the Bay Area when they first arrived in San Francisco in 1976, after a year of working Iowa City nightclubs. They passed the hat at Fisherman's Wharf and gradually went up the club ladder to the Boarding House and Great American Music Hall, which became the Duck's Breath home base in San Francisco. They toured nationally during much of the '80s, ranging from major nightclubs (New York's The Bottom Line), university campuses, leading regional theaters (Guthrie Theater, Minneapolis) and festival circuits.

A PBS special, "Dead Pan Alley," was the single most honored program at the 1989 Bay Area Emmys, while their obscure feature film, "Zadar! Cow From Hell!", was nominated as best feature film of the decade at the 1991 Iowa Film Awards. ("Zadar" grossed over $25,000 in two nights in a two-night theatrical run in 1989 but was snubbed by film distributors.)

Their comedy style prompted Newsweek to dub them "an American Monty Python" -- with garish costumes, blazing non-sequiturs, odd props and on-the-edge characters gone awry. The troupe wrote and directed its material collectively ("whoever yelled the loudest and longest often got his way, well, for awhile," recalls Allard).

The "chaotic, sometimes surrealistic craziness" that San Francisco Chronicle critic Peter Stack noted in the troupe's "Gonad The Barbarian" results in "somebody laughing at almost any given moment, which provides a wonderful span of laughter between the big mountains of it when Duck's Breath tickles all."

Sometimes, it's the troupe's elastic, ridiculous imitation of a famous painting like "The Birth of Venus". Other times, the humor zooms in via excessive verbiage -- such as overendowed punnage in a Shakespeare parody run amok. They play in a world full of unabashed imagination, skewered pop culture and reckless nonsense.

Outrageously funny in their live performances, their humor is cerebral and imaginative, framed in skits and monologues that zero in on American thought and culture -- or the lack of it. ------Washington Post

Snarky humor with smarts, an inspired lunacy that moves with such breakneck speed that if one bit doesn't work, another rips by before there's time to notice. ------San Francisco Bay Guardian

America isn't funny anymore, and Duck's Breath knows it. ------The Village Voice

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