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Duck's Breath: Screwy, Cerebral and Back (Briefly) : Comedy: It's been seven years since the troupe's members have been on stage together, but this weekend they'll offer reunion shows at LunaPark.

July 27, 1995|JON MATSUMOTO | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The five members of Duck's Breath Mystery Theatre hadn't performed together in seven years. But it took only four nights of rehearsal for the outrageous comedy troupe and '80s cult favorite to prepare for its two reunion shows in San Francisco last weekend.

For Duck's Breath, which also appears at LunaPark starting tonight, its once potent chemistry and timing quickly fell into place when the group members reconvened.

"The rehearsals felt exactly the same as before except everyone had grayer hair and moved slower," says the Duck's Jim Turner by phone from San Francisco, the group's home base from 1976 to its unofficial breakup in 1988. "There's been a lot of screaming and yelling during rehearsals. As usual, whoever yelled the loudest won. It's been a very similar creative process."

Group member Dan Coffey was initially averse to reprising old material. But since these special performances mark the 20-year anniversary of the group's formation, the shows will include plenty of the troupe's golden oldies. Duck's Breath will be reviving its "art lecture bit" in which the ensemble physically re-enacts famous paintings like Edvard Munch's "The Scream." Another familiar sketch finds the group presenting a Dadaist interpretation of "Sky King," the '50s contemporary Western TV series. Duck's Breath has also whipped up a handful of new sketches including a musical takeoff on the new militia culture.

The appeal of Duck's Breath Mystery Theatre during its '80s heyday was based largely on its ability to creatively combine and juxtapose both cerebral and screwball comedy.

"People liked watching five guys who were kind of smart but who weren't afraid at all about acting like complete idiots," says Turner.

The troupe's Merle Kessler describes the typical Duck's Breath fan as a well-educated and underpaid "geek-oid." Not surprisingly, four of the five members of Duck's Breath have advanced degrees in either theater or writing. All met while attending the University of Iowa in the early-to-mid-'70s. Turner dropped out of college as an undergraduate.

"We drifted out of school and we didn't have any plans; we just started doing these [comedy] shows," recalls Kessler. "It seemed like as good a way as any to make a living."

A year after it formed in 1975, Duck's Breath moved from Iowa City, Iowa, where it was often paid in beer, to San Francisco where, Kessler jokes, it "was paid in Perrier." The troupe slowly moved up the performing ranks in its adoptive hometown. It also began to tour cities and college towns across the country for up to four months out of each year.

But by the mid-'80s, Duck's Breath began to lose some of its creative cohesion, Kessler says. Instead of developing ideas for the entire group, the individual members began creating their own skits and characters.

"The way [the group dissolved] was that our shows started to be each one of us doing solo pieces one after another," Kessler says. "That helped seal the fate of the group. I missed creating stuff together."

At least on a national level, the solo characters ultimately proved more popular than Duck's Breath as a whole. In 1988, MTV began featuring Turner's Randee of the Redwoods character during its 20th anniversary celebration of the Summer of Love. A hard-core hippie, the airheaded Randee worked so well for MTV that it launched a tongue-in-cheek campaign to get him elected President.

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The Kessler-spawned Ian Shoales character also became an occasional guest on ABC's "Nightline" during the mid-to-late-'80s. Ted Koppel, the show's host, became a fan of the acerbic and curmudgeonly social critic through the ensemble's regular broadcasts on National Public Radio.

Coffey's perpetually misinformed Dr. Science even landed his own Saturday morning Fox TV show for one season in 1987. Dr. Science can currently be heard on more than 80 public radio stations, though none in the Los Angeles area. This bogus academician (he claims to have a degree in "science") is known for his pithy responses to some of life's most perplexing questions. Example: "Why do the pens in banks never work?" "Once chained, pens lose the will to write," responds the good doctor.

According to Kessler and Turner, Duck's Breath never formally called it quits. Its members simply drifted apart.

"The only way we could make money was by touring," Turner says. "But after a certain point it was no fun making a living touring. We tried to sell ourselves as a group for TV and film, but it's hard to do that with five people. Nobody could quite figure out what to do with us. So naturally people started landing solo jobs. The more that happened the more splintered the group got."

Dr. Science, Randee and Shoales will all make appearances at the LunaPark shows. But the performances will emphasize ensemble skits rather than the group's solo characters.

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