By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Absurd as it sounds, he insists the culprit was a piece of plastic. Mark Orvik—small-town boy, high jinks master and improv imitator of sleazy rednecks, British barflies and '80s rockers—was waiting tables at his day job last spring when he accidentally stepped on a plastic bib. It was small, he says, the sort parents put on a baby. Orvik slipped. His legs flew out from under him. Before he could break the fall with his hands, he belly-flopped and his lanky 6-foot-3-inch frame sprawled on the floor of Dick's Last Resort amid tables of bachelorette party revelers.
That split second irrevocably altered his year, transforming 2008 into a near-fatal nightmare. It didn't seem serious at first. He had flu-like symptoms and figured he'd caught something from one of his sons. It wasn't until several days later, after his mother rushed him to the emergency room, that he found out he had a perforated bowel. Waste had spewed into his abdominal cavity, fueling a raging infection called peritonitis that could have killed him. It was, he would joke later, a real shit storm. Six surgeries in less than two weeks. Eight days in intensive care at Parkland Hospital. Weeks with no real food and months without the two things most important to the 36-year-old comedian: roughhousing with his sons and performing improv comedy with co-members of Dallas' beloved Section 8 comedy troupe, which turns 10 this year.
Nine months after he was first admitted to the hospital, Orvik's abdomen is still not healed. Yet if there's one thing that helps him forget about that, it's trying to be funny onstage. One Tuesday night in late November finds him preparing for a Section 8 comedy show at the Ozona Grill and Bar. The troupe performs nearly every week in the restaurant's back room, a windowless cavern with a stage and small bar that sells $5 pitchers of beer. The doors haven't opened yet, and Orvik, wearing a loose-fitting sweatshirt to cover his bandaged middle, is writing the night's line-up on a dry-erase board. He takes a break to talk about his morning visit to the hospital, where he waited nearly four hours to be seen for an appointment to assess further surgeries. His lack of health insurance has meant lengthy waits in the lobby and a constantly shifting coterie of doctors. One physician stands out from the rest, though. The man was nice, thorough and even gave out his business card.
"Dr. Lipshitz—he was cool," Orvik says. "I told him I wouldn't make any jokes out of respect. I mean, it's just so easy, it's right there." He deadpans. "If your lip shits, what does your asshole do?"
Ill or not, such mental contortions come natural to Orvik. That's why he excels at an improv game Section 8 calls "Last Line." Every time a guitar sounds during the sketch, the last person to speak has to revise his last line while keeping it relevant to the scene. Tonight, when it's time for Last Line, Orvik walks onstage with Chris Rager and Mike McFarland. Rager and Orvik will improvise a scene based on a location suggested by the audience, and McFarland will play the guitar to signal when they have to change their last line. The men ask the 80 or so spectators for a good place to stage their dialogue.
"Titty bar!" someone yells.
Orvik and Rager sit down, lean back and pretend to watch a stripper.
Orvik squints under the lights, making his eyes into hooded slits. "Hey," he says with a thick country twang. "You think those stitches are fresh?"
Rager's response is lost in the ensuing laughter.
"I used to throw money. Now I throw chicken wings," Orvik says. "I start out with something small, like a celery stick, just to let 'em know it's coming."
"Do they respond the same way to chicken wings as they do to money?" says Rager, whose husky voice sounds so eerily like Seth Rogen's that he once convinced a friend's wife that he was the actor during a prank call.
"Sometimes," Orvik says.
McFarland strums the guitar, signaling him to change the line.
"No," Orvik says.
McFarland strums again.
"Yes," Orvik says without skipping a beat.
An announcement sounds from the back of the room: "All right, gentlemen, please welcome the lovely Febreze to center stage!"
Greg Silva sashays onto the stage wearing a headband with fuzzy bunny ears.
"Lordy, I've never seen titties like that in my life!" a breathless Rager says as Silva, looking like Kung Fu Panda, starts to dance. "What's your story, baby?"
"Rent's due, and I'm short," Silva says, slurring. Apparently the lovely Febreze has had a few, and Orvik takes notice.
"When you have a drunk stripper, there's a few things you can do," he tells Rager. "Like say, 'Hey, I pay child support.'"
The guitar sounds.
"When a stripper's this drunk," he repeats, "All you gotta say is, 'Hey, I can make your D at Richland into a B!"
Soon the two are requesting songs and Silva-as-Febreze looks out at the imaginary DJ and says, "Dad, do you know that one?"