By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
"She'd let me go into the prop room, pick something out and do two minutes on it," he says. "I didn't know what improv was. I just wanted to be funny in class and make people laugh. We lived in the middle of nowhere. We had to entertain each other somehow." Later, he and his friends incorporated pranks, like the time he was given detention for mooning the girls' basketball team or the night he and his "redneck" friend Dondi Watson took Watson's sister's Fiero to a keg party and got pulled over on their way home.
"Son, do you know who I am?" the officer asked the boys.
"I don't care if you're the goddamned emperor of Japanese," replied Watson, proud of this intelligent display of wit until he was handcuffed and hauled away to jail.
After high school, Orvik took some college classes in Kansas City and wound up doing morning radio gigs, usually involving prank calls. He was thrilled to be paid for the gags, especially given what most of his friends back in Knob Noster were doing. "Most of them were working in egg factories," he says. "My friend Kirby had one of the better jobs in town, and he had to wade through the chicken shit under the chickens and fish out the dead ones. He made like $9 per hour, and he was like the Donald Trump of Knob Noster."
By his early 20s Orvik had moved to Dallas with his older brother, and he fell in love with fast-paced troupe improv while attending Richland College's theater program. "I was never interested in stand-up; I wanted to be part of an ensemble cast," he says. "Would you rather see someone hitting the ball against the wall or see two people volleying? If two to five people are up there saying stuff that's all made up in the moment and it works—that's magic."
He met Chris Rager while both were working at the Marble Slab Creamery at the Galleria Mall. They discovered they shared comedic aspirations and admired Bill Cosby, Richard Pryor, Eddie Murphy and George Carlin. Soon, they began performing as a comedy troupe called Actors Without a Stage. The group included Josh Martin, who studied acting at KD Studio and toured the world as Barney the Purple Dinosaur, as well as Mike McFarland, a graduate of the University of Texas at Arlington's theater program who would appear in commercials and do voices for cartoons such as Dragon Ball Z. In 1999, the four of them started Section 8 Comedy, a name McFarland came up with based on the military code for insanity and a reference to the dress-wearing soldier Max Klinger on M.A.S.H. In the years that followed, they were joined by Greg Silva, a former Lonestar Comedy member, and Dave Little, who has been performing in Dallas since the '80s and is known for his solo stand-up act at Addison Improv, as well as original songs compiled on albums such as, "Another Leggy Supermodel" and "You Love Comedy?"
When Martin met Orvik, he was immediately struck by his keen sense of the absurd and his ability to combine random ideas to get a laugh. "His is the unattainable," Martin says. "He doesn't waste time worrying about why or how, he just does it. I think his mind's going 90 to nothing 24/7, and we just happen to hear it on Tuesday night. Mark told me this, and I've lived it since: If they're laughing, you can't argue with funny."
After years of playing an informal game in which checkmates were measured by laughter and mastery meant one-upmanship in outrageousness and hilarity, Orvik had found a way to play onstage and get paid for it. Granted, while their weekly appearances at Ozona frequently fill the tables with laugh-seekers who pay a $10 cover, as Martin jokes, "No one has bought a house or even a watch with the money we've made." During a 2001 trip to Los Angeles to perform at the Improv, Section 8 was approached by an agent, and for a few days, the guys thought maybe they'd win entrance into that tiny club of televised and well-compensated comics on the national scene. They were disappointed when it didn't pan out, but they also point out that if you work in a creative field with a narrow margin of ultra-success and a wide margin of failure, life is easier if you're driven by something other than desire for money or fame.
"Sure, we had a goal of breaking through and having a TV show," says McFarland, 38. "But in the end it's about having fun. Anything else is extra."
For Section 8, fun is the operative word, and whether they're off or on stage, every time they hang out is a chance to practice. Their particular brand of fun is freewheeling, competitive and dirty, and it's what drives their comedy and sustains their friendship. For a time in the early years, the majority of the troupe even lived together. "We would make each other laugh and someone would say, 'Hey, that's a great improv idea.' There's a chemistry that translates to the stage," says Rager, who like most of the troupe has worked at Dick's Last Resort and done voices for cartoons, though he's best known in some circles for his "penis puppetry," which includes X-rated contortions such as "the Loch Ness monster." In nearly a decade, through girlfriends and marriage, jobs and firings and childrearing—and in Orvik's case, divorce and illness—Section 8 has managed to maintain the sort of creatively subversive, party-hearty, Old School brotherhood that most men crave when their college escapades begin to fade.