By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
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?"
The audience erupts with laughter, and Orvik addresses the fictional DJ dad. "Sir," he says. "I respect your daughter in every way. With all due respect, how much, hypothermically, would it cost to cover this woman in peanut butter and force her to fuck a badger to death?"
Section 8 is not known for clean comedy. The "fast-paced, in your face, rock 'n' roll comedy" described in their motto tends toward R-rated because it's what makes them laugh. In Orvik's case, this penchant for dirty humor became a lifeline as he lay in the hospital connected to tubes and growing more skeletal by the day (he says he lost 46 pounds in three weeks, and he was skinny to start with).
"You have to make light of it," he says. "If you dwell on something like this, you're screwed."
Research details the role of humor in physical and psychological healing. Articles released by the American Psychological Association and the international Association for Applied and Therapeutic Humor point out that laughter stimulates blood flow, reduces stress-related hormones, increases antibodies and displaces negative emotions like anger, resentment and sadness.
Samuel Roll, a professor emeritus of psychology at the University of New Mexico who has lectured nationwide on the therapeutic power of humor, says that while most research has focused on the people laughing at jokes rather than making them, a comedian laughing with people while he's performing derives the same benefits. Being a humorist also reaps its own rewards, he adds, especially during a health crisis. "Telling jokes is empowering because you can drive people to laughter," Roll says. "And when you're going through anything physical, you're tuned into your own body. Performing lets you get out of yourself in a very important way."
Making jokes is a natural way to relieve anxiety about one's insecurities, Roll says, and most jokes are designed—consciously or not—to do just that. Josh Martin, Orvik's best friend, the godfather of his sons and a Section 8 cofounder, is squeamish around blood and didn't want to see where his friend had been sliced open from gut to gizzard. So naturally, whenever Martin came to visit, Orvik lifted his shirt, showed him the wound and said, "Check out the hole in my stomach!"
One day while Orvik was waiting for a doctor during a friend's visit, he staged a photograph he calls, "Before Boner Reduction Surgery." The image shows him lying on a gurney surrounded by boxes of latex gloves and medical instruments. Strategically placed beneath the sheet is a 3-and-a-half-foot monolith rising toward the ceiling (an IV pole).
"When the doctor came in I told him that I had been bitten on my penis by a rattlesnake and he had to suck the poison out," Orvik says. "He thought that was funny. The nurse was mortified. I looked at her and said, 'Save me.' I was very bored and looped on morphine."
Amid his multiple surgeries, laughing and making light of life became crucial. This grew especially clear during the three days that he shared a hospital room with a Texarkana physician who was losing his vision. The man would talk about the worst-case scenarios for both of them, which to Orvik was less than helpful. "He would talk about the fatality rate of peritonitis [between 10 and 40 percent, especially if not treated within 48 hours], and after a while I had to tell him, 'Hey, look man, I don't want to talk about that,'" Orvik recalls. "Unless you're gonna tell me I'm gonna shit unicorns and sell 'em on eBay, I don't want to hear about it."
Orvik's favorite roommate was a middle-aged man from Oak Cliff who also was suffering from peritonitis. Instead of talking about their health problems, they chatted about sports, watched TNT—"We'd plan our whole day around some Ice Cube movie!" Orvik says. "I mean, I was like, 'Do you realize we gotta be seriously fucked up? We're analyzing Ice Cube's acting ability!'"—and flirted with the nurses, who, if they weren't genuinely entertained, humored the men.
"They'd come by and let me do what I do, make them laugh," Orvik says. "It helped."
He took to calling his roommate Bedpan because the man frequently needed one. Intermittently throughout the day and night, the guy would push the intercom button and say, simply, "Bedpan." The nurses often failed to understand his deep, gravelly voice, and he would have to repeat himself numerous times.
"We had a unified front," Orvik says. "He'd push the button, and then I'd push mine and say, "Bedpan needs a bedpan. You know he's gonna shit his pants, right?'"
The closest the two ever came to heartfelt exchanges was when Orvik shared a jumbo bag of Jolly Ranchers, a gift from Martin. Bedpan—who was also discharged and who Orvik still runs into at the hospital occasionally—looked at him with such gratitude, he says, it was as if he'd "given him a house." They clearly bonded through their banter. "I'll never forget Bedpan," Orvik says. "Ever."
From the time he was a kid growing up the youngest of three children in the tiny Air Force town of Knob Noster, Missouri, Orvik's irreverent, oddball humor defined him. His father died of cancer when he was 5, and his mother, Denise, a chipper, no-nonsense Australian, says Orvik used his ability to make people laugh to lighten the mood and distract himself from the fact that while his friends had fathers, he did not. At 6, she says, he began charging a dollar at family events to imitate television characters such as The Little Rascals. Orvik first noticed his knack for improvisation in the third grade, when he played the narrator in a class play. "I didn't memorize the lines," he says. "I just knew I could make my way out of the scene and make it funnier." When his sister decided to take acting classes two years later, he went along and surprised the teacher by riffing on various topics without a script.
"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.
Before their Thanksgiving show at Ozona, the guys are cutting up construction paper for costumes while Orvik's sons scamper onstage. Max, 6, shouts gibberish into one of the mics, then he and his older brother share a conspiratorial glance and begin talking about—what else?—farts.
"How 'bout a joke?" Orvik says. Then he adds, without irony, "A clean joke?"
Max looks at his father. "Stinky farts!" he says with glee.
A few minutes later, Orvik's mother arrives to take the boys to a Mavericks game. They give Martin high-fives before running out the door.
Orvik, Silva, Little and Martin begin to cut out feathers and pilgrim hats in earnest. This is Orvik's third month of performing after missing dozens of shows. (The troupe held a benefit over the summer to raise money for his medical bills, which he says amount to around half a million dollars, and while the troupe's ninth anniversary was in April, they waited until September to do their commemorative show so he could join them.) Though Orvik stopped smoking and drinking since he got sick, he's been allowing himself a couple of beers.
"So I've been doing this fake game show with Max and Mason," he tells his friends. "It's called, 'Eat Those Kids!'" He launches into a booming game-show host voice. "Here's the first contestant—he weighs in at 300 pounds. How long do you think it would take him to eat those kids?" He switches to a different voice. "I can eat those kids in a minute and a half!" He chuckles, revealing a crooked right eye tooth.
"Hey," Little interrupts. "Don't lose my tape. It's Christmas season, and my wife'll kill me."
Orvik takes the opportunity to parody Little's wife. "Where's my tape?" he shrieks, shrew-like.
"Hey," Silva says, "s`hould I be an Indian since I'm brown?"
"We already have Indians," Orvik says.
"But we should find more ways to make fun of you since you're brown," Little says.
"I didn't know what wetback meant for a long time," says Rager, never one to miss a chance to riff on race or the ignorance that drives discrimination. "I thought it was because their hair was all slicked back."
Silva stops cutting and rolls his eyes. "You know I'm in the same room, right?"
Rager laughs. "Hey, Greg," he says, "where do they keep the brooms 'round here?"
"You can make fun of me all you want," Silva replies. "Because at night I sleep in the warm glow of my college degree."
A few minutes later, before they run through an interpretive dance number to Jon Bon Jovi's "Livin' on a Prayer," they debate the question of precisely how many testicles a man signs over to his wife when he gets married (Silva says it's just one, but Orvik insists the answer is both). Then, as they're reserving a table for a birthday party, someone starts the inevitable round of "pussy" jokes—who gets it, who doesn't, etcetera. Orvik, suddenly serious, makes a point to mention that they have an honor code along these lines. "No cheating," he says. "If they lie to their wives, they'll lie to you. You cheat, we tell."
The show begins with a sketch called "Experts," in which the audience suggests a topic—this time, gonorrhea—and Orvik and McFarland riff back and forth about it while every time Rager claps, whoever's talking stops in mid-sentence and the other takes over.
"I got gonorrhea in 1988 at the Galleria Mall," Orvik says with an effeminate lisp. "They were having a sale on capri pants, so naturally I went..." CLAP.
"We were there for an outing, if you will," McFarland says. "An outing."
After a few more back-and-forths, they move on to a game they call intervention, in which the group stages an intervention, and from their improvised clues, the "addict" has to guess his substance or activity of choice. Orvik's clues, "You know, the thing about Jane Fonda is she was great friends with Miles Davis," and "Miles Davis was the first guy on the moon to wear leg warmers," prompt Rager to correctly guess Jazzercise (the week before, Orvik claimed a high laughter ratio during this game when, as a clue for racquetball, he said, "Ever hit your balls so hard on a white wall it leaves skid marks?")
Next is the Third-Grade Thanksgiving play, which features Orvik as Sacagawea—or, as he says proudly, "Sack o' Fajitas!"—and quickly devolves into a chaos of nose-picking, line-forgetting and tear-filled brawls. They end the show dancing in tube tops to Bon Jovi, and though Orvik hasn't been cleared by his doctors to work, he twirls around onstage wearing a blond, curly wig.
By the time their first Christmas show begins in mid-December, he's impatient to have what he hopes will be his last surgery. Until his stomach is entirely healed, he has to contend with two fistulas, or tubular holes, that must be kept bandaged and that, if allowed to close improperly, cause him to grow ill. Tonight he plays a crass New Yorker with an obnoxious accent who, in an audition to work as a mall Santa Claus, says, "Ho, ho, ho, merry fuckin' Christmas, guys," then tells the imaginary kid in his lap that the Barbie Dream House, while a decent gift, "is gonna be hard to take with you when you have to go from your dad's house to your mom's house every fuckin' week."
In late December, Orvik goes to the hospital for an appointment. The doctor tells him that rather than risk an additional surgery that could worsen the fistulas or create more, they'll wait to see if the openings in his abdomen close on their own. It's a major blow. He'd been hoping the constant pain would be put to rest with an operation, and now there seems to be no end in sight.
"The next appointment is February 24, so I gotta stay like this till then," he says. "I can't eat without hurting. I can't even move without hurting. It's getting old."
He was hoping to recover in time to do his winter ritual with his sons. Every year, they take a trip they call "Drive to Snow," which means they find out where the closest snowfall is and drive there. This year at least, the boys may have to make do with the new mini bike he bought them. But in spite of his disappointment, Orvik tries to remember that on some level, he's lucky to be able to do anything.
"Since I got sick, I treat every show like it could be the last," he says. "People say it all the time, 'Act like today's the last day.' Well, I do that now. It's a nice way to live. All I wanted to do was do shows and be with my kids, and I'm getting to do both."