Comedy

Four Day Weekend Comedy Troupe's Formula For Success Is Simple: Go Have Fun

The cast of Four Day Weekend.
The cast of Four Day Weekend. Kathy Tran
The performers of Four Day Weekend usually don't warm up before a show. The last 25 concurrent years have been one, long warm up for them.

"It's like a telepathic vibe. The conversation is our warm-up," says troupe member Grayson Howe.

From the OGs to the young'uns, all members are dressed in dark formal wear on this Saturday in May, ready for the last of two 25th anniversary shows. You might think they were pinch hitters for pallbearers at a funeral parlor, if you couldn't hear the conversations in the upstairs green room of the Four Day Weekend's Dallas theater on Sears Street in Lowest Greenville.

They share stories about their children's "first pun," in which troupe member Emily Zawiska's daughter quipped "Sam Antonio." The "Sam" part is lost in the conversation, but her cast mate Andrew Hammer picks up the joke and turns it into his own by referencing Antonio Banderas, more specifically, "Sans Antonio."

Josh Roberts explains his signature show drink. It's called a Colorado Bulldog, which sounds like a joke when he mentions that it's "a White Russian with Coke in it" and yes, he meant the soda. It's not a bit. That's just the set up. His warm-up involves doing made-up commercials  à la Suntory's Hibiki 17 ads, which Bill Murray's character did at the start of Lost in Translation.

"Life in shambles?" Roberts asks with his hand glommed on an imaginary drink. "Good. Colorado Bulldog."

The chatter gets more show focused as the sold-out crowd descends. Almost all 25 years worth of performers will get to take the stage at the theater on either night for a retrospective showcase of improv, characters and videos.

"Do we go downstairs after Elvis?" Zawiska asks, referring to the cue music that marks the start of the show.

The only person who isn't cracking jokes about cast member Oliver Tull still doing the show just a few weeks after an invasive back surgery or the snacks in the green room is founding cast member David Wilk who started the theater company with Frank Ford, David Ahearn and Troy Grant. Wilk is but a blur between rooms as he checks on tech, the box office, a crowd filling two floors of seating and probably 20 other things out of sight.

"I'm already sweating," Wilk says during one of the few moments he stops to take a break.

All of this is what makes a show like Four Day Weekend's work. It's just friends, old and new, coming together to sew up the seams before the show and playing together in front of an audience when it's time.

"It's really fun to be around talented, creative people," Ford says. "For the longest time, when we started in improv especially, this is a young person's game. We thought we can't still be doing this in our 30s. The audience would never allow for this, and then you get in your 30s and it's funny. We don't care. We just like funny. We would never have thought we would still be around doing it. We thought six weeks. That's it."
click to enlarge Four Day Weekend comedians (top, from left) Oliver Tull, Daniel Matthews, Emily Zawisza, Paul Kolker, Grayson Howe. Andrew Hammer is on the floor. - KATHY TRAN
Four Day Weekend comedians (top, from left) Oliver Tull, Daniel Matthews, Emily Zawisza, Paul Kolker, Grayson Howe. Andrew Hammer is on the floor.
Kathy Tran

The six weeks Ford mentions happened in 1997 with the troupe's first run of shows at the Casa Mañana theater in downtown Fort Worth. Wilk says he, Ford and Grant put up $700 each after persuaded the owners to let them do a long-form improvised comedy set each night — something no one was doing with any regularity in Dallas or Fort Worth — after a performance of the off-Broadway musical Forever Plaid. The three met while doing short-form improv around North Texas, becoming active in places they've long since outlived, like Ad-Libs in Deep Ellum.

"There were plenty of working troupes and we were all scrambling for space," Wilk says.

That's when Grant suggested they move the show to Fort Worth.

"We all piled in our cars and drove over there on a Wednesday night and the square was jumping," Wilk says. "I mean it was popping. I remember looking at Troy and saying, 'Wow, if you're in downtown Dallas at 8 p.m. on a Wednesday, your Greyhound bus is late.'"

The six-week run of shows led to the discovery of a huge, unused theater space in Fort Worth that's grown into a comedy production juggernaut. Four Day Weekend is still more than capable of producing sold-out weekend stage shows and weekday shows by local troupes, corporate event productions and advertising campaigns. The ad work is done through the company's Four Day Creative wing and some of the local troupes come from Four Day Weekend's 4U sketch and improv training center. It's run by performers who studied at such storied comedy institutions as Second City and the Upright Citizens Brigade. 4U's classes are free.
click to enlarge A group stand-up routine. - KATHY TRAN
A group stand-up routine.
Kathy Tran

The thriving theater production has survived a global recession and a viral pandemic and has produced three television pilots that led to a single-season, five-minute talk show series on The CW called Small Time. They've met and even performed with two U.S. presidents. They've produced uncounted commercials for global corporations that earned the company's first Addy Award, a key to the city of Fort Worth, an entrepreneur-in-residence with Texas Christian University (TCU) and two theater shows that continue to sell out on Friday and Saturday nights. The fans come regardless of whether the cast consists of some of the four originals or the newer members, who've added their own talents to a growing improv comedy showcase.

"Sometimes I'm like I cannot believe the show has been running 25 years," Wilk says. "I'm so proud, and other times I'm like, I'm still doing improv?"

click to enlarge Josh Roberts, David Wilk, Frank Ford and David Ahearn re-create a photo of the troupe’s founding members, with Roberts subbing for Troy Grant in the original. - KATHY TRAN
Josh Roberts, David Wilk, Frank Ford and David Ahearn re-create a photo of the troupe’s founding members, with Roberts subbing for Troy Grant in the original.
Kathy Tran

Three Black Chairs and a Bag of Wigs

The group came together in 1997 after its founders grew disillusioned  with the loneliness of stand-up and the short-form format that populated most live improvised shows. At the time, improv comedy came in the form of short bursts of pre-formatted formulas or deconstruction of established scenes rather than building on original characters and stories. Ford, Wilk and Grant started the group and recruited Ahearn for their first run.

"Ahearn was saying, 'I'm gonna catch you guys at the show on Friday,'" Grant says. "David said, 'Yeah, you're gonna be in the show.'

"We wanted to do a lot more edgy stuff," Grant adds. "We'd been inspired by Second City. We'd been going there and seeing their stuff with people like Tina Fey and Steve Carell. They would start every show with a Pirandello. Basically, it's like you would start off with just a little fake-out to the audience. Oh, the show's starting but there's some sort of problem where this light didn't come on and there's a feeling of disturbance in the audience and then you'd let them off the hook in a way that's funny."

The crew spent as much time as they could in between odd jobs performing spectacles and busking outside the theater to bring in audiences or taking classes around North Texas and even as far away as Second City in Chicago. Wilk would hitch a ride in the back of the plane belonging to his father, Dr. Larry Wilk, who ran canceled checks for the U.S. Federal Reserve across the country long before the process could become digitized. David would map out the routes his father would take and sleep in the back on piles of canceled checks to get to Chicago.
click to enlarge Sallie Bowen and Bonnie Criss perform. - KATHY TRAN
Sallie Bowen and Bonnie Criss perform.
Kathy Tran
"It would take me 27 hours to go to a three-hour class in Chicago, but I loved it," Wilk says. "I wanted to do it right and learn."

A feature story about the group appeared in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram in which reporter Todd Camp followed Wilk and his crew for a week, including on his father's flight route to Chicago. They also staged some outdoor spectacles to drum up interest in the shows and attracted sizable crowds with their "attempts" to mimic Richard Branson's globe-crossing balloon ride and by re-creating the "I'm the king of the world!" scene in James Cameron's Titanic in a much smaller simulated ocean. Pretty soon, Four Day Weekend started selling out its main shows.

"One group that helped us get through year one were the TCU students," Ford says. "College kids could go out to a show at 11 p.m. on a Friday or Saturday and helped build up our name and reputation. It was all word of mouth. We had to kick butt on the quality of shows. Nobody could miss."

Four Day Weekend had grown a dedicated following but needed a bigger space. The following year, they found it when Wilk and his wife, Amy, had a wedding reception on the roof of Fort Worth's Caravan of Dreams. The rain forced the wedding party to move inside to a huge, 121-seat theater space that had gone unused for years.

"You run your show for eight weeks and then what you do is you go dark and you cast, rehearse and build sets," Wilk says. "So with all of that downtown, nobody could afford to make it go, and we're like, 'Hey man, we're three black chairs and a bag of wigs.'"

The group also set up their first official home right when the city of Fort Worth started planning to build out its downtown area to bring in more visitors.

"Again, lightning in a bottle," Ford says. "Synchronicity has been the key to our success."

click to enlarge Music director Jordan Fruge and the audience - KATHY TRAN
Music director Jordan Fruge and the audience
Kathy Tran

Making Fun

Four Day opened its second theater in Lowest Greenville in 2018 when Truck Yard owner and former Four Day student Jason Boso bought the old Contemporary Theater building across the street for his corporate offices and offered Four Day the chance to use its main theater and upstairs space as a second location.

"They're my friends, and I like what they do," Boso says. "They've been around for 20-plus years, so I figured they weren't gonna screw it up if they'd been doing it for 20 years."

The shows then and now are a mix of short-form games in which suggestions come from the audience with words or sayings written on post-it notes and cards so it's easy to avoid obvious political references or the drunk smart ass who just wants to yell dumb shit like "Pineapple!" "Penis!" or "Tampon!" all night. That jumps off into long-form scenes and musical numbers built on characters and stories. They don't tell you what they're going to do and then do it. They just do it.

"Four Day is sort of its own animal in a sense," says cast member Daniel Matthews. "It's a different style of improv in a nicer venue. It's polished, is the general adjective that I use."

Even though scenes are improvised, Four Day has developed recurring characters that have become audience favorites, such as the Fort Worth cops Officer Muchacho (Wilk) and Deputy Doyle (Ford), with whom they integrate a live backstage video feed to mimic the jumpy camera style of the long-running reality series COPS. Wilk has closed the majority of his shows with a character named Timmy, a pie-eyed, optimistic, orphaned kid in a backwards red cap and football jersey who pulls someone out of the audience to be their big brother. Wilk retired the character at the anniversary show in a sickly sweet scene in which Timmy's dad, played by Grant, finally returns to pick up the ageless boy wonder and tells him how much he loves him.

The group's NPR parody gave birth to the improvised songs of blues singer Blind Stinky Fruit Rollup, played by the group's fifth member Tull, whom, Wilk says during Saturday's show, was hired when they realized "we need real talent."

"I love the music," says cast member Colten Winburn, who performs improvised songs in Four Day's talent show parody segment America's Got Idol Factor, in which made-up bands and singers improvise impressive lyrics and songs.

Musical director Ray Sharp plays piano throughout the show and Winburn plays guitar and even a loop machine to produce a solo a capella tune.

"Four Day generally has a lot more music involved in the show, especially compared to other theaters around here," Winburn says. "Another big thing that sets it apart is the production value. We'll take something essentially that's just a short form game, but we add a video intro or sound effects to it. It heightens the quality of it."

The video production also helped grow the corporate arm of the theater's work, which brings in about 70 percent of its revenue. It came out of the Great Recession of 2008 when entertainment was the first thing to get cut out of people's budgets. This forced the troupe to find another way to make money as a "happy accident," Wilk says.

"That one gave us an entire revenue stream off of corporate training," Wilk says. "That was really not on our brain."

Zawiska, the troupe's first female cast member, who also works as Four Day's director of corporate sales, says part of the formula for survival comes from learning how to produce something when one avenue closes, as happened during the coronavirus pandemic. Without live shows or corporate events, the group converted the Dallas theater into a multi-camera studio to stage live presentations, workshops and shows on Zoom during the shutdown.

"It was an opportunity to look at our strengths in the team we had [but] in a different perspective," Zawiska says. "It was a little bit of building the plane in the air and adapting and figuring our what works but being able to do it in a virtual space. And by the summer of 2020, we were rocking and rolling with new content every week."

click to enlarge Daniel Matthews with his cat puppet - KATHY TRAN
Daniel Matthews with his cat puppet
Kathy Tran
New members also add their particular talents, such as Matthews, whose training in puppetry created the popular "Four Day Weekend Junior" segment in the Friday and Saturday shows, where a cheery kids' show host and a bipolar, anthropomorphic cat teach kids complex subjects through guest experts and songs.

"In improv, you have to set people up for success," Ford says. "You can't set people up for failure. If we were making fun of instead of making fun with, making them look dumb for two minutes for a cheap laugh, then the whole thing is dumb. You just can't do it long-term like that."

Such dedication doesn't just build up performers in Four Day's show. It also builds up Dallas' comedy community as a destination for storied talent with a reputation that spreads far beyond the state's borders.

"They just validate live entertainment in Dallas," says Sean Traynor, the district manager for the Improv comedy chain, which has locations in Addison and Arlington. "Let's just say you're thinking of going to see a play, and it's the worst play you've ever seen in your life. Like, ugh, that play was terrible. I'm not going to do that again. When someone gets there once or twice a year and wants to see stand-up comedy or improv, it's important that they see something amazing. They go, 'Man, that was just a good time. Why don't we do that more often?' It literally tells people, 'Don't stay in your shell. Netflix isn't everything' and the next thing you know, they come see us."

Comedy isn't built on competition or even commerce. Wilk says it's built on camaraderie.

"At the heart of it, we get to play with our best friends and they end up paying for it," Wilk says. "We would've done it for free and we did for many years. We just get to play for a living and be with our best friends and meet new best friends." 
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Danny Gallagher has been a regular contributor to the Dallas Observer since 2014. He has also written features, essays and stories for MTV, the Chicago Tribune, Maxim, Cracked, Mental_Floss, The Week, CNET and The Onion AV Club.