NYC's Tom Brennan is bringing his comedy show to Philly

When NYC comedy debate show Electoral Dysfunction debuts tonight for the first of three pop-ups at the Adrienne Theater in Philadelphia, a sitting senator will be part of the lineup.

Producer Tom Brennan isn’t allowed to reveal the name of his last-minute special guest, he says, “because they’re worried they might catch flak for doing comedy.” But he was given permission to say that “they promised to bring a lot of people from their home state.” (Hmmm. If that’s you, Sen. Casey, got an extra ticket?)

The blend of stand-up, sketch, debate and improv is the weekly Saturday night feature at the famous PIT comedy club in Manhattan. The central location allows its roster of on-stage panelists to regularly rotate in well-known personalities, like The Daily Show co-creator Lizz Winstead and Keisha Zollar of Orange is the New Black.

But with its themes of politics and current events, Brennan felt it was only right to bring the show on the road during the Democratic National Convention.

“We figured if the people of Philadelphia had to put up with politicians, the least we could do was try to make them laugh,” he says.

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The other reason he’s here? He credits this city with his successful career.

It’s a love affair that started as early as his love for comedy. Some of the earliest laughs he provoked were unintentional, because he was a New York City kid who absolutely loved Philly.

“I begged to go there,” he says. “It was considered a weird thing.”

It was the U.S. history angle that first got him hooked, when he visited on day trips with his grandparents (they lived in Jersey, but were raised in Northeast Philly). And years later, one of the reasons he chose to attend Drexel’s Westphal College of Media Arts was “if I wanted to, I could visit the Liberty Bell every day.”

The other reason he picked Drexel was the university’s focus on real-world job skills, which it hammered home even for students in the creative arts. Brennan credits the pragmatic approach with setting him on the path to his full-time job as a comic book editor, first with Marvel and now with startup publisher Valiant.

At Marvel, he was part of the team that put out the highest-selling comic book of the last decade: The Amazing Spiderman where Spidey meets Barack Obama. Published the week before the President’s Jan. 2009 inauguration — after a last-minute whirlwind production that took only six days — the issue sold more than half a million copies.

At Valiant this year, he’s repeating the theme, but with a feminist bent. The November issue of the comic Faith, whose namesake protagonist is a sci-fi nerd who discovers she has the power to fly, will feature Hillary Clinton on its cover. Its get-out-the-vote storyline is written by yet another woman, comic book legend Louise Simpson.

Some of the women of 'Electoral Dysfunction':  Keisha Zollar, Justine Cabling and Democratic strategist Alexis Confer
Some of the women of ‘Electoral Dysfunction’: Keisha Zollar, Justine Cabling and Democratic strategist Alexis Confer Credit: Courtesy Tom Brennan

It’s tougher to get politics into comic books than comedy, though, which is one reason Brennan spends his evenings working on the improv circuit. But while it was easy for comedians of the past to simply ridicule faux pas, times have changed.

“Johnny Carson, or Jay Leno, they just poked fun. But now, either politicians manage not to look stupid — no matter whether or not you like Obama, he’s pretty good in public — or they’re just too much,” Brennan says. “A colleague who does Donald Trump impressions can’t wait until November so he can stop, because he’s not entertained by anything the guy says anymore.”

Electoral Dysfunction gets around that boredom by exploring (and poking fun at) the motivation behind what politicians do and say.

“It’s much more interesting and funny,” Brennan says. He adds: “Although, it is my hope that the moment Obama’s out of office, one of the late-night talk shows just turns it over to him. I would cancel everything for that.”

One of the things he’d have to cancel is his gig as an adjunct prof at his alma mater. To teach the Comic and Graphic Novel Editing course he created, Brennan regularly commutes back and forth to Philadelphia, and has noticed some major changes.

“What’s happening now is what I always wanted for Philly,” he says. “The comedy scene in particular has blown up since I left. It’s a town with a rep for being tough on people, so performers bring their best.”

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Danya Henninger

Danya Henninger is director of Billy Penn at WHYY, where she oversees the team, all editorial decisions, and all revenue generation — including the...