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Oct 27, 2014 9:40 AM

TruTV goes for laughs with 'Friends of the People'

The Associated Press

NEW YORK (AP) Sketch-comedy shows are like frozen-yogurt shops: While there are probably way too many, most are good enough to stay afloat.

Still, it takes a special breed of fro-yo shop to make it worth seeking out in a strange neighborhood.

Same with sketch comedy. But "Friends of the People" should tickle your comedy sweet tooth more than most. Which means it's well worth tracking down on truTV, a network that heretofore was never known for funny, where it premieres Tuesday at 10:30 p.m. EDT.

What sets this TV troupe apart (other than the network where it's found)? For one thing, its demographic makeup: six guys (five African-American and one Caucasian), plus one lone white gal.

That diverse composition (which recalls the Fox comedy series "In Living Color" from a quarter-century ago) seems less notable, however, than how the show's seven talents have fused larkily into a singular identity: one of playful absurdity that mines humor from daily life, including but hardly limited to race in its single-minded pursuit of laughs.

"Race has a personality on the show in a good way, but we don't want any one thing to dictate the show," says Jennifer Bartels, who, even as the gang's sole female, regards herself as one of the boys. "We want the funniest stuff to get in."

"A lot of our sketches don't touch on race, and if they do, it's in a very stupid, silly way," says Lil Rel Howery, who at this moment looks plenty silly in his black spandex Power Rangers suit while taking a break at a Manhattan public park with fellow cast mates dressed in red, white and blue versions of that same uniform. They're filming a sketch in which Howery mistakes his character not as the black-clad Power Ranger but as a Black Power ranger who disrupts production of the "Power Rangers" TV show by thrusting his fist in the air and strutting around in a dashiki.

"We're some silly people, man," Howery chuckles.

Scheduled for a future airing in the 10-episode first season, the sketch marks the end of five months of writing and production, which has gathered these young writer-performers (and, yes, friends) for what Bartels cheerfully likens to "a really long RV trip where sometimes the toilet gets clogged."

"It's seven different voices with different styles of comedy," says Kevin Barnett, one of the show's two head writers, "but we meet in the middle in terms of what we think is funny."

"And we all feed off each other," adds cast mate Jermaine Fowler.

"We're not a sketch group," sums up Josh Rabinowitz, the white guy and the other head writer. "It's more like a collective of separate comedians who are friends and came together to do stuff."

On the premiere episode, their stuff includes:

A sketch in which an NBA player rocks the sports world by coming out as monogamous, a condition, says the shocked commentator, "thought to be nonexistent in professional sports."

A spoof of "Seinfeld" peopled by cocaine dealers called "Drug Deal About Nothing."

An edition of "Squabblin & Quarrelin," which parodies ESPN's "Pardon the Interruption," with lookalike co-hosts who laconically agree on every topic they raise.

This duo is played by identical twins Keith and Kenny Lucas, happily interchangeable members of the troupe who take a deadpan approach to comedy that could be described as "Bob Newhart-esque but a little more absurd and a lot more urban," says Keith (or is it Kenny?).

The Lucas Bros. came to comedy when Kenny took an improv course and, in his first faltering attempts at standup, concluded, "If I did this a hundred times, I'd probably be OK at it," then dropped out of law school and recruited Keith, who also ditched his law school aspirations, reasoning, "We needed to do something that would put us together."

They're together now with the other zany Friends of the People, whose show is part of a revamping of truTV. Adopting the slogan "Way More Fun," the network this week is also premiering "Fake Off," a performance competition series; "Hair Jacked," described as an ambush game show that takes place in a hair salon; and a wacky advice show, "How to Be a Grown-up." More fun stuff is in the pipeline.

"We are leaning more into the comedic," says truTV's president and programming boss, Chris Linn. "We've been looking for young creatives who have a real vision for their projects. Then we let their recipe for comedy find itself."

That appears to be true with "Friends of the People," according to Jermaine Fowler.

"We don't feel filtered," he says. "We feel like our vision is manifested 100 percent."

It's a treat.


EDITOR'S NOTE: Frazier Moore is a national television columnist for The Associated Press. He can be reached at fmoore@ap.org and at http://www.twitter.com/tvfrazier. Past stories are available at http://bigstory.ap.org/content/frazier-moore





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