Kathy Najimy and Mo Gaffney met thanks to a fire. This particularly destructive blaze consumed the San Diego house where Gaffney was living with a roommate, and rather than retreat to their parents' respective abodes, the roommate suggested they go stay with her friend Kathy. "[My friend] was understandably distraught, which is the right way to be," Najimy remembers. "But Mo and I stayed up until 4 in the morning making fire jokes."
Jon Monastero first encountered Stephen Simon during a stint teaching eighth-grade U.S. history at a Santa Monica public school. Monastero needed a sub for his class and requested "Mr. Simon," who was famous throughout the school for keeping anarchic classrooms under control. "I came back and my classroom was intact," Monastero recalls. "So I would always request him as my sub, but I never met him. Finally, one day, maybe a year after having him sub for me, we crossed paths in the main hallway, and I said, 'Excuse me, are you Mr. Simon? Hi, I'm Mr. Monastero.'" The two eventually bonded with the help of the school's "faculty follies" show.
Doug Budin and Randall Rapstine were kindred spirits at an otherwise "horrific" dinner party in the Hollywood Hills. "The entire night, we hung out by the pool smoking," says Budin. Evan Mann and Gareth Reynolds met in college. There were no fires, pools, or unruly eighth-graders. But they clicked all the same.
Four disparate encounters produced four successful writing and performing duos. Partnerships such as these, it seems, are almost always happy accidents. The chemistry has to be just right. The two minds have to line up just so. The personal relationship has to balance with the professional one in a way that works for both parties. When all those elements align, it can make for great success.
Take Najimy and Gaffney, one of theatre's most successful writing-performing partnerships. The duo's The Kathy & Mo Show was an Off-Broadway hit in the 1980s, resulting in two popular HBO specials and a 2004 reunion that played in Los Angeles and on Broadway. A DVD of their work, which includes never-before-seen clips of the two performing together over the years, was released last month. Though both women have since had successful individual careers, they always seem to join up again. Something about performing opposite each other onstage inspires a sort of theatrical magic that's tough to explain but readily apparent to anyone watching.
"I think, like any couple that's been together—although we're not a romantic couple—but [in] any working partnership, there's a connection that you can never really and don't want to get rid of," Najimy says. "You have the urge to create with that person. There's something about doing your own material that is satisfying on a whole different level than any movie or comedy or sitcom. It's obviously material that we believe in, and it's a political, emotional outlet for us, as well as a theatrical outlet. So there's nothing I'm really prouder of in my career, because it's totally of me and totally of her."
There are certainly a few key ingredients needed to make a performing partnership work. To start with, a similar point of view seems to help. Monastero and Simon make up the Los Angeles–based comedy duo Ten West (performing Oct. 18–Nov. 16 at Sacred Fools Theater, www.tenwest.net). The pair is inspired by vaudeville, commedia, music, and clowning. One thing that makes their partnership jell is a shared sense of what's funny and what's not. "I think sharing that core comedic sensibility [is important]," Monastero says. "We kind of stay away from the scatological, and there's not a lot of cursing or poopie jokes. Let's say it was me and someone who just loves unzipping his pants and flashing his schlong around; it might be difficult to create some stuff together." Quips Simon: "Note to self: Don't bring up sketch where I drop pants."
Still, it doesn't matter where you and your partner stand on flatulence jokes or onstage nudity if you don't have that elusive, deeper connection, that inexplicable chemistry that comes across on stage or screen. "As an actor, you work with so many different people, and sometimes you click and sometimes you don't," Monastero says. "I just did a production at a 99-Seat theatre, and there was a person that I did the majority of my scenes with, and we just didn't get along. But then there are people like Stephen, and the natural chemistry's just there."
Mutual trust and genuine respect for one another are also key. Budin and Rapstine are the creators of the two-man show Common Knowledge, which was a hit at 2004's New York International Fringe Festival and enjoyed a successful run in Rochester, N.Y. The play features Budin and Rapstine portraying a variety of characters and requires them to remain in sync the entire time: While one is performing, the other is usually providing the sound effects. It helps, they say, that they appreciate each other's abilities. "We watch each other's monologues, we enjoy each other's monologues," Rapstine says. "His stuff still makes me laugh. I have favorite moments that I sit and wait for." Adds Budin, "We love watching each other, we love writing with each other, and there's nothing like when two of you come up with the right notion or the right line. [It's] incredible to have somebody to share that with. It's much better than doing it on your own."
If you manage to find someone with whom you share that kind of connection, the creative and professional rewards can be great. For one thing, it means you're never alone onstage. "If it's someone you can really count on and really mesh with and really have chemistry with, like I think Kathy and I do, you're not, for even a second when you're onstage, nervous about anything," Gaffney says. "Because I can really count on Kathy. So that's a great thing: I never worry when I'm onstage. I'd really just as soon sit there and watch her perform as anything else."
Working with a partner can also enhance your writing process. Monastero and Simon have found that working together helps their pieces evolve into something better. Monastero recalls one piece he wrote, about two guys fishing, that was set to the song "Moon River." After improvising with Simon and Ten West's director, Bryan Coffee, the piece turned into something entirely different. Now it involves a sandwich, a knife, and, yes, "Moon River," and is a crowd-pleasing staple of Ten West's stage show. "You can come in with this really chunky thing and then, working with [Simon and Coffee], collaborating, it ends up being a nice, sleek, bare-boned piece that you can put up in front of people," Monastero says.
And if those people respond to you as a pair, it can lead to more opportunities than you might get going it alone. Mann and Reynolds landed a manager, Joel Zadak of Principato-Young Entertainment, on the strength of a sketch show they put on. The duo eventually mounted a two-person show on the Comedy Central Stage. "Since then, it became kind of easier to get work: We just started getting work together, and it wasn't like we were auditioning for things; it was kind of like we were manifesting our own jobs, which is great," Mann says.
One of those jobs happened in a rather roundabout way, thanks to the natural onscreen chemistry between the two. The pair had a gig writing for Santa Monica–based marketing content company Conductor. They were asked to put a pitch on tape for Axe, an edgy brand of men's deodorant, body spray, and shower gel. In the end Axe didn't buy the pitch; instead the company signed Mann and Reynolds to do a series of irreverent Axe-promoting webisodes, which were broadcast on EvanandGareth.com. The webisodes were so popular that they are now being developed as a potential television series. "Certainly, if I was on my own, I wouldn't have gotten the Axe job," Mann says. "We've just been working together on a lot. We've done so many stupid pilots where we've been hired together to do them." Working together has also helped them hone their comedy. "I think that if we can both agree on what's funny, it's absolutely funny," Reynolds says. "Whereas, if I think something's funny or good and Evan doesn't, or vice versa, who knows? But I think we're really good at getting along and not really being selfish or anything like that and just kind of trying to make things funny, making that the overall goal. I think once we agree on something, we know that it's good."
The bond between partners tends to be a complicated, occasionally delicate thing. Working so closely with someone is an intimate experience, different from most of the relationships you might have in your professional life. Many duos describe it as akin to marriage. "I think [the show] has actually been good for our friendship and also sort of supercedes it," says Rapstine of Common Knowledge. "[I don't] have a wife and kids or a partner with kids, but it's the same thing. Eventually you have to put the differences aside for the good of the child, and our child is the show."
That doesn't mean you can't fight. Rapstine and Budin note that a little fighting may be necessary, especially because both partners are probably creative, passionate individuals. It just can't get in the way of your respect for the other person. "One of the biggest fights we ever got into was, one of us wanted to use the word 'ghoul' and the other wanted to use the word 'goblin,'" says Budin, laughing. "And we had to call a third party to mediate because neither of us would budge…. [But] getting into a fight is not going to allow me to lose respect for what Randall does."
To preserve your professional relationship, special attention may need to be paid to your personal one. Simon and Monastero, for example, don't hang out much outside of Ten West. It's not something they planned, Monastero says, it just sort of happened organically. "There's a part of me that thinks, if we weren't in Ten West, we probably would go to the movies and go fishing or scuba diving or hiking or whatever," he says. "But I think it's important for us to be apart as well, because when you're creating, it's really an intense thing, and it can be exhausting…. I have a tremendous respect for Stephen as a person and as an artist, of course. But there's a separation there that is a healthy one for us, creatively." Adds Simon, "Because we have the separate experiences, when we come to work together, I think it's that much richer. Whereas if we were always doing the same thing together, I think we would tend to recycle."
Having your career inextricably linked with another person's can also make for unique obstacles. If your partner experiences unexpected life complications, for example, it affects you, too. Rapstine and Budin ran into this situation while in the middle of their successful run in Rochester. Rapstine's partner was diagnosed with cancer, an ordeal that eventually put the show on hold for two years. "Doug graciously said, 'You need to go deal with that,' but we were in the midst of a run," Rapstine recalls. "That meant that the show has not been done for the last two years while I dealt with this." Budin and Rapstine don't see the complications of working with a partner as a negative, however. "We have this show because of the two of us," Budin says. Currently, Rapstine's partner is cancer-free, and Budin and Rapstine are hoping to find a producer for their newest version of Common Knowledge. They have an open invitation to return to Rochester and would also like to put the show up in L.A.
Another potential complication of a partnership is that the industry sometimes can't see beyond it. "People have a tendency to see you as joined at the hip—like you don't ever do anything by yourself, or couldn't possibly," Gaffney says.
Adds Najimy, "If you start out as a duo, people have a really hard time separating you. We make a joke that we used to get flowers on opening night that would be a vase of flowers 'to Kathy and Mo.' And we'd be like, 'Can we please have a buzzsaw to cut it in half?'" The perception of Najimy and Gaffney as a duo and nothing else is one reason they went their separate ways in the early 1990s. "All of our offers were like, the Kathy and Mo sitcom, a Kathy and Mo talk show, a Kathy and Mo variety show," Najimy remembers. "I felt like, if we continued, I would only ever be 'Kathy and Mo' my whole life, and I didn't want to do that."
Najimy and Gaffney have since gone on to become well-known individually. Najimy was featured in the hit film Sister Act and the sitcom Veronica's Closet, and voices Peggy Hill on the long-running Fox series King of the Hill. Gaffney has had recurring roles on popular series Mad About You, That '70s Show, and Absolutely Fabulous. She currently hosts a talk show, Women Aloud, at www.greenstoneradio.com.
But no matter what they're working on separately, the two always seem to come back together. "The thing is, we're friends," Gaffney says. "Even when we weren't performing together or thinking about performing together, I've known her for a good part of my life. We've been through everything together—my father's death, both our children.... I mean, beyond the show and performing, or any of that crap, she's one of my best friends."
Something about having a writing-performing partnership seems to produce that kind of deep, undeniable bond. For all the duos interviewed for this piece, a partnership isn't something they ever predicted or sought. But once it's established, there's nothing like it. "It's like when you have a secret: Even when you have a secret, there's always one friend that you tell it to, and then you [both] have the knowledge of that secret," Budin says. "That's what having a good writing partner is. You two can look at each other and smile, knowing that you have this little thing and you came up with it and nobody else knows it until you're performing. It's a gift."