There are two reasons you've never heard of the Feral Chihuahuas. It's not that they're not funny, that you wouldn't like them, or that they couldn't market themselves out of a roll of wet toilet paper. No, the reason you've never heard of them is that you don't know the right people.
That, and you won't fit in their garage. Really.
They call it "The Shed." It's a two-car garage they've converted into a small black-box theater. The place is cramped, and in winter it's so cold that what tiny audiences they have tend to bundle up in blankets while the cast shivers it out on stage. It may not seem like much, but at least it's theirs.
But, in order to even find out where The Shed is, you've got to contact the group for directions. Even in their publicity info, they only refer to their performance venue as a "top-secret location." They're not being exclusive, just pragmatic.
"We do the 'top secret' thing because, even though we do two shows, we can only seat 50 people total," says Elizabeth Taylor, one of the three founding Chihuahuas still with the group. "Sometimes we top out, and people are standing in the yard watching us, or people will watch us through the windows."
Another founding cast member, Tommy Calloway, admits, "Also, we thought that if we were mysterious, people will be more interested in us."
And there's another reason, too. As with any good house party, you don't want it getting out of control and having to worry about a bunch of strangers messing around with your stuff. The Shed is, after all, their garage. The cast all live a few yards away, in the house they've shared for more than a year.
"I was kind of worried about that part, initially," says Jay Becknell, the third founder. But, he's quick to add, it's worked out well. In fact, their close contact has allowed the troupe to put on a fresh half-hour show every two weeks, a process Becknell refers to as "pretty harrowing."
If the whole setup seems kind of like a bad idea for a sitcom, at least it's fitting. The group that would eventually form the Chihuahuas used to be part of the Heavy Duty Crew, the troupe behind The Manor Daze, a live action sitcom that played at theaters -- and eventually bars -- around Asheville. When Daze fell apart about three years ago, the remaining members began collaborating with the like-minded sketch duo the Mountain Gorillas.
Of course, a comedy group must have an iconic name. One night, while working over scripts and thinking about the newly formed group's identity, one of the cast began telling a story about how a rural-living friend of his had, only that morning, found his baby goats killed and eaten. And he wasn't alone: Things like it were happening all over the Waynesville area.
And then he said it.
"[My friend told me] that a gang of feral chihuahuas had come into his yard and had killed his baby goats," recalls Calloway. "It was an omen. We looked at each other and said, 'That's the kind of comedy [we] like. Dark, but funny.'"
The name stuck, as did the group's darkly surreal taste in comedy. They began writing bits like "Roadkill L'amour," a romance between two flattened animal carcasses on a busy roadside, as told through puppetry. Their take on religion, "Creationism as Interpretive Dance," features God as a giant, dancing vagina who doesn't like monkeys. And then there's "E-Villainy," which, among other things, implies a homoerotic connection between Bush and Cheney, and an even deeper bond between Castro and a squirrel.
"A lot of our stuff is blue," explains Taylor. "It's pushing the line with being offensive, and there's a lot of political stuff." According to Taylor, maintaining control of their content is another reason to keep most of their shows on their home turf.
The Chihuahuas have played occasional gigs outside of The Shed. They used to have a regular slot at Fred's Speakeasy, and they've even tried putting on the occasional show at 35below -- but their chaotic time performing The Manor Daze left them craving a stable performance space.
"I'm hoping that a theater in town will notice us and give us a regular slot," says Calloway. "But I'd rather not do a bar anymore. You get a lot of walk-in traffic that doesn't care that you are putting on a show, and [they] talk over you. I'd rather have a place where people are there to sit and watch the show."
After a brief pause, he adds, "If there's beer there, too, that helps."
Like so many people who are living the dream of creating art, the Feral Chihuahuas are increasingly interested in getting a little cash for it, too. In the last year, they've begun to chip away at breaking into the touring sketch circuit, though with little success.
"I know that it's not that we're not funny," says Taylor. "I figure that we've got to work our chops a couple of years to get in."
In fact, the group is currently looking into getting a booking agent -- while still staying true to their DIY nature. They've been kicking around the idea of doing street theater, of producing a cable-access or Internet show -- and there are even rumblings about starting up a good-natured rivalry (and cross-promotion) with Asheville's other established comedy troupe, the OxyMorons.
Hopefully, it'll all end with the cast being able to put the location of their shows on their flyers. And then, almost certainly, you'll be hearing an awful lot about the Feral Chihuahuas.
[Steve Shanafelt can be reached at email@example.com.]
The Feral Chihuahuas perform Friday, Aug. 18 (and every other Friday) at their "top-secret location" in Woodfin. The show is free, but space is extremely limited. For directions and show times, call 253-8019 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. To learn more about the troupe, visit feralchihuahuas.net or check out their profile on myspace.com/feralchihuahuas.