The Garrens Comedy Troupe was formed in November 1992 by Eric D. Snider, then a freshman at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah. Eric had done a lot of sketch writing and performing in high school, and before he even arrived at BYU, he was already deluded into thinking that he could start his own comedy troupe.
There were two ways to perform regularly on BYU campus: pay exorbitant amounts of money to rent a room, or become a club and use rooms for free. The club route seemed to be the way to go, and after the paperwork was completed, Eric and fellow dorm resident Braden Jacobs held auditions. The name “the Garrens” was stolen from Joyce Garren, who was the Head Resident at the dorm in which Eric and Braden lived, and whose name they liked. It had nothing to do with her as a person (though it turns out she was great); they simply liked her name. The first cast consisted of Eric and Braden, along with Lincoln Hoppe, Ken Craig, Julia Burden, Jenni Smith, Marc E. Shaw, Dave Shipp, and Jason Ball. Contrary to urban myth, the group was not started by “a bunch of friends who got together to form a comedy troupe.” It was started by Eric, with help from his friend Braden, and then they held open auditions, which were attended by total strangers (except, technically, for Marc, whom they sort of knew beforehand).
Assisting behind the scenes the first season were Shawn Gooden and Paula Rissinger. Shawn was Eric’s roommate and played the piano between sketches; Paula worked the lights. Both of them helped out quite a bit with other sound-related issues throughout the season. Paula stayed with the Garrens for a few more seasons; Shawn stayed only for the first season before leaving on an LDS mission.
The first Garrens performance was January 22, 1993. Admission was free, and it was repeated (again for free) the following night. The next week, admission was set at $1, and the Garrens did shows every week through the semester, performing in 2084 Jesse Knight Humanities Building. Nearly every show in the 300-seat auditorium sold out.
The shows consisted of 10-12 sketches, plus four or five improvisations. Being a writer by nature, Eric focused on the written and rehearsed sketches rather than on the improvs; this focus would slowly change over the next few years, to where there would be about an equal number of sketches and improvs, and often more improvs than sketches. The rule was quickly established that if a sketch went well, it could be repeated the following week, but not anymore after that until the season finale “Best of the Garrens” show. This kept the cast members constantly writing new sketches. Halfway through the season, they began performing “The 9:34 Show,” which was an all-improv show held immediately after the regular one. This only lasted for that season; it was revived (sort of) for the Winter 2000 season, when the Garrens were doing shows at 7:30 and 9 and wanted to do an all-improv show at 10:30 p.m.
Right from the start, the Garrens were successful, particularly among freshmen, who tended to live on campus and not have cars or very much money. (Three of the cast members were freshmen, too, which may have increased their peers’ interest in the show.) The material of the first two or three seasons focused on BYU- and Mormon-related humor. The Garrens took care not to be sacrilegious or disrespectful and rarely crossed that line; generally, they were just playful and mischievous. Many of the jokes of that first year were not terribly clever or original; they were jokes that had been circulating in the fringes of BYU/Utah pop culture forever. But they had never been acted out in public before, and there was a certain outrageousness to making jokes on stage that had previously been made only in the back of Sunday School class.
After the first season, Eric and Braden both left BYU to serve as missionaries for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Lincoln Hoppe and Jenni Smith were left in charge, and the group continued. Auditions were held to replace the departing cast members, a practice that continued every semester until the directors could no longer handle it because so many people were showing up to try out. (Eventually, open auditions were held infrequently, the directors preferring to hand-pick new cast members from among people they know. There were no open auditions from Fall 1995 until Summer 1999.) Admission was raised to $2, and the Garrens began doing two performances of the same show each Friday.
The third season, beginning in January 1994, featured a shift in focus. The Garrens began to leave behind the BYU and Mormon humor and branch off into other things. Those subjects were often still in the periphery, but they were no longer the focus, and they were frequently not there at all. This was primarily due to the fact that most of the good jokes had already been used, but was also due to an increased maturity in the audience. Freshmen still enjoyed the show, but now there were more upperclassmen coming. Since there is almost universally a two-year age difference between freshman and sophomore males at BYU (because nearly all of them go on missions for two years after their freshman year), this gap between freshmen and upperclassmen is a large one. As the audience got older, the Garrens had to adjust. Lincoln was still running the show, with Ken Craig and Dallen Gettling assisting. At some point, the rule was made that sketches would only run one week, regardless of the audience response. Also, the Garrens moved to 151 Tanner Building, and eventually to 205 J. Reuben Clark Law Building, where they stayed for four years before moving to the Wilkinson Student Center’s Little Theater in late Fall 1999.
Joel R. Wallin joined the group in Fall 1994. Joel had been in Comedy Sportz, a professional improv troupe, in California, and had a tremendous amount of improv experience. The position of Improv Trainer was created, and Joel was put into it.
During this time, the Garrens decided they could afford an official Sound Guy, and they hired Howard Tayler, older brother of second-season Garren Randy Tayler, who was on an LDS mission at the time. Howard remained with the group until 1998, when he left to concentrate on other things and the Sound Guy duties were taken over by Mike Masse.
Also in late 1994, the Garrens found it impossible to exist as a BYU club. BYUSA was getting antsy over the fact that this “club” was having a “fund-raiser” every Friday night and making several hundred dollars each time. The Garrens’ collective neck was being breathed down rather heavily, so the club was disbanded and its members instead became an official business, with Lincoln, Dallen, and Ken its owners. Now that they were not affiliated with BYU, the Garrens had no place to perform. Fortunately, they were able to sign a contract with the Student Leadership Involvement Center (SLIC), a division of Student Life, who in effect hired the Garrens to perform at BYU every Friday, just as they always had. As far as the public knew, there was no change. This deal with SLIC (eventually just called Student Leadership) is how the Garrens operated up to the end. The price of admission went to $5, and went no further.
LOVE AND MARRIAGE
The Garrens have inspired romance as well as laughter. In the summer of 1995, Ken Craig and Katie Fillmore got married, the only couple to meet and marry as Garrens. They left the group together at the end of 1995. Matt Morrill, who was a Garren during the second season, returned from his LDS mission in 1996 and married Jjana Valentiner. They had met as Garrens but were no longer in the group when they married. Aaron Johnston and Lauren Keller, both former cast members, got married in September 1999. Also in 1999, Ken and Katie Craig had their second child, a boy, and they named him Garren….
Braden Jacobs, who had been assistant director when the Garrens began, returned from his mission in July 1995, but he promptly got married and had no time to even consider involvement with the Garrens. Eric D. Snider, the creator and previous director of the group, returned in October 1995 and began performing again in January 1996, the Garrens’ seventh season. Randy Tayler, a second-season Garren, also returned at this point and rejoined; Marc Shaw and Aaron Johnston (from the third season) returned that summer and were back in by fall. Those are the only freshman male Garrens to rejoin the group after their missions; in fact, from 1994 until 1999, there were no freshman male Garrens, primarily because the group wanted people who would be around for a while and not take off for two years. Marc "Sparky" Monson, Bill Doolittle and Dan Evans all broke that streak when they were cast in Fall 1999. (There was even a high-school student, Stephen McCuen, who joined that semester — another first.)
Other Garrens occasionally left the group and rejoined later, including Eric D. Snider, Randy Tayler, Joel R. Wallin, Jjana Valentiner Morrill, Becky Baird, and others.
MUSIC AND THE GARRENS
The Garrens were always been a musical bunch. Excellent singers, dancers, and musiciansabounded in the cast, so from the first show, music was a part of the performance. (When singing, the Garrens often referred to themselves as the “Gadianton Rockers,” a take-off on a band of thieves in the Book of Mormon called the Gadianton Robbers. Marc Shaw came up with the name.) Nothing other than the piano and/or guitar was ever used until the third season, when, with Chris Dowdy on bass, Lincoln Hoppe on guitar, and Lincoln’s brother Brent Hoppe on drums, an unofficial band was created. After that, songs would feature whatever instruments were necessary to achieve the total effect, and audiences always loved it. Shawn Rapier and Randy Tayler have played drums at times; pianists have included Eric D. Snider, Matt Morrill, Garrett Batty and Joel R. Wallin; Ken Craig played bass after Chris left, followed by Joel; Lincoln has almost always played guitar; and nearly everyone has sung.
Occasionally, extra musicians were called in for special purposes, particularly Mike Massé, who was almost an “honorary Garren” due to the number of times he played guitar, bass or piano for the Garrens. (In fact, Massé wound up as the Garrens’ new sound guy, making his Garrens connection even stronger, when Howard Tayler left in 1998.)
Several of the most popular musical numbers were assembled on a cassette called “Preserving Songs Only a Mother Could Love,” which the Garrens produced in summer 1994. This tape was of a necessity recorded very hastily, and if you have a copy, hang on to it, because you can’t buy it anymore and the Garrens most certainly will not be re-issuing it.
The Garrens did, however, release an album called “Songs of Love and BYU” in 1999, which included several newly recorded items as well as digitally remastered versions of some of the items on that old cassette.
The standard was to do parodies of existing songs, although Eric, Randy, Aaron, and Marc all contributed entirely original songs. In the beginning, lyrics usually focused on BYU life or LDS culture. Now, they seem to be about dating and relationships (though of course there are exceptions to this). Noteworthy parodies have included “Cola” (“Lola”), “Gumby” (“Zombie”), “A Whole New Ward” (“A Whole New World”), “Sweet Home Provo Utah” (“Sweet Home Alabama”), and “Lucky Charms” (“Open Arms”).
In 2000, a new trend was established: Each show ended with an improvised musical. Based only on a title the audience would make up (often "The Sound of [Something]" or "My Fair [Something]"), Eric would improvise piano music while the cast would create a musical. These were generally longer than regular improvs — around 10-12 minutes — and were extremely popular. Where it had once been a dilemma to find something strong enough to end the show with, this was no longer a problem once the musicals were established. All but six performances in 2000 and 2001 ended with musicals.
THE GARRENS AWAY FROM BYU
Eric’s original vision of the Garrens did not include touring around the country. He was not opposed to doing outside shows, but he didn’t particularly seek them. The Garrens’ first off-campus gig was halfway through the first season, when Cove Point Retirement Village hired them to do an hour show for the residents there. The audience claimed to enjoy the show, and the Garrens received $25 and a lovely thank-you card.
Later that season, the Garrens began a relationship with Vocal Point, then Provo’s premier a cappella group. Vocal Point opened for the first “Best of the Garrens” show, and the Garrens opened for Vocal Point at their big show in the Provo High School auditorium. The Garrens also made an appearance at the annual “A Cappella Jam,” a show featuring five of the best BYU a cappella groups. This began a long-standing tradition of having the Garrens perform with a cappella groups. There is no obvious connection between sketch/improv comedy and a cappella music, except that in this case, both were extremely popular at BYU.
Over the next few years, the Garrens would perform with several local a cappella groups, particularly Extempo, which was started by some of the founding members of Vocal Point. The Garrens even started their own a cappella group (“The Clueless Singers”), which lasted just long enough to record “Happy Together,” which appears on the “Garrens Comedy Troupe Live!” CD, as well as on the compilation “Acappellagram." (It was "covered" by a cappella group InsideOut, who re-titled it "Stalking Song," on their 2000 album "Experience.")
The Garrens performed at every major college in Utah, plus some of the minor ones. They went to colleges in Washington state, and were represented at National Association of College Activities conventions in Illinois, Washington, and California. They were in high demand for Christmas parties and other functions. They performed at 2 a.m. for local high schools’ all-night “Grad Nite” parties. They did many, many shows on BYU campus besides their regular weekly shows, including freshman orientation every year. In their first season, they filmed a half-hour show for the local “Cougar Cable” TV station.
In Summer 2000, the Garrens took up residence at Provo Theatre Company, Utah County’s only semi-professional theater and purveyors of plays that you don’t see performed much anywhere else. The Garrens performed all-improv shows after the regular Saturday night performances of whatever PTC was doing at the time. In fact, the last Garrens performance ever took place there on March 24, 2001.
THE GARRENS PROGRESSED AND GOT BIG AND THEN ENDED
As far as anyone can determine, the Garrens were the first comedy troupe in BYU’s hundred-year history. There were at least two knock-off groups, one of them short-lived and the other (Divine Comedy) more enduring but never performing more than once a month. The Daily Universe, BYU’s student newspaper, dropped the “Comedy Troupe” part when referring to them, calling them simply “The Garrens” because most students knew who they were. The Garrens Web site (formerly located at http://www.garrens.com), in existence since 1996, was quite popular.
In May 1996, they recorded a CD in front of a live audience. Unlike the cassette two years earlier, the CD was extremely professional in the way it was performed and produced (by Howard Tayler, the aforementioned sound guy), and it has sold well, thanks in part to portions of it being played on “The Dr. Demento Show,” a nation-wide radio program devoted to comedy.
In September 1999, the Garrens released a second CD, called “Songs of Love and BYU.” Several tracks from the now-impossible-to-find cassette were included, as well as new recordings of newer songs. Eric D. Snider also released a solo CD in 2000 that featured songs he’d debuted at shows, as well as some spoken-word things recorded live at BYU performances.
In January 1998, the Garrens celebrated their 5th anniversary with a huge show full of the best sketches from the previous half-decade. All the former cast members were invited to return for the event, and each of the six sold-out performances of the show featured two group improvs, with all the Garrens, past and present, who were there at the time, performing in them.
A similar show was done in January 2001, celebrating the 8th anniversary. The best sketch from each of the eight years of the Garrens’ existence was performed, with original cast members reprising their roles where possible. Several former cast members returned for this, and more than 1,000 audience members were in attendance.
In 1999, the Garrens branched out. A Salt Lake troupe, consisting of Garrens past and present who lived in that area, began performing weekly shows at a theater in Murray, Utah, while another chunk of the ever-growing cast started doing shows Saturday nights in Spanish Fork. Both of these “away” venues lasted a few months, with varying degrees of success. (The Salt Lake troupe, under Lincoln Hoppe’s direction, broke affiliation with the Garrens in November 2000 and became the Skinny Lincolns. They continued to perform in the Salt Lake area after the Garrens disbanded.)
In the fall of 1999, with both attendance and show quality dropping (and surely the two were inter-related), owner Lincoln Hoppe tried something bold: He split the Garrens into two casts in order to let them alternate weeks of performance, allowing them more time to prepare for shows. For about two years prior to this point, a Garrens show would run for two or three weeks, the idea being that word-of-mouth would get more people to come see the identical show the next week. Having two casts meant going back to the old system of doing an entirely different show every single week, thus encouraging regular attendance.
Splitting the cast meant hiring someone else to direct whichever cast Lincoln didn’t direct; that someone was Garrens founder Eric D. Snider, who had quit the group officially two years earlier. Eric brought back with him his sketch and song-writing skills (which were more plentiful than his performing abilities), and it wasn’t long before new “classic” sketches had been created. “The Seventh Sense,” a parody of the hit film “The Sixth Sense,” became an overnight sensation when it was performed on Sept. 24, 1999. A parody of pop sensations The Backstreet Boys, in which five Garrens dressed, danced and sang like them and then were interviewed by a host who got them to admit they were actually the same people who had been in every male-harmony group in music history, was also quite popular. A parody of Ricky Martin’s "Livin’ la Vida Loca," in which Eric dressed as, danced like and sang like the popular Latin star, followed a few months later, along with a similar talk show-style interview in which Ricky claimed to be from Utah. ("My full name is Ricky Martin Harris.") Both of those song/sketches were performed in the 8th anniversary show.
The two-cast system lasted through Winter 2000. After that, it was combined into one cast again, with Eric as director. Lincoln had already relieved himself of directing duties and was focusing on his Salt Lake City group.
Near the end of the Fall 1999 season, the Garrens were kicked out of the J. Reuben Clark Law Building, which had been their home for about five years. The given reason was that the loudness of their shows disrupted law school activities, but the more realistic reason was that law school officials don’t like anyone using “their” building except for law school people.
The Garrens, therefore, moved to the Wilkinson Center, to the Little Theater (room 3380) — which, ironically, was the room they were originally scheduled to use for their very first shows, back in January 1993. This theater had a little more than half the seating capacity of the law building, which meant fewer tickets could be sold. But it also made the shows more intimate, and decreased sound-related problems. The Garrens quickly adapted to the new space, and to accommodate the audience, started doing three shows a night (7:30, 9 and 10:30), with the last show being an all-improv show. (After the Winter 2000 season, the last show was changed to the Garrens “Late Night Show,” in which the regular show from 7:30 and 9 was performed a third time, but with the option of sketches being added or dropped, new, experimental material being tried out, and other general wackiness that might not be tried in the “regular” shows. The idea caught on, with enthusiastic audiences pouring in to the 10:30 show expecting to see the Garrens really let their hair down. Which they did.)
By mid-February 2001, Eric was nearly completely burnt out. He had lost six cast members that semester to BYU’s production of "Richard III," rehearsals for which took up the entire semester. This, along with continuing miscommunications with Student Leadership, combined with general over-work in the Garrens department, made for an increasingly distraught Eric. All of those forces gathered together (along with Garrens financial difficulties and the departure of business manager Alicia Lewis) to cause the Garrens to end in March 2001. March 2 was the last on-campus show, though no one knew it at the time. A few more weeks of all-improv shows were performed at Provo Theatre Company, as a commitment had already been made there. Then the group rode out into the sunset, leaving a lot of laughs behind.