Several years ago, while trying to get a start in stand-up, Milwaukee comedian Ryan Lowe indulged in an unorthodox writing exercise.
"I would take classic stories and write these long radio dramatizations that were supposed to be funny," he recalled. "I scrapped them because I was like, nobody’s going to listen to them. Nobody listens to things anymore."
Lowe went on to jump-start a successful career making audiences laugh at Karma Bar & Grill, the Cactus Club, Sugar Maple, the Milwaukee Comedy Festival and at out-of-town gigs ("I’m huge in Rockford," he quipped). But the funnyman, who loves classic and fantasy novels, never forgot about one script in particular: a humorous adaptation of "Moby Dick."
"As I started doing stand-up I reread the script and I liked it, and I realized I knew all these talented people and I thought, why don’t I just record the CD?" he said. "And then I thought well, as long as I’m doing the CD why don’t I animate it somehow ... and then it blew up into a whole thing – why don’t I make a million puppets and make a movie out of it."
That’s right – puppets.
"Moby Dick" had its Milwaukee premier at the Rosebud Theater, 6823 W. North Ave., last weekend on Aug. 1. Lowe wrote and directed the 118-minute film, in addition to creating (by hand) over 30 original puppets to play the iconic characters of Ishmael, Captain Ahab, Queequeg and even the great white whale himself. The characters are voiced by dozens of well-known Milwaukee actors and comedians, and original music is provided by Lowe, local musician Nick Berg (Field Report), the WAMI-nominated Lisa Ridgely and the hip-hop sensation The November Criminals.
So what inspired Lowe to tell Herman Melville’s 200,000-word allegorical novel Muppet-style?
"It's hard to understand his brilliance until you see him doing stand-up or see the puppets first-hand," said Lowe’s girlfriend, Meara Young, who also assisted with production and marketing for the film. "It's funny because when Ryan told people he was dating someone they would get concerned, like, ‘has she seen the puppets?'"
"Ryan utilized just about everyone in the Milwaukee comedy scene to collaborate on his film," said comedian Steve Breese Salerno, who does voice-over work in "Moby Dick" as the original character Derek (what, you thought the puppet version would stay totally true to the plot?) and also provided technical consultation. "Ryan has a very talented comedic mind; he has been someone to truly admire and seek advice from in our local scene.
"I offered to help with any sort of filming, editing, puppets ... pretty much whatever he needed I was willing to help out. I ended up doing some filming, puppetry and setting up scenery. I was excited to part of his creation! We basically survived on coffee, knock-off Hostess and pudding snacks and cigarettes. The funniest thing about the entire project was walking into Ryan's apartment and noticing the puppets had over his place."
Lowe’s whimsical adaptation of the novel is brimming with punchlines ("Call me Ishmael," the famous opening line, features prominently and gets big laughs) and interspersed with hilarious original infomercials and skits ("Captain Ahab’s Dance School for Peg Legs" and an ad for whale oil, the new wonder product). The result is a surprisingly earnest send-up that will be appreciated by both Melville fans and newcomers to the story alike.
"Someone pointed out to me right after I got started ... most people will say Moby Dick, ‘Yes I’m very familiar with it ... call me Ishmael and Captain Ahab and there’s a whale’ and then the next thing they know is it’s a really long book, and (they) tried to start reading it and then gave up," said Lowe. "And people who said they’ve read it have said it’s a really good book and it’s really funny in parts, but it’s really hard to get through. I just could go running with what I wanted to do because people were familiar enough. It wasn’t just me trying to ... 'Hey, it’s the Muppets!’ I didn’t have to introduce that. People already know ‘Moby Dick’ and I could kind of go from there."
After the three-day run at Rosebud Theater, Lowe hopes to show the film at the Down and Over in Bay View, and possibly in other independent theaters out of town. View event updates at the website for Lowe’s production company, Lone Wolf Entertainment.
"As much of a vanity project as this turned out to be," said Lowe, "A big part of it was being able to showcase and feature the talent of this city because there are a lot of talented people here."
Colleen Jurkiewicz is a Milwaukee native with a degree in English from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, and she loves having a job where she learns something new about the Cream City every day. Her previous incarnations have included stints as a waitress, a barista, a writing tutor, a medical transcriptionist, a freelance journalist, and now this lovely gig at the best online magazine in Milwaukee.