In the world of comedy, women have always been a minority. Black women comics are even more unusual. So as a black female comedy duo that specializes in improv, Angela Shelton and Frances Callier are all too aware of the rarefied position they hold.
Which, of course, quickly turns into a bit.
“The Catholic Church is more integrated -- they have more black saints than we have [black women] in improv,” says Shelton, the only person to have written and performed on Second City’s main stages in Toronto, Detroit and two in Chicago. “It’s an old young-white-boys club.”
Adds Callier, who’s starring with Shelton doing the voices for the BET-Oxygen animated series “Hey Monie”: “They used to call improvisation the sport of white guys in ties.”
Callier also has a long history in improv, which began in 1987 with Chicago’s Second City. That’s where she met Shelton five years ago and where they began writing and performing together. They became fast friends, and spend much of the time they’re not working hanging out with each other.
Among their recent antics: They’ve been nabbed movie-hopping at the multiplexes, were booted from a celebrity party at a swanky hotel (“I don’t think I’m allowed to go back to the Chateau Marmont yet,” quips Shelton), and dressed up for a softball game in matching pink uniforms. They’ve even been seen groping each other during a sexual harassment seminar. (More on that later.)
This is the stuff of buddy movies and sitcoms and is the same off-the-cuff fodder that fuels “Frangela,” their Thursday night sister-friendship comedy act at Comedy Underground in Santa Monica, near the Third Street Promenade.
Theirs is an outrageous and witty repartee, and on a recent Thursday afternoon, it’s playing out during a wine-and-cheese shopping break at Morel’s at the Grove. The conversation ranges from men, high-heeled shoes and Oprah -- and why they love them all -- to the problems with multisyllabic Afrocentric names and the war in Iraq.
“Frangela” has been labeled “hip” and “edgy.” They like to say it’s “irreverent.” Their sketches range from political satire to commentaries on black women in the workplace. Others include scenes of women in prison, the “Negro Nightly News” and a bit they call Slave Meeting. “We take old concepts and issues in black society and give [them] a new twist.”
The actresses, who decline to give their ages, first collaborated on a play called “Kill Whitey,” focused on the class clash in the African American community and staged at Second City Sky Box Theater in Chicago.
In 2001, Shelton and Callier were cast in “Hey Monie,” one of 14 animated shorts in Oxygen’s “X-Chromosome” series, which premiered in March on BET and starts in July on Oxygen. Shelton voices Monie, an African American publicist, and Callier does her best friend, Yvette.
At first, Shelton was to play both parts, but she persuaded “Monie” creator Dorothea Gillim to hire her comedic foil as well. Which brings us back to the sexual harassment seminar.
“My mother’s a city councilperson in Detroit, Sharon McPhail. She was in Chicago doing a sexual harassment seminar. We’d come to see her at the workshop. And [during the workshop] I would grab my own chest,” she says, demonstrating, “and Frances would grab my chest and [ask], ‘Is this harassment?’
“And if I grabbed her breast like this,” Callier chimes in, “ ‘Is that sexual harassment?’
“She made us leave.”
Shelton’s mom was miffed, but the story wowed Gillim when Shelton told her about the incident, and Callier was hired. (The bit made it into an episode.)
“The thing that’s striking about both of them is that they’re fearless,” Gillim says from her Soup2Nuts production office in Boston. “They’re not afraid to embarrass themselves. They’re just completely out there ... but they do it in a way that’s smart. They’re not just going after the cheap jokes.”
On May 30, Shelton, Callier and a collective of Second City performers including Jerry Minor, Brandon Johnson and Callier’s husband, Thomas Greene, calling themselves Funny Black People, are performing at the L.A. Improv Comedy Festival at Improv Olympic.
For now, the two are writing and performing bits for a sketch comedy pilot for Showtime with the working title, “The Offensive Show.”
As lunch ends, they leave, joined at the hip, ready to shop. It’s shaping up as a madcap spree -- something that might turn up in a “Frangela” bit. If they’re lucky, it’s a future episode of the “Frances & Angela” show.
Where: Comedy Underground,
320 Wilshire Blvd., Santa Monica
When: Thursdays, 8 p.m.; reservations suggested for guaranteed seating
Ends: May 8
Info: (310) 451-1800