I leave Seattle at 7:00 a.m. and drive north for a long time, mostly in a straight line, toward a warm, tall, purple, green, slightly sagging, and very appealing Victorian house at the intersection of a busy street and a less busy street in residential Bellingham. Bellingham is far, and I have to meet Mike Mathieu and Andrew Connor—the two-headed comedy wizard better known as the Cody Rivers Show—at 9:00 a.m. (Note: They also have two bodies.) The early hour was my idea of courtesy. Connor and Mathieu seem like the kind of people who get up early and start accomplishing shit. They are strikingly wholesome. Their shows are clean. Their lives are cleaner. I had a hunch they ate mostly vegetables. I had a secondary hunch that people who eat mostly vegetables like to get up early and start accomplishing shit. Two hours later, I get out of the car and Mathieu walks onto the porch. Clearly he has just woken up, against his will. I was wrong about the whole vegetables/accomplishing stuff correlation. "Yeah, no drinking, no smoking, no drugs," Connor acknowledges later. And not for any religious or ideological reason—it just doesn't make sense to them to live any other way. "But we do stay up late."
In the backyard, a pleasantly rambling vegetable garden surrounds the skeleton of a structure that will become a second house whenever Connor and his brother finish building it (Connor owns the purple Victorian and rents out rooms to Mathieu and four others). A big brown cat oozes past in the drizzle. Mathieu shows me inside to the large kitchen and serves me water in a vessel that can only be described as "earthenware." It is the kind of home where people care about composting, Frisbee, rock climbing, and quality time. Connor shows up a few minutes later, on a bicycle I think, puffing a bit and wearing a hand-knit hat. The word "hippies" hangs in the air, though nobody says it.
The Cody Rivers Show (named, by the way, after a satirical country-music character they used frequently in early performances—"I was watching a lot of CMT at the time," says Mathieu) is a difficult thing to believe, describe, and not pee your pants over. It is a comedy duo that is more than a comedy duo, so odd, imaginative, and intelligent, it qualifies as performance art. In a 2006 review, I described it as "[not] funny so much as mesmerizing: a bizarre, impressively choreographed, breakneck montage of song, dance, puppetry, soliloquy, and oddly dramatic vignettes." And the following year:
...intellectual, blazing-fast, highly conceptual theater that's so bizarre and charming and unselfconscious that you can't quite comprehend what you're looking at. Like a baby giraffe. Like a baby giraffe wearing a monocle and giving you a high five. [It] careens from a circular collegiate lecture on child safety ("Here is a chart of Things the World Has Been Over Time; as you can see, 'safe' isn't even on there") to grave errors in judgment ("That's not a piano, it's an electric fence!") to sheepish self-disclosures ("I don't have a car—I am a car; I can change my body into a car, and I do sometimes").
The Cody Rivers Show is relentlessly weird but meticulously structured, and the pair chafes at the suggestion (frequently posed by lazy critics) that they traffic in absurdism: "People think they like our show because of a nonsense element, but they're wrong. Really they like it because it's so shot through with sense."
Mathieu, 31, and Connor, 32, met in college at Ohio Wesleyan University (an education Mathieu describes as "certainly adequate"). Both are from Ohio. Both are quietly funny and painfully nice. Mathieu, the tall one, has brown hair and an English degree and is a vegetarian. Connor, the regular-size one, is a blond-haired, raw-food vegan with degrees in French and international studies. Both minored in theater. Over a wholesome breakfast at the wholesome Old Town Cafe (Mathieu: hot chocolate, some sort of large eggy scramble; Connor: organic orange juice, garden salad), they tell me about how, after college, for kind of no reason, they moved to Elmina, a former Portuguese slaving port in Ghana. They rented a house on the beach and lived there for eight months or so, eating fruit and shrinking from the obsessive attentions of local children—"the intensity of being on full display," Connor calls it.
Both ended up in Seattle, where they briefly formed and disbanded a theater company and migrated to Bellingham. The move stuck. They took a midnight performance slot at the iDiOM Theater (Connor is now on the board) and were told they could do basically whatever they wanted. That was 2004. Five years later, they make their living entirely from touring to midsize theaters, a remarkable evolution creditable to organization and tenacity and self-promotion—and, of course, artistic magnificence. "There isn't an existing infrastructure for touring sketch comedy," Mathieu explains, "so we kind of macheted a path." Connor, who handles the booking and business end of the show, adds: "The grave that gets dug for almost every comedy group, almost upon their inception, is waiting for somebody else to make their career for them." Connor and Mathieu made their own, and it's going to stay that way. They have no plans to sign with outside management, or even to leave Bellingham.
There is a TV pilot, though—conceived in fall of 2005, filmed in January of 2008, and currently making the rounds to various networks. Television was never their goal, but it came to them when X-Files producer (and Bellingham resident) Bob Goodwin saw one of their shows at the Mount Baker Theatre and approached them. The pilot is a show-within-a-show kind of thing, which functions "kind of like The Muppet Show" (and features the Pajama Men, an Albuquerque-based sketch duo that was Cody Rivers's biggest inspiration). Mathieu and Connor are excited but cautious, and if anything comes of it, they plan to keep one foot firmly in Bellingham. It's difficult to imagine them living anywhere else.
We wander around downtown and chat and run errands: a funny little slice of civic life in Whatcom County. Connor has to collect some supplies for an upcoming solo show (he's leaving that afternoon to tour for a month in Japan), so we go to the art-supply store (sketch pad), the thrift shop (fake flowers), and the House of Humor (party poppers and Chinese finger traps). The proprietor of House of Humor performs several "magic tricks" for me, all of which involve my hand being stung by an electric buzzer. Magical! Over the course of the day, I receive two parking tickets (an adorably modest $10 each), so we visit the municipal court. Mathieu has an appointment to play racquetball at the YMCA (he does not win); Connor and I watch. At the local grocery co-op, Connor devours approximately 100 figs.
It's tempting—a temptation I succumbed to only 10 minutes into our interview—to say, "Well, it's not really sketch comedy." But the dudes are firm: Cody Rivers is sketch, and nothing but. "People always say, 'You guys aren't really sketch,' and I know they mean it as a compliment—what they mean is, 'Most sketch comedy sucks, and you guys don't suck.'"
But the compulsion to redefine their work as a new genre—its own genre—is intense, because the Cody Rivers Show is so jarringly, ungraspably unique. It's completely of itself, apolitical, timeless, like they wrote it in a weird secret twin language, then had a mad scientist translate it for the rest of us humans. Unexpectedly, Mathieu and Connor are completely aware of, and fixated on, that intangible quality: In iDiOM's little green room, they hold an earnest, marathon discussion of their upcoming show and keep using words like "magic" and "wonderment." The discussion of the day—never quite an argument—is how to make sure the show evolves and breathes without forcing anything. Without losing that "transcendent, transformative experience that people seem to sometimes have," as Connor puts it. They really don't know where the magic comes from.
"I just think that aiming for a transcendent experience may..." Mathieu begins. "Be self-defeating?" Connor finishes. "Yeah."