One funny woman helps another launch talk-show dream

It’s no surprise that Penny Pibbets and Izzy became fast friends.

“We’re really the only women comedians as far as the circus or cabaret world,” Shannan Calcutt says of Pibbets, the comic sidekick in “Absinthe,” and her own work as Izzy, the comic relief in “Zumanity.” You may remember her less-than-bashful work with storage bags, a bottle of scotch and her breasts.

“We’ve always admired each other’s work as comedians. I think it’s special that female comedians are able to work together,” Calcutt says.

Calcutt seems well-qualified to direct “The Penny Pibbets Show,” which has its formal opening today (after previews last week) and runs through Jan. 6 in the Art Square Theatre downtown.

It’s live improv theater also being filmed to shop as a TV pilot. The fictional premise mirrors the real-life goal: Penny — the child-woman who acts out some serious sexual repression through sock puppets — has decided to strike out on her own with a television talk show. And it had better pan out, because she’s been fired by The Gazillionaire, the seedy ringmaster of “Absinthe.”

In real life, the Penny character has indeed been replaced in “Absinthe” by her “cousin Joy.” It’s not clear whether this is merely a leave of absence, or whether she’s really putting it all on the line for the talk show after raising $28,000 on Kickstarter to launch it.

It’s pretty clear she wasn’t fired by the Gazillionaire, because the guy who plays him is helping decorate the set.

Things get confusing here. The person playing Penny asks me not to use her real name, even though nothing’s secret in the Internet era. You can find it in my past show reviews or even the “Absinthe” Wikipedia entry.

But I don’t want to undermine her going full Pee-Wee Herman. It will be part of the fun to see whether someone can sustain a Pee-Wee — or Andy Kaufman/Tony Clifton thing — in the era of information overload.

When I interview Penny on the talk-show set, it’s in character and even being filmed to capture any gold spun from her considerable improv skills.

For example: “I’ve done a lot of talk shows in the shower, a great place to do it,” she says. “I pretend like each tile is a person and then I interview each tile. If the tile’s not working I can turn my back on them. Or moon them.”

But the day before, when she was out of character, she said people really do accept Penny on her own terms.

“I think that’s just a personal choice,” Calcutt tries to explain. The couple who play Penny and The Gazillionaire “think of those as separate people who exist on their own.” Having done the same thing with Izzy, “you do almost think of the character as their own person.”

If it seems odd for a character to spin out of one show and go her own way in another, that’s because the character predated the show.

Calcutt’s first encounter with Penny could be a good omen for their new venture. It was another studio theater effort, “The Gazillionaire Show,” at the Aruba in March 2007.

“Absinthe” had opened a year earlier in New York without the Gazillionaire or Penny. But the two found their way to “Absinthe” the next year and the rest is history.

Likewise, Calcutt “worked as Izzy for a long time” in comedy festivals and regional theater in Canada, before Cirque hired her to prop up the sagging comedy of “Zumanity” in 2005.

We tend to think of comedians following only two paths: stand-up or sketch troupes such as the Groundlings. But Calcutt came out of the Dell’Arte International School of Physical Theatre in Blue Lake, Calif. “I think what we’re doing is more of a modern clown,” she says. “I don’t ride a unicycle, I’m not a juggler, I don’t have any of those skills. My skill is working with an audience and improvising and connecting as a character.”

However they get there — and whoever they really are — Calcutt thinks their time has come.

“Let’s face it, women are funny and there should be a larger voice for women. There’s certainly an audience for it,” she says. “It’s always the boys club. Get some funny women in there. It’s time.”

Contact reporter Mike Weatherford at mweatherford@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0288.

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