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The Jester Interview: Henry Zebrowski

They’re staking their claim as the hardest working sketch comedy group in New York. Murderfist, with frequent appearances in their home bases of Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and the People’s Improv Theater in Manhattan, can be seen anywhere from five to eight times a month if you’re truly a dedicated fan. And, promises member Henry Zebrowski, you won’t see the same show every time. Murderfist draws on a repertoire of about 300 written sketches, 50 of which are ready to go at any given time, as well as a complete lack of fear about crossing boundaries of taste or delving into shocking material. Zebrowski exemplifies the group’s ethic, as when he enters the audience in character in an impression of a deranged latter period Marlon Brando. Jester spoke with Zebrowski about the Murderfist philosophy of comedy.

Jester: How did you start doing comedy and how did Murderfist form?
Henry Zebrowski: I started doing it in high school -- there was one seat left in the drama class, so I took it. I decided that was the only skill I wanted to pursue. Then I went to college at Florida State University; all of Murderfist went to FSU. We all lived in Tallahassee together and then started doing a show. We got into various comedy things separately. I did improv with a group called ‘Oncoming Traffic’ in Tallahassee and then it turned into ‘Girls Aren’t Funny.’ That was the original name of Murderfist, but we had girls [in the group], so it wasn’t misogynist. Then we got a weekly show at a gay bar in a strip mall in Tallahassee, the only gay bar in Tallahassee. We got a following where 90 people would show up every week. Murderfist has been doing it ever since then [an FSU campus version of the group still exists, with successor members including Zebrowski’s sister]. I trained in theater. A couple in the group got [degrees] in theater. I had good classes, but a lot of my training came from doing as much stuff as possible. I didn’t say no to any project. At one time I was doing improv and sketch.

I only came to New York two years ago, in 2006. I just have been hitting the scene ever since. We all moved up here as a group and we all live in various [combinations] together. It’s like a commune.

J: What are the differences between comedy, improv or sketch in Florida compared to New York?
HZ: We were the only thing going on in Tallahassee. When we started, there was us and ‘Oncoming Traffic,’ and nothing else was going on in the entire city, so we were really thirsty for it. There are people who came out of NYU who have been in the city and went into doing comedy. We had no influences, so all our stuff is based on our own brains and watching lots of “Mr. Show With Bob & David” and “Kids In The Hall.” So it gives us a unique flavor because it’s a high-flying thing. It’s our own very unique sense of humor.

J: What is the group dynamic?
HZ: We were all basically just friends and drinking buddies. We banded together and made each other laugh, and went from there. We used to do gigantic summer shows which were more like parties, where we would do a show and have a party afterward. Then it boiled down to doing a weekly show at a bar. We try to still bring that same feeling. We want a Murderfist show to be like a party … that we’re doing something that’s wild and we want everyone to be part of it.

We’re writing sketches that aren’t just for one person. It really goes all over the place. There are some things that are very … idiosyncratic … we joke about something that may just be funny to us, like a phrase or a common joke our characters would come up with and then eventually we decide this is going to be funny to other human beings, and then we put it together. We sometimes brainstorm as a group. We always break up into teams of twos and threes and write the individual sketches and pass them on to other teams of twos and threes to revise.

J: What is challenging about getting noticed as a sketch comedy group?
HZ: We’re in one of the most gigantic business and media capitals of the world. What can we offer them that’s really different? I feel like we offer the most exciting comedy show you’re going to see, that we’re doing something that’s very different. If we didn’t really believe in it, there would be no purpose to doing it. We’re completely self-financed and it’s completely homegrown. That’s good and bad, because you don’t have anyone to answer to, because it’s all our money and all our energy. At the same time, it’s really hard because we don’t have the money to pay a manager. We really need to find people who are willing to take us on as a project, and it’s hard because we’re not very easy to pin down.

J: Were your influences all Kids In The Hall and Mr. Show, or were there other things?
HZ: For me personally, the major bond between me and my father was the Airplane movies, like Hot Shots [also]. I’m very much of that ilk. I love the ultra-stupid. Really literal jokes I think are really hilarious. There’s a lot of that. We watch a lot of British comedy. We’re gigantic fans of the Young Ones. I personally want to do the American version of the Young Ones. Something about it, the chaotic energy, really feeds us. Basically, we’re all just media people. We’re very engrossed in music. Honestly, music probably influences us more than anything else. We take pride in the fact that our shows have music is good music and represents what we do. There are several sketches that evolve specifically from songs. One came from Bob Seger’s “Ramblin’ Gamblin’ Man.” We just became enamored with the concept of a man who was a rambler and a gambler. We’re just trying to absorb whatever is around.

J: How did you come up with your Marlon Brando impression?
HZ: Brando started in Tallahassee as a bit character. We were just hanging around and I did a Brando voice. I never thought to do it before, and everyone thought we should put it in a sketch. So we included it in one sketch, using the idea that he was already dead. I was fascinated with the concept of Brando at the end of his life, being a bloated monster, being washed by Asian handmaidens on his private island. That’s actually a running theme in Murderfist that we all love -- the idea of the ultra-rich genius -- because Brando was a genius but by the end he became a madman, like what happened to Michael Jackson. We love the idea of people having so much money and power that they’re so bored that they go completely insane. Our idea was that [Brando] could say anything he wants, and he had sex with every single person he ever acted with.

I saw this great interview with Brando when he was still good looking and he was talking, but was so bored. Then he started hitting on a woman who was there. Then a French interviewer asked him a question in French and he answered it in completely fluent French. He was the coolest man on the face of the planet, and he turned into Jabba The Hut, this crazy monster.

J: What other characters do you do?
HZ: I do a lot of monologue work. There’s a character named Brett Carmichael I’ve done a bunch of times in Murderfist, who is a fitness celebrity. He has a ponytail and acts crazy; he’s like a motivational speaker or a salesman and has had this horrible past, so things pop up while he’s doing his spiels. The one main sketch we do with him is where he tells the audience how he can compress uncut diamonds with his own body but it’s actually fueled by the fact that he eats his own feces. It’s just really strange. It’s a lot of infomercial talk.

Then there’s Delia Montgomery who is a ‘starlet’ from the 1950s who lived forever because she had sex with the Devil. It’s a take on “Sunset Boulevard.” She’s in love with her agent. It’s this whole thing.




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