Q&A: Jimmy Mak, head writer at Shadowbox Live

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From the August 1, 2013 edition

Jimmy Mak has been with Shadowbox Live for 17 years, turning out everything from comedy sketches and stories to monologues and even musicals. In 1997 he became head writer and never looked back, falling in love with the talented members of the theater company. “It’s family in every dysfunctional sense of the word,” Mak jokes.

Mak says musicals aren’t necessarily his forte, but he’s had a busy couple of years lately writing a number of big hits.For his next project at Shadowbox Live, Mak is writing a sci-fi musical based on “Romeo & Juliet.” He’s also recently completed a book of essays and monologues. Whatever Mak writes, it connects on an emotional and comedic level.

Two years out of college I had plans to go to graduate school and become a college professor. I figured that’s what you do with an English degree. Then I saw there was a theater company Downtown called Shadowbox that did original sketch comedy.

Shadowbox insisted that I audition and do a monologue. Theater wasn’t something I’d done in my entire life — ever. They wanted me to sing and I can’t sing. So I ended up writing a sketch called, “Hulk: The Musical.” It was a one-man musical that I did combine my non-singing ability with my comedy. Miraculously, they still took me into the company. And 17 years later, I’m a performer now and … have found a whole new passion I wasn’t aware existed.

In 2007, [Shadowbox Live President and CEO Stev Guyer] said he wanted to go back to doing musicals. I’m not a musical fan at all, and that’s what I told him. He said, “That’s why you’re perfect to write one.” So I ended up writing “Tabloid” in 2008. It was a nice success for us, going back to our roots. The following year I wrote “Back to the Garden” which has become a staple here in Columbus. We do it every year on the Columbus Commons to about 7000 people.

This has been a very busy year for me. I wrote another original musical called “Underland.” I wrote “Burlesque: Behind the Curtain,” which is a sequel to the show I wrote last year, “Burlesque de Voyage.” It follows a traveling burlesque troupe and all the behind-the-scenes drama of a theater company. I don’t know how I know anything about that. I just finished writing scenes for Katie Seneca’s dance piece based on Wuthering Heights. That’s besides all the regular comedy sketches.

I just finished a book of comedic essays and monologues. Most of the stuff I write is for here, but this stuff isn’t really for Shadowbox. It’s called “Daddy Shouldn’t Break Dance,” which came about because I used to break dance when I was a kid. My moniker was Phantom J. We did a dance here about five or 10 years ago and it had a rap song, so I did some break dance moves and really hurt myself. One of the guys came over and said, “Man, daddy shouldn’t break dance.”

What I like to do with comedy is infuse it with heart. That’s something not a lot of comedies do today. When you think of movies like “The Hangover” or “Anchorman,” they’ve got wonderful bits and are really funny, but they lack that heart that makes me identify with characters. “Airplane” really accomplished that. It was nothing but gags, but … when I was a kid I wanted those two [Ted and Elaine] to get together so bad. To me that makes the comedy so much greater; amidst the absurdity your heart is being affected.

I’m very fortunate of the talent I have right there. I don’t have to hope and pray that somebody can pull this role off. I already know [the talented actors and musicians] we have at our disposal so I’m going to write to it. It makes my job easy in every sense.

Photo by Meghan Ralston