On the dynamic comedy of Maddie Lutz and Eli Yurman
“Are you going to include that you’re not funny?”
Twenty minutes late to the Uncommons Board-Game Cafe, and suspiciously relaxed about it, Eli Yurman peels off his red leather jacket with a smirk. He has yet to sit down at the table but is already sharpening his wit—upon a reminder that he was about to be interviewed, Yurman was quick with a roast to his interviewer.
Wedged into a corner of the back room at Uncommons, Yurman sits shoulder-to-shoulder with Maddie Lutz. Unlike Yurman, Lutz was early, the first to arrive. As the rest of the group approached, she lay dramatically across the bench outside, hand across her forehead, blonde hair splayed onto the sidewalk below. “I’m absolutely perishing in this heat,” she’d insisted in a thick, southern accent (though Lutz hails from Boulder, Colorado). Her flowy, flowery skirt has blown up slightly, revealing her underwear to the entire street. When this is brought to her attention, she yanks the fabric higher.
Squished together on the table bench inside, Yurman and Lutz sit shoulder-to-shoulder, across from myself and a mutual friend, Brian Christensen Zapiecki. Their body language is more that of an old married couple than of two recently minted friends. Though they’ve known each other for a few semesters—“Honestly, I can’t even remember how long it’s been,” Lutz confessed, “too long. I’m sick of him”—the pair hadn’t started seeing each other outside of class until early March, when the first visit to Uncommons was proposed. Since then, board-game Sundays in the cafe have become a biweekly retreat. And, by nature, the perfect atmosphere for their collective humor to thrive.
There is something appealing about the fleeting nature of this humor. The jokes told between Yurman and Lutz are not necessarily meant to be written down. None are planned or rehearsed; unlike other students studying comedy at NYU, time spent with them is not a thinly veiled excuse to recite their stand-up comedy routines. On an individual level, they are certainly performing. Both are partial to dramatic gestures, in their own personal styles—Yurman is fond of chaotic movement, flailing and yelling in normal conversation, while Lutz is partial to feigned anger and confrontation. They share between them, a love of accents.
None of these gestures, however, are meant to be constructive. Yurman and Lutz are not the “world’s funniest people,” nor do they claim to be. The value of their humor, comes specifically from its spontaneity. Regular conversations, even over something as mundane as a board game on a Sunday afternoon, can evolve into a side-splitting riff between them.
The back wall of Uncommons is stacked floor to ceiling with games. This Sunday afternoon, Lutz was specifically tasked with choosing which to play. The group rotates the responsibility with each meeting, though they tend to play the same damn set of games, anyways. It’s a matter of principle—the game-chooser chooses games, purely for the dramatics of it.
Lutz, back from her investigation of the wall, drops three boxes down loudly on the table.
“It’s go time, bitches.”
On stage, Yurman and Lutz often perform this same groove of verbal sparring, albeit unintentionally. The two were recently paired in a comedy showcase (alongside students in Gallatin Professor Matthew Gregory’s “Performing Comedy” Arts Workshop), where they stumbled into a particularly memorable routine. For the showcase, they were instructed to prepare and perform a “personality parody,” or impression, of a well-known public figure. Yurman picked Alex Jones, of alt-right InfoWars fame. Lutz picked Sarah Huckabee Sanders. Though performing ideologies blessedly distinct from their own, their characters meshed as seamlessly and amicably as Yurman and Lutz do in real life. Though the impressions themselves displayed clear talent, and wit, that extra something that made their performance stand out in quality, was that they were performed together. Individually, they would have each been solid parodies. Together, they became the stars of the class showcase.
Each personality parody nailed the voices, outfits, and mannerisms of their respective celebrities. Yurman, as Jones, yells rather than speaking; his tone is severe, no matter what he is talking about; during the bit, this involved yelling at Michael Jackson (classmate Elie Docter’s parody) and his stuffed monkey. Yurman is dressed in a plain-looking suit, with his hair slicked back to enlarge his forehead. As the impression progressed, Yurman began aggressively downing mouthfuls of Skittles—or “Brainforce Plus,” Jones’s own brand of dietary supplement. The humor in the rhetoric Yurman was spinning verbally complemented the physical humor of the Skittles.
Though portraying a political ideology similar to Jones’s, Lutz’s parody of Huckabee Sanders was quite different. Her tone was even, and distinctly southern, with Lutz’s lips set in a permanently disdainful frown. She wore a bright red blouse under a charcoal skirt-suit, akin to Huckabee Sanders’s normal attire. As Yurman was over the top, Lutz’s impression held an air of understatement; everything she had to say was conveyed subtly. Her body language was closed off and stiff, mirroring the former White House press secretary’s normal stature. Verbally, however, Lutz took the impression in a stunning direction. She managed to assault and dismantle the other impressions onstage through quick, sharp retorts. Off the cuff, improvising, Lutz’s impression was a powerhouse.
After the “Performing Comedy” course ended, the possibilities for their collaboration were endless; the actual chances of their collaboration, however, are less one would hope. Getting the two of them at the same table in Uncommons biweekly is difficult enough. Lutz confesses that they are, unfortunately, “just too damn busy . . . and lazy.” Nonetheless, like virtually every other NYU student, Yurman and Lutz have offhandedly brainstormed the possibility of starting a podcast together. Unlike every other aspiring podcast-creative, however, their vision is fairly laid-back.
“It would be a podcast,” Yurman explained slowly, “of us, doing this.” He gestures to the game in front of them—a resource-gathering card game called Splendor. The game is a favorite of the pair, though for some reason, both must be refreshed on the rules every Sunday that they play. Cards are spread across the table in a four-by-three grid, accompanied by corresponding “gem tokens,” and a pamphlet of rules that Yurman obsessively consults with each move. “This,” to Yurman, simply refers to the amiability of the afternoon—the friendly air declines rather rapidly, as Lutz demolishes Yurman in the first round of the game.
Ticket to Ride
“It’s called right angles, sweetie.”
With pursed lips and the adopted persona of a forty-five-year-old mother of four, Lutz clacks a painted fingernail on the Ticket to Ride game board. There, a neon orange train track, printed onto the cardboard, is bent at a right angle; this separates the track in two, though it is the same track. Yurman picks up the three small, plastic train cars he’d attempted to lay down, with a scowl. For a four-train track, he had only three of the resource cards necessary to build between Berlin and Munich—unable to obtain the standard American version of the game, the pair had to settle for the “European Tour” edition.
“Zis,” Yurman exclaims in a colorful attempt at a German accent, “is a travesty!”
The game board won’t lay flat—it has been haphazardly placed upon a scattering of the old Splendor tokens and cards, Yurman’s phone, and a discarded set of house keys. There was too much excitement over playing the game to wait and clear the table.
Similarly to Lutz, Yurman can’t remember a time during which he wasn’t obsessed with chasing the spotlight. Unlike Lutz, however, comedy wasn’t his initial medium. Yurman entered NYU with every intention of graduating a Musical Theater major from Tisch. After one year in New York, however, Yurman decided to focus on comedy full time, transferring into Gallatin, with a concentration in comedy performance.
“Unlike Maddie,” Yurman laughs, “my jokes are actually good.” She sticks her tongue out at him, reaching past him to obtain two new cards from the top of the deck—one blue, and one a coveted rainbow card, able to assume the color of any train track on the board.
“Oh-ho-ho, fuck you!” Lutz exclaims, waving the card around. She tucks it gently, borderline lovingly into her deck, before flipping Yurman off.
Mere minutes later, as the game ends, Lutz pauses to count her point total. As she lays down her cards, she looks back up at Yurman, awestruck. “I did it again,” she moans, gesturing to the board. “I built to the wrong fucking city! Wagenfeld instead of Wadern, dammit!”
Lutz’s hand folds, to the sound of Yurman cackling.
Coup, a handheld card game contained in a very small box, is completely foreign to both Yurman and Lutz. Neither of them take quickly to the rules of the game. After a particularly fortunate string of luck, however, Lutz begin winning Coup anyway.
The theme of this trip to Uncommons seems to be callback jokes. In particular, Yurman found a groove in ribbing Lutz with a stream of faulty Avengers: Endgame spoilers. As it was only the opening weekend for the film in theaters, Lutz was adamant to protect what she affectionately referred to as “her spoiler hymen.” At first mention, this led Lutz down a stream of increasingly graphic, vaguely sexual references, all of which appeared to gross Yurman out—and many of which he could match with his own spin. A particular favorite of the pair, worth writing down and saving, involves a vaginal yeast joke, off the pretense of Passover—“Get it? Yeast! As in, leavened bread? Passover?” The ham-fisted pun took a moment to sink in, before the table was groaning affectionately.
“My favorite part of Endgame,” Yurman retorts, “is when Thanos snapped, and Maddie disappeared.”
Lutz purses her lips, gently placing down a handful of tokens, in order to “assassinate” Yurman out of the game. The move is savage, but now frees Yurman up to offer nothing but an uncontested, stream-of-consciousness-style vomit of half-formed jokes about the game play. Many are hats-on-hats. None are worthy of being written down, even for the sake of an interview on Yurman’s comedy. A majority of the jokes are callbacks about Avengers: Endgame, beginning “My favorite part of Endgame…” to startle Lutz with the pretext of a spoiler—but ending with a joke about the board game, or a game player, or truly anything that came up in conversation. (“My favorite part of Endgame,” Yurman says while playing a hand, “is when [our professor] snapped and cancelled class tomorrow, because I haven’t written the homework.”) By the end of the round, though, every player is grinning. Even if they lost in Coup.
Perhaps the best, and worst, thing about Yurman and Lutz’s combined humor is its inability to be reproduced. Even for the sake of an interview, the soundbites taken of their bits and one-offs fall flat out of context. The best part about their humor, is being there to witness it, first hand. Every conversation with Yurman and Lutz, together, becomes a one-night-only event. This quality to their humor is its most salient attribute; everything, for them, is contained within the moment. Disappointing, yes, because there is a natural desire to chase and capture the jokes they told—more specifically, the effect that these jokes have on their audience. On the other hand, the irreproducible quality of these jokes is due specifically to their fleeting nature. They have been crafted offhand, on the fly. Whether intentional or not, Yurman and Lutz spit jokes created in the moment, for the moment. The wit they have sharpened is, conversationally, razor-sharp.
After a string of suspiciously well-strategized moves, Lutz puts down her cards, triumphant. “You know,” she starts, with a glint in her eye, “I think you should write the interview essay on [Zapiecki]. Fuck us, amiright?”