Sean Devereux and Brad McMurran have become the kings of Tidewater comedy. Now, if they can just keep from killing each other.
by Eric J. Wallace
“What’s with the mask?” says Brad McMurran, co-owner of Norfolk’s Push Comedy Theater. “Seriously, dude, what’re you thinking? Not funny, just dumb.”
The accusation is directed at business partner and fellow comedian Sean Devereux. Gov. Ralph Northam is shutting down the state economy because of the coronavirus and the two men – standing center stage at their empty Neon District theater, wearing orange plastic jumpsuits and yellow dishwashing gloves – are prepping to film announcements
about show cancellations and new online content.
McMurran, 43, has a gallon-size freezer bag over his head. He glares at Devereaux, 48, who stares back at him through a Darth Vader mask. Seconds pass. The only sound is
Deveraux’s Vader-breathing. The tension gets awkward until Devereux finally responds, in character: “Screwww you.” McMurran’s lips purse, his eyes contract. Devereux lifts the mask, revealing a self-satisfied smirk.
“Dude, you’ve got a plastic bag on your head,” he says. “Like that’s not cliché.”
McMurran sighs. “Can we just get this over with?” he says, exasperated.
Devereux shrugs. The camera rolls. And there they are: The kings of Tidewater comedy, cracking jokes as they temporarily close the crown jewel of a project that began in 2005 as The Pushers Comedy Troupe. The decision ends a five-year run of sellout shows for their hit, The Unusual Suspects: An Improvised Murder Mystery, which debuted in 2014. But McMurran and Devereux don’t appear worried. Exchanging winks, they cite a silver lining: Now they can finish that new comedic musical, which should’ve launched last year.
Filming stops. The bickering resumes immediately. For McMurran and Devereux, this is business as usual. Despite an often fraught – and openly hostile – relationship, both say their success would’ve been impossible without the other.
“We’re like gifted half-people that, together, make a super person,” says McMurran. They’re bonded by the comedic arts and theater. “But we’re both alpha types, so it (bothers us) to need each other. There’s love, but it’s like half-brothers in a Dostoyevsky novel.”
Devereux cackles at the comparison. “It’s like, if Brad needed a kidney? I’d give it to him,” he says. “But when he got better? I’d punch him in the face for making me do it.”
McMurran and Devereux met in 2003 through mutual friends at Old Dominion University’s theater program, where McMurran, an alumnus, was teaching comedy workshops. Devereux was a marketer for WVEC. Both were considered rising fixtures of the Tidewater comedy scene.
“We knew of each other, but hadn’t met,” says Devereux. When introduced at a party, “I thought Brad was a boorish (jerk).”
“I couldn’t stand that dude,” says McMurran.
The impressions mostly stemmed from a perceived rivalry. And it went beyond the stage.
“At some point, Brad interjected himself between me and this girl I was talking to,” says Devereux. McMurran draped an arm over her shoulder and addressed her like a long-lost lover. Devereux stalked off. “Then, later, I’m with another girl and he does the same thing,” says Devereux.
The two were corralled into collaborating in 2005 when McMurran moved to form a comedy troupe based out of the Little Theatre of Norfolk. Mutual mentors pitched Devereux as a gifted comedy writer; McMurran, a performer à la Chris Farley. They urged Devereux to submit sketches for a pilot and pressured McMurran to accept them.
Feeling obligated, both agreed – but vindictively. Devereux wasn’t interested in performing, so McMurran mandated live-auditions. Devereux responded by reading from the dictionary. Still, interest grew with rehearsals.
“Sean was clearly a badass writer,” says McMurran. Worse, “he was a wizard at making [scripts] funnier; he was taking my stuff to a whole new level. It made me wanna puke, but it was true.”
Devereux was similarly conflicted. “Brad was like this bottomless fount of hilarious ideas,” says Devereux. “They never stopped coming.”
The pilot was well-received, and the theater asked McMurran and Devereux for more. The men entered a wary partnership and founded The Pushers Comedy Troupe. “It was this warped, yin-meets-yang situation,” McMurran says. “We despised each other, but made awesome (stuff) together.”
The artistic connection inspired a mutual but begrudging respect. Working together on a daily basis led to a bizarre friendship. Their colleague, Alba Woolard, who joined the Pushers in 2009 and is now with Chicago’s The iO Theater, says the pranks and public undercutting are routine.
They’re incapable of passing up an opportunity to mess with one another, she says. It gets vicious, but in a Ferris Bueller’s Day Off sort of way. “They’re like teenaged rivals – it’s war, sport, jealousy, admiration and good old mean-hearted fun wrapped up together.”
Fifteen years have brought too many tales to remember, says Devereux. Punchlines range from life-threatening, to humiliating, to comedically ingenious.
Devereux once left Facebook open on a work computer overnight. McMurran discovered it and penned a lengthy love letter to Devereux’s ex-fiancé. The relationship had ended badly; the two hadn’t spoken in a year.
“Then she’s calling out the blue saying she can tell I’m a ‘changed man,’ that she’s willing to ‘give me another shot at happiness,’” and so on, says Devereux. Confusion gave way to horror. “I mean, how do you tell someone in that situation it was all a prank?” he says.
Another time, the partners were celebrating after rehearsals for a new off-Broadway show in New York. They were standing on the stoop of a friend’s apartment building. Devereux was trying to woo a female comedian friend up for a nightcap. “He was making a fool of himself,” says McMurran.
McMurran scrambled up the stairs, unzipped his pants and urinated on Devereux’s head. The night ended badly, as you might expect. Devereux chased McMurran down the street and tackled him. In the tumble, McMurran slammed his head against the pavement, sending him to the emergency room where it took 16 staples to seal the wound. He now admits he probably deserved it. “We basically have a pact,” says McMurran. “Like, payback is expected. But no matter what happens, forgiveness is mandatory.”
Both men agree that a creative relationship like theirs comes once in a lifetime, if at all. And the fruits are worth a bit of suffering. “Truthfully, though, I’ve come to see it as a workplace benefit,” says Devereux. “I mean, where else do you have open license to screw with a coworker this hard and not get fired?”