Justin Schlegel wasn’t there that night, when his buddy went with his girlfriend to see a murder mystery theater show.
“From what I was told, those guys went and saw a murder mystery and it was terrible,” said Schlegel, a stand-up comic whose “Justin, Scott & Spiegel” radio show runs weekday mornings on WIYY 98 Rock. He was referring to Joe Robinson, one of his friends from the worlds of radio and comedy. “Like, it was really just the biggest trash heap of a show. I think they got a Groupon or somethin’.”
According to Schlegel, Robinson reported that “it wasn’t funny, it wasn’t entertaining, but the place was packed!” And that made the manager of the club very happy. “He said, ‘These guys are here all the time, and they always sell it out!’”
Robinson, who does a weekly podcast called “The Rob and Joe Show” with another friend, Rob Maher, was intrigued. “Joe (Robinson) walked out of there thinking, ‘Wow, there’s clearly a demand for this kind of show,” Maher said. “He thought, I know all these comics — including Justin Schlegel, who’s the star of our show and one of the funniest people I know — and (Joe) just called me and said, ‘Why don’t we try to do a murder mystery and just try to write it from a comedy club sensibility?’”
Maher, a 20-year veteran of the D.C. comedy scene, was game. “Having never seen a murder mystery in my life, I said sure — we just wrote one, not having any idea it would turn into anything,” he said. “Then (at) our very first show, at McGooby’s Joke House, which is just outside of Baltimore and a really great comedy club, we had 250 people at it and it just sort of took off from there.”
It took off to the point that where Maher and Robinson founded a company called Die Laughing Productions and put together eight comic murder mysteries in less than four years. Their first was set at a comedy roast; since then Die Laughing has staged all kinds of comedy-mysteries.
“Everything from a Christmas-party-gone-wrong, a horror-film-shoot-gone-wrong, a karaoke-competition-gone-wrong, a super-hero-awards-ceremony-gone-wrong,” said Schlegel. There’s also a Valentine’s Day-themed show, an ’80s-themed show, and mysteries involving newlyweds and would-be singing stars.
The troupe has traveled from the Ram’s Head in Annapolis to Las Vegas with fellow radio/comedy entertainers, and to the Middle East to entertain the troops in Kuwait, Abu Dhabi and Djibouti, Africa. On Saturday, they’ll bring their latest show, “Smooth Criminal,” to AMP by Strathmore in North Bethesda — the fourth time Die Laughing has been part of the venue’s popular comedy programming.
“AMP is great,” said Schlegel. “There’s no bad seat. The stage is so high up, it’s got great sound and it’s probably one of the nicer venues from a staffing standpoint. And the food there is second to none!”
Maher is equally enthusiastic. “I love AMP. It’s a beautiful venue,” he said. “It’s a great location, and it checks all our boxes as performers. Definitely one of our favorite places to be.”
Both comics point out that they’re expecting an adult audience, as the material in “Smooth Criminal” is not for kids. Maher said audiences should expect the off-color jokes and blue language found at any comedy club and be ready for the unexpected.
“A lot of the people in the cast are comics,” Maher explained. “So there are a lot of places for improv written into the show, just to play to the strengths of the comics.”
But “Smooth Criminal,” expects its cast to have talents beyond comedy. Based on the music of Michael Jackson, the show calls for acting and singing chops as the cast portrays a bunch of would-be performers auditioning for a King of Pop cover band called The Smooth Criminals.
“We’re lucky to have several comics in our show who are really excellent singers,” said Maher, who notes that he himself is not one of the doubly blessed. “We decided to combine our talents,” he explained. “And make an ode to Michael Jackson, in a comedy club, solving a murder.”
Maher is eager to point out that despite all the jokes, Michael Jackson is in no way maligned, and that the King of Pop’s music, from the Jackson Five to “Thriller” and beyond, is treated with respect that borders on reverence. “Smooth Criminal” relies on audience interaction, with volunteers coming onstage to do a little singing and dancing — and some “screams and shamones,” as Maher put it, à la the King of Pop.
“Whenever you have an audience member onstage doing something, you can’t lose,” said Maher. “If they’re really bad, it’s funny and if they’re really great, it’s awesome.
“Throughout the show, there’s gonna be comedy,” he said. “It’s definitely comedy-driven. If you’re looking for a serious, dramatic mystery solving, that’s not who we are.”
Who are they? While Maher and Robinson are in charge at Die Laughing, they cast their shows with fellow comics because “every comic knows a thousand comics,” as Maher said. “Our core is myself and Joe. We’re not only in the shows, but we write all the shows together. And then Justin, from 98 Rock, is sort of our main star. Tommy Sinbazo, Erik Woodworth, Sean Gabbert, Franqi French — they’re all local D.C.-Baltimore comedians who are in ‘Smooth Criminal,’ and they’re all actually excellent singers.”
And comics, too. The entire cast is made up of a circle of comedians who are also friends, working on a project together. “That’s the one thing with comics,” said Schlegel. “They’re always trying to put together, like, a sketch group or a tour or an improv group or try and shoot a pilot and it never goes anywhere. Now here we are, four years later, and it’s the most successful comedy thing I’ve ever been a part of.”
“Smooth Criminal: A Murder Mystery Comedy Show” takes the stage at 8 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 17 at AMP by Strathmore, 11810 Grand Park Ave., North Bethesda. Tickets range from $20 to $30. Call 301-581-5100 or visit www.ampbystrathmore.com/live-shows/smooth-criminal.