Comedy  |  Features

Murderfist: An Oral History

July 8, 2014  |  5:26pm
Murderfist: An Oral History

Murderfist, in their own words, is “a journey to the extreme horizon of your mind-ocean.” They’re like the Marx Brothers, covered in blood, on acid. The veteran New York sketch comedy group that consists of John Moreno, Walter Replogle, Holden McNeely, Henry Zebrowski, Jackie Zebrowski, Amber Nelson, Ed Larson, Jared Warner, Kelan Maloney and director Adam Wirtz celebrated their 10th anniversary last year, and they don’t plan on slowing down anytime soon. At the end of July they will embark on their next great adventure: a 22-minute pilot funded through Kickstarter that will be shot in Wisconsin over the course of a week.

Murderfist’s non-stop hard work over the past decade has broken down walls—literally and figuratively—and its members now appearing across all types of media, from podcasts and web series to television and film. The group’s unique and sometimes absurd style has helped them gain the attention of many while still keeping them just out of the reach of the mainstream. They helped rejuvenate sketch comedy in New York, leaving an everlasting impact on the city’s comedy scene. This is their story, as told by the members themselves.

The Beginning

Henry Zebrowski: We all went to college at Florida State University together. Well, some of us went to the community college, some lied about going to school at all, and one was our weed dealer.

Holden McNeely: I met John Moreno through a mutual friend at a fire pit party in Tallahassee, Florida. We hit it off immediately and quickly decided we should do some improv together.

John Moreno: I was at a bonfire party and there was a dude making up a song as he went along. It was about a little cowboy and it was making me cry with laughter so hard I couldn’t breathe. That was Holden. We put up an improv/sketch show not too long after and the rest of the members found us.  

Holden McNeely: This, mixed with us obsessively watching the Mr. Show DVDs together, led to the plans for a sketch comedy show in the parking lot of my apartment complex over the summer. It was a sort of an, “If you build it, they will come” scenario, as we all just started partying together and then creating shows together. Ed was our…umm…libations seller?

Ed Larson: Everyone in Murderfist was a part of the theater program at Florida State. I sold them weed. Luckily I happened to be funny.

Henry Zebrowski: We met each other through classes, being in shows, or partying at Holden’s apartment. Holden’s place was where everybody drank and smoked weed all day long. I met Holden through a senior named Jay Sullivan who told me to just chill out at Holden’s place between classes. His exact words were, “Go break into Holden’s house, he doesn’t give a shit who is in there,” which of course was a fun lie.

Holden McNeely: Henry, we scouted from afar like evil crows. We just introduced him to weed and alcohol and hooked him in that way. Kelan was in a play analysis class with John and I and was clearly the smart one so we had him over to help us study for the finals. Walter is like a house cat, he sort of was just always there and funny and great to hang out with.  

John Moreno: Most of us were studying theater at FSU and some of us were just drifters that somehow found themselves in the worst part of Florida.

Holden McNeely: Henry one day told us that his little sister Jackie was coming up to Tallahassee and that she was in the group. Luckily she ended up being a comedy powerhouse. Jared came later, a friend of John’s from back home, I believe.

Jared Warner: I met John in class, and he’d invite me to do improv with his buddies, but I was taking myself very, very seriously those days and had to focus on my Shakespearistics. But over the year, I had more and more fun hanging with the alt kids. I got close to Henry backstage by kicking his ass at a version of the game Risk that is set in the future. I think it ended with me nuking the entire planet and going to live on the moon. This was considered winning somehow, and even though winning at board games was important to Henry at the time, this was a funny enough final solution for us to laugh about. And that’s how the group really formed, just groups of people starting to laugh at the same kinds of weird stuff. So I was around while the group formed, but wasn’t initially a member of it until I helped out with a sketch during one of the early “Let’s Eat Tuesday” shows, and then I just wouldn’t leave.

Holden McNeely: John and I did an improv show the day I got kicked out of acting school, which was very successful. We decided to put together a sketch show that summer and everybody just sort of said, “Okay, we’re down!”

Henry Zebrowski: Holden got kicked out of the theater program and it was hilarious to do a big improv show in one of their theaters as a big fuck you to them. Eventually this gay bar, Brothers, got ahold of us, told us, “we don’t do anything on Tuesday nights, you guys want Tuesday’s?” and then we had a weekly live show for three years. That’s where we really learned to fail at sketch comedy.

Holden McNeely: Brothers existed on the edge of town at the end of a crumbling strip mall. It was a total shit hole and a glorious one at that.

Ed Larson: John Moreno and Holden McNeely were trying to pick up these two girls. The girls left the group and the rest of us joined. I’m pretty sure they both have great lives now.

Holden McNeely: We started out as “The Black Market Puppet Players” and then “Girls Aren’t Funny Productions” but then we lost the girls in our group. They graduated college and left town. You can’t have an all-guy group called that.

Henry Zebrowski: We needed a new name for our weekly show, we used to be called “Girls Aren’t Funny” but we lost the three girls in the group that made the name ironic. We had a sketch called “Lord Of Man” in which I played a shitty office employee who killed every human on Earth and now wants to fight God.

Holden McNeely: God appears and she’s a woman and she absolutely slaughters him over the course of like 20 minutes. As he’s threatening God to fight him, he screams, “You will taste my Murderfist!”  We thought it captured the general feel of the group pretty perfectly.

Jared Warner: Thank the sweet fucking lord we went with that instead of “Girls Aren’t Funny” because that wouldn’t be going so well for us these days.

Ed Larson: I wasn’t in the group then. I was in the audience enjoying the show on a head full of mushrooms.

First Performances

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Holden McNeely: They were awesome and totally shitty. We could do anything we wanted, make every mistake in the book. It didn’t matter. We were in college and just working shit out.

Henry Zebrowski: We would make any excuse to smoke cigarettes in sketches. I know Ed was on mushrooms for a couple of shows.

Holden McNeely: Essentially, you could dream up some insane idea for a show and everybody was game. We had nothing to lose. Brothers was great. We could chain smoke on stage, they always plowed us with booze. They loved us because we took a totally dead Tuesday night and packed the place out with young, thirsty college kids.

Henry Zebrowski: Ed and I did a sketch where we had a “psychic battle” and he threw himself through a wall at Brothers. He went through it and the audience went nuts. Then he walked out and continued to do the sketch covered in plaster. The Ed-shaped hole looked like a Looney Tunes cartoon. Brilliant stuff. Someone found video of our old days and the sketches were complete garbage, but you could see there was at least a tiny spark of “these people are actually funny.”

Holden McNeely: We would rehearse for our weekly show there on Saturday mornings at 11 a.m. Everybody would be brutally hung over, the bar would reek of vomit and beer and jizz and cigarettes from the night before. It was pretty brutal but we loved that shit back then.  

Jared Warner: I remember the first shows at Brothers, before I was really a part of the group. First of all, there was somehow a crowd, even then. Like, how does that happen? There’s this gay drag bar in the back of Tallahassee and then one night eight fat dudes are like, “Hey, you have a good lighting rig. Can we tell jokes here?” and then a flock of college kids show up.

Moving to New York

Henry Zebrowski: Right after we finished college. It was barely a conversation. We were literally sitting around Holden’s house drinking and someone was like, “So we’re moving to New York?” and we were all like, “Yeah, sure.”

Holden McNeely: Henry pushed for it real hard. I wanted to go to Boston for some reason.  

Henry Zebrowski: I think I was being “charming.” Plus we knew New York was the place where good comedy was made.

Ed Larson: Everyone was coming to graduation, and we didn’t want to break up the group, so we had an all-day meeting at a park and decided on NYC. Chicago and Atlanta were also on the list, but how do you say no to New York. Go where the people are.

Holden McNeely: We made a whole game plan to move into the same neighborhood and in the same apartments to keep the crew together. New York just felt like the right challenge for us, a comedy hub but a filthy one. We figured punk came from there and a lot of our favorite comics and whatnot.

John Moreno: We moved to New York to follow in the footsteps of some of our heroes and biggest influences: Kids in the Hall, Mr. Show and SNL.

Jared Warner: We all moved up as a unit over three years specifically to come be blown away by how good sketch comedy was here, only to find that there was no sketch comedy happening. We decided to change that.

Henry Zebrowski: Our first break was probably begging this place called Galapagos, which was in Williamsburg and now is in Dumbo, for stage time. And they gave it to us. We had a monthly show there.

Holden McNeely: I was calling all these clubs, trying to get us booked. We knew nobody. This woman at Union Pool treated me like a total asshole over the phone so I sat down and wrote this maniacal e-mail to the booker at Galapagos about how nobody would give us a fucking chance in the city and we just want to prove to everybody we’re funny and worth an audience’s time. He got back to me and was like, “Woah, woah, calm down. I’ll give you a spot.” And that turned into a regular monthly for us.  

John Moreno: When Galapagos moved from Williamsburg to Dumbo, we made our way to the PIT and have been doing our monthly show of new material there ever since.

Henry Zebrowski: It kind of just ran from there, people saw us at that show and then subsequent shows, where we either did well or failed extravagantly. Sometimes comedians like a group that will fail really fucking hard because it’s more interesting than being mediocre.

Holden McNeely: When we found out the Village Voice named us best sketch comedy group, [it] was pretty huge and shocking. It doesn’t mean anything now, but when we got the ECNY award for best sketch comedy group, that meant a huge deal to us. For us, it was like the comedy community was saying, “You’re a part of it now.”  That was a big deal to us, because until then, we saw ourselves as an underdog to the scene, the black sheep, that sort of thing.

Jared Warner: I was running the Tallahassee branch of the group still with Jackie, and we thought, “Welp, too late, they’re going to go get a TV show without us.” Of course, what we didn’t know as kids was that you have to have thirty million false starts like that, and even though they can seem like they lead to nothing sometimes, it’s the racking up as many of those as you can, grabbing every opportunity, that eventually is what you build a career on.

“Let’s just say most of our shows are memorable.”

Holden McNeely: Everybody’s going to say this, but the back of a U-Haul truck hosted by Kurt Braunohler. It was a magical evening. We crushed, then partied in the U-Haul afterward then they closed the door and drove us around the city.

Jared Warner: Someone tried to shush us in the middle of the sketch because they didn’t realize we were doing a sketch. They thought I’d actually come out in front of people in the back of a truck, holding a bleeding woman, while Henry yelled at me. Weird things happen in Red Hook, I guess.

Holden McNeely: The 12-hour show that we performed at the PIT, which turned into the 13-hour show. We did 110 sketches all off book really just to prove we could do it, I guess.

Jared Warner: We set a world record for longest sketch show ever, but didn’t know how to get an officiate there to actually decree it a world record.

Holden McNeely: I remember about three hours in, we hit this point, and it was like sketch nirvana. Everybody was so on point and hilarious and just the whole thing was completely on fire. Man, that green room stunk afterward.

John Moreno: We never repeated a sketch and we retired a bunch of sketches that would be one member’s baby, but pretty much hated by everyone else, or loved by everyone but our audiences. I woke up that day with a hundred and one-degree fever. Every time I left the stage I wanted to die and I was in bed for about a week after that, but every time I hit the stage I felt nothing, but one hundred percent, and the standing ovation we got in the wall to wall packed basement of the PIT at four in the morning is something I’ll never forget.

Holden McNeely: The crowd kept getting bigger and bigger, people were running out and telling people that something was fucking happening in the basement of the PIT that day. By the end of the night, the place was just packed and the energy from the crowd, I’ll never forget it.

Ed Larson: I don’t know if we could do that again, physically. Mentally we could do 36 hours.

Holden McNeely: Our 10-year anniversary show last year was especially memorable. Everything just went perfectly and it marked a new beginning for us as a group. All of our friends came out, new and old, and a shitload of fans.

Jared Warner: We packed out Littlefield to the gills and it was this whole event. So many people we respect in the community were there to support and be a part of the show. It was just this great celebration of the last ten years, not just as Murderfist, but also as comedians and friends.

Adam Wirtz: We had something like 8 or 9 videos that I made just for the show and they were woven into the fabric of the show that included an overarching story as well as stand-alone sketches. As soon as I handed off the videos I sat down in the audience and just started pounding drinks as a reward for finishing everything on time. It’s going to sound really lame but I just remember getting to be in the group picture and that was a big deal for me. I felt like I was really a part of the group.

Jared Warner: We did a sketch that was in the first Murderfist show ever in Tallahassee, and it still got laughs. That’s satisfying.

Henry Zebrowski: Our 10th anniversary show ended with 250 people all chanting “10 MORE YEARS!”

Jared Warner: Our worst show was right next to my house, at some weird rock concert. Nobody could care less about a sketch team after watching three sexy women play guitar in their underwear, so we weren’t going over well. A guy starting singing an Enya song or something in the middle of our set, right in Ed’s face, so Ed poured a beer on him and got him thrown out.

Henry Zebrowski: Ed poured a beer on his head picked him up and threw him into the audience.

Henry Zebrowski: Let’s just say most of our shows are memorable, bro.

Growth

Jared Warner: Holden got bigger, Henry got smaller.

Holden McNeely: At one point we rolled 14 members deep. Now we’re down to eight, which is a lot easier to handle. We haven’t gone through a ton of folks because we always wanted to keep it in the family.

Henry Zebrowski: The first five years were us finding our voice. Plus our group dynamic really changed. We are more open and can have intense conversations about what is funny without it escalating into personal attacks like it would when we were in college.

Holden McNeely: We argue less, or maybe it’s that our arguments are less of a waste of time. We’re more organized, and just better at working as a group.

Henry Zebrowski: We realized we sucked and had no idea what we were doing. So we worked our asses off. We wrote every day for five years pretty much. We must have over 2000 sketches in our group email, no exaggeration. We learned that everything is about the audience, they tell you what’s good and what’s bad. We never had a teacher or a comedy class so everything we did had to be learned on our own. The more you listen to what you specifically do in front of an audience that gets a laugh, the more you learn what it is that you do funny and how to do it funnier.

Jared Warner: The first time we were down a few members to pilot season or filming, we started having full group writers meetings, where everyone would break into small groups, write for half an hour, and then switch around, so by the end of a two hour meeting you had close to 12 sketches written. This ended up getting everyone so much more involved in the writing of everything, so now everyone’s hand touches every sketch somewhere, and makes for a much more cohesive group voice.

Holden McNeely: We just honed our voice to where we’re like Voltron or whatever for lack of a better metaphor. Also, we have a very specific work process now. It used to be pretty chaotic. Now we have an exact system for mounting a show of new material to the point where we currently teach workshops based on it at the PIT.

Ed Larson: We never took classes at UCB or the PIT. I think us not having enough money to learn from professionals forced us to be different. None of us were taught how to do comedy; we just do our best to make each other laugh.

That being said, take our workshop at the PIT. I promise it’s completely different than any other comedy class you’ll ever be a student in.

Henry Zebrowski: We stopped destroying furniture at shows. And we are better at being comedians. If we weren’t that would be a tragedy and we should’ve quit.

Holden McNeely: Our video work has improved, for sure. We are finally getting the hang of that. It took us forever, going through lots of pretty rough camera/editor bros before we met Adam Wirtz and now we have our whole video production system down.

Adam Wirtz: I met Murderfist five years ago when I was going to NYU. I went to see a Murderfist show one night and I was completely blown away. I was a huge comedy fan before coming to NYC and Murderfist was what I was looking for at that moment in time. I think they were between directors/editors so I offered my help.

Holden McNeely: We’re still fighting, still trying everything we can to break into the business. And again, there’s a lot less fighting and drama and shit.

John Moreno: In the last five years we’ve just become incredibly tight. Sketches just seemed to fall on to the page. If it’s funny it’s funny. If it’s not, write a new sketch. A lot of people take their writing too seriously. We have thousands of sketches that never see the light of day.

Ed Larson: Amber Nelson is in the group now. We got funny, and somewhat responsible.

Holden McNeely: Amber we met up here in New York doing different comedy shows all over the city.  We wanted another female voice in the group and she was a perfect match.

Henry Zebrowski: We’ve lost a couple members and gained a couple back. 10 years is the longest relationship anyone of us has had or probably ever will have so I am surprised we’re are as happy as we are. The sex is fucking horrible.

Ed Larson: We met the stand-up community in New York. There was a weekly show in the back of a record store called Sound Fix, run by Ed Murray and John Knefel. We would perform every other week. They booked great stand ups and we were the only sketch group that could handle the drunks. That’s where we made most of our first and great friends in stand-up, like Sean Patton, Mark Normand, Kumail Nanjiani, Dan St. Germain, Mike Lawrence, Chris Laker and Rob Cantrell. Just to name a few.  

We got real lucky with that gig, and helped us decide to go the route of running with the stand-ups, rather than only performing in comedy theaters, we took to bars and warehouses instead. This is where we learned where we stood in the NYC comedy scene, was with joke writers more than actors.

Recent Work

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Ed Larson: Henry is a star. He is our golden goose. When Henry got on Michael and Michael Have Issues, and then watching it on TV is when I personally realized we were going to be doing this forever. Then he showed me his paycheck, and we had a hug.

Henry Zebrowski: I was in Wolf of Wall Street and a show for Adult Swim called Your Pretty Face Is Going To Hell and this fall I will be in NBC’s new romantic comedy A To Z. My first job was wearing sausage suspenders while douchebags ate them off of me as a punishment.

Holden McNeely: I will hopefully be on the TV for the first time actually later in the year. I did a guest spot on my buddies Jermaine Fowler, Kevin Barnett and the Lucas Brothers sketch show “Friends of the People.” Henry and I have a web series called “Huffin’ It with Biff and Stu.”  

Henry Zebrowski: Holden played a stalk of corn in his school play.

Holden McNeely: I am in a band called The Cowmen. I do a weekly podcast called The Roundtable of Gentlemen. I direct a house sketch team at the PIT called National Scandal.

Jared Warner: We’ve all been in Ed, Henry and Holden’s web series “Huffin’ It” on My Damn Channel, which is a nightmare turned into entertainment. I have a web series called “Jared Posts A Personal,” which John, Kelan, Walter and Amber have all been in as well. It’s wildly different than Murderfist’s vibe, veering more towards sentimental rom-com with some surrealism thrown in because I can’t help myself. I produce the show with Nick Ciavarella and Tim Dean, who were both members of Murderfist in Tallahassee.

John Moreno: I’ve been involved in the “Huffin’ It” web series. I’m the creepy clown from Biff’s nightmares. I also played Moby in “Jared Posts a Personal.” I recently was in the web series “Focus Group,” and I have a short film call “Law and Odor” coming out soon.

Ed Larson: I personally am elated to be a part of The Burn with Jeff Ross on Comedy Central. Jeff is my first cousin, and nobody has ever been better to me in my life than Jeff, except my mother. Going out to LA and living in his pool house, and being taken to every cool comedy club in town taught me more than anything I could have ever learned in a comedy class. The Burn’s writing room was more college than college to me. Also, Mike Ferrucci and David Feldman are joke writing gods.

We ended up meeting Ben Kissel, Seena Jon, and then Marcus Parks, which launched us into the podcast world. Now thanks to them and Rebecca Trent the members of Murderfist are responsible for five weekly shows on their prestigious podcast network, Cave Comedy Radio. Murderfist has gained a new worldwide audience through this avenue. Our shows are The Roundtable of Gentlemen, The Last Podcast on the Left, Page 7, The Brighter Side and Sex and Other Human Activities.

Adam Wirtz: I am shooting/editing with “Skinny Bitch Jesus Meeting,” “Jared Posts A Personal,” The Undone Sweaters, Becky Yamamoto, Damn Family, Jared Logan, Dan St. Germain, Skulk, the Hulking, etc. I could go on and on.

The Future

Henry Zebrowski: I want us to get to the 20th anniversary show, so I can be 40 and still cupping my balls in my hands in front of crowds.

Ed Larson: Everything and anything. We don’t give a shit.  

Holden McNeely: We are making a pilot, essentially a 22-minute long sketch comedy show to try and get over with the suits. I think if nothing pans out from that, we’ll make a big fuckin’ movie together.

John Moreno: Hopefully a TV show and a bunch of movies. A few tours would be great as well. Just as long as none of us try and run for public office.

Jared Warner: Well, everyone dies alone, no matter what, that’s all I can say for sure. And it’s written in our will that John has to bury each of us, by hand. So that’s something to look forward to.

Final Thoughts

Ed Larson: Just mostly thanks to anyone who helped inspire Murderfist to stay Murderfist and Holden’s family for not murdering him as a child. I am also very proud of us for not having any illegitimate children that we know of.

Holden McNeely: Smoke weed everyday and hail satan.

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