The Q Brothers re-Funk It Up

January 27, 2011

The first time around, it was a Cubs hat. Now, in the Q Brothers’ remounted “Funk It Up About Nothin’” at Chicago Shakespeare, the set’s naked Cupid-esque statue wears a Bears helmet. Peeing Pete—who is, sadly, no longer functional—will keep wearing it despite the Bears’ loss Sunday. “Hey, the Cubs never won,” says JQ. Peeing Pete’s headgear is one of the few things native Chicagoans JQ and GQ have changed about the show they brought to the stage in 2008, a “hip-hoptation” of “Much Ado About Nothing” that owes little to the Bard but its plot, bawdiness, and appreciation of wit.

Pared to 65 minutes, the Q Brothers’ manic pocket-size production features just six actors, including the Brothers, and an onstage DJ. But since everyone plays at least two characters—well, all the costume changes must make for some pretty impressive backstage farce. The biggest change to “Funk It Up” is new cast member Jillian Burfete, very funny as loopy ingénue Hero. “We couldn’t just swap out a person—the play is rap, but it’s also Monty Python-esque,” say the Qs, talking over each other. “Who plays the characters is so important. Jillian comes from Second City and IO, and she has a genius when it comes to improv. We’ve loosened up sections for her to play more.”

Delivering the show’s joke-heavy, tongue-twisting dialogue isn’t easy. “Actors come in and try to rap it too hard,” says GQ. “It’s hard to find a balance—it has to rhyme, but it also has to sound effortless. We had one person audition who was musical-theater-trained…” He warbles a few lines of the “Funk” script, Julie Andrews style. “It was so funny, we were biting our lips not to laugh.” Born Gregory and Jeffery Qaiyum to an Indian father raised in Pakistan and a German-English mother, the Brothers have deep roots in Chicago. The family business is Merz Apothecary, and the Qs live in Lincoln Square. They made me guess who’s the older of the two. I said GQ—and I was right. Most people think JQ is the big brother, GQ says, because “he’s become so cool, and I’ve turned into a spaz.”

Their first show, which GQ wrote and performed with three fellow NYU students and for which JQ wrote the music, was “The Bomb-itty of Errors,” which got rave reviews off-Broadway, at the Edinburgh Fringe, in London, and at Chicago’s Royal George in 2001. “Funk It Up,” which won a Jeff here for best ensemble and the award for best musical production at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2008, takes off on an Australian tour right after the Chicago run. The appeal: Though far from intellectual, “Funk It Up” is smart. When GQ says, “Brecht is one of my models—shining a light on your own devices,” he adds: “It’s the way to truth, and the way of ‘The Simpsons.’” After admiring the line, JQ riffs on it: “Like in ‘The Simpsons,’ we try to keep the comedy on all levels. Like it should work for a four-year-old: ‘Ha! He got kicked in the crotch!’” GQ, drily: “Actually, everybody laughs at someone getting kicked in the crotch…” (Note: no one gets kicked in the crotch in “Funk.” It’s lowbrow, but not that lowbrow.)

Online, the Q Brothers are mini media moguls. Some 20 videos from their MTV sketch comedy/rap show “Scratch and Burn” are posted on YouTube. Their rap group Retar Crew—which they formed with other actors from “Funk It Up,” performing at the Double Door on February 13—has more than 60 videos online. The most popular was last year’s “Blackhawk Song (We Love the Hawks?),” with nearly 430,000 hits. And the runner-up? “There was this religious rap video, ‘Christian Side Hug,’” says JQ. “It was about not hugging people from the front because it might lead to sin. We were just so offended, we did this video ‘Christian Side Hug (Part 2),’ where even side hugging can turn into sinning. We now have this ridiculous atheist and hockey following…”