The cast of Ashes to Ashes, a hilarious new web comedy available for viewing now at ashestoashestheseries.com, will be familiar to the city’s theatergoers from dozens of productions by Lit Moon Theatre Company, the Theatre Group at Santa Barbara City College, the UCSB theater department, Genesis West, and more. Even if you’ve seen Mitchell Thomas, Jenna Scanlon, Annie Torsiglieri, Brian Harwell, Stanley Hoffman, Irwin Appel, and Tom Hinshaw onstage in everything from Shakespeare to Beckett, you most likely haven’t seen how well they adapt to the small screen, and in particular to the archetypal situation comedy. Now is your chance.
As written by Mitchell Thomas and Michael Bernard, these eight short episodes (they average about five minutes apiece) distill the eternal verities of the sitcom worldview to a highly concentrated essence. Thomas plays Father Ben, the doofus pastor of an Episcopal church in a town much like Santa Barbara. He encounters plenty of classic sitcom obstacles in his eight-episode story arc, some of them quite harsh. He gets no respect from his staff. Secretary Judy (Jenna Scanlon) clearly looks down on his slacker work ethic and lack of originality or responsibility, and his sexton Rob (Stan Hoffman) smokes pot on the job. Add to that the fact that his wife, Marcia (Ailish Dermody), tells him to his face that she’s sleeping with sleazy pinot honcho Sean the Winemaker (Brian Harwell).
No sitcom setup would be complete without unresolved sexual tension, and Ashes to Ashes delivers its funniest episodes (3: “You Deserve to Be Happy” and 4: “You Really Misread That”) when Ben’s therapist Sheila (Annie Torsiglieri) reveals that, despite the fact that she dozed off during his session, she has feelings for her patient. The combination of classic television comedy style and darker material is at its sharpest when Torsiglieri is on-screen. Enough of these wise women therapists like Tony Soprano’s Dr. Melfi. Let’s have some credentialed kooks. Sheila deserves her own show!
Perhaps the oddest and most interesting question about this little comedic gem is “How did it happen?” Mitchell Thomas is a professor at Westmont College, and his wife, Sarah Dammann Thomas, is an actual ordained Episcopal minister, as opposed to playing one on the web. What possessed Mitchell to take the lead in this decidedly irreverent operation? The answer qualifies as one of the year’s better “only in Santa Barbara” anecdotes. Cowriter Michael Bernard is married to Annie Torsiglieri, who plays Sheila, and his brother, Evan Bernard, directed the series. Evan’s career as a director of music videos has earned him one of pop culture’s most coveted and least available accolades — he’s name-checked in a Beastie Boys rap. “Get It Together” on Ill Communication includes a cameo from Q-Tip and the following verse from MCA: “I don’t think I’m slick nor do I play like I’m hard / But I’mma drive the lane like I was Evan Bernard.” Talk about street cred.
So that’s the connection between the Beastie Boys and Westmont College that you probably didn’t see coming, and, like the show itself, it’s got that late ’80s flavor. The web-sized snippets of comedy offered by Ashes to Ashes aren’t as long as episodes of the Mary Tyler Moore Show, or as morbid as a season of Curb Your Enthusiasm, but hey, they are ours, Santa Barbara. Let’s hope that we have not seen the last of Father Ben or his strange companions.