Duck's Breath -- America's answer to Monty Python?

WHERE do the escalator steps go?'' ``Why does your tongue stick to cold surfaces in winter?''

``Does the light in the refrigerator really stay on when you close the door?'' (Answer: ``Sometimes it does and sometimes it doesn't. It all depends upon the wishes of the food in the refrigerator. Carrots tend to be voracious readers. . . . Cabbages, on the other hand, are grumpy, sleepy fellows who usually have their own compartment so the carrots' nocturnal habits won't keep them, and their friends the potatoes, awake. . . .)

If you have pondered these probing scientific questions -- and gotten answers for them on early morning public-radio shows, you've probably heard ``Ask Mr. Science,'' a 90-second radio feature performed by two members of a comedy group called Duck's Breath Mystery Theatre that's making a splash.

This group of longtime friends -- Merle Kessler, Dan Coffey, Bill Allard, Jim Turner, and Leon Martell -- were brought together in college by their bizarre but clean brand of humor.

Duck's Breath (``smells like minnows''), as they call themselves, is not an improvisational troupe. Nor are they a stand-up comedy troupe. And they don't do mystery theater. Instead, they've fused slapstick humor, funny voices, and the most atrocious display of mismatched plaids ever assembled under one roof. Often compared to the British comedy troupe Monty Python, their humor is both intellectual and physical, hard-edged and gentle, socially perceptive and silly.

``It's like a dog and cat fighting in a trash bag,'' Mr. Kessler explains solemnly. ``You can't see them, but you know something's going on in the bag.'' ``Ask Mr. Science,'' a question-and-answer parody of the 1950s' ``ask the expert'' radio programs, is featured on 180 American Public Radio affiliates. (Because of a copyright dispute, the group is in the process of changing its name to ``Ask Dr. Science.'')

The program is only one of the features this 10-year-old comedy troupe has created. In the last five years, Duck's Breath has flown to radio stardom. National Public Radio's (NPR) ``All Things Considered'' interrupts its programming to air the caustic social commentator, ``Ian Shoales,'' as well as the ``Sensitive Male Hotline,'' and other group sketches.

ABC's ``Nightline'' also carries ``Ian Shoales.'' The sports Q&A, ``Stump the Stallion,'' is on NPR's ``Morning Edition.'' The troupe has also written 26 half-hour children's comedy episodes of ``Out of Control,'' a new television series on the Nickelodeon cable network.

Their live shows have become sellouts, and sales of quacky accouterments -- T-shirts, cassettes, and records -- are moving at a brisk waddle. They've written a screenplay, ``ZARDA! COW FROM HELL,'' about a cow who wanders into a nuclear reactor and emerges a rather giant cow.

And after a decade in the business, the guys are still friends. On a recent steel-gray day, several of them met with a reporter late in the afternoon. Even just shooting the breeze, it's a droll breeze. When asked where they got their name, Mr. Coffey says they had to have something to put on the posters. ``If I had to do it all over again, I'd have named us `The Supremes,' '' he sighs. The other members, not to be outdone, let fly their own suggestions -- ``War Babies.'' ``The Zanies.'' ``The Care Bears.''

The group was hatched nearly 10 years ago at the University of Iowa. Kessler and Coffey had master's degrees in playwriting, Mr. Allard and Mr. Martell graduated from the university's directorial program. All could do weird voices, ``and we had the same kind of sense of humor,'' noted Kessler.

They began performing at local clubs. After a year, pooling their resources ($200 each), they pulled up stakes and chugged to San Francisco in an old clunker that broke down all the way. Settling in a run-down mansion, the Ducks got day jobs and played every club in the area, even sandwich shops and pizza parlors, places that normally didn't have comedy acts.

``We played Gatsby's for $50 and free pizza,'' says Steve Baker, the Ducks' manager. ``A big night was when we hit three figures.''

After three years, they started touring, and one by one left the mansion to get married. Coffey gave Los Angeles a shot as an actor, but returned to the Duck pond. Kessler wrote a musical based on the life of Joseph Smith, founder of the Mormon Church, which appeared once in New York. The touring years took their toll: Coffey is getting divorced, Kessler has divorced and remarried.

The group's longevity is attributed to the freedom they give each other, says Baker. Kessler and Coffey work independently on ``Ask Mr. Science.'' Kessler also works alone on ``Ian Shoales.''

They may not squeak, but for a comedy group they're considered clean. ``There's just certain kinds of jokes we don't find funny,'' says Kessler: ``Drug jokes, sex jokes, jokes made at the expense of somebody. We go more for the unexpected.''

``They bring a lighthearted, occasionally not fully developed, world view'' to the airwaves, jokingly said Nick Nash, programming director at American Public Radio.

``We create a different world -- one far more stupid and silly,'' says Mr. Baker.

One catches a glimpse of this silly world in a recent live show in Berkeley. Bill Allard's softly threatening Godfather emcees the show. The amiable, bearded Dan Coffey, assisted by Merle Kessler's enthusiastic yips, educates the audience as ``Mr. Science.'' (Audience members place their questions, written on torn pieces of the program, on the stage. The two performers pick four or five and present prepared answers during the second half of the show.)

Kessler, as ``Ian Shoales,'' comes on later as the sneering puncturer of pop culture, talking in a rapid-fire monotone. ``Ask yourself this: Where do meter maids come from? Is there a Loch Ness monster? Who was Deep Throat? Who did put the bomp in the bomp bomp bomp? What is a limited nuclear war? If the `Me decade' is over, who am I now? How many roads can a man walk down before they call him a man? The answers, my friend, are blowing in the wind. I gotta go.''

Coffey appears as ``Danno,'' the lounge lizard-turned-feminist who runs the Sensitive Male Hotline. Jim Turner plays the acid-fried ``Randee of the Redwoods.'' The audience sings a surprisingly robust ``Old MacDonald Had a Farm,'' conducted by Bill (``A little more on the `pig,' please'') Allard. Leon Martell gives a class on instant culture, in which the other Ducks pose as famous paintings and architecture.

This group, which once fell through a rotten floor of a club in Chico, Calif., is enjoying its flight to national acclaim. It's set up a scholarship fund at the University of Iowa for two promising theater arts students a year. In nine years the fund has grown to $20,000. Kessler says he hasn't had to work a day job in a year. Baker mentions the last line of a Los Angleles Times interview, given in August, in which he said: ``Some people might call us self-supporting. But at this point I'm not exactly ready to buy a house. Or a room. Or a sofa.'' Well, says Baker, ``we just bought the sofa.'' -- 30 --

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