The 'Lost' tribe of Longwood

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What if I told you that the greater Orlando area is home to a comedy troupe that swells with a whopping 120 members? You'd think one of the Sak Lab Rats must have whelped a big litter of pups, right?

Not at all. The army of jesters to which I refer is the Lost & Found Actors Company, the house act at Lost & Found, a recently opened bar and performance space on Highway 17-92 in Longwood. Every Saturday night, 15 budding stars from among the group's overstuffed ranks are selected to appear in an episode of Steal the Scene, a sketch-comedy showcase that's recorded for broadcast at 8:30 p.m. Fridays on Time-Warner Cable's Channel 98. A live audience pays $10 a head to share in the excitement.

According to Terry McMahon, the company's president, its 120 active participants are a drop in the bucket compared to the 780 aspirants who tried out for spots in the troupe when the audition process began 11 weeks ago. Yes, everyone wants to be on TV these days. And as Survivor demonstrates, it doesn't matter how dire the consequences may be.

Last Saturday marked episode No. 7, making it a fine time to collar McMahon for an explanation of the not-so-obvious connection between the club, the show and the players. As it turns out, the affable entrepreneur -- whose manic energy and shag haircut lend him the mien of a Martin Short character -- is the connection. The group's leader is also the executive producer and host of Steal the Scene, and a partner in the bar's operations.

An entertainment-industry consultant (and a former member of rock outfit Real Cool Traders), McMahon is obviously a big thinker. He convinced his business associates, he said, to look beyond their original plans for a simple drinking establishment and instead incorporate a resident ensemble and a fully staffed, in-house TV production facility. One-and-a-half years of research pointed them to its ideal location: Longwood, Fla.

I was just happy that a TV show was being shot in a local bar, and it wasn't COPS.

This space for rent

While we chatted, two Lost & Found players mounted the club's wonderfully roomy, diagonal stage to shoot a commercial for downtown's Just Axx Deli. (With copious square footage, a panoply of actors and a battery of camera equipment at your disposal, why not take on outside clients?) But after numerous takes, the pitchmen couldn't nail the short script. They resorted to reading part of their ad copy onscreen, Ed Wood style.

McMahon wasn't worried, promising that we'd see some real action once "Steal the Scene" got under way -- a "cosmic, comedic train wreck," he called it. Someone at our table asked if he was always so enthusiastic.

"I'm actually slowed down right now," he said, his rapid-fire spiel all but causing steam to pour from his ears.

Sadly, this show was more "train wreck" than "cosmic" or even "comedic." The 15 cast members featured in episode No. 7 just didn't have enough collective wit to carry the material. The program's format did them no favors: On "Steal the Scene," the same sketch is performed three times in succession, each time by a different five-member cast. A panel of judges names the best ensemble, actor and actress. To goose the level of wackiness, the players must alter their portrayals at a moment's notice by following cue-card instructions like "Your leg has a mind of its own" and "Your mouth is full of peanut butter." Though the basic framework of episode No. 7 was the sighting of an alien spaceship, each of the vignettes soon broke down into a barnyard tableau of overlapping hoots and improvised physical shtick that was nigh on impossible to follow. It was like watching "Whose Line Is It Anyway?" with the lines removed.

Getting to know you

From their sustained guffaws, most of those in the audience appeared to be having a grand time. Then again, McMahon had begun the taping by inquiring into the presence of performers' friends and family members, whereupon approximately half of the attendees clapped or stuck their hands in the air.

The episode that aired the previous evening on Channel 98 was slightly better, boasting more literate ad libs and less pointless frenzy. (Or maybe Marshall McLuhan was right, and TV simply makes life seem better than it is.) Still, I can't help thinking that the revue is ready to be shanghaied by any moderately talented gagster who can find Longwood on a map. That intrepid soul will gain exposure on TWC and the handful of other cable markets to which the program is sold, plus a shot at one of the paid Tuesday gigs at Lost & Found that are open to veterans of the Saturday laugh-offs.

Remember, Eddie Murphy started out as a junior partner in the worst "Saturday Night Live" lineup ever. And where is he these days? Driving home from a gala preview of "The Klumps," and in the company of one of Hollywood's better-looking transvestites, to boot.

Yes, that was a joke. Can I spit out my peanut butter now?

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