Saturday night in Norfolk’s downtown NEON Arts District often finds stand-up comic and founder of Norfolk’s Push Comedy Theater Brad McMurran leading his celebrated improv troupe through a rendition of his smash-hit The Unusual Suspects: An Improvised Murder Mystery. The show has sold out at the 90-seat theater for four years straight, was picked up last year by a Las Vegas hotel and has toured nationally. A deal with a prominent cruise line is in the works.
“When my business partner, Sean Devereux, and I were writing [Unusual Suspects] give-or-take five years ago, we had no idea the show would get this big,” says McMurran, 42.
The script was meant to be an experimental vehicle for an interactive routine that would draw audiences into the action. The work came fresh off the success of their 2013 off-Broadway hit Cuff Me: The Unauthorized Fifty Shades of Grey Musical Parody, which was subsequently produced throughout the country. Unusual Suspects, thought McMurran, would likely be a stepping stone to what came next. Instead, it struck a nerve.
“For me, the success of this show—and, for that matter, our little theater—has been absolutely mind-blowing,” says McMurran. The latter celebrated its fifth anniversary this August. “When we opened, we were just kind of hoping to survive. Now it’s become so much more than that. I’m still trying to adjust to the idea of literally watching my dreams come true. There are days when I wake up thinking I hallucinated everything; it feels that unbelievable.”
Indeed, for McMurran, the road to becoming the King of Coastal Virginia Comedy has been long and filled with hard work. What follows is the little-known tale of its beginnings.
Long before he had a best-selling show and nationally touring act, McMurran was an aspiring high school basketball star. The talent took him to Virginia Wesleyan University, where he intended to play for a season or two then transfer to a bigger school. But that’s not how things worked out.
“I realized pretty quick that this was as far as I was going with sports,” says McMurran. Starting players were bigger, taller, faster. “It was a rude awakening. It was the first time in my life I’d experienced real failure, so, it was pretty shattering.”
He rounded out the year and enrolled at Old Dominion University the following fall. Without basketball, though, he was unanchored.
“There was nothing else I was good at, nothing I was proud of,” says McMurran. “I felt like I was basically a giant, purposeless dumbass. By the end of the year, I was on academic probation and feeling just completely lost.”
McMurran spent the summer of 1997 working on Portsmouth’s Carrie B Showboat. From its decks he often watched the sun set over the Chesapeake Bay and wondered what to do with his life. The fact was, he’d spiraled into a depression. ‘Something has to change,’ thought McMurran, ‘and fast.’ By August, he had a plan.
“A really dear friend of mine, Greg Cook, had died suddenly a few years before,” says McMurran. Cook’s father and brother healed by taking a cross-country bicycling trip. Following a consultation with the brother, McMurran made up his mind: “I was going to do the same and, somehow or another, the experience was going to fix me.”
He first bought a bike, $200 worth of cycling maps and a plane ticket to San Diego. Next came telling his parents. To do it, he sat them down in the living room. The air was tense—McMurran’s father was a judge, his brother an aspiring law student, his sister a soon-to-be teacher; and here was McMurran, playing the family’s self-described black sheep.
“I dove right in and told them what I planned to do and why, and there was just this big silence,” says McMurran. His parents stared at him like a Martian invader: Their son despised bicycles and hated camping. “Finally, my dad goes, ‘You know, [John D.] Rockefeller’s son tried to do something like this in Africa and it ended with him getting eaten by lions.’ I think my mouth probably fell open. I was like, ‘What the f*#% is that Dad?’”
But the rebuke strengthened McMurran’s resolve. He flew to San Diego later that month and set out along the 3,092-mile Southern Tier bike route.
Predictably, two days into the journey found McMurran in crisis.
“The first leg of the trip was, like, 40 miles of uphill riding and it killed me,” he says with a laugh. On the second afternoon he passed out on the side of the road—and awoke covered in ants. That night, McMurran pitched a tent at a hostel and phoned his parents from inside. “I was bawling and hysterical,” he says. “I said, ‘I can’t do this, I’ve gotta quit, I don’t know what I was thinking!’”
To his surprise, McMurran’s father replied, calmly, ‘Take a look at your ticket.’ The fare had been changed to roundtrip, to and from San Diego.
“Then my dad goes, ‘I kind of figured this would happen. Why don’t you just ride back into the city and hang out until it’s time to come home?’” says McMurran. Though spoken with love, the statement bothered him. “I got really quiet, then hung up the phone. I sat there thinking: ‘He figured this would happen?’ Man, did that piss me off. All of a sudden, I jump up and rip up the ticket and start yelling crazy stuff like, ‘I’d rather f*#$%* die than not finish this f*#$%* trip!’”
Righteousness flooded down like a divine blessing. Then came the curses of the other campers. But McMurran was immune: Their imprecations slid off like water on a rubber slicker; he’d set out pre-sunrise, get a jump on the day and leave those naysayers in the dust.
Some 400 miles in, McMurran was feeling confident. He’d crossed the Laguna Mountains and entered Arizona. Next came pedaling through the Yuha Desert and the 26,000-acre Algodones Dunes Wilderness. These posed a challenge.
The days were long, temperatures rose above 114 degrees, inhabitants were virtually nonexistent. Worse, the run concluded with a 40-mile stretch of wasteland serviced by a single gas station—the owner of which was rumored to be particularly ornery.
“I had these specialty cycling maps, and they advised cyclists to be over-the-top courteous in that store,” says McMurran. Being 20 or 21, he shrugged. By the time he arrived, the warning was all but forgotten. “I’d made the mistake of packing a ham sandwich with cheese and mayo for lunch that day,” he explains. “I didn’t have a way to keep it cool, so it was probably spoiled by the time I ate it. When I got to the store it was late-afternoon and the sun was blazing. My face was coated with salt crystals. I was exhausted. I was out of water and it was all I could do not to puke my guts up. To say I felt terrible would be putting it mildly.”
In the store, McMurran used the bathroom. Delirious, he didn’t notice the cashier eying his outfit—a bright purple helmet paired with matching two-tone racing jersey and compression shorts, both covered in fish. Afterward, McMurran tried to buy two gallons of cold water, a tube of sunscreen and some granola bars. The tab came to $77.
“At first I was astonished,” he says. “Then I remembered the map and very kindly said I would go without the sunscreen.” But the storeowner erupted. “He started yelling at me about how sick he was of these ‘queer-bait cyclists’ and telling me to get the f*#$ out of his store. I was so out of it—and his reaction was so unexpected and bizarre—I could barely comprehend what was happening. I literally begged him to let me buy that water. But he just yelled louder, and got more and more angry, and finally started jabbing his finger at me.”
That’s when McMurran lost his cool. “I started cursing that dude out like I was possessed by a demon,” he says with a chuckle. The episode escalated. McMurran fled when the owner called 911.
“At that point, I was hating my life pretty severely,” says McMurran. He was now 10 miles or so from the store, pedaling furiously down an uninhabited desert road with no water. His father’s presentiments echoed like dark prophecies. Doubts and fears attacked like swarms of demented bees. Tears blurred his vision. “I knew I was done for,” says McMurran, “that my life had no point and the desert was going to eat me like that lion ate Rockefeller’s son—only nobody would care because I’d done jack-s#*% that mattered enough to be cared about.”
Then a Honda Civic emerged from the shimmering, foreshortened distance. McMurran pulled to the shoulder, ditched the bike and watched its approach. Now, miraculously, the car was slowing, coming to a halt.
“The driver rolls down the window and I see he’s drinking a big fountain soda,” says McMurran. Both him and the car’s passengers were teenagers. “I start thanking them profusely and rambling about how this lunatic just kicked me out of his store and how thirsty I was. Then the guy asks me do I want his drink. Man, I got so giddy and happy. I was like, ‘Dude, you’re the answer to my prayers!’”
Then the kid sneered and threw the drink—a Mountain Dew—in McMurran’s face. Pegging the gas, he shrieked, “Now you got it f@##*%!”
“Like literally, in that moment, my brain just snapped,” says McMurran. He’d been spending nights reading about the history of the area’s indigenous people. “I was screaming and wailing and dancing around in the middle of the road, pretending to be some kind of Native American warrior-witch-doctor, firing imaginary arrows at the car and trying to make it explode with my mind.”
Then he spotted the ice cubes melting on the pavement. Pouncing, he threw their sandy remnants into his parched mouth.
“When I realized what I was doing, I broke down and started weeping,” confides McMurran. Minutes later, though, out of the grim darkness, “I was struck by the absurdity of the situation and just started laughing. Like, maniacally laughing. What the hell am I doing? I thought. Why am I wearing this ridiculous outfit? Was I just pretending to be an Indian? Why I am I riding a bike across the country? It was preposterous. None of it made any sense.”
Suddenly, a work truck appeared on the shoulder. A man was asking, in a kind voice, what had happened, if maybe McMurran couldn’t use a little help?
“He fed me, gave me water and filled up my water jugs,” says McMurran. Meanwhile, at the man’s insistence, McMurran told the story of what had transpired. “And he’s just keeling over laughing. I was offended. I was like, ‘Dude, what’s funny about this?’ Then he apologizes and says, ‘I don’t mean to laugh at your situation, but how you tell it? You’re the funniest person I ever met in my life.’”
The man asked McMurran was he a comedian. The simple answer was no.
“But then I told him about how I’d always loved making my family laugh, and how, growing up, my mom and dad would call me their little comedian,” says McMurran. In the throes of some massive catharsis, he continued: “I told him how, in college, I’d always cracked jokes for my friends and teammates, and how good it felt when I made them laugh.”
The man nodded. ‘Son,’ he said, smiling softly as he dusted off McMurran’s bike, ‘telling jokes is what you need to be doing for a living. You have a gift. And gifts are meant to be shared.’
“When he said that, it was like a puzzle had worked itself out and everything suddenly made sense,” says McMurran. Dumbfounded, he watched the man climb into the truck and drive off into the distance. “In that moment, I knew exactly what I was going to do with my life: I was going to be a comedian.”
The remainder of the trip went smoothly. McMurran returned home after its conclusion on the Florida coast. Back in Portsmouth, he enrolled in ODU’s theater program and proceeded to apply himself to the study of drama and comedy. Within a few years, he’d landed in New York City, learning improv from the stars of the Upright Citizens Brigade. He founded the Pushers Comedy Troupe in 2005.
Fifteen years later, peers say McMurran has done more to grow Coastal Virginia’s comedy scene than anyone else. McMurran, meanwhile, attributes his success to a fit of desert insanity and a stranger’s kindness.
“The older I get, the more I question, ‘Did that really happen?’” he says. There are times when McMurran doubts the man in Arizona’s corporeality. “Sometimes I wonder if it wasn’t all some kind of crazy vision.” Other times, he confides, when things get dark, “I like to think an angel felt pity for a poor lost kid and swooped down to set him on his proper course.”