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Riff on This

For all you improv geeks: Here’s how not to be such nerds.

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At a bar a couple of months back, a member of an improv comedy troupe I'd recently written about wagged a finger in my face and huffed, "You think you could do it better?"

Every critic confronts this question. The answer: "No. But I think you could."

I didn't say it then, of course. It came to me only later, which is fine — I'm a writer, not an improviser. In fact, I'm still polishing my response. What I really should have said: "No. But the Trip Fives could have."

The Trip Fives are Kansas City's best comedy show, one that would be competitive in any major city. Still, the word improv sets eyes rolling. Many good people find improv too geeky or can't imagine sitting through a show at which an audience member hollers "cheese grater!" to set the comic agenda.

I recommend the Trip Fives to anyone who thinks cheese graters aren't particularly funny. The outfit's last show was as quotable as Superbad. Just one highlight: Trish Berrong, as a creepy church lady, announcing, "I'm going to go home and cry and pray and sew long sleeves on camisoles."

In fact, the improviser who accosted me in the bar could learn a few things from the Trip Fives, if he dreams of appealing to audiences outside the Whose Line ghetto.

First: Dress like grown-ups. There's no reason for the khaki pants and the T-shirt with the name of your troupe. Sure, the outfits foster group harmony, but here's a secret: Audiences like to feel as if the people onstage are cooler than we are. Dressing like performers, as the Fives do, can work some psychological magic. At a recent Improv-Abilities show at the Westport Coffee House, host Tim Marks had trouble quelling some frat idiots — he might have wielded more authority if he hadn't been done up like a camp counselor.

Second: Kill the canned enthusiasm. Most troupes dash to the stage cheering themselves. Pump yourselves up beforehand; onstage, concentrate on us.

Third: Enough with the charades. Audiences pay to laugh, not to see your intergroup shorthand.

Finally: Just because someone suggests "William Shatner," you don't have to use it.

I scribbled out this list during the second half of a grueling Improv-Abilities show. The troupe was trying out a long-format riff on newscasts; two anchors read headlines based on limp audience suggestions ("Bjork kills a swan," "The pope elopes"), with the rest of the troupe playing reporters in the field and the lunatics they interviewed. Jon Stewart it was not. They batted about some lazy ideas (turns out the pope married ... yes! Britney Spears!) and generally looked as miserable as I felt.

Ringer Tommy Todd almost saved things. Often, when the anchors threw a story to the reporters, the squad quailed, milling about with that futile cluelessness too familiar from mound conferences at the K. At these moments, Todd would step forward and dig. Always, he struck something funny.

The next weekend, I returned to the Westport Coffee House to see Full Frontal Comedy, our ballsiest short-form group. Founder and director Tina Morrison has staffed Full Frontal with more (and funnier) women than is common in the male-dominated form. Her tactic pays off handsomely. In scenes, her performers establish relationships before stabbing at dick jokes.

Its recent show was, as always, ribald but gentle. Yes, it included a man beating off in a church basement and a woman making love to a tiger, but it also ventured into real-world comedy — the shittiness of Lean Cuisines, the way that mothers hound daughters of a certain age to get cracking with the baby-making. This primes us for the absurd stuff, lines like this from Shelly Stewart: "Listen, what I thought was chloroform was actually, ah, that stuff that removes algae from fish tanks. So here's a raspberry Snapple."

Most of these highlights came during "Soap Opera," an act-long play inspired by an audience member's life. This weekend, in Olathe, Full Frontal is trying out another new long-form format called "Superhero" — odds are it will fly.

That said, the first half of Full Frontal's show is dedicated to those charadeslike guessing games, which are much safer than scenes but much less satisfying for the audience. Watching Full Frontal or Improv-Abilities pantomime tired junk like "Twinkies" or "Burt Reynolds," I thought back to that improviser who accosted me. Scene work is far beyond me, but this I could do.

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