Arts » Stage

The Last Laugh

The Improv's open-mike comedy night stands up but not necessarily out.

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The newish Zona Rosa development, just a few miles north of downtown, is what J.C. Nichols might have dreamed up if he'd been a dentist.

For all the rococo nonsense of the original Plaza, its creator at least aspired for it to look like something greater than a shopping district for the area's elite. His fluting towers and filigreed tiling were wholly unnecessary, but they keep folks thronging there.

Nobody will be coming to Zona Rosa 25 years from now, of course. Walking through its big, dumb streets last Wednesday, on my way to catch open-microphone stand-up at the new Improv, I marveled at Zona Rosa's fake-downtown vibe and concrete-mold architecture. I kept thinking of movies. First the backlot city sets from MGM musicals, which Zona Rosa resembles, and then every zombie flick I've ever caught — this is the Plaza with its brains eaten out.

Still, the Improv is pretty cool, and its $10 open-mike night once a month is a fun, cost-effective way to check out the venue, which is huge, plush and a little gorgeous. The walls are a rich, winey red, as is the curtain lining the lengthy stage; the floor is dark, and the chairs are thickly cushioned — it feels a little like sitting inside a jewelry box.

Never have I seen so opulent a setting for dick jokes.

The evening begins with five minutes from master of ceremonies Mike Baldwin, who lets us know that incontinence — OK, "pooping your pants" — will get you the day off work. He stands before a faux-brick wall center stage and is loose and funny, effortlessly commanding the attention of 200 or so patrons. His best jokes go over worst — this will be true for everyone all night — but he follows the duffers with a shake of his head and a cute, awkward "All right" that wins everyone back.

He breaks down the rules: judges rate the comics, the winner banks 60 bucks. Then we're right to it. First up is Ryan Kruse, who tells us he likes George Bush and then measures out a couple of silent beats before explaining why: "The end of civilized man will not come about by itself."

It's a dark but promising start. Comedy is most stirring when it's personal and detailed, and Kruse's jokes are watermarked by a distinct, interesting mind. Still, as his minutes lapse, he loses his cool, until he winds up flailing about on the stage in an imitation of a particularly rough Cops arrest. His spasms jerk the microphone from its cord, and eventually the Improv staff starts playing music, drowning him out.

Most performers fare better. Roy Anderson seems a hair nervous, getting his laughs but growing louder as he goes. A.J. Finney somehow gets away with a string of Mexican-gardener jokes without seeming like a prick. He's likable, funny even between jokes, and he lets each bit build until it explodes.

Columbia's Jeff Wesselschmidt is the night's best. He mixes autobiographical stories with an amusing attention to language and isn't afraid of the ridiculous. "What is 'ape shit'?" he asks, after discussing a friend who uses it as a term for "crazy." A beat. "It's fucking bananas."

Laughs, but nothing huge.

At the bar later, he'll agree that smarter material doesn't always go over, but he soldiers on. "I want to do jokes only I can tell," he'll explain. He performs here and in St. Louis a couple of times a week, and he says he was thrown out of the University of Missouri, which seems right. Real comics, those troubled loners who must let it out onstage, get thrown out of college. (By contrast, improv guys hold engineering degrees.)

Serena Hein, the night's only woman, follows. She announces that she's a stripper and then trenchantly parses Bible verses before concluding, "If Jesus was in charge, prostitution would be legal and I wouldn't be a stripper." She closes with how, for witches, the days of fattening children with gingerbread houses are over: "Kids today are plump veal calves." Like Wesselschmidt's, these are jokes only she can tell, but even she hasn't quite figured out how. Her delivery is too strained and slow.

Connecting better is Richard Corp, a Dennis Franz look-alike with strong jokes and at least one great magic trick. He's a booking agent whose business cards burst into flame, and I'd love the chance to see him do a full set. Missouri Valley outfielder Jayme Fitzgerald is the night's only first-timer, and we all like him, even though his giggles rarely resolve themselves into jokes. Ad copywriter Tony Vinh wonders, "You think midgets ever bother drinking milk?" Despite a see-it-coming blow-job gag, Denny Mock's bit on "relationship coupons" is the night's most inspired run.

But by this point, the comics are blending together. Most reach for something universal rather than drawing from something personal, and this stirs easier but shallower laughs. Toward the end, a couple of comics dig back into themselves, but with self-loathing: a short guy and a fat guy each mock their own statures for five minutes, which is more depressing than funny.

First prize goes to Howard Harrison, a buff fellow who brandishes his gleaming, hairless chest like Captain America does his shield. Harrison is a total pro, as cocksure a comic as I've ever seen, the kind of alpha-male jock whose drive is usually applied to car sales. He killed, despite not being particularly memorable: masturbation jokes and a poem about a dog named Wiener. It was gently blue material calibrated to seem outrageous without actually offending: "My girlfriend's short and black," he said. "My best chance to see her naked is to visit the Chiefs locker room." Gales of laughter.

I was rooting for Wesselschmidt but wasn't surprised. ber-confident crowd pleasers like Harrison succeed over gifted iconoclasts, just as places like Zona Rosa sprout up while cities are left to die.

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