Comedy and camaraderie: Exploring the University's oldest and best comedy troupe

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By Mayank Mathur, Daily Arts Writer
Published February 5, 2014

Eight students from varied academic disciplines meet in the University Activities Center room on the fourth floor of the Michigan Union to indulge in a common passion for improvisational comedy. Starting their rehearsal with a warm-up ritual, they form a circle and begin stomping their feet on the ground and snapping their fingers, creating a rhythmic beat while dishing out improvised rap to accompany it. The room swells with a palpable energy, infecting the performers and the audience, appropriately prefacing the rest of the rehearsal period. Eight seemingly different individuals function as a single entity of laughter and joy, creating a dynamic atmosphere in which everyone in the room thrives.

This is ComCo, advertised by its members as the University’s “oldest and best improv comedy troupe.” Formed in 1979, the group performs through an eclectic range of mediums, such as sketch, song, dance and the occasional short film. However, the group’s chief medium is improvisational comedy.

Business junior John Dennehy, president of ComCo, explained, “Improv comedy is the process of creating something out of nothing. We take in a little nugget of information from the audience and create sketches, scenes and characters and use them as a base for our performance.”

At present, the group consists of 10 members, nine of whom are active on campus. Over the years, ComCo has undergone significant change from its original setup.

Dennehy explained that in the late ‘90s, ComCo brought in comedian Andy Dick to perform at the University. However, Dick “bombed” the show, setting off a feud between the head of ComCo and the University Activities Center, its parent group, and ComCo lost most of its funding as a result.

The group had to downscale its operations in order to function primarily as an improv comedy troupe as opposed to a sketch comedy group that employed writers, singers, directors and actors. Given that the group has to shrink its repertoire and membership, recruiting new members is still a laborious task.

ComCo recruits annually in the fall semester so that new members have the entire year to get to know the rest of the members in order to assimilate comfortably without disturbing the group dynamic. LSA junior Merranda McLaughlin stressed the importance of establishing a comfort level with the new members of the group.

“We’re not looking for a specific type of person,” McLaughlin said. “While recruiting, we ask ourselves if we would like to hang out with these people as friends and that becomes a major criteria.”

“One of the things that I look for is commitment,” Dennehy said. “Being part of ComCo is a four-year commitment; it’s not something you can do for a while and leave.”

Both members agreed that debating the pros and cons of each auditioning member is an integral part of the recruitment process. Dennehy went on to say that incumbent members put in a lot of effort into recruiting new ones since they realize how important it is to pick the people they like.

“Sometimes, the only thing stopping us from going on about deciding who to accept is the fact that the Union closes at 2 a.m.,” he said.

LSA sophomore Guy Madjar and LSA freshman Sam McMullen are both in their first year as ComCo members. Sitting alongside seasoned veterans Dennehy and McLaughlin, they talked about their efforts to get into the group. They explained that students are invited for an initial round of auditions, which are followed by a callback round.

“The callbacks are really scary, because going in you know that everyone who got a callback is really funny,” McMullen said. “I remember staying up all night after the callbacks, waiting for the e-mail from ComCo … when I got it, I danced around my room and woke up my roommate,” he said.

The auditions are designed to let students showcase their comedic talents in front of ComCo members. Incumbent members are always on the lookout for a student who brings a unique quality that the group might be lacking. Madjar explained that despite being nerve-wracking, the auditions are a lot of fun. The real key to having a successful audition, though, is to just have a good time and enjoy what everyone has to offer.

The comfort and friendship that exists within the group was evident when senior members Dennehy and McLaughlin praised Madjar and McMullen for their performances while auditioning.

“The thing that really impressed me about Guy was that he was so into what other people were doing in their auditions,” Dennehy said. “He was laughing the hardest and was really having a great time, which is important because it showed that he was really involved in the process.”

“Well, Sam got in because he’s just so adorable,” McLaughlin joked. “And obviously, he was really funny.”

However, is being funny the same as being a good improv performer? An understanding of the subtle but important difference between having a good sense of humor and being a good comic is crucial in understanding the talent that it takes to improvise during a performance.

“I feel like having a good sense of humor is different from being good at improv,” Dennehy said. “I have a lot of friends who are funny in a group, but I’m not sure if that means that they’d be good improvisers.”

He went on to say that improv comedy requires a distinct skill set because performers have to constantly think on their feet and react to the actions of other performers.

“It’s very different from making fun of someone or cracking a joke with friends,” he said.

The group agreed that improv comedy is not necessarily for everyone, since it’s not as easy as it looks and requires the rare ability to perform without rehearsal.

“I think everyone is funny; it’s just that some people have to do less to show that they’re funny,” McLaughlin said.

LSA sophomore Michael Duczynski spoke about how improv requires performers to be funny even when they don’t feel like performing.

“There are days when you know, you’re just not feeling funny,” he said. “However, you’ve still got to think about the scene and just act.”

Improv comics have to be constantly mindful of the present situation without thinking too far ahead. Pondering over a future scene is futile since the performers themselves don’t know what’s in store for the rest of the performance, given the improvised nature of the setting.

“I’m always thinking about what’s happening in the scene right now; I can’t really afford to think about what’s going to happen or what might be funny,” McLaughlin said.

Confidence usually plays a very important role in all performing arts. As evidenced by the discussion that took place in the group, improv comedy and confidence are very closely related.

“I would say that confidence is extremely important in improv,” Dennehy said. “It’s not so much as thinking, ‘Oh, I’m funny,’ but knowing that you have a unique skill set and you have the ability to exercise it.”

“I had major confidence issues earlier on and that really affected my performance,” McLaughlin said. “Sometimes after shows, audience members would come up to me and say, ‘Put yourself out there more … you’re funny.’”

Other members agreed, saying the audience knows when performers are nervous, and that knowledge causes the audience to also get nervous. This results in a downward spiral that doesn’t help the performance go anywhere.

Dennehy and Duczynski spoke about how the group forces the energy levels to hit a high right at the start so that the performance is off on a good footing. They said all shows usually have the same starting routine, along with the same concluding routine, so that the show can be constructed on the support of a strong and familiar anchor.

“Our energy levels are really high before the show, and that helps us to perform with a kind of reckless abandon,” Duczynski said.

Audience interaction is an integral part of an improv performance, especially since performers are expected to feed off audience suggestions that provide the fuel for their sketches. A positive interaction will aid the performers in their efforts, but what happens if the audience isn’t enjoying the show?

“You can’t really think about that in the moment,” McMullen said. “At some point you’ve got to think, ‘screw it,’ and just get on with it.”

“The important thing is that we need to enjoy what we’re doing on stage,” Dennehy added. “Even if they don’t find what we’re doing funny, we still do.”

He went on to say that he’s never really experienced a bad audience, and everyone ends up having a really good time.

Members of the group agreed in saying this is part of the reason that ComCo calls itself the “oldest and best improv comedy troupe” at the University. They argued that their longevity is a testament to the fact that they’ve been able to consistently perform at a high level while attracting large groups of audience members. During performances, members try to challenge themselves with their humor, refusing to take the easy way out when audience members prompt them to make obvious jokes.

The group is aware that comedy has a far more potent function than facilitating laughter, so whether the jokes are predictable or fall under the category of highbrow comedy, they have the power to influence an audience. Members were conscious of the fact that by being improv comics, they can cater to an audience of about 400 people and say things that they normally wouldn’t be able to say in their daily lives. One of the pleasures of being a performing comedian is the liberating release of mental censorship that otherwise binds people in social interactions.

Art & Design freshman Sarah Sherman said, “When we’re performing, we can talk about things that have social relevance without really having to think about it. We can discuss certain issues that make people listen.”

“It’s kind of like being the joker in a Shakespeare play,” McMullen said. “Although sometimes Shakespeare was censored, the joker was allowed to say what he wanted and people would listen because he was funny.”

Finally, the group addressed the apparent irony of performing extensive rehearsal sessions for something as inherently spontaneous as improv comedy.

“I’ve had people accuse me of rehearsing for an improv show in the past,” Madjar joked.

However, members of the group stressed that while they might practice routines in rehearsal, the content of the routines and the actual comedic interaction that takes place between the performers and the audience is always authentic and spontaneous. Rehearsals are important not only because the members get to practice their comedic skills, but also because they can test what might or might not work in a live performance.

Rehearsals also function as the space in which members provide their input in order to improve a performance; however, they are careful not to be overly critical of each other.

“We don’t usually say, ‘Hey that’s not funny’ or ‘I don’t like that,’ ” McLaughlin said.

“The rule is that if at least one person laughs, it’s funny,” Madjar added.

McLaughlin also explained that one of the most important rules of improv is that performers aren’t allowed to explicitly disagree with one another.

“Even during a performance, we’re supposed to say ‘Yes …’ and then suggest something contrary if we feel the need to disagree … negating someone completely gets us nowhere,” she said.

Rehearsals also give members a unique space in which to bond and get to know each other on a deeper level, which helps tremendously with their performance. The rehearsals reveal that the members aren’t just performers who happen to share the same passion for improvisational comedy — they are friends who simply enjoy working with each other, who are aware of the diversity of humor that exists within the group and are comfortable with it letting them direct their actions in a performance.

Talent, confidence and comfort are the ingredients for a good improv show. A few minutes of rehearsal are enough to convince viewers that ComCo has all of this and more, earning the right to call itself the “oldest and best” improvisational comedy troupe at the University.

There’s something wonderful about watching truly uninhibited performances consumed in unbridled enthusiasm — it reminds the audience how liberating and how important it is to let yourself go from time to time and just … enjoy.