Before the pandemic, The Comedy Company, better known as ‘ComCo,’ would pack the Angell Hall Auditorium for improv comedy performances. Their most dedicated fans would sit cross-legged on the floor, right before the elevated stage.
LSA junior Finn Maloney likened ComCo shows to hanging out in a friend’s basement — just with over 200 friends.
Now, amid COVID-19 restrictions, the University of Michigan’s oldest improv group is shifting their live comedy to virtual platforms. Even fall auditions were switched to Zoom.
Despite a lack of announcements and publicity during activities like Festifall and Northfest, ComCo still watched fifty auditions. Unlike improvising live, hopefuls auditioned from their bedrooms.
“It was really interesting as people were, like, picking up stuff around the room and, like, hiding under blankets. That was just really fun, but not what we were looking for. And so we had to specify that you’re, like, in a room with lighting so we can see you and make sure you have your audio on,” School of Music, Theatre & Dance senior Ansleigh Hamilton said.
Hamilton auditioned and joined ComCo her sophomore year after walking around Festifall. Recalling her all-denim ensemble, Hamilton describes walking up to the ComCo table as a “Hollywood magic moment” when ComCo member Archie Magnus pointed at her in the crowd.
Like Maloney, Hamilton reminisces about the live shows of the pre-COVID era, missing feeding off the audience’s energy, even while underneath bright stage lights, the performers growing more and more sweaty with every scene.
“We’re not just performers together. We’re friends, and that was part of what made it so strong,” Hamilton said.
Founded in 1979, ComCo has developed traditions over the years, including the annual Ross show held in February. This ComCo staple was moved into video form and released on YouTube in December.
Maloney describes the show as “a gift to (Ross seniors) who are about to graduate.”
“We come in, and we all wear suits, and we’re, like, ‘oh, stocks and shit, I love that stuff.’ It’s never mean-spirited, and usually, everybody’s in on the joke,” Maloney said.
Filmed socially-distanced outside the Ross School of Business, ComCo members donned their blazers, power suits and AirPods for their Ross-inspired satire. Hamilton’s pug also made an appearance as a Ross alum.
“There’s definitely an ironic distance between our performance and what we actually believe of Ross,” Maloney said.
Maloney described the scaffolding of their normal in-person shows as rehearsed, like knowing which game is happening. At ComCo, games are the improv moments when the performers and audience are engaged.
“Once the actual improv starts, it is completely improvised all the time, always,” Maloney said.
About ten ComCo members filmed the Ross video in-person and socially distanced, while members outside of Ann Arbor had clips inserted.
Both Maloney and Hamilton described members working on aspects of a video or performance that cater to their strengths, whether that be writing jokes, creating musical numbers or videography.
Though live performances in crowded spaces are not currently safe, ComCo has found a way to keep the laughs coming.
Two-hour rehearsals continue twice a week. Virtual hang-outs help build group chemistry, allowing members to replicate that energy in video and Zoom performances. Maloney found that hanging out, whether on Friday nights or sober practices, forges bonds vital to the group’s flow on stage.
ComCo tried a trial Zoom show in the fall semester. Hamilton also hopes the annual year-end showcase, traditionally held at the Mendelssohn Theatre, can be made virtual this semester.
“I felt so welcomed when I was first in ComCo because they’d say, ‘we’re gonna go to a party tonight’ or ‘I’m grabbing brunch. You’re coming.’ This year, we can’t even hang out with our newbies and really get to know them,” Hamilton said.
Limited by functions on Zoom, Hamilton found much to be desired by both practices and performances.
“We had to choose between either hearing each other talk or hearing laughter,” Hamilton said. “It feels like you’re sitting in a silent room, which is uncomfortable.”
Despite the physical distance, LSA senior Lanie Lott wants new members to experience ComCo’s sense of family.
“I’ve learned that so much of improv is just connecting with the people you’re onstage with and bringing an aspect of yourself and your everyday experiences to a scene,” Lott said.
One of Lott’s favorite memories was ComCo’s annual visits to Chicago’s iO Theater for improv workshops. Activities like these fostered a connection among ComCo members outside of their rehearsals and allowed them to see how comedy, whether done professionally or as a hobby, could continue after graduation.
“ComCo really made Michigan feel like home,” Lott said. “There (are) so many different kinds of people. Improv really brings us together and makes us a family.”
Daily Arts Writer Nina Molina can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.