Winging it: Improv comedy at the 'U'

BY JEFF SANFORD
Senior Arts Editor
Published March 30, 2010

“What you see tonight has never been done before and never will be done again.”

Arthur Brannon III, LSA senior and co-captain of University improv comedy troupe Witt’s End, is addressing a modest, unsure audience.

“Now who wants to volunteer to have us go through their wallet?”

This was as apt a preface as any for a Witt’s End performance, which on this night consisted of a whirlwind of short, absurd skits that somehow worked in common themes and recurring characters — all invented on the spot, of course.

“Watching one of our shows is like watching a play with disconnected scenes,” Brannon said. “It depends on what kind of night we’re having, but some nights the plot will be really defined, and other nights it’s just not. It just depends on how it happens to fall.”

This particular performance, while often returning to prior jokes or situations (e.g., cheese infected with Republicanism), was certainly not dedicated to any coherent plot. It was more like watching an unrehearsed "Saturday Night Live" episode in super-fast forward, with the decision of when to begin and end a skit entirely up to the actors.

Witt’s End, one of three improv comedy groups on campus, started approximately 10 years ago when a member of another troupe, ComCo, decided he didn’t like the direction ComCo was taking. Soon after splitting, Witt’s End fortified its distinct improvisational style, switching from ComCo’s traditional “short form” structure to “long form,” becoming the first improv group on campus to primarily use this style.

Short form vs. long form is probably improv comedy’s chief distinction. While short form is generally more accessible and quick-hitting (it’s the kind that was featured on “Whose Line Is It Anyway?”), long form allows for a more nuanced brand of humor.

“Long form is more character-driven. You have a basic form with two people, two really strong characters, and so you start discovering more about them. The humor from that comes from how organic the relationships (are) and how quickly people come up with things. It’s more about building relationships and exploring that,” Brannon said.

On the other side of the spectrum sits ComCo, the University’s oldest extant comedy group and purveyors of the art of short form.

“Our comedy is a lot more easier to grasp on to,” said Alex Stuessy, Ross School of Business junior and ComCo member. “You don’t necessarily have to be a theater major or somebody who appreciates long form comedy. Our shows usually are a lot more explosive, a lot more fast-paced. And so it’s a lot easier to just jump right into the laughs.”

ComCo was founded in the late 1970s, originally as a sketch comedy troupe that would put on large-scale performances at the Michigan Theater. But in the early 1990s, ComCo took a significant hit when its relationship with University Activities Center (UAC), the University organization that funded the group, soured, according to ComCo leaders. Apparently, Andy Dick was at least partially responsible.

“(ComCo) brought Andy Dick to campus and apparently it flopped … then the head of ComCo got in a shouting match with the head of UAC. We went from being this big performance comedy group to being this small 10-member comedy group,” said Adnan Pirzada, LSA senior and “de facto leader” of ComCo.

Years later, ComCo, aided by the overwhelming success of its non-improv work (like 2007’s written sketch “College Musical,” a parody of Disney’s “High School Musical”), is gradually ascending to its previous heights.

“We’ve actually been slowly building back up. At my first couple shows we were lucky to bring 30 to 40 people out. This entire year, each and every one of our shows has brought 200 to 250 people, so we’re sort of moving back into sketch work,” Pirzada said.

Straddling the long form/short form distinction is the University’s newest improv group, The Impro-fessionals. Established three years ago by three female University students, The Impro-fessionals was founded out of pure entrepreneurial spirit and a desire to bolster the feminine presence in the University’s comedy scene.

“They just really, really wanted to start one. And especially (co-founder Julia Young) was really into female comedians and having a group (that was) run and started by women,” said Tali Gumbiner, LSA senior and co-founder of the group.

As newcomers to the University's comedy scene, The Impro-fessionals are dedicated to bringing in less experienced performers and creating a more dynamic, learning-by-doing comedy troupe. The group has also forged a rather unexpected partnership with Hillel.

“That’s a very interesting turn of events," said Gumbiner. "Initially our freshman year we weren’t affiliated with Hillel. And coincidentally, through recruitment, our first year everyone in the group was Jewish.”

The budding group approached Hillel and a deal was struck.

“(They) were like ‘Yeah, we like to sponsor groups who have a lot of Jews, even if they’re not a Jewish group. … We can give you money to hire a coach and put on your bigger shows and in exchange you’ll perform for us whenever we want a comedy group.’

"The relationship has been really wonderful for us,” Gumbiner added.

In essence, improvisational comedy is a collaborative process. Of course, a strong rapport between group members is vital, but a group’s relationship with its audience is perhaps equally important.

“If an audience member is engaged and listening, the payoff is so much better when everything clicks for us and we’re in that zone making people laugh. Everything clicks. You feel good,” Brannon said.

A disengaged or noncommittal audience usually spells disaster.

“We’re very frequently asked to do appearances at charity events or open for other groups … and sometimes they can be very dead because they’re not the audiences that are coming out to see us. It’s very, very hard to be making a joke onstage and having no response,” Pirzada said.

Brannon knows the nightmare of performing for another group’s less-than-enthusiastic audience quite well. He described one show in which they performed during an “Indian dance extravaganza.”

“It was like a crowd full of drunk Indians and they were like yelling at us, ‘Get off the stage! Put the dancers back on!’ And we’d ask for suggestions and they’d be like, ‘7-Eleven, ha-ha-ha!’ It was horrible,” Brannon said.

Still, there are far graver risks in improv than the occasional drunken jeering. With no script to rely on, the show could bomb at any minute. Clearly, it takes a special kind of fortitude to take the stage having no idea what you’re about to say.

“(Improv is) mostly just about being able to be completely vulnerable and just letting yourself go on stage,” Pirzada said. “You’re basically being an ass on stage so you have to be able to let go of any inhibitions.”

Finding that certain type of “ass” can be difficult. The groups’ audition processes try to gauge the fearlessness — and the wits — of potential members.

“The first thing (I was told) was like, ‘Be a porcupine that just received the best news of his life.’ And to react quickly to something like that requires not only quick thinking but the ability to just do what your gut feeling says. We’re looking for people who have funny guts, pretty much,” Stuessy said.

Despite technically being competitors, the improv groups on campus have a generally amiable relationship with each other.

“You see other people from improv groups and you say hello. … I don’t think anybody hates each other. It’s not like a rivalry. Everybody’s really doing their own thing and it’s all about making people laugh anyway,” Brannon said.

“I’ve been a fan of Witt’s End,” Pirzada said. “One of our members who was in ComCo last year is doing Witt’s End this year because she wanted to flip to more long form, so there’s maybe like a jokey thing there. (But) we all put on shows. We all get audiences.”

It’s not surprising that there’s no bad blood between groups, even though they might often be competing for the same audiences. There just doesn’t seem to be any room for animosity in between the laughs.

“I mean, even if we flop it’s going to be pretty funny,” Brannon said. “If you’re not laughing with us, you can laugh at us. Just come in, pregame it, have some fun. It should just be fun.”