improv comedy with an audience member

ArtsQuest Improv Comedy Fest's Humor Better When Broad Than When Acquired

Morning Call Blog -
February 2, 2014
by John J. Moser

With its humor created on the spot, improvisational comedy can be at once be more subtle and more broad, based on its performers.

Perhaps that is its greatest appeal - the fact that it's done on the fly, ready to go off the rails and crash at any time. And it sometimes does.

In short, improvisational comedy can be an acquired taste.

But apparently there's a taste for it in the Lehigh Valley.

The first Improv Comedy Festival at ArtsQuest Center at SteelStacks in Bethlehem drew sellout crowds Saturday, with a standing-room crowd of well over 200 to see headliners Upright Citizens Brigade TourCo in the Blast Furnace Room. In all, there were more than 35 performances

The festival continues today, Sunday, Feb. 2, with seven workshops from 9 a.m. to 4:45 p.m. at ArtsQuest Center and The Banana Factory in Bethlehem. Individual classes cost $22-$35.

The improv offered by Upright Citizens Brigade, the New York-based troupe that introduced Amy Poehler and Bobby Moynihan and Horatio Sanz, was sometimes too studied.

In a 90-minute performance of long-form skits, the four-person troupe built an audience suggested phrase "speedboat" into interconnecting scenes starting with the premise three of them were staging an intervention on the boat of the driver/owner, who was spending beyond his means on things such as, well, a speedboat.

That morphed into scenes based on the movies "Stand By Me" and "Forrest Gump," which the troupe claimed in its skit to have written, and a male prostitute / fishing instructor. If that seems confusing, it sometimes was, and the arcane references were easily lost, which is the peril of improv.

It worked better when the troupe's comedy was broader, such as on a skit about "ambition sticks" that had more base references to sex, discipline and the workplace with which the audience seemed to more easily connect. It drew some pretty hearty laughs.

Thr troupe's acting chops also were far above other performers, with movements and facial expressions that often conveyed much more than was said.

Matt&, the act in which Philadelphia comic Matt Holmes chooses an audience member with whom to perform his 30-minute set, was better in concept than in practice. Its stumbling point were its audience-suggested topic, "marriage," especially since the chosen participant, named Mike, was male. It never really took off.

The other downfall was that the chosen participant tried to be funnier than Holmes, rather than playing the straight man, which would have let Holmes do his thing -- something the act probably faces a lot.

Yo Gloria!, a troupe from Pittsburgh that does hip-hop-infused improv, was impressive in its half-hour set in the Banko Alehouse Cinema.

Our favorite was Oxymorons, a Harrisburg- and York-based troupe whose comedy was very broad and offered more real laughs in a 15-minute set in the cinema than others did in more time.

A bit in which they passed audience-suggested information, the Empire State Building, a toll-booth operator and an abacus, through three pairs of performers using only gibberish to convey the ideas. It was funny and very easily relatable to see them acting out lazy, surly toll-booth operators and connections to New York.

Even funnier was a TV talk show bit with a man who, another audience suggestion, chased a squirrel up a tree while another member of the troupe who didn't know sign language acted out the interview for the audience.

It was comedy about as broad as it gets: physical slapstick, with even a scatological joke.

There's nothing that has to be acquired to find that funny.