improv comedy with an audience member

Matt& at Ohio University

by Carli Pappas
May 21, 2011

Silhouettes of heads nearly completely filled the 190-seat capacity of the darkened Baker Theater on May 21 for Matt Holmes, an improv comedian hailing from Philadelphia.

Ohio University's very own improv troupe sponsored the show so that students could attend Holmes' performance for free. They first met Holmes at the Oberlin College Improv Conference last spring.

"We were amazed by his format; It was unlike anything we'd ever seen before," said Emilee Copus, the president of OU Improv and a junior majoring in media studies with a certificate in African studies.

"He was captivating in his performance and his depth of characters were incredible. We wanted Matt to come to campus because we knew he would have great advice for us as an improv organization and would put on a fantastic show for Ohio University."

OU Improv spent months planning and corresponding with Holmes. They hosted two events in order to fund his arrival: My Funny Valentine Date Auction and A Night of Musical Improv Comedy. "These events really helped us reach our goal, and we honestly have fan support to thank for that. Without them to attend these crucial events, we would have been in a tough spot," said Copus.

Matt Holmes with Ohio University Improv
Matt with members of Ohio University improv

After OU Improv finished their show, they welcomed Holmes to the stage. The audience reciprocated Holmes' energy with thunderous applause and anticipation.

After thanking and giving a round of applause to OU's improv troupe, he asked if there was an audience member who had never been to an improv show or who was completely unfamiliar with improv. His show, Matt&, includes Holmes and an unsuspecting audience member.

Holmes was surprised when not one person came forward (or more likely, was mercilessly offered by friends) to join him on stage. To anyone familiar with OU Improv, this was expected, as OU Improv seems to have mustered somewhat of a cult following.

A few seconds passed when one person, Aleesha Tartell, a junior education major sitting in the second row, was volunteered by her friend, Madeleine Ray, a sophomore studying plant biology and a regular at OU Improv's weekly shows.

"What am I supposed to do? What have I gotten myself into?" Tartell recalls thinking as she walked onto stage. "I just glared at Maddie."

Two chairs occupied the stage. Tartell sat in one, and Holmes sat in the other. "There is no pressure on you," said Holmes to Tartell. "It's all on me to make it work, to be funny. Challenge me."

Holmes then turned back to the audience and asked for a word of inspiration to start the show.
"I now present to you, Matt and Aleesha," said Holmes.

Holmes immediately assumed the role of "Smelly Telly," a grade-school boy being picked on for smelling bad. Tartell played the role of Smelly Telly's unaffectionate mother who reluctantly takes Smelly Telly deodorant shopping.

The scene ended and the stage lights dimmed and then brightened, segueing to another scene. The show continued likes this, with the lights dimming and brightening to distinguish scenes, and Holmes creating different deodorant-themed scenarios and plots while playing characters ranging from "Smelly Telly," to a lady in a women's auxiliary group, to Oprah hosting a segment on bad odor.

Holmes created the reality and Tartell responded by playing off of Holmes' cues. "I wanted him to tell me what I'm supposed to do, which was nothing actually. It was calming to know that there was no pressure on me. I just had to respond and give answers, like a conversation," said Tartell.

She adopted new personas with each new scenario Holmes produced, from an ambivalent mother to Cynthia, a young woman being courted, to the inventor of deodorant.

A half-hour later, the show was over. "I expected to do a little segment," Tartell said after the show. "And then the show was over. I was like, 'I did the whole show!' It was a lot of fun."

The audience seemed to thoroughly enjoy the show as bouts of laughter continuously pervaded the theater and even played the role of "Oprah's audience," whooping and cheering in the fashion of Oprah's audience on "The Oprah Winfrey Show," when Holmes took on the character of Oprah.

"It was fun pretending to be in the audience of the Oprah Show. Everyone cheered like they were really in her audience," said audience member Tara McCarthy, a freshman studying journalism.

As for Copus, the months of planning culminated in a "great show. It went totally smoothly! High energy and a great response from the audience. I was so glad so many people came to this event. Matt's show absolutely amazed me. I find myself in total awe every time I see him perform. He has such charisma and a phenomenal stage presence."

Holmes was pleased with the show as well, "It was an average show. Every show is different, but we played well together. The audience was great."

Holmes is a well-seasoned performer, improvising since his freshman year at Cabrini College in 1998. He considers improvising with a new-be a "fun challenge," thinking to himself what works during the show, "what more can I bring up, what can I go back to?"

Considering his performance after the show Holmes said, "I try not to judge. Improv happens once and that's it. I try to treat anything that come up as though it's perfect."

However, not every show goes as smoothly, but that is the nature of improv. He recalls a Matt& show in which his partner purposely tried to throw him off every time.

During another show, his partner was so reluctant to be on stage that each time the lights dimmed, she asked to go. "And one time she just left," said Holmes. Well, he did ask to be challenged.