Viewing entries tagged
Kids in the Hall

Artistry and intelligence in motion: Improv Olympic (iO)

My name is Danielle and I’m a comedy nerd. I just walked out of a small, packed room, with a tiny, unassuming stage, to emerge high off of something I’m unable to pinpoint. My facial muscles are spasming from overuse. My very full belly now half digested from the 90 minutes of gut-busting laughter. My mind now a crock-pot of characters, accents, phrases, and quirky ideas. I yearn to contribute, I’m ready to experience it all again, but that moment is gone. The beautiful quality of improv is the main ingredient of presence. The memory will live on, but that magic will never be re-created and will gradually lose all semblance of sense in our brains, fading away into obscurity, with the rest of the days. Like a junkie aiming to regulate, or elevate, we must keep going back for more, more moment to moment genius, more creativity in motion, more antidotes to stress. I’m attracted to the element of danger and even bravery inherent in every improv actor and on every comedy stage. How will this go? Will there be collective moments of awkward silences? Could I be stuck in a room with dozens of others, all thinking the same thing, “I hope this gets funny soon.” You can predict the potential negative outcomes, but the positive, that's uncharted territory. You’ll find yourself laughing in ways you never have, often while cringing or even crying. There are many “pat yourself on the back” moments when an actor or the group in general refers back to an earlier scene, many many minutes ago, and you’re in on the joke. You get it. You’re laughing, for the right reasons. It’s, in a word, awesome.

I have deep, profound appreciation for every genre comedy emerges from, and each interpretation inspired by it. Stand-up has been a long favorite, most likely because of it’s popularity and amount of exposure. Being a child of the 80’s, my foray into comedy came from a decade that idolized comedians, hoisted them up on a pedestal with the likes of hair bands. These artists were catapulted into super-stardom, being given their own sitcoms, massively successful stand-up specials, many even becoming legendary film stars. If images or soundbites are what link us to memories, then Eddie Murphy in a bright red leather suit, 2 seconds of the Seinfeld theme, and Johnny Carson inviting a deserving comedian up to his couch are triggers from my comedic upbringing.

Today, being a stand-up comic does not get you as much money, as many fans, or as many career options as it used to, but it still garners tremendous respect among those with the knowledge and appreciation. I’d imagine the smartest comedians prefer a cult following to massive success because that forces you to stay sharp and creative, the most important result being respect amongst your fellow comedians. As a writer, if I’m ever successful, I prefer my readers to be like-minded people whom I’d respect as well, rather than hoards of mediocre, semi-intelligent fans. But we take what we can get.

Louis C.K. is one who’s created an admirable amount of success by staying true to himself, continuing to pursue his craft, while still appealing to only the smartest, impossible to offend people. Back in the 80’s, being offered a TV show on cable, not a network, on a channel like FX, would most likely look like a step down, a concession. Today, some of the best writing and acting is happening on television, on channels like FX, Comedy Central, AMC, HBO, Showtime and Adult Swim. I enjoy shows like Community, Modern Family, and 30 Rock, but I’d still choose Louie, Wilfred, Workaholics or Jon Benjamin has a Van any day. I wish more people felt the same. But the cult following does make it feel special, a unique piece of art you and other smart (nerdy) people enjoy. What makes you laugh says a lot about who you are and I take that very seriously.

Cycling back to improv and focusing on the rare occurrence of sketch comedy on the small screen, I’m majorly inspired by this form of comedy and feel it deserves slightly more respect from the masses than it receives. Genius shows like Mr. Show, the 90’s classics like the State and Kids in the Hall would struggle to survive today, leading to limited options for middle America. SNL continues to evolve, and their brilliant writers and actors are still emerging from the Chicago improv scene, but my hope is for more appreciation for Upright Citizens Brigade, Jon Benjamin has a Van, Little Britain, and other clever, irreverent, and purely innovative art making a name for itself today. And with that in mind I’d like to encourage not only my fellow Chicagoans, lucky to live in the best comedy city in the world, but all of you around this country of ours desperately in need of some levity. Times are a bit depressing at the moment. It is not the time to cut funding for the arts. It is time to get your big butt off your couch and into a comedy club, supporting those aiming to elevate our moods and provoke thought.

Improv Olympic (iO) is home to some of the biggest comedy stars you know today, from SNL, MADtv, and a slew of great films and TV shows. It happens to be maybe 100 steps from my apartment, so I’m fortunate, but even if it was 30 minutes away, I’d make the trek and support groups like Cook County Social Club and the Reckoning, some of the smartest, most talented improv artists this country has to offer. These people amuse and entertain you, on the spot, off the cuff, for pennies, because they love it, because they have to do it. I’m there and I yearn to take classes, to get up there, and perhaps I’ll finally get the courage one day. For now, I’ll support and pay my respect to the courageous, who give me the greatest gift one can bestow, the gift of laughter. And here, there is no script, no preparation, just rapidly spinning minds, firing funny on all cylinders. Part of the magic is the audience. We are apart of this story unfolding, so the dozens of us in a room are sharing an experience, a very unique and memorable one. Improv is an act of social chess, mental ping-pong, a collaborative sport worth exposing and absorbing.

Above is a compilation made by iO to promote CCSC. It doesn't do much justice but you can get an idea of their range and talent. When we saw Cook County, two actors were absent. We watched two of them riff a scene for 45 minutes about Don't Ask Don't Tell. It was incredible, we laughed til it hurt.

Please do not stop supporting the arts. And please do not overlook that comedy is art, potentially the most influential form. Maintain high standards, seek it out, drink it in. Enjoy.