Improv Troupes Find Humor in Low Places

Matthew Sprung, Staff Writer

Sometimes improv comedy gets weird — but even though this weirdness can turn newcomers off to the genre, it’s also the best part of the show. To kick off the two-day Oberlin College Improv Conference last Friday, three professional improvisation teams performed what could be considered “extra” long-form improvisation, staying on stage continuously for fifty-minute sets at a packed Cat in the Cream. The anticipation that usually draws crowds to this annual conference is the name recognition of the headlining act, the hugely popular group Upright Citizens Brigade, but the two other acts of the night also got their share of laughs — and yes, things got very weird.

As the room quieted down, the first of the groups, Austin-based troupe ColdTowne, jogged out to face the eager crowd. ColdTowne asked for a suggestion from the crowd, be it a line of poetry or a single word, or, as one member added, “something meaningful to you.” When the audience suggested a recent breakup, the group casually took turns telling personal stories, the details of which would be used as the loose framework for the rest of their performance. Things soon took a turn for the worse, though — from the first sketch featuring a character named “Big Dave,” the group started to lose momentum. Instead of working off one another, each performer seemed to be vibrating at their own frequency.

Too often, scenes devolved into two performers offstage and two onstage improvising a conversation, including a tedious scene of a senator getting a shave in a barbershop. Instead of one of the offstage performers jumping in to keep the scene fresh and surprising, the two onstage were left pushing each other — and the audience — deeper and deeper without any support. The difference between a more experienced improv group and a lesser one is how the group anticipates and diverts the scene’s momentum away from even a single moment of lull, which they do by playing seamlessly off one another to maintain their energy and find harmony with the audience. Although ColdTowne did win some big laughs, they didn’t distinguish themselves as a truly top-tier group. The funniest moments were couched in awkward scenes, and the audience laughed more for the punch lines than for any efficiently impulsive construction from the group.

Watching the next group, Baby Wants Candy, immediately after ColdTowne was like watching college basketball follow the high-school varsity team. Based out of Chicago, Baby Wants Candy put a refreshing spin on the comedy form by turning their entire performance into a “completely improvised musical,” complete with an accompanying piano player and drummer. The musical’s audience-suggested premise — and subsequently the name of the never-before-seen musical — was “The Price of Science.”

Baby Wants Candy found its bearings during the first song, while members showed off their talent at improvisational song. As a soloist repeated the title, the rest of the group danced around in unison singing alternating harmonies and witty one-liners. The effect was that of a Disney song mixed with Avenue Q, made even more impressive because of its improvised quality. In the brief transitional scenes between songs, the group would rapidly reach consensus on the next song while generating a hilarious narrative around science and religion, complete with two separate story arcs.

One of the two storylines, that of a girl who desperately wants to become popular, tracked the girl’s new friend Samantha, who teaches her how to be cool by being “slutty, but not too slutty.” The two narratives built cohesively around one another and resolved over the course of six songs. The final conflict, which ended up as “We gotta find the internet to be cool!” was tied up with the final scene, in which a black Jesus accompanied by seals sang “We Found the Internet.”

After Baby Wants Candy’s strong, if surreal, finish, the evening’s headliners, Upright Citizens Brigade’s touring company, came out with palpable confidence to huge applause. While their demeanor at first came across as smug — they began their act with brief reviews of the preceding two acts, as if they needed to assert their authority — they instantly erased any bitter taste with sweet execution. Proving they had done their homework, the members kept the audience engaged by asking the audience about campus happenings like the cancellation of Safer Sex Night and porn star Ron Jeremy’s visit.

UCB’s best moment came from their crafted scene of a pair of conservative parents turning their child into a cybernetic Charles Barkley, as the mother flipped between personalities of herself and a demonic internal twin named Mary who got stuck inside her at birth. The group ran with this narrative for the better part of their time onstage, leaving the crowd with more than enough humor to remember. It was wacky, yes, but it also had that intoxicating mix of creativity, fun and spontaneity that only improv can capture completely. Even the worst act of the night wasn’t all that bad, and all three had the audience cracking up. Besides, how often does one get to laugh at a cybernetic Charles Barkley?