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Looking for LOLs, student improv groups make the everyday funny

Posted by Alex Pearlman  January 11, 2012 09:08 AM

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comedy comedians.gifBy Tzivia Halperin

Boston’s comedy scene is in the crapper. The city’s largest venue for standup, The Wilbur Theater, is just that -- a  theater -- and, thus, doesn’t focus exclusively on comedy. On the same day, you can go to the Wilbur and see both George Lopez and a musical version of Clifford the Big Red Dog (mark your calendars for Jan. 21, folks!). Even a 2005 USA Today article heralding “10 great places to sit down and watch stand-up” discounted Boston in favor of Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York City.

“The improv scene in Boston is pretty good with Improv Boston and Improv Asylum,” said Craig Pfizenmaier of Northeastern’s NU & Improv’d, “but beyond that, Boston doesn’t really have comedy clubs or [native] comedians, except Dane Cook, who I wouldn’t qualify as a good comedian.”

With so few comedy clubs in the area, be they sketch, improvisational, or stand-up, and only a smattering of comedians hailing from Boston, it might be shocking to learn that the college comedy scene is buzzing with success. College-affiliated comedy groups are flourishing despite Boston’s microscopic scene.

Although the troupes I spoke with vary drastically in terms of style, form, and method, they remain unified in their rationality and practicality. There were no podiums from which they aired their self-aggrandizing sermons or unfeasible expectations, and each appeared acutely aware of its assets, flaws, and overall ability.

“We have had audiences in the past that we weren’t going to win over because we have a weird style,” said Lee Benzaquin of Emerson's Chocolate Cake City, which may be an understatement in light of the troupe’s wildly successful Human Centipede: The Musical! “If it doesn’t work one night, analyze, fix, and hope for a different audience.”

Andrew King of Suffolk's Seriously Bent, too, gleefully commented that his humor can be “super offensive,” so audience reactions are a “mixed bag. Sometimes it goes over well, sometimes not so much.”

Rather than chalking up a poor reception to some bad apples in the crowd, the groups see their audiences as barometers to measure the effectiveness of their humor and adjust when necessary. “A good group will focus on each other and support [each other] on stage, even if [they] aren’t necessarily having a good show,” said Evan Kaufman, Seriously Bent’s coach and a main stage cast member at Boston’s Improv Asylum.

College comedy performers do not necessarily have a background in theater -- NU & Improv’d serves as a prime example, with members’ majors ranging from criminal justice to engineering -- but the groups see their comedy as an opportunity to explore real-life situations, tweaking them slightly for comedic effect. In fact, the strength of comedy derives from a lack of awareness in ordinary situations, explained Rebecca Delgado of NYU alumni sketch group Harvard Sailing Team (I contacted them for an interview under the misapprehension that they were actually from Harvard; whoops!).

"If a doorbell rings, the character may jump over the couch to open the door,” she said; it’s that lack of awareness that contributes to the levity of the situations. In this manner, performers elevate the humdrum to humorous.

While very few of the performers I spoke to intend to pursue comedy professionally following graduation, many conceded that they would like to continue participating in a troupe, which they see as an opportunity for personal growth, upholding the merit of laughter and quick thinking. Pfizenmaier said his improv experience has influenced how he interacts in social settings and at interviews. “It’s all about confidence in the job interview,” he said, and his background allows him to “field all sorts of questions quickly. Plus it’s always good to make people laugh.”

The troupes’ successes, then, are very much hinged to an understanding of the balance between audience and performer, and forging a relationship that benefits both. “[Our shows are] like talking to a therapist,” said Benzaquin, “but the therapist is the whole room of people.” It was a description to which I couldn’t help but laugh.

Photo by joe_x

About Tzivia -- I'm currently studying nonfiction writing at Emerson College with a double minor in photography and psychology. Coalescing them, my time is really spent thinking about humans, talking to humans, writing about humans, and rendering humans. Besides photography and writing, my interests include and are pretty much limited to mocking Kevin Bacon and pretending to be a 65-year-old smoker from Brooklyn. Find me on Twitter at @Tzivia_Halperin.

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