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HOT WIRED: Eclectic Improv Company Celebrates 13 Years

It’s been a while since I sat in on an evening of improvisational comedy.  Even though I knew, more or less, what to expect when I entered The Smith Theatre at the Shea’s Performing Arts Center for a recent Saturday night performance of The Eclectic Improv Company, I had forgotten just how funny the unpredictable nature of  improve can be.

Improvisation is truly unique. It’s really not at all like stand-up comedy,  nor even “skit comedy” like the Capitol Steps, or SNL, where memorized routines and written scripts control the performances.

Rather, improv is an odd mix of the set – up, where the ideas/ subject matter come directly from the audience,  followed by the spontaneous combustion of the actors’ enactment of those ideas. There are standard improv formulas,  such as “The Musical”, for example, where actors make-up songs to create an instant Broadway show, ( and many other formats, such as those seen on TV’s “Whose Line Is It Anyway ” )  but the execution itself is unique with each and every performance.

Although one can never know for sure, to a large degree, it seems the success of the performance depends on how well the set up is composed. The more bizarre the mix of ideas and images, ( but which still have some tenuous link ) the more likely the actors will strike gold.

The Ecletic Improv Company, a Buffalo-based troupe, excels at both the set-up and the realization of the improvised comedy.  After a dozen years and hundreds of shows together, ( their 13th Anniversary Show will be held at the Smith Theatre on June 25, ) one might expect no less, but the truth is that each new show is as unpredictable as the very first show.

Unpredictability is the factor that gives this kind of comedy its edge. As the audience gathers, there is a “feel good ” air of anticipation, the audience knows that this is a high wire act with no net. The expectation is simply not to know what to expect.  Into this jovial atmosphere the boys appear on stage, relaxed and confident, they explain what improve is and the applicable ground rules. The audience rapport is instant and strong. It’s an atmosphere ripe for laughter, which comes in raucous waves

One of the remarkable things about Eclectic Improv Company is the total lack of any vulgarity, no blue material, and very little political stuff either. This wise choice makes the show available not only for your parents, but the kids too, and you will still laugh your, um… keester off.

The company is composed of founding member Peter Cumbo;  Don Gervasi, an Equity actor and star of a recent AAA TV commercial ( “The tire FELL OFF MY CAR !” );  John Kruezer, also an actor as well as a singer/ musician with the band Jump The Shark; and Todd Benzin, yet another actor ( and current Artvoice Artie Nominee ) who is also a  sometime band member with the popular Skiffle Minstrels. Each has 15 years or more experience in improve, and all have been with the Eclectic Company for many years now.

Michael Hake, local musician extraordinaire rounds out the group, playing piano at most gigs. The music adds a nice dimension, and Mr. Hake also pipes up as called for, adding an extra voice to the proceedings.

The night I saw Eclectic Company, the troupe performed some six improvs, ranging from an hilarious attempt to plug a leak in the Hoover Dam  to a full-bodied musical concerning a student bent on winning the science fair blue ribbon, but managing to kill off his entire family with his dangerous experiments. ( The songs were actually a shade better than those I heard in the last musical I attended. )

Another highlight involved a “party guessing  game” where the audience’s suggestions are made even more insanely impossible ( bull riding with a rope and cowboy hat becomes ostrich riding with a licorice twist while wearing a bowl of fruit. )  One actor ( in this case John Kreuzer has been kept isolated ) he then translates the other actors’ nonsensical gibberish and mime to come up with correct phrase – it’s almost unbelievable. ( Read more about these formats below in Mr. Cumbo’s interview. )

While the comedy is basically impulsive and appears unpremeditated, the training is rigorous. All members have a formal improv education  ( except Mr. Hake ).  Mr. Benzin and Mr. Gervasi both trained with the Second City Conservatory. One does not simply get up and ” do improve ” as I discovered in answer to one of my lesser-informed questions, which appear below. Some of the answers are very surprising, what we do not know about Improv is a lot. 

Mr Cumbo responded to my questions in writing, as seen below.However, three of the group ( Cumbo, Gervasi and Benzin ), also responded to my questions with in a very amusing collective repartee, via an mp3 recording which can also be accessed below. I urge the reader to listen not only for the laughs but to get a much better idea of what improve is and how it works.  

NG ( Neil Garvey ) :  When was Eclectic Company started ? 

Audio: Q1.mp3

PC ( Peter Cumbo ) :  Officially, the Eclectic Improv Company debuted in 1997.  However, the entire company had performed in other troupes since as early as 1993.  Even though we have moved from venue to venue, we have never had a period longer than a few months in which we where not regularly performing on a public calendar.

NG :  In those almost 12 years or so, did you guys ever get booed ?  How about hecklers ? 

Audio: Q2.mp3

PC :  I honestly cannot recall a single instance in which we’ve ever been booed.  The worst reaction we ever receive is a lack of laughter.  Given the spontaneous and unpredictable nature of our show, it’s pretty much a forgone conclusion that we – occasionally – just won’t be funny.  However, the structure of our show allows us to not be funny every once in a while, because an unfunny bit is more likely than not to be followed by a funny one.  It brings to mind a routine from stand-up comedian Jim Norton.  He says that people ask him all the time, “What do you do if a joke bombs?”  And his response?  “I just move on to the next joke.”  The point, as Mr. Norton explains, is that being funny professionally is not the same as trying to tell a joke at a dinner party, where if it falls flat the best you can do is try to pass it off as a serious remark.

We are keenly aware of which parts of our show are the most dependable in terms of delighting the crowd, so we balance the more experimental and risky sets with the sure things.  A trained theatrical mind would see the pattern of our show, which follows a fairly traditional structure of exposition, increasing tension and crises, climax and denouement.  And that’s not an accident.

Unfunny instances seem to be fewer and farther between now as compared to years ago, at least as measured by the amount of time our audience spends laughing.  Of course, laughter is a social phenomenon; as our audiences have grown, so have the laughs.

We do occasionally have hecklers.  However, it has been very rare.  It’s probably more correct to say that we’ve had people that act inappropriately or have had a bit too much to drink than to say we’ve been heckled.  Our show tends to be friendly, accessible, and smart.  We don’t go on the offensive with the audience.  Right from the start of our show, we demonstrate that our show is a sort of partnership with the crowd, because they will supply us with inspiration.  Heckling us would be like heckling the Smothers Brothers.  What’s the point?

NG:  Why Improv, as opposed to, say, a one man stand up ? 

Audio: Q3.mp3

PC:  Each of us performed in some professional or semi-professional capacity prior to starting out in improv, and none of us was a stand-up comedian.  We all have stage acting in common; in fact, that’s how most of us met.  Improv was the first type of comedy we ever did.

Improv and stand up are vastly different disciplines, and that’s not necessarily understood by the majority of people I talk to.  I am commonly asked if I am “the guy who does the stand-up comedy?”  Stand-ups spend years honing their voice, finding the point of view they find funny and can communicate to the world.  They are writers – crafters of comedy – who develop and refine material that might be spoken again and again for years and years.  All of us can think of great stand-ups and we know specific bits that we enjoy and have heard over and over again.

Improv, on the other hand, is about relationships.  It’s about the spontaneous creation of characters that work, environments that are interesting, and situations that tell a compelling story.  An excellent improvised scene can be about the most mundane of topics, but it will be interesting because the characters within that scene, how they relate, what happens to them, and why, are all captivating.  That is much more interesting to me than offering a point-of-view as a monologist.  I don’t think it’s necessarily better, or harder, or easier.  Just different.

So, why do we do improv?  Beyond what I’ve already alluded to – that we were actors before we were comedians – for me, the answer is that it is endlessly interesting, never tiresome, always as fun and entertaining to me as it (hopefully is to the audience).  To this day, 16 years and who knows how many performances later, I am excited for every single one.  Every time we perform it is an entirely new experience for us just as it is for the audience.

NG:  What was your favorite routine ever ? 

Audio: Q4.mp3

PC:  There have been thousands and thousands and thousands in our career.  Even someone with a storied, life-long theatrical career may have performed in what? little as a handful (for the really long runs) or as many as a few dozen different shows.  Each of our performances has its own handful of completely unique stories.  I simply don’t have a favorite.

That’s not to say we don’t have experiences that we talk about for years and years.  Sometimes, something especially silly will happen during a show – something the audience may not even recognize – and that will delight us forever.  However, for me, the most memorable moments are those in which we did really good improv.  It’s hard.  It’s a lot easier to be funny than it is to do really good improv.  And as much as I want the audience to laugh, I want to do really good improv more.  There are few things more entertaining, for audience and performer alike, as really good improv.  And by the same token, there are few things less entertaining than bad improv.  And there is a LOT of bad improv out there.

What I think what we do have is favorite things to do in the show.  For example, my favorite part of the show is usually our musical scene, which is simply an improvised scene that adds the burden of lyricizing and singing songs along the way.  It’s a challenge, it’s fun to do and it’s a great joy to just open up and sing.  It also tends to be one of our most well-regarded feats, because the audience recognizes the difficulty of what we are doing.
NG:  Do you find that “funny” changes over time, are things that were funny when you started improv are less/more funny now ?  Any topics which are verboten ?  

Audio: Q5.mp3

PC:  This is an interesting question, and difficult to answer.  Undoubtedly,  one’s sense of humor (hopefully) matures and changes with age, and so in a sense I suppose that what’s most funny to me now is different than when I started.

I’ve spent a great deal of time in my life thinking about the question, “What makes something funny?”  It’s almost impossible to answer, and may in fact be impossible to answer definitively.  It’s like a Zen riddle, meant to inspire enlightenment.  As I tell anyone whom I might be teaching to do improv – I can teach you to do improv.  It has rules and patterns.  But I can’t teach you to be funny.  I don’t know how.

The closest I’ve ever come to answering the riddle is to say, “Recognition.”  It is the truth that is funniest to us, our individual truth, cultural truth, gender truth, and so on.  When we recognize the truth, we laugh.  Or maybe it’s the other way around…when we laugh at something, we recognize its truth

So why does “funny” change over time?  Because our truth changes, expands, and collapses through experience.

No topic is necessarily verboten, although it is a conceit of our show that we will not go blue.  Our show is clean.  We might dabble in innuendo or say a broadcast-television-acceptable curse word.  We do that because it is our choice to do so, both personally and commercially.  At no fewer than 80% of our shows I am approached by someone who simply says how happy they were to be able to laugh and enjoy themselves and not worry about feeling offended.

That being said, we do sometimes accept off-color suggestions from our audience…but the surprise is on them when we find a clever way to use it in a clean way.

NG:  While each performance is unique, there are undoubtedly patterns which repeat, do you rehearse ?  Have you guys been together so long are you  now telepathic ? 

Audio: Q6.mp3 

PC:  The type of improv that the Eclectic Company performs is known in the business as “short-form.”  Improv, like most disciplines, has variations – long-form, short-form, games, monologue, montage, etc., etc.  Short-form improv shows are comprised of some indeterminate number of scenes which are relatively short (ours range from 3-20 minutes, on average), and distinct from one another.

Each of our scenes has a basic premise.  For example, we often do a scene in which we are supplied the first and last lines, and improvise the remainder.  Another scene calls for us to add emotional or stylistic elements on command.  Another has us speaking for one character, embodied by a different improviser, while simultaneously portraying a different character in the scene who is spoken for by someone else.  Still another is the aforementioned musical.  We also do scenes that are constructed almost like advanced party-games.  We play a game at virtually all of our shows that was described by the Buffalo News critic as “charades on crack.”  Those are the types of things that you’d expect to only be funny to participate in, not to watch – but we make it entertaining by displaying our prowess at communicating esoteric ideas in absurd ways.  The routine is so bizarrely impressive that we are frequently accused of cheating, and people ask how it is done in such a way that you’d think we sawed a woman in half.

We generally don’t rehearse, or it is more correct to say, not as a whole.  Each of us has studied, rehearsed and developed himself as an improviser in various ways.  We do sometimes rehearse a particular routine if we find that it is consistently underperforming, or we’ll rehearse new ideas when they come along.

Of course, given the nature of what we do it is impossible to “rehearse” a show, because we have absolutely no idea what the show will
be about.  We are 100% honest about that.  We have no jokes, stock lines, or planned routines that we keep in our back pocket.  Certainly, we each have a particular range of characters and various preferences that inform our choices, but none of us, either individually or together, ever plans the content of our performance.

Improv is made possible by the innate talents of the performers, of course, by also as much by learning and following the rules of improv.  I’ve often compared it to driving a car.  One must have the car and one must learn the rules of the road, but with that car and those rules one can drive to whatever destination he pleases.  Without knowing the rules of the road, however, the driver is likely to create an accident.

In fact, we often joke that we have achieved a certain telepathy with one another.  We have spent more time together than many people do with their families, and that time together has been heightened and concentrated by the task at hand.  But it’s not just time on stage – every hour on stage usually means three or four hours together traveling, preparing, debriefing.  Furthermore, we actually are friends.  We enjoy the same easy communication that close families do.  Next time you are around the table with a group of people you know intimately, observe how little it takes to cue the group to a story, emotion, or idea.  That’s how it is for us, and we have the ability to exploit that intimacy on stage.

NG :  I see EC has several corporate clients…do these audiences vary in terms of material presented ? Do Corporate audience react differently ?   If a performance begins to tank, what can you do to get them back ?

Audio: Q7.mp3

PC : We generally perform the same way, from the same voice and with the same content rules for all of our shows.  Sometimes we vary the content, for example, when in a school, to make sure we don’t offend anyone’s sensibilities.  We also usually stick to our less-risky material when in front of a corporate client. We know that corporate clients like us because we don’t push the boundaries of good taste and create a headache for anyone in the room.

Corporate audiences, or private gatherings in general, often react differently insofar as the people in the room tend to know each other.  When the whole audience knows each other, it can dramatically change the dynamic.  Sometimes for the better – they feel freer, laugh louder around friends, etc.  Sometime for the worse – that since of freedom makes them act inappropriately, or they might expect us to work with in-jokes that we can’t possibly know and understand.  We explain to a client that calls us with very specific desires about what we will say or do that our show simply doesn’t have that type of predictability.

In the earlier question about booing I addressed the question of what we do if the performance begins to tank.  We get them back by having confidence, moving on to what’s next, and trusting in our ability.  As I’ve already said, our show has a basic dramatic pattern to it, one based on years of experience – and we know that we are almost certain to get the laugh eventually, even if it’s not right now.

NG:  If you could invite some historical figure, an entertainer or not,  to join you in an improvisation, who would that be ( and why ? )

Audio: Q8.mp3

PC:   I’ll try to answer this question in the spirit in which it is asked, because I’m tempted to just choose whomever I’d most like to meet and the performance be damned.

I imagine the Buddha would be an excellent improviser, given his philosophy about letting go of ego and accepting all that is – central tenets of improv.

The Eclectic Improv Company, performing at The Smith Theatre, 13th Anniversary Show will be presented on June 25, 2011  

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