The long and the short of it…
In less than fifteen minutes, Andy Shaw will be a deep sea diver. Then he will be murdered. By a frozen hot dog. But don’t worry, he’ll be fine. In fact, a little later on, he’ll be a marriage counselor tasked with aiding a couple with their bed-wetting problem.
This is just another night in the life of an improvisational comedian. Shaw and his comedy troupe, The Oxymorons, are performing a set at the Abbey Bar during which every moment is completely unscripted and totally unpredictable. Shaw and his fellow Morons are at the mercy of the audience’s suggestions, and the audience loves it. “The audience is in on the joke,” Shaw explains. “They can make us look bad, but that’s part of the joke.”
The Oxymorons and the TMI Improv Troupe are the two major forces in Harrisburg’s improvisational comedy scene. Both groups perform their brand of spontaneous comedy at local colleges, bars and theaters. And in the true spirit of improvisational comedy, they often collaborate.
There are two main schools of improvisational comedy: the short form, in which members improvise within the confines of a game or scene (think Whose Line Is It Anyway?), and the long form in which a troupe creates a spontaneous play, improvising lines and actions within a loose plot (think HBO’s Curb Your Enthusiasm).
Meet The Oxymorons
The Oxymorons specialize in short form sketches, often in the form of games that involve audience suggestions to set the scene and create conflict. The group formed three years ago when four theater friends decided to explore the world of improvisational comedy. They met at one friend’s house, set up a camera and began experimenting with the form.
“If you looked at the video, it would be some of the worst improv that’s ever happened,” says Shaw, who co-directs the group with his wife, Sara. “We had no idea what we were doing, but we had a good vibe going and it was a lot of fun.”
The group began booking shows despite having virtually no experience performing improv in front of a crowd. “It was great because that put pressure on us to get good really fast,” Shaw explains. He and his troupe mates attended workshops in New York and Washington, D.C., honed their skills and continued to hit the stage.
The group has performed hundreds of shows since and has grown to include six members. Because the audience suggests plot ideas, no two shows are the same. “For a while, we had a ban on Abraham Lincoln,” Shaw says. “Every time we asked for a historical figure, it was Lincoln. And when we would ask the audience to suggest an object, it was always a vibrator.”
The group began in 2007 when 10 Gamut Theatre employees began meeting and performing improvisational exercises and games for fun. Soon after, they began to put on shows at Gamut and have held a residency at the Midtown Scholar since 2011, performing every third Friday of the month for 3rd in the ’Burg.
Jennie Adams, one of TMI’s first members, was the clown in school; she was a funny but shy child who enjoyed acting in plays, doing weird voices and impersonating celebrities for her family. She grew up on stage and had a passion for acting, especially in comedic roles. She says she even improvised a line in her very first high school play on opening night. “After that, I was pretty sure I’d never get cast in another show again,” she says. “Thankfully, the director loved what I did. I think after that I was hooked on improv.”
TMI can get down and dirty, and it’s not always suitable for small children. Most shows run toward PG-13 style humor. “You could be anything from playing a dinosaur to performing a sex act on a senator,” Adams laughs.
Planning for Spontaneity
So how do you learn to improvise? It turns out it’s more about listening and reacting than being naturally funny or comfortable in the spotlight. Both Adams and Shaw note techniques, games and exercises used to help develop improvisational skills. One is the “yes, and” technique, which is basically about accepting and adding.
“If your scene partner says, ‘Look at all these unicorns,’ your reaction shouldn’t be, ‘There’s no such thing as unicorns’ because then you deny the reality that your partner is trying to present,” explains Adams. That’s the “yes” part. The “and” is adding your own ideas to the scene. “There are no wrong ideas,” adds Shaw, “and once you accept that, things can get weird and fun.”
Another exercise is a pantomime game in which the first person mimes an action and an object, like dribbling a basketball and then “passing” it to another person who then transforms the “basketball” into a “coffee mug” and drinks from the invisible mug before passing it on to the next person who changes it again. Lots of these games involve no talking – miming skills are often more useful than talking when it comes to improv comedy.
For Adams, developing her improvisation skills has helped her in her daily life, letting her focus on being aware and in the moment and to having confidence in her ideas. “I’ll never stop doing this because it has given me so much,” she says. “I know that sounds cheesy.”
For Shaw, improv has taught him a very different but equally important life lesson. “When things are going wrong”, he says, “just start taking off your clothes.”