Comedy greats teach tricks of their trade

For some, the price of learning how to be funny can run up to $300, at least if they want to be trained by the best comedians in the country. However, recently students were given the opportunity to study with comedy greats for free. Last Thursday, the improv comedy group “The Upright Citizens Brigade,” brainchild of Matt Besser, Amy Poehler, Ian Roberts and Matt Walsh, appeared on campus to give a comedy workshop and host a “Improv Idol” performance. I saw this as the perfect opportunity to brush up on my witty repartee, and to disprove the theory that girls aren’t funny. I was dismayed to discover that I was in the minority.

When I arrived at Paresky Theater, I was greeted by only one or two fellow Ephs, and not many more followed. By the time the workshop began, there were about ten of us. As the exercises progressed a few more drifted in, but only to run off again, so that, by the end, there were fewer workshop members than at the start. By the time the show rolled around, there were only four of the original trainees in the audience. The plan to hold “Improv Idol” for workshop students to compete for best improv performance had to be revamped, and the Brigade just put on a show instead.

The workshop itself, which lasted three hours, began with some simple games to warm up our minds and get us into the improv spirit. Luckily, many of these initial tasks only involved clapping and streams of consciousness.

After the warm-up exercises, we progressed to our first real improv task: a game known as “Panel Discussion.” This scenario involved four students in chairs on the stage acting as “panel members” with a Brigade member as the “panel host.” The host would then ask the panel members to introduce themselves, say how they knew each other and detail what had brought them to the show. Little guidance was given during the scene, which was completely improvised and based around questions from the host and the audience. The ensuing hilarity was truly a testament to participants’ creativity.

I ended up one of a group of Canadians who had somehow managed, without any biological training, to clone a peanut. Our ramshackle cabin happened to be located behind a bio lab, which was how we obtained the tools necessary for our experiment. However, the bio lab somehow also managed to cause a pesky mutilated rodent problem in our house. Luckily, the peanut we cloned, which happened to be a perfect representation of the female figure, caused the 238-testicled rats to explode, thus simultaneously solving the rat problem and filling the void in our stomachs created by a lack of peanut butter. And this was only the first exercise.

Throughout the afternoon, among various other exercises, I witnessed scenes that included a super-exclusive Queer Bash, a day care center where the directors hated the kids, a husband who had entered his apartment in a bet that his wife could eat five saltines in five minutes and even an episode of Family Feud where one set of contestants was an angry divorcee father and his stressed-out son.

The Brigade did not participate in any of the exercises, they just dictated what we were supposed to do, watching and critiquing us as we went about the exercises, and only sometimes shouting out pointers or general advice.

Other times, the Brigade would pause the scene, and give more specific pointers, either because we were stuck or because they wanted to steer an already funny scene to its full potential. Mostly we were given a lot of freedom, and were left to invent what we could on our own. After all, that is what improv is truly about. Most of the students in the group, almost all of whom were members of Combo Za or veterans of Frosh Revue, were used to such demands for ingenuity. And even though I was one of only two workshop students who had never had any improv experience, I also found myself endowed with a surprising amount of courage. I even managed to eke a few laughs from the audience.

Unfortunately, not many witnessed my comedic debut. At 8 p.m., when the show was scheduled to begin, I was the only person in the theater. Eventually a few workshop members showed up, and, in the face of threats to cancel the performance, began frantically trying to recruit friends to come watch. Even members of the Brigade found themselves upstairs in Snack Bar trying to gather an audience.

Although not many can vouch for any talent I may have as a comedian, at least now I am more aware of myself and my abilities, and my self-esteem is the better for it. I was terrified of the workshop before I went into it, but I took the risk, and it paid off.

One of my favorite exercises of the afternoon involved one of the Brigade members choosing a random topic, e.g. “giant squid,” and then inviting students to stand up and tell a true story that the said topic triggered. From these stories, we were expected to improvise comical scenes. The scenes could be based on one of the story’s themes: an interesting incident or even just a weird or funny way that someone said something. When we got stuck on where to go with a story, the Brigade members would shout out numerous funny suggestions – all angles I would never think to take. Their advice got me to start thinking about everyday activities with a whole new mindset, one that could liven up even the most boring of events. Under their tutelage, not only my funny bone but also my whole outlook on life was revamped.

What I think we can draw from this experience is that the next time you find yourself at a loss for words, improvise and just say the first thing that comes into your head. On second thought, that’s a horrible idea, but it can be narrowed down to this main point: the next time you come across a risk, at least one that is unlikely to have lasting physical effects, take it. Among other things, you may discover that by impersonating a florist named Sandy Koufax or a mute, tooth-grinding baby, you, too, can be funny.