Combo Za keeps show alive despite forced relocation

Campus comedy group Combo Za’s performance on Friday night presented me with three main challenges: First, the overflowing crowd in Dodd Living Room coupled with my five-foot-two stature made visibility difficult. Second, the room was filled with peals of laughter so often that hearing the nuances of  ’Za’s witticisms proved difficult. Third – and this in fact proved to be a solution to the first two challenges – a Campus Safety and Security officer interrupted the first skit and informed the crowd and a perplexed Combo Za that the gathering was in violation of Massachusetts fire codes. Improvising, the group reconvened outside.

It is important to stress the sheer drama and intensity of this authoritative interlude: The Security officer walked slowly up the aisle and asked the performers, “What is this?” Students and ’Za alike explained the show, and when told that the building was over capacity, a student in the audience shouted, “Let’s do it outside!”

After an exodus of sorts, Combo Za reassembled outdoors, declaring the porch of Dodd House its makeshift stage. Chris Gay ’13, leading the ensemble, reintroduced the group, warning, “Huddle up for warmth … We’re going to call this the end of Combo Za Part One.” But the performance of “Part Two” barely made liftoff before Gay informed the enthusiastic – and now cold – crowd that the comedy team was also barred from the porch.

Disgruntled mumbling and some heckling of Security ensued, but what rang out loudest were chants of “Combo Za!” as the mass of people assembled in the show’s final location – the front lawn of Dodd House, with the performers on the cusp of the traffic circle – and the show finally began.

Combo Za’s performance was interactive from the start. Cast members solicited audience suggestions for “one mundane household object,” and from the jumbled cries of “toaster,” “juicer” and “paper towel,” the team finally decided to base its first (official) skit on a blender, crafting from imagination the story of the superhero Z-Force (Ryan McCloskey ’16) and villain Captain Blend-and-Spin (Justin Jones ’16) whose sole mission in life was to blend all people into one, completely obliterating any trace of individual difference. Students in the audience shrieked in horror at this prospect.

Following suggestions of an unlikely superpower from the audience, the story of Z-Force and Captain Blend-and-Spin was expanded upon by Justine Neubarth ’13, who was granted the ability to “cuddle anyone into submission.” The highlight of this skit was undoubtedly Neubarth using this skill on a taxi driver (Grace Rehnquist ’13) as a vehicle approached the Dodd traffic circle and the audience shouted, “Car!”

With a nod toward the spirit of Homecoming weekend, Gay introduced a Combo Za alumnus in the audience, Isaac Nicholson ’11, who began by explaining, “For those of you who don’t know me, I used to have a flat-top fade.” Nicholson went on to admit with pride that the Fresh Prince of Bel Air was his idol, and cited Episode 24 of the fourth season of the eponymous sitcom, in which Will Smith meets his father for the first time, as the ultimate “Fresh Prince” episode. “I met my dad for the first time when I was 17,” Nicholson said. “He offered me a shredded beef burrito.”

The Combo Za team then switched places, making way for Tatum Barnes ’15 to step into the foreground with Robert Amster ’14, as the two argued about who should dress up as Gerald from the ’90s cartoon “Hey Arnold” for Halloween. Amster suggested that Barnes’ hair was more conducive to vertical development, while Barnes protested that his Harold (another “Hey Arnold” staple character) impersonation was ideal. To demonstrate, he hunched into a stooped pose and grunted, “Hey.”

The conversation next turned to a topic we’ve all thought about at some point recently: When is the cut-off age for trick-or-treating (if there is one)? When accused of being too old, Amster responded, with charismatic awkwardness: “Twenty-eight – go on a date – for candy.”

The segment of “Flat-Top Fade” that most captured the original inspiration for the skit was one involving an elderly man, played flawlessly by Frank Pagliaro ’14, who arrived at a Jamba Juice joint to order his daily drink. Out of nowhere, the cashier (Ryan Pavano ’13) told the elderly man that he was his father, and following a brief awkward conversation that involved the elderly man uttering a string of profanities in a geriatric voice, Pagliaro’s character looked at his son and asked, “Would you like a beef burrito?”

The ’Za performance captured everything relevant to the College at the moment, from Halloween to Homecoming to the interruption by Security that night. As always, the comedy team involved the audience in building each skit, and at times, the show seemed more of a conversation than a performance. Fittingly, the audience and ’Za members mingled afterward in the moonlit Dodd traffic circle, and as I walked away, I realized that my inevitable smile was well worth the chill of the nontraditional, outdoor performance.