Sketch-comedy troupes wing it in search of laughs

By MacKenzie Dawson '99
Photography by Dave Ferguson '00

Top: Neil Reynolds '03, right, and Matt Tucker, as Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton in a comedy staged by The Tribe, a Boston improvisational theater company. Sketch theater troupe Slightly Known People, bottom, from left Josh Mertz, Erik Bowie '00, Dan Maccarone '98, Mel DeLancey, Stuart Luth '01.
Photo by Dave Ferguson '00 (bottom)
It's a Saturday night at RiFiFi, a bar in Manhattan's East Village, and Stu Luth '01 is searching frantically for a knife. The knife"nowhere to be found"is a prop in the improv comedy show Luth is about to perform with Dan Maccarone '98, Erik Bowie '00, and their friends Melissa DeLancey and Josh Mertz. Together, they make up Slightly Known People, and they perform every Saturday at RiFiFi.

The missing knife is an integral part of a sketch about peanut butter and jelly, wherein Luth will sing a never-before-performed song about his love for PB&J set to the "Phantom of the Opera" theme.

"Not to be picky, but the skit calls for boysenberry jam, and this isn't boysenberry," Luth said. "Do you think that will be a problem?"

"Just hold your hands over the label, dude," Bowie said from a chair in the corner, where he was writing new lines for one of his skits. "The audience isn't going to notice."

"Next time we're in Maine, we'll get a bunch of boysenberry jelly. I think they only make it up there," Maccarrone said, confident and reassuring (though boysenberries actually only grow in the south and southwest).

Slightly Known People began performing together in April 2004, with all five members writing, directing, and acting. But Maccarone, Luth, and Bowie aren't the only recent Colby graduates making a go of the sketch comedy scene.

In Boston, Neil Reynolds '03 carved a niche for himself in an organization called The Tribe, which has built a healthy fan base. He's also directing a two-person musical improv show called "Tiny Little Lungs" and acting in "Code Duello: Hamilton & Burr," wherein, as the show's Web site advertises, "Each night, Tribe mainstage players Neil Reynolds & Matt Tucker don the wigs and waistcoats of Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton, improvising the lives of our two angriest founding fathers."

Details, daggers, duels, and jam"it's all part of putting together a new show"every week, in the case of Slightly Known People. Some skits are recycled, but Slightly Known People pledges that it has never performed the same show twice.

"This week's show is pretty ambitious," Maccarone said, explaining that it's a "sketchical""improv comedy set to music.

"You know how in musicals they speak their lines until emotion overcomes them and they can only express themselves through music?" Mertz said. "Well, we're doing everything through song"until the emotion overcomes us and we have to break into sketchy comedy."

Musical numbers include "Tomorrow," from Annie, and a scene in which all five thespians do choreographed pushups to Bruce Springsteen's "I'm Going Down." The non-musical skits include Bowie and Mertz dressed up as preppy guys with Locust Valley Lockjaw accents and pink-and-green polo shirts; Maccarone giving a slide show of his early youth and high school years; and Luth playing a wily detective ferreting out Eastern European spies on a subway platform.

If any of it seems strange, that's entirely the point"improv gives the troupe the chance to flex its acting muscles and go where the moment takes them.

It's fun for the actors"and the audience. "What appeals to me most about sketch comedy is that I find it a sort of noncommittal form of entertainment," DeLancey said. "As an audience member who has sat through many shows that I either didn't get or didn't like, it's nice to see something where I can have a short attention span and if I don't enjoy one particular sketch it doesn't mean the whole show is a bust."

In Boston, Reynolds talked about the challenges of sustaining a career in improvisational comedy.

"Before, there were only about two theaters where improv comedians could perform, and both were very exclusive ... they were near-impossible to get into, even for a night," Reynolds said. "So these artists banded together and formed their own group, The Tribe, based on the principles of inclusiveness and collaboration." The group quickly built up a large fan base through word of mouth, and it's now competing with the more established Boston improv theater companies ImprovBoston and Improv Asylum.

In "Code Duello: Hamilton & Burr," the end is always the same, Reynolds said, with Burr fatally wounding Hamilton. But the motivation for the latter's death changes with each show. That's one advantage of improv as opposed to a longer play. If one particular part of a skit doesn't work, there's always an opportunity for improvement"and increased hilarity.

"One night, the audience suggested that it was over a stolen cow," Reynolds said. "So we start discussing the cow theft, and that leads to an argument and ends with me shooting my best friend. It's gotten easier over time. The more upset I am, the funnier it is to the audience."

In addition to the laughs, the motivation behind improv comes in creating a new product completely from scratch.

"It's great when strangers laugh at stuff that I find funny, too," Luth said. "But what I like best is that we're covering all aspects of the process"writing, directing, acting, and producing. And when we're successful, it's an amazing feeling."

Now if only he could locate that knife.
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