Daily Herald, August 19, 2005
Improv tunes in
by Jack Helbig
TV has always influenced Chicago improv, ever since the late '60s when the first boomers raised on TV started flooding Second City. But in recent years TV has gone from one of the influences to the influence that unites all performers.
In return, improv groups are turning their razor-sharp comic wits toward creating shows that parody popular shows or skewer trends in TV programming. Or shows that ape TVs' aesthetic.
Name a cult TV show - "Scooby-Doo!", "The Brady Bunch," "The Daily Show," "Family Feud," "The X-Files" - and you can bet some improv group somewhere has created a show that mocks and honors it.
So it's no surprise that the younger, edgier groups are now training their sights on reality TV. Some groups, like pH Productions, have created shows that use the elements of reality TV: A Donald Trump-like authority figure "fires" a group of people in competition. Or an audience "votes" the group off the stage. Winner takes all.
Other groups, like FuzzyCo's The Neutrino Project, have fashioned shows that are essentially reality TV shows performed live. The Neutrino Project creates a fully improvised movie, shot on location around Chicago while the show is being preformed. The audience literally sees a movie being created before their eyes.
Still other groups, like the Naperville-based Grounded Theatre, have fashioned a show that re-creates the look and feel of the myriad TV court shows that mushroomed in the wake of "The People's Court."
Why this sudden upsurge of TV-influenced improv shows? Cynics might say, as former Chicago critic Adam Langer once sourly quipped, that TV is the only thing many improvisers know.
But if you log onto the Chicago Improv Network (www.cin.org), the online community of Chicago's huge improv scene, you will find another explanation. Joe Janes, artistic director of ComedySportz said: "The improv scene has gotten so large it's hard to get anyone to pay attention if you put a new show out there."
The overcrowding problem is real. It even spawned a series of heated comments posted on the www.cin.org message boards called "Thin the herd." In that discussion, some disgusted improvisers advocated various plans for shrinking the number of improvisers in the field.
But the improvisers' dilemma is our boon; Chicago is currently experiencing an embarrassment of riches when it comes to improv groups. And for what it's worth, the TV-influenced improv shows currently contain some of the richest veins of comedy.
Here is a look at some of the edgier improv shows based on TV in general and TV in particular.
"The Instant Movie" (Neutrino Project): Reality TV goes to the movies.
The Neutrino Project defies easy categorization. In a way it is like a live-action reality TV show, in which teams of improvisers create a videotaped TV show in real time. In another way, the show is a sendup of the clichés and formulas that make up conventional TV dramas. And it's also a celebration of those same formulas.
To make matters more complicated, Fuzzy Gerdes, the show's local producer and a performer in the show, has been investigating the idea of turning the show into a real reality TV show.
The show consists of four teams of improvisers, video camera operators and assorted production assistants. At the start of the show, the teams fan out across Chicago. Each team creates its own fully improvised videotaped story, broken down into short two- to four-minute segments.
These segments are sent back to the theater, where they are screened for the audience.
"We have people whose only job it is to run back and forth to the theater, carrying videotaped scenes," Gerdes said. "Hopefully, we receive the videotape quickly enough." That way Gerdes and company can create the illusion of a single unified TV show, with four subplots (a la Robert Altman's famously fragmented films, "Short Cuts" or "Nashville.")
How does the audience know that what they are watching is being created in real time?
"Before the show begins," Gerdes said, "we get objects from the audience." These objects are used as props in the fully improvised video shows they create. "We also borrow objects to prove to the audience that what they are seeing is actually improvised.
"We are used to thinking of TV as being removed from our lives. Part of the thrill of Neutrino is realizing that that is your personal item, your umbrella or your purse in that scene with that person in the video who was in our theater 10 minutes ago. And that scene was shot in the hot dog stand next to the theater. And it is all being created right here, right now."
"Neutrino Project: The Instant Movie," Improv Kitchen, 3419 N. Clark St., Chicago. The show runs at 9 p.m. Fridays. For reservations, call (773) 868-6423.