October 19, 2001, Duluth News Tribune
Fast on their feet
Comedy duo BARE stands up to the ultimate improv challenge: Be funny for a whole hour
BY V. PAUL VIRTUCIO
NEWS TRIBUNE STAFF WRITER
Fuzzy Gerdes and Shaun Himmerick can create entire storylines within minutes.
The Chicago improvisation artists can become any character that audiences throw at them, complete with quirky behaviors and complex relationships. They can maintain those personae for up to an hour -- and be funny while doing it.
The key to their improv comedy is agreement, Gerdes said. On stage, Gerdes will take the story in one direction and Himmerick follows, adding to it. They hope the audience agrees they're funny.
"I say one thing and Shaun agrees with it. That's the basic tool,'' Gerdes said. "You don't have a script and you don't have a set of rules that govern your reality until you get on stage and you build it together.''
But the comic duo doesn't just create a series of one-schtick caricatures. They'll actually build whole personalities so audiences see not only what makes the characters hilarious but also understand why they behave that way.
"Character is our biggest thing. You can watch two people do anything, but we have a commitment to 'It's not what you do, it's how you do what you do,' '' Himmerick said. "Us as different people is what makes the show interesting.''
Gerdes and Himmerick, as the comedy duo called BARE, will perform at 9:30 p.m. Saturday in Renegade Comedy Theatre, 404 W. Superior St.
Unlike popular TV shows, such as "Whose Line Is It Anyway?'' or Renegade's Comedy Olympics, BARE performs long-form improvisation. Rather than three-minute skits or short games, Himmerick and Gerdes create one-act plays based on themes suggested by the audience that can last from 30 to 60 minutes.
The challenge is to be funny the entire time. One way BARE maintains its comedy is by not overdoing a funny bit. After establishing a character's humorous trait, the comedians build up other aspects of the character and then unexpectedly return to that trait, Himmerick said.
"We'd much rather have the audience be surprised to see it again, rather than 'Whoops, there it is!' '' he said.
Their shows run from family-oriented to R-rated. They've played to college kids in campus venues and well-dressed audiences in museums. Although they tailor shows for specific audiences, they never show up with a prepared storyline or stock characters. The duo runs with whatever the audience gives them, Gerdes said.
"Shaun and I have big potty mouths, but we're also professionals,'' he said. "In improv, you never know where it's going to go.''
Both comedians got their start in the same college comedy troupe at Purdue University. Gerdes, who eventually earned a computer science degree, was pushed to join the troupe by his friend, the Rev. Lawrence VanVactor-Lee, who now lives in Duluth and helped set up the local gig.
Himmerick planned a career as a track athlete. After he was called on stage as a volunteer at a show, he was hooked. After he injured his knee, he turned to comedy.
After college, the pair continued their collaboration at summer comedy and theater festivals. Before joining forces with Gerdes in Chicago nine years ago, Himmerick ran a theater group in Denver called Bare Essentials, where he said he was simply trying to "create good theater improvisationally.''
While both have day jobs -- Himmerick works for Midway Games, a computer software manufacturer, and Gerdes is a graphic designer for Playboy magazine -- their focus is on their comedy careers.
"This is our art that we create and we think seriously about it all the time,'' Gerdes said. "It's wonderful that the serious art we create makes people laugh.''
V. PAUL VIRTUCIO covers arts and entertainment. He can be reached at (218) 279-5536 or by e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.