Improv Tunes in Reality Television the Latest Influence for Local Comedy Groups

By Helbig, Jack | Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, IL), August 19, 2005 | Go to article overview

Improv Tunes in Reality Television the Latest Influence for Local Comedy Groups


Helbig, Jack, Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, IL)


Byline: Jack Helbig Daily Herald Correspondent

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 reality TV programs.

Which performer will you vote off?

"pHrenzy" (pH Productions): Performers get voted off stage by the audience.

pH productions was founded three years ago when ensemble members of Low Sodium, an edgy, popular late-night improv troupe, revolted against the company's director, Aaron Haber.

"Haber was a bit of tyrant," said ensemble member Jason Geis.

Until the revolt, Low Sodium had built up a reputation for creating wild, cutting-edge, no-holds-barred kind of theater. pH productions has kept that tradition alive. All of their shows are high-energy and cutting-edge.

"pHrenzy" is especially so.

"pHrenzy" was created by Geis and others in the troupe to be a "parody of all the reality vote 'em out shows." But the fully improvised show, "pHrenzy," is, for all intensive purposes, a live version of a reality TV show without video cameras.

"The show starts out with eight performers," Geis said. These performers do various improv games, a la "Whose Line is it Anyway?" or ComedySportz. One by one they get picked off by a referee, enforcing arbitrary rules the players don't know, but the audience does.

These rules are intentionally very picky: Whoever uses a foreign accent the most in scenes gets booted. …

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