Off the cuff7/3/2013
Improv is kind of a double-edged sword. Most every good actor agrees that improv classes are invaluable learning tools that enhance reaction time, stage presence and critical thinking abilities. However, when those workshops are exposed to the light of day and put in front of an audience, the results are often wholly terrible.
And yet, as evidenced by the return of TV’s “Whose Line is it Anyway?” and the simple fact that Judd Apatow isn’t running a laundromat somewhere, there’s always a market for good improv by people who are trained in the craft.
At its very best, improv is more than just funny. It’s hugely entertaining to watch people wing a situation. Sometimes you get to marvel at people thinking faster on their feet than you think you could. But when it goes bad, few crowds will turn to heckling as willingly as one watching improv. Since you’ve already made it clear that they’re allowed to shout things at the stage, it can go downhill quickly… especially when that hill starts at the bar.
It’s with that feast-or-famine mindset that The Des Moines Social Club and Anything Improv have teamed up to create The Revolver Comedy Revue. Featuring a rotating cast of local actors and standup comedians, Revolver follows a tried and true formula, perfected by acts like The Groundlings and Second City. Each show is divided into a series of “games”: scenarios that the troupe sets up, then asks the audience to fill in a couple of blanks. Since the cast — and the crowd suggestions — will vary from week to week, the entertainment possibilities are vast. However, since no improv troupe does everything completely off the cuff, anyone attending more than a couple of the weekly shows will quickly be able to spot recycled jokes and familiar scenarios.
The shows kick off on the Gas Lamp stage with a couple of stand-up comedians serving as warm-up acts. Once they’ve taken their cuts, the meat of the show begins. It’s difficult to pin down what a typical performance is like, since the cast changes from week to week, but there are clearly some games the actors are better at than others.
The weakest link in the night last week was a “joke telling” game, where the crowd was solicited for suggestions of various mundane objects (Pencil! Mushroom!). Cast members took turns telling jokes that began, “186 (suggestions) walk into a bar…” and filling in an improvised punch line. More often than not, the jokes fell flat, and the audience got tired of the game fairly quickly.
But when the games worked, the results were sublimely hilarious. One major highlight is a game wherein two cast members improvise a conversation — one speaking only in text messages off a phone borrowed from an audience member. It’s not only entertaining watching someone attempt to hold a coherent conversation with somebody whose replies are often apropos of nothing, but hearing someone else’s text messages aired out loud (“You know what would be an awesome alternative fuel source? Retards!”) reminds us that we’re all fairly horrible people when nobody is looking.
Good or bad, it’s worth a look. The Revolver Comedy Revue takes over the Gas Lamp every Monday, starting at 7 p.m. CV
Chad Taylor is an award-winning news journalist and music writer from Des Moines who would love to take his talents abroad if the rent were not so much more affordable in Des Moines.