Photograph by Eric Chazankin
GOTTA LAUGH: Watching actors perform to prompt is part of the fun at Sixth Street Improv.
Off-the-cuff comedy and theater gets audiences in on the joke
By David Templeton
The scene: the recent presidential inauguration, out on the mall. The situation: 5 million people and only 5,000 Port-a-Pottys. "Suddenly," explains Bridget Palmer, barely containing her laughter, "It was suggested that President Obama was in one of those Port-a-Pottys, and everyone was running around opening doors to see which one he was in so they could, you know, meet the new president. And then there was this Secret Service agent, but he wouldn't tell us which potty Obama was in."
Though this anecdote sounds like either the best untold news story of the 2009 inauguration or some kind of twisted delusion, it is in fact the highlight moment of the night during a recent performance by Sixth Street Improv. Since the beginning of January under Palmer's direction, the quick-thinking team of actors and comedians has taken over the Playhouse's Studio theater, landing twice a month to open the dams of improvisational comedy. Sixth Street Improv employ a combination of classic improv games and live spontaneous songs, invented on the spot with the help of a live accompanist on piano. According to Palmer, the goal is higher than just earning some quick laughs.
"Well, we definitely are aiming to be funny," she says, "but our primary emphasis is on story, so a lot of our improv bits are like little tiny plays, based on suggestions tossed out by the audience. Fortunately, most of the time the stories we get from the audience are pretty hilarious, and if they're not obviously humorous, like the inauguration thing, our cast is pretty good at finding the humor in it and taking it as far as we can go."
Since opening the series, the group has proven surprisingly popular, selling out their first night and threatening to turn people away ever since. As an art form, improvisation is on the rise in Sonoma County, with more and more improv acts appearing on the lists of local entertainment events. Palmer thinks it has to do with a growing need for laughter and a desire for community.
"Our purpose," she says, "is to create a place where people know there will be improv in a theatrical setting on a regular basis. There really is a certain community that develops around these kinds of comedy series, and that's what we're hoping to build over at Sixth Street."
Catering to a somewhat less refined, decidedly younger crowd is the World's Largest Comedy Duo, a team of some eight insanely quick-on-the-uptake actors performing every Thursday night at Santa Rosa's Black Rose Irish Pub. Formed two years ago by Adam Aragon, the group has developed a strong local following, in part through their presence on YouTube and through their website ([ http://www.biggestcomedyduo.com/ ]www.biggestcomedyduo.com).
Says Aragon, "Our goal is to just be as funny as we possibly can, to hopefully make the audiences laugh so hard they hurt. We practice that, making people laugh so hard they hurt, and we're getting better and better at it."
The group really does practice. Each week brings a different theme to the evening's activities—science fiction, politics, vacations, bad literature and drunkenness—and the troupe meets weekly to plan out games and routines specific to the theme.
"We find that, in doing improv, the more you do it, the quicker you get," Aragon says, "and timing is as important in improv as any other comedic form."
The group took the drunkenness theme to hilariously improper levels, demanding that every member of the company have at least a couple of beers in them before they could take the stage.
"We probably weren't as quick as we usually are, I admit that," Aragon laughs, "but the audience understood the theme, and since all of the routines were about different aspects of drunkenness, it turned out to be one of our funniest shows. Everyone wants to know when we're planning to do another one like that."
Sixth Street Improv play the second and fourth Saturday of each month, with the exception of April, when the group appear the second and fourth Sunday night, through June 6. Sixth Street Playhouse, 52 W. Sixth St., Santa Rosa. 8pm. $12. 707.523.4185. The World's Biggest Comedy Duo play every Thursday night at 8pm at the Black Rose Irish Pub, 2074 Armory Drive, Santa Rosa. $3. 707.546.7673.
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