Crying In Our Free Beer (And Occasionally Laughing)

We'll give you beer if you watch us make stuff up: Improv comedy group Fingergun
Courtesy of Joe Bozik
Fridays And Saturdays At 8:00 P.M. And 10:30 P.M.

Sundays At 8:00 P.M.
Brave New Workshop

Especially on the grubbier byways of the entertainment business, one regularly encounters facetious promises of complimentary booze. The possibility of eliciting hopeful double takes from pennywise alcoholics, I guess, brings enduring delight to grizzled barkeeps and nightclub bookers. Thus, "Free Beer Tomorrow" is one of the great pub signs, and over the decades countless rock bands have taken the name Free Beer, including a vaguely remembered San Francisco punk group and an entirely forgotten Southern rock combo that got as far as RCA Records in the middle '70s.

But last Saturday night at the Acadia Theater, Fingergun inverted the free-beer gag. The improvisational comedy troupe, without much if any advance notice of its generosity, actually did give away free beer. Admission was 10 dollars, and the beer didn't spring from the finest keg, so one shouldn't overstate the value of this largesse.

Still, free beer is free beer, and so, disregarding my usual policy of professional sobriety, I indulged in a very moderate amount of social drinking, if drinking while seated alone with a notepad qualifies as "social." It takes a lot to laugh, as Bob Dylan once noted, and on this night I needed all the help I could get.

Over this past weekend, I caught six hours of improv comedy: the late set on Friday by ComedySportz, the double bill at Acadia, and "Improv-A-Go-Go," the weekly Sunday night showcase at Brave New Workshop. Had I been a bit more diligent and started earlier in the week, I reckon I could have taken in 10 to 15 hours of the stuff. The local improv scene, for years the fairly exclusive domain of Dudley Riggs's Brave New Workshop and, later, Stevie Ray's Theatre Company, grew considerably in the mid- to late '90s.

It continues to thrive. Just a few of the regularly gigging local artists and groups include Stevie Ray's, the Collective, ComedySportz, Jill Bernard, Ferrari McSpeedy, Five-Man Job, the Ted Experience, and, of course, the Brave New Workshop players, who continue to offer improv shows as dessert to their regular main-stage performances.

Not only has improv comedy demonstrated a sturdy popularity, it also continues to attract a demographic that most theaters covet but rarely see. In general, live theater is about as popular with people in their late teens and early 20s as, oh, I don't know, Peter, Paul, and Mary concerts and Harry Truman biographies. Improvisational comedy is the chief exception. At improv shows, most of the crowd is between 17 and maybe 26, and the atmosphere is, well, rather like a kegger.

On Saturday's Acadia bill were Chicago's Mr. Fancypants, making its Minneapolis debut, and Fingergun, a four-piece group comprised of Joe Bozik, Mike Fotis, Marc Bentzen, and newcomer Fred Beukema. Both groups specialize in "long-form" improvisation, which means they aren't driven by audience suggestions, and they don't play games of the sort seen at ComedySportz or on TV's Whose Line Is It Anyway?.

The grandfather of improvisational long forms is called the Harold, and was developed in the late '60s by Chicago pioneers Del Close and Charna Helpern. By some definitions, the Harold follows a rather strict structure, but the term can also be used broadly. According to the website of Improv Olympic, Chicago's leading improv school, the Harold simply involves the exploration of "a single audience suggestion [through] group improvisation, monologues, and scenes that weave characters and their stories together."

Fingergun's Joe Bozic, who is also one half of Ferrari McSpeedy, studied at Improv Olympic. He refers to what Fingergun principally does as "montage." In montage, the group starts by asking for a word or phrase to get them going--over the weekend I heard "mischievous," and "best-friend locket," but none of the historical favorites such as "penis," "vagina," "butt-fucking," "proctologist," or "vibrator."

The suggestion serves as the initial inspiration for a series of short scenes that together tend to last about 25 minutes. Characters, themes, and settings generally recur throughout the montage, but the form is loose, and the influence of the original suggestion is not always apparent, or gets lost or willfully discarded in the development.

Some long-form performers and fans view short-form games as the ugly, crowd-pleasing stepchild of the improv scene. The stuff seen at the improv-team contests found at Comedy-Sportz, indeed, is more gimmicky than what is typically offered at Improv-a-Go-Go, but, at least to a relative outsider such as myself, it's no better or worse. If nothing else, the more crowd-reliant fare at ComedySportz offers a richer supply of amusingly witless audience offerings. "Name a relationship between two people," said the charming and occasionally catty emcee-referee Doug Neithercott. The first response, inexplicably, was "fish." "Okay, I need a historical event." "The apocalypse," answered someone, apparently a survivor. "How about your favorite book?" No response.

These moments were among my favorites of the weekend, funnier than a fair amount of the stage antics. Invest enough time at improv shows and you will see amazing displays of extemporaneous character development and riotous nonsense. You will also see lots of dumb, indulgent, oppressively pointless amateurism that only someone with vast stores of free time and the lowest of expectations could sit through without a tinge of resentment and regret.

But before I forget, let me share some of the lines I wrote down as being especially inspired ad-libs: "You don't know what it's like on the professional bowling circuit. Those guys are good. They're good at bowling." "If you are what you eat, then I'm 40 pounds of baked meat. And a side salad." "Strawberry jam! No, Grandma, we're registered at Crate & Barrel, not Cracker Barrel."

Okay, I'll give you time to catch your breath. As demonstrated by the above examples, all of which I got some sort of kick out of, the pleasure of improv comedy doesn't lie in jokes, at least not the kind of jokes that benefit from retelling. A funny voice--Bozic's menacing, gravel-voiced hobo is a personal favorite--can make up for much half-baked dialogue. The main fun is in watching performers develop characters and situations through careful listening and sympathetic interplay. "Discovery," Bozic tells me over breakfast at 48th and Chicago's Turtle Bread Co., is what improv is all about.

The best improvisers are smart enough to pick up on streams of varied references. They can bullshit convincingly about the Hawley-Smoot Tariff Act or riff a while on the musical Pippin. Scene-chewers will invariably bring things to a standstill, so the smart actors modestly hold to Del Close's maxim that the improviser's "prime responsibility is support." In other words the key, as Fingergun's beer handout reveals, is generosity.

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