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The Upright Citizens Brigade's sketchy characters visit the Varsity

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It's not easy to come up with inspired nonsense off the top of your head, even when you've got some outside sources of inspiration. (Hell, I spent 10 minutes trying to figure out how to start this blog post.) So credit where it's due: the touring members of Upright Citizens Brigade, raw and off-the-cuff as they were, managed to pull off an entertaining night of improv sketch comedy. There was a feeling of hastily thrown-together looseness, performed under semi-anonymity from three performers who seemed like they were still looking for their own unique voices; the two-guys-and-a-girl team didn't announce their names until they said goodnight, and at that point they were drowned out by audience applause. (For the record, the lineup was Trish McAlpin, Johnny Meeks, and Joel Spence.) It almost felt like a few random people stumbled onto the Varsity's stage, were told to wing it, and had the good fortune to actually be pretty funny. [jump]

The two-act show took a moment to start clicking, but the early going was helped by a well-selected audience member who had enough inspiring comedic fuel (a night of thwarted Cher karaoke; an aspiring performance artist career; a U of M class in the opaque liberal arts subject "Everyday Rhetoric") to trigger a long string of rapid-fire sketches. Many of them felt like "sketches" in the sense of unfinished drafts as well as the comedic-bit definition; random non-sequiturs, abrupt changes of scene and five-joke pileups meant that a lot of concepts were left a bit formless and changed arbitrarily to sustain some bewildering jokes.

It was most obvious when the setting of a scene was forgotten, ignored, or altered mid-sketch, like when a bit taking place at a florist got its wires crossed after one performer acted like restaurant waitstaff. But that often led to some bizarre leaps in logic that actually worked in a surreal sense, like when a break-in at a cheerleaders' supply closet was revealed to be at an Applebee's for some reason, therefore leading to a particularly tangled series of dueling cheers/protests/appetizer sales pitches. The fact that these sorts of Point A to Point X connections made no sense was quickly played up to be part of the humor, even if the performers' "wait, this is a funeral home and a nightclub?" reactions laid the improvisational process a little too bare. Still, this kind of performative comedy is all about the ability to just keep building on stuff to see where the line of weirdness takes things -- and these members of the touring company were definitely game for that.

The best bits incorporated audience suggestions without leaning too heavy on them, best exhibited in the second act's gimmick of garnering topics from random text messages audience members had saved on their phones. The overall feeling of unpredictable batshit weirdness kept the show going strong, whether it was in entire premises (the "cool" TSA agent who captures terrorists by befriending them with pot-laced Rice Krispie squares and jam band CDs; a Tea Party hopeful with pornographic intentions; a trio of badgers discussing whether making out with humans is a good idea) or just transitory jokes (a depressed astronaut tries to commit suicide by hanging himself, but fails due to the lack of gravity). In that context, the frequent callbacks to recurring jokes -- vaguely-defined immigrants from "Eurasia"; the tragic and untimely death of Fat Albert character Mushmouth -- felt more like a way to temporarily regroup and fall back on something familiar rather than a natural, unforced running gag.

Since so much of the show was spurred by audience suggestions, the solid, friendly rapport kept a somewhat informal-seeming performance from feeling half-assed. The L.A.-based performers dropped their fair share of Minnesota-friendly references -- Cub Foods, Grain Belt, the Kirby Puckett statue at Target Field -- without sounding like they were pandering, while their interactions with the crowd were refreshingly free of much of the wise-ass combativeness that often surrounds modern comedian-audience interactions. And even if the performers were relative unknowns, they displayed one crucial talent all improv artists must have: the unflagging ability to forge ahead through the awkward stuff, no matter how severely it threatens to derail a premise. They might have been a bit unpolished, but aspiring improv comedians benefit from honing their craft in front of an audience -- especially an audience as receptive and enthusiastic as this one.