Give Me Libs
At the Ad-Libs 25th anniversary show, the improv wasn’t always on, but the highlights were worth waiting for.
published Monday, January 16, 2012
Comedic improv has distinguished roots, reaching back to 16th century Commedia dell’arte and 1890s founders of acting theory such as Konstantin Stanislavski. Much later, Viola Spolin and Keith Johnstone standardized that line of thought in a way that comedic minds found perfect, culminating in The Second City group-style spontaneity that brings quick insight into situational humor.
Not much of that depth was on view at the Ad-Libs‘ 25th All-Star Reunion Show Saturday night at Mouth in Deep Ellum (it was also performed Friday). Ad-Libs presents improvisation in a games-style format with competing teams. In the comedic tradition of Wait Wait…Don‘t Tell Me! and Whose Line is It Anyway?, the points are mostly meaningless. The audience is instructed on how to call “fouls” on the stage action, but being passive Dallas audiences they abstained, at least at the early Saturday show.
Games improv is not my favorite form. In the comedy judgment chain, long-form improv frowns on short-form that frowns on games. Moot point, really. Games are fully removed from improv’s theatre roots and are meant to be light entertainment, great for group dates and birthday parties. The basic format is to get audience members to shout out a one-word suggestion of a place, activity or genre that comics use to launch a scene.
Ad-Libs 25th anniversary show brought back performers launched from the group’s improv school that went on to varied levels of success. The Greg Wilson (yes, with a The), plies his trade as a character actor and bawdy stand-up in Los Angeles. Kurt Basa, now also in LA, has been picking up some choice acting gigs. In Dallas, Joel Zeff works the corporate speaking and commercial actor field and Bill Cochran is a big-star creative director at the Richards Group. Ad-Libs regulars Chris Smith, also of the Richards Group, held down the show, and Mike Mayberry served up several tart zings as emcee.
But sports improv works best with lean, hungry, 20-something comedians, not successful professionals comfortably in their niche. For this group of old-timers, the more highly structured improv formats worked best. In one style, three comics answered a question, from the audience of course, each comic in sequence offering one word. The choppiness became a rhythm after a while and a personality for the 3-headed beast arose. It was a joy to watch them feeding each other set-ups and punchlines, along with bits of playful trickery.
Musical numbers worked best of all, allowing the boy-men’s inherent silliness to run amok. All that was needed was an audience suggestion of Jazzercise as a musical style to unleash bad drag costumes and doofus dancing that left them all gasping at the end. Wilson came out in a gold lamé top and Star Wars underwear, the latter prompting the emcee to remember that Wilson was the youngest performer to join Ad-Libs.
The highlights were fortunate because the lows were awfully low. Ad-Libs members defaulted way too quickly to the hoary old triumvirate of drugs, sex (especially speculations on the size of genitalia), and ear-splitting rock ‘n’ roll played whenever comedians were not on stage. Even lower were the easy defaults to jokes about ugly women and stupidity about gay men.
It may have been the crowd. NFL play-off games made a considerable dent in attendance. A Jesus figure, played by Cochran, and possessing a direct line to Tebow, dropped in periodically to give game updates via his cell phone.
A saving grace to the evening was Joshua Diamond, who’s done time as musical director of The Second City in Chicago and Las Vegas. His musical riffs, accents and interjections were always clever and right on target.