Sitting in rehearsal for Outside Joke, one of Yale’s newest comedy troupes, things are very far from normal.
The members begin with improv, running a traditional short-form game entirely in gibberish. Two players start to shout out nonsensical phrases as they chase each other around the room. One of them steals the other’s wallet. The scenes soon grow more and more ludicrous and indecipherable, but Shon Arieh-Lerer ’14, the group’s director, still insists on giving notes, even pausing the action to clarify the blocking.
He jokes that “we’re not interested in differentiating rehearsal from us doing stuff,” but that sentiment is belied by the very real effort that the performers put in.
The members of Outside Joke work against the very real assumption that every improv comedy troupe, at Yale or otherwise, is supposed to specialize in a certain kind of game with a very clear set of directions.
This is not to say that improvisation itself is dead, or boring, or false — there is certainly a lot of variation to be found within every specialty — but only that it has rules, rules which Yale’s two newest improv groups, Outside Joke and Lux Improvitas, are trying to break, whether by incorporating theater or turning comedy into an all-out performance art piece.
“It’s been a long time since anything new came along,” noted Joel Sircus ’14, the director of The Viola Question, regarding the improv scene at Yale. Looking at the troupes currently performing on campus, it’s easy to see how all of the traditional bases have been covered — and now two new troupes are looking to broaden the playing field.
The Ex!t Players, Yale’s oldest improv troupe, perform short-form comedy, which relies on the rapid-fire exchange of jokes. On the other hand, The Purple Crayon, founded in 1985, specializes in long-form improvisation, which means building up scenes, and sometimes an entire play, from a couple of suggestions.
To add variety, The Viola Question, founded in 1986, prides itself on performing a 50–50 split of both genres, whereas Just Add Water, also founded in 1986, is known for its long-form musical improvisation, which it added to its repertoire in 2001. But Arieh-Lerer argues that comedy can be found somewhere beyond those limits.
“We don’t have a set form,” he said. “We don’t always go for belly laughs. We’re more interested in the production of affect.”
“And that’s the saddest way to talk about what art is,” responded Andrew Kahn ’14, a fellow group member.
Outside Joke is committed to combining sketch comedy, improv and performance art, in what Arieh-Lerer referred to as the developing genre of experimental comedy. He and Kahn list the “Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!” a web-based sketch group, along with Andy Kaufman, Alan Sherman and “the letters A through W” among their influences.
The group’s first performance was “A Master’s Tea with Barack Obama,” put on in spring 2012. As Arieh-Lerer described it, it was “as if the Soviet Union had organized a very low budget performance without any element of a Master’s Tea in it.”
“Obama did show up in the end,” Kahn corrected, “but that was only a projection, and everyone on stage was dead by that point anyway.” The performance was about “how [our group] produces affect,” he added.
Arieh-Lerer spent his time in high school performing at comedy clubs in New York City and on a local-access television station. Recently, he opened at the Fall Show, showcasing his interest in recursion by telling a joke about a comedian telling a joke about a comedian telling a joke (etc.).
Outside Joke, however, started from one of Arieh-Lerer’s disappointments in his freshman year. He was not accepted into any of the comedy groups he tried out for. After meeting Kahn at an audition for The Viola Question, they decided to found their own troupe.
In doing so, Kahn and Arieh-Lerer recruited members from their own class, many of whom have a more traditional approach to comedic form.
“The group is not homogenous in what the group is,” Arieh-Lerer said. Or, as John Griswold ’14, who Arieh-Lerer recruited after seeing him perform at a Ezra Stiles talent show, puts it, “Shon and Andrew call me ‘the ambassador to the normal.’”
But overall, Outside Joke dwells in one of the most absurd extremes of comedy, stretching the notion of performance art in a way that’s starkly different from the standard campus fare.
“It’s sugar to get the medicine down,” Arieh-Lerer explained. Though it’s more fun, he added, to make the sugar bitter as well.
Compared to Outside Joke, Lux Improvitas, founded by Noam Shapiro ’15, Chamonix Adams Porter ’15 and Freddie Ramos ’15, is a step away from that bitterness, though its members still seek to define themselves as a novel breed of improvisers.
“We call ourselves an ‘improv theater’ ensemble rather than an ‘improv comedy’ group,” remarked Shapiro, the troupe’s director, indicating a stylistic focus that combines long-form improvisation with influences from theater. “Some of our performances are more comedic, whereas others are more dramatic.”
The group’s first show, a Jane Austen-inspired play they performed last Friday, fell on the humorous end of that spectrum, though the influences from theater and literature were evident.
“We hope to expand the audience’s conception of what improv can be,” Porter said.
Lux Improvitas grew out of Shapiro, Ramos and Porter’s collaboration on “Pick-Up Prov,” a Facebook group that Ramos created in September 2011 for people who weren’t in one of the four existing groups.
The troupe began getting together for weekly improv jam sessions, but as they all grew to know each other better, they decided to transition into a performing ensemble.
In order to do so, Shapiro, Porter and Ramos recruited several other interested players over the course of last spring. This fall, they brought two freshmen and a sophomore into the fold and Ramos took on the role of director for Lux+, an improv workshop run by the group.
“We had the rare opportunity to create our own traditions, techniques and group culture,” Shapiro said.
That striving for newness, on all accounts, seems to be a product of Yale’s comedy culture as a whole.
“Compared to other colleges, our scene is a lot more varied,” said Nelson Madubuonwu ’13, the director of Just Add Water, distinguishing Yale’s diverse offerings from Harvard and Princeton’s comedy worlds, which are dominated by one or two groups. He saw a similar range in his own group’s past, recalling how during their 25th anniversary reunion, he met alumni who could explain games that are no longer in the troupe’s current repertoire.
But within that same history, there has also been room for animosity and close-mindedness.
“We always heard that there were bitter rivalries between the troupes back in the ’90s,” said Zeke Blackwell ’13, the director of The Purple Crayon, “but we’re friends, we don’t have time for that.”
Blackwell went on to note that, even since his freshman year, he has witnessed a greater collaboration across genres and between groups. The Purple Crayon and the Ex!t Players have begun holding joint workshops this semester to meld long- and short-form games. “Improv comedy is growing nationwide,” he asserted, complementing Yale’s ability to adapt to growing interest and changes in style.
Back at Outside Joke’s rehearsal, the group moves on to their sketches. Max Ritvo ’14, who conferences in via Skype, asks to go over a moment in a scene again. “I think it needs more of the feel of a 19th-century boudoir,” he comments, “as if you are struggling with the very failure of language itself.” The performers’ second rendition of the sketch earns twice as many laughs.
Arieh-Lerer and Kahn see themselves going into careers in comedy, but have uncertain ambitions about the future of the group itself. They recruited two new members this year, a junior and a senior, but have yet to bring in underclassmen.
Kahn recalled a performance art piece the group set up at the extracurricular bazaar: “We redirected freshmen down a staircase where Shon was seen half-naked, crawling toward a box labeled comedy.”
“Most people were horrified,” Arieh-Lerer chimed in. “One in 10 laughed”.
Their last sketch during rehearsal — the banana song — sends up the traditional weaknesses of improv comedy. In it, an audience member is called up to the stage to perform in a game. No matter what that audience member does, he cannot please the members of the troupe, who all insist that he is doing it “wrong,” and offer other, clearly less funny suggestions.
The joke lands well if you’ve seen a lot of comedy shows and feel like it’s all been done, but improv at Yale doesn’t suffer from that fatigue. With new troupes pushing for invention, and established groups breaking new ground in their own right, the campus scene is fighting off any risk of becoming stale.
As Sircus of The Viola Question, pointed out, the successful members of Yale improv troupes don’t abide by rules or definitions. They all have “something” else.
“It’s like pornography,” he argued, paraphrasing Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart. “I can’t describe it, but I know it when I see it.”