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Just Making It Up as They Go Along--Successfully : Improv: Stand-up's humbler cousin is getting some attention, thanks in part to a cable showcase. Participants like the 'rush' of 'walking a tightrope.'

March 25, 1994|CHUCK CRISAFULLI | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

On the stage of a comedy club, a three-headed psychiatrist is being asked what men and women can do to communicate more effectively. Each head quickly spits out a single word until a sentence is completed: "Give-each-other-plenty-of-hard-candy." The unusual doctor's impromptu advice is greeted with a wave of laughter.

The talking heads belong to three of the members of Wrought Irony, an improvisational comedy group that's been holding forth at the Laugh Factory in West Hollywood every Sunday night for almost four years. Each week the performers take to the stage without any idea of what they'll be doing on it, relying on crowd suggestions to guide and shape their comedic endeavors.

"It's a rush," says group director Mike Colasuonno. "You're walking a tightrope, and it's a very exhilarating challenge. Can you make something funny out of nothing?"

Compared to the brash street smarts of stand-up comedy, improv often comes across as something of a humble, flighty cousin. But while the improv and sketch comedy groups of the L.A. area make do with a low profile in the entertainment industry, the work they produce is considered within the improv world to be some of the finest in the country. The success of the cable TV improv showcase "Whose Line Is It, Anyway?" on Comedy Central has begun to stir some industry interest in the scene. But most local players say they participate in improv and sketch comedy primarily for the sheer joy of making stuff up as they go.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday March 26, 1994 Home Edition Calendar Part F Page 7 Column 1 Entertainment Desk 2 inches; 46 words Type of Material: Correction
Improv info-- Jennifer Coolidge is the Groundlings performer in the photograph that ran on page 1 of Friday's Calendar. She was misidentified in the caption. In the related story on Los Angeles improv, the wrong day was listed for QBalls Improv Comedy--the group performs Saturdays at 8 p.m. at QBalls Billiard Club in Pasadena.

"You get hooked on it," Colasuonno explains with a shrug. The improv veteran has a respectable day job as a writer for "The Tonight Show," but he continues to find the time to keep his freewheeling comedy group active. "It's hard to give up once it's in your blood."

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Actress Jennifer Joyce was hooked into the improv scene a few years back when she happened upon a performance by Los Angeles' best-known comedy troupe, the Groundlings.

"Before I saw the show, I didn't really know how to pinpoint what I wanted to do as an actress. But while I was watching the performance my heart started pounding because I was seeing exactly the kind of thing I'd always wanted to be a part of."

The Groundlings have been mixing polished comedy sketches with improvisational scenes for almost 20 years. Many successful comedy careers have been launched from the Groundling stage, including those of "Saturday Night Live's" Julia Sweeney, Phil Hartman and Jon Lovitz. "Late Night" host Conan O'Brien also once romped as a Groundling.

"When I came to L.A. in 1985, I happened to see an improv show called 'Instaplay,' " O'Brien recalls. "It was put on by Bill Steinkellner, who later executive-produced 'Cheers.' The group presented a musical called 'Beverly Hills Ninja' based on audience suggestions. It was one of the best uses of improvisation I'd ever seen, and I wanted to be a part of the improv scene. I got into the Groundlings program right away."

While working his way up through Groundling classes and supporting himself as a comedy writer, O'Brien was also involved with smaller improv groups.

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Los Angeles carries the reputation of being a tough town for theater work, and it's even tougher for improvisers to get widespread attention. An outpost of Chicago's famed Second City theater wasn't able to support itself here in the late '80s, and when the recent earthquake damaged Santa Monica's Upfront theater beyond repair, improv groups such as the Transformers and the Alumni Players were left without a home. (The Alumni have taken up residence for the time being at the Improv on Melrose Avenue, and plan to re-open at a new venue in Santa Monica by May 1.) Despite the obstacles, local groups continue to get by relying on volunteer or fee-paying performers and a strong but small core of customers.

"The audience support is great," says Dan O'Connor, who works as a member of Wrought Irony. "Nobody is going to make a fortune working in improv, but it's satisfying to see people come back again and again."

O'Connor is also the artistic director of LA TheatreSports, a group that takes the game elements of improv to wild extremes.

On Saturday nights, Theatre-Sports presents "Triple Play," a more dramatically oriented improv performance, and a recent guest performer was Mike McShane of the British program "Whose Line Is It, Anyway?" The show's producers spotted McShane in San Francisco, where he was working with the improv group Faultline. He's currently in England taping another season's episodes of the show, and then plans to move to Los Angeles, where he'll continue to improvise while pursuing his acting career.

"I love the quickness and cleverness of improv, and the fact that the audience participates," he says. "I love the give and take between the players and the audience."

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