Improv troupe "Swim Team" performing at Swedenborg Hall.
  • Improv troupe "Swim Team" performing at Swedenborg Hall.
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The guys onstage were Mike McFarland and Chris George, known as “Mike and Chris,” a long-form improvisational comedy duo.

On this particular Saturday night, they were performing at Sidestage Improv, a comedy club McFarland produces with two other improv comedians, Marina Mastros and Charles Webber, at Swedenborg Hall in University Heights. Tickets at this sold-out show were $5, with the promise of “FREE BOOZE.” (On offer were chilled cans of Crush and Coke Zero; bottles of water; red and white wine; and beer.)

It was my first experience watching long-form improv. I’d seen short-form at National Comedy Theatre in Mission Hills; to this point, I’d believed it to be the only type of improv. In Mission Hills I first saw McFarland onstage, as host and referee of the production’s small scenes and friendly, competitive games. With short-form, he explains, “every three or four minutes you stop and start something new that is totally unrelated. It’s very digestible — every three minutes the audience learns what’s going to happen for the next three minutes. Like a variety or sketch show, it’s a bunch of little unrelated things in a row.” Long-form, however, “is more akin to a narrative — like traditional theater, only it’s improvised.”

Comedy duo Chris George and Mike McFarland say with long-form improv, “The expectation is, ‘We’re just going to be entertained, however that manifests itself.’”

Comedy duo Chris George and Mike McFarland say with long-form improv, “The expectation is, ‘We’re just going to be entertained, however that manifests itself.’”

McFarland looks like the kind of guy who likes to go on hikes. He’s tall and lean, with dark hair, friendly brown eyes, and an easy smile; his resting face could be described as “mildly amused.” After ten years of performing and teaching short-form improv at National Comedy Theatre, he left to start his own club and pursue long-form improv as his new creative outlet.

“From one simple suggestion, [long-form performers] start to improvise a story, and that story will be much more recognizable as a traditional story, with a beginning, middle, and end, and it might take half an hour to tell it,” McFarland says. “It’s like a one-act play, only being improvised. Because it’s improvised, every show is funny, though the storyline might have a more serious undertone.”

Onstage, McFarland sat on a stool and assumed a coy, feminine expression. Following his partner’s lead, Chris George took on the role of a male suitor. Eagerly he announced that he was in possession of a condom. As the scene unfolded, I noted that the audience was mostly quiet, with the occasional titter. There was no raucous and rhythmic wave of laughter, nor was there any sense of an obligation to laugh. I empathized with George’s character, who, despite his mimed chivalry, seemed to be getting the brush-off by the “girl” on the stool. I found myself wondering how the poor chap would fare at the end of the scene. When I did smile, my amusement was comparable to what I might feel when a character in a drama movie makes a droll statement.

With short-form, McFarland says, “the expectation is that, in the next 30 seconds, the audience is [either] going to have to laugh or feel let down.” With long-form, “they tend to laugh a lot, but the expectation is ‘We’re just going to be entertained, however that manifests itself.’”

Comedy as Therapy

Most improv artists perform in teams. They spend a lot of time practicing together and learning to trust each other, because onstage each plays an equally supporting role to propel a scene forward. The agreeable, mutually reliant nature of improv is something that, in classes offered at National Comedy Theatre, Gary Kramer stresses as essential to the craft.

Gary Kramer (right) says improv is “easier [than stand-up] because the audience might be more forgiving,” but 
“harder because we don’t get a chance to rehearse.”

Gary Kramer (right) says improv is “easier [than stand-up] because the audience might be more forgiving,” but “harder because we don’t get a chance to rehearse.”

“If you deny someone else what they’re setting up, it’s funny for three seconds,” he says. Though he frequently performs, Kramer is also the artistic director for the theater’s mostly G-rated shows, during which improvisers play a series of games and scenes based on audience suggestions. It’s similar in structure to Whose Line Is It Anyway?

I spoke to Kramer by phone while he was in New York overseeing operations at the National Comedy Theatre, which he founded in the Big Apple nine years ago. Between the two locations, he produces up to 600 shows a year.

Kramer explains what he means. “If I say, ‘Hey, Mom, can you help me with my homework?,’ and you say, ‘I’m not your mom, I’m your dad,’ everyone will laugh. But then everything else goes away. You might get a laugh, but it blows up the scene.” For a scene to work, all team members must abide by the “central idea of agreeing and moving forward.”

This basic tenet makes improv games ideal for team-building workshops — National Comedy Theatre offers such workshops to corporations and organizations — but learning and practicing improv also benefits troubled kids.

Michael Maury and Ashley McGuire of LifePlay use improv comedy to help kids “explore self-expression, learn conflict resolution, and gain confidence.”

Michael Maury and Ashley McGuire of LifePlay use improv comedy to help kids “explore self-expression, learn conflict resolution, and gain confidence.”

“The number-one rule of improv is yes, and,” says Ashley McGuire, founder and CEO of LifePlay Productions, a local organization that offers programs for children and adults that use theater to “explore self-expression, learn conflict resolution, and gain confidence.” With improv (for the reasons Kramer outlined), saying no to any newly improvised information is forbidden.

One of the afterschool programs LifePlay provides is an anti-bullying workshop. It relies heavily on that first rule. “Comedy is owning who you are and finding the humor in your life,” McGuire says. “If someone says, ‘Oh, you’ve got braces, ha-ha,’ you can say, ‘Yes, and when I’m 20, I’m going to have beautiful teeth.’”

One of LifePlay’s teaching artists is San Diego Regional Director Michael Maury, who also performs regularly at National Comedy Theatre. Maury specifies that while he’s not a therapist, in his experience working with kids, “you’re able to tear down walls through comedy that you might not be able to tear down through a therapy session. If you’re able to help people dig into what ails them within, whatever pain they have, and face that through laughter, it’s cathartic.”

Maury describes one kindergartener whose father was deployed in the military, and how the girl’s need for attention had become disruptive. “When dad or mom is away, they feel it. Kids are trying to communicate how they’re feeling, but they don’t know how to put it into words. Improv allows an outlet for them to express themselves. Maybe they’re feeling angry — they can play an angry character and let it all out.” By giving each child equal time to share, Maury helped diminish the young girl’s desperation to always be front and center.

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Comments

rosebath July 17, 2013 @ 2:16 p.m.

Great article! This is one step further towards educating San Diego about different types of comedy. If you are interested in learning improv, there are plenty of place to do so! As mentioned, there's National Comedy Theatre, as well as now Sidestage Improv and Finest City Improv. The latter two focus on long-form improv which is mentioned in the article. It goes beyond the kind of improv you see on Whose Line.

Improv teaches you a great philosophy to live by in which you learn that collaboration can open the doors of creativity. Additionally, you see that a mistake can become a gift which helps one to tear down the defenses that we create to not "look bad" in front of others.

Besides that, it's a lot of fun! It's a great way to meet people. The improv community keeps growing in San Diego, and it's a fantastic place to connect with creative, fun, and unique types of people.

If you are looking for a new hobby or to mix things up, definitely check out a show (all of the above theaters have FB pages) or take a class! I did six years ago, and haven't looked back sense.

Great to see this article out and about!

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Barbarella Fokos July 18, 2013 @ 9:18 a.m.

I'm seriously thinking about taking a class sometime. It just sounds like a fun way to hone some life skills and keep your wits up. Also, there are very, very few things in life I take seriously. ;)

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Danielle Heckman July 17, 2013 @ 5:19 p.m.

Great article! LifePlay Productions sounds like the kind of thing I would have loved when I was a kid.

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Barbarella Fokos July 18, 2013 @ 9:19 a.m.

Thank you! And yes, I kind of wish I'd had that kind of anti-bully support in my arsenal as a kid. They do a lot of other things over there at LifePlay that give kids real coping mechanisms for, well, life.

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chenmingi July 21, 2013 @ 9:37 a.m.

I like the article! Some of the funniest bits I've seen have been in improv comedy, not stand-up. LIke you point out, the stand-up comics are more rehearsed and so improv skills can help them if (or when?) they start to bomb. When many stand-up types get a little off, they get obviously desperate and then start dropping f-bombs or go for low humor. Yawn. Sure, that gets a little laugh, and then can get pitiful and a little sad. That's when I get up and leave. With improv, their being in the moment can be deeply funny and have me laughing about their bits months or years later. They don't seem to see the audience as hecklers out to get them, and instead thrive on connecting with their audience. Great work on sharing some fun stuff.

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AshleyMcGuire July 22, 2013 @ 10:05 p.m.

Thanks so much for a fantastic article that shows the many sides of improv! I love a great improv show (no way to see the same thing twice!), and I really admire how aware of self, others, and relationships improvisers must be to be successful. We at LifePlay are so grateful to Barbarella for her interest in the innovative work we're doing with improv and creating peace in our little neck of the woods.

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frodoblk July 23, 2013 @ 2:40 p.m.

I was feeling forlorn that there was no Barbarella, then I realized there was. Awesome. Girl you a very versatile and you made the innards of comedy interesting. Makes me want to see some shows and take a class. Thank you, thank you, thank you

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Barbarella Fokos July 23, 2013 @ 3:06 p.m.

Aww, thank you! Yes, my column is now at every other week, but I'll try to fill in the gaps wherever I can. And I appreciate your reading, and your support. :)

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dwbat Dec. 29, 2013 @ 12:52 p.m.

A couple of blocks from my place in North Park there's an improv training center and theatre. Has anyone checked it out yet? If so, somebody post a review!

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