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Arts and Entertainment Wednesday, Dec. 11, 2019 9 months ago

'Last Laugh' puts audience members on hot seat

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Florida Studio Theatre troupe takes improv in a new direction.
by: Marty Fugate Contributor

Florida Studio Theatre has tons of improv options, and they’re constantly making more. “Last Laugh” is their latest flavor. The format is simple. A guest relates an anecdote, ideally humorous. The FST improv troupe uses it as a springboard for sketch comedy.

They asked me to participate. Why not? I showed up at Bowne’s Lab for the first show on Nov. 19. Sarah Durham, Chris Friday, Will Luera, Elise Rodriguez, Kyle Shoemaker and Anna Weatherwax comprised the cast. Sergei Glushonkov created a soundtrack with a keyboard. Luera also moderated.

My story was about an embarrassing childhood incident. Under the delusion of launching my career as a rock star, I sang the theme to “Fireball X-L5” to my entire elementary school. I figured this syrupy ode to marionettes in space would make me famous. It did, but not in a good way. Needless to say, I didn’t become a rock star.

Luera invited me up on stage. I told my tale and got a few laughs. The improv comedians then quizzed me as to how I became a critic. I informed them that, unlike contractors and nail technicians, there’s no license and I didn’t have to pass a test. You become a critic by saying, “I’m a critic.” It’s that whole First Amendment thing.

FST’s funny people took that material and ran with it. But not in the direction I thought they’d go.

No reenactments of my poor-me story.

Nope.

In an improbable audition, various actors then sang the themes to “Full House,” “Duck Tales” and other TV shows. Durham kept asking for, “More jazz hands.” Weatherwax played a lousy impressionist with delusions of grandeur; Luera played the husband who humored her. (A friend told her he’d secretly dissed her Obama imitation.) The troupe imagined a hellish final exam at critic academy. Friday portrayed a hard-nosed instructor straight out of “Full Metal Jacket.” One graduate wound up in a make-believe Sarasota that “smells like positivity,” a happy, positive place where nobody ever complained.

Applause.

Pretty cool. A tough act to follow, eh?

But the next act was out of my league.

First, the next guest was a pro. Greg Hollimon. I’d seen his face before; heard his basso profundo voice. Couldn’t place it at first, then I did. I’d seen him on TV. “Strangers with Candy,” on Comedy Central in the late 1990s. One of the funniest, gutsiest comedy shows of all time.

So, Hollimon got up on stage and shared his anecdote. It blew my little story out of the water.

Hollimon had been on a Second City tour with Sedaris, Colbert and other luminaries. They arrived in snowy Aspen. Late at night. A no-room-at-the-inn situation. In lieu of a manger, Hollimon and another comic found accommodations in a converted storage shed. It seemed OK. On closer inspection, Hollimon discovered hidden porno—including a stash of VHS tapes starring the landlord.

Puppets vs. porno? There’s just no contest.

Armed with Hollimon’s material, the FST improv troupe kicked into surreal action. Hollimon being Hollimon, he joined in. First, a series of scenes where porno pops up on all sides. The comedy quickly veered away from porno. In a scene with Hollimon, Luera played a hit man who was scared of sleeping alone. Weatherwax and Luera reprised the couple. Luera got the last word — and the last laugh. “Honey, your Obama imitation is amazing.”

I had a blast. Hollimon had a blast. The audience did, too. It’s a very funny show. Where does the laughter come from?

According to Luera, from the stories. But they don’t do literal recreations on stage. They use each story as a springboard for free-association. How?

“We draw on three elements from each story: specific details, themes, and the storyteller’s mannerisms. In the first act, two actors latched onto the physicality of your imitation of the marionettes. In Hollimon’s story, he mentioned that his roommate was terrified of sleeping alone after seeing the stash of porno. I thought, ‘What’s the most ridiculous profession where somebody would be afraid of that?’ and I came up with ‘hit man.’”

The show moves so quickly, it’s easy to forget that the actors are making it up as they go along. As free-form as it is, the show has structure. Characters, motivation, scene construction, tension and resolution. The performers do what writers do. They’re writing the scenes in their heads and performing them simultaneously.

I had fun watching the actors riff on a story from my life. Watching them do it with somebody else’s story? That’s fun too. Ego appeal isn’t the main point. Experimentation is. FST’s improv troupe isn’t content with rehashing the 1990s improv of “Whose Line is it Anyway?” They’re constantly reinventing the art form. And that’s always the most fun.

Who gets the last laugh?

“The audience,” says Luera. “Who else?”

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