The 10th anniversary festival showcased the next phase of improv comedy evolution at Florida Studio Theatre.
The 2018 Sarasota Improv Festival packed 20 improv troupes onto Florida Studio Theatre’s assorted stages July 12-14 for the 10th annual festival of unscripted comedy.
Performers ranged from Florida headliners, to national ensembles, to international sensations. The comedy they created was a gumbo of cheap jokes, smart jokes, shameless shtick and fearless risk-taking. To be fair, they did the same thing last year. But this year, they took it to another level.
Here are just a few highlights:
Opening Night: July 13
FST Improv Troupe launched into free-form folly. A spatula-wielding Joey Panek put the audience in a panic by singing the praises of potato salad. Patrick Jackson’s “Sister, There Aren’t Enough Zippers for Everyone” was also a stitch.
Second Night: July 14
Comedic legends Tom and Dick Smothers swapped stories about their relationship (brothers in blood and comedy!), the amazing talents their pioneering television show launched, and the hard-hitting, counterculture satire they snuck past the censors. (For more details, write CBS and ask them to either stream or release the entire “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour” on DVD.)
North Coast Improv plopped Bill Clinton into a Hamilton blender — and whipped up a hip-hop musical on the charismatic, sax-playing president who felt a nation’s pain — among other things.
ImproMadrid created long-form improv, along the lines of the Upright Citizens Brigade’s “ASSSCAT” format. Before the show, they politely grilled willing audience members on jobs and relationships. Their answers became five short vignettes, interwoven in a larger structure.
The performers of Dad’s Garage bent over backwards to get laughs. Literally. Improv demands flexibility. For this ensemble, it probably demands yoga.
Closing Night: July 15
The French farceurs of La Carpe Haute got big laughs cramming into tiny steamer trunks, which they pretended were cramped, one-bedroom apartments in New York City.
Baby Wants Candy brought down the house with “Barack Around the Clock.” Their on-the-spot musical explored a quest to reinstall Barack Obama in the White House. Evidently, a footnote in the U.S. Constitution makes it possible, but Obama vanished on a parasailing expedition. Various improbable characters sought him out (including Amelia Earhart and Virginia Wolfe). They ultimately decided that Michelle Obama was a better choice.
Festival festivities ended with an “All-Play” session. All of the improv performers crowded up on stage and did their best not to fall off. Theatergoers did their best not to fall out of their chairs when the troupes did their final comic jam session.
Improv games dominated FST’s first improv festival in 2009. Games are still a big part in 2018. But there’s a greater emphasis on sketch comedy, experimental long-form structures, characterization and musical mockery.
It’s funny stuff — and a higher level of difficulty. After all, you can’t cook up an instant musical without a clear idea of the musical form. And if you can stretch out your routine past a minute — and keep people laughing? You definitely know what you’re doing.
It strikes me this period of experimentation has a precedent: Improv comedy’s strange changes mirror the mutations of rock ‘n’ roll.
Rock started out with three chords, broke out into the complex noodling of progressive rock and then returned to the three chords of punk rock. Improv comedy has its own dance between simplicity and complexity.
Today’s top improv comedians have tired of the easy stuff. They’re taking risks and pushing the limits of what gets laughs.
How far will they take it?
Like the Smothers Brothers, they’ll probably take it as far as they can.