All made up
We challenge Empire Improv, Reno’s long-form improvisation troupe, to tell its own story
We get some crazy ideas here at the RN&R.
First some background: Empire Improv, a local comedy improvisation company, constructs in-depth, extended narratives on the fly. Anyone who’s ever seen the TV show Who’s Line is it Anyway? or taken a high school drama class is familiar with short-form improvisation, skits and games usually aimed at quick, fast-on-your-feet laughs. Empire Improv’s long-form improv sustains this quick-thinking comedy for nearly the length of a feature film. In other words, they’re storytellers. They’re playwrights who perform their plays as they write them.
They perform a weekly show called “Hostel Greetings” at the West Street Market, every Thursday night at 8 p.m., usually two acts of about 45 minutes apiece. They weave surprisingly complex stories—with recurring characters, intertwined storylines and jokes set up in the first scene that don’t pay off until the end. Because it’s improv, the results are hit-and-miss, but when it hits, it’s hilarious, and even the failures are interesting.
Writers, like the editorial staff of the RN&R, are always impressed by capable and creative storytellers. I wanted to highlight Empire Improv’s storytelling knack and draw a connection to the kind of real-life storytelling that we try to do in the pages of this newspaper. Basically, I wanted to interview Empire Improv and have them respond in the form of an improvised scene. It would be a little meta-comedy experiment to see if I could capture on the printed page the onstage comedy of an effective improv troupe.
I went to one of their Thursday night performance events and said I had a challenge for them: to perform a two-minute scene based on a suggestion from me.
They agreed and were willing to accept whatever challenge from the stage, blind, without any prior knowledge. They performed their first act, and then, after the set break, they were ready for my challenge. Here’s a transcription of what happened:
Empire Improv performers Michael Lewis, Tim Dufrisne, Nick Delehanty and Doug Long are onstage. Intrepid reporter Brad Bynum is sitting in the front row, tape recorder in hand.
Lewis: Addressing the audience: “We’ve never in fact done this, either. What’s going to happen is he’s going to yell something at us; we’re going to do something that’s about …” He pauses when he notices Dufrisne absentmindedly sticking a finger in his own ear: “Stop distracting me.”
Dufrisne: “Sorry, there’s [something] in my ear!”
Lewis: “You’re blowing my mind right now, Tim. So we’re going to do that, and then we’re going to go on with the second portion of the show. So feel free to indulge, and to laugh where appropriate. I think that’s it.” To Bynum: “So yell shit at us.”
Bynum: Squeaky voiced and nervous: “So, just do, um … How did you guys meet? How did Empire Improv start?”
Lewis: “Hmm … You want us to do this as a scene?”
Dufrisne: Shrugs. Just a hint of resignation: “All right.”
Delehanty and Long step to the side of the stage. Dufrisne and Lewis pull out chairs—the only props the troupe use regularly—and sit down. Their body language indicates that they’ve instantly become less familiar with one another.
Lewis: “I met your friend Alex.”
Dufrisne: “I’m kind of pissed at Alex right now.”
Lewis: “I heard your tour … I heard your tour didn’t …”
Dufrisne: “He’s kind of a little bitch.” Realizing he’s said too much: “Don’t tell him I said that! I would never say that to his face.”
Lewis: “I don’t know him well enough to tell him anything.”
Dufrisne: “He’s a nice guy.”
Lewis: “You’re backing up a little.”
Dufrisne: “He’s bad to travel with. Bad to travel with.”
Lewis: “You’d think that the really tall guy would be the one that was bad to travel with.”
Dufrisne: “He’s good to travel with. He just smells bad.”
Lewis: “He does smell bad, actually.”
Dufrisne: “Well, I mean he’s got a lot to …”
Dufrisne: “Yeah. He’s 6-foot-9. What’re you gonna do?”
Lewis: “And the other guy …?”
Dufrisne: “He’s my favorite person in the world. I don’t know. I’ve got a huge man crush on him.”
Lewis: “That seems a little odd …”
Nick walks onstage with a cherubic expression. Tim beams with excitement, then tries to pass it off.
Dufrisne: “Hey Nick!”
Delehanty: “Hey Tim!”
Dufrisne: “We was just talkin’ ’bout ya.”
Delehanty: “I heard about that … before, uh …”
Lewis: “Were you eavesdropping?”
Dufrisne: “He does that.”
Like it’s all just part of his charm.
Lewis: “You were listening in?”
Delehanty: “I was just thinking, like, now that we don’t have TV You Can Heckle anymore …”
Delehanty: “What the hell are we going to do with our lives? Do you want to learn how to play an instrument?”
Dufrisne: “I thought about it. I tried to play piano, but I …”
Delehanty: Dismissively: “No, uh, that’s—you don’t get to call that that.”
Dufrisne: “You don’t get to call what I did trying to learn piano?”
Delehanty: Shakes head. “No.”
Lewis: “I think that’s what he’s saying. I think he’s saying you were so inept that it wasn’t even an attempt at playing the piano.”
Long jumps to the front of the stage and mimes Bynum’s “reporter on the scene” pose: Leaning intently forward, recording device in hand.
Long: “So at what point did Empire Improv actually start?”
Lewis: “Oddly enough, I was by myself—which [does not make for] interesting theater—and I was like, ‘Hey I miss doing improv, which I used to do in Los Angeles, I should do that again!’ So I called a friend and said, ‘I need a website!’ So he went—”
Long: “This is boring! This is not funny.”
Fade to black. End scene.
After the lights came back on, Dufrisne said, “Can we do another one? I said a lot of really mean stuff about my friend Alex!”
It was a comment that got to the heart of the problem with this little experiment: The glum, trash-talking character Tim was improvising at the beginning of the scene conflicted with the historical past of the good-natured guy he really is. (I’ve known him a little bit for a couple of years and written about some of his other projects. It doesn’t take long to figure out he’s a real teddy bear.) It’s nearly a contradiction in terms for improvisers to portray themselves. Improvisation is an act of discovery, not reenactment. Improvisers are skilled at inventing, not recounting.
A good interview, on the other hand, is an investigation into something real—not something made up. Journalists try to stick to the facts, improvisers invent their own facts. I’d hoped that this clash would make for interesting theater. I’d call it a near-miss, but the results hopefully provided a little insight into Empire Improv, their history and their creative methods.
Lewis did indeed start Empire Improv by himself. He’s an experienced improviser and alumnus of iO West, the Los Angeles branch of the improv organization formerly known as Improv Olympics that helped launch the careers of a lot of famous funny people, like Tina Fey, Stephen Colbert and Mike Myers. He started Empire Improv with the intent of developing an improv scene here in Reno. The focus of the company is as much on teaching classes and nurturing talent as it is on actual group performances. The company is now almost two years old, and their website lists a range of class offerings for the spring of 2010. Lewis teaches all the classes.
It was not long after starting Empire Improv that Lewis was able to develop a core performing group consisting of himself, Dufrisne and Ben Craig. Dufrisne had previously been involved in TV You Can Heckle, the defunct, Reno-based improv group referenced in the scene above and Legal Underage Pornography, a comedy zine. Craig’s background includes performing standup comedy and a stint studying with the famed Second City improv organization. He still performs with the Hostel Greetings group but was out for surgery when I stopped by to issue my challenge.
Delehanty, one of Dufrisne’s cohorts from TV You Can Heckle, and Long are both former students of Lewis’ who’ve recently demonstrated enough chops to be involved with the Hostel Greetings performances.
You’d be hard-pressed to find other performers who would be as immediately game for a challenge. After our experiment, the performers dove right in to improvise the second act of their show. From an audience-provided location cue about an Amish community, the troupe evolved a story about an ex-Amish stripper with serious daddy issues. An excerpt:
Long, Dufrisne and Lewis are miming three friends drinking and lamenting their lady troubles.
Long: “This is not very bro weekend-like right now. I want us to get back …”
Dufrisne: “He wants to go to a strip club!”
Long: “To that, yes!”
Dufrisne: “He wants to go camping and shoot things …”
Dufrisne: “And look at boobs. Can’t you see my heart’s broken?”
Lewis: “Have you seen Candy?”
Lewis: “What she does—it’s totally different from what the other girls do. And she’s really into me.”
Dufrisne: “Candy, the stripper?”
Lewis: “She’s an exotic dancer.”
Long: “She’s pretty hot.”
Dufrisne: “She’s totally hot, but she’s not into you. That’s her job, man.”
Lewis: “What she does—you can’t fake that!”
Dufrisne: “You know what that’s like? You know what that’s like saying? You’re a cage fighter. That’s like saying, ‘Oh, he must really hate me because he punched me in the face.’ No, he doesn’t hate you! That’s his job!”
Lewis: “It’s like that?”
Dufrisne: “It’s like that!
Lewis: “She doesn’t actually like me?”
Dufrisne: “She doesn’t like you. It’s just her job.”
Delehanty tags in. Long steps off stage.
Delehanty: “All right, boys, sit down.”
Lewis and Dufrisne pull out chairs and sit down. Delehanty struts to the front of the stage.
Delehanty: “All right, you understand it’s going to be 300 for an hour. 500 for two hours. If you want anything business, you need to pay up in front. I want a credit card as a down payment. You get me? Also, I think you guys both look very attractive.”
Lewis: Slapping Dufrisne in the knee: “See!”
Dufrisne: “That’s part of the …”
Delehanty starts dancing exotically. Long tags back in. Dufrisne and Lewis step off stage. Long sits down, puts his head in his hand.
Long: Despondently: “Candy.”
Long: “You don’t recognize your own father?”
Delehanty: “It’s kind of pervy, you being in my club.”
Long: “Why don’t you come home to your mother and I?”
Delehanty: “I’m never going back to that place. They have technology here. They have refrigerators. How am I supposed to dance with no music?”
You can watch that performance online on YouTube, but it loses something on video. It probably loses something on the printed page as well. In order to really appreciate improv, you kind of need to be there. But watching Empire Improv’s adventurous performances, their way of working without a net and writing without a pen, makes me want to take some risks, make some unusual choices, and tell some crazy stories.