The cult of improv
Finding freedom, community and a charismatic leader at the Sacramento Comedy Spot
On a recent Monday night, a dozen grown-ass adults jerked their arms as if they were practicing remedial tai chi under a strobe light. In the improv comedy students' minds, they were miming the throwing of knives, babies and angry cats—like that's any saner.
Brian Crall, the owner of the Sacramento Comedy Spot, watches as his students try to imitate how one would actually throw and catch these sensitive objects.
“Why did Patrick bend his knees?” Crall asks the class.
“You brace your weight because it's a fucking baby,” a student answers.
And in this way, the beginning pupils are inducted into the cult of improv. If you've watched season two of BoJack Horseman, you know that improv draws some convincing comparisons to Scientology. The signs are there: a pyramid scheme you pay into; a group of “friends” who all dress and act alike; strange rituals. Even improv performers themselves agree with the stereotype, if jokingly.
“We wear the same things, like jeans and Chuck Taylors,” Crall says. “And we do warmup things that are like being around a fire, invoking demons.”
When in a troupe, performers end up seeing each other two to three times a week, so they echo the same sayings and inside jokes. And those at the Comedy Spot help each other move furniture to a new apartment and share job openings, Crall says.
“That’s why people get into comedy anyway: They’re looking for some kind of community to support them,” he says. “You take a class here, and all the sudden you have these new friends you would never have met outside of something like this. … They hang out all the time. They end up dating, going out to beers, dinner, getting married. We have people who met here and have kids now.”
Interesting. That’s the same reason Todd of BoJack Horseman joined improv: because he was lonely. In a sense, he paid for friends.
But Crall is quick to point out that the Comedy Spot isn’t a pyramid scheme because it pays all of its performers on the weekends. “It’s a pyramid scheme that pays you,” he says, “which is why we’re different from most theaters in the U.S., because at others, they never get paid.” (Suuure, like any ringleader atop a pyramid would say.)
Justine Lopez was just an innocent theatre student when she was recruited into the cult of improv. Now, she does some messed-up shit on stage. “I’ve pretended to be Walt Disney jacking off in his room … while he was drawing Mickey Mouse. I’ve given birth as a queen ant and people were walking out from underneath my legs. I’ve done pooping scenes and just weird, weird things. A lot of dick and masturbation scenes.”
At a recent show of the Comedy Spot’s Anti-Cooperation League, Lopez pretended to be inside of the robot Voltron. Even though she hadn’t watched that cartoon growing up, she went along with it. Hilariously, when asked a question about the robot in the scene, she responded honestly: “I don’t know … I’m more of a Power Rangers girl.”
The punchline brought attention to the fact that Lopez was the only woman on stage. Improv and comedy tends to be a lot of “white bearded men in flannel,” she admits—the darker side of the cult. But Lady Business, her all-women troupe on the third Saturday of every month, is going gangbusters.
“We’ve sold out the past couple of shows, we have returning customers,” she says. “They love seeing all women performing because improv is such an all-male entertainment source.”
Lopez remains clear-eyed about the cultish nature of her art, but that hasn’t stopped her from buying into it wholesale. The improv concept of “yes, and”—agreeing with what your scene partner says and adding onto it—has guided her life choices lately. She’s said yes to things she never thought possible, like taking a day job and moving out of her parents’ house and into Midtown.
“Before, I would say, ’Fuck an office job, I want to be this creative person,’” she says. “Now I say, ’Even if I’ve never experienced this before, it will open more doors for me.’”
Yes, that’s right: The comedy cult’s webs are all around us, in such humorless places as the office. She got her current gig through someone at the Comedy Spot.
“Even outside the stage, we lift people up because we care about these people,” Lopez says. “It’s a relief from normal life because you would never jack off as Walt Disney in normal life. You get to be free.”