OU comedy, improv groups know how to knock ’em dead

Host Taylor Reinhart helped arrange The Over Hang's first comedy night. He spoke between acts at the show on Weds, Feb. 6.

Host Taylor Reinhart helped arrange The Over Hang’s first comedy night. He spoke between acts at the show on Wednesday, Feb. 6. (Evan Chwalek)

Editor’s note: Sources Taylor Reinhart and Hannah Ticoras are both friends of mine, though I tried not to heavily utilize them in this story. I reasoned that their impact was large enough in the comedy community that I could pretty safely include their input and not feel weird about it ethically.

The Over Hang had its first comedy show last night. Performers moved on and off the stage fluidly, some with drinks in hand, others with X’s inscribed, all gesticulating wildly on the purple-cast wooden stage at the back of the bar.

The short 5-10 minute sets were punctuated by introductions from show host and Blue Pencil Comedy president Taylor Reinhart, as well as pleas for some of the chattier people at the bar to, in essence, “shut up.” He told me that the dull roar of drunk conversation, which seemed to engulf the awkwardly arranged barscape at The Over Hang, was a normal part of playing bar shows.

The performers represented a diverse spectrum of talent at OU – improv performers, standup comedians, comedy writers, friends who had been encouraged to perform. The 15 comics’ subject matter, which lasted about two and a half hours into the night, covered a surprising amount of ground: Snapchat, LSD, Netflix, Edgar Allan Poe, missing nuclear warheads, stalking people who break up at Whole Foods, uncomfortable stories about parents’ online dating.

Former head writer for Friday’s Live Benjamin Nutter riffed on his own inability to eat healthy – “It’s so embarrassing when the mold in your fridge is eating better than you.” Matthew Albani, who hosts a radio show on ACRN and is a member of Black Sheep Improv, gave a pretty deep insight into Hulk Hogan’s sex tape, particularly the mid-coitus interruption to talk to his son on the phone.

The jokes were smart, current and quite often personal in nature. Despite the crowd of inattentive Over Hang regulars and bros that normally would have me running for the Union or Casa, I felt invested. I was actually getting an insight into the comics’ lives and vulnerabilities.

Athens is a strange place for the blooming diversity of comedic disciplines that has taken root here. It’s far-flung from the traditional hives of activity for comedians and improv performers – Chicago, New York, L.A. However, whatever discipline a young comedy writer or performer could look to get experience in, it’s here – standup, improv, sketch comedy, comedic writing for video, online and multimedia formats, whatever. As long as you’re looking to make an audience laugh, you’ll find a way to make it happen here.

It’s difficult to mention just one comedy or performance institution on campus and not the others – Blue Pencil Comedy, Black Sheep Improv, AVW Newstime, Fridays Live. The students in each frequently cooperate, and often are members of multiple. Many of them were recruited because of their answer earlier in college to what I’ll refer to here as “The Question.”

The Question can come in many forms. I’ve heard it before, and had absolutely no idea how to respond to such a flattering statement. But the one common uniting factor is that it is always said with a complete lack of pretense – not a trace of sarcasm to it.

“So… when are you going to try doing standup?”

It’s refreshing because the sometimes harsh culture of criticism we hold for media in this country frequently extends to comedic art and writing. That dream-crushing, negative “you can’t” philosophy is almost completely absent, though, in the bubble of comedy culture that’s thriving at OU.

Anybody can come perform at Athens Open Mic nights in the Baker Lounge on Saturday nights. Sets are workshopped briefly beforehand before setting young and veteran talent alike onto an open stage.

Freshman Tom Wade is a writer for “Saturday Night Live”-esque campus show Fridays Live and a member of standup student organization Blue Pencil Comedy. He said he’s never seen a more supportive environment for inexperienced students looking to jump into comedy than at Athens Open Mic.

“This can be kind of a double edged sword,” Wade said. “It’s nearly impossible to bomb, which helps new comics build their confidence and self esteem, and allows them to experiment with new material more often, but sometimes the best thing for new comics is to experience crashing and burning.”

“On the other hand, there are a ton of people with loads of experience who really want to help you learn to be a better writer and performer and will devote their personal time to helping you.”

Joe Skyrm is co-creator of The Onion-type campus satirical news source, AVW Newstime, and has been a member of the Blue Pencil Comedy stand-up student organization since he was a freshman. He and Reinhart, along with Hannah Ticoras, the president of Black Sheep Improv, are the embodiment of the supportive comedic culture at OU.

Junior Hannah Ticoras asks  an audience member off-stage what their "favorite part of being drunk" is.

Junior Black Sheep Improv president Hannah Ticoras uses the phrase “stay warm!” as a threat. (Evan Chwalek)

“Anybody who is even remotely interested, we want them to at least try [standup] once. I thought I would do it once, but I was hooked on it,” Skyrm said.

As a freshman, Skyrm said he just needed a push in the right direction to realize that he could do stand-up – which came from members of Blue Pencil Comedy n’e “Kamikaze Comedy” at the time. His initial motivation, though?

“I had come off from a break-up of two years and I was like, ‘what else can I do?’ I wasn’t doing anything. I would just do classwork and then come back and sit in my room and watch other standup,” he said.

Relationship trouble and self-esteem issues are common formative parts of careers in comedy. Skyrm said most comics have something that “pushes them onto the stage.”

Sophomore Jill Sermonte is a Blue Pencil Comedy and AVW Newstime member. She writes down jokes in a notebook she keeps with her – a practice that’s followed her since the fifth grade. She had a hard time fitting in at her small Catholic high school, which she described as “very Sporty Spice, which I was clearly not…”

Sermonte’s problem was that she had no outlet to express herself, an outlet that standup now provides her in college.

“In high school when I didn’t do any of this because it wasn’t an option, I was just a lot weirder. I would send people bugs in the mail just because I had nothing better to do,” she said.

That’s partly why comedy and comedic performance are a very personal pursuit. This unfortunately also makes it even more painful for comedians and performers when they bomb.

“Every good show feels like one good show, and every bad show feels like ten bad shows, because it’s just so painful to be up there for that five minutes,” Skyrm said.

“I do a lot of material about myself and so it’s like you’re really putting yourself out there, and when they don’t like it, it’s like they’re saying they don’t like you. It’s all the rejection you’re trying to avoid while you’re doing standup, and you get it while you’re doing it.”

Junior Michael Robenault, who managed to pack the front audience with friends from his frat, starts his set with a whole lot of Edgar Allen Poe.

Junior Michael Robenault, who managed to pack the front audience with friends from his frat, starts his set with a whole lot of Edgar Allan Poe weirdness. (Evan Chwalek)

Anthony Ellison and Ryan Patrick Dolan are both coaches for Black Sheep Improv. They’re also masters students at OU studying playwriting who met in the middle of careers in the Chicago improv scene. Improv is a different beast than stand-up, though both share a rich tradition in the art of audience investment. Laughter is just one tool in a performance.

“If the audience is silent, that means they’re listening, and you can go a while without a laugh, and then you’ll get a response,” Dolan said. “You don’t necessarily need that [with improv], you just need to make sure they’re invested.”

Investment comes from an honest transaction with the audience. This transaction often happens through a curious intertwining of tragedy and comedy. Wade said personal problems can provide an alley for mutual empathy and laughter between an audience and a performer.

“I do a bit about what it’s like to be suicidal and depressed. It’s not the ‘funniest’ bit I have by far, but… When it’s performed correctly, it causes them to empathize with me, and makes them want to understand not just my own emotional pain, but the pain other depressed persons deal with,” Wade said. “They willingly explore sadness with me. The tragic and horrific elements of those stories’ emotions are made palatable by humor and irony.”

Dolan said comedy can be a way to achieve a sense of catharsis and work through tough emotions in a positive way.

“I was a miserable human being before I moved to Chicago. I was really struggling with a lot of stuff. Moved to Chicago when I was 27. Then I was watching people perform or rehearse three to six times a week – and it changed my life.” Dolan said. For him, comedy provides “… a kind of a way to deal with life, and it’s a mechanism for defense to help you get out of bed every day.”

Ellison agreed, saying that improv and standup allow the performer to contextualize things into a skit or experience that is easily presentable. “Coming from a bit-centric frame of mind, you can think up funny moments about these things if you’re emotionally honest, and it will help the audience feel less alone in their struggles.”

Having supportive colleagues – especially in improv, which requires teams of performers working together in perfect harmony – is an important part in learning the tools of comedic performance. Ellison said that in big city comedy scenes, economics unfortunately play a role in improv group dynamics, meaning tight circles of performers are subject to the whims of both their own and theaters’ financial burdens.

As an improv coach at OU, however, he said he noticed career and economic goals are generally not part of the motivation to perform at all for students.

“I was amazed that improv had evolved out here as well as it did, and then that we could start with no rules and sort of build our own way of performing that suited the kids, as opposed to what a theater wants to make money off of,” Ellison said.

Sophomore Black Sheep Improve member Gabbi Thacker discusses an awkward experience  involving a pubescent mustache from her high school years.

Sophomore Black Sheep Improv member Gabbi Thacker discusses an awkward experience involving a pubescent mustache and an embarrassing video clip seen by multiple high schools in her area. (Evan Chwalek)

Sermonte recently joined Black Sheep Improv at the urging of friends in Blue Pencil Comedy and AVW Newstime. She said standup, and even comedy writing in general, can be a great launching point into improv. The reverse is also true.

“I think it’s because when you’re in standup [communities], you’re with comedians all the time, and you’re bouncing ideas off of each other all day. We think, ‘We should write this, we should turn this into a digital short,'” she said.

Ellison and Dolan both were incredibly impressed at the level of skill that members of OU’s comedic organizations exemplified when they arrived here for their masters work, Ellison two and a half years ago, Dolan just last month.

“They work on stand-up, improv, sketch and video coming out of here. They’re doing good work – they already have all the technical skills,” Dolan said. “I moved at 27 and didn’t know how to improvise, and they’re gonna go to Chicago, New York and L.A. at 22 and know how to do all of those things really well in front of big crowds.”

Dolan said that he would not be surprised if, in ten years time, “you would see them [OU performers] not only on TV, but also running shows.” That’s great news for Skyrm, Sermonte and Wade, who all mentioned futures aspirations relating to standup or writing comedic material for TV after college.

This is all the more fantastic of a revelation considering each student had very little formal training in comedy-writing or performance before they even got to OU. Dolan pointed to a cultural shift as part of the reason for the vibrancy of the comedy scene in Athens. With the advent of streaming video and an unbelievably diverse array of comedy accessible through the internet, a whole generation of comics and improv performers can be self- and peer-taught.

“There’s a whole layer of bureaucracy and having to move to a city that you don’t need anymore to build certain skills. They’re [OU performers] the same kind of people who would go to Chicago… And they have a certain level of intelligence they’ve been able to give themselves that in the past we couldn’t do because you’d have to go to a theater for it,” Dolan said.

At the same time it seems like the intersection of personal friendship, hard work and open-mindedness has helped comedy gain a foothold in the foothills of Appalachia.

“There are an insane amount of opportunities for people to get involved in comedy at OU. This is an incredible hub for college comedy,” Wade said.

Laughter is an easily accessible commodity at OU with the wealth of shows and concerts that happen on a weekly basis. On Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights of this week alone there are five different shows to experience. Black Sheep Improv have their weekly show on Thursday and are hosting a professional improv troupe on Friday, Blue Pencil Comedy have a show at Casa on Friday, and Fridays Live and Athens Open Mic will have their usual performances on Friday and Saturday.

OU comedians, performers and comic writers are really great at giving their audiences reasons to laugh with them – a great community, unique humor, honest discourse.

Back at The Over Hang, as the inattentive crowds flitted out into the night with the closing of the comics’ sets, I could see that community. A group of like-minded individuals clustered in tables around the stage, laughing and smiling, an encouraging buffer zone of fellow comedians and performers and friends. These students just wanted to make laughter happen, plain and simple, and they’re damn good at making it so.
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