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A laughing matter: the funnier side of theatre

As I read through the New York Times this morning there was an article that caught my eye. This Guy’s No Puppy Hugger talks about comedian Bill Burr. I originally had no plans to comment or discuss the article; I was merely reading it because I was curious. I find standup comedians fascinating and the type of work they do intriguing.

The world of comedy is a realm I know well. For the last 13 years I have been a member of an improv company, IMP Improv for Kids, as well as an active performer in several of the companies troupes. I started improvising in 4th grade, taking classes once a week. This class consisted of seven 8-9 year old girls. For some people, that would be a nightmare – improv with middle-school girls – but for our director and for us it was an outlet. We later all became the founding members of the companies middle-school troupe “IMPact”. Most of the founding members of this troupe continued to work with this company, many of us through high school. (Now there is just three of the founding members left, but were are still active members of the company). Our small yet mighty troupe was dedicated to expanding our knowledge and taking advantage of all the amazing improv opportunities that the US offers. During our sophomore year of high school, now members of the IMPers, we were accepted to some of the countries top improv festivals, The Chicago Improv Festival (CIF), The Boston Improv Festival (BIF), and the Providence Improv Festival (PIF). The following year we returned to CIF, where we successfully made our mark on the improv world. Jonathan Pitts of the Chicago Improv Festival stated that we are “…one of the best teen troupes in the country…” We have continued to participate in the Chicago Improv Festival since then.

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(The IMPers c. 2011)

Despite my knowledge of comedy and improv I feel like I know nothing about stand up. This is what attracted me to the article. After reading the article I realized that despite approaching comedy from two very different directions improvisers and stand up comics share a very similar view on the world of comedy. Comedy seems to be a place where controversial topics are more accepted. For some reason, the added element of humor makes an uncomfortable topic a little less awkward. The NYT article states, “In live shows, Mr. Burr details his grievances to large crowds with a conversational intimacy.” This is a prime example of how audience members accept otherwise unacceptable situations as okay. We, as people who work with humor have a really unique power that seems to be absent in any other performance style. Now, that is an overgeneralization, I realize that, but I feel it is true. Because this type of comedy is raw and unscripted we have the ability to voice our opinions and bring light to things that some people might not agree with or want to hear. With this freedom to essentially say what we want, there comes a power.

Although there is power in the humor of a comedy show, there is just as much power in the serious or less comical moments of a comedy show. Just as in a well-written scripted piece you have a balance of serious with funny, a good comedy show also has this balance. You need both to have a show stay interesting. This is where I feel stand up and improv separate. I often find that a stand up show focuses primarily on the jokes and the comedic element of touchy subjects. Although I am not sure I could do a show like this, I completely understand the validity in having a performing style that is like this. After reading through this article and looking back at my personal training I am reminded that comedy art forms are just as necessary in the theatre world as musicals and plays. It is just a different outlet for both performer and for audience.

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