Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Boom Chicago: Not as Loud as You Think

“Branded for Life” was performed by five actors who staged a series of skits, parodies and improvised comedy episodes for a live post-dinner audience of approximately fifty viewers. Presented in an intimate club settings with a raised stage, “Branded for life” succeeded in offering a wide range of below-the-belt, racist, and sexist jokes but failed to deliver the consistency, nuance, and style that identifies great improv. Although the only prior experience I had viewing improv comedy was the free SIMPS (Stanford Improv) show in a Stanford University dining hall, Boom Chicago, a professional troupe, produced more cheesy and cringe-worthy imitations of characters than did the student group. Despite satisfying the technical requirements of an improv show, Boom Chicago disappointed. 
            One particular actor’s choices seemed forced; she tried too hard to be funny, producing an adverse effect despite her efforts. Portraying an ad employee named Fleischman, lone female actor Marcy Minton resorted to making almost all her jokes about sex. She also overacted in speech and demeanor. Her greatest audience response grew from risqué references to sexual favors which her character repeatedly reintroduced into the dialogue. Emanating a hyper-sexualized archetype who talks in a bubblegum baby voice, Fleischman shrugged her shoulders, clueless, while cocking her head in feigned innocence. Although I was unimpressed by her uninspired choices, they appealed to a group of rowdy drunk bachelors who hollered out gales of laughter every time her character spoke.
            Although her artistry and imagination were regrettable, Minton’s performance was loaded with conviction. Though her onstage choices and over-the-top delivery may have disappointed audiences who sought a deeper and more sophisticated level of humor, this improv comedy is entertainment for viewers less expectant of artful production and more interested in cheap thrills. From a functional perspective, Boom Chicago enjoys a faithful following of easy-going audiences and English speaking tourists. After all, I chose to attend and found myself surrounded in pools of Canadians, Australians and other Americans.
            One of the scripted skits performed by the full cast (Rob Andristplourde, Drew Difonzo Marks, Marcy Minton, Sam Super and Lolu Ajayi) poked fun at the treatment of black customers at Apple stores compared to their white counterparts. Portrayed through a series of rapid switchback dialogues, Ajayi’s character received inferior service due to his ethnicity. However offensive or non-humorous the racial jokes of this segment may be, this non-improvised act was visibly better performed than subsequent segments. All actors were sharp and witty and this point in the show . But in later acts, their conviction and energy levels waned. Exchanges slowed and actors more easily broke character to succumb to their own laughter. It was initially enjoyable to witness the actors’ failed attempts to keep their composures but the novelty began to diminish as the gaffes increased.
            As promised, Boom Chicago was indeed improv comedy. But it was not spectacular improv comedy. Like soggy patatje speciaal (French fries) and lagging YouTube videos, Boom Chicago was neither terrible nor fantastic. Despite glimmers of creativity and impressive displays of actor fearless, the predictability of improv sequences dampened the show’s potential. Its weakness was its over-reliance on the politically incorrect. Topics such as racism and sexism became overused and quickly tiresome; any subtlety that could have made this improv comedy remarkable was overshadowed by crudeness.  Contributing to skits’ lackluster was an excessive use of pre-filmed parodies. Four videos were shown , consisting of what appeared to be rushed PhotoShop work and jump-cut editing, produced in an amateurish style. The content seemed to be ripped off from MadTV’s first skits or an early 2000 eBaumsworld* video.  It was ethically questionable to charge audiences to see live improv and then present a plethora of kitschy, pre-prepared interludes. I would have preferred a shorter show of pure improv theater. Though related to the marketing theme of the show, the clips seemed random and diminished audience attention. This was made evident by the cell phone backlights and spontaneous hushed conversations that suddenly manifested. In the darkness before me I noticed the silhouettes of slow headshakes and bodies rising from their seats, presumably because it was a poor moment for the show but a good moment for a restroom or cigarette break.
            This performance indulged audiences in the politically incorrect and confronted them with stereotypes and judgments that made me wonder whether it was more appropriate to laugh or cry. As the show continued the actors warmed to their audiences’ taste, leading to an increasing prevalence of lewd jokes that lacked creativity and oozed offensiveness. Entertainment appeal was prioritized above artistry. However there is distinct value in their approach to comedy. Boom Chicago accomplished the necessary aspects of its genre. After all,  few attend a comedy club expecting a family-friendly monologues using g-rated language. At a handful of euros a ticket, “Branded for Life” was exactly what people paid for, even if it was nothing to write home about.

*eBaumsworld.com, a precursor to YouTube, was known for offering cheap-laughs videos that often went viral. They were frequently painful, absurd, and/or low quality.

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