November 9, 2004

Critic to campus jokesters: Stop this world, I want to get Off-Off

The comedic universe has been cruel to us this past year: Friends went off the air, that Charlie Sheen sitcom is still on the air, Rodney Dangerfield died, and the funniest movie to come out this summer was Catwoman. To make matters worse, the gods of humor played the biggest cosmic joke on the United States with last Tuesday's elections—well, it probably looked funny to them. Seriously, we need laughter right now.

Luckily for U of C students, they don't have to perform human sacrifices to said gods of humor for a little laughter. Off-Off Campus, one of the oldest college improv troupes in the nation, is conveniently located at the Blue Gargoyle, on the corner of 57th Street and University Avenue. Started by the founder of Second City (who was a U of C alum), Off-Off has been the springboard for rising actors and playwrights, trying to resurrect fun in Hyde Park since 1986. Its current revue, The House that Crack Built, directed by Ramiro Castro, features transvestitism, drug abuse, manic-depressive behavior, Native American culture, and Dunkin' Donuts, courtesy of a group of hyperactive U of C performers. And that was just last week.

Not a troupe to repeat performances, Off-Off is having a different show every Friday during its run from 4th through 7th weeks. There's nothing to fear about this 18th generation having lost any of its creativity or purpose. This great cast (Harish Amirthalingam, Rachel Austin, Cara Clifford, Dana Kroop, Simone Martin-Newberry, Jesse Robbins and Ben Tuber) has wisely mastered the Jedi secrets of comedy: the funniest jokes are the ones that don't require you to think.

This is fitting at a college where academia is king. UC students need time for their brains to relax and comedy that doesn't require that much intellectual strain. On a Friday night people don't want to think about Wittgenstein or relate back to the Algonquin Round table for humor (and if that is your type of humor, then you lead a sad, detached existence). None of that witty, highbrow Frasier shit here (thank God), but also no pratfalls, no fart jokes, and no dependency on making fun of politicians, actors, or other pop celebrities who really don't deserve to be famous. Sorry, Family Guy fans, but I don't get all the pop-culture references on that show.

Not that this means Off-Off isn't intelligent in how it presents its humor. Like the best comedy groups, they know not to take themselves seriously. If no one has learned this from Monty Python, then maybe Western civilization is declining. Though this show was "long form," meaning the skits featured the same characters and improvised story lines without much audience interaction (which I did miss greatly), the Off-Off performers were still trying to devise new ways of breaking the fourth wall with weapons of mass destruction.

The skits themselves are improvised by the actors right on stage, so don't actually think of the skits as one continuous storyline; think of it as an drug-induced dream that Off-Off is giving you with a free cast of characters. It's what the actors do, not what situation they're in, that makes the show humorous. And this group looks like they're ready to test their improv skills. Actors react to flubs with ease and place themselves in whatever skits they feel like being in. (Good example: a character was asked to show what America used to be—the flashback was at a dance club with Ben Franklin and Betsy Ross, just chillin'.) It seems to me that Off-Off plays by the rules set in the Animaniacs theme song: "The writers flipped, we have no script, why bother to rehearse!" And don't make fun of me for knowing that.

Harish and Ben deserve praise for last week's transgender-bending performance. As the only two men in the cast, they really didn't play men throughout most of the show. Best line from their skit, with Vampy (Ben) talking to Grandma (Harish): "You're an old lady, and I'm a young man-lady." Also special kudos to Dana Kroop, who apparently injured her foot during last week's performance and still stayed through the entire show. If that isn't dedication, folks, I don't know what is.