Why Detroit’s improv comedy scene is no joke
New York, Chicago, Los Angeles. These are the capitals of the improvisational comedy world.
Everyone knows that.
But did you know Detroit has a remarkable history of improvisational comedy and a vibrant, growing scene?
General ignorance about this fact is not surprising. The area’s best artists often move to bigger markets for bigger audiences and more mainstream opportunities, but not before they cut their teeth in Detroit. And a new group of improvisers, supported by a loyal old guard and two emerging regional theaters, are helping to transform Detroit into a center for improvisational comedy.
For those who are unsure of the parameters of improvising, here is a brief introduction:
Improv is short for improvisation, which means that everything that is performed on a show is created on the fly based on an audience proposal. The stage is almost always a blank canvas – no costumes, props or sets. This makes improvisation a highly collaborative form of theater as the performers have to recreate the reality of the scene from scratch. If one person denies something that was said by another improviser (example: “This is not a carrot, it is a trophy”) then they cancel the others’ contributions. The most basic expression of improvisation is “yes and …”
First-time viewers are sometimes confused by what’s going on on stage because of their unwritten freeform, but awe, followed by passion, is as common as confusion. Improvisers use words like “magic” to describe how they feel while performing and watching. Paradoxically, this shows progress, despite the rash acts of the performers.
Pj JacokesPj Jacokes, co-founder of the Go Comedy! The Improv Theater in Ferndale described this feeling in a 2009 TEDxDetroit lecture entitled “Demand Imagination.” In the presentation he says that the self-critical filter must be switched off for large improvisations. “We’re as creative as we allow ourselves,” he says.
Improvisation naturally creates community because cooperation is required to create successful and ultimately funny scenes.
“The main idea behind improvisation is to say ‘yes’ to everything and to support the people around you with the common goal of making everyone look good,” says Jacokes. “It’s hard to be selfish and good at improvising.”
The improvisational community in Metro Detroit is strong. And grows.
In addition to Go Comedy! Do they exist Planet Ant Theater in Hamtramck, an intimate house that turned into a cafe and theater and opened in 1995.
“It’s hard to describe the soul of this space,” says co-founder and owner Hal Soper. “You don’t need a lot of special effects, microphones or anything fancy to put on a show. The audience can literally touch the actors and look them straight in the eye.”
In addition to improvisation and original sketch shows and pieces, both theaters offer improvisation courses in which enrollment is increasing. According to Jacokes, the class sizes of Go Comedy! Grown almost every semester and they recently opened a new training center.
Margaret Edwartowski is the managing director of Arts at the Y, board member at Planet Ant, and self-proclaimed “old, white improvisation lady”. She notices the self-continuing cycle of improvising. “As the number of people attending a class increases, so will the audience.”
Margaret EdwartoskiDespite the difficulty of owning and running a profitable theater, both of them have Go Comedy! and Planet Ant contributed to mutual success.
However, this wasn’t always the case with Detroit improvisations.
In 1993, the famous Chicago-based Second City Theater, which has produced a staggering number of renowned comedians including John Belushi, Harold Ramis, Bill Murray and Mike Myers, opened a theater in downtown Detroit across from the Fox Theater. Owner Mike Ilitch rolled out the red carpet when George Wendt and John Candy attended the premiere.
But Detroit’s weak economy made it a challenge to profitably stage Second City’s quirky comedy style downtown. Despite its core of loyal followers, the theater moved to Novi, where it lasted barely two years.
“That was the dark time in Detroit improvisation,” says Soper.
Judging by the talent that performed there, the product on stage cannot be blamed for the demise of Second City Detroit. Better-known members of the Second City Detroit main stage included Tim Robinson (SNL writer / performer), Larry Joe Campbell (according to Jim), Maribeth Monroe (workaholics) and Jerry Minor (SNL), MADtv). The most famous alum and a real star in the comedy world is Keegan-Michael Key. He grew up in Detroit, performed on the Second City main stage and helped open the Planet Ant Theater before joining MADtv and creating his own groundbreaking sketch comedy show Key & Peele.
“There has always been a really rich community of improvisers here,” says Jacokes, who along with Edwartowski were both members of Second City’s main stage.
Edwartowski and Jacokes had remarkably similar theories in trying to explain Metro Detroit’s amount of talent.
“The city has been a punch line for most of my life,” says Edwartowski. “It’s like everything else: it’s funny to make jokes about yourself.”
Jacokes believes this attitude has an added benefit.
“To live in Detroit you have to be an improviser, on stage or not, and get along with what you have. You have to have persistence. And in entertainment, you have to be hectic, book your own shows and get on stage go whenever you can. “
This collective can-do attitude, this feeling of common striving when placed in an improvisational context in which artists have to set up a scene in concert, is well suited to an improvisational culture.
In trying to describe the experience of a spontaneous, creative, collaborative act, improvisers lose words.
“I call this my” New Age “site,” says Jacokes.
“There is this matter of acceptance,” says Edwartowski and vaguely waves his hands. “It’s about feeling safe about where you can try what you want and having the freedom to experiment – and fail.”
“Staying in the moment” is an important concept for improvisation. If you are concerned about what is left to happen, you may be missing out on important details provided by your scene partner. And that attitude, argues Jacokes, is useful in building both scenes and life skills.
“I find it difficult to say where improvisation ends and life begins,” he says. In August, Jacokes basement flooded amid record rainstorms. “We basically lost everything. But I took on the mentality, ‘Okay, that’s what’s going to happen now. We’ll make it work and we’ll move on.'”
The ability to share these benefits with middle and high school students was the reason Edwartowski was so excited about the Detroit Creativity Project (DCP). She and a handful of experienced improvisers teach at the Detroit Public Schools and the Adjudicated Youth Centers.
“It can be a transformative experience for these kids,” she says.
In early August, the 4th Detroit Improv Festival brought improvisers from around the country to venues in Metro Detroit. A show featured troops from two schools that DCP operates in: Cass Tech and Bates Academy. Each troupe had their own set, followed by one from “The 313,” a group of Detroit-born improvisers who now live in Los Angeles, including Keegan-Michael Key and DCP instructors.
Then something “magical” happened. One of the DCP’s founders, Marc Evan Jackson, asked the troops to join the 313 on stage to end the set. The shocked students were allowed to share a stage with some of the most successful comedians in the region and the audience laughed.
“That night did so much for your confidence,” says Edwartowski.
Aaron Mondry is a Detroit-based writer and improviser. He is currently taking lessons at Go Comedy! and is playing a show at the Planet Ant Theater called “The Birth of Chad”. Follow him on Twitter @aaronmondry.
All photos by Marvin Shaouni.