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Improv is no joke for students: Honing the craft of drawing laughter on the spot is the goal of a group of high school students

Kristin E. Holmes
The Philadelphia Inquirer

 

The audience yells out the idea, and it's the job of the Last Laugh improv comedy troupe to make it funny.

The comics squeeze the jokes out of a scene starring a super hero known as "musical theaterman." He sings. He dances. He plots the death of the actor who beat him out for the part. In another scene, dating-game contestant No. 3 is the movie-trailer voiceover guy.

In a world where improv is the word, hilarity at a moment's notice is the goal.

If the hoots coming from a recent First Friday performance in Doylestown are any measure, the Last Laugh left them laughing.

The 13-member comedy troupe is based in Central Bucks and includes members whose comedy idols aren't earlier trailblazers such as Bruce, Pryor or Murphy. For them, it's about Seinfeld, Samberg and Carell.

Everybody in the Last Laugh is in high school.

Most of the members go to Central Bucks High School East in Doylestown, and two attend Holy Ghost Preparatory School in Bensalem. The teen troupe performs throughout the year at First Friday, for charity events, and at schools.

"Once I had to do a film noir scene that was set in the produce aisle of a supermarket," said group cofounder Tom Achilles, 16, a student at C.B. East.

Achilles and friend Matt Kline cofounded the Last Laugh several years ago after the improv troupe they had been performing in since seventh grade disbanded.

They had been members of the teen improv group the GiggleMill, based in Warminster. When founder Nick Bendas went off to college, the group broke up. Achilles and Kline founded the new improv troupe to take its place.

"When you get a laugh in improv, it's based entirely on you," said member Brad Ogden, 16, who attends C.B. East. "In shows, somebody can write you a funny line, but this is all you."

The Last Laugh is part of a steady wave of improv popularity. The success of performers and Improv veterans such as Steve Carell of television show The Office and Stephen Colbert of The Colbert Report has focused increasing attention on the art form, said Greg Maughan, executive director of the Philly Improv Theater.

Other improv vets include Mike Myers, Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, and many other current and former cast members of Saturday Night Live with roots in Chicago's famed Second City troupe.

"All these people have been very successful in comedy, and as they become famous and do interviews, word about improv started to get out in a big way," said Maughan, whose improv roots go back to a Michigan high school troupe that was censored by school officials.

Several members of the Last Laugh trace their improv roots to family history. Achilles' and Ogden's families have been active in community theater. Kline's mother is an artist. Ogden played the Beast in a Holicong Middle School production of Beauty and the Beast.

"When I went to Plumstead Christian School, they called people drama nerds, but I never had that experience in high school," Ogden said. "We joke around and we're nerdy amongst ourselves, but I think nerdy is the new cool."

Ogden wants to run a community theater. Kline, a student at Holy Ghost Prep, said he will pass on a performing career because he doesn't want to be "a professional waiter." Achilles wants to do stand-up, as does fellow member Andy Jordan.

At a recent rehearsal, Jordan, whose hero is the late comedian Mitch Hedberg, not only delivered a series of quick observational jokes in the way of his idol, but with his long hair, Jordan also looked a little like him.

"I"m trying to convince my parents to finance my college education in New York because I really want to go to comedy clubs and polish my skill," said Jordan, 16, a student at C.B. East.

Once a month, when the troupe gets together to rehearse, Achilles wields the bell. The ringer starts and stops action, and signals a change in scene direction or dialogue.

But the stage work isn't as on-the-fly as it might look. There have been scholarly books and curriculums written about improv, and the Last Laugh has its own set of rules culled from improv techniques.

They include: don't contradict your fellow performer; show, don't tell; and play the moment, building on the energy and material of fellow performers.

"When I'm with my friends, I could never say everything I think," said troupe member Allie Romano, 15, who attends C.B. East. "On stage, I can say what I feel and go all the way. I'm the same person, but extended."

But there are times when the performance doesn't call for a person, and when you do improv with the Last Laugh, rule No. 4 is to play the scene with unlimited boundaries.

"If the audience says, 'Play a rock rolling down a hill,' " Achilles said, "you play it like a rock."

 

-Taken from The Philadelphia Inquirer (August 12, 2007)

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