The Festival of New Formats: Thank You All For Coming, I Am So Drunk.

festival of new formats at comedy bar

I returned to Comedy Bar on Saturday Night for the last evening of the Festival of New Formats and caught three completely new concepts for Improvisation. The first was called “Mad Libs Wedding”, in which a group of improvisers were assembled onstage as though members of the head table at a wedding. The performers were all aware of what their roles at the wedding would be, whether they were the bride, the groom, maid of honour, mother of the bride, et cetera and they had all dressed accordingly. All the specifics, however, were determined in the Mad Lib style, by asking for words based purely on their parts of speech and then inserting them haphazardly into the set scenario. From there, once all the words had been inserted, the improvisers would take to the stage and improvise their Wedding Reception speech incorporating all the Mad Libs as they spoke.

The silliness began with the names of each of the characters, especially because they had been specified merely as nouns, rather than Proper Nouns, which led to the motley crew of Grape (bride), Applesauce (Groom), Disease (Emcee), Pioneer (Best Man), Pear and Smoothie (the parents of the bride) and Envelope (the Maid of Honour). This sort of humour continued as it was revealed that Applesauce had gone to Horse U (Go Panthers!) to study to be a bum, while Grape was very successful in her own Lice Business. The ingenuity of this format came in watching how these experienced improvisers worked to turn scenarios which initially seemed too absurd to be in any way legitimized, into opportunities for the expressing of emotions, the fleshing out of stereotypes and very quick and clever associations between seemingly unrelated concepts. In the end, the wedding reception had all the ingredients required for dysfunction including the groom’s gay father predicting his son’s future homosexuality, the all-too needy Maid of Honour, Party Animal Best Man, the random speech about Paranormal Activity from the uninvited guest, Bearcat, and of course the intense bickering parents of the bride. In a way, this format does not stray too far from many more conventional Improv formats which generally like to integrate suggestions from the audience and random phrases into the scenes; however, using parts of speech as the determining factors does create more of a challenge for the performers to find the kernel of truth buried among the absurd. It was a testament to Pat Thornton, Brendan Halloran, Graham Wagner, Gary Rideout Jr., Becky Johnson, Bob Kerr, Kayla Lorette, Terrance Balazo and Kathleen Phillips that all the speeches were not only random in the most hilarious of ways, but that each of the characters were all interesting enough to rise a bit above the cliché and the mad libs in the creation of a really fun, charming night at the Comedy Bar.
The second format that I saw was the one that I thought had the most promise for development into an ongoing feature. It was called “Everyone Hosts,” and connected nicely to The Sketchersons’ convention of having a host for their weekly sketch show, Sunday Night Live (also at Comedy Bar, Sundays at 9:00pm). The concept of this show was quite straight forward as Pat Thornton summed up nicely, “Any time you want to host, just host.” It consisted of a room filled with comics, with one or two onstage and at any point they were able to call another up and the hosting duties would be thus transferred over. The current hosts were also encouraged to give the next host some parameters or challenge for the ensuing set such as, “Brian Barlow tells us about the last sandwich he ate.” Some of these ideas led to wonderful moments such as Gary Rideout Jr.’s workout techniques including “What the heck? It’s your neck,” and “Holy crap the back of my arm hurts.” Amy Shostak (newly appointed Artistic Director of Edmonton’s Rapid Fire Theatre) did a vivacious interpretive dance while Bob Kerr recited poems about sleeping and Becky Johnson told a hilarious, whilst disturbing, story about a three year old’s first dance in a lewd dance club. I really like the idea of getting to watch a wide array of comics each taking to the stage in rapid succession, owning their moment and then passing the microphone over to someone else; as Rideout calls it, each one “pimping each other out.” I think it would be interesting to watch this format done with each comic reflecting on the specific talents of the other comics and then tailoring their suggestions to those particular talents, skills or abilities. This has the potential to show off each comic at their most unique or “best” and could guarantee an extremely well-polished show. Conversely, it would also be interesting to see the comics reflect of specific challenges that may prove especially problematic for one another, which would create a completely different show all together. It was also interesting that Ron Pederson was the only person to approach the stage and to assume his hosting duties, rather than waiting to be called forth by anyone else. I think the idea of having the comics calling on one another and coming to tag one another out adds a certain dynamic of tension, especially if the hosts are clear that the rules also apply to the audience. “If you want to host, just host”, after all. Once the third wall is completely removed, will chaos ensue? Is hosting like riding a bicycle? Can anyone do it? Let’s find out! What makes this format challenging is the fact that when you’re onstage at Comedy Bar it is impossible to see past the front row and therefore it becomes difficult for the hosts to remember which other comics are in the house and who has yet to have the opportunity to host. Although, it was funny to watch Becky Johnson call out the names of four people who were not in attendance before finally coming up with someone who could replace her onstage.
The last new format of the festival was Pat Thornton’s TICKETS, in which Pat, in the ticket booth, encouraged his audience to line up, as though they were buying tickets for a performance, and he embarked on an improvisational banter with each of them individually. While this “show” essentially consisted of Pat yelling at all the straggling improvisers who had been hanging around the bar, it does bring up an interesting concept for a show which allows the audience to engage in the Improv first hand, and opens Thornton up to the unpredictability of the non-performer, which could potentially be very funny for a surrounding audience.

Nothing is ever stale at the Comedy Bar, but the Festival of New Formats welcomed the most experimental, the most absurd and insane, all the most creative ideas and embraced them all with that incredible “why not, let’s try it” spirit of theatre that is so cherished and prominent in our country. Who knows what will come of these new formats in the future, but I’m certain as the festival is developed over each ensuing year that much that is avant-garde in sketch, Improv and stand up, will find its start at 945 Bloor Street West.

And furthermore, The End.

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