March 6, 2013

Whistling Past the Competition

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Two farmers tend lovingly to their crops, while a rival — and serial farm-animal poisoner — seeks revenge. A hillbilly neighbor and his senile grandmother talk way too much about unsettlingly sexual topics. A chicken, transformed into a confused human being, tries to peck everyone in her path. This isn’t an insane asylum, or a soap opera written by a resident of said insane asylum. It is just another day of practice for The Whistling Shrimp, Cornell’s most delightfully disturbed improv troupe.

The group’s most recent successes include receiving a berth into the College Improv Tournament National Championship — the “March Madness” of unathletic, but very funny people — and getting a particularly stubborn student to finally leave their practice room in Rockefeller Hall. They go to great lengths to create hilarious, original and absolutely absurd improvised scenes. As one might expect, being this funny requires a serious commitment.

For hours a day, six days a week, the Shrimp work to perfect their unique form of comedy, known in the biz as “long form improvisation.” In this improv structure, performers take a suggestion from the audience, then follow a strict set of steps: three individual two-person scenes, a group scene, a “callback” of the first three scenes, another group scene and an all-encompassing finale. Throughout these scenes, the group members work to establish the “game” of the scene, which, Keith Newman ’14 explained, is “basically the inside joke between you and the audience.” During practice, as Jessica Evans ’15 continued, “you have to think about it a lot more — there’s no explosive laughter,” whereas during live performance, “as soon as an audience laughs, you know you’ve found it.”

This may all sound complex, but as Shrimp director Keith Newman ’14 said, the form has had “a really big impact on comedy.” For an example, look no further than just about any syndicated sitcom. The concept of three separate, seemingly unrelated storylines merging into one final scene can be seen in Modern Family or How I Met Your Mother and has become one of the world’s most consistently successful comedic formats.

But improv can’t succeed on its structure alone; the form lives and dies on the talent — or, in this case, the depravity — of the performers involved. As is easy to see in their electric live gigs, as well as in their Rockefeller practice sessions, the Shrimp have what it takes … whatever “it” is. They also possess a rare chemistry. As Steven Breitenstein ’16 explained, “We come from very diverse backgrounds … well, we’re almost all white and Jewish, so not ethnically … but from our group we have info science, environmental science, ILR, English, oceanography, hotelies … which definitely helps with the comedy.” This diversity also helps the group to draw in a wider audience, as they can “incorporate intellectual jokes while [still catering to] the hotelies, [who] you know, have a much lower level of humor.”

The Shrimp, who will perform this Friday at Barnes Hall at 7 and 9 p.m. in preparation for their foray into the National Championship, take their success with a grain of salt. As veteran member Chris McGinn ’14 remarked, “we’re only this pretentious because we’re really, really good.” (Disclaimer: This comment was made in jest. The members of The Whistling Shrimp are in no way snobby, snooty, snotty, snarky, or otherwise self-centered.)

They may be ranked “somewhere between thirteenth and sixteenth” in the National Championship, as Sam Nadell ’16 said, but without a doubt, these crustaceans are number one in our hearts.

Original Author: Sam Bromer