April 4, 2007

Who’s Line? Cornell’s Line

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The Whistling Shrimp, Cornell’s improv comedy group, entertained a sparse but lively crowd last Saturday at the Statler Auditorium. From the venue — a far cry from the more intimate Risley Theater where the group usually performs — to the number of opening acts, it was clear that the Shrimp set the bar high for themselves with this show, appropriately entitled the Comedy Thunderdome. Indeed, there was so much foreplay leading up to the Shrimp’s performance that by the time they took the stage, much of the audience had probably seen enough comedy for one evening. However, the Shrimp still managed to impress with most polished set of improv of the night.

Ithaca Improv from Ithaca College scored big laughs as the first opening act. Although a number of its members were a bit too soft-spoken, the group was especially effective in prompting the audience to participate. Much like the show, Whose Line is it Anyway?, one member of the group asked the audience for a random item, like an object or an occupation, which the group then incorporated into an extemporaneous sketch. Full of energy at the top of the show, the audience erupted at every opportunity with a wide variety of random items: Beer goggles. Road kill. Oedipus Complex. Webbed feet. And then there was the guy in the row behind me that just would not stop yelling “gynecologist.” Ithaca Improv’s strongest bits were mock-versions of the Dating Game and Jeopardy. Cliché? Maybe. But they drew some of the biggest laughs of the night.

The next act was an improv group from Syracuse University called Zamboni Revolution, which failed to muster as much as a chuckle out of the audience during their entire set. Wow. They were simply horrendous. Unlike the last act, Zamboni Revolution refused to engage the audience and so we were forced to sit in silence as one miserable sketch after another dragged on. Worst of all, their token new guy was particularly aggressive, causing us to cringe with second-hand embarrassment at every botched every joke he made.

Cornell’s Skits-O-Phrenics, the only non-improv group, were that last opening act. Unlike the improv groups, Skits-O-Phrenics performed a set that had been prepared in advance, although their improv skills were put to the test when a number of music cues failed in the opening skit. As usual, their skits were always absurd. The comedy, however, was hit or miss. Some skits were a total bust, like one that tried to find humor in an owner having to shoot his dog. Others, like one in which two guys intimately stroked the floor succeeded through the simple ridiculousness of the performers’ delivery. However, my personal favorite was a skit in which two girls agree to go clubbing; then one of them whacked the other with an inflatable club. “I’m so wasted,” the victim said, apparently writhing in pain.

At long last, the Whistling Shrimp took the stage. What with their nifty t-shirts and an energetic entrance, it was clear that the Shrimp were not a group of amateurs. Their set suffered, however, because at this point in the show the audience was simply too tired to give a damn. The group opened with a mock-debate over two arbritary objects: balloons and razors. Throughout the sketch, I was impressed with how the Shrimp managed to re-contextualize these simple items. Indeed, I think the Razor team exhausted every possible variation of their object, including Razor scooters, the Motorola Razr, a Gilette razor with 30 blades and Occam’s razor. Their best work, however, was a sketch called “Gripes” in which eight Shrimp are given eight random things to complain about, which is no simple task when you’re told to complain about Darwinism or some guy you’ve never heard of. A Shrimp who complained about the State of Texas was especially funny; he pretended to be Oklahoma, lamenting the fact that he’s Texas’s “hat” and that the only thing he’s known for is the Trail of Tears and the Oklahoma City Bombing.

At nearly two and a half hours, the show definitely overstayed its welcome. Though I admit the notion of a Comedy Thunderdome initially piqued my interest, the event ultimately proved to be too ambitious to succeed. Furthermore, sitting in a close-to-empty Statler Auditorium was a little too much “dome” and not enough “thunder.” I hope the next show is in a more intimate space where one can shout obscenities at the stage without having the eerie sensation of sitting in lecture. Was the show funny? Sure. Too much of good thing? You bet.