Around the corner from the Hotel Lafayette on Louisiana St. you’ll see a big red arrow of a sign. It is well-lit & says, “Improv.” This is the home of Finest City Improv (FCI). Every week people get on stage & try to make people laugh, inspire & tell stories. They go on stage without a plan & living in the moment. That sounds terrifyingly badass. So on a recent Friday we went to check out the show.
For some reason we didn’t think their would be a bar. There was. Score one for comedy. Beer, wine & cocktails. Tickets run about $10 and a big boy PBR was $4 during happy hour. Craft beer ran $5-7. They also have food that comes over from one of the kitchens next door at the Hotel. Not sure which kitchen but it looked pretty good. The bar/lobby had a few tall, two-person tables to post up at, but it is a small area. Plus 20 minutes before showtime the place was already packed.
We went into the main room. There is room for 65, and a simple raised stage on the south end. Lights & sound were controlled by a dude sitting off to the side of the room. We grabbed seats near the back entrance. Watching the room fill up we were struck by how diverse the crowd was. Young, old, black, white, brown, gay, straight, other, big, small, you get the picture. Comedy has no census box limitations.
The show started with Gary the Hype Man coming out to set the tone jumping around to the Beastie Boys “Sabotage.” We loved Gary. He was always super pumped. Then an improv set featuring The Bear & The Hare, a male-female duo. After asking the (extremely enthusiastic) crowd for suggestions of mundane daily duties & settling on “Laundry” they riffed for 20 minutes. Switching characters, changing the plot-lines & expanding the world the word “Laundry” had given them. You had to pay attention to keep up, and they went on so long with it we wondered if they were really improv-ing or working on characters they had scripted pre-show (they weren’t).
Then more Gary before the main act “Hillary 4
Eva President.” The main act was a scripted comedy show imagining Hillary Clinton’s (Amy Lisewski) future first day as President. There were flashbacks, office sexcapades, a song & dance number by Chelsea Clinton (Christine Fairfax) and even a potential war with Russia. They packed a lot into the show. Despite being scripted there were moments that jumped out as being improv-ed including a moment where Hillary broke character to apologize to the light & sound guy for hitting him with a potted plant.
The crowd was into the show. Lots of laughter or booing at the right moment. They were getting their monies worth & became part of the show. The energy from the stage was reflected back to them by the excitable audience members. That didn’t include the one single older gent in the back with us who fell asleep…or had one too many scotches pre-show. There was a snore or two. And then at the end Gary came out to get us hyped for the later show or wish us goodnight if we were off into the muggy evening.
We caught up with The Hare, Kat Brown, afterwards to learn more about improv & FCI where she is the Director of Community Engagement.
SoCal Sessions: You’re called Finest City Improv, but also stage a lot of shows. Do you distinguish between Improv and Comedy Theater? What’s the difference?
Kat Brown: I think it’s all about our intent. We are all improvisers at heart, so even when we do staged shows, we have a fun and light spirit that goes along with it. Also, we are never afraid to riff on something that happens on a particular show night, even if it’s not in the script. What’s great about the scripted work that we do produce is that we always make sure to build in some piece of improvisation or audience interaction, so it’s truly never the same show twice!
SS: Being on stage with the lights on, crowd waiting and no set plan (i.e. script) sounds terrifying. Is it as terrifying as it sounds & what is the feeling or inspiration that keeps comedians coming back to the stage?
KB: Oh man, improv nerds geek out to this question all the time, and I’ve heard every possible answer for it. Chris George, one of our ensemble members, says that improv is the puzzle that he feels like he is always solving. The artistic director, Amy, loves improv because she loves performance but hates a script. I think what it comes down to is that improv is built on massive support. We say “Yes! And…” to any idea, character, plotline, or nonsense that comes up, and that feeling of always being so positive is really addictive. We would do it even if there wasn’t an audience or lights, but that certainly helps. (Editor’s note: A smiley face emoji was here, but…we don’t really emoji. Editing.)
We came anticipating a lot of crowd interaction but other than one quick suggestion at the beginning the first act (The Bear & The Hare) seemed to be two people working out characters. It was hard to tell if they were “improv-ing” or working out something a little more pre-arranged. What should people be prepared for when they come to a FCI show?
KB: Prepare to be delighted and surprised! For every improv team, there is an improv style. Some play big crazy characters, others may take you on the most beautiful narrative journey you’ve ever watched unfold, you may even see some sing! We have all variety of performers, our students take the stage weekly, and we host teams from LA and Chicago that have been performing for years together.
The promise is that we are going to have a ton of fun, and hope that you will too. The other thing is that it is all made up on the spot! The best compliment you can give to a performer after a show is that it felt a little too good to be made up!
For the last 40 years, SNL has had a hand in teaching America what is funny. We noticed some SNL character mannerisms throughout the show. Are influences something that, as comedians, you discuss when developing a show or characters or your style?
KB: You are spot on! SNL is definitely still the crowning glory when it comes to comedy performance and so many of us were heavily influenced by it growing up (Oh! And MadTV too!) We all have our improv idols that we take bits and pieces from that we enjoy. I think about Molly Shannon and Mo Collins, who I watched religiously as a kid, and how much their physicality and wackiness inspires me to play with the energy that I do.
KB: Do it! We promise you that the first day of improv class will be a little bit scary, but overwhelmingly fun. Our level 1 teachers are super supportive, and classes are made to just help you tap into your creative side, be a little bit silly, and laugh a lot.
Our community was and is built on those people who come from all sorts of walks of life who take our classes like an adult playground. It’s a really transformative and exciting experience to be able to witness people go through, you find courage and innovation that may not have been able to come out previous to an improv comedy class!
The Friday night we attended was standing room only, and one of the more diverse that we’ve seen at events in San Diego. What is it about comedy that translates across culture, gender or age?
KB: I really think that the fact that we are making it up on the spot means that people can apply their own stories to it. At other events, people might be stuck in their own head grasping for what they’re “supposed” to be feeling or thinking. In an improv show, you may see the smallest sight gag or character choice that reminds you of something you laughed at 30 years ago, and it brings you back. Also, improv was always founded in the idea of being relatively inexpensive and accessible. It’s the comedy for the people!
What is coming up for FCI?
KB: We have a book coming out very soon! It’s all about the transformative powers of improvisation and how positive “Yes! And…” thinking can change your world view. We also have expanded our business training offerings, to bring the joy of improvisation to companies that are looking for the ultimate team building experience. We are also having even more classes and shows, there’s always something new brewing over here.
Anything you’d like to add?
KB: Improv has changed my life! This community is bursting with people who are looking to have fun, find their joy, and make friends. It’s a truly awesome experience.
How do you review a show that changes every time? That features different performers, offers different experiences, has a different audience? You don’t. Finest City Improv is putting a wildly diverse comedic experience into the world with every show. You just go, have a drink & get ready for an experience.
If you are interested in the comedy schedule, classes, business improv opportunities or to buy tickets check out www.finestcityimprov.com.