The thought of Pee-Wee Herman’s conception could cause even Wes Craven to suffer nightmares. Fortunately for evolution, Pee Wee wasn’t the offspring of a manic female circus performer/part-time serial killer who caught Mr. Rogers wearing beer goggles. Pee Wee was born of several minds, all assembled together on stage in Los Angeles, within an improvisational comedy group called The Groundlings. Paul Reuben and Phil Hartman were Groundling members who performed together, show after show, to develop the character we’d all come to associate with a playhouse from hell. More recently (mid-’90s) born from the troupe was the androgynous character Pat, created by Groundling member Julia Sweeney.
The beauty of the time-tested improv troupe, now more than 30 years running, is the interaction between a small group of talented actor/comics who perform together unscripted, and their ability to take random suggestions from the audience and create Something. Sometimes, Something equals creative magic (yes, Pee Wee falls into this category). A show that doesn’t often travel, according to current Groundling member Jordan Black, is featured in Improvapalooza 8 at the Kentucky Center this weekend.
Black is an accomplished actor, having performed in film (“For Your Consideration,” “Bewitched”) and television (“According to Jim,” “Punk’d”), including his current role as Sebastian “C-Bass” Yates on Comedy Central’s “Halfway House.”
“We’re going to perform the ‘Crazy Uncle Joe Show’ in Louisville,” he says. “The Crazy Uncle Joe Show” was, like famous Groundling-born characters, not intended for repeat performance. “We first did it in 2001 and it was very different for us. We liked it, performed it again over a few months, and the audience liked it, so it eventually became a regular show,” Black says. It’s now performed every week in L.A. by various Groundling members. A team who have worked together frequently regroups in Louisville for two performances. Black will be joined by Candace Brown (“The Sarah Silverman Show” pilot), Drew Droege (“Reno 911!”), Kevin Berntson (“ER,” “Monk”) and Colleen Smith (correspondent for “The Showbiz Show” with David Spade, “The Office”).
With talented comics sharing a stage, the competition for laughs, one might think, could get ugly. But in improv, that’s not the point. “We’re not competitive at all,” Black says. “In short-form improv, we might be more likely to try to one-up each other, try to get the other to stumble. But in long-form, like in ‘Crazy Uncle Joe,’ our challenge is to constantly create story from a few initial audience suggestions. The audience creates the scene, the character, and we build around that. If the story comes to a lull, somebody has to pick it up and hopefully keep it funny.”
The challenge to keep it funny puts these comics in some gigantic shoes … gigantic elf shoes even. Will Ferrell was a Groundling (only 30 active Groundlings are permitted at a time; actors like Ferrell simply “move on”), and has worked with Black. “Will is one of those actors still amazing at improv. He performed in ‘Crazy Uncle Joe’ with us, and he was excellent.” Eddie Izzard recently did a guest spot with “Uncle Joe” as well.
Other Groundlings who have moved on (and some passed on) include Jon Lovitz, Lisa Kudrow, Kathy Griffin, Pat Morita and a flood of “Saturday Night Live” cast members including Chris Kattan, Cheri Oteri, Maya Rudolph and Chris Parnell.
Improvapalooza 8 begins with the festival’s creators and host, Louisville’s own innovative improv team the Louisville Improvisors, featuring Chris Anger, Alec Volz and Josh Lane. They’ll be joined by Louisville jazz giant Todd Hildreth. “Todd will play background music during our improv session,” Anger says. “It’s amazing what it adds to the show.” Hildreth will improv right along with the actors to add dramatic effect (cue creepy-guy-staring-from-across-the-bar music), as well as possibly be featured in what Anger calls a “five-minute musical.” “It’s an entire musical performed by us in five minutes.” Maybe. They’ll improvise.
Groundling members can be found all over the Internet, including FunnyorDie.com (co-founded by Ferrell) and Candace Brown’s dating site, DateGarden.com. At Date Garden, you will find what you’re looking for. Especially if you’re looking for reasons to stay single. Colleen, in her spare time, is a teacher of wannabe Groundlings. To become a Groundling, one must first move to L.A., because it’s not a quick program. But before you make the permanent move, you should audition. Once you pass the audition, there are five levels to complete before you wear the title “Groundling,” and each level may take between six and 12 weeks to complete. Then, if you survive, you might be voted into the Sunday Groundling team. After perhaps years of performing in the Sunday team, and if there is an opening in the group of 30 active Groundlings (Black says there are a few openings every six months as members move on), you may be voted into one of the most elite improv and comedy actor groups in the world.
Until then, you can catch these up-and-coming stars for a rare road performance at Improvapalooza 8 this weekend at the Kentucky Center. The beauty of stellar improv is that while the line-up is the same both nights, one of those always-changing four sets may give birth to the next Pee Wee.
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MeX Theater, Kentucky Center
$25; 8 p.m.