University professors find that improv provides more than just laughs

Professors at the University of Kansas say improvisational acting extends beyond comedy and jokes and into everyday lives.


Improvisational acting is commonly associated with the kind of hijinks you might see on a show like this one, “Who’s Line is it, Anyway.” But theatre professors at the University of Kansas say it provides much more than just laughs from Wayne Brady.

For instance, Nicole Hodges Persley, a teacher of improvisational acting at the University of Kansas, leads an improv group who do much more than work with funny props.

The group, which is made up of students, create and perform skits designed to teach employees how to deal with social issues in their work place, like racism.

Hodges Persley says adding humorous improv into the serious topics they work with helps make them more personable with their audience.

“We use comedy because it helps people relate. No one wants to be labeled as a person who engages in acts of discrimination, even if everybody does and everyone has. But i think when you add a little bit of humor to it, it kind of makes people feel, ‘Okay, someones laughing about the fact they did that, maybe I can do it now.”

Leslie Bennet, who is also a theatre professor at KU, says learning how to improvise can teach beneficial skills to those outside of comedy and theatre as well.

“One of the first rules of that kind of improv is always say yes. What a skill to have in life, you know? If you are in a situation where life always throws mega curveballs at us, to be trained in ‘yes and’ helps us to be more resilient.”

This has been Cody Kuiper, for Funny Folks.


Local Comedy Clubs Keep Attendance High Despite Sluggish Economy


Despite the stagnated economic growth of the last few years, comedy clubs in the area have avoided the problems plaguing many other industries.

While purchases of luxury items usually stall during slow economies, managers at clubs like the Kansas City Improv and Stanford and Son’s Comedy Club say they have been able to fill their seats just as they did before the recession.

Jefrey Gase is the manager of the KC Improv and has been managing comedy clubs for the past six years. He says he anticipated a significant drop in attendance when the economy went under, but the tough economic times have actually drove more people to his club.

“Our speculation was because we were under economic hard times, people were looking for an escape. You know, going to clubs, having that kind of intimacy with the comics and more or less forgetting about the troubles. But we have seen an uptick in the past three or four years.”

Even if the cathartic benefits of comedy have helped keep ticket sales up, clubs also used other strategies to bring people in. For example, Gase says the Improv used what he called a “stimulus package” of complimentary tickets to gain new customers.

Jeff Glazer, who co-founded Stanford and Son’s in 1979, said his club has been unfazed by the economy as well. To avoid any kind of dip in attendance, he said he had to pay attention to who he was putting on stage, not just in the audience.
“If you know you’ve got a popular comedian — if you’ve got Jerry Seinfeld or Larry the Cable Guy — it doesn’t matter if you’re on welfare or they just got a bonus and a raise, they’re going to come see them. So we adjust it buy booking and bringing in more name comedians.”

While comedy has survived an economic down turn that has hurt giants like the real estate and auto industries, it’s certainly not invincible. Glaser says smaller clubs like his have been fighting a different beast: social media.

“Any open-mic comic, he might be a college student that works at the clothing store, and he takes a three minute bit, posts it on YouTube, there you go. It’s nation-wide. It’s saturated — it kind of devalues the importance of being able to see somebody on video or live.”

This has been Cody Kuiper for Funny Folks.

Open-mic nights provide benefits for amateur and seasoned comedians.

A young man — probably around 20 years old — nervously stepped on stage at Stanford & Son’s Comedy Club in front of a half-filled audience. It’s open-mic night at the Kansas City club, meaning anyone can come on stage and try their hand at stand-up comedy for three minutes.

He told his first joke with a big smile on his face, nodding his head to cue the audience laughter, but it didn’t come.

He moved on to his second joke, this time with a more nervous grin and shaky voice. Still no laughs.

He quickly wrapped up his third and final joke, fumbled the microphone into the stand and walked off stage to a less-than-generous applaus.

This kind of occurrence is common at an open-mic, but even if the laughs aren’t coming, the events can be beneficial to amateur and seasoned comics alike.

Whether they’re trying to make a tough crowd laugh, getting advice from fellow comics, or simply gauging their talent, comedians know how to use open-mics to their advantage.

“Open-mics are good because you get a direct response,” said Andrew Frank, an amateur comedian from St. Louis. “The people in the crowd tell you exactly how good you are and exactly what works, and you just have to do a million shows and your jokes take form and become something that is consistent.”

Open-mics aren’t just a training ground for jokes though. Frank says surrounding yourself with other comedians is an essential aspect of the shows as well.

“Comedy is a huge community. The city that you start in, those are your friends, that’s your social circle and you have to trust each other,” he said. “If you’re hanging out with funny people all the time, you’re going to get funnier.”

While it is common to see most of the open-mic performers socializing after an event, some comics prefer to get their advice from other sources.

Chris Blaski, a radio host-turned-comedian from Kansas City, found that getting advice from his fellow comics after an open-mic wasn’t very beneficial.

“I don’t bounce a lot of ideas off of other comics afterwards because every comic is in love with their own material,” said Blaski. “Now in comedy, there’s not a lot of things that haven’t been done yet, so you try and find something that’s new and different.”

Instead of using open-mics as a networking opportunity, Blaski found the show could be more beneficial as a learning tool, especially when the laughs were in short supply.

“You get that moment of temporary discouragement, but you learn from it,” Blaski said. “To me, whether I do well or I bomb, it’s an opportunity to learn and hopefully come back and do better.”

Even though the comics may be the main attraction at an open-mic, the audience is arguably the most crucial aspect of the show.

Open-mic crowds are notoriously difficult to make laugh, but three-year stand-up veteran Wes Van Horn says that makes the chuckles even more valuable.

“At an open-mic, they don’t want you to succeed, they want you to fail,” he said. “If you can get an open-mic crowd to laugh, that’s ten-times harder then making a room of 300 people laugh who paid their money for the sole purpose of laughing.”

Open-mic nights serve as tools not just for the new-comers, but for more experienced comedians as well, something Van Horn says the audience doesn’t usually understand.

“If you’re at an open-mic, they just think you’re some jackass who got up on the mic,” he said. “A lot of us are trying to get it good so when those big shows come up, we’re not bumbling over our material.”

The laughs at an open-mic may not be as abundant as they are for a sold-out headliner, but comics like Blaski make it clear that the shows offer plenty of passion.

“I’m not trying to sell out the Sprint Center,” he said. “If I can just do comedy clubs like this the rest of my life, I’m perfectly cool with that.”


Audio Excerpts.

Transcript: “The way I work is about every three weeks I have a burst of creativity and the rest of the month is just writer’s block. But for a couple days I’m, like, firing on all cylinders. So I get that group of jokes and I do shows every night and I try out that group of jokes, and by the time my next creative burst comes around those are actual jokes that I’ve formed and I shave them off and condensed them and found what works. And then I’ve got  a new batch that I get to work on. So you’re just constantly compiling, cause you want to build your set cause you start off with, like, three minutes, and then the longer you do it the longer your set becomes. But then the farther you get into to it the more you learn, ‘Oh those jokes that I thought were good, they suck.’ So then you take those off, so you’re like, ‘I still only have five minutes,’ but you’re constantly building and refining your set.”

Transcript: “So I always try to bounce it off–you bounce it off friends to kind of gauge it, but your friends will always kind of be biased, so I take that and when I think I’ve got a good run with that I bounce it off of complete strangers in any kind of atmosphere I can think of. If I can get a laugh out of them, they’re are the ones–that’s the jokes I go, ‘Okay, they don’t know me. They have no reason to like me, but they’re laughing. Maybe I’m on to something.’ I just take a general conversation amongst five people and then I take it to an open-mic and I try to see if i can put it on a more broad scale. Instead of five people, now I’m looking at 15, 20, 50 people, and see if I can get the same reaction out of 50 as I did out of those five.”