Why Detroit's improv comedy scene is no joke

New York, Chicago, Los Angeles. These are the capitals of the improv comedy world.

Everybody knows that.

But did you know that Detroit has a distinguished history of improv comedy and a lively, growing scene?

General ignorance about this fact isn't surprising. The region's best performers often leave for larger audiences and more mainstream opportunities in bigger markets, but not before cutting their teeth in Detroit. And a new crop of improvisers, bolstered by a faithful old guard and two burgeoning regional theaters, is helping transform Detroit into a center for improv comedy.

For those uncertain about the parameters of improv, here is a quick primer:

Improv is short for improvisation, meaning that anything performed at a show is created spontaneously based on an audience suggestion. Almost always the stage is a blank canvas -- no costumes, props, or set. This makes improv a highly collaborative form of theater because the performers must build the reality of the scene together from scratch. If one person denies something said by another improviser (Example: "That's not a carrot, it's a trophy"), then they're cancelling out each other's contributions. The most fundamental expression of improv is, "Yes, and…"

Because of its unscripted, free-form nature, first-time audience members are sometimes confused by the proceedings on-stage, but awe, followed by passion, is just as common as confusion. Improvisers use words like "magic" to describe the way they feel about performing and watching shows that progress, paradoxically, despite the unthinking action of the performers.

Pj JacokesPj Jacokes, co-founder of the Go Comedy! Improv Theater in Ferndale, described this feeling in a 2009 TEDxDetroit talk, titled "Demand Imagination." In the presentation, he says that great improv requires turning off the self-critical filter. "We're as creative as we allow ourselves to be," he says.

By its very nature, improv creates community because cooperation is required in order to create successful and ultimately funny scenes.

"The basic idea behind improv is to say 'yes' to everything and support those around you with the common goal of making everyone look good," says Jacokes. "It's hard to be selfish and good in improv."

The improv community in Metro Detroit is strong. And growing.

In addition to Go Comedy!, there's the Planet Ant Theater in Hamtramck, an intimate house-turned-coffee shop-turned-theater that opened in 1995.

"It's hard to describe the soul of that space," says co-founder and owner Hal Soper. "You don't need a lot of special effects or microphones or anything elaborate to put on a show. The audience can literally touch the actors and look right into their eyes."

In addition to improv and original sketch shows and plays, both theaters offer improv classes, where enrollment is on the rise. Jacokes says that Go Comedy!'s class sizes have grown almost every semester and they also recently opened a new training center.

Margaret Edwartowski is the executive director for Arts at the Y, a member of the board at Planet Ant, and self-proclaimed "old, white improv lady." She notes the self-perpetuating cycle of improv. "If the number of people taking classes grows, then the audience will as well."
Margaret EdwartoskiDespite the difficulty of owning and operating a profitable theater, both Go Comedy! and Planet Ant have been able to contribute to each other's success.

But this wasn't always the case with Detroit improv.

In 1993, the famed Second City Theater -- which is based out of Chicago and has produced an astounding number of renowned comedians such as John Belushi, Harold Ramis, Bill Murray, and Mike Myers -- opened a theater in downtown Detroit across from the Fox Theater. Owner Mike Ilitch rolled out the red carpet as George Wendt and John Candy attended the premier.

But Detroit's sluggish economy made it a challenge to profitably stage Second City's quirky style of comedy in its downtown location. Despite its core of loyal followers, the theater relocated to Novi where it barely lasted two years.
"That was the dark period in Detroit improv," says Soper.

Judging by the talent that performed there, the onstage product cannot be blamed for the downfall of Second City Detroit. Some of the more well-known members of Second City Detroit's mainstage included Tim Robinson (SNL writer/performer), Larry Joe Campbell (According to Jim), Maribeth Monroe (Workaholics), and Jerry Minor (SNL, MADtv). The most famous alum and a true star in the comedy world is Keegan-Michael Key. He grew up in Detroit, performed on Second City's mainstage, and helped open the Planet Ant Theater before starring on MADtv and creating his own, groundbreaking sketch comedy show, Key & Peele.

"There's always been a real rich community of improvisers here," says Jacokes who, along with Edwartowski, were both Second City mainstage members.
In trying to account for the amount of talent from Metro Detroit, Edwartowski and Jacokes had remarkably similar theories.

"The city has been a punchline for most of my life," says Edwartowski. "It's like anything else: it's funny to make jokes about yourself."

Jacokes believes this attitude has an additional benefit.

"To live in Detroit, you have to be an improviser, whether on stage or not, and make do with what you have. You need persistence. And in entertainment you have to hustle, book your own shows, get on stage whenever you can."

This collective can-do attitude, this feeling of striving together, when placed into an improv context in which performers must build a scene in concert, lends itself well to an improv culture.

When trying to describe the experiences of a spontaneous, creative, collaborative act, improvisers lose words.

"I call this my 'new age' side," says Jacokes.

"There's this acceptance thing," says Edwartowski as she waves her hands vaguely. "It's about feeling safe where you can try out whatever you like and have the freedom to experiment -- and fail."

"Remaining in the moment" is an important concept in improv -- if you're worried about what has yet to happen, you might miss important details provided by your scene partner. And this attitude, argues Jacokes, is useful for building both scenes and life-skills.

"It's hard for me to tell where improv stops and life starts," he says. In August, Jacoke's basement flooded amidst record rainstorms. "We basically lost everything. But I took the mentality of, 'Alright, this is what's happening now. We're gonna make it work and move on.'"
The possibility of sharing these benefits with middle and high school students is why Edwartowski was so excited to start the Detroit Creativity Project (DCP). She and a handful of veteran improvisers teach classes at Detroit Public Schools and Adjudicated Youth Centers.

"It can be a transformative experience for these kids," she says.

In early August, the 4th Detroit Improv Festival brought improvisers from across the country to venues in Metro Detroit. One show featured troupes from two schools where DCP operates: Cass Tech and Bates Academy. Each troupe had their own set, followed by one performed by "The 313," a group of Detroit-born improvisers who now live in Los Angeles, including Keegan-Michael Key, plus DCP instructors.

Then, something "magical" happened. One of the founders of the DCP, Marc Evan Jackson, asked the troupes to join the 313 onstage to finish the set. The shocked students got to share a stage, and audience laughter, with some of the region's most successful comedians.

"That night did so much for their self-confidence," says Edwartowski.

Aaron Mondry is a Detroit-based writer and improviser. He currently takes classes at Go Comedy! and is performing a show at the Planet Ant Theater called "The Birth of Chad." Follow him on Twitter @aaronmondry.

All photos by Marvin Shaouni.
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Aaron Mondry is a Detroit-based freelance writer. Visit his website and follow him on Twitter @AaronMondry.