Stage

The Funny Side of the Street

Where the Valley goes for stand-up comedy

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Tuesday, July 02, 2013
photo courtesy of Zack Livingston
Zack Livingston holds court at The Elevens.

Go to the Congregational Church in Greenfield on the second and fourth Tuesdays of the month and you’ll find Greenfield Improv Group, or GIG, where you’re both audience and improviser.

“I didn’t intend that,” says Amy Swisher, referring to the acronym. Swisher is guide and organizer of the free drop-in group that’s open to anyone with any level of experience. It’s not a class, though you’ll learn a thing or two about “short-form improv,” which comprises games and scenes.

Swisher, a PR professional by day, “just wanted folks to play with.” Swisher’s been playing for years, including with some bigwigs in improv like David Shepherd, cofounder of The Compass Players, forerunner of The Second City in Chicago. She arrives with a rough outline for each GIG, but flexes with group input. Either way, she says, “the setups are ridiculous and off-kilter, which is where the humor is.”

One game is called Expert. Marian Kelner, a former teacher from Greenfield who has been at almost every GIG since its inception a bit over a year ago, shines as Expert, and is frequently begged by regulars to play Expert again. Her expertise changes each time, determined by the audience. A Q&A directed by the audience follows. That’s the game. This night, she’s an expert in faeries—and is also a Marxist.

How do faerie outfits jibe with Marxism?

“Actually, those outfits are a myth,” says Kelner with utter confidence. “Faeries wear Birkenstocks.” She takes a beat. “And overalls.”

The more exotic the blurt, the more unexpected the association—and the bigger the laughs for everyone involved. “It’s pure delight,” Kelner says. “I feel happy, happy, happy.”

If you like your laughs to come from nationally known comedians, Northampton’s Calvin Theatre hosts the likes of Steven Wright, Louis Black, Lily Tomlin and others, and the UMass Fine Arts Center brought the crème de la crème of comedy improv to town this year: Upright Citizens Brigade. While these venues do a fine job of trafficking household names into the Valley, you never know when they’re going to show up.

If you prefer consistency, just south of the Tofu Curtain is the Hu Ke Lau. The ice cubes with LED lights in blue cocktails and the Scorpion Bowls aside, the Hu Ke Lau does something rare in the entertainment industry: it brings in headliners every two weeks. Even New York and L.A. can’t claim that. Think Tracey Morgan (30 Rock), Mark Moran (WTF podcasts), and Paula Poundstone (NPR’s Wait, Wait Don’t Tell Me), who performed for nearly two solid, riotous hours this past spring.

To root for the home team, visit Bishop’s Lounge in Northampton, which hosts stand-up open mics on Wednesday and Thursday nights. Shows start at 7:30 p.m., but comedians start signing up by 7. Nick Caron, the emcee, is wonderfully affable and keeps it all moving with his gentle schtick between the five-minute sets. The Valley, he says, is an interesting place to perform because people are less tolerant of racist, sexist and homophobic jokes, though the sets I heard included a modicum of each. Less tolerant, perhaps, but don’t think this is family fare. It’s stand-up, where the thing that cannot be said always is.

If you’d like to see how comedians work stuff out before it’s brought to bigger markets, the scene at Bishop’s is also fascinating. Not everyone’s funny—or your idea of funny. It’s an open mic, after all. But those who get up and act like pros, those who cut to the chase and give their best jokes first and never apologize, make it wildly entertaining. It’s worth getting there, too, because a quarter of the stand-ups are women. Their take on the subjects of, say, therapy or breasts is downright refreshing.

Also in Northampton is Mass Laughs on the third Friday of every month at The Elevens. Zack Livingston, an engineer by day and comic by night, produces, bringing to the stage local and regional comics he’s met doing his own gigs regionally. While he gives seasoned comedians the headlining spots, he also gives less experienced comics a chance to get paid. Plus, comedians need an audience to grow.

“I remember when I was just starting out,” Livingston says, “and I got my first paid gig. I got so much better almost instantly.”

Back up in Greenfield is The Happier Valley Comedy Show, the brainchild of The Ha-Has (formerly The Ha-Ha Sisterhood). They do long-form comedy improv— theatrical by design, with characters and scenes. Since late last year, the Ha-Has have a permanent home at The Arts Block Café in Greenfield every second Saturday of the month. It’s a two-fer: the Ha-Has do one set and, typically, a Boston troupe does the other.

“I got tired of going to Boston to see great improv,” Pam Victor, a comedic force of nature and one quarter of the Ha-Has, says. “So now we bring it here.”

The Ha-Has arrive with one of two original structures: “Shrink: Where Freud Meets Funny” (broadly, about a therapist and her clients) or “Book Club: Where Literature Meets Laughter.” Each hinges on a piece of critical information suggested by the audience. Laura Patrick, another Ha-Ha and a comic dynamo, says that every time they perform, inevitably someone asks afterward, “Who wrote such and such a line?”

Her response is always the same: “Improvisation means we’re making this up. On the spot. We don’t know what we’re going to say until it comes out of our mouths.”

When pressed by the incredulous, she adds, “It just comes out. You could say we just—just vomit it out.”

Spontaneously crafted, yes, and with their skill, the characters and scenes come fully formed. Best of all, they’re really funny.•

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