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Any actor will admit that the audience can become a character in a live performance, in part because of the chemistry that wafts back and forth across the proverbial fourth wall. That's never more true than with improv comedy, in which actors are force-fed random lines, situations, and emotions, often by beer-besotted spectators in search of a cheap laugh. The idea in improv is not to trip up the folks on stage, of course, but rather to whip them into such an inventive frenzy that they are able to think, on a moment's notice, of how to fit the sentence "There once was a hermit named Dave" into a skit set at the Opa-Locka flea market.
Monique Bourgery and Pamela McCool, two members of the troupe Laughing Gas, pulled off this very assignment on a recent Thursday night with wonderful comic intensity. (More on their skit's use of Hispanic stereotypes later.) Billing itself as South Florida's longest-running improv troupe -- not counting the Miami-Dade County commissioners, of course -- Laughing Gas consists of some 30 regularly performing members, five to seven of whom participate in one of the three weekly shows the troupe does in two different venues each week. At the onset of each show, Laughing Gas cofounder Gerald Owens asks audience members to write down a few random sentences on paper provided, requesting that they remain "somewhere in the valley of good taste."
"Be brave and very creative," Owens adds. "You don't have to be funny." No, you don't, because that's the troupe's job. I'm happy to report that, while the audience was not particularly original, peppering its suggestions throughout the evening with puerile references to bodily acts of every sort, the Laughing Gassers disported themselves in a generally hilarious and articulate way. While almost any idiot can make up a joke using bathroom humor or sexual allusions, only the gifted can -- on the spur of the moment in front of complete strangers -- make up Jeopardy-like questions to audience-generated phrases. To the answer "circular saw," one Laughing Gasser quipped, "What's the past tense of 'circular see'?"
One skit precipitated by audience proposals for two physical positions required that a male trouper dive on top of a female trouper lying spread eagle on the ground, while other cast members provided lines to describe the action. In this case, as with almost every other instance, the bits of dialogue that were bluntly suggestive were the significantly less creative and less funny than the ones that were not. From the relatively sober perspective of two club sodas, I wondered what Laughing Gas could do when the group didn't have to pander to a crowd with base expectations. (The troupe's Thursday night venue, at a club on the first floor of the Newport Crowne Plaza Resort Hotel in North Miami Beach, requires a two-drink minimum. The New Theatre, where the group performs on weekend nights, is a conventional theater setting.)
Lowbrow humor notwithstanding, a typical Laughing Gas show consists of a variety of skits generated by audience suggestion, song parodies, and sketch comedy. To its credit the troupe varies the type of audience-directed skits so you don't feel like you're watching the same acting-class exercise over and over again. In one instance spectators are asked to name a location and a series of emotions. Two actors then create a sketch located, say, in a city sewer system, in which, for example, a woman encounters a sewer engineer. As the actors make up the skit, another trouper sits to one side of the stage calling for new emotions to be portrayed from the list of audience suggestions. During my visit Gerald Owens and Pamela McCool accomplished this with aplomb.
In addition to Jeopardyparodies, Laughing Gas also successfully sends up The Dating Game, exploitative TV talk shows, and panels of experts, all the while incorporating formal and informal audience input. One setup allowed for a particularly memorable type of inventiveness. The audience was asked for a letter (Q) and a relationship that could occur between two people ("doctor and patient"). With these parameters, two actors created a dialogue in which the first line began with Q and the next with R and so on, until the entire scenario grew out of sentences beginning with successive letters of the alphabet. In another winning comic scenario, the troupers created a sketch from an entire list of audience-contributed attributes, including the setting ("a bedroom"), an uncontrollable action ("itching"), and a secret ("he's pregnant").
Less funny was a section featuring R.J. Walker, who portrayed a country hick in a sort of Grand Ole Opry setting, playing "The Macarena" and other unlikely song selections on his guitar. It was just dumb. More disturbing were the several instances, some scripted and some spontaneous, in which the troupe made distasteful allusions to bilingualism, Cuban rafters, and Hispanic stereotypes. While one sketch that makes use of caricature might be justifiable (OK, yes, you might actually encounter Cuban-Americans at the Opa-Locka flea market), a recurring number of them is not.
To include a joke in which the punch line turns on the discovery that an incompetent person got a job solely on the basis of his bilingualism is to invite discomfort and bigotry, particularly when no other ethnic group is being ridiculed. Either include fag jokes, women-bashing humor, anti-black parodies, and skits that send up stupid white males, or take out all the cheap shots at Hispanics. With all the talent in Laughing Gas, they wouldn't have any trouble with either option. Here's some advice that should sound familiar: Be brave and creative. Just make it up as you go along.