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Wednesday, Aug. 24, 2011

Laughter on the Rise in Milwaukee

Improv, sketch comedy groups finding an audience

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In recent years, Milwaukee's live comedy scene has grown from a faint pulse into a steady beat. In the past, casual comedy fans might have caught the occasional stand-up show at a club, seen an improv set at ComedySportz or followed a group called the Dead Alewives. But the city's live entertainment is showing more and more flashes of impressive improv and sketch comedy.

For many people, ComedySportz remains the biggest name in Milwaukee comedy. The competition-based improv theater group, founded here in 1984, has grown to include ComedySportz groups in more than a dozen cities in the United States (as well as groups in Germany and the United Kingdom). Through a steady rotation of talent, the Milwaukee group continues to maintain its charm. Some top members of the current crop regularly perform as the Midnight Show (which performs at ComedySportz every Saturday at midnight). The chemistry of these improv players has helped them to nearly perfect the standard improv that everyone has come to know.

But the very best in local comedy is evolving beyond standard improv into something altogether more interesting.

One of the most promising developments in local improv is Talking Points. Billed as being “like CNN with more booze,” the group finds inspiration in the naturally occurring comedy that is 24-hour cable news. The group takes actual news stories, debates them in character and then uses those stories to improvise comic sketches. Seeing a comic tell a joke is one thing. Seeing a comic exorcise a personal demon that's been plaguing him or her from the margins of a newspaper is another thing. And seeing multiple comedians work through a newspaper in different formats holds a great deal of promise. Talking Points debuted earlier this month at ComedySportz. The group's next show is Sept. 16.

The more elaborate world of written sketch comedy has expanded in Milwaukee as well. When a sketch comedy group emerges into the scene, it's a novelty. When it survives for more than five years, it's almost a miracle. Such is the case with Broadminded, which recently became the longest-running sketch group in town. The work from this four-woman group is textured, multilayered and extremely sharp. The comedy ranges from straight-ahead material to abstract concepts (their last show involved the recurring use of a jump rope that entered a weird visual realm by the end of the evening). Broadminded's next show hits the Alchemist Theatre Nov. 11-20.

The visual side of sketch comedy finds a home with the M.U.T.E.S., a group that performs in a slapstick style drawn from silent movies by the likes of Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin. It's old-school in nature, but the group, which has been around for a couple of years now, continues to write new material. Some of that material will be on display Sept. 1-3 in a performance titled The Wayback Machine at the Tenth Street Theatre. The M.U.T.E.S. often work with other performers. Their upcoming show will feature guest stars Ira Hampton of the Wisconsin Hybrid Theatre and Raven Nevermore of the burlesque group the Brew City Bombshells.

Russ Bickerstaff is the principal theater critic for the
Shepherd Express.
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