Monday, Aug. 10, 2009

Establishing Sustainable Milwaukee Comedy

By Russ Bickerstaff
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The 4th annual Milwaukee Comedy Festival closed yesterday. By all accounts, it was a successful fest . . . it continues to grow in prominence year after year . . . things change from year to year as well, which is always welcome. The last day of this year’s festival feature three full programs of Teen comedy. The all teen comedy day is kind of an interesting way to end the festival, as it displays in a really specific way the fact that comedy culture in Milwaukee seems to be growing.

There have always been comics and comedy type indigenous to Milwaukee, but I don’t recall there ever being any kind of significant structure in place to maintain a local comedy scene. Yes, there have been comedy clubs around for years, at least one of them is quite old by now . . . and even with an international establishment founded in Milwaukee (Comedysportz) spawning nearly-successful groups like the late Dead Alewives, there hadn’t really been any sustainable growth in local improv, sketch and suchlike until only recently (as far as I know.)

The early Sunday show featured no less than two local groups of young improv comics: Falcon Improv—a group of kids from Brown Deer High School under the guidance of Meanwhile’s Alex Grindeland and Organized Chaos--First Stage’s improv group organized by Patrick Schmitz of the Gentlemen’s Hour. With established comedy training programs in the city, there’s a kind of a renewed sustainability in the city’s comedy . . . and particularly as there are  all kinds of applicable skills learned through improv, there’s a good chance that the success of Falcon and O.C. could establish other programs . . . which would make for all kinds of interesting growth in the theatrical sub-genre . . .

And then there’s the inevitable question . . . yes, it sounds like a cool program for teachers, students and parents, but there’s very little of interest here to the casual observer, right? Well . . . kind of. With a general overall lack of experience, there tends to be a lot of dead time in teen improv, but there’s some real talent in the younger groups that occasionally makes it to the stage. The problem with so much improv is that it’s coming from people who have learned a specific set of techniques that get an audience laughing. When new people make it to the stage . . . people who are learning to connect with the stage for the first time, they can come up with some remarkably fresh comedy . . .stuff that ends up blowing the work of established improv groups out of the water . . .

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