Comedy at Middlebury

By Middlebury Campus

Courtesy

If you are interested in comedy, you are attending Middlebury College at the right time.

Both of our college’s improv comedy troupes — the nearly two-decade-old Otter Nonsense Players and the younger Middlebrow, founded in the spring of 2008 — are enjoying high levels of popularity and exposure (we’re running two articles on them in this issue of The Campus, after all).  And Middlebury may not have the stand-up comedy scene that other colleges and universities (mostly bigger ones) do, but comedians of a less spontaneous inclination now have a brand-new sketch comedy group as an outlet.

Any performance-based group on campus has to make a splash in the first few weeks of the semester in order to attract new members.  But both improv groups really came blasting out of the gates this year — Middlebrow with a tight 30-minute show in the jam-packed Chateau Grand Salon on Sunday Sept 19, and the Otters with four sold-out performances over three nights in the Hepburn Zoo, reprising a similar run over Halloween weekend last year.

Middlebrow’s hilarious performance showed that they have really cohered over their past couple of semesters; they are a well-oiled machine, and have come a long way since their humble beginnings some two-and-a-half years ago.  Stylistically, their current inclination is for improv as pared-down as possible — asking for only one word from the audience (“watermelon”), they embarked on a surprisingly entertaining free-association brainstorm, the ideas from which fueled the entirety of their unbroken “longform” performance.

In improv comedy, the key structural division is between shortform and longform styles.  One might be more inclined to call shortform performances “games”; think of the content on Whose Line Is It Anyway? — prewritten quotations pulled from hats and the like.  Shortform games have a much more predetermined element to them and thus, from an improv purist’s standpoint, are not as noble a pursuit as the challenging open-endedness of longform.

The current incarnations of both Middlebrow and the Otters have drifted away from shortform. I have a soft spot for the stuff — it has something more of a built-in laughter guarantee, and I suppose this cheapens those laughs, but I think there’s real potential for innovation and subversion of expectations within the boundaries of shortform.  Personally, I wish our improv troupes would integrate some shortform with the longform in their shows, but it’s simply common sense that the stylistic tendencies of these groups change and shift as their membership does; several years ago, Otters shows often consisted of several short-form games followed by a long-form skit.

Courtesy.

The Otters’ Zoo performance that I attended on Friday at 11 p.m. mirrored this structure only in that it was broken into two parts.  The first half-hour consisted of standard longform riffing similar to Middlebrow’s show earlier in the week.  Then, as advertised, the Otters used the second two-thirds to improvise an entire Shakespearean one-act given nothing more than a title from the audience, with varying degrees of adherence to the restrictions of iambic pentameter.

As could be expected with the challenges of creating a story with arcs and resolution for nine separate characters, one-act felt a bit long at an hour, but the fact that they managed to create and resolve a cohesive story in this time at all is quite impressive.  And overall, the performance was still excellent, with especially strong turns from the eldest members of the troupe (Will Bellaimey ’10.5, John Glouchevitch ’10.5 and Ken Grinde ’11) and plenty of hilarious one-liners (among them “This goes way beyond Web MD, dude,” and “If you can’t take the heat, get out of the … roommate competition.”)

I am hesitant to make any comparisons between the two groups other than the most innocent ones — that the current Otters seem more interested in higher-concept shows than Middlebrow, and that they play across gender much more often.  Offering critical assessment of any sort of student performance at a college of this size is a dangerous game, and doing so for two similar groups in the same article just seems like asking for trouble, so I can’t deny it: writing this article makes me nervous.  Because there might be latent, even unintentional rivalries between the two groups — such feelings are simply unavoidable when two groups are doing roughly the same thing on a small campus (just look at the mass of acapella groups).

But what is especially admirable is that they are all friends, and they are mature enough to set aside that competitive urge — which is natural, however slight — to do good work.  Last spring, both groups participated in the First Annual Middlebury Improv Festival, which brought in troupes from other schools and the real world (a four-person group from Tufts stole the crowd’s hearts with some well-executed shortform, I might add).  And members from both groups collaborated on a Hepburn Zoo tribute to the cult-beloved HBO sketch-comedy legend Mr. Show with Bob and David.

It is a core group from Mr. Show’s creative team — Ele Woods ’11, Brad Becker-Parton ’11.5,  Andrew Powers ’11.5 and Ben Orbison ’12.5 – that has gone on to form the sketch comedy club, which should hit campus with a performance sometime this semester.  Unlike the improv groups, you don’t have to audition to attend the meetings, and it is certainly not too late to get on board.  Along with the Otters and Middlebrow, it will hopefully not only make us laugh, but fulfill an equally necessary role; that is, encouraging us to let down our guards, lose some of our inhibitions and let our weird, observant inner comedians take over.