By Carolyn Hayes
Much of Go Comedy! Improv Theater’s sketch comedy features a thematic tie-in, or a story backbone that draws all its disparate elements together. But the current incarnation takes a different approach, showcasing the distinct humor and sensibility of the troupe Human Amusements, which also has a regular Sunday-night time slot for improv performance. In “Better Living Through Human Amusements,” the only agenda is to craft material that suits the style of the group and make it shine, and the results are odd and preposterously funny and above all terrific.
Following a basketball-themed sensation of a prologue, the troupe’s founders, Chris Petersen and director Jen Hansen, take a moment to explain its history and thesis, as well as what the viewer is about to see. It’s an important moment of connection with the audience, if for no other reason than it’s the only one. What follows is a cavalcade of scenes, videos and improvisation breaks completely unfettered: A sight gag here, a twist ending there, a vaguely feminist hip-hop reclaiming of housewife stereotypes, what have you.
The show’s writing is credited to the entire troupe, which consists of Hansen, Petersen, Amber Hunt, Joe Hingelberg, Pj Jacokes, and Travis Pelto. Most of the scripted scenes take their time, establishing premises and often effectively reversing them by sleight of hand. The tone of the sketches is decidedly weird, and many could never be foreseen; individually, there’s no rhyme or reason, but collectively, the content forms a consistently off-kilter atmosphere that keeps the viewer hanging on.
Human Amusements’ comedy is ubiquitous; there is no safe haven. Transitions and cues, facilitated by lighting designer Michelle LeRoy, sound designer/stage manager Pete Jacokes, and multimedia slide projections designed by Pete and Pj Jacokes, can be as critical to the joke as the dialogue, and just as hard hitting. Costumes and properties by Pete Jacokes and Tommy LeRoy are relatively subdued, in that they never serve as the only punchline, but complement the scene and character in a manner that doesn’t distract. (Confidential to viewers who enjoy a parade of wigs: Run, don’t walk.)
The writing is impressively strong throughout, and Hansen and company know it. Their confidence shows in holding back from slapstick excesses, never hastening to the absurd, but earning it with judicious timing. Even in the handful of improvised scenes (cleanly and cleverly explained away as a scheduling mishap), the performers’ steady hands prevail, corralling the audience into the action and trusting that the humor will find itself in time. The ensemble digs deep in its commitment to the awkward and bizarre, which proves the secret ingredient to turning this stealthily strong material transcendent.
The star of “Better Living Through Human Amusements” is its content, which shines brightly thanks to the efforts of its superb team of creators and cast. This sketch comedy doesn’t spike with huge, scene-stealing characters or sidesplitting one-liners, but rather presses forward with a consistent baseline of humor that never lets up.
Here’s even more proof that no matter what the vision, it can serve as the linchpin for original comedy, so long as it’s seen through with style.
‘Better Living Through Human Amusements’
Go Comedy! Improv Theater, 261 E. Nine Mile Rd., Ferndale. 8 p.m. Thursday-Friday through June 13, 2014. 1 hour, 20 minutes (no intermission). $18. 248-327-0575. http://www.gocomedy.net