Dallas — You can tell the Dallas Comedy Festival is five years old and not just because of the big boy pants and the first missing tooth. It’s the line-up of acts from near and far with a depth of talent that any city (first, second or otherwise) would be proud to host. Clearly what’s going on down at the Dallas Comedy House has come of age. Next thing you know they’re going to be potty trained and heading off to kindergarten.
But that can be scary, because not everything works out and mommy isn’t there to kiss your boo-boos. Or maybe it just felt that way because Friday night was Improv night, though a sketch comedy group snuck in there as well.
There were three groups in each of the three shows Friday night, of which this review covers the seven and nine o’clock. It was a dense evening of comedy so this review will read a little like a breakdown. If there was an overarching comment to be made it would be that the comedy got better as the night went on and not because of the open bar. But it didn’t hurt.
First group, Heel Turn, of the 7 p.m. show, hails from Oklahoma City. Given a suggestion from the audience they started into a series of mostly two-person scenes. With all the normal caveats of small audience and first to go, the group was still a bit creaky. Information offered by scene partners was sometimes ignored and momentum wasn’t achieved until late in the set with a playground scenario where a fifth grader was threatening to kill the candy cart lady in order to protect his turf.
The second group, Manick, was clearly the strongest of the first show. Partners Amanda and Nick have the longest running show at Dallas Comedy House and it shows. Their set was one long scene that started with an audience member who was supposed to arrange the two chairs in an interesting fashion. Surprisingly, she then sat in one of them. True to the improv spirit Manick took the situation and built a scene about a couple who were transferring parenting responsibilities after ten years. The woman having taken the first ten years, it was now his turn. Where Heel Turn sacrifices communication in favor of energy, Manick keeps razor focus, deriving most of their comedy from the tiniest slip up from their partner. It’s controlled energy, total confidence and excellent chemistry.
The final group, Stag Comedy, came up from Austin armed with sketch comedy. It’s a strange shift after seeing some brilliant, crisp improv to go to the broad, rounded strokes of prepared bits. The first was about a kid at a parent teacher conference who’s step-father is a catch-phrase comic. The next scene concerned a magician who makes semen appear in unexpected places. Then, back to another school scenario where the policeman who is giving the kids a talk on safety keeps getting startled and punching people in the crotch. Each of these was funny but not out of the reach of a group coming up with it on the spot. The last sketch, however, was a courtroom with a one-man jury and a southern lawyer that had some of the best lines of the night. Good scenario, great character, hilarious lines.
The 9 p.m. show was so much better than the 7 that the 10:30 must come with a doctor’s warning. Considering the many moments of side-hurting, breathless laughter, to improve would mean almost certain death.
Kyle Austin and Clifton Hall form the duo Clearance Shelf, which kicked off the show. Without the pretext of a suggestion from the audience, they launched into a single improvised scene about a husband and wife exchanging gifts. Clearance Shelf was as confident and connected as Manick but with a more intense attack. Simple remarks become barbed as the stakes are raised. She got him a lawnmower. What is she trying to say with that? He got her a thimble. What is he trying to say with that? These guys have steely control and a way of making the twist of the knife hilarious.
The next group up was the longest running improv group in town, Pavlov’s Dogs. With a suggestion from the audience of “The Muppets” as something that as an adult they might be embarrassed about still liking the six-member troupe launched into a series of scenes that freely expand and contract players as ideas come. A scene ends when someone thinks they’ve hit a height of hilarity and congratulations break out in high-fives, ending it. Then, another scenario with different players begins. It’s an impressive display as the slightest offering is latched onto and built into a bizarre but believable world often containing references to earlier bits. They’re at their best when they are making things fit that really shouldn’t, like a Austrian design house that can make high fashion clothes for bears on the spot.
The last group, The Jeff Show (Jeff Jenkins and Jeff Houghton), combined the great connection of Clearance Shelf with the bizarre, facile antics of Pavlov’s Dogs. With a suggestion from the audience of “guerilla warfare” that was totally ignored, the two Jeff’s embarked on a long form scene with the option to magically transport to a different place and different characters in order to further explain or just plain milk a remark. It’s a little like a live-action Family Guy with all the cutaways, except they have a clearer through-line and better jokes. The scenario that evolved was about a pair of guys, one gay and one probably not, who got married on a bet. The most valuable asset to this set beside their quick wit and great chemistry is their wise choice of a clear thing to fight over. One wants to stay married and the other doesn’t. It established a spine that they could return to from their wild-side scenes such as an Amish field of dreams and an Applebee’s drunk driving school. The only thing going against The Jeff Show is that it’s a hike to see them. They’re from Springfield, Mo.
The takeaway of this night of the Dallas Comedy Festival is easy: With three shows, a bar and convenient parking, Dallas Comedy House makes a compelling option whether you are looking to kick-off or cap-off your Deep Ellum evening.
» Read more about the Dallas Comedy Festival in our preview here
- Review of Day 1 here
- Review of Day 2 here
- Review of Day 3 stand-up showcase here
- Review of Day 3 improv here
» Look for reviews from each night of the festival on TheaterJones