Good improvisers will take a short suggestion and create a series of scenes that might be realistic, or absurd, or create a world of its own logic. The audience watches funny people on stage. It’s a good evening’s entertainment. You can find it five nights a week at the Dallas Comedy House, 2645 Commerce Street in Deep Ellum.
On the other hand, excellent improvisers—such as Frank Caeti and Susan Messing, who were at DCH on Friday night—go beyond being funny to creating comedy. More than pulling a humorous plot out of the air, punchy laugh lines zinged as Caeti and Messing—each with 25+ years improv experience under their belts—achieved the incredible balancing act of being so focused on each other that every little nuance could be read, while being completely simpatico with the audience.
Messing possesses an amazing ability to rapidly spin context with completely natural references and zippy asides. From the night’s suggestion of “beef,” an entire diner with customers, waiters and such was imagined within a minute. All while she and Caeti posed as grill cooks spouting line-ordering chatter.
The right combination of personalities is vital in improv. Caeti swooped in with sharp lines that surprised the laughs from of you; Messing yanked out laughs with “Whoa, did she just say that?” lines. Caeti aimed straight for the heart; Messing churned a constant mental subversion. Caeti’s precise prods deepened the plots; Messing’s breathtaking outrageousness kept the audience in gleeful anticipation.
From there it was Southern versus Yankee conflict in a middle-class cul de sac, a drunk in a theater after hours heckling the stagehand, a father and son locker room drama, and more. After a body of material had been generated, Caeti and Messing revisited many of their scenarios, deepening the plot along with the laughs, weaving disparate parts together for a satisfying conclusion.
It was masterful to watch. Improv is all about chops. The result isn’t the goal. Watching skilled people pull off remarkable feats on the fly while making it look easy, that’s the thing. The end is not foretold like in television, movies and theater. There’s no map. It might work; it might not. Which puts improv out of many people’s comfort zones. Shame, that.
Caeti and Messing appeared at the DCH on their way to the East Texas Comedy Festival. Lucky us. They’ll be back in Dallas for workshops on Sunday.
Juan Direction did an admirable job of opening for Caeti and Messing, concocting a plot about aging “paid and laid” gigolos in Cancún romancing a pair of repressed women from Akron. For a moment it seemed things might elevate into farce, and then shifted back into the mundane. But it was brisk and funny enough.
» Here's an inspirational and funny TEDxUChicago talk by Messing entitled Braving the Unknown.