For the first time, two categories in the Pitch’s Best Of issue went to improvisers.
And, maybe more significantly, neither was an improv-specific award. Jared, Ed and Thunderdome won for Best Comedy Show and Rob Grabowski won for Best Funny Performer. I’m almost positive—based on Alan’s past reviews and articles—that the distinction is intentional.
Improv is (at least in the Best Of edition) making the jump from inside joke to entertainment. These guys aren’t just standing out in our little community. They’re doing work worthy of notice in the larger theater and comedy worlds.
Improv Thunderdome works on so many different levels: great promotional hook, smart ticket sales strategy, a brand that gets stronger with every show and terrific, playful energy.
Since Jared was too young to legally enjoy post-show beers, he’s been full of ideas for shows, sketches, characters, approaches…and with Thunderdome, he’s created a full experience that makes it as much fun for players as for the audience. Jared has only hosted one show, and he seems to have turned teching mostly over to the over-the-top-in-a-great-way Guy Maggio, but his personality comes through in every aspect of the production. And Ed is relaxing into the Master Blaster role. He’s able to swing his on-stage personality back and forth between bombastic announcer and earnest improv geek (hmmmm…that may not just be his on-stage personality) and it suits the format perfectly.
I think it’s the improv fan-boy in both of them that makes it work. They’ve been aware of the innovative shows going on in Chicago and other bigger improv cities for more than a decade. (They started really young.) When Lighten Up and Funny Outfit were around, they were always the first to sign on to try something new. Their energy and dedication made the KC High School Improv League as much fun as it was. They like playing. They like watching. They dig improv and improvisers. And what's cool is they're putting up fun shows and inviting the rest of us to play along.
Improv requires a certain generosity of spirit, and Jared and Ed have built it into Improv Thunderdome. Rob’s got it, too—which is part of what makes it so easy to be happy for him for being named Best Funny Performer.
Interesting/bizarre physical descriptions aside, the Pitch blurb nailed a lot of what makes Rob so much fun to watch and to play with—particularly the contrast of his ability to get laughs “without seeming to try” and his “rare patience, discipline and intelligence.”
What audiences don’t see is how freakin' hard he works. It’s not just about the number of troupes he’s involved with and the hours he puts in (though there’s that—at last count, he’s performing with three and coaching one). In rehearsals, he seems to use every scene as a chance to push himself to try something new. On stage, he will do anything and support everything. On stage and off, he can lead or support—whatever is needed. All this means he gets better with every performance. And playing with him can make you better; in my case, it’s made me more patient and forced me to realize I really should push further outside my comfort zones.
It used to be you could fairly easily guarantee a Best Of award by grabbing as many copies of the Pitch as you could and stuffing the ballot boxes. So you could get a blurb for your posters and press releases, but it was pretty hollow. Then they took away the vote. Alan (the first reviewer to pay any attention to improv) gave a well-deserved Best Improv Troupe to the Trip Fives two years ago—back at the very start of the KC improv renaissance—and skipped last year.
In those couple of years, we’ve all raised our games. Every troupe and every player is demonstrably working to get better. So now, more than ever, those Best Of titles really mean something.