Free Associates

at the Improv Institute

Hear Me Roar, The Other Side of Comedy–an original revue written and performed by a company of women–is not the kind of show you see every day. In the typical improv-comedy group the ratio of men to women is three to one, and the women are often there to serve as wives, girlfriends, or mothers whenever the men don’t feel like donning dresses to do it themselves.

Why is that? Is it true that women just aren’t as funny as men? Are women too inhibited–is comedy too rough-and-tumble or downright nasty for their genteel sensibilities? More than once I’ve heard male performers insist that women simply cannot write comedy. I’ve always maintained that there are plenty of talented female comics and improv artists out there, though I’m forced to admit that they’re not what you’d call highly visible in this male-dominated field. And I continue to believe that women are capable of comedy, even after seeing Hear Me Roar, in which the edge that’s essential to comedy falls prey to terminal sweetness.

Hear Me Roar, playing Thursday nights at the Improv Institute, features seven of the nicest women you’d ever want to meet. But unfortunately they’re not very funny, and the issues they choose to address are predictable and safe. In the opening the troupe promises to explore all different types of women–their roles in society and in private, the stereotypes imposed on them, the challenges they face. So far so good, but in the 21 vignettes that follow, that promise is forgotten and all challenges are dropped. Conspicuously absent are any issues that might stir up controversy, strong feelings, or even much thought. No mention is made of sexual harassment, abortion, pornography, equal pay, eating disorders, or any of the other problems that would make women’s top-ten list. There is one oddly ambiguous scene in which a puritanical hag reviles the objectification of women, while behind her another woman dances around in nothing but her underwear and a blond wig. There is another, a nod to freedom of expression, involving a woman with huge breasts. These play like lukewarm toss-offs.

The bulk of the revue covers such predictable crowd pleasers as sanitary napkins, mother-daughter relationships, romantic rivalry, PMS, and gynecological visits. There’s nothing wrong with using any of these for a few laughs; after all, you can get a lot of comic mileage out of a Pap smear. Why then do the Free Associates take us on a trip to the gynecologist that outraces the absurd and heads quickly into the mystifying? The scene is not based on any sort of reality, and it’s difficult to find the humor in a situation when you’re frantically searching for some frame of reference–anything to relate to. If I was confused, God knows how the men in the audience felt.

The ensemble seem uncomfortable. Though they’re unwilling to explore even those subjects they feel are safe enough to bring up, they push their performances very hard, as though they were compensating for the lack of content. They’re at their best when they come closest to honesty, as in the scene when two bridesmaids bitterly toast the bride or in a series of monologues about flashers. All in all the performers do better in the second set, when they improvise on the basis of audience suggestions. Forced to confront certain situations, many of the women show the kind of flair and timing not evident in the scripted vignettes. Perhaps the first set suffers from nothing more than severe self-editing. If they’d go with their gut reactions, which do not fail them in the improv portion, perhaps their writing wouldn’t seem so watered-down.

As it is Hear Me Roar is much like a young girl’s slumber party: shrill, slightly out of control, and only likely to be funny if it’s three in the morning and there’s a pillow fight going on. All seven Free Associates show promise, but they need to shed their nice-girl skins and gain some edge. Otherwise Hear Me Roar can have no bite.