Organic Theater Company Greenhouse


Upright Citizens Brigade

at Kill the Poets

The year I turned 12 I’d saved up enough money from cutting lawns to buy a portable tape recorder and a package of three blank cassettes. Before that, my friend Mark and I would spend our time hanging out in the backyard, trying to crack each other up. After that, Mark and I moved inside to sit around the kitchen table, my tape recorder midway between us, trying to crack each other up.

We thought these were hilariously funny bits: a call-in radio show, “Y’all Call,” where no one ever called in; a talk show where none of my guests could think of anything to say; a sitcom about two guys who ran an employment agency where no one ever found work. All the while we’d laugh at anything even remotely funny. Two or three hours of this and our minds would begin to whirl–we’d find ourselves saying the craziest things. One time Mark suddenly discovered he could speak in an Irish brogue.

Watching Chris Hogan and John Lehr’s fully improvised hour-long show the other night, I was reminded of those wonderfully giddy afternoons–and not just because Hogan and Lehr, in the great tradition of buddy comedy teams, seem as natural together onstage as best pals. These two go about the business of improvising scenes with such joy and playfulness, and such unworried disregard for the established rules of improvisation, that they seem less like professional performers (though they’re both members of a group called Ed) than like kids having a blast pulling characters and dialogue out of thin air.

The premise of The Chris Hogan Show is deceptively simple: Hogan and Lehr begin by sitting in a couple of chairs trading quips for a while–“How pretentious,” Hogan joked in a moment of self-conscious deflation, “these guys sit and talk”–before they stand and begin improvising. But unlike other long-form improvisations (Del Close’s “Harold,” for example, or Metraform’s Pup Tent Theatre), Hogan and Lehr’s work has no preordained structure. I saw the show twice to verify this fact.

They may improvise a series of related scenes, as they did the second time I saw their show. Or they may simply create scene after unrelated scene, as they did the first time I saw them, spontaneously digressing from one topic to another with such dizzying speed that even if they weren’t funny (which didn’t happen often) they were still fascinating to watch.

Of course the more hidebound followers of Spolin-based Second City-style improvisation may be driven to distraction by Hogan and Lehr’s take on improv. As they themselves freely admit, they’re not orthodox. They deny each other’s reality like crazy, point out when the other has screwed up, and change characters and locations so quickly it’s hard to tell where they are and where the scene is going. “Watch out for the table,” Lehr quipped one night as Hogan took a step through a piece of imaginary furniture. Another time Hogan began peppering his improvisations with comments on his own inability to keep a consistent accent going: “I have been listening all afternoon and suddenly I have a Dutch accent and now I-ah, I-ah have an Italian accent.”

Which is not to say Hogan and Lehr are artless. Lehr has a real gift for creating radically different characters almost spontaneously by simply changing his posture or lowering his voice. He’s especially adept at playing women, thanks in part to his long black hair, which he tosses back stylishly with one hand whenever he transforms himself into a female, and his soft, kind features. Over the course of the two Chris Hogan shows I saw, Lehr played no less than six women–including, in what I suspect is a running private joke, Hogan’s mom in both shows.

In contrast to Lehr’s physically adept acting is Hogan’s more verbal style. This is no liability, however, for he has a quick and deadly wit. When Lehr, playing a psychiatrist, asked him, “Mr. Hogan, how was your childhood?” Hogan replied, without missing a beat, “Long.” Another time, in the course of a scene going nowhere, Hogan flashed his toothy grin and snapped: “This is all about confronting your own fears. That’s what they told me.”

Mind you, not all of the bits in The Chris Hogan Show worked equally well. Sometimes Lehr and Hogan were too silly for words. Other times they were more amused with their own work than amusing. I hasten to add that even at the show’s lowest points I was never bored: Hogan and Lehr’s constantly shifting scenes have the same relation to traditional Second City-style improv as cubism has to realism.

Hogan and Lehr are not the only people consciously stretching the boundaries of improvisation in Chicago. Once a week at midnight, in a tiny coffeehouse on Division, a gang of improvisers who call themselves the Upright Citizens Brigade, most of whom studied with Del Close at ImprovOlympia, put on a show called Virtual Reality. What makes this improvised show unlike 99 percent of all the others is that the whole thing is built around a single premise: that the show itself is a public demonstration of the myriad benefits of the “virtual reality” system created by cracked computer scientist Dr. Bob Carlson.

As Dr. Carlson (Matt Besser) explains in his deep voice (cribbed from bad 50s sci-fi movies): “Through state-of-the-art computer graphics and sensors, you, the client, may enter worlds beyond this humdrum planet. You may talk loud in restaurants, kill, set things on fire, and more . . . all without the annoying tinge of social responsibility!”

Audience members are invited throughout the show to come up onstage to test Dr. Carlson’s various artificial environments. “Invited” isn’t really the right word, though. “Forced” more accurately describes both the way audience members are chosen–numbers are issued at the beginning of the show and randomly selected before each demonstration–and the way they’re “escorted” by the show’s beefy bouncer, Slug. If this sounds unnecessarily cruel, it is a bit, if you happen to be the person called. It’s also very funny, in the same way the Cirque du Soleil sadistic clowns are funny when they take people’s glasses or carry off their coats.

Once onstage the “volunteer” is tossed into an intentionally trite improvised scene–a conversation at a supermarket, for example, or a psychiatrist-patient scene. In the most daring bit, however, a “volunteer” was ushered out of the theater by two members of the Upright Citizens Brigade and forced on a virtual road trip. Near the end of the show the three returned with an unedited videotape documenting their adventures during their 45-minute journey.

Interspersed among these audience-participation bits are scripted sequences, also meant to demonstrate the power of virtual reality. The best of these was a scene performed outside (in ten-degree weather) in which four actors, one standing at each corner of an intersection, pretend to be a family sitting down to a Thanksgiving meal. “Pass the gravy!” one actor shouts, as another mimes handing the gravy boat across Division Street.

What makes such inspired silliness especially delicious is that Virtual Reality never loses track of its twin goals: lampooning both the debased discourse of polite corporate culture–every “volunteer” dragged to the stage is thanked for participating–and the terrifying potential for mass manipulation unleashed by electronic media. This is potent satire.