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Being funny's no joke

You've gotta work at improv if you wanna make 'em laugh

March 20, 2014 | 12:00 a.m. CST

Produced by Nicole Lunger

Eric Dude and Joey Greenstein are having a normal chat when a stranger walks past and declares, “Dinosaurs are alive.” Suddenly, what was a discussion about an upcoming test is now two grown men hugging and whimpering. Dude and Greenstein pretend to be worried about survival, but they’re actually concerned with making fellow MU Improv members laugh.

The comedy of life

Improv troupe members must overcome fear of embarrassment when they perform, but that doesn’t mean they’re prepared to do the same in real life.

  • Jake Wallach fell victim to a classic comic pratfall while working on a play set in high school. “Someone was cutting wood, so there was a whole bunch of sawdust on the side, and I slipped, and I ripped my pants from the inseam down,” he says.
  • Clint Cannon suffered a Valentine’s day fiasco when he accidentally presented a girl with a broken rose and a seemingly opened bag of Skittles. “I basically ran away from her,” he says. “Everything fell apart on me, and we didn’t date.”
  • One fateful birthday turned out to be the day of Eric Dude’s most embarrassing moment thanks to an enthusiastic teacher. “(The teacher and airport employees) called me up there, and everyone in the airport started to sing ‘Happy Birthday to me,’” he says.


This is one of the exercises practiced at an MU Improv workshop. Immediately after most performances, feedback from other members flies around. Honesty from peers is essential for improvement.

“You’ve got to be willing to tell someone when they could have done better,” MU Improv member Abigail English says.

As is true of most activities, hearing how to become better at improv and becoming better are two different things. Clint Cannon, Eric Dude and Jake Wallach all became members of MU Improv as freshmen. Now upperclassmen, practicing for six to seven hours a week has helped them gradually improve at being funny on the spot.

“Everyone starts out not being funny, and it’s a really tough barrier to get past because everyone innately is funny,” Dude says. “It’s bringing that out that’s tough.”

Cannon, Dude and Wallach all agree that choking on stage is common when first starting improv. Wallach says the fear of embarrassment is the biggest obstacle to get over.

“You gotta get good at improv, even if you’re the funniest person in your group of friends,” Wallach says.

Eric Dude plays protective father to "daughter" Hunter Lehr in an MU Improv skit. Dillon Cassidy is Lehr's captor.

In order to build these skills, improv teams must practice. One of Cannon’s favorite exercises is called “Bear in the City.” Everyone pretends they’re in a marketplace, and two “bears” periodically freeze time and try to make people laugh. The goal of this is to maintain focus and prevent members from laughing at their own jokes.

Doing little things in their daily routines has helped MU Improv members become stronger players, too.

“When I call friends, I never ask for them,” Cannon says. “I’ll just say something like, ‘Is this Samantha with Plumbing United?’ I’ll do a quick scene with them on the phone before I get to why I actually called them.”

It’s not hard to see that all this practice pays off during one of MU Improv’s weekly performances at The Shack in the MU Student Center. During a recent show, Greenstein read articles from Cosmopolitan, and members were tasked with creating skits based on the accounts of cringe-worthy sexual experiences. At one point an “elusive orgasm” was personified as an uncatchable goblin-like creature who hopped around the stage. Dude’s pants even ripped, but he laughed it off and went with it like any true stage pro would.

Richie Irons, Zach Gates, Josh Ejnes and Zack Newman shoot the breeze at an MU Improv performance on March 18 at The Shack.The guys are catching a pretend smoke break after getting off work. Photos by Nicole Lunger.

Cannon and Wallach, along with MU Improv member Drew Kohler, form the improv team The Best Best Friends. The group, including Dude, took third in The College Improv Tournament National Championship in Chicago on March 1.

Wallach believes the group did so well because they focused on having fun. “I wore this ridiculous shirt to remind myself, ‘Don’t take it too seriously; you’re wearing a ridiculous shirt,’” he says.

Perhaps Wallach’s worn burnt orange shirt was also a lucky one, because The Best Best Friends went to the same tournament in 2013 without placing. The group was nervous and in their own heads the previous year, Cannon says.

“Don’t take it so seriously because improv’s not serious; it’s just people playing,” he says.

On March 15, MU Improv brought teams from around the country to Mizzou for the second annual COMOtion Improv Festival. Advice from visiting improv groups echoes MU Improv’s recipe for comedic success.

“Watch, learn, and grow,” Matt Roeder of Kansas State’s improv group On the Spot says. “You should always be aiming for a higher pedestal.”

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