Photograph by Meredith Enkoff
IU Senior Alex Young, junior Georgia Perry, senior Brian M. Frange, and senior Andy Blastick performed Nov. 29 at the IMU. Along with three other IU students, they make up Awkward Silence one of IU's improv comedy groups. Awkward Silence came in second place in the Chicago College Comedy Championship in November.
When IU senior Brian M. Frange came to IU in 2004, the improvisational comedy group Awkward Silence was born. Frange, along with six other IU students, performs every Thursday at 9 p.m. at the Indiana Memorial Union.
"Improv is all made up on the spot," Frange said, "but there are a lot of rules that must be followed."
Frange teaches his cast that to form a strong bond with one another and to perform well, everyone must give "relentless support, no matter what somebody does onstage," he said, "and consider every idea the best you've ever heard."
Awkward Silence hold auditions each semester (but not next semester, Frange said) and usually brings in a new member from those auditions.
Although Awkward Silence is a relatively new IU student group, Frange has witnessed his members' improvement in the two-and-a-half years they have worked together.
"We improved dramatically since we've started," he said. "We used to perform in the basement of Reed to 12 people."
These, he said, were test shows. The real performances would come later.
"Now we average 60 to 120 people every week," Frange said. "We've maxed out at 200. We've always been getting better at executing the fundamentals.
"For example, just last month we participated in the Chicago College Comedy Championship," Frange said, "which is a nationwide tournament judged by professional improv big shots."
Awkward Silence placed second out of 16 improv groups. "So we are second best in the nation," Frange said with a smile.
Bear's Place: A laughing legend
Bear's Place sits on the corner of Third Street and Jordan Avenue, the front door easily overlooked from the outside of the building.
However, on the inside, the atmosphere is warm and friendly, and rock music plays softly in the background. It is not too crowded on a Monday at 6:30 p.m., with an occupied booth here and there.
General Manager Jim Reef adds to the familiarity of the place with his friendly smile, long frizzy beard and casual shorts and shirt. The 35-year-old has worked there for 10 years and has been general manager for seven.
He is eager to praise the bar for its "longest running comedy act" in the nation. Comedy Caravan is "in the Guinness Book of World Records," Reef said, USA Today named Bear's Place one of the top 10 places to watch comedy in 2005.
Comedy Caravan was created in 1982, when Ray McConn, owner of Mother Bear's Pizza, decided to open Bear's Place.
"Stand-up comedy was really big when he started it," Reef said, so McConn figured the series would be a good addition to Bloomington's entertainment scene.
The first comedian to perform on stage at Bear's Place was Mark Klein. Since then, such comedians as Sinbad and Roseanne Barr (who, Reef said, was actually booed off the stage during her performance) have performed there.
Now, Comedy Caravan has shows every Monday and Saturday evenings at 7:30 p.m. and 10:15 p.m.
Monday night audiences usually consist of "professionals, townies and old people who don't stay up until midnight," Reef said, laughing. "The late show is 95 percent college students, and the Saturday shows are usually a complete mix."
Although some of the comedians who perform at Bear's Place are locals, they are all booked through Louisville, and Bear's Place's booking agent, Tom Sobel.
"There are always new comedians," Reef said. "They start as MC's, move up to features, and then to headliners." This system has to do with the amount of material the comedians have and whether audiences think they are funny.
"Testing can backfire," he said, giving Barr's situation as an example. "There are some (comedians) that obviously aren't as funny. Unless you're really huge, no one will really notice the names."
Brad Wilhelm, host of the Monday night shows, defines Bear's Place as "a consistent venue for comedy."
"It provides a well-run pleasant alternative to the norm," he said. The audience, he said, "should be able to have fun. That's what a comedy show should be."
For Wilhelm, this is true. "Every night I walk in here is the funniest night of my life," he said.
Enforcing the fundamentals
Frange considers two-and-a-half years "a good start" for Awkward Silence as far as having good chemistry as a group. The hardest part about improv, he said, is "getting on the same page with other people."
"It takes a lot of time to develop a thing called group mind," Frange said. "It takes trust, understanding the way people think, the subtext of their lines. The best improv groups have been working together for years and years. We bring in new people all the time, and it changes the whole dynamic."
Every member of Frange's group had to undergo much training to be successful at improv. IU offers no classes on improv comedy, but "we sometimes bring professionals here, and there are workshops."
"We have a lot of people here who want to become professionals," Frange said. "We want to get them on the same page as far as what fundamentals we practice in shows. The goal is not to make jokes, but to have strong scenework that creates humorous situations. The fundamentals are what we practice to make us better at creating those situations."
He said the difference between rehearsed comedy and improv is that improv is "creation in the moment."
"Our group will do things in the spur of the moment that are much funnier and more creative than we can think of sitting down and writing," he said.
Frange feels that Awkward Comedy offers the IU and Bloomington communities something unique and different.
"We've taken strides to enhance the comedy community at IU," he said. "Our goal is to introduce as many people as possible to improv comedy, and one of our goals is to involve the audience as much as possible."
On the last Thursday of the month, Awkward Silence hosts a "jam night," during which cast members invite the audience to come onstage and participate in different improv games and activities.
"We want (the audience) to have a good time," Frange said. "Sometimes people forget that the point of comedy is to get people to laugh."
Meredith Enkhoff can be reached at .