Depending on how you define “theater,” Austin has either four or five (or a dozen) improv theaters. But Austin definitely has five proper improv schools. They are, in alphabetical order:
- ColdTowne Theater
- The Hideout Theatre
- The Institution Theater
- Merlin Works
- The New Movement Theater*
Over time—because I am human and prone to generalizing—I have come to think of each of these five theaters/schools as having personalities. I’ve fully anthropomorphized each theater countless times. For example: I used to think of The Institution Theater as the cover of Sgt. Peppers for some unknowable reason; and other times I’ve thought it had a distinctly Salvador Dali patina.
And now I’ve assigned each theater its own modern American humorist.
Why? Because I can, because I got time. And because improvised theater had better hold its humor mask at least as close-by as its drama mask. I’ll present one of these little flights-of-fancy per day, Monday thru Friday. And we’ll go alphabetically, which means we start with…
ColdTowne = Jack Handey
Ironically enough, this reference might be lost on many of ColdTowne’s newer performers—that ebbing sea of bearded men and girls with rad bicycles. Sit back, relax, and let’s take a walk down Comedy Memory Lane. This walk will be tricky, because you are sitting back and relaxing.
Back in the early 1980s, Jack Handey–his Christian name–left his job as a reporter in San Antonio and began writing comedy. He wrote bits for Steve Martin and National Lampoon Magazine. But Handey is and always will be—unless he goes on a shooting rampage through a mall–remembered as the brain behind Deep Thoughts. Deep Thoughts are “one-line” jokes, musings, puns, admonitions, snippets, absurdist advice, misdirections, etc. They’re humor nuggets.
Whatever their classification, “Deep Thoughts” are LOL funny, i.e., you will laugh in a way that creates an audible noise. Three of my favorites:
- If you saw two guys named Hambone and Flippy, which one would you think liked dolphins most? I’d say Flippy, wouldn’t you? You’d be wrong though. It’s Hambone.
- Probably the saddest thing you’ll ever see is a mosquito sucking on a mummy. Forget it, little friend.
- Maybe in order to understand mankind, we have to look at the word itself. Basically, it’s made up of two separate words — “mank” and “ind.” What do these words mean? It’s a mystery, and that’s why so is mankind.
I don’t want to “make the case” for Jack Handey’s brilliance. For the same reason Neal deGrasse Tyson doesn’t want to “make the case” for gravity: it just is. If you need an endorsement, George Saunders (the most interesting short story writer I know of) says that “Jack Handey is the funniest writer in America.”
I think of ColdTowne Theater as pure comedy. They do shows seven nights a week. In my book, that’s a bona fide community service. I.e., the City of Austin should subsidize ColdTowne to keep cranking out comedy and comedians.
Because lo, my friends, comedy will become only more important. The arrow is pointing upward and to the right. Until death is cured, comedy—and by “comedy” I mean the attempt to cope with life’s anxieties vis a vis funny shit—will reign supreme. Comedy laboratories, which is what ColdTowne Theater is; let’s face it, they kick out hypotheses, test them onstage, and then move on to the next–all at warp speed. Yes, comedy laboratories such as ColdTowne may, in the future, become critical trading villages in the scorched apocalyptic desert we surely are headed toward. Comedy might become the Gold Standard of this hellscape. So what I’m saying is: When the shit goes down, when the asteroid strikes or the virus appears, if I’m lucky enough to be around, I’m making a beeline to that cement bunker on Airport Blvd. They got popcorn and a sturdy stage.
Here’s another hyperbole. Let’s say I find myself stranded on a desert island. One of those desert islands from The New Yorker cartoons: just me, four square feet of sand, and an oversized palm. If I’m allowed only one compendium on this dessert island—and, c’mon, you know that old yarn: “Which compendium would you to take to a desert island?”—well, I might have to go with Jack Handey’s complete Deep Thoughts. (It’s running neck-and-neck with maybe, like, every Far Side ever.)
Jack Handey is a slave to the economy of words. His keystroke tight-fistedness is what make him legend, in my personal Book of Legends (A-L). For example, could you possibly better word this Deep Thought:
I’d rather be rich than stupid.
Improve that. Go ahead, I’ll wa—
You cannot! You were foolish for even attempting it. You’re lucky the Emperor’s recent orgy has left him feeling sympathetic, your life will be spared this time.
Why is word economy important? Because it creates more space for imagination. Deep Thoughts are prima facie funny, sure, but they tend to suggest an entire story–or at least a very detailed moment, mood, narrator. Handey gets to the funny, quick, and then lets us fill in the rest.
The worst Deep Thoughts are as satisfying as a good magic trick.
Dave Buckman is a legit improv veteran who offers a bunch of workshops at ColdTowne. He knows what’s what, and he knows how to get you to fix it. Dave’s teaching is a good tightening of the improv screws, an oiling of the cogs. I am going to allow Dave to use the phrase “oiling of the clogs” as a blurb on his website if he chooses.
Once, Dave was dissecting a scene I’d just done—some hot mess—and he mentioned that I was stream-rolling my partner.
As usual. And then he talked about using master strokes in a scene. Master Strokes basically means slowing down a bit, listening, taking it in, then responding naturally. Easier said than done, of course, but it’s a handy phrase. “Master strokes,” in addition to being immune to any sort of innuendo or wordplay, is also one of those “teaching moments” that I keep coming back to, because maybe more than any issue, I struggle with talking too damn much in improv. My lines go on needlessly long. I interrupt other players. I jarringly steal focus when it doesn’t need stealing. Even when I’m playing just one more person in a crowd of bystanders I’ll find myself saying lines or speaking up. Bah!
My personality tends to make me an overly talky improviser; but if I’m able to remind myself of that phrase–master strokes–then my work tends to slow down a bit and dig itself into the real world. Real, then funny.
Handey’s the same way. Say what needs to be said, do what naturally would be done, and try to stop there. More of then not, you’ll have said the perfect thing, the truthful thing. Anything additional is, as ever, bullshit.
Final note. If you decide to look-up Handey or his Deep Thoughts online, try to do it through his official website. Or go buy one of his books. Might I suggest his latest book, The Stench of Honolulu? If any humor writing is worth supporting financially, it’s Handey’s stuff.
If ColdTowne were a meat it would be cornish game hen.
If ColdTowne were an NFL penalty it would be running into the kicker.
If ColdTowne were a U2 song from the 1990s it would be Lemon (off “Zooropa”).
*I took multiple improv classes at The Hideout & Merlin Works.