I’m going to review improv chairs.
But before we crank up that excitement, a little background: I love the website Fiverr.com. Its premise is simple: Pay $5 to someone who gives you something in return. Most of the offerings are either bizarre (one girl will write any word you want on her lower lip, take a high-rez pic of it, and send you the photo) or sad (“I will give you 50 Facebook likes for $5!”).
But some of the deals are fantastic, including the artist who made this illustration of my face for 100 nickels:
I decided that my main improv troupe, Mandinka, needed a logo. So I bought one from one of the higher-rated logo designers on Fiverr.
He had me fill out a questionnaire to get an idea of “what I’m all about.” In my responses, I tried to convey the spirit of improv comedy and what I was looking for—e.g., a logo that’s fun and playful without being cheesy or old-school, something that conveys the high-energy approach of our troupe, something that is simple and, if possible, conceptual. I loaded him up with adjectives.
Turns out, when you buy a $5 logo you tend to get a logo worth about $5. Here are the results:
Of course not! They’re terrible! It makes Mandinka look like a pair of middle-aged ex-hippie fancy-pants dancers. And the silhouette that’s supposed to be me suggests I can, and do, lift my leg in a swooshy, dancerly manner. I cannot do this. I do not do this.
I mention all of this because the seller, after reading my answers, had some follow up questions. Basically, he needed something to grasp, some image or thing to illustrate.
So I told him the only thing improvisers have: CHAIRS!
Back when I did slam poetry, almost every slam in the country used a microphone in its logo. Sometimes the microphone was an old-timey version, like they used in the 30s and which are gorgeous. Sometimes they were simple modern microphones. Sometimes the microphones were on fire, and sometimes they had lightning bolts shooting from them.
There was always a microphone.
But improvisers? We who make shit up on the spot? We have chairs. That’s about it. And it would be especially difficult to work “pantomiming” into a logo.
I got to thinking about chairs—that much unheralded human ubiquity. And so here, dear readers, in my ongoing effort to serve the public, are reviews of five improv chairs.
1. The Bentwood
A classic. The classic. Timeless and yet, somehow, out of time. Bentwood chairs are the navy suit of improv chairs—the apple pie, the Manhattan, the Toyota Camry. These will never go out of style. And you can find them at any improv theater that loves this country.
The Bentwood offers a strong shot of nostalgia, as it harkens back to a simpler time of real American craftsmanship. It reminds us of a time when this country actually made things (THANKS, OBAMACARE!) Seeing one conjures images of Norm Abram, that bespectacled carpenter, toiling away in his dusty New Yankee Workshop, making use of his girders and miter saws and trusses.
But make no mistake! Because as well built as the Bentwood is, it’s also a modern man. He wears a tuxedo to the Christmas party because nobody wears tuxedos anymore. He changes his own oil. He drives a Cadillac on the weekends.
The Bentwood is a renaissance chair, willing to do whatever it takes to get the job done.
For the improviser, few chairs are more utilitarian. The Bentwood can stand center-stage and hold its own as a single item of simple beauty. But it can also be hurled across the stage in a fit of fury and not shatter. It can be leaned on its side and still maintain its lupine elegance. It’s sturdy without being all in-your-face about it.
If there’s a shortcoming to the Bentwood, it’s its negative space. Its old-school patriotic humility prevents it from asserting itself. It can disappear in the blackness of the room, and sometimes you bump into it like an asshole.
2. The Folding
The Bentwood’s autistic cousin, the Folding offers none of the Bentwood’s chic while going overboard on the blue-collar working man aesthetic.
The folding chair is there when we’re born, and it will be there when we slip the surly bonds of mortality. We sit in one the moment we learn how to sit. Elementary school talent shows? The folding chair. Weddings held in non-traditional locations? Folding chairs. Improvised card games at that one guy’s pool party? Folding chairs!
And while our technological masters have managed to add baubles and doo-dads to the standard Folding—including rubber stoppers on the feet and padding on the seat and back—I’m concerned with the original version: metal. All metal. Metal from head to toe. And, ideally, metal the color of dirty hippie bathwater—an off-putting mix of grey and beige and a touch of green. The real Folding is designed to acquiesce, not to offend, to stand like obedient soldiers in the back closet until they’re whipped out for a mediocre event.
It’s impossible to enumerate the Folding’s features without noting its space-saving nature. It is a chair that, eponymously, folds. It folds up. You take this chair and you fold it. So you have more room for your casserole dishes and card tables! In this economy, where space is precious, what better benefit to have in a chair than its ability to almost disappear from view?!
But the Folding’s folding betrays its personality, which is akin to a shifty teenage oboe player, i.e., the Folding is supremely unconfident. It knows that it is the color of oatmeal and is easily dented. It knows that nobody has, in the history of mankind, been excited to see or sit upon it. Further, the Folding understands that its appearance at an event is a chore. It must be un-folded. It is not permanent. It’s whipped out for cheap and dirty use, and then banged back into the storage closet. It’s a whore, the Folding chair. Which is why it’s ideal for improvisers.
3. The La-Z-Boy
Full disclosure: I don’t own one of these plush recliners, but I plan to buy one in my early 50s. It’s a chair designed for a man in his early 50s. If you’re younger than 50 and have recently purchased a La-Z-Boy, you ought to get a colonoscopy tout suite. But let’s face it: this is a comfy sumbitch. It’s an ass cloud, meant to make you nap. Watch golf on a Sunday afternoon in a La-Z-Boy and you’ll wake up Monday morning feeling 20 pounds lighter.
It’s fucking comfy, duh.
It’s gigantic and impossible to move around the stage easily. Which makes it a terrible chair for improv. Also, it’s impossible to use a La-Z-Boy in an improv show and not play a character from Tennessee.
4. The Pod
I first saw this chair in the movie Sleepless in Seattle. There was a cute girl in it. She was surly and smart, and thus, I associated the pod chair with smart, aloof, thoughtful weirdos. I figured Andy Warhol had a bunch of pod chairs. It space-agey in an 1960s way. It spun 360 degrees! It looked like a giant chicken egg! It was plush in the middle (also like an egg)!
The Pod, much like its Ivy League cousin the Bentwood, harkens back to a simpler time—back when people thought “the future” would be filled with clean curved lines, lots of whiteness, and capsules of all types. It’s an Austin Powers chair. It’s a chair a young Olivia Newton John would sit inside. The Pod longed for knee-high boots. And using one now, in 2013, is akin to having a lava lamp or a Pet Rock—it’s a non-ironic ironic statement on our recent naivete and hopefulness. Also, it spins around.
It spins around. It recreates the womb in sitting form. To sit in a Pod is to return to our mothers, their boundless protection and cozy care. Standing up out of a Pod—not an easy feat for us chubby folks—is like emerging from her loins. We stand up? We are born. We have safe haven from the cruel, endlessly angry world outside. The Pod promises us relief.
As lovely and retro-cool as the Pod is, it’s also a bitch to pick up. Being shaped like a giant plastic egg makes those with slippery hands—as most improvisers have—incapable to moving the Pod around. It just slides right out of our grasp. (There’s a metaphor here about the ungraspable lost youth, or something.) Another unfortunate truth is that sitting in one during an improv scene would instantly transform your character into either a super villain or a quaalude-drowned hippie slut.
5. The Eames Lounge
Best known as the chair on Frasier (which really holds up as a sitcom, by the way), this is one of the finest works by consumer designers Charles and Ray Eames. This married couple devoted their lives to create fine, well crafted, gorgeously simple items—from furniture to children’s toys.
I’d be remiss to attempt a full aesthetic examination of this chair, as it was such a sensation when it was released that countless architects and designers and filmmakers have attempted to explain its form and function. I don’t know nothin’ ‘bout none of that stuff. But I do know that this chair is meant for someone who appreciates the collision between utility and art. One can serve the other, and vice versa. But it requires talent to create and a visionary’s eye to strike the ideal balance. My eyes? They’re mostly meant for cleavage.
This chair creates instant sophistication onstage. If it’s good enough for Frasier, it’s good enough for improvisers. Plus, it is, somehow, even more comfortable than its meth-addicted uncle, the Lay-Z-Boy. It’s both an ass-cloud and an ass-plank.
It costs $3,600. And improvisers fart too much.
5.5. The Ottoman
Named after an ancient empire, the Ottoman is the Robin to chairs’ Batman. It is completely disposable, but can come in handy (footy?) in a pinch. Some improv theaters offer crude Ottomans in the form of large wooden cubes. But instead of putting their feet up on it, improvisers often use them as chairs. But it should be noted that, without a back, it’s never a chair. At best it’s a stool.
The Ottoman deserves more respect. It helped conquer most of Europe, after all. Or at least its namesake did. Yet to this day it’s yanked out from sofas and fancy chairs to be used as a sitting device—usually for your ungrateful and uncouth cousin, Becky.
Fucking Becky, she ruins everything.