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Banana & Monkey

Improv group Vertical Imbalance explains how to be funny on the spot.

by Mary Cashiola

t the front of the bar at Kudzu's, Greg Childers is asking the audience for props Monty Hall-style. As veteran audience members begin rifling through their belongings, he focuses on a woman at the bar.

"Ma'am," he asks, "do you have a prop?"

"Only my husband," she laughs.

Moments later, her husband is on stage, wearing khaki shorts, a polo shirt, and a scared expression. Four members of improvisational comedy troupe Vertical Imbalance share the stage with him. They are playing the prop game -- each team of two improvisers gets an object they have never seen before and, taking turns, try to come up with as many different uses for it as they can.

This is the essence of improvisational comedy, taking suggestions from the audience -- Richard Nixon, tractors, projectile vomiting, a husband -- and inserting them into a game or scene. Hopefully in a way that makes the audience laugh.

To be able to do that, Childers, the founder of the group, says that an improviser has to be able to listen, have an outgoing personality, be quick on his feet, and have no fear of embarrassment.

"You have to know everything," says Warren Grantham, another member of the troupe. Because the audience can suggest anything, each improviser has to be prepared for any topic. As Childers puts it, "No individual is smarter than the entire audience."

Childers, who was a member of Comedy Zone's house troupe the Overton Square Pegs for four years before the club went out of business and the group disbanded, started Vertical Imbalance last year.

"I never lost the urge to do it [improv]," Childers says. "In October, I held auditions at the University of Memphis and found some very funny people." The group, which then held another audition after some of the original members dropped out, had its first performance in March.

Since then, Vertical Imbalance has garnered an audience of quite a few regulars, as well as the new faces they see every week. About 50 people show up for each performance, but the regulars are the ones who make the improvisers work.

For the prop game, for instance, Childers says, "The regulars know to bring props. We've got people hunting through their attics," bringing in lampshades, catcher's mitts, BB guns, and sprinkler toys.

"The more people come back, the more people try to stump us," Childers says.

Which is something the group welcomes.

"Anyone can do sex jokes and gross jokes," says Grantham. "And even when we're given that stuff, it's important to play to the top of your intelligence level."

"We'll take a filthy subject and do it with a spin; we'll try to look at it differently," says Childers. He cites an example when an audience member suggested someone's "big balls." Instead of going the obvious route, the group used the suggestion to do a gag about kids' toys.

To keep the show fresh, the group changes who plays each game, the order in which the games are played, and the games themselves.

"Each week we try to add a new game, so the audience is caught off guard," says Childers. The show's most recent addition is the musical styling of Miss Emily Marks. Marks, one of the newer members of the group, takes her guitar, as well as a subject and style of music suggested by the audience, into another room. Later she returns to perform the song she made up while the show continued. Recently the audience requested a heavy-metal song about bestiality. When Marks came back with the refrain, "Sex with my chicken is so fingerlicking ... good," most of the audience members quickly sang along.

But even with all the variety, the audience has its favorites. They seem to love Party Quirks, a game where one improviser is the host of the party and has to guess what strange quirks his "guests" have. Likewise, some words, like banana and monkey, tend to come up again and again, perhaps because of the troupe's own obsessions or just because of a word's inherent humor, like cheese.

"Cheese is always funny," says Childers.

"And processed meat," troupe member Shawn Peyton adds.

Then Grantham chimes in, "Group members also have a thing for midget porn."

Although Childers and Grantham have both done improv before, the other six members of the troupe haven't. The group practices "vigorously" once a week for a minimum of two hours, going over the past week's show: what worked, what didn't, which order worked best.

"I'm totally addicted to it," says Grantham. He says that there's nothing like getting a laugh, even if it's just a snicker from one person in the back of the room.

"Isn't life just an improvisation?" Childers asks. "We just do it on cue."

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