I walk into a classroom and help six of my closest friends push all the tables and desks to the edges. Then we form a circle and start chanting, “we’re not bitter.” We take turns saying annoying things about our day; Gideon is tired, I forgot to turn in my stats homework, Matt can’t think of anything bad (again). Then we go back around the circle with good things; my mom’s coming this weekend, Gideon got an A on a midterm, Matt is always filled with joy. Then Erika jumps into the middle and closes her eyes and spins while pointing and the rest of us march the opposite direction in a circle around her. She stops, and points with her eyes still covered: “Give me a monkey noise!” Alisa happily obliges, and Erika tries to figure out who made the noise. After about 10 more minutes of games that include a rap battle, mini-scenes improvised using our fingers and a very high stakes chanting game where you will be eliminated if you mess it up, we are sufficiently warmed up. We line up facing our trainers and get a suggestion. We’re ready to do some college improv. From our suggestion, we improvise an hour-long play set in a middle school locker room where a zombie apocalypse-esque plague takes over the school. It’s a pretty average Wednesday night.
FIRST, A BRIEF EXPLANATION:
I was cast as a member of Off-Off Campus the first week of my first year at the University of Chicago. Off-Off is the nation’s oldest, longest-running collegiate sketch and improv team. Off-Off was originally founded by Bernie Sahlins (the founder of Second City!) in 1986, and cast the first-ever generation of Off-Off Campus. A generation is around 7 to 8 students who are cast in the fall of their first or second years. The new generation of Off-Off spends fall and winter quarters training and then in the spring they become the performing generation and put on weekly improv shows. In the fall, a new generation is cast and the previously performing generation retires. Once a generation retires they become Off-Off alumni, like Sarah Koenig (Serial podcast), Greg Kotis (author of Urinetown), and Tami Sagher (writer for 30 Rock, How I Met Your Mother, and Broad City). You can go to the University of Chicago’s special collections and look at all the sketches written since the very first generation, and we still archive the sketches we write today!
Okay, with those terms in mind, back to your regularly scheduled programming…
I went to an Off-Off show Friday night of Orientation Week and I was blown away. I thought it was hilarious and I wanted to be a part of it. I didn’t have any real experience with improv, but I had done stand-up comedy, which use some of the same skill sets. But, I was also well aware that there were kids who had been on improv teams all of highschool and when I went to their free improv workshop and saw about a hundred other kids there, I was ready to kiss my dream of being on the team goodbye.
But the workshop went well, and all the members of Off-Off were so kind and encouraging, so I decided to audition while still keeping my expectations in check. I showed up to the auditions the next night with my roommate and best friend in tow. Off-Off auditions require two people because everything is better with a buddy (also it's incredibly difficult to do improvise alone). If you don’t bring your own partner they’ll randomly assign someone else auditioning to go with you.
We waited outside for our audition slot and had to fill out info sheets with funny questions like “Should identical twins get one vote or two?” and “Who is your celebrity crush?” Then when we were called into the room we were given three different suggestions and acted out three different scenes. I don’t remember much, I think at one point I was a lady from HR trying to take the office on a pumpkin patch outing when it was 98 degrees out. I just remember a lot of screaming and I wasn’t really sure if it was funny screaming.
Two days later, the callback list was posted. Off-Off is really old school and only prints out two hard copy callback lists and puts them on two buildings on campus that you have to actually walk to (ugh) and look at a printed piece of paper (ick) and have strangers see you freak out while you look (ahhhh!). I couldn’t believe it when I saw my name printed there. I was shocked. My stomach was full of butterflies and pretzels and whatever else nervous energy manifests itself as. My callback time was at 7pm that night, so I had all day to stress myself out.
When I showed up I met the seven other students that were in my callback group. We were greeted by two current members of Off-Off and lead up to a classroom where we started playing warm up theater games and then suddenly the door to the classroom burst open.
“ONE OF YOU COME WITH ME!” an older Off-Off member at the door yelled, and one brave soul from our group followed him. One by one they snatched us out of the room like that, and soon enough it was my turn. I followed the member as he ran up the stairs. “Are you excited?” he asked, grinning. “Uh, sort of,” I panted as I tried to keep up. The truth was I was insanely nervous. He opened the door and I heard a roar of cheering and clapping and fists pounding on desks. I walked into a pitch black room with all the members of Off-Off smiling at me and holding notebooks. A person with a camera jumped up and took what I can only assume was an extremely flattering candid headshot. Then I drew a one-word suggestion out of a hat and told I was supposed to improvise a character monologue based on that suggestion for however long I wanted. Mine was “lifeguard.” I played a drill sergeant type head lifeguard reporting back to the other lifeguards about all the issues the country club was having. After the monologue came rapid-fire questions from all of the twenty-some members of Off-Off: what was my favorite color? What was my favorite TV show? What did my ideal Friday night look like? Then I was sent back down to the warm-up room. After everyone finished their individual callback, we were all brought up as a group and performed a series of scenes together. Then it was over and we were sent home to wait until the next morning for the final cast list to be posted.
I remember the morning before I checked the list very vividly because I was so incredibly nervous. I was on the elliptical at the gym and the heart rate monitor was skyrocketing. As I walked to the list I kept repeating to myself that it would be totally fine if I didn’t get in. I took a deep breath, looked at the list, and then lost my freaking mind. I was so thrilled. I called my mom and my sister and my friends from high school who had no idea what “Off-Off Campus” meant. They didn’t realize that this was it, I had found my partners in laughs and I had found my home on campus.
Later that day I was serenaded by the members of Off-Off and given a rose, and it was official: I was a college improviser.
If there’s one thing Off-Off loves, it’s a debut, and the 32nd Generation had 3 of them our first year. First, was our Improv Debut. It was the first time we were on stage in our entire college improv careers. There is always tons of hype leading up to Off-Off’s annual introduction of their newest generation, and ours was no different. The 31st Generation ceremoniously faked died on stage and then we came out and did a choreographed dance and our first-ever improv form. The comedy club we performed in was sold-out. The energy was palpable. The crowd chanted 32, 32, 32, and when the lights come up they went bananas. It was fun and incredibly rewarding after all our training that quarter.
Post improv debut, being cradled by my Off-Off mom and dad who trained me all quarter.
Winter quarter can be a bit of an adjustment from fall. It’s cold, the days are short, everyone is cooped up inside. But Off-Off made winter quarter a breeze. I had rehearsal every day to look forward to, which was basically just making jokes and laughing with all my friends.
Winter rehearsals really focus on expanding past just the improv basics of saying “yes and” and making jokes. Winter is when we practiced our Newsies accents and object work (which is where you mime all things on stage like holding a phone or watering plants or using a chainsaw). It’s also where we had a lot of different older members come in to train us. One of my favorite parts of Off-Off is getting to meet and become really good friends with third and fourth years a week into college. They became my mentors in comedy, but also gave good advice about which classes to take, study abroad application tips, and how to get enough sleep (hint: never take an 8:30, you’re not the same spry chicken you were in high school). Winter trainers were all different and all tons of fun. One gave us breaks by doing rap battles while another had us do impressions of everyone in Off-Off. There was never a dull moment.
Improv practice photographs beautifully, as you can see.
Winter is also when we started learning how to write sketch comedy. Sketch comedy is what TV shows like SNL or Key & Peele do. So during the winter, some of the week would be dedicated to sketch training, where we read each other's sketches, write new ones in groups, and offer edits and suggestions. It was sort of like a much lower pressure SNL writing room.
We put together a little mini sketch show with what we wrote throughout the winter. It’s when we learned that memorizing lines is hard and that’s why we love improv so much.
17:20 to 18:15
Spring is when my generation became the performing generation, which meant that we had a show every Friday night. We got to try out lots of different types of long-form improv, like Del Close’s famous Harold or the Armando performed at iO. We even learned some forms invented by previous members of Off-Off, like a “Star Wars,” where you do the first half of a play and then stop in the middle and do the prequel to the play we just improvised.
The rehearsal room was still fun, but a bit more down to business since we were the mainstage act. We had the task of coming up with titles for our shows, putting up posters, and getting a lot of people excited about our work.
College improv is all about grassroots marketing!
In rehearsal, we would run the form that we were doing that week over and over again, each time with a different suggestion, and then our trainer would help us identify the good and bad choices we were making as improvisers. A good choice would be something like choosing to know the other person in the scene, and even better having a long relationship with them (like establishing them as your mom or long term arch-nemesis) a bad choice would be a character that has no idea what's going on, because that puts a lot of pressure on your fellow improvisers to explain things to you. A lot of these improv lessons are good things to do just in regular life. Conversations are always more fun and supportive when you choose to care about someone. Oftentimes in improv in order to say “yes and” to someone else’s idea, you have to give up your own, like if someone hands you something that you think is a cat and they say, “a whole watermelon for you, sir,” then you better start slicing and chomping. This makes you a better compromiser in the real world.
If you are wondering what happens in an improv green room, this is it, all the time, on a continuous loop.
When Friday rolled around we would have a dress rehearsal and then all grab dinner as a group before putting on a full-length show. Our full-length shows were super fun to do. After a whole year of training together, our group had an incredible sense of “group mind,” which basically means we could guess what everyone else on stage was thinking. We could set up and finish each other's punchlines, we knew who could do the best Russian accent and who could list off a lot of random facts about Arizona off the top of their head. There are few things as awesome as improvising an entire play with plot twists and affairs and murders - no script needed.