After 20 years, Friday Nite Improvs is still getting laughs -- and involving audiences. | Comedy | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

After 20 years, Friday Nite Improvs is still getting laughs -- and involving audiences.

Friday Nite Improvs is the only all-audience-participation improvisation-comedy show in the world. Maybe. But host Ben Mayer hasn't heard of another where audience members not only suggest material but also perform it. So this weekly show at the University of Pittsburgh claims the title.

The longest-running comedy show in town marks its 20th anniversary by continuing the impromptu, and often completely deranged, antics of longtime hosts and student actors.  

The venue, in the Cathedral of Learning basement, is rather shabby; Meyer warns audiences that if they stay long enough, their "children will be born without eyes." Still, up to 200 fans gather weekly to observe the quick wit of those brave enough to take the floor.

Meyer, soliciting participants, tells the youthful crowd: "All of the people here will find you attractive because they will think you're funny. Then you can go home and have unprotected sex and have babies, thus more audience members."

The audience consists mostly of Pitt undergrads. Like the show's makeshift staff, many are involved in the theater department.

Self-described "glorified doorman" John Feightner, 27, has been involved since he was a freshman. He ventured into an 11 p.m. performance and got hooked -- just like the heroin-addicted unicorn he portrayed in a recent improv game.

Liz Labacz, 26, says her involvement began with a flier for free admission in her freshman orientation packet (although the Improvs are not affiliated with Pitt). Labacz too participates in improv games alongside fledgling volunteers.

Meyer says that using ringers along with audience members makes a big difference. "Really, it helps the person on stage, too, because they have an experienced person on stage with them and it makes them look good and will make them want to come back and try it again," the 36-year-old host says.

Meyer assumed emcee duties in 1998, on an interim basis. He never left. In one skit, his duties included warning a "monkey trainer" in a mock Jeopardy game that accusing Troy Polamalu of having escaped from a zoo may warrant a severe beating in this town. 

Launched by theater grad students as an acting workshop, in 1989, the show evolved into an informal evening of spontaneous comedy. The evening also hosts local acts -- mostly musicians -- performing at intermission.

The comedy is completely different each week, created by the suggestions of audience members often working within a game framework.

Excuses, a charades variant, involved two co-workers pantomiming why an employee is late for work. One scenario: "I was late to work because I auto-erotic-asphyxiated myself, woke up pregnant, went to a witch doctor who sent me back in time, where I died."

The kinky self-satisfaction, witch-doctor abortion and death were no problem for the male audience member to guess. But the two college students running around like airplanes made the time-travel a different story. And it was all a far cry from the solemn tone of the faux scholars in another skit, when they lectured about the oppression faced by biblical mold under the tyranny of diabolical "fungal overlords."


Friday Nite Improvs 11 p.m. Fri., Oct. 2 (and every Friday). Studio Theater, Cathedral of Learning (basement), Fifth Avenue at Bigelow, Oakland. $3.

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