Northern Exposure: Off-Off Campus takes its act citywide

The 21st generation of Off-Off campus, the famed University of Chicago improv comedy troupe, has come into its own. Meek and fresh-faced when they premiered last winter (with an adorable Captain Planet routine), their members now feel well-worn, perhaps even a tad bit jaded. The stage patter is assured, the characters incline easily into their unfolding absurdities, the comedic tensions develop and pop pleasantly and precisely. All this maturity was gained, as it always is, at a cost–the troupe lost two of its members to study abroad syndrome. Having healed these deep spiritual wounds, the 21st has since settled into a virile adulthood. For the cynical observer, given the life-cycle of performance groups, this can only mean they’re a step away from senility and/or self-caricature. But against these imaginary yet rhetorically convenient skeptics, the group has been developing plans for a fairly ambitious North-ward expansion.

“There has recently been a growing sentiment among Off-Off members that maybe we ought to set more professional goals for our organization, such as being more of a serious theater group and starting to align ourselves more closely with the Chicago improv scene,” discloses Bryan Duff, a beady-eyed member of the 21st. It’s not that they’ve taken their homegrown audience for granted–to be sure, the group is well aware that they’ve got a good thing going in the Blue Gargoyle–“but we have always kind of felt like we’re more than just a college comedy group, not only due to our strong ties to the Second City, but because of the amazing people we’ve been lucky enough to have in our group.” The current challenge is therefore how to balance being an intimate university theatre group and a Chicago theater group, given some of the conflicting stylistic and logistical pressures involved in being both.

As for their expansion strategy, the group has formed a committee to start marketing more heavily on the North Side, particularly at iO, Annoyance, and Second City, the more prominent sketch forums. “We really want to get some of our improv idols down to the South Side to see some of our shows.” They’ve been performing about once a quarter at iO, as well as at the Chicago Sketchfest for the past few years, and are gathering funds to fly out to LA in the spring for the Fracas! improv festival. Many have begun training at iO and The Annoyance to buff up and get a toehold into the industry.

“The Chicago comedy scene is ridiculously competitive, filled with tons of adults. It’s kind of weird being a part of that at such a young age really. There seems to be a bit of ageism (perhaps deservedly so) out there that feels like most people our age aren’t ready to be performing at iO regularly… although we tend to differ.” And they do have some cred: they train 20 hours (spread over 6 days) a week, considerably more than the average college group and probably more than some of the pros “just temporarily” waiting tables by day. “Though there are tons of people who are more than happy existing in this extremely rich comedic environment, there are lots of people who view this as a means to a greater ends.” Combined with an unparalleled density of improvisers and sketch comedians, this gives the scene kind of a competitive feel, which clashes with Off-Off’s attitude of collective-solidarity. How much of a tension this might create between their local act and their greater Chicago ambitions remains to be seen.

How will Off-Off’s current, rather UofC-centric humor work with a more mainstream (but sophisticated) audience, and how might it have to be adapted? The 21st’s performance at Chicago’s Sketchfest last Sunday let these delicate questions play themselves out in the searing glare-pool of 200 paying festival-goers. The Sketchfest, started in 2001 with the express aim of “[creating] a supportive and creative venue to showcase the best sketch comedy from around the nation free from any costs so that each group can solely focus on the creative aspect of their shows,” featured more than 100 groups this years in as many performances. New spaces often mean rough edges, and the group dealt gracefully with some early technical problems and awkward staging. Ultimately, although some of the Marx jokes didn’t resonate the same way they do so esoterically inside University Church, the new scale fit them well, as evidenced by the snorts and roaring applause.