WELL, THAT HAPPENED: Unfettered Entertainment

By on September 28, 2016

Lessons from the Laff Staff and the spirit of improv.

The Laff Staff circa 2009. (Left to right) Chris Staron, Nick Staron, Jeff Bratz, Andrew Munz, Jon Christensen, Kjera Strom Henrie and Brian Lenz. (Photo: George Hayek)

The Laff Staff circa 2009. (Left to right) Chris Staron, Nick Staron, Jeff Bratz, Andrew Munz, Jon Christensen, Kjera Strom Henrie and Brian Lenz. (Photo: George Hayek)

JACKSON HOLE, WY – Even though I have not performed in a Laff Staff improv show since 2014, I still get asked when the next show is. I performed with the troupe from the beginning, a solid five (or six?) seasons of filling the Black Box Theatre with snickers, awkwardness and some bad singing. In our heyday, we sold out nearly every show in the season, which ran from the fall through the spring.

The Laff Staff became a consistent form of entertainment that evolved from a little-known cult classic to box office success. Everyone was welcome, and “laffs” were more or less guaranteed. Fan favorites like Justin Polly, Jon Christensen, Emma Pope, Jeff Bratz and the group’s founder, Todd Hjelt, etc., have since moved out of Wyoming.

The evolution of the Laff Staff, be it through the games that were played or the people that were playing them, was witnessed by our incredibly loyal fan base. Familiar faces occupied the seats each weekend.

“How many of you have been to a Laff Staff performance before?” we would ask at the start of the show.

The whole crowd often raised their hands, drowning the newbies under a tide of enthusiastic limbs. So we tried a different tactic.

“How many of you have never been to a show before?”

Ah, there they were. The friends of friends who’d been dragged to a local comedy show. Expectations were often low with the new folks, because, honestly, we’re in the mountains of western Wyoming. How funny could these people be?

But somehow we actors managed to pull ourselves together and deliver. I’ll be the first to admit that only 50 percent of the shows were knock-it-outta-the-park homeruns (and that’s being generous). But I can also say that there wasn’t a single show where the Laff Staff, a collected group of weirdos from different walks of life, didn’t give it their all.

Sure, jokes fell flat. Yes, accents and impressions were often a mess.

But under the warm lights, with nothing prepared, and zero shits to give, we’d step into a scene, and do our best to exalt the audience’s suggestions and deliver pure shambolic entertainment. Yes, our audiences were forgiving, and the Laff Staff wouldn’t be the success they are today if they weren’t. After the show we’d line up, offering up high-fives and hugs to every person who exited the theater. We’d say goodbye to friends, take the compliments, and try to deliver a better show next time.

Last week I went to see the Mike Birbiglia film, Don’t Think Twice, about a veteran group of improvisers called The Commune who perform at an improv institute in New York City. In the film, when an SNL-esque show called Weekend Live starts scouting for new members, Jack (Keegan-Michael Key) is cast and ultimately leaves the group. The remaining members juggle with their own improv futures, deciding whether a life of low-paying improv performances is really what they want.

Sitting in the theater, I squirmed, both out of nostalgia and dread. The film is incredibly accurate to my experiences with the Laff Staff, as well as my two years of training and performance in Chicago at the iO Theater, Annoyance Theater and The Second City. Everything from the performer archetypes to the rapport with the audiences, the film hits the on the head (or in the coffin) of the improv comedy scene.

My ambitions of Icelandic exploits pulled me from the Laff Staff in the summer of 2014, and I haven’t performed improv since. That’s not to say I’m ready to let it go for good. There’s something therapeutic about improv, something addictive that lures even the most novice of performers.

I’ll always be hooked to that feeling of having nothing but a blank slate and a suggestion to guide my path, of saying “yes,” and making others look good.

Now a renegade devoid of a stage, I’ve implemented that mentality into my daily life in hopes of somehow reliving those glory days. Whether or not I’ll get on an improv stage again is unknown, but for now, I’m content with dishing out the applause and the suggestions rather than receiving them. PJH

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