Thomas Burns Scully
Improv has become ubiquitous with the New York acting scene in the last forty years or so. Commedia dell’arte may be the first documented example of formal improv performers, but improv as we know it today gained its mainstream popularity with the burgeoning careers of John Belushi, Bill Murray and the rest of the Saturday Night Live/Second City generation. Since then, improv has evolved in to a subculture and community in its own right. Today, an actor’s resume isn’t complete without some kind of improv training, UCB is the go-to New York location for ‘long-form’ improv classes and the recent return of ‘Whose Line is it Anyway?’ to our screens has shown that theres still a place for ‘short-form’ improv in our lives. There are hundreds of improv teams in New York City, hundreds more the country over, every one one of them with a strange name and an individual MO, but could you say for certain, who are the best improvisers in the world? Well, everyone loves ‘Whose Line’ stalwarts Colin Mochrie and Ryan Stiles, but ask an improv aficionado, and there’s a good chance that they’ll tell you that it’s ‘TJ and Dave’. After seeing them in person at Town Hall on Saturday, I may well agree with that appraisal.
Their show is absurdly simple in format. TJ and Dave come out on to the stage before they start, they address the audience, tell them “Trust us, everything you are about to do is completely made up,” then the lights go down. When they come up again, they make up an hour-long play. Just like that. It is amazing. On the particular night I saw, they created a workplace comedy which saw a group of mismatched professors discussing liaisons, cysts and indoor skydiving. Each of them played at least three different characters, and created a sprawling world of intrigue around them. There really is no point in me describing the plot to you because if you do go see the show, you won’t see that show. But it most definitely was all made-up, and it was brilliant.
The most incredible thing about ‘TJ and Dave’, is how hard it is to believe that it’s not all pre-planned. That can get said about improv easily, but with TJ and Dave it’s almost impossibly true. They take no audience suggestions, but are so calmly assured and gently methodical with their approach, so adept at layering their characters with depth, at creating the impression of a theatrical plan in place, at creating callbacks, setting up slow-burns, that even though you know in your heart of hearts that they are making it up, you still can’t quite believe it logically. It’s like going to see ‘Penn and Teller’, you know it’s a trick, but you’re probably lying if say you know exactly how they do it. The pair are clearly so comfortable and in tune with one another, that almost anything is possible when they are on stage. There is no corpsing, no nudge-nudge wink-wink moments with the audience, no campy pop-culture references or borrowed jokes, all the humor comes out of these two people being incredible at what they do, and creating characters that naturally facilitate comedy. It’s bewilderingly good.
If there’s a problem with the show, it suffered, at least on the night I saw it, from a lack of story structure. This is a recurring theme with my last few reviews, odd how that goes. This is not to say that the story didn’t make sense, it all flowed and functioned perfectly, but the show never built to a climax. It had peaks and valleys throughout, but it never built to a specific conclusion, it just kept going, following the natural rhythms of the characters then left me the slightest bit cold. Hardly a complaint though, considering how much fun I had.
I should also mention that musician Robbie Fulks opened for them, performing dazzling renditions of his own country and blues grass songs, accompanying himself with lighting fast guitar playing. An excellent opener, if slightly disconnected from the improv, well worth a look if you are interested in good music. However, we’re here to talk about ‘TJ and Dave’. These two make a one-hour improv jam look as tightly written as an episode of ‘Arrested Development’, or any other great sitcom you might think of. They perform regularly in New York and Chicago, and I urge you with all the will I can to go and see them. Particularly if you’re an actor or an improvisor; watching them is a lesson in trust and craft. A lot of people say that the mark of a true master is to make something difficult look easy. ‘TJ and Dave’ go one further. They make the impossible look impossible, and then do it anyway. So yes, they may very well be the best improvisors in the world. Go and see them.
‘TJ and Dave’ perform regularly in New York and Chicago. Details of upcoming shows can be found on their website (tjanddave.com) and on their Facebook page (facebook.com/tjanddave).
This review was written by Thomas Burns Scully, a New York based writer, actor and musician. His work has been lauded in Time Out NY and the New York Times, and his writing has been performed on three continents. He is generally considered to be the thrifty person’s Renaissance man.
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