Serious comedy

Dec 3, 2008 at 12:00 am

Need a chuckle? As the state, the region and the nation tiptoe 'round the rim of a deep financial abyss, a merry band of rebels in downtown Ferndale is staring down the darkness and thumbing their noses at it.

The spanking new Go Comedy! Improv Theater is a full-time professional comedy venue that offers original productions with a heavy emphasis on improvisation. It debuted last month (Nov. 12) with an ambitious five-night-a-week lineup and a cast of dozens of rotating players. It's an audacious move, to be sure, considering our gloomy fiscal scene. It's also a gutsy one considering how Detroit has a somewhat dubious record for supporting improv clubs (and its players), even in the best of times.

In fact, the Go's big moment is partially a byproduct of failure. See, it rose from the wreckage of two established venues. First we lost Ann Arbor's Improv Inferno, a haven for emerging talent, which closed its doors in 2006, followed shortly by a purge of local performers at the venerable Second City. The Motown franchise of the original comedy icon flourished in the '90s — launching such stars as Larry Joe Campbell and Keegan-Michael Key — but lost some mojo in '05 when it moved from Foxtown to Novi.

And, last season, the company laid off the local troupe and replaced them with a touring company from Chicago and Toronto, swapped most of the local content for archive material, and now faces a somewhat uncertain future. The local improv community was left devastated and ostensibly homeless.

Then an area businessman named Gerald Knight galloped to rescue and ponied up investment dough for the new epicenter. He tapped the vet comedy trio of P.J. Jacokes, Tommy Leroy and Chris DiAngelo to help run the joint.

Now, the space betrays no signs of its previous life as a Secretary of State's office — a particularly grim, fluorescent-lit facility infused with drab Stalinist gloom. No, the new club is clean and modern, dolled up in slinky black, but still brightly lit and inviting, with a cheerfully bustling bar area.

When we attended, it wasn't clear whether the chilly room temp was a result of opening-night jitters or a deliberate move to keep the audience awake, like David Letterman's famously frigid studio conditions.

Also, what's tricky is there are no prices listed for the varied roster of mixed drinks. (See such whimsical menu entries as the "Purple People Eater," the "Nilla Wafer" and the "Joan Collins" — a spin on the old gin-based classic that substitutes ruby red grapefruit juice for lemonade). Even more intriguing are the offerings known as "Dare shots," which promise the irresistible allure of booze and smoky bacon goodness. Yikes. But it ain't nearly as gross as it sounds, though better suited to sipping than rashly pounding. Other attempts to shock the palate, like an unspeakable fusion of Jagermeister and Tabasco sauce, take the joke too far.

Anyway, so why is this comedy club here? And why, in God's name, now?

The 35-year-old DiAngelo is the club's artistic director and a regular performer. He tells us, in a somewhat PR-friendly argot, that the place and time for this new venture dovetail nicely: "We were looking for someplace that was cool and hip, and Ferndale has such a good vibe to it right now, the growth of downtown is just awesome."

Whatever the reason, the timing is damn good to bring the area's fractured comedy tribe back together. "Once the Inferno closed there was wasn't a good place for improvisers to go," DiAngelo continues. "There was a pretty decent community, but there was a very large hole."

DiAngelo ought to know such things. His credit sheet runs deep, with stints at Second City and the Inferno, and as a long-standing member of the Comedy Castle's late, lamented "Totally Unrehearsed." He even had a brief but eventful run as a stand-up comic, scoring supporting slots for huge acts at Pine Knob ("The Three Dog night show was just horrible; it was so bad just scarred me!")

While DiAngelo still enjoys both forms (that's stand-up and improv) his heart is ultimately in "the improv community. It's so much more supportive than the stand-up scene, which is very competitive." Plus, there are more girls in improv.

While DiAngelo admits that stand-up and improv sometimes feud like Werewolves and Vampires, he hopes there's room for both locally, perhaps in the new club.

"We're the only full-time improv theater in Michigan. This is the craft we want to hone," he says. "We want people to get excited, and bring back their family and friends." He'd also like to help keep Detroit on the Improv map, and stanch the hemorrhaging of talent to Chicago and Los Angeles. DiAngelo also believes, whether hyper-optimistic or not, that the influx of tax-break movie productions here will help support local actors, and that perhaps "Joe Schmo who would go to L.A to become famous, can stay here and maybe catch a break."

Anyway, the club's setup's like this: The Wednesday and Thursday night lineup is designed to give emerging local talent a chance to develop. Friday and Saturday nights are dubbed the "All-Star Comedy Showdown," which pits two teams of three improvisers in a battle for arbitrarily assigned points, sorta like the old TV chestnut Whose Line is it Anyway. The victor of each round is determined with the aid of a gimmicky applause meter, a large prop — complete with colorful flashing lights — that drops from the ceiling. Also, the audience receives little pencils and questionnaires to fill out, much like sushi menus.

When we attended, the teams were known as "Animal Cops" and "Bachelor Party" respectively. The "games" were a mix of well-traveled standards like freeze tag, and a few fresh concepts. Everyone was solid but the action was dominated by Jaime Moyer, a 32-year-old husky-voiced blond dynamo who could easily become a breakout star. She was a stitch, barking out punch lines with aplomb — at one point she offered up a killer Tina Turner impression.

The early weekend shows are followed by a more "grown-up" late show entitled "Dark Matter" which is not especially dark, but looser and more raucous. Freed from the formalism and special effects of the earlier show, the performers riff in longer-form pieces based on suggestions from the audience. (Particularly memorable was a silly, free-flowing ballerina skit that put Jacokes' previously hidden dance abilities to good use.)

Sunday night showcases see a unique scripted piece called Timeless: The Danceical. Written, directed and choreographed by Go weekend regular Lauren Bickers, the show's an energetic send-up of such toe-tapping '80s screen cheese as Dirty Dancing and Lambada. After a successful run at Planet Ant and a summer stop in Chicago, Danceical is a perfectly quirky example of the off-kilter atmo that the Go hopes to create. No joke.

Go Comedy! Improv Theater: 261 E. Nine Mile Rd., Ferndale; 248-327-0575;

Corey Hall is a freelance writer. Send comments to [email protected]