A cast of characters including Leonardo DiCaprio, a word-crazy spelling bee contestant and an anthropomorphic crocodile appeared in the Ballpit Whalers’ first improv comedy show on Sunday. Justin Martin ’19 and Jacob Skolnik ’19 — who has since left the group — founded the Ballpit Whalers to address the lack of accessibility and opportunity for improv comedy on campus. The name of the one-hour romp, Please Clap, comes from a line presidential hopeful Jeb Bush delivered to an audience during a speech in New Hampshire.
Held in the lower level of the Horn Gallery, the show was cozy. About 20 students gathered in the space, sitting on cushions or on the floor to watch the seven performers. First years Tobias Baumann, Emma Easley, Jessie Griffith, Justin Martin, Conner McEldowney, Devon Musgrave-Johnson and Daniel Olivieri performed their own mix of sketch and improv comedy.
The show held some moments of true ingenuity. Many of the sketches were circular and held a dramatic arc, the mark of a good joke. Musgrave-Johnson, who is also a Collegian arts assistant, portrayed Leonardo DiCaprio, who was constantly chasing after the improvised Oscars. At one point, the group set up a clever situation in which Amazon Inc. brought them anything they wanted if they just wished for it aloud. One of the more shy characters in the sketch, played by Olivieri, wished for self-esteem.
Some sketches or scenes seemed cut short, or felt underdeveloped. The group set up one situation in which the obvious resolution was that Griffith’s Anne Hathaway needed to turn into a zombie, but the sketch went off in an entirely new direction with a new prompt from another member.
This is the nature of improv, of course, as sometimes jokes just don’t land or drift off into waters unknown. Especially with the long-form nature of some of the Whalers’ sketches — two of the sketches reached a length of 20 minutes — sustaining a thread at times proved difficult.
The inexperience of the group showed when members rushed more substantial jokes. Some of the players ended scenes too early in a game called “freeze,” ensuring the drama and comedy of the on-stage joke never fully rang with the audience. On the other hand, the only way to mitigate inexperience is to gain experience, and it is obvious these performers could be even more successful if given more time to listen to one another, to fully appreciate one another as comedians and to gain more of an instinct as a group. One of the particularly good moments came when group co-leader Musgrave-Johnson beckoned Griffith to the stage for a skit with a wordless look.
The show’s production needed work. Watching this show seemed like watching a group of friends sitting in a room riffing with one another, and maybe there’s no shame in that. That very well might be the style of the Ballpit Whalers: to bring personal, intimate, side-splitting improvisational comedy to campus. If so, they were refreshingly honest.
McEldowney says he hopes the group will attract more audience members when it stages its second show in the fall, including “anyone with a pulse and a sense of humor.”