Comedy can be serious business. While a good performer might make it look easy, anyone who’s ever stood on a stage in front of perfect strangers and tried to make them laugh can attest to the fact that it can be both challenging and intimidating all at the same time.
Like anything, practice makes perfect ... or at least makes it a bit easier. Not surprisingly then, after 25 years, Knoxville’s improv troupe Einstein Simplified has mastered the art of amusing an audience. Its members have mastered the ability to think on their feet, seize the spontaneity and interact with the unknown.
That’s a reflection of the distinct difference between improv and stand-up comedy. Paul Simmons, one of Einstein Simplified’s original founding members, explained the different skill sets.
“With stand-up, you have your material pre-prepared, rehearsed and ready to go,” he said. “With improv, you have a game list, and that’s it. We include the audience in the show. It’s essentially an additional performer who provides the suggestions — the ask-fors — to start our scenes. Sometimes it’s challenging to get the audience to offer them, but over the years, we have worked out ways to warm up the crowd, as well as to introduce first timers to the concept.”
The process can be a leap of faith. The audience has to hope that the performers can make something funny from its suggested scenarios, while those on stage have to use their wits and innate instincts to pull it all off.
“It’s about being open to whatever happens in a scene, and what your scene partners offer,” Simmons said when asked to share their technique. “It’s about being honest, as in honest to the scene and the characters. That means that you speak and act the truth of your character, the scene and the interactions. What is established in that scene becomes the reality for that scene, regardless of what is created.”
That seems to mean that it’s important to literally go with the flow. However, that also begs the question of whether the performers have ever been stumped by an audience suggestion.
“If by stumped you mean we don’t know what the suggestion was, then it happened once, and we resolved that by asking, ‘What is that?’,” he said. “If by stumped you mean have you ever locked up and didn’t know where to go, then the answer is no. We have what we call a ‘group mind,’ and we’re a unified troupe, meaning that if one person does not know, or is not finding it in a scene or game, one of the other players will support and help out.”
Nevertheless, that doesn’t negate the uncertainty of having no idea what will come next ... and can something funny be created as a result. “It isn’t the suggestion that is supposed to be the funny thing, but how we use the suggestion,” Simmons said. “The emcee functions as the bridge between the audience and the performers. Their job is to open the show, and notice who is a returning fan, and who might be seeing us — and even comedy improv — for the first time.
“That gives the emcee, and the rest of us, a gauge of how many people are going to be having a new experience. The emcee then goes on to establish the protocol for ask-fors, how we can divide up the room into sections to avoid a cacophony of sound, and give everyone a chance to participate. This gives us a general rapport. The suggestions we receive are also a clue as to where the audience is mentally, and how we can better connect.”
Simmons has plenty of expertise in that area, although his talents are based on some technical training as well. A senior systems analyst who works with computers rather than comedians by day, he’s been part of the troupe since its start in 1994. That’s when he answered an ad headlined “Think you’re funny?” and subsequently enrolled in an eight-week comedy course held two nights a week for three hours per session. The class was taught by David Brian Alley, currently an artist in residence at the University of Tennessee.
“At the end of the eight weeks, he (Alley) got us 15 minutes of stage time at a club called Manhattan’s during their open mic night,” Simmons recalled. “The manager came up to us as we were leaving the stage and asked us if we would come back next week and do 30 minutes. Next week, the same sort of thing, but we got an hour and opened the open mic night.”
The group performed at a variety of venues until eventually landing its Tuesday night slot at Scruffy City Hall in Knoxville’s Market Square.
As for himself, Simmons said that he always thought that he had a flair for comedy, but that he didn’t really apply it until he connected with Einstein Simplified.
“I was a quiet joker until college, and then I was more open about being funny,” he said. However after 25 years of working with the group, whose cast currently includes Frank Murphy, Greg Huff, Dave Fennell, Aaron Littleton and Jessica Brackeen, he’s clearly become quite adept. Aside from its regular residency, the group also ventures out to do benefits, birthday parties and Christmas parties on occasion. In addition, the troupe has performed at the Tennessee Medieval Fair, the Clayton Center, the Gatlinburg Improv Festival and a Miss Hawaiian Tropic competition.
“It was weird performing on a runway,” Simmons said.
Nevertheless, for all the effort involved, he said that he finds entertaining most enjoyable. “For me, the most satisfying aspect is delivering a line that gets everyone laughing,” he said. “When the audience is completely silent and focused intently on what’s happening on stage, those are great moments as well.”