As we’ve covered numerous times in these pages, theater artists don’t always get a lot of respect from the general public. Too many laypeople have bought into the narrative that stage folks are pretentious or flamboyant or just too artsy or what have you.

As annoying as that can be, scripted theater folks are NYC firefighters compared to improv performers in the court of public opinion. When I mention in mixed company that I enjoy improv I’m often met with derision, disgust and occasionally genuine anger. I can try explaining to people that there’s a difference between the short-form improv they’ve seen on Whose Line is it Anyway? and the long-form improv favored in many theaters, but it’s no use. As much as the form has been gaining popularity over the past decade, there are still a lot of folks out there who really, really do not like improv.

But I do, and I think that’s in large part because of the genre’s admirable ethos. I’m a big fan of Improv 4 Humans, the frequently brilliant podcast hosted by Upright Citizens Brigade co-founder Matt Besser. What grabs me most about the show, aside from it being reliably hilarious, is Besser’s determination to draw inspiration for his art from every possible source.

He and his guests employ the familiar one-word suggestions from the listening audience, but also build scenes off of each other’s personal histories, YouTube clips, news stories (even tragic ones), ethical debates, songs played by guest musicians, listener comments about previous episodes and more. At times the improvisers seem to be daring themselves to turn something seemingly unusable into art. That’s an approach I wish more artists in every discipline would adopt.

As I’ve grown increasingly interested in the national improv scene, it’s occurred to me that I don’t know my local scene as well as I should, and that MinnesotaPlaylist hasn’t covered as much improv as we probably ought. With that in mind, I headed down to HUGE Theater to catch a couple of Saturday night shows and try my hand at reviewing a difficult format to review. Even more than most theater, improv varies from performance to performance, making it nearly impossible to draw an accurate picture of a show without seeing it done multiple times. I didn’t have that luxury, so bear in mind that this write-up applies to the limited window of Saturday, November 1, 2014.

The Mess is not a mess

The Mess boasts the talents of a number of the Twin Cities’ most seasoned improvisers, and it shows. Their 9:30 set was a near seamless demonstration of long-form improv, a fantastic example of a team who trusts each other and knows how to play to each member’s strengths. For example, in a scene built around an intervention, Eric Knobel chose to play his character as an abrasive oddball prone to interrupting conversations and arguing about bizarre minutia. The character was supremely funny, so much so that he could well have steamrolled the scene if matched against lesser players. It was a delight watching The Mess team quickly take stock of this development and recalibrate to give Knobel’s character room to operate as they moved forward with the scene’s various other lunacies, including minister James Rone’s crippling dependence on metaphors and a steady flow of melted cheese seeping out of the broom closet.

By its nature improv is an uneven form, and The Mess show wasn’t without lulls, but for the most part this was a textbook example of the wit, dexterity and unpredictability that typifies quality improv. It’s the kind of thing that makes me almost regret the impermanence of the form, as I’d like to bring friends to see, say, the scene built around a tartlet-baking competition that spiraled quite logically into murder, body horror and Joe Bozic being impregnated by Rita Boersma’s imperious and possibly omnipotent judge. But then again, that would rob us of whatever all-new weirdness might emerge from the next performance.

The Followers of Djibosh suffer in contrast

Seeing The Followers of Djibosh immediately in the wake of The Mess was an exercise in contrasts. Even though Djibosh is a lesser known commodity, it was they who motivated my trip to HUGE in the first place. The team’s marketing campaign is sort of brilliant in its low-information interest-piquing. Their show synopsis on the HUGE site simply reads “THE CHURCH AT THE END OF THE UNIVERSE – PRAISE DJIBOSH.” Their Twitter feed is mostly vaguely spiritual black-and-white photography and inscrutable phrases like “PARABLES FROM A PARALLEL WORLD” and “ECSTATIC SPECTACLE.” That’s exactly the kind of weirdness I generally go in for, so I figured I’d try following the Followers.

The team’s conceit is likewise pretty clever. A swarm of improvisers in identical t-shirts stormed into the theater at 10:30 in a frenzy of religious exuberance, pointedly shaking hands with every audience member, then formed a semicircle on stage around minister Dustin Brown, who began addressing the crowd as though we were a congregation assembled in adoration of a holy entity named Djibosh. From there things fell easily into the group’s format: a string of improv scenes presented as parables from various books in the gospel of Djibosh.

Again, a solid foundation that should be right up my alley, but The Followers of Djibosh never quite clicked for me. That’s probably partially because this is a fairly new team that’s still learning its identity (although various team members have strong histories together – Djibosh features three-quarters of the recently disbanded Positive TERI team, for instance). Scenes just on the verge of building something fun were derailed by too-sudden turns into absurdity, and improvisers sometimes seemed in a rush to get the laugh lines rolling rather than letting them develop organically. It’s probably unfair to hold any newer group up against a team like The Mess, but seeing them in juxtaposition made it tough not to notice the choppy passages of the Djibosh set in contrast to the smooth transitions of The Mess.

Still, when Djibosh gelled, it was easy to see the team’s potential. Maybe the strongest thing they have going for them, aside from the clever religious cult structure, is their musical accompaniment. The cult’s in-house pianist played along with many of the scenes, the music sometimes reflecting the action on stage and sometimes steering it in new directions. It’s a lovely interplay that underlines the group’s ability to work off subtle suggestions. Probably the biggest laughs of the night came as the music guided the Followers into impromptu hymns, including one sung from the perspective of a group of tiny pigs working as butlers for a mummy who was himself employed as the butler/bathroom attendant for a swanky estate.

I imagine that last sentence is pretty close to a perfect encapsulation of an improv-hater’s worst nightmare, but it’s also the type of thing that will keep me coming back for more.