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Extra Crispy gets laughs ‘off the cuff’

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Jonathan Lay is in on the hot seat. The cops circle around him, waiting for the confession like vultures waiting for the last gasp from fallen prey. They want a confession, but in this land far, far from Miranda rights, he’s not sure what he’s accused of.

“You got thirsty,” Marcus Lynn barks.

Lay stammers, “I wanted a Diet Sprite?”

Lynn barrels back, “Well you sure weren’t going to get it from there!”

During the next few minutes, Lay winces and tightens up under the barrage of leading questions until he finally breaks.

“I confess,” Lay says, “I went cow tipping in Wisconsin with Lindsay Lohan.”

That’s only a crime in the world of improv comedy, which is where Lay and his interrogators were.

They are members of Extra Crispy, a nine-member improv troupe that has been performing around Central Kentucky for almost two years. The group’s next show is at Natasha’s Bistro on Thursday night.

The group keeps turning out a crowd because, by definition, every show is different.

“Off the cuff is the best way to describe it,” says Darrin Hensley, a professional stand-up comedian and Extra Crispy member. “You basically get a few quick guidelines: Who are we? Where are we? What are we doing? And you build the scene around that, you build the punch lines, the characters all on the spur of the moment.”

Extra Crispy didn’t actually start that way.

When Michael Crisp, a Georgetown resident, comedian and DJ, co-founded the group in summer 2007, it was more of a sketch comedy troupe, doing scripted bits a la Saturday Night Live.

“Whenever we did shows, if it was half scripted and half improv; even the funniest scripted stuff didn’t get as many laughs as our least rehearsed, roughest improv sketches,” Crisp says.

So, the group became an all-improv operation.

But, wait.

Rehearsal?

Wasn’t this all supposed to be “off the cuff”?

“Every improv sketch has at least two or three rules that must be followed,” Crisp says.

On Tuesday night, seven members of the troupe gathered at Crisp’s home to work on their quickness and playing within those improv rules.

The rehearsal started with a few warm-up exercises, with the performers shooting around nonsense phrases in a circle and giving one another actions to pantomime, from skiing to grooming nose hairs.

The rehearsal is a time to work tried and true bits but also new pieces, like the “choir of hate.” Sami Allison, 25, who started with improv as a student at Stephens College in Columbia, Mo., brought the bit to the group.

In the routine, each member of the “choir” is assigned stuff to hate by the crowd. In rehearsal, non-performing group members threw out everything from Rush Limbaugh to facial hair to e-mail spam. Then, with Allison conducting them, the performers started and stopped complaining — in a humorous fashion — on cue.

The bit contains one of the group’s favorite elements: audience participation.

“One of the reasons karaoke took off is people relished that opportunity to get up on stage,” Crisp says.

There are a variety of ways to get involved in an Extra Crispy show, from writing phrases on paper for a bit called “blind lines,” in which members of the troupe pick up the paper scraps and keep a story going based on the phrases; to shouting suggestions for the choir of hate; to getting onstage for routines like “moving people,” in which audience members move the actors around and the actors have to make up stories as they are manipulated.

Crisp says the troupe gets its bits from other improv troupes, including the TV show Whose Line Is It Anyway?, and from other groups that members have seen or been part of.

Most members of Extra Crispy, like Allison, had previous improv experience.

Lay recalls auditioning for an improv group on April 1, 2000. “I know,” he says, “I thought, this can’t be real. They’ll say, ‘We’d really like to show you some time shares.’”

Extra Crispy also has benefitted from enthusiastic audience members.

“I saw them and figured, ‘I’m good enough to get in there,’” deadpanned Lynn, the bad cop in the interrogation bit. His day job: pastor of First Christian Church in Versailles.

There are a few essential skills to being an improvisational comic, the group members say, such as being naturally funny and a good listener.

Jeff Beach, a former Herald-Leader business editor, says that listening quality was essential when he joined Extra Crispy.

“I mostly started off trying to get off one-liners,” he said. “But over time, I found it was more about building characters.”

There is another quality that goes hand in hand with the fact that not everything you come up with off the top of your head works.

“You have to be totally willing to fail,” Lynn says.

And you have to be willing to be grilled for crimes like wearing white after Labor Day or tipping cows with Lindsay Lohan, because it can be hilarious.

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