Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Young Improv Group Gets Grown-Up Sized Laughs

No matter how hard he tries, Max Zuckert, a member of the 13-18 year old improv comedy group, The Underage Sugar Addicts (USA), can’t seem to find a comfortable way to sit in his chair.

He gets on his knees and puts his head through the back end of it, getting his neck stuck momentarily while Hannah Letchinger, another member of the troupe, sits next to him with her legs crossed. Acting as a psychiatrist, she diagnoses him with being too lazy and Zuckert, who manages to extract his head from the back end of the chair only to lie on his back and intertwine his fingers, tells her after a lengthy pause, “I’m paying you too much,” and then gets up and starts to laugh.

He runs to the side of the stage with Letchinger and they stand next to each other with red faces, trying to contain their chortles. The next group of young performers who were standing in the wings, runs out on the stage next—already telling jokes to keep the crowd going.

Zuckert didn’t plan out that last line seconds in advance, nor did he write it down. He did it spur of the moment, as that’s what he does—improv comedy, which is comedy that comes straight from the mind given the situation and uttered without giving it a second thought. It’s very much like what rappers do when they freestyle and say lines that they hadn’t planned out in advance, except in this instance, it’s jokes instead of verses, the emphasis on comedy instead of rhymes.

Chicago is famous for its improv comedy scene. Second City, improv Olympics and Comedy Sportz are all Windy City staples. But few of those places can claim to have comedians as young as the Underage Sugar Addicts, with the average age being about 15 years old.

But while the Underage Sugar Addicts aren’t the only improv comedy group of young performers in the United States, they are the only independent youth improv organization in the country not affiliated or funded by a school or a theater. They’re also the only improv group that actually travels around the country doing their bizarre brand of comedy, Zuckert himself having performed at every venue the Sugar Addicts have been invited to, including St. Louis, Kentucky, and even Canada.

“They are performing at the Milwaukee sketch festival in August, which is their 5th out of state festival they have been invited to,” says a proud Tony Lawry, director of the USA and also their manager cum travel agent. They have also won various awards for their comedy, garnering the Producers Award at the St. Louis Fringe Festival, and also second place at the Dual Duel, where two of the Sugar Addicts, Letchinger and another member named Chelsea, beat out 24 other adult teams to nab second place at the competition.
As his fellow Sugar Addicts prepare for their future gig, though, Zuckert’s has other plans. His next trip won’t be to Milwaukee, but rather, to a Hostel in Jerusalem where he will be filling in the role as a member of the Red Cross. This year, Zuckert will be leaving the Sugar Addicts because he’s reached the age limit of 18 and has graduated Evanston High School.

Comedy will still be in his cards, though.

“I plan to continue comedy in college,” says Zuckert, “I want to be a writer.”

Though they may be young, don’t take them for granted or think they’re a novelty act. Some of their bits are very adult for their age, as long-form improv, which they perform, is a tough talent to get down pat, the idea of carrying a single comedic theme throughout an entire half hour performance usually reserved for the professionals.

“Try to refer to them as young performers and not ‘kids,’” Lowry says in case you ever bump into one of them on the street, “They don't perform like kids so they don't like the term.”

Losing Lollapalooza

With his face puffed out and his cheeks swishing back and forth as if he were gargling Listerine, Zuckert leans back in his chair before his final show at the Chemically Imbalanced Comedy club where the USA perform. He’s sucking on a root beer flavored candy.

In the back with him are the three other seniors, Matt Stover, Hannah Letchinger, and Zoe Weinstein, who are also doing their final performance with the USA tonight, even though at the time, they still think they’ll be performing one last show at Lollapalooza.

“They just pulled their offer because they found a group that could do four shows Saturday and Sunday,” an irate Lowry says about losing the Lollapalooza gig only mere days before the big Festival at Grant Park.

“The guy, Lee, from Crazy Kids Chicago was an absolute asshole to me on the phone,” Lowry says, “ and when I went off on him about committing and getting these kids excited, all he did to defend himself was swear at me and tell me how busy he was and then he hung up on me. What a man and a rep of a youth organization he is, huh?”

But Zuckert and the gang don’t know this yet and are still psyched to go on stage to perform their brand of zany comedy to the packed house of mostly family and friends for this final show in Chicago.

They wouldn’t even be here tonight though if not for Mr. Lowry, who discovered most of the performers after teaching a summer program commissioned by Evanston High School to keep kids out of trouble over the months during the summer vacation. He hand-picked the ones in the program he thought worked best together doing improv comedy and rounded up a group for a single performance that would occur on December 31st, 2003 after the high school asked him to do it. Little did he know, though, how good they would actually be in that performance, which spurred him to continue teaching them until they felt good enough in front of an audience to actually consider themselves a troupe. And thus, the Underage Sugar Addicts were born, the name created after 17-year-old, Matt Stover was cocking his head back and downing yet another Pixie Stick given to him courtesy of Mr. Lowry to pump him up before a show.

“We’re, like, underage sugar addicts,” Stover said with sugar still clinging to his teeth, and Mr. Lowry leapt up saying, “That’s it, that’s it, USA, the Underage Sugar Addicts. That’s your new name!”

Speaking of sugar, Zuckert swallows his root beer flavored candy while Letchinger and Weinstein talk to each other about what an experience it’s been over these past four years doing improv comedy together, each of them considering it an occupation rather than a pastime what with the hours they’ve put into it.

“Are you ready to teach that workshop at Lakeshore?” Letchinger asks Zuckert as she hits him in the knee cap with her fingers to get his attention.

“What workshop?” Zuckert asks, leaning forward.

“The workshop we’re teaching,” Weinstein reminds him, stressing her words to jog his memory.

“I don’t remember that,” Zuckert says.

“You signed up for it. Remember?” Letchinger asks.

“I did?” Zuckert asks laughing, “I guess I am then.”

From learning improv to teaching it, Zuckert and the gang have come a long way.

Moving On With Their Lives

After the show, a beet red Lowry tries to hold in his tears as Zuckert and the other seniors walk up to receive their autographed framed pictures of their cartoon logo. The performance went well, but it wasn’t the kind of show they could get away with on the road. Some of the jokes were sloppy, a few of the lines were fumbled, and the young performers looked a little flustered while performing—failure all part of the game for these young actors who are feeling their way through comedy just as any other young actor would. The only difference being that the Underage Sugar Addicts are about three years ahead of the curve. Others could only wish to be so lucky.
“They’re great,” says Angie McMahon, President of the Chemically Imbalanced Comedy club where the young actors perform. “We were interested in taking them on as an act, but Tony wanted to keep them independent.”

One such bit during tonight’s performance had the actors trying their hardest to find a reason to explain how a ghost had managed to get into the museum, which was their setting for the night. Zuckert wandered around the stage confused, his eyes constantly jumping to the audience and trying to figure out why they weren’t laughing.

“Buy the audio tour,” Zuckert kept saying to the other members on the stage with him who kept bumping into each other while trying to figure out what to do next as they pretended to stare at an exhibit in the distance.

It took Josh Chapman, an adult from the comedy improv group, 37 Foxtrot who was performing with the young actors tonight, to get them back on track. He posed as the ghost they were looking for and rattled the curtains near the back, shouting, “GET OUT!” any time the cast seemed to be stumbling on their words, which elicited at least a few laughs from the audience.

Like all comedy groups are prone to have at least once in the career, the Sugar Addicts were having a bad night, their jokes just weren’t connecting with the audience.

They’ve been much funnier in the past.

But a bad night didn’t keep them from trudging through their show like professionals.

No matter how hard Max Zuckert tries, though, he just can’t seem to get a laugh.

But Zuckert believes that this show is just one out of hundreds for him in the future.

“I want to do comedy for the rest of my life,” Zuckert says.


No comments: