“Crash & Burn” Comedy Goes Off-Script

April 26, 2016
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Live comedy can be a divisive subject, but at its highest level, it’s a unique cultural experience that transcends the lowbrow entertainment label so many people slap on it. In fact, I count myself lucky to live in a little-known haven for comedians.

Sure, I’ve seen big names at iconic New York clubs like the Comedy Cellar (known to many for its central role in Louie) and the Upright Citizens Brigade. While those places deserve all the praise they receive, it’s a well-kept secret (even to many Minnesotans) that Minnesota and the Twin Cities are among stand-up comics’ favorite places to perform in all of the United States.

There’s a rich history of improv at the famed Brave New Workshop, which spawned stars like now-Senator Al Franken. And today, there’s a gem of an Uptown club called Huge that’s ushering in a new generation of improv-ers.

For stand-up, the Twin Cities were the testing ground for such legends as Mitch Hedberg and Maria Bamford. Many big hitters choose to record specials in Minneapolis because they love playing here – in recent years, I watched Doug Benson record his Doug Loves Movies podcast at the Women’s Club, Tom Segura do a Netflix special at the Cowles Center and Tig Notaro lay down a Professor Blastoff podcast at the Cedar. Hannibal Buress filmed a recent Netflix special at the Varsity Theater, and I witnessed Demetri Martin record a CD at the Acme Comedy Club – which is the true crown jewel in the Twin Cities’ stand-up scene, and a favorite among countless touring comics.

For several years running, the Acme has hosted a series called “Crash & Burn,” in which a handful of comics attempt the bold feat of performing a 20-minute set – without using any material that has previously been performed on-stage.

Many great comics excel at “crowd work,” playing off prompts from the crowd and improvising portions of their show. (Todd Barry is particularly amazing.) But while good stand-up typically comes across as effortless and unscripted, the majority of sets are the result of trial and error and tedious refining to get just the right wording, and just the right cadence, to elicit the most laughs.

So as you can imagine, the “Crash & Burn” shows are hit-or-miss, with the hits being particularly good, and the misses particularly bad. But there’s something intriguing about watching these artists put their neck on the line and test the waters in real time, without any sort of filter. And as I watched this year’s performance – alternately grinning and grimacing – I spotted several parallels between what I saw on-stage and what we do every day at Fast Horse.

Much of what we do in marketing involves in-depth research – vetting every potential outcome of each individual program for best- and worst-case scenarios prior to pulling the trigger on high-profile campaigns that can have substantial effect on a business. But those who excel in the business must also rely heavily on instinct and must be able to act quickly and make clutch decisions when they truly matter the most.

In other words, we strive to find a balance between the polished and scripted performance of a marquee stand-up with the skillful spontaneity of an improv troupe, albeit on a very different type of stage.