Improv looks like the best way to laugh instead of cry in 2009 

Kansas City is enjoying the most thriving comedy scene that I've seen in my lifetime. Not at the stand-up level, where the big clubs are overpriced temples to the hacks. And the low-rent clubs feature too many sweaty, shouting open-mikers polishing sets from three years ago. Instead, it's among the seat-of-the-pants improv crowd.

Westport audiences can catch the old-school Comedy City improv game show, which is the safest take-your-parents, as-seen-on-TV, maybe-you'll-get-a-Shatner-
impression comedy in town. After years at a hulking River Market warehouse, this longest-running comedy show in KC has moved to the Westport Flea Market, where it's just a couple of gunshots' distance from the Westport Coffee House.

That's the hangout of choice for many of Comedy City's most distinguished alumni. On the second Saturday of every month, it's home to more daring fare from genre smashers such as Tantrum, the Trip Fives, Pretty Funny, Loaded Dice, Makeshift Militia, Spite and the fantastic Babel Fish. Those names fit the groups' sharp comic visions — the list sounds less like a bunch of cutesy improvisers than a roster of punk bands.

This weekend, the Westport Coffee House will shake with laughs. The main event comes Saturday night at 9 with the first round of Improv Thunderdome. This marks the third season for the competitive improv game that has stirred more excitement — and more controversy — among these comics than anything since that Drew Carey TV show. Each round of Thunderdome pits three troupes against one another in half-hour sets. Afterward, the audience votes for a winner. Even for the losers, this has been a win-win: The shows sell out, performers get a chance to try out inventive new formats, audiences get treated to wild ideas that might not carry a full show. This weekend's draw: Holy Cow! Improv (from Rockhurst University), Kill the DJ (Comedy City veterans) and the up-and-coming kids of Scriptease (two-time Thunderdome finalists).

Also on Saturday, local heavyweights the Trip Fives (as sure a bet as improv offers) split a bill with UMKC's spirited Makeshift Militia, themselves Thunderdome finalists. Ten bucks will buy you three sets: a near half-hour by each troupe and then an all-skate featuring everyone.

Short sets and split bills are one of the many happy changes to the improv scene. Audiences no longer have to risk ponying up for a filler-packed 90 minutes with a group that might be suffering an off night. Other notable developments:

Second Saturdays: Thunderdome masterminds Ed Doris and Jared Brustad are plotting out Westport Coffee House extravaganzas the second Saturday of every month all year long. Look for the best local troupes, more Thunderdomes and, come April, a show called "Bare TV." Brustad calls it "a completely improvised late-night talk show, complete with host, band leader, monologues, guests, commercials and live music, all based on one audience suggestion."

Babel Fish: Thunderdome encourages inventive new troupes, and the best of them soldier on after the competition. I've enjoyed TBA and Loaded Dice, but my favorite has been Babel Fish, a heady mix of off-the-cuff sketches, theater-of-the-absurd meaninglessness and a grad-school bull session. The cast features Joe Henley (part philosopher and part game-show host); Nathan Stewart (a quieter soul whose craziness sneaks up on you); and a rotating third, usually a scene stalwart like John Robinson (proprietor of the Roving Imp Theater, an improv hot spot in Bonner Springs). Their last show had me in tears; their next one, unfortunately, isn't until the February 14 round of Thunderdome.

Sketchy Thoughts and Pretty.Funny: Scripted sketch shows are making a welcome comeback. Pretty.Funny boasts raucous comedy, Pearl MacDonald's musical parodies, Megan Mercer's expert pantomime and some openhearted uplift that's rare in live comedy. Sketchy Thoughts has only performed one show, too much of which was tentative and/or recycled. Worse, sketches often trucked in gay jokes that have, post Prop 8, gone from passé to indefensible.

That said, the debut scored enough solid hits to win on points, and it featured two reasons to hope. First, there was the return to the stage of Nick Rigoli, who spoke in well-crafted paragraphs while others spit out lines. A Rigoli monologue feels like he has jabbed a straw into your brain and just keeps pumping Slurpee directly into it. He buries his jokes where you don't expect them, and then barrels on with another and another. The other highlight was an ambitious sketch by Joe Henley, in which an auctioneer took bids on the future of a teenage girl's unborn child. The result was a burst of philosophical absurdism that echoed everything from Groucho Marx to Monty Python to the libertarian moralizing of South Park.

The Indefatigable Trish Berrong: As a coach, performer and organizer, Berrong broke out all over in 2008. She shined in two-person shows with best-in-their-class performers like Tommy Todd and Jill Bernard. She kicked ass in Spite and Tantrum. As always, she trained performers, hosted workshops and helped reveal what Todd calls "the possibilities of improv." Brustad says: "She molded us into the performers that we are today, and we wouldn't be where we are if not for her." Adds Doris: "Trish made improv an art form for KC." Her reward is our reward: better shows, more often.

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