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Comedy on the Fly

Improv group Not Burnt Out Just Unscrewed takes a team approach to laughter.

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Dana Cianciotto had a warning for her troupe. "This is a PG-rated show," she admonished them. "Don't say 'fuck.'"

That word slipped through a few lips when the dozen improvisational comedians assembled in the rehearsal room and saw the list of catchphrases Cianciotto was circulating. The next day, the group, called Not Burnt Out Just Unscrewed, would be performing a 90-minute show for a convention of accountants from the railroad industry. To customize the show, Cianciotto wanted everyone to use as much railroad and accountant lingo as possible, cribbing from a list she'd gotten from the convention organizers.

Some people will do anything for a laugh.

What these people do, in four to eight shows per month, is instantly invent short comic scenes based on parameters defined by the audience. Not Burnt Out is one of at least four comedy improv groups in town, and it's becoming the most visible, with frequent shows at 7 Black Cats, the Vaudeville Cabaret and Bookman's, plus a live show on cable Channel 72 every other Thursday at 8 p.m. (repeated Sundays at 2 a.m. --not exactly prime time--on Channel 74).

It's also starting to do more corporate shows and participating in the Battle of the Improvs Friday nights at the new Wilde Playhouse.

Unscrewed players are sometimes allowed to say "fuck"--mainly at bar shows--but one word that's always off limits is "no." Cianciotto doesn't allow anybody to resist audience suggestions or the direction a fellow player may be taking a scene. Every rehearsal begins with exercises that force the participants to think fast, work instinctively and trust each other. This generally involves standing in a circle, clapping their hands and speeding through strange, ritualistic chants.

In Cianciotto's opinion, this sure beats sitting at home watching TV.

"I started this group in May 2002, because I was bored," said the 22-year-old alum of New York's American Musical and Dramatic Academy, as her circle of players whooped in unison nearby. "There aren't a lot of opportunities for theater in this town."

She tries to keep about a dozen players in the troupe; most participants last six to eight months before they do burn out or go completely unscrewed, but a few members have stuck with the group since the beginning.

Little companies like this tend to fall apart when their founders move away, have nervous breakdowns or go into rehab. Cianciotto has already moved away, spending most of last summer back in New York City, and she was delighted to learn that the troupe not only survived in her absence but instigated the cable TV show.

She found this especially gratifying, because many people who audition for groups like this don't realize how hard the work is going to be. "You have to get up on stage with no idea what you're going to do until the audience tells you," she said. "Some people have a knack for it; some people can learn it; and some never get it."

Not Burnt Out makes money from its bar shows, but Cianciotto prefers to play venues like Bookman's, even though that generates no revenue. "Doing PG shows makes us work harder," she said. "We can't rely on making dirty jokes to get a laugh."

Indeed, one structure, or "game," the troupe employs forces the players to avoid doing anything blatantly funny. It's called "You Sick Bastard," and the point is for two participants to improvise a fairly straight scene, but gently move it in a direction that leads some warped-brained audience member to snicker. At that point, all the troupers stand, point at the malefactor and shout "You sick bastard!" A new player takes the position of the one who caused the laugh, and launches an entirely different scene.

At the accountant-convention rehearsal, one participant managed to break up the rest of the troupe with her first line, earnestly asking her male partner, "Was it hard coming out?"

Among the other games on which the troupe may base a scene:

· ABC: Each successive line must begin with the next letter of the alphabet.

· Day in the Life: An audience member is interviewed about the mundane events in her life that day, and several players re-enact it all, portraying people, scenery or whatever else seems necessary. (The rehearsal included a shower scene in which one player was the faucet, another the curtain and a third the loofah.)

· First Line/Last Line: The audience provides the beginning line and closing lines of a scene, and the players must make them fit together. The rehearsal victims had to weave a thread from "Choo choo" (in honor of the railroad accountants) to "Well, Bob, that's why we got married." And they had to do it in the audience-suggested setting of an adding-machine assembly line (another tribute to the bean counters).

Cianciotto has at least a dozen other games in her notebook. Every one of them steers the participants as far away from standup comedy as possible.

"Standup is just one person telling jokes," she said. "In improv, we have to work together to make people laugh."

Then she set about deciding which players would work together best in each of the following day's games. She selected 20-year-old Eddie Arriola for one game that absolutely mystified him. Said Cianciotto, "Eddie is always great when he doesn't know what the hell is going on."

Which pretty much defines the successful player in a comedy improv troupe.

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