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Theater review: 'The Crazy Uncle Joe Show' at The Groundlings Theatre

June 23, 2011 |  4:30 pm

Crazy Uncle Joe “The Crazy Uncle Joe Show,” the Groundlings’ weekly long-form improv act, celebrated its 10th anniversary Wednesday night, bringing together original and current cast members Jordan Black, Stephanie Courtney, Holly Mandel (who created the show), Brian Palermo, Jim Rash and Christen Sussin, with guest improviser Bob Odenkirk. 

The evening began with a video history and clips of current cast members’ TV and film appearances and ended with wine and cheese. What happened in between is impossible to describe and will never be repeated. But it’s a good bet that any other Wednesday show will also leave its audience complaining, like a man I passed on my way out, “My face hurts from laughing.”  

If you’ve never heard of “long-form” improv but think you know what it means, you’re right. It’s improv, but long. The audience suggests three activities or titles (“Changing a lightbulb!” “Romancing the Stone!”), and the actors run with them. Instead of moving on, as in regular improv, the “Crazy Uncle Joe” players keep running, weaving the initial scenarios together into a madcap 40-minute fugue. (They do it two times, with an intermission.) There’s no director, or rather, the cast passes the job around. When one claps, the others stop and embark on a new scene. 

Doesn’t sound so hard, does it? After all, life is improv — the longest form of all. (“Paying the mortgage!”) Yet somehow it’s never as funny as the Groundlings. Maybe it’s us, or maybe we just haven’t been properly encouraged. You know that blank look you used to get when you made a joke so now you don’t make jokes anymore? That look doesn’t exist in improv. It’s against the rules. The performers can’t say “No,” no matter how silly or unworkable somebody’s idea may seem. They have to say, “Yes, and…” 

So every offhand remark, goofy gesture or slip of the tongue can launch a plot. The mutually affectionate Crazy Uncle Joe actors goad, invite and challenge one another to more and more dazzling ingenuity (“How did you get in my house?”). And unlike scripted theater, it’s better when somebody flubs a line. Jim Rash’s invention of the word “Jesusly” prompted a pyrotechnic seven-person display of cleverness, culminating in the appearance of Jesus himself (Jordan Black), saying, "Everything I do, I do Jesusly.” Wouldn’t life be more entertaining if everybody said, “Yes, and…”?

— Margaret Gray

“The Crazy Uncle Joe Show,” The Groundlings Theatre, 7307 Melrose Ave., Los Angeles. 8 p.m. Wednesdays. $14. Contact: www.Groundlings.com or (323) 934-4747, Ext. 37. Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes.

Photo: (L to R) Holly Mandel, Christen Sussin, Brian Palermo and Bob Odenkirk in the 10th anniversary performance of "The Crazy Uncle Joe Show" at The Groundlings Theatre. Credit: Heather de Michele.

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