“Blue comedy” contains profanity and sexual imagery often with the intent to offend the audience. Comedians often perform it as a form of political commentary or to make a little extra money on the late night show.
Steve Hohman isn’t known for any of this.
At the National Comedy Theatre, cast members and the audience alike are punished for making any off-colored jokes or suggestions. The penalty is a brown paper bag over the offender’s head.
Steve Hohman is the Managing Director at National Comedy Theatre and has been for the past ten years. He’s only been “brown-bagged” twice. One of his offenses was during the improv game called “185” where the audience provides a noun and the comedians have to come up with a punchline using that object. In this instance, the word was frisbee. Hohman’s Brown Bag joke:
“185 frisbees walk into a bar. The bartender says ‘We don’t serve frisbees here, you have to leave.’ The frisbees say, ‘Ah well suck my disc.’” Brown bag.
The National Comedy Theatre is located on India Street, tucked away between a Shakespeare-themed restaurant and a deli. The air smells of onion rings and popcorn. The sounds of the Chainsmokers and Camilla Cabello greet you as you find your seat. The set is bare— blank walls, empty stage.
Performances are set up as a competition between two improv teams with applause being the defining factor on who wins. The teams wear red or blue bowling shirts to designate their loyalties. There is even a referee, he asks the audience to raise their hands if they have been to the theatre before. The majority raises their hands— a testimony to improv, it’s still different and entertaining even as a returner.
Before the show began, people filed diligently into the rows— rows signifying this is a theatre, not a comedy club. They sit in the front first, closest to the action. Some have popcorn, a few have beers. Among the audience are a junior high birthday party, a first date and a woman who came alone.
Steve Hohman is trained in improv— he is quick to smile, carries a conversation beyond the question, and listens intently. He teaches his students to always be thinking three steps ahead of the scene. Hohman leans forward and emphasizes that improv is for everyone. The theatre offers improv classes for seniors, teens, college students and one called “Connections” for children on the autism spectrum.
“90% of people are not actors, but physicians, social workers, teachers all looking to gain skills to help them become better listeners. Only 10% are here for the stage.”
Most of the mainstage cast (that is, the people who perform the Friday and Saturday night shows) have gone through all the classes the theatre has to offer and performing on the mainstage cast is simply the end goal. The National Comedy Theatre pays its performers in contrast to venues that charge starting comedians to get on stage.
For Alex Deddeh, being on the mainstage cast was always the goal. She said she worked her way up through the ranks until mainstage was all that was left. She performs at both shows tonight.
“I learned how to let the little things go,” she says when talking about what improv has meant to her. When Alex started classes at NCT 2012, she was in high school and struggling with anxiety, depression, and OCD.
Alex’s team chooses her for the next game where the members onstage have to sing Broadway-style about their surroundings. They are improv comedians, not singers. Alex waits for her moment and then belts out a tune about falling in love with the pretzel man at Disneyland. The audience laughs. When the game is over, Alex returns to her team who greet her with smiles.
Steve Hohman started doing improv in high school and then went on to get a theatre degree at San Diego State University. He went from acting in commercials to photography to getting into insurance investigation, getting farther and farther from the artistic community with every transition. Until he started taking classes at NCT.
He was nervous. The last time he did improv was high school. What if he did the wrong thing? Would he fail? In reality, he said it was like coming up for air. Improv taught Hohman how to see failure as opportunity. In improv, if no one laughs, you move on to the next bit. Failure is momentary.
When Hohman transitioned from class participant to mainstage cast to Managing Director, he kept the emphasis on how people at NCT focus not on a quick laugh but on developing a character. He says, “I like when [the scene] goes to a character’s vulnerable areas.” To Hohman, the best laughs come not from setting up a punchline but from establishing oneself as a specific character and then using that to subvert expectations.
Two boys from the junior high birthday party are called up to the stage, mortified at this unexpected attention and responsibility. Their role is simple— whenever a cast member “forgets” what they were going to say, they tap one of the boys to supply a line. They can say anything, it is on the performer to make it funny. The scene is of two brick-layers who are getting reprimanded for the poor wall they made. The cast member taps the first boy on the shoulder,
The cast member says that he has inlaid a design of a whale into the wall and the boss is unhappy with how childish it looks. Another cast member taps the second birthday-party attendee.
Suddenly the cast has created a second wall behind the first out of bears. The audience loves it. At intermission, the entire birthday party gets up and leaves. Their two adult chaperones stay in their front seats throughout the rest of the show.
Is this art? What would Shakespeare say at his restaurant being situated so closely to this theatre? But then, what would Shakespeare say about having a restaurant named after him? It’s certainly a theatrical performance. Hohman says they definitely get the, “Oh, but you’re improv,” attitude from those in the art community. Yet National Comedy Theatre is the longest running show in San Diego. They explore emotion in the same way traditional art does. Hohman says he tries to get to New York as much as he can, to see what’s on Broadway.
The last game the cast performs is 185. The referee explains to the audience they should cheer only for the jokes they thought were funny (in contrast to the earlier rule of “clap for all of them, but louder for your favorites”). The cast is lined up facing the audience. The suggestion is given. They all think hard about a possible joke. One comes up, tells their joke. One audience member laughs, that is enough to save them. Another comes up, tells their joke, the audience chuckles. One more comes up, tells their joke, is met with silence. They return to the lineup, laughing. The rest of the cast laughs with them, they have all been there.
Alex says the NCT cast is like family, they have seen her at her worst— in life and in improv.
“I’m a political person at heart but our point here is to be a break from all that,” Hohman says. Political comedy has its place, but it isn’t at the National Comedy Theatre. People come to the theatre to forget their troubles, to check them at the door. To Lenny Bruce or Richard Pryor that may not be enough, but it is for the cast and patrons of NCT.
The mainstage cast performs twice in one night. Once at 7:30, for a general audience and again at 9:45 for sixteen and up. That is the unrated show, there are no brown bags. Hohman says that it’s more of a “rock show mentality,” and that it’s, “refreshing to see vulgarity in a more pleasant format.” Vulgarity means the cast can make jokes about sex but they can’t be degrading to anyone. Hohman describes the late show as dessert and the early show as the main course. Both he and Alex said the first time they did the late show, they didn’t say anything dirty at all.
“Alex we need you!”
She is whisked away from the mainstage show to the late show; there are already people outside the doors waiting to be let in. There are quite a few. Alex finishes off by saying that everyone should try improv, before she bounds off to perform.
Written By: Sarah Cooper