Tommy Futch loves to be called a liar. As an improv comedian, he says there is no better compliment than when the audience doesn’t believe he didn’t plan his show.
“We want the audience to drive home thinking, ‘they wrote that beforehand’,” said Futch who is a founding member of Laughing Matters, Atlanta’s longest-running improv comedy troupe.
When the group began in 1985, few people even knew what improv comedy was, but thanks in part to shows like “Whose Line Is It Anyway?” audiences are now more familiar with the on-the-spot skits which the performers generate entirely from audience suggestions.
“Everything we do is based on audience suggestion,” said Futch, whose group was voted Best Improv Comedy Troupe by Atlanta Magazine.
So whether it’s spaghetti noodles and cats or cops and missing diamonds, the performers generate all of their material from scratch, no matter how crazy the ideas.
“That’s the very spirit of improv — doing the very best with what you’ve got,” Futch said.
So how does a person step onto the stage without prepared lines and no idea what the audience will say? Futch says while some people do have a natural ability for improv, it is a skill which can be learned and honed. In addition to a positive attitude, he said an improvisational performer needs to read and listen to everything he can, from news and movies to radio and the latest-bestsellers. “You want to be a big sponge to everything.”
Another fundamental of improv is the “Yes, And” concept. Futch explained that no matter what your partner says, you must accept it as true and build on it. So if one member of the troupe says, “I bought a new hat,” the next member can’t say, “It wasn’t a hat, it was a scarf.” To make the bit flow, the next member must say, “Yes, and … I’m going to wear it to my grandmother’s wedding. It’s her third marriage.”
The troupe was begun in 1985 by a group of students taking an improv class. Since then members have come and gone, with Futch the only remaining original member. Currently about 20 different comedians work with the troupe, many of whom also perform on screen in shows such as “Malcolm in the Middle” and “The Simpsons.” At any one improv show, four to five comedians and one musician perform.
While Futch said the performers never know what they will be doing each night, he does know what they won’t be doing. The troupe avoids sexual and bathroom humor, so performances are appropriate for as wide an audience as possible. Although a 6-year old may not understand all of the jokes (health care reform?), his parents won’t need to have any uncomfortable conversations on the way home either.
In addition to improv comedy shows, the Laughing Matters troupe also does improv workshops for all ages, team building exercises and corporate events.
Over the last 24 years, Futch said improv has been everything from a hobby to a full-time job for him.
“It’s been my life,” he said. “And I remember all of those teachers who wagged their fingers at the fat, funny kid and said ‘you’ll never amount to anything.’”
It seems Futch is the one laughing now.
Laughing Matters will perform at the Averitt Center for the Arts on Nov. 6 at 7:30 p.m.