Carson needs a home.
He's four-years-old and maybe 260 pounds. A long, graying beard stands out against his red Harley-Davidson T-shirt.
But this kid came to play, acting out a bed jumping routine and then selling it with a near belly flop onto the concrete floor of a Broken Arrow building.
Carson exists in the body of the performer, a student of improv acting at a recent night class led by Jason Watts and Peter Bedgood.
Funny or not, it's impossible to keep from staring as he sings nonsense songs (loudly) and cracks jokes only a toddler would love (also loudly). Others in the class take turns creating their own characters. There's a narcissistic gym rat and an oddly-accented old lady. At different times, Bedgood whispers to others in the class, who are seated mostly in camping chairs or on an incongruously placed couch.
They had been peppering the characters with smart-alecky questions as a way to elicit certain responses, but, after hearing Bedgood's words, they rise and join those already in character. A ridiculous plot involving a trio of elderly bank robbers quickly leads to Carson's untimely death, but before long Carson is up again. When practicing improv, there's really no good reason to play dead for long.
At the end of the two-hour class, Bedgood -- a veteran actor, writer and performer -- has everyone stand in a semi-circle while he dishes out some advice on picking out characters. "If you choose someone who is physically or mentally limited, the character is going to be limited," he says.
The 15 or so students pay rapt attention. But Watts and Bedgood know that while practice sharpens skill, improv artists and others in the comedic arts need more performing opportunities to truly have their talents bloom. Carson's home? It should be a stage.
Stepping up to provide such a performance venue are Watts and his wife and fellow improv performer (and Urban Tulsa Weekly designer) Nicole Vance.
The Comedy Parlor, opening Nov. 1, will feature four nights of varying comedic styles each week. The renovated space will be an approximately 55-seat venue with theater seating in what the pair hope is perfect real estate: on E. 1st Street, in the Blue Dome District.
"Our bet is if you put it up in a nice location and you make a nice theater and champion local comedy, that it will develop a following. And there will be an audience for it," Watts said.
While Watts and Vance stress the variety of acts that will appear on the Comedy Parlor's 12-by-20 foot stage, it's the joys and frustrations of improv acting in Tulsa that led them to take the plunge to rent and completely make over the site of a short-lived yoga studio.
They explained that local theatre groups and auditoriums generally provide only sporadic support for improv shows.
"We just have always wanted to be able to put improv in a theater where it can thrive," Watts said, describing Tulsa's scene as having maybe a couple of dozen performers.
But adding in Oklahoma City and smaller cities nearby, that estimate reaches triple digits -- and Watts said those groups have expressed enthusiasm about what's happening in Tulsa.
"We were in contact with all of these different groups, saying, 'Hey, if we make this place, would you guys want to come down in and play?' They were all, like, 'Well, of course, we'd love it,'" Watt said, noting that even Oklahoma City doesn't have a comparable venue to what he hopes the Comedy Parlor will be.
Mulling over the idea off-and-on since 2009, the availability of the Blue Dome site led them to grow their ambitions.
"We upped our game, because we knew it wasn't going to be a small improv little hole in the wall performance place," Watts said. "It needed to be something bigger. It needed to be more inclusive. It needed to have more broad appeal."
Sketch comedy and stand-up definitely will have a place on stage at the Comedy Parlor.
"I've had a lot of stand-up friends over the years, but I really started meeting all of the stand-ups in Tulsa starting back in May when we started doing this full time, and there's a huge standup community here," Watts said.
Nurture vs. nature
Can funny be learned, and Tulsa develop into a hotbed of comedic talent?
"I think the pool of talent is -- I don't think that's for me to say," said Bedgood. "There's people that are trying it. I won't say whether or not they're talented."
Tulsa has a great music scene, he said. "But as far as comedy goes, it's just not on the map," Bedgood said.
Part of the plan is to help develop that scene through classes. The improv learners gathering in Broken Arrow will also learn some basic sketch comedy skills. The class is considered introductory, but many of the participants were invited to attend.
"We have a lot of stand-ups in this class, and they're very curious about improv, so they want to do that, learn sketch writing to try and help their standup," Watts said. "Then we have some improv, experienced improv people in the class as well, along with some newbies."
Elsewhere in Tulsa, the Laughing Matter Improv Troupe -- a city parks program, essentially -- offers a general introduction to improv specifically.
"It is the oldest game in town," Watts said. It's also where he and Vance met, and where they began to truly become devoted to the craft.
"You're like an athlete to a certain degree," Watts said. "You're performing a game, and it's fun in that regard because you just don't know what you're going to get out of it until you get up there and find out."
The skills of a funny performer can definitely be learned, they said.
"I see myself more as like a character actor, but some people are really witty and use that skill to their advantage. With improv there's a lot of rules that you learn to help you kind of move scenes forward," Vance said. "You don't want to get in an argument. It gets in a rut, so you kind of learn to give your partners something to go off so I think that helps people learn to be funnier."
Why Won't You Die? Improv students play a game called, Slo-mo Samurai. The object is to kill one another and die a slow dramatic death. But not really.
Toby Morton not only is a student in the Broken Arrow class, he's also an accomplished writer whose credits include South Park. He'll use that background to teach the sketch writing component of the class.
While Morton's only been in Tulsa since the start of the year, he said he's very interested in the direction Watts is taking with the new club.
"I like that he's making it more than just like a stand-up club. I do want to be a part of that, kind of bringing in local people and all different types of comedy, all different types of shows," Morton said. "I think from what I can see so far, they need that in Tulsa, something with a little more variety."
Bedgood noted that it's great to just have any new comedy venue.
For the last five years or so, The Loony Bin in Tulsa has offered stage time to a mix of travelling and local stand-up comics. It's been the only place dedicated to comedy since the Tulsa Comedy Club closed down about eight years ago.
Several bars have offered occasional comedy nights, including Lot 6 Art Bar and Woody's. But a new comedy venue opening is vital to growing a local scene, Bedgood said.
"I like being able to tell people that if they continue trying and get better, that there's some place they can go besides one more bar. There's a lot of bars in town that they're trying to help support comedy, but so far there's just been a plateau," he said.
Comedy doesn't always work well when the audience is there for mainly other reasons, he noted.
Nicole Vance, Jeff Brown and Jason Watts
"Comedy is better maybe with a drink or two in you, but not shitfaced," Bedgood said. "It's kind of hard to get people even to follow a knock-knock joke when they're really drunk, so it's better to have an intelligent audience when you're doing comedy."
The programming planned for the new performance venue includes shows with the broadest possible appeal as well as humor meant for mature audiences.
"All of the 7:30pm shows on Friday and Saturday are going to be family friendly, either all ages or 13 plus," Watts said. Thursdays have been dubbed "Raw Meat," with a deliberately unpolished edge, while Sunday night is set to feature stand-up comedians.
Improv and Sketch Class
For those with only a limited understanding of improv, Watts said education is essential to managing audience expectations. Television viewers may remember the short-form style featured on Whose Line Is It, Anyway?, but there will also be long-form improv performances.
These shows flesh out character development, he said, emphasizing that the different sorts of shows will have to be explained to the audience member walking in.
"I think there's going to have to be some adventurous people," he said.
But the very nature of improv lends itself to winning audiences over, he suggested.
"You have to surprise them, you know. At the end of the day, what causes laughter is surprise and safety," Watts said. A horror movie works in part because people know the threat isn't real, he noted.
"Once you have that feeling of safety or trust, then you throw in the surprises. Now, that's where improv excels, because that's where improv is full of surprises," he said.
A sense of place
In other ways, the plan is to keep things simple for audience members.
The prime weekend shows will generally charge $10 admission. Each show will last about an hour, so that comedy can be part the night's entertainment without taking up an entire evening.
"I would like to think that having a comedy theater in downtown Tulsa -- just by that alone -- should create some interest," Watts said.
Expect a bar and a concession stand -- maybe popcorn even.
"We didn't want to make a movie theater, but we wanted to take the comforts of a movie theater and apply them to what we we're doing," Watts said. Audience members will find comfortable seating on three sides of the stage, he said.
"The space is not necessarily what I would choose for as an optimum or ideal theater space. However, it's turned out to be really good," Watts said.
Bedgood said the space means it will be right for a certain kind of touring comic.
"There's a huge comedy circuit that comes through town from Dallas to St. Louis, as far as south to north goes. Then people go from the East Coast to California that would love to be able to stop over in Oklahoma," he said.
The biggest names won't play such a small venue, but Bedgood said he expects to book some acts that have garnered national attention, including Tulsa-based Isaac Witty, a friend who's been featured on The Late Show with David Letterman.
And the audience should be prepared to laugh at themselves.
"I would love to see the Comedy Parlor represent or make fun of Tulsa as much as it can," Watts said.
He admitted that there may be a bit of a learning curve when it comes to matching performers with the possible pool of people willing to spend money on a comedy show.
"We see ourselves as the mediators. We know the acts, we know the talent and what we want to do is present them in the most accessible way to their audience," he said.
Working at it
Drew Welcher has only been doing stand-up for about a year.
Asked to describe her act in a word (besides funny), she chose "offensive."
If inexperienced, she's committed to expanding her comedy skills, taking part in the recent class led by Watts and Bedgood. She's made the rounds, performing at the Loony Bin and also at local bars, and a downtown venue like the Comedy Parlor is very welcome, she said.
"I think it's a good place to have it," she said, describing how it can potentially bring a new audience to comedy.
She's enjoyed picking up some improv skills, and said she would like to try them out on stage at the Comedy Parlor. A far as talent for that type of performance, "I don't know if I have that, but hopefully I do," she said.
Bedgood explained how Tulsa could become a hub for comedy.
"I know I'd love to see Tulsa become more of a destination spot for people who would like to do something in entertainment or in the arts," he said. "I don't think it's impossible. I think we just have to create an infrastructure to sustain it. It doesn't mean making enough money to live off of but it means making enough so you get paid for the effort."
Comedy Parlor Construction
He described how a new venue devoted to comedy encourages hopefuls.
"I'd love for them to be like, 'Oh man, if I go to these improv classes at the end of these improv classes, if I'm good enough, I'm going to be getting on a stage. I'm going to be getting on a stage at a club that has touring comedians come. I'm going to be getting on a stage where I can make a few bucks, put gas in my car so I can make it back home from doing a gig,'" Bedgood said.
Watts has been working full-time on the venture since May, leaving a teaching job at Central High School to focus on creating just this type of infrastructure.
"At this point right now, it's about a 14-hour-a-day job," he said.
He and Vance remarked on the irony of their venture.
"It's annoying. Because, realistically, we can't get on stage right now. We have to run this thing. We have to make sure that this works, yet our whole desire was to create this place so we could get on stage," Watts said.
"Maybe we should have thought this through," Vance quipped.
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