Across the nation, improvisational comedy — and comedy in general — is more popular than ever. Shows like “Key & Peele” and “Inside Amy Schumer” and the success of improvisers like Stephen Colbert, Amy Poehler, Steve Carrell and Tina Fey show how mainstream this type of comedy has become.
“When I moved back to New Orleans, this is what I got all the time: ‘What’s improv?’ ” said Yvonne Landry, owner of La Nuit Comedy Theater, which she opened in 2002 after a comedy career in Chicago and Los Angeles.
“Now in 2015, I don’t meet anybody who doesn’t know what improvisation is.”
Improv comedy routines are made up on the spot by the comic actors: dialogue, setting, action, story and characters.
Landry’s theater sits on Freret Street. An early adopter of the now bustling thoroughfare, she had trouble at first bringing people into what was, a dozen years ago, a pretty tough neighborhood.
Nonetheless, the theater helped renew an interest in improv comedy in New Orleans.
When Hurricane Katrina struck, the 50 students in her improv classes scattered, and it took some time to get back on her feet.
But with the help of some committed young comics and a community that wanted to change the neighborhood, La Nuit was able to expand and begin hosting performers as well as offer classes four days a week. Landry also got the first alcohol license on Freret.
“What helped us take off was (that) young people wanted to come to New Orleans,” Landry said. “A lot of my students were Teach for America kids, who were these doe-eyed, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, we-want-to-help-New-Orleans-get-back-on-its-feet types.”
One of those students was Chris Trew, the owner and co-founder of The New Movement Theater on St. Claude Avenue.
Trew founded the first New Movement Theater in Austin, Texas, in 2009, the city that became his home for a few years after the storm. After cutting his comedic teeth in Texas, Trew returned to New Orleans, opened another theater and became arguably the biggest active comedian to call the Big Easy home.
Recently featured in GQ magazine for his founding of the Air Sex World Championships, which has since spawned a documentary, Trew has gained increasing name recognition.
“I look at the theater as a record label,” Trew said. “If one of us does well, the label does well.”
The New Movement Theater, which Trew opened with his wife, Tami Nelson, has expanded to six nights a week and offers classes that are capped at 12 students. Many of the teachers are Trew and Nelson’s former students.
The first rule of improv is “Yes, and …,” a response to a scenario or idea that allows a scene to progress and heighten.
Nick Napolitano, a local comedian who has been involved in three different improv troupes — Assembly, Science and his newest, Tiny Bruises — believes the city is taking that improv rule to heart.
“Improv is such a great outlet to any type of creative who is struggling to figure out what they want to do, and it’s a great art form to take in,” Napolitano said. “So much of the baseline of comedy today has deep roots within improv, and a lot of general comedy fans don’t necessarily know that.”
Cyrus Cooper is a local improviser and standup comedian who claims three improv troupes: Dean’s List, Jet Black and Quiet on the Set.
Improv shouldn’t be stressful, he said.
“There’s no difference between improv or meeting up with your tennis league or your fellow train enthusiasts,” Cooper said. “It can be a hobby with a bunch of people who are really interested and passionate about the same things you are and want to talk about it in depth. Just some of them want to turn that hobby into a vocation.”
Cooper, Trew and Landry all said businesses have approached them to train their staff to communicate better or to help pump up their marketing material.
“No matter what you do, what you learn in improv will make that better,” Trew said. “It just makes you a better communicator and a more fun person. Improvisers listen, they’re open-minded, they don’t shut things down, they heighten, they want to find what’s fun and do it more, and they’re generally just very supportive. The improviser to me is the ultimate comedian.”
Many point to the recent growth of the film industry to explain New Orleans’ renewed interest in comedy.
“The film industry has brought a lot of high-profile comedians to town,” said local comedian and social worker Brittany Hunt. “Louis C.K. came down, Hannibal Buress came down, a lot of famous comedians come through and do movies and they all do shows while they’re here.”
The big names pull in audiences, and the local comedians who open the shows get an opportunity to expand their reach, Hunt explained.
“There are people in the city who don’t know how strong the comedy has become here,” Napolitano said. “I’m not saying we’re a top 4 city for comedy, but if you’re listing all the cities, we’re definitely up there.
“We’re pushing,” he added. “There are so many standups, sketch comedians and improvisers working so hard to get their content out there that it’s exploding faster than a lot of people are realizing. I would urge people to take in the comedy scene as soon as they can.”