‘Six Foot Something’ takes campus improv to new lengths

Graphic by Caroline Devane/ caroline.devane@marquette.edu

It seems like Marquette comedians are best in duos. Danny Pudi and Donald Glover, Chris Farley and David Spade, Rondell Sheridan and That’s So Raven (OK, the last one’s a stretch). But now, Marquette is getting one more pair bringing a new style of comedy to campus.

Spencer Rose and Chris O’Reilly have all the elements of a great comedic dynamic. O’Reilly, a senior in the College of Arts & Sciences, and Rose, a junior in the College of Communication, have collaborated as been members of the Marquette improv group, the Studio 013 Refugees, better known as the Fugees, for the more than two years. O’Reilly brings a character-driven style full of boisterous energy, while Rose is more subtle, best at observational humor and connecting long running jokes, the Spade to O’Reilly’s Farley.

Their new project, “Six Foot Something,” will present its first three long-form improv shows this weekend, Nov. 21-23 at 7:30 p.m. in Humphrey Hall.

The idea of extending beyond the 14-member short form of the Fugees came to O’Reilly and Rose this summer at a summer intensive workshops at the legendary, iO (ImprovOlympic) theater in Chicago. Famous iO alumni include Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Bill Hader and Marquette’s own Danny Pudi and Chris Farley.

“I was actually a day away from signing a contract as a Jimmy John’s delivery driver,” Rose said. When O’Reilly called Rose changed his mind and decided to enroll in the 24-hours-a-week classes. “So the day I was supposed to start at Jimmy John’s, I called them and said, ‘Yeah, I’m not going to do this.’ The Jimmy John’s drivers were very accepting, like ‘cool, man, cool.’”

“The Jimmy John’s guys just say ‘chase your dreams, man. Heck, we haven’t! So you do it for us,’” O’Reilly added.

Out of more than 200 people in nine improv sections at the iO summer intensive, Rose and O’Reilly ended up in the same group.

“We didn’t perform together for the first two and half weeks or so though,” Rose said. “But then people naturally just said that we would go well together. They were like ‘you guys really know how to work well together.’ That’s strange, you know, because you’re strangers. And then we made the big reveal of like ‘We’re not strangers! We go to the same school!’”

One of the regular members at iO proposed that if they form a group and get experience, the pair could bring their show to a Chicago theater in the coming months, finalizing their decision to start the two-man group.

Photo courtesy of Chris O'Reilly

The summer experience also gave “Six Foot Something” exposure to the increasingly popular phenomenon of long-form improv, which they took up for the project. Unlike the current Fugees platform, “Six Foot Something” improv scenes last up to 40 minutes stemming from a single suggestion.

“If you think about an episode of Seinfeld, that’s very much a long-form sort of idea,” O’Reilly said. “There are all these pieces, that you see come together in the end.”

Long-form creates a different mindset for the performers as well as the audiences they entertain. One of the most common structures of long-form, for example, is the “Harold,” a 25 to 40 minute improvisational piece that uses three unrelated scenes improvisers weave together into a narrative and, if all goes well, comedy.

“A lot of it is about planting seeds that you don’t fully water throughout the show,” Rose said. “Then you don’t go back and capitalize on them until the last couple minutes. Because when people see how long you’ve been planning the jokes within the show, it kills. That’s really where the magic of it comes from, bringing something back that you said twenty minutes ago and people are marveled at how you remembered it let alone worked it into the scene.”

Long-form can be more intricate and can go places far stranger than shorter forms with more time to expand, create situations and extrapolate on original suggestions.

“Yeah, it can get way weirder,” Rose said. “Like in our past Fugees show we tried ‘documentary’ which is one of our longer games. And what started as unloading boxes in a warehouse in Detroit ended up in space with saucers … somehow. So even in 10 minutes, it can go from normal to completely absurd.”

Through their work this summer and their time with the Fugees, Rose and O’Reilly both decided to pursue careers in improv comedy. But they came to their decisions in very different ways.

“Honestly, starting improv was kind of a whim for me,” O’Reilly said. “I grew up loving Saturday Night Live and even Second City. I remember idolizing Second City, without being fully clear on what it was. I remember just hearing about it and wanting to participate. But I was always really shy. I never really did anything in high school, except senior year I did a sort of variety show when I was in a skit and got to impersonate a couple of the teachers. So that was my first foray into comedy. Then my friend freshman year new some of the fugees and said ‘you should try it.’”

Rose’s decision to pursue improv has been a bit longer coming.

 “I’ve been doing this for a long time,” Rose said. “I started when I was 12, and now I’m 20. I quit sports because the coach and his son were both my middle school bullies. So I was just like ‘uh yeah, not doing this shit. I am done!’ So I signed up for Second City, the Piven Theatre and then I was lucky enough to have an improv school in my town. For a while, my weekends would literally be like four hours of improv going between all of them.”

In training Rose learned more about the craft of improv and what makes a strong long-form performer.

“There’s certain habits that I had to be broken of,” Rose said. “Like shutting down emotionally whenever things got “real” for a second. With that kind of thing I used to be like ‘ah, no, we’re having fun. Right? Stop bringing real feelings into this.’ So now looking back I just think ‘why would I always go for the most loopy, unrealistic things?’ Because sometimes the real things are the funniest. So  I’ll bring back things like that funny situation where the coach and his son were both dicks to me. It’s bringing in real life experiences, where as before it was just doing it and not remembering what I did. If someone said something about a scene I used to have to bait them to remember. They would say like ‘I loved you in that one scene with Chris.’ I would ask, ‘how’s that one end again?’ ‘You were dinosaurs.’ ‘Oh yeah!’ But now I’m thinking through all the time so I can remember what the hell just happened.”

Though long-form is a new endeavor on campus, “Six Foot Something” comes in the wake of a long tradition of comedy at Marquette.

“Having been in Chicago this summer, it’s amazing how many people from Marquette are working not only in theater there, but are involved in Second City and are involved at iO,” O’Reilly said. “You don’t hear about that ever. I had no conception of how big the Marquette presence was in that world. There are so many very successful comedians, but nobody here knows them.”

Rose and O’Reilly plan to eventually have biweekly “Six Foot Something” shows around campus.

“We want to do shows on a more regular basis,” Rose said. “I compare it to pickup basketball vs. the NBA. NBA you need the venue, you need the people and you need everyone to get together at the same time. Whereas this is more like a pickup basketball game where if we feel like we want to do an improv show, we’ll go down to Humphrey Hall. We don’t care if six people show up, because it’s just the two of us.”

“Six Foot Something” may also be the beginning of something bigger for Marquette.

“We hope to put comedy into more of the mainstream attractions on campus,” Rose said. “We hope that ‘Six Foot Something’ will be a big kick start for a renaissance of comedy on campus. It’s lofty, but that’s the goal.”

Rose and O’Reilly eventually have even higher aims. They hope to go onto bigger platforms in Chicago and enter Philedelphia’s Duofest, the only comedy festival devoted specifically to two-person improv.

But for now they are just taking it one suggestion, one scene and one joke at a time.