These two guys sit down at a table in the basement of the Memorial Union at Arizona State University. They're young, kind of geeky, probably freshmen. They pull McDonald's hamburgers from paper sacks. It's 12:30, lunchtime, Friday afternoon: Showtime for the Farce Side, ASU's student-run comedy troupe. Loud rock music pounds from speakers set up at the front of the long room. Several hundred students are seated for the show, at tables, on risers to the side of the open performance space or on the floor in front of the stage. Between bites, the two guys talk. One of them has seen the Farce Side before. He's brought his friend along to see the free show. "Why do they do it?" the neophyte asks. The veteran shrugs, his mouth full. "Because they like it?" the neophyte says, quickly answering his own question.
It's clear he's not too comfortable with that idea. Someone would spend their free time doing this? For no money? In front of people? Sure. THE SHOW STARTS.
The format for Farce Side performances calls for five opening minutes of solo standup, done by a different cast member each week. Sometimes the jokes are funny. Sometimes they fall so flat you worry that the young comic might suffer permanent personality damage. Next comes a half-hour of comedy sketches written, directed and performed by the student cast. The scenes can be topical, but most often are based on standard student concerns: TV, roommates, sex, advertising. The players, more than twenty in all, have a gift for comic mimicry. Sometimes these bits are inventive, funny. The audience is generally kind when they aren't. Even the lamest sketches get a few laughs and a round of applause.
A professional comic, usually a touring standup engaged for the week at one of the local comedy nightclubs, takes the stage for the final twenty minutes. The audience typically roars at these characters, who are mostly young comedy hustlers trying to work their way up from "middle" to "headline" status on one of the club circuits. No matter how funny the guy is, the audience slowly begins to fade away at 1:25 p.m., as clumps of students grab book bags and depart for afternoon lectures and labs. As the remaining crowd files out, the Farce Side cast reassembles onstage. If it's been a good show, the players can barely control their bodies. Some group members dance in place or sing along to the big-rock soundtrack that is again pulsing through the PA. The cast's performance rush won't fade for hours.
Cast members will party late into the night at director Patrick Rampson's house. On Sunday afternoon, several of them will meet again for a writing session. At 12:40 p.m. on Monday and again on Wednesday, the group rehearses. If additional polish is needed, the Farce Side cast gathers again for a run-through on Thursday night.
None of the students affiliated with the Farce Side receives payment or class credit for his or her time. Some undergo considerable hardship to join. Rampson, the student director, is ending his fifth year of college with at least another to go before graduation. Another longtime cast member has been enrolled at ASU for nine years. Both claim that progress toward graduation has been impeded by changes in academic majors and part-time jobs. Sure.
The culprit is comedy. THE FARCE SIDE has been a fixture in ASU's Memorial Union since the mid-Eighties, when a free spirit named Mike Sterner put out a call for funny undergrads. The group's first performances took place in an upstairs lounge, surrounded by streams of uninterested students heading for class or lunch or parking lots. Sterner modeled ASU's Comedy Corner (later called Comedy 101, then the Farce Side) on a popular student-run comedy program at the University of Arizona, where he had once been enrolled. At ASU, various student standups would do routines. The Tempe audience, if it reacted at all, was often hostile.
"It was pretty tough," recalls Sterner, who now travels the country as a professional comedian. "I think it's a different atmosphere here. There were a lot of complaints. People would just be walking by and hear `fuck.' There are a lot more religious groups here on campus, right-wing groups. They'd hear stuff like that and they'd go complain. It was complaint after complaint." The complaints came to a head after one impromptu film festival. "I showed a stag film one week, a stag film my dad had from the Fifties," Sterner says. "Breasts with tassels. You could almost show it on TV. There was a big hubbub about that. One of the people from the student government was in there, and a person also affiliated with some major religion. They were offended and walked out.
"Then I made the mistake of saying, `I guess all the queers are having to leave now.' So they got really pissed off." Sterner eventually left the group to perform professionally. "I quit so they could say they got rid of the guy whose fault it was," he says. "I didn't really think the group would still be going. I didn't think it would last very long because of all the problems it seemed to have." The little comedy program has not merely survived, but thrived. The Farce Side's last show of the fall semester--a "best-of" collection--drew an audience of 500, a mob that rivals such standard campus draws as traveling evangelists, human sexuality classes and, until recently, the basketball team. At ASU, that kind of student interest qualifies the Farce Side as a genuine phenomenon.
The cast members have a name for their most loyal audience members, the kids who come to the show week after week. They call them "comedy sluts."
"EVERYONE HAS similar reasons for doing comedy," says Dan Fleischmann, a graduate student in ASU's creative-writing program (declared emphasis: poetry) who writes for and performs with the Farce Side. "Funny people have something in their psyche that's extremely repressed and depressed or oppressed or something." A thin shock of frizzy hair hangs over Fleischmann's eyeglasses. Onstage at ASU he participates in sketches and does an occasional standup spot as a show opener. He does a terrific Woody Allen. "I've done clubs five or six times," he says. "But the clubs are hell. In front of a college crowd, it can be so much fun. Nobody's angry, nobody's drunk, nobody's expecting you to make them laugh. And they're more intelligent, basically."
As an undergrad at the University of California-Irvine, Fleischmann did comedy for an on-campus program similar to the Farce Side.
"I come from a school that didn't have a football team. I come here and there's three P.E. buildings, five stadiums, and I see all these huge people, built people, and they all have sports injuries. All these people walking around in casts. Enormous physiques. That strikes me as funny. I am not one of them. I'm a wimpy-looking white guy. "A lot of the frustration that results in humor starts in rejection by the opposite sex. It makes me write good stuff. It makes me write good poetry, good comedy. So I almost need, every once in a while, to go out and find some rejection."
THERE ARE NO official requirements for membership in the Farce Side. No tryouts are held. "The audition is, if you show up and you last and come back week after week, if you manage to keep showing up, you're in," says director Rampson.
"Everyone can basically work their way into the group," says alumnus Sterner. "One of the reasons I started doing comedy was I decided it wasn't that hard. `These guys aren't that good. I can do better than that.' If I had started without that environment, if I'd just gone to comedy clubs and watched those shows, I'd probably say, ~`No, no, that's hard. Those guys are professionals. I can't do that.'"
Only about a half-dozen of the Farce Side's twenty-plus members are women, and their roles tend to be stereotypical. To give themselves a wider range of roles, the women began last fall to do more sketch writing. "Ninety percent of the roles are sluts or ditzes," says Sara Beakley, a biomedical engineering major and one of the comedy group's female forces. "You can't be offended by that, otherwise you wouldn't last. I've seen girls who've been in the group who just can't handle the slut role."
THE FARCE SIDE is funded--$5,000 each semester--by the Memorial Union Activities Board (MUAB), which provides space for rehearsals and performances. Most of the money goes for publicity posters, ads in the student newspaper and to pay for the pro comics. The performances are thus university-sanctioned satire, an odd concept considering the troupe's almost complete freedom to offend people. On a weekly basis, the Farce Side gleefully harpoons the campus administration's most cherished institutions, including frat boys and their women, intercollegiate athletes and their coaches, and the administration itself. In Farce Side scripts, ASU president Lattie Coor is know as "The Lattster."
"We can't do total nudity," says director Rampson, defining his interpretation of the group's boundaries. There are no such limits on language or comedic premises. But ask any patriot: Freedom has its price. In their pursuit of ever bigger yuks, the fledgling comics sometimes stray from the higher path. Although the Farce Side has black cast members, who are the arbiters of all racial humor for the group, one unfathomable sketch last fall had several white cast members wearing blackface onstage. Still, when a gag or a sketch of questionable correctness causes the audience to moan or "tsk," cast members have been known to step out of character and administer a scolding. "It's only a joke," they say. "You're always going to offend someone, unless you're Neil Simon," says cast member Scott Genovese. Dee Schroeder, the university employee who officially oversees the Farce Side, attends one rehearsal a week and every performance. She is the person to whom wounded officialdom might gripe, though that hasn't happened yet.
"I'm not there to dictate what will be done," says Schroeder, MUAB program coordinator and a university employee for two decades. "It's not like censoring. "If they're looking at a part where the f word is used three times in three different lines, I might suggest that possibly the use of `Up yours' would be better and have the same impact."
AS AN EXTRACURRICULAR activity, comedy is not very practical. Which doesn't seem to be an issue with the cast. Only a few of the Farce Siders seem to be counting on a career in comedy. Their academic majors are broadcasting, theatre--even engineering. From Mike Sterner's point of view, that's a good sign. "I don't think anybody should do comedy unless they can't do anything else," he says. "In a way, I think it's almost better if people kind of do it while they're here, and don't get caught up in it, and go back to having real lives and stuff. Because--I don't mean to sound pitiful--it kind of ruined my life." Sterner never came close to graduating from ASU, primarily because he never enrolled for any classes. He has returned to Tempe to perform with the Farce Side several times since his departure. Last fall, the audience howled at his parody songs and downbeat material. The Farce Side pays each of its visiting comics $100. On a good week at a club, Sterner will take home $500. Home, in this case, is a story in itself. "Now I'm kinda hanging out in L.A.," he says. "My parents live in Las Vegas. That's where all my stuff is. I get mail at my parents' house. Out on the road, I live in my car, that kind of thing.
"Most of the people I know, most of the people I hang out with, are standup comics. I don't know very many real people anymore."
"ONCE YOU GET STARTED on the road, it's not that difficult," Sterner says of the professional comic's life. "You've got to be semiprofessional about it."
He spends a lot of time on the telephone, trying to sell club owners on his act. Sterner says salesmanship is not one of his strong points, and that flaw might be holding him back from greater success. That and his laid-back appearance. Sterner still looks like a longhair college kid. "I'm a good writer and a terrible performer," he says. "I've never felt like I had any consistency. I watch other comics and I don't like what I see. I see slick acts. I hate that. I try to make my act very natural, and I'll never get on TV that way."
TV, obviously, is the big payoff for a standup comic. A successful appearance next to Johnny Carson, David Letterman, or Arsenio Hall could lead to years of good-paying headliner status in clubs, solo appearances at colleges, a record deal, an HBO special. A slot on one of the many cable comedy shows is also highly desirable. Those goals are a long way from the basement of the Memorial Union. But the current market is glutted with performers. The best venues have their pick of talent. "To get on TV, you have to be very precise," Sterner says. "You have to have the suit, with the hair poufed up."
And for better or worse, Mike Sterner can't get into poufed-up. In the now-distant past, way back in the pre-Farce Side days, Mike Sterner came to campus. His mission was to convince whoever needed convincing that college kids could--and should--do comedy. Sterner got an audience with someone in student government. "He said, `Oh, I love comedians,'" Sterner says. "`Make me laugh.'
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"That's the most annoying thing that anyone can ever say. So I grabbed a butter knife off a tray and held it against his throat and said, `Laugh, you son of a bitch!'" The scenes can be topical, but most often are based on standard student concerns: TV, roommates, sex, advertising. "I showed a stag film one week, a stag film my dad had from the Fifties. Breasts with tassels. You could almost show it on TV."
"I come here and there's three P.E. buildings, five stadiums, and I see all these huge people, built people, and they all have sports injuries."
"If they're looking at a part where the f word is used three times, I might suggest that possibly the use of `Up yours' would be better."
"I grabbed a butter knife off a tray and held it against his throat and said, `Laugh, you son of a bitch!'