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.