Send in the clowns

Theatre Strike Force member Zach Huddleston entertains the audience during the last sketch of the live comedy improv show at the University of Florida's Constans Theatre on Thursday.

DAVID MASSEY/Gainesville Sun
Published: Saturday, January 8, 2005 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, January 7, 2005 at 11:49 p.m.
"Whose Line Is It Anyway?" meets "Saturday Night Live," with a bit of ragtime song and dance mixed in.
That's how the president of Theatre Strike Force, Eddie Geller, describes the group's improvisational comedy show - "Theatre Strike Force Knows Best!!!" - which finishes a three-day run tonight at 8 in the Constans Theatre at the University of Florida.
The theater was filled to capacity and then some Thursday, with all of the 420 seats filled and about 75 people on the floor in front of the stage or standing along the back wall. About 100 people were turned away from Thursday's show.
Geller advises audience members planning to attend tonight to arrive early. The show is free.
Improvisational comedy has been around for decades, but has only recently seen an upsurge of interest in the United States since the British version of "Whose Line Is It Anyway?" came to ABC in 1998 with Drew Carrey as the show's host.
Improv comedy is driven by audience participation with several actors acting on cues given by the audience in real time during the show.
Because of this participation from the audience, no two shows are ever the same.
Sketch comedy is short, rehearsed skits, in which actors do not take cues from the audience, but know their lines in advance. This form of comedy is seen on network shows like "Saturday Night Live" and "Mad TV."
"About 80 percent of our show is improv," Geller said. "But we do plenty of sketch comedy as well."
Strike Force averages four shows a month in and around Gainesville, but its current production is the most involved show of the year, Geller said.
Strike Force is a registered organization with UF student government. Students with little or no experience in comedy are welcome to join the student club.
Also, students can take for course credit the class "Improvisation and Social/Political Issues," taught by graduate student Jud Johnson.
According to the club's Web site, it is the largest collegiate improv and sketch comedy troupe in the nation with more than 100 club members.
Judith Williams, former chair of UF's department of theatre and dance, founded the troupe in 1989 to try to reach an audience that "is not your typical theater audience."
"We have even gone into prisons to perform," said Williams, who is no longer affiliated with the program.
Strike Force's main goal is to address social issues of the day through satire and humor.
"When you hold up a form of satire with a comedic bent, it's easier to laugh at ourselves and say maybe we should clean that up," she said.
Some notable Strike Force alumni include Jason Pardo, who joined the improvisational group Second City, based in Chicago. Pardo is now a member of King Ten, an improv comedy troupe based in Los Angeles.
Alum Heather Roberts now teaches at Hunter College in New York City, where she has created Theatre Strike Force 2.
Upon graduation, Geller plans to relocate to Chicago, the hub of improvisational comedy.
"I don't know if I can make a career out of comedy or entertainment, but it is something I want to pursue," he said.
Several club members spent the week promoting the show by putting up fliers and some had more elaborate methods to get the word out.
For example, on Thursday, six club members - three women and three men - competed in a pie eating contest at Turlington Plaza.
Geller, equipped with a bullhorn, gave a play-by-play of the contest, but made a point of mentioning the three performances several times to the gathering crowd.
Katie Cotter was one of about 50 students looking on.
"I'm actually skipping my astronomy class to watch the pie-eating contest," Cotter said. "This was so exciting.
"I am definitely going to the show."

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