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Show Review: A Night at iO West

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Dave Foley from Kids in the Hall at iO West. Photo courtesy iO West.

iO West, formerly of the ‘ImprovOlympic’ namesake, has been a true comedy institution in Los Angeles for more than a decade, and it’s heritage with the original Chicago outlet goes back much further. From Chris Farley to Bill Murray and every Tim (Meadows), (Andy) Dick, and Del (Close) in between, iO has been an instructional springboard for many famous names and thousands more who just want to learn the art of improv.

Obviously, one of the best things about iO West is its location, square on Hollywood and just a step from Vine. When the surrounding clubs are showing short skirts and $10 beers, it’s also refreshing to know that iO West will proudly serve PBR as cheaply as possible, both during and in between shows. In fact, the bar itself, though small, is a big draw for the theatre, and may lead to the more relaxed feel of the crowd, both inside the show and bellying up. But, understandably, we’ve all had unfunny coworkers who have proven the theory that cheap beer alone does not make for good comedy. And sure, nowadays there may be more trendy theaters (or garages or restaurants) to go to for a night of laughter, there’s even places where -for the most part- the shows are just plain better than at iO, but that doesn’t mean they can’t still wow you with their comedy offerings. Just try a Saturday night at 6366 Hollywood Blvd. , and you should be pleasantly surprised.

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Buying three PBRs with a ten spot and sitting down for some improv comedy is not a bad way to spend a Saturday night, even if the show decides to suck. Luckily, for all of the implications and intimations that surround iO being a ‘second class’ theatre, the truth is most of their shows satisfy the casual observer, and plenty of them even show the comedy snobs a good time. Then again, checking out Beer Shark Mice on a Saturday at iO West is sort of like playing with a stacked deck, and that’s exactly what you should do. It’s not about playing fair when it comes to your laughter, you need to horde that shit for all the days you want to blow your brains out while staring at an Excel sheet. Beer Shark Mice (David Koechner, Pat Finn, Neil Flynn, Mike Coleman, Pete Hulne) is the seminal improv team that many keen comedy observers first cut their teeth on in Hollywood, before moving on to Harold Night or The Uncle Joe Show or ASSSCAT. But when you decide to come back, to check up on your roots, you might just find that the things you loved about Beer Shark Mice never left at all, and if anything, their shows and their audiences just keep on getting better.

On a warm Saturday night in March, it’s great to realize that Beer Shark Mice is still doing it well, just the way you remembered. Their scenes are open, their dialogue is pointed, and most importantly, they’re having fun. As a five-man team (when you can actually get all of these working actors on stage together at the same time), they are clean and well-run, and absolutely do not lack for support from each other. As scene after scene rolls along, based on a single suggestion, Neil Flynn continues to amaze you as the slightly confused straight man, Koechner hones in as the in-over-his-head nice guy, and Finn will always play a girl. What a formula. But beneath these superficial observations, BSM really is still as strong as ever, and the crowds they pull in are evidence of that. For these five guys, between auditions or writing or time spent with families, iO West is perhaps all they need.

As the night rolls on, people come in and out of the theater to get more drinks or take a phone call, and each time the heavy, soundproofed door opens you can hear the gentle rolling of laughter. On a Saturday night with Beer Shark Mice, everyone is in a good mood, and ready to laugh, which is a relief to any show with the always unenviable task of following up a heavy hitter. Smartly, iO West throws up a comparably popular show, be it God Squad or the iO All Star Show or even The Lampshades. And if you stick around until 11, you might even get to see a great new improv scheme taking shape at iO West, known as the Live Improv Movie Project.

If you’re looking for out-of-the-box thinking when it comes to improv, this is probably it. Live Improv Movie Project, or LIMP as it is affectionately known, is part cutting-edge and part cutting-room floor. Three teams of improvisors, each with their own camera and sound equipment, take something from an audience member and (along with a single suggestion) head out into the Hollywood night to shoot some scenes. These are then patched back into the theater and right up on stage, where the editing takes place right in front of you, and is broadcast on a large projector as it’s completed. The editors must handle the immediate footage and mold it into something somewhat coherent, while the groups outside keep running around in search of content. And while results may vary, there is no denying that the show itself is successful; each performance produces a single, in the moment film that couldn’t have existed otherwise.

It is the sheer ingenuity and novelty of a show like LIMP that makes it so damn entertaining. There is nothing particularly magnificent in regards to most of the improvised live-to-tape scenes you see; they can tend to fall into the normal stand-and-banter routine, except in a parking lot or on a sidewalk. But the real ingenious moments of true romance gone wrong in a bathroom stall, or unsuspecting members of the public, cannot be found anywhere else except at LIMP, let alone be edited alongside several other story lines in an easy to follow format, complete soundtrack. While the stage is dark, only a projector plays, and all of the performers are out in the streets, the real magic is being done inside, right on stage, from behind a Macbook and an array of cords. Part Girl Talk, part Michael Moore, part ImprovEverywhere. All awesome.

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As you pay your tab at the bar and try to squeeze your way out the front door onto the bluelit sidewalk, you can’t help but notice the Chris Farley star laid right out front. After a few beers and a few hours of pure cheap entertainment, there’s no point in wondering if Chris would be performing here if he were still alive, or any other theater across town somewhere. There’s no need to wonder, because it doesn’t matter. LA is a big enough city, and there is more than enough laughs to go around, nowadays. So the only thing left is the laughter. Can iO West still make you laugh? Absolutely.