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Comic H(e)aven

A nondescript house a few blocks from the UMass campus is a cherished hangout for student improv and sketch comedians.

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Those who love it call it homey, homely, cluttered, a bit bohemian, eclectic. For nearly 20 years, its tenants have made their mark on the place—literally so, in the case of the graffiti on the walls—and left behind odd bits of furniture, art, wall hangings, and offbeat detritus. Whose were those Tibetan prayer flags, that smiling Buddha statue, those curling posters, that campus building sign? In many cases, no one remembers. But tradition dictates that it all stays, only to be added to. 

Welcome to the Shangri-la of the UMass Comedy League (UCL), the second-floor apartment of a house on Amherst’s McClellan Street, an easy walk from campus. Five students currently hold UCL’s eight executive positions. Four of them—seniors John Bergin, Jody Walls, and Ally Whitelaw, and junior Becca Regan—are current or former tenants, with the latter group dropping in regularly. The fifth, senior Maisy Halloran, has never lived there but, as she concedes, “might as well, since I’m always here.” 

Jody Walls especially enjoys the historic density of the place. “It’s just like any other college apartment, but with UCL stamped on every inch of it,” he says. “Every time I look at the walls I see something I hadn’t noticed before. People who first come over find it magical.”

Insiders call the house McClellan, as if it were a residence hall. Each of its three apartments shelters campus improv and sketch comedians, along with a smattering of theater majors. It’s the second-floor apartment, however, that is the joyful heart of this tight community of comedians-in-the-making. There the tenants and a steady stream of visitors compulsively watch comedy, talk comedy, create comedy. Should the conversation drift to the decline of civilization or the extinction of the planet, even that soon sparks comic riffs. “It’s disgusting,” laughs Becca Regan. “It’s constant.”

As a Registered Student Organization, UCL has access to Herter 231, the 151-seat campus auditorium where it rehearses and performs. “Beyond that,” says Ally Whitelaw, “the university has almost no idea what we do; they’re happy as long as we clean up after ourselves. But we’re grateful to UMass for giving us a place to work, and of course we ultimately have to thank the university for bringing us all together. Comedy has given us a wonderful experience of a kind we never anticipated when we started college.”

Any experience that wonderful can make ordinary schoolwork pale in comparison. UCL members keep up with their studies, despite devoting so much time and effort to comedy; some even do so in honors programs or in especially demanding majors. But their hearts are often elsewhere.

“I see academic institutions as places of learning, and I learn the most from the people I’m surrounded by at UCL,” says John Bergin. “We create tangible, you-can-see-this products, which is really exciting.”

They also venture out into the world, performing and sometimes meeting and working alongside some of their comic idols. In the improv scene, Chicago is the promised land. UCL members have made two recent trips there.

“In January,” recalls Ally Whitelaw, “six of us in a van drove 14 hours through a snowstorm to see what we could learn. We performed twice and had a bunch of workshops with people, including some UMass alums. In a workshop with TJ Jagodowski of TJ & Dave, we did some of the best improv of our lives and began moving toward the Chicago style, more relationship- and emotion-based than the funny-funny New York style we had been doing. That workshop taught me more than any class I’ve ever taken.”

Each of UCL’s three troupes has its own comedic territory. Sketch-22’s 13 members write and perform short sketches in hour-long shows presented as often as four times a semester. Toast, a 12-member, long-form improv troupe, performs each Friday; audience suggestions prompt freewheeling productions lasting up to an hour. Mission: IMPROVable, a 12-member short-form improv troupe, each Saturday presents family-friendly, high-energy scenes interspersed with booming rock ’n’ roll. 

UCL members who belong to two troupes find that each has its own challenges and rewards. It’s true enough, for example, that all improv entails going onstage with, as Becca Regan says, “Nuthin’.” But to Maisy Halloran, “Long-form and short-form use completely different sets of muscles. Long-form is like jogging; short-form is like running.”

Both, however, provide similar thrills. “Improv is very spiritual,” says Ally Whitelaw. “You get to enter play mode, which so few adult activities encourage. It’s meditative, letting your mind create without judgment.” It also encourages deep connections among troupe members. “Improv is completely based on support and listening,” adds Jody Walls. “You can’t get to that joke or that funny thing if you’re not focusing on your scene partner.”

Sketch comedy, on the other hand, begins with writing—which, as Whitelaw notes, “is so much more brutal than improvising; it can be almost insufferable. But I love the pain of writing, and it can let me convey things that are bothering me in a funny way. It’s wonderful to be silly as well.”    

Ask these students what makes for great comedy and all agree that it should include a certain level of truth, a dim view of the obvious laugh, and a smart approach in general. They honor improv’s golden rule: always play at the top of your intelligence. Beyond that, they want heart and even a measure of compassion. “A lot of us aren’t into mean humor and try not to bully,” says Whitelaw. “Even self-deprecation can go too far; if your only strategy is to ruin yourself onstage, that’s not funny to me.”

UCL has no overt political agenda, but its comic fuel is strongly estrogen-enhanced. No surprise there: of the 30 students in the three troupes, 20 are women. Male chauvinists and female stereotypes from Betty Crocker to Disney princesses therefore had better duck and cover when UCL comes knocking.

Within each troupe, the director concentrates on honing members’ skills; the producer takes on such practical matters as arranging events and trips. They learn to rule with a light hand, trusting to the innate team spirit of their highly individual players. “When I began directing,” Becca Regan admits, “I had a big learning curve. I was too intrusive. I had to come to see that ‘I love these people, I respect these people, and I’ve got to give them more room.’”

Love brims over at UCL. John Bergin speaks for all of them: “When I came to UMass, I knew that in a campus of 30,000 people I needed to find my own community, a group I could work in. Soon after joining Toast, I realized that I was not just in a group, but in a group of really tight friends creating together. Each troupe rehearses nine hours a week minimum, so there’s a real social commitment; we might as well be friends.”

Double that time for those who are in two troupes, then factor in the hanging out that typically follows a rehearsal or performance, and the outcome is all but inevitable. “We’re unbelievably close friends,” says Ally Whitelaw. “It’s crazy.”

And it’s ongoing. From year to year, the talent keeps arriving and developing, the tradition lives on. And the seniors who tearfully depart each spring know that they’ll always find a welcome back at McClellan, where their names will still be there on the wall, Buddha will still be smiling at the poster of the Beatles crossing Abbey Road, and the talk will be of comedy. 


To watch UMass students perform a comedy sketch, click here.