For almost seven years, the improv troupe Study Hall has been presenting Comedy Inspired by Lectures, hosted by Drexel University professor Michael Yudell, on stage with a revolving group of academics and improv actors. The professors lecture and the performers riff, skewering the sometimes-indecipherable ideas favored in academia. For the pandemic-era 2020 Fringe, the show is going online.
The first professor of the September 12 show was Julie Taddeo, a professor of modern British history at the University of Maryland. Her mini-lecture on Victorian pseudosciences included phrenology (the “science” of conjuring people’s intelligence and personality via the bumps on their head), mesmerism, and spiritualism. Madame Blavatsky would have approved, and Taddeo’s visuals were funny in themselves—let the laughter begin, I figured.
Unfortunately, the scenarios the actors came up with were not funny. A traffic cop stops a speeder and the driver tries to evade the ticket by the bumps on his own head? Using hypnosis instead of anesthesia for surgery was a bit better, but it didn’t seem to go anywhere. I think the problem is probably trying to improvise over Zoom. The lag time and the missed cues just seem to strip the fun out of the creative moment.
Language of comedy
The next lecture was by an old chum of Yudell’s, currently teaching at Tokyo’s Reitaku University. Adam Komisarof, professor of intercultural communication and acculturation in business administration, explained how different cultures communicate differently. His talk drifted into moments of self-giggling (“No one dreams of being an academic,” he quipped at one point), but his meandering lecture was followed by a surprisingly good improv.
Lexicographer and improv performer Steve Kleinedler, editor with the American Heritage Dictionary for 21 years and author of the linguistic text Is English Changing?, gave the hilarious final lecture. He started with an NPR story about singer Beyonce garnering nine nominations at the Grammys, sniffing at how the on-air host’s statement was “ill formed.” The lexicographer insisted that the way the sentence was constructed, Beyonce could have been getting nine chickens at the Grammys instead of nominations, and he descended into a bouquet of gobbledygook academese and linguistic analysis that only Noam Chomsky could parse. This lecture truly inspired the actors—the image of Beyonce getting chickens at the Grammys took hold in the moment.
Getting used to the platform
Performers Fred Brown, Sarah Clemency, Keane Cobb, Marcely Jean-Pierre, Tia Kemp, Brendan Manklang Kingston, and James B. Knight were all wonderful, with special kudos to Clemency and Jean-Pierre, who compensated for the Zoom-room deficiencies the best. They were consistently funny.
In future performances, I would suggest that the actors refrain from questioning the lecturers before the improv, since the Q&A ends up as indecipherable crosstalk on a black screen. Also, the actors should introduce themselves and say their full names either before the performance or after, Saturday Night Live style—just putting a small caption with their first name under the framing doesn’t cut it.
The show has a lot to offer and should get funnier through the run as the actors get used to the platform. On Wednesday, September 30, Study Hall will hold a fundraiser for Black Lives Matter Philly.
Image description: a green-and-yellow cartoon badge for the show reads “Eruditio Per Risum” up top, "Study Hall" in the middle, and “comedy inspired by lectures” on the bottom.
What, When, Where
Study Hall: Comedy Inspired by Lectures. Directed by Mike Marbach. Streaming through October 3, 2020, part of the 2020 Philadelphia Fringe Festival. studyhallshow.com.