H Michael Croner, Ryan Gaul and Greg Worswick in “The Bachelor” from “Kung Fu Battle Island” (Shawn Bishop)
Full disclosure: I am usually not a huge fan of improv comedy. Part of my apathy stems from the wild variances in quality one can expect when the entirety of a show is made up on the spot – when improv is good, it’s good, but when it’s bad, it’s among the most painful and awkward experiences one can have in a theater short of a Mexican donkey show – but my annoyance usually starts right off the bat when I’m initially confronted with an improv team’s familiarly “quirky” and “irreverent” name. As such, I must admit I was not thrilled to attend a performance from the Groundling Theater’s new comedy ensemble, “Kung Fu Battle Island.”
That being said, I remained optimistic, owing mostly to the incredible reputation of the Groundlings as a world-famous hub of creativity and innovation which acted as launching pad for such superstars as Jack Black, Paul Reubens (Pee-Wee Herman), Will Ferrell, Kristen Wiig and countless others. Upon arriving at the theater I was further enthused to find that, in fact, “Battle Island” largely consisted of written sketch comedy with only a few scenes of improvisation. As it turns out, the show, directed by “Community” star and The Descendants screenwriter Jim Rash (a Groundlings alum), utilizes a rotating cast of players who lend their talents to a variety of unconnected scenes not unlike a televised variety program
As that format might entail, the setlist sees its share of hits and misses. On the night I caught “Battle Island,” I was treated to a number of gut-busting scenarios which highlighted the impressive range of the Groundlings’ stacked roster. One such highlight included a sketch about two bro-y Enterprise Rental clerks (Jim Cashman and H Michael Croner) who attempt to upwell their customers via ridiculous, highly sexualized claims regarding their banal car selection. Another big hit with the audience was a bit featuring a neck-bearded Yelp reviewer (Greg Worswick) waxing philosophical about the newest Taco Bell menu item. By my standards, the funniest segment by far was one which depicted a young woman (the brilliant Edi Patterson) coming into a job interview at a law firm only to immediately fall head-over-heels in love with her interviewer (Ryan Gaul), leading to a flirtatious back-and-forth so cartoonishly over-the-top that it peaks into sheer brilliance.
That being said, there were some major weak spots on “Battle Island”’s bill. As per usual, zeitgeist-y parodies of contemporary shows and songs feel cheap in their conception and carry a quick expiration date. Now, I admit I’m not a fan of “The Bachelor,” but one must wonder whether the Groundlings’ parody of the reality show will really play in a year or two. As it stands, it already felt dated when I saw it performed this past weekend. By that same token, music-based sketches like Annie Sertich’s irritatingly try-hard “Twerking Mom” or Gaul and Laurel Coppock’s outrageously shrill “High School Aerobics Finals” fell completely flat.
Indeed, though the obvious point of comparison here might be “Saturday Night Live,” I found the Groundlings to be more akin to that institution’s once-competitor “MADtv.” I make that connection not in a disparaging manner – I was actually quite a fan of that show’s original lineup – but only to point out that the Groundling’s comedic M.O. is, like “Mad,” grounded primarily in lewd caricatures, intricate song-and-dance-numbers and topical parodies. Whereas rival improv troupe the Upright Citizens Brigade traffics in a dark surrealism firmly targeted at millennials raised on a steady diet of bong rips and “Adult Swim,” the Groundlings are firmly based in a more familiar brand of broad, “zany” comedy that wouldn’t alienate a Mid-Western family whose only exposure to improv was a few episodes of “Whose Line Is It Anyway.” Mind you, in my eyes, none of this is a bad thing. The post-post-post-meta detachment that so defines much of modern humor gets mighty old after you’ve seen it co-opted by deodorant commercials and star-studded Funny Or Die vanity pieces, making it rather refreshing to be treated to an hour-and-a-half of comedy so bright-eyed and sincere in its silliness.
“Groundlings Kung Fu Battle Island” runs through July 11 at the Groundlings Theatre. For more information, visit groundlings.com.