Laughter echoed through the Dorothy Betts Theatre Saturday night as four student comedy groups spitballed improv before headliner and Emmy-nominated comedian Josh Johnson brought the house down with his stand-up set.
About 200 guests filled the theater’s seats at the annual SLATE comedy festival organized by receSs, a sketch and improv comedy student organization, which has featured rising New York-based comic Troy Bond, actress and comedian Kate Berlant and comedy-drama “Hacks” actor Joe Mande in the past three years. Ahead of Johnson’s performance, receSs performed alongside student groups Drexel Football Team Improv from Drexel University, GW improv group [insert here] and Underground Improv Project from Muhlenberg College.
Each student group asked the audience for word suggestions to build their set and performed for about 10 minutes.
The Drexel Football Team chose the word “cowboys” from the audience. Members spoke in southern drawls and painted a comical story of townspeople who became intoxicated by the dangerous sweetness of their local pond. As they built off one another’s comments, like “Lord decides at the end all right,” the members wove the tale into a story about God’s favorite children. The end destination of the story felt worlds away from where it began, but the team’s effortless chemistry never left you feeling confused by the dialogue.
The next group to the stage, [insert here], chose the word “grass,” a theme that remained strong across their improv set as members told the story of a man who falls in love with his lawn. The narrative spun to include an image of his family life, infidelity and multiple instances in court all while keeping grass central to their improvisation. [insert here]’s set was funny, organized and built recognizable characters who had the crowd bursting into laughter.
The third group that performed, Underground Improv Project, selected the word “plank” from the audience. They kept it simple and started their set with one member planking. Their stories changed quickly, making for a fast-paced show that leapt from one storyline to another. By creating sound effects, like a creaking floorboard and a door opening, they made their scenes feel more animated.
The final group receSs used the word “turtle” to base their improvisation. They began with a member walking slowly like a turtle before revealing to the audience she’s trying to run a marathon despite sustaining an injury after falling into the Grand Canyon. The story revolved around her perilous fall, and, by the end, receSs crafted a tale about a man who brought all his dates to the Grand Canyon. Members played the angels and devils on each other’s shoulders, introducing the audience to the inner thoughts of the characters.
After the audience warmed up to the comedic tales, Johnson came on stage to perform his hourlong set, during which he reflected on his childhood and engaged in back and forth with the audience.
Johnson got his start in comedy working as a writer for the Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon before sliding over to the Daily Show in 2017. Johnson has been doing stand-up for over 10 years and is currently touring his “Freshman Tour.”
In his set, he first explored what it was like growing up poor in Louisiana. Johnson issued a disclaimer that others often try to one-up his childhood stories to preface his description of his neighborhood from his youth.
“Just to give you an indication of how bad it was when I was little, my neighborhood was so poor that the church closed,” Johnson said. “If you don’t understand the gravity of that situation, just imagine God being like, ‘I ain’t got it alright? I don’t know what to tell you, okay, this is a bad neighborhood. I’m leaving.’”
Johnson hit on a broad array of topics, ranging from the front-row audience members’ majors to the morbidity of game shows. He described the sick nature of watching contestants inevitably lose after they voice their dreams of using their winnings to pay for basic necessities.
“Does that not feel crazy to anybody else that every night hundreds of people are getting on live national television to win life-changing amounts of money, and they lose and they still clap?” Johnson said. “That’s the most Black Mirror s*** that we do.”
The audience was receptive to Johnson, who took time to resonate with the listeners by discussing how he’s felt tense during the past couple of years. The audience sat back and received Johnson’s well-paced jokes as if they were all in conversation with him, especially when he discussed his relatable feelings about President Joe Biden.
“Now, I don’t know if y’all feel it, but things feel weird sometimes now where it’s, outside of COVID, just the world,” Johnson said. “I don’t know if I can articulate it. I will give you an example. I miss when Joe Biden was just Obama’s white friend.”
Bridging student comedy groups across college campuses, in addition to showcasing a personable headliner, the event kept the audience eager for more the entire night.
This article appeared in the January 30, 2023 issue of the Hatchet.