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Leave them laughing: campus comedy grows

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Margo Smith | Staff Photographer

Margo Smith | Staff Photographer

Margo Smith | Staff Photographer

By Eric Acosta / Staff Writer

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One of Pittsburgh’s most recent cultural transformations can be found in the city’s budding comedy scene.

In just the past couple of years, comedy on campus and in the city at large has quickly morphed from a side attraction into the main event. On any given night, the practicing comedian can showcase his or her talents at open mics in bars and theaters all over Pittsburgh and, increasingly, on Pitt’s campus.

Students willing to venture a little bit off campus, like Joseph Feigin, have found creative outlets in Pittsburgh’s developing landscape. Feigin, a rising junior philosophy major, interns and takes classes at the Arcade Comedy Theater downtown.

“Arcade has shown me that comedy is available to everyone — it’s just about finding your niche within it,” Feigin said.

The theater opened its doors in 2013, with the simple goal of enhancing and developing the comedy scene in Pittsburgh. One of its most popular shows, “Knights of the Arcade,” is an on-stage game of Dungeons and Dragons between comedians and improv performers.

Nearby, like-minded organizations, such as the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust and Comedy Arts Pittsburgh, add to the comedic atmosphere.

But Comedy Arts Pittsburgh moved its attention a little farther up the hill this year, recognizing that a collegiate comedy scene was taking shape at Pitt. To sum up what the University might call its “Year of Laughter,” this upcoming August, the organization is hosting its third annual comedy festival in the Henry Heymann Theatre on Pitt’s campus.

The four-day festival will take place August 25 through 28, and will showcase improv, stand-up and sketch comedy.

When discussing Pitt’s entertainment culture in general, and especially its comedy-centered one, you’d be hard-pressed not to mention Pitt Tonight.

The late-night talk show, hosted by senior Jesse Irwin and featuring a troupe of more than 70 writers and cast members, has quickly garnered neighborhood and national attention, bringing in local celebrities, including Mayor Bill Peduto and original “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” cast member David Newell.

But the show is just drawing on a number of performers and entertainers scattered throughout campus. Before Irwin’s usual national-news-inspired introduction, Ruckus, an improv comedy group on campus, opened Pitt Tonight’s season finale in its usual location in the bottom of the Cathedral of Learning.

The group — made up of a select number of witty students — hosts its own improv shows every Saturday night during the semester, where they use audience participation to play a series of games and skits.

After some of the shows, Ruckus will invite audience members up to participate in an improv jam session, letting students showcase their skills by following the three rules of improv: saying yes, not taking offense and always adding new information.

Joe Marchi, a rising senior and industrial engineering major, is an active member of Ruckus and a writer for Pitt Tonight.

“At this time last year, if you wanted to do comedy at Pitt, you had to go to a talent show or go watch a Ruckus show on a Saturday — that was it,” Marchi said. “Now, you can watch Pitt Tonight, you can write for Pitt Tonight, you can go to stand-up comedy club meetings, you can go watch Ruckus. It’s exponentially more.”

The blossoming number of organizations means someone with a knack for humor can flex their talent more easily than ever.

“Over the past two semesters, comedic performance has exploded. It’s awesome to see something I enjoy so much gain the traction it has on Pitt’s campus,” said Feigin, who’s also a member of a small improv group called Active Minds.

In a stand-up showcase during the second semester of last year, a tall, redheaded student in a tight black t-shirt breathed heavily into the microphone. His stylistic performance — choppy sentences, jarring humor, uncomfortable silences — was one of the night’s hits, bookended by about five other students before and after him.

As a performer and a writer of comedy, Phil Forrence, a rising junior and computer engineering major, has a firm grasp on funny.

Forrence was a staff writer for Pitt’s satirical newspaper, The Pittiful News, before becoming the head writer for Pitt Tonight. He also writes and performs stand-up, a process of about 30 minutes per day where he incorporates observational humor and personal reflections.

“First I think to myself, ‘Is it a funny idea?’ Usually it’s a binary thing where I think it’s funny or not, and then I’ll start to work on what’s funny about it,” Forrence said.

He said being funny with your friends isn’t the same as being able to put a joke together in front of an audience — it takes a different kind of talent.

“It’s because they have funny ideas, but it’s all about getting those ideas to precise ways that affect the audience,” Forrence said.

If there was a hole still remaining in Pitt’s comedy lineup this year, it was the opportunity for working out those ideas, alone. Marchi, along with senior Megan Klein, founded The Comedy Club to fill the void.

The Comedy Club — an organization for aspiring or recreational stand-up comedians — is already hovering around 15 members.

“We started a stand-up club because Pitt has Ruckus, which Joe [Marchi] is in, but that’s just improv. We didn’t have anything for stand-up,” Klein, a marketing major, said.

Wednesday nights during the semester, Klein and Marchi watch performers like Forrence practice in room 219 of the Cathedral — a safe space where students can experiment with their work. The option to experiment with, practice, write and perform comedy has never been more available on campus.

If last year was the setup to Pitt’s comedic potential, this year is sure to be the punchline.

“I just hope we can get more and more people to join in on the fun,” Klein said.

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Leave them laughing: campus comedy grows