Local improv group’s hustle is a hit with huge laughs

By Pitt News Staff

After a hard day’s work of managing a deli or a Cold Stone Creamery, consulting financial… After a hard day’s work of managing a deli or a Cold Stone Creamery, consulting financial sales, freelancing graphic design and writing, most would settle for relaxing with drinks and friends. The improv actors of comedy troupe Hustlebot would rather perform with friends than relax – though maybe with the occasional drink.

“We can be method actors, absurdists, cartoonish, dark, child-like and obscene, depending on the show, and sometimes all those things in one night,” said member John Feightner, in an interview.

They are Hustlebot, a local improv quintet that can be seen at ModernFormations on Penn Avenue. Members chat with the audience before performances – possibly in search of material, but definitely displaying their appreciation for their fans.

“We kind of blazed our collective trail and would like to think that we are just as original as everyone else,” said Joe Wichryk II, who has been with Hustlebot since it began as a project for a CMU master’s degree.

Two years ago, the troupe’s first director, Ryan Kiessling, arranged a comedy night in Downtown Pittsburgh, and soon Hustlebot was formed.

“As part of this show, Ryan brought his experience into the fold by teaching open workshops in the Chicago-style long-form of improv,” said member David Fedor. It was from these workshops that the core group of Hustlebot formed.”

The group now has a home in ModernFormations, a small art and theater space that celebrates diversity and originality, from the purple walls to the pink bathtub that sometimes doubles as a cooler. With only about 25 chairs and three worn couches along the walls, it’s a small performance space, but that’s fine with Hustlebot.

Its brand of long-form improv could be likened to “Memento” – bits and pieces of a story are played out at random until the ending finally ties them together. The style is unlike popular improvised shows like “Whose Line is it Anyway?” and “Reno 911!” but it still gets the laughs.

Hustlebot’s performance starts as a harrowing tale of a man tormented by a ringing telephone. “Napkin,” calls out an audience member. The group uses the word to create a scene – they change from sitting at the dinner table as a family to explaining to young children, “Grandpa isn’t coming back from dead.”

“What you see on stage is completely improvised,” said Feightner. “We have an agreed-upon format for the show called a Harold, which was created in Chicago at [comedy club] Second City. While it is a loose three-act structure, it makes sure the group knows when a certain idea or cast of characters are returning.”

“I would call the theatrical style spontaneous,” said member Larry Phillis, “and creative.

“Like driving into darkness with the headlights on the back of the car – you can see where you’ve been but not where you’re going – which is full speed into the unknown.”

The various road hazards could be the audience’s suggestions – words like “pontificate,” “minotaur” and “pony boy” can sometimes make the performers lose their focus.

“I don’t play a game to try to make others laugh on stage, although other troupe members might,” said Phillis. “I would lose that game. I laugh on stage a lot. Too much. But sometimes things are just funny.”

Wichryk agrees that live comedy is dangerous territory. “We hate ourselves for laughing at it. No one wants to be compared to Jimmy Fallon. Inside jokes are great, and we have them.” He lets out an emphatic squeal. “Our regulars at the show that come every week would have laughed right there.”

Hustlebot also likes to host local talent like musical guest duo The SB. As one member played melodic keyboard and the other lurched his way up the aisle screaming with a running fan blade on his back, the duo drew both laughs and curious glances.

“We haven’t seen their show before but welcomed them and their experimental ideas,” said Fedor.

Despite the always-changing surreal guest spots, audience participation and improvised jokes, a good time is always predictable when you spend a night with the crew of Hustlebot.