Queer comedy group Bent Improv brings a queer allure to comedy that isn’t just for LGBTQ folks. Funny is funny, and Bent Improv delivers funny.
Set the Scene
When walking into Voodoo Comedy club on a Thursday night, it’s not quite clear what is going to unfold. Knowing these walls have heard some laughs and caught some eye-rolling groaners, comedy can really be hit or miss. However, with the sign on the wall declaring the area a safe space, queer folks are already at ease before taking more than nine steps in the building.
Grabbing a delicious adult bevvy at the bar always feels like the right choice at a comedy show, and on a week night, it may be a bit of a requirement to loosen up and get warm for the performers. So, with a glass of red in hand, I was ready to grab a seat and let out a few chuckles.
Shortly after 8 p.m., the warm house lights dimmed, and we all took a collective, deep breath. Here’s hoping that we’re in for a night of comedy and rather than a tragedy.
“We consider each other family; we’ve been through a lot,” said Bent Improv performer Ryan Datteri. “We’re a really close group of people, very different people, but we’re very close.”
As Datteri met a group of folks while auditioning for a different performance troupe in 2016, they quickly realized they had one thing in common: they were all queer. As they realized the uniqueness of that fact, they discussed a severe lack of spaces for queer stories in improv comedy that breached the superficial stereotypes of the community.
“Improv generally is a straight, white guy-dominated sport, and that’s always been a problem,” said Datteri. “I think Bent Improv is trying to address it, and we’ve definitely made it a focus of our group.”
The newfound friend group decided to form their own cast of improvisors fully comprised of people who identify as LGBTQ. As a beneficial side-effect, Bent Improv provided more queer representation alongside a gamut of personalities who were truly as diverse as the LGBTQ community as a whole.
Currently, performers in Bent Improv identify as bisexual, gay, lesbian, nonbinary, polyamorous, and more and range in ages from the low 20s to mid 60s. They are in various career fields, from research engineers to nurses and coroners.
“We all come from very different backgrounds and spaces, and it really helps make the comedy great, because we all have such a different perspective on everything,” said Datteri.
Throw Me a Curve Ball
Using their unique differences as strengths on stage, it’s almost half as fun to watch the players catch each other off guard as it is to watch these fictitious scenes unfold. It’s hard to believe that these lines are off the cuff, with nothing planned and everything fresh and real. The adrenaline of waiting to see what will happen next was as palpable in the audience as it was within the quintet on stage.
A single idea was asked from the audience at the top of the show; then the group was off on a fictitious tangent. They set vignette after vignette of short skits and scenes initially composed of isolated and separate moments, stopping only when the energy waned. Yet, about 20 minutes into the 45 minute performance, they expertly began to curl previous scenes and characters into new plot twists and turns. Throwbacks to former skits weaved a hysterical storyline that was as believable as it was implausible.
When it comes to being able to fly zingers off the cuff, how much really is an innate ability to be funny rather than something that can be learned?
“There’s always a joke that you practice improv,” laughed Datteri. “It’s not only making funny character voices, but there is a lot of listening. Scenes are all about relationships; a lot of it is about listening to the other person, figuring out what’s going on with them, their body language and their voice.”
The five folks on stage held the attention of each person in that room at Voodoo, all of us suspended in the air watching, waiting for what would happen next. Scene to scene, laugh after laugh, the Bent Improv artists were masters at their craft. Funny is funny, and whether innate or learned, it’s undeniable that they were funny af.
Remember that One Time …
Since the night was an example of Bent Improv at their best, what happens when things don’t play out so well? When asked if there is a standout performance when a sketch didn’t go over so well or something flopped, Bent Improv performer Marina Swain had a scenario pop right into their mind.
“Early on, we were still finding our footing as a queer improv team, and we asked the audience for a suggestion on something that they would like to ask a queer person,” they said. “Of course, [the audience] asked ‘how do lesbians have sex?’ and I think all of us would agree it was the worst in terms of our values as a team. We fell into the most stereotyped … it felt like we were making fun of ourselves. We all agreed afterwards that was not the type of improv that we want to be doing.”
It would be easy to play the stereotypes and lose the nuances of queerness to straight rooms, giving them what they want rather than a chance to expand, teach, and inform. However, in rooms that draw more LGBTQ folks, the typical and mundane relationship pigeonholing and surface-level interactions quickly lose appeal.
That’s what Bent Improv does best; they can weave in the comedy of what we know to be true while toying with the line of what could be and maybe never is. What is truth, anyhow? The beauty of art and comedy finds a blurring of reality, a bending; yet is ultimately rooted in authenticity.
You can Improvise, Too
The first Tuesday of every month, folks from Bent Improv host a drop-in workshop “Queer Class” at Blush & Blu for any queer folks who may be interested in trying their hand at the craft. The welcoming environment for first-timers is really a place to dip a toe in the water of improv comedy alongside the support of the experts from Bent Improv.
“A really important misconception is, you don’t have to be funny,” Swain added. “The best improv is relatable, and relatable is not necessarily out there making one-line jokes; it’s being authentic.”
“Really, there are no mistakes in improv. People are terrified of failure, right? What’s the worst that can happen? There really is no failure; it’s just a show, and as long as you’re having fun, it’s a successful show,” they said.
From their first improv class ever to watching the upcoming newcomer showcase Queercomers on November 9, all the way to catching the monthly stint of expert improv at Voodoo Comedy, folks can catch Bent Improv in a variety of iterations and formats.
While I personally may not be jumping on a stage to try my hand at improv, you can be sure I will be adding the pros in Bent Improv to my list of Denver must-dos for queer folks and allies alike.