Denver's Next Improv Star, week five: Screaming and covered in goo, improv is born

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"Happy birthday" is not an unusual phrase. Most people hear it often, at work or at home or in passing or whenever else they are near someone celebrating the anniversary of their parturition. One of improv's most famous characteristics, one of its most celebrated, is its ability to take lackluster lines like this -- generally lines generated on-the-spot by audience members -- and twist them into interesting theater. From the unremarkable comes the remarkable. Like a wailing, hilarious infant, a performance emerges.

At the suggestion of a viewer, this Saturday's installment of Denver's Next Improv Star made the line "happy birthday" the basis for its entire first act. At the risk of extending an already unappealing analogy, the scenes it produced were as bizarre and as glorious as birth.

The show's ten remaining contestants all evidently interpret annual aging as an occasion through which the human psyche reveals itself. The five skits produced during this challenge all dealt somehow with the relationships between people. In one scene, a character suggested that stealing a friend's significant other is, in fact, a compliment. In another, a woman revealed to her husband that his mother-in-law was, as he had long suspected, the dark lord Satan.

This week's guest judge was Edge Theatre director Rick Yaconis. He wanted, he told the contestants, to see acting that was based not only on character and comedy but also on the construction of a solid story, meaning a recognizable beginning, middle, and end. A scene whose length is capped at five minutes doesn't allow for much complexity as far as plot is concerned, but the contestants managed it. In the second act, which allowed them larger groups and longer skits, their performances acquired recognizable shape and structure-- not a small feat, considering improvisation is at its core manic and undefined.

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A patent attorney happened to be in attendance that night and, when asked for a line of dialogue, he helpfully offered "let's patent that." So: two parents decide to place a patent on their child, lest some other couple with genetic makeup identical to their own produce a replica. Somehow this evolved into the plight of an European boy who, like any number of members of the current in-crowd, did not understand the meaning of the word 'irony.' The next scene began with a pair of scientists discussing their latest invention -- an animate, plaque-consuming elf and/or toothbrush -- only to find it had been stolen by a teenage girl and her insane mother. In order to secure the thing's return, one of the scientists opens up negotiations, which fail.

A good deal of laughter later, the show came to an end. Max Schwartz was named the night's winner. Reid Fenlaw was eliminated.

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