By JOHN T. WARD
They’ve been evicted so many times it’s almost funny, and the comedians who brand themselves as Improv Jam are about to lose their current home, in Red Bank.
But they haven’t lost their sense of humor, and comedy lovers — including those willing to surrender their cellphones to the cause — can catch them at their antic best every Saturday night, for free, on Monmouth Street.
Watched by Improv Jam regulars Mike O’Keefe, left, Scott Mihalick, right, and a volunteer from the audience, Ria Torricelli drags Chris Rearick across the stage during a recent sketch. (Photo by John T. Ward. Click to enlarge)
Since September, the peripatetic troupe has called the Count Basie Performing Arts Academy home. But the former WaWa convenience store and longtime home of Phoenix Productions is slated for demolition as part of a $20 million Basie expansion, and the impov-ers have been told they’ve got to vacate the premises by June, founder Mike O’Keefe tells redbankgreen.
“We’re looking for a place, because thing are going like gangbusters right now, and we don’t want to lose momentum,” he said. “But the panic hasn’t set in yet, so I’ll probably really start looking in March.”
If the name sounds familiar, well, Improv Jam has been bouncing around the Red Bank area since 1992, when O’Keefe started it in the Galleria building on Bridge Avenue. Since then, it’s done stints in a storefront that briefly served as a movie theater on Broad Street; at the now-gone Internet Café, also on Broad; at the building it now occupies for the second time; and the Eatontown Playhouse for about eight years.
“Basically, every place we went closed down, so we had to move,” O’Keefe said. “We’re like Gypsies.”
The troupe wasn’t told when it signed the lease for the Basie space that it would have to be out so quickly, O’Keefe said. But that’s kind of par for the course.
“We’re always the underdog, the redheaded stepchild,” said O’Keefe, who spends his days as a fifth-grade teacher in Trenton and non-performing nights teaching critical discourse at Monmouth University. “We still get kicked around.”
Members O’Keefe, Chris Rearick, Carl Perino, Ria Torricelli, Scott Mihalik, Richie John Pedro and Nick Saint Onge bill their team as “a leader in the underground movement to cultivate New Jersey comedy for the masses,” and often draw audiences of 50 to 75 people, many who saunter in after dinner at a downtown Red Bank or before a night of barhopping. Some, said O’Keefe, have followed the troupe from location to location.
O’Keefe also teaches improv, following the model of New York’s Upright Citizens Brigade, and every other week, students of the program get to try out their stuff in the hour before the troupe takes the stage at 9 p.m. They bring in friends and family members as new audience members, he said.
A recent Saturday night saw the jammers serve up an often madcap display of mercurial invention studded with pop culture references. In one skit, a pair of comedians used, for dialogue, actual text threads found on cellphones volunteered by audience members. One thread involved a conversation about the purchase of cookies, while the other included a diatribe about the inability of “24’s” Jack Bauer to find the mole right under his nose, year after year. And somehow, the troupe managed to weave them together into a recognizable narrative about a family of hoarders.
The gut-wrenching laughter it provoked is what keeps the group going, said O’Keefe. Other people get into comedy dreaming of glory, “but we’re just a gregarious group who enjoy doing what we do,” he said
Improv Jam performs every Saturday night at 9 p.m. at the Count Basie Performing Arts Academy, 111 Monmouth Street. Admission is free, though donations are accepted for the Performing Arts Academy.