A Slice of McKinney, TX: Improv at The Comedy Arena

October 31, 2017

Historic Downtown McKinney Now Houses the Funny! Wheeee!

Downtown crowds are getting up close and personal with the wacky world of improv.


I am having a great time highlighting the fab peeps who are helping to make Historic Downtown McKinney, Texas, so cool. In this post I focus on Von Daniel, the owner of the still relatively new The Comedy Arena, where improv is KING. Only open since spring, The Comedy Arena already enjoys a swelling fan base that can’t get enough of this smart, FAMILY-FRIENDLY brand of comedy.

 

I decided that Von Daniel—whom you might have spotted in one of downtown McKinney’s coffee nooks sporting his signature black The Comedy Arena t-shirt and yet another pair of crazy socks—could be trusted on the subject of comedy when he agreed with me that Carrot Top is NOT funny. #yuck

Von Daniel and Jared Berger hamming it up and getting laughs.

 Previously a stand-up comedian and art director for Amazon and other landmark companies, Von is now leading the charge to entertain and educate downtown locals and visitors on the world of improvisational comedy. Being part of a team of “funny,” he says, is a whole helluva lot more rewarding than being up on stage by one’s lonesome. He loves its “we” mentality.

The Key to Great Improv

Silly me, I thought improv was just a bunch of players trying to grab the spotlight. But it’s actually the opposite: improv is about putting your trust in the players on stage with you, and handing them the opportunity to grab the laugh if it keeps the skit going.
 

Bottom line: there ain’t room for divas on the improv stage. In fact, says Von, you can only succeed at improv if you have a team mindset, can give generously to other players, and have deeply developed the skill of listening.
 

(All skills, by the way, that Von and his ComedySportz® troupe are often hired to hone in employees at companies such as JCPenney, PepsiCo, Southwest Airlines, and AT&T during team-building sessions or corporate events.)
 

Improv, adds Von, also focuses on “making high percentage choices versus low percentage choices.”

Say what?
 

Patiently, as if I were a rookie student enrolled in one of the Arena’s Improv 101 classes, Von explains. “A high percentage choice,” he says, “would be for a player to choose to be a dog speaking. A low percentage choice would be for the player to choose to be a dog scooting its backside across the stage.” A dog itching its behind, you see, is a bit boring—and low to the ground, which is hard for audiences to see. But a dog that talks?? Well, now, that’s both interesting and helpful in shepherding the skit to a rollicking finish. 

High school students growing their improv skills.

Improv’s Secret Sauce

One of the first habits Von often has to break in newbies taking The Comedy Arena’s improv classes (offered to both high school students and adults) is, in fact, to not be thinking how to steal the scene. Hey, if they want to shine on their own, they can go brave the cutthroat world of stand-up.

 

Despite his natural talent for getting laughs (“I was a funny kid,” says Von), Von’s only thought on stage these days is “What gift can I give the other playersto elevate them in the eyes of the audience? How can I help them to build a scene?”

 

“For example,” says Von, “if I walk on stage and say, ‘Hi, Mom!” then the other players know who I am and their relationship to me. They now have something to work from—as do I, based on what comes out of their mouths.” 

 

Does that mean players must stick with a storyline that is obviously not working? Nope. They hate bad “funny” as much as their audiences. But in keeping with their premise of Yes, and…, the players cohesively transition to a new story arc by building on the new suggestions they toss out. Nothing is gonna tank these funny guys and gals. Their mission: find the funny, and share it STAT! Think of a leaf flowing downstream; it might momentarily get held up by a rock or twig, but soon it is, again, merrily bobbing with the steady current.

When I tell Von that I don’t think my brain can be that nimble, he assures me that improv is a learned skill; that ANY of us can excel at the game if we HANG OUR TOES OVER THE CLIFF’S EDGE and practice enough. Go on, he urges, prove me wrong: take the class. Lol! #ack #notyet

 

In observing Jessa Berger, one of The Comedy Arena’s talented players who has been with Von for about a decade, I track just how much eye contact she gives the other players on stage. It’s nearly constant. She even tracks them with her body language, and her impish grin, clearly conveying to both audience and players alike that she’s part of their safety net. You can almost see it in her eyes: “Let’s have a blast! We got this!”

Jessa Berger, Jared Berger, and Von Daniel lure two willing audience members on stage to help with a skit. Score! They’re naturals.