Comedy on the Spot: Madison's Improv Troupe Has a Following
Those seeking out unpredictable weekend entertainment should look no further than the Glass Nickel Pizza Co. on 2916 Atwood Ave. The establishment is typically known for its gourmet variety of pizzas but on Friday nights, it’s known for something else, as well: improv comedy.
The restaurant is home to weekly performances from Best of Madison bronze winner Monkey Business Institute, an improv troupe that boasts members with over one hundred years of combined experience and backgrounds that are as diverse as the performances themselves.
Shows are held in the basement of the pizza place; the room is small, but is the perfect size for the type of act it houses. The cozy space allows for interaction with the crowd, a collaboration that is not just encouraged, but required for a successful improv performance.
The night moves quickly as performers act out scenes that the audience helps define. Games such as “Day in the Life,” “Replay” and “The Genius” ask for audience members to create the show, allowing the crowd to see exactly what they want. The host asks for suggestions, declaring, “it doesn’t have to be funny; we’ll take it and we’ll make it funny.” The promise isn’t made in vain. What follows is spontaneous hilarity as performers think on their toes and turn even the most common situations into comedy. It’s a process that has established a following in Madison. Co-owner Brad Knight says that the troupe has fans that have been attending shows every few weeks for years.
The Monkey Business Institute was originally founded in 1994 by Knight and Jason Stephens. Eventually, the partnership dissolved and the company was repurchased by Knight and Linda Hedenblad in 2008.
For Knight, the draw to the business was the excitement of an unpredictable art. He’s had over twenty years of performing experience including time with the Broom Street Theater and Wis-Kino independent film group and explains that improv is “always new. It happens in the moment. You never know what’s coming up.” He often jokes with his girlfriend that because of this, improv is the longest relationship he’s ever had. Co-ownership has also led Knight to actively educate fellow performers on the art of improv. He currently holds the title of creative director for the Institute where he serves as a teacher as well as a performer.
Co-owner Hedenblad has a different history with Monkey Business Institute. During the day, she’s a professional educational trainer with Southern Illinois University but each Friday night, she can turn into anything from a gangster on a ski slope to an old woman at an amusement park.
Hedenblad has only been with the troupe for five years but during that time, she’s learned how valuable the lessons improv offers are. Following a move to Madison after sixteen years in Seattle, the Superior native was just looking to make new friends when she began working with the Monkey Business Institute. She describes improv as “meditation for people who can’t sit still,” explaining that it involves “being completely in the moment and being spontaneous while letting go of your ego.”
This “go with the flow” mentality has transcended into Hedenblad’s workplace as well. “Improv taught me that it’s okay to go with stuff,” she says, a skill that is critical in her line of work where training can be unpredictable.
History with performing doesn’t just vary with the owners. All members of the Monkey Business Institute work outside of improv in a variety of positions. Notable members include Stephens, who co-hosts the Q106 Morning Show; stand-up comedian and frequent Comedy Club host Sean Moore; and Matt Sloan and Aaron Yonda, co-creators of the production company, Blame Society, and the viral internet sensation Chad Vader.
The Monkey Business Institute also offers improv lessons for the public, private shows for parties, and customizable corporate play shops.
Regular shows occur at the Glass Nickel Pizza Co. each Friday night at 8 p.m. Additionally, the Monkey Business Institute has established an “out-on-a-limb-prov” performance on the second Sunday of each month which features newer members of the Institute working with seasoned veterans. Friday shows cost $8 and Sunday shows are $5 at 7 p.m.
Quick Read: Games People Play
Some of the games the Monkey Business Institute acts out:
Day in the Life: An audience member explains a personally memorable day in his or her life that the actors then perform.
Replay: Audience members suggest a scene that is performed by the troupe members. Following the initial act, the scene is recreated in three different styles, i.e. as a movie on Lifetime or a Western. These styles are also suggested by the audience.
The Genius: An audience member is asked to join the troupe and become part of “The Genius”, a multi-headed creature with answers to any questions posed by the crowd. The questions are answered slowly, as each head (represented by members of the group) can give only one word at a time, leading to some unexpected responses.
For more information, visit monkeybusinessinstitute.com.
Hannah Kiddoo is an editorial intern for Madison Magazine.