Tom Rittenhouse on Failure: Surviving the Worst Improv Scene EVER

Posted On:07.08.2016

I, Tom Rittenhouse, am responsible for the worst improv scene in Dad’s Garage history. There, I said it. Wow! What a statement!

Now I can’t say that it was quantifiably the worst. That’s a pretty impossible thing to defend. But it was at least bad enough that a commemorative plaque of the event was made and is currently on display in the Dad’s lobby. I should also say that I’m not the only one responsible. Other parties were involved. Their names and likenesses shall be omitted from this article, though.

It’s been remembered as “The Genghis Khan Scene” and it took place on May 22, 2008*. The first half of Thursday nights, at the time, featured a short-form improv show called “Nite Skool” staged by the Dad’s Garage Nonsemble (now known as The General Company). I’d been part of the Nonsemble for less than a year and was deep into the hit-or-miss stage of my career. So was it really the worst scene ever? Perhaps. But the key here is the convergence of incidents that made this scene so memorably bad:

  1. Real-life Boos: Without going into too much detail on the shaky-at-best narrative of the scene (because who wants to hear a recap of even a good improv scene?), basically Genghis Khan sets out to conquer the world (very original) and decides that France is top priority. After pillaging the streets of Paris, he encounters a prostitute played by … you’ll never guess … ME! Again, I won’t go into too much detail, but let’s just say I very charmingly (read: not charming at all) dropped some French street walker zingers that went over extremely well (read: terribly) with the audience. The response after my last line of dialogue was a tidal wave of boos from the crowd. Not groans, mind you. Boos. 100% don’t-ever-do-that-again boos**.
  2. Only Part of the Problem: Looking back on the scene, I realize I was just one of a few improvisers who created this trainwreck. It’s not like it was going super great and then I walked in and ruined it. It was actually going very poorly and then I walked in and ruined it. Was I there to fall on my sword for my fellow struggling improv pals? No. My decision to enter the scene halfway through (as a character named after a specifically-female air-passing sound (don’t think about it too long) was to get some laughs. But really my contributions were so bad that, toward the end, one of my scene partners arose from a pretend coma and announced to the audience “I will leave this scene now.” Shortly thereafter the lights went down, the scene was over, and I Charlie-Brown-sad-walked over to the bench.
  3. It’s All on Video: At Dad’s Garage we very rarely record our shows. But in the late spring of 2008 the improv coming out of the Nonsemble was really struggling overall. So our improv director decided to film us that one night for the purpose of watching and giving notes at our next workshop. Look, everyone has bad shows. They’re good to get out of the way. You do a bad show, you learn a thing or two, you move on. After this show, though, the added weight of knowing we’d have to relive it all in a few days was absolutely brutal. I honestly can’t recall a more writhing, blush-inducing experience than that next workshop. I remember exactly where I was sitting during the viewing and I remember trashing the DVD immediately after to destroy all evidence of the scene.

When it was requested recently that I write this blog post I was asked if there are pictures of the show. The DVD is long gone, but I thought there was a chance the original tape still existed. After rooting through some boxes, I found it. I mustered up some humility and I watched it. In hindsight, it’s horrible. The boos are just as loud as I remembered. I’m not proud of what I said. At. All. But do I regret it? No way. There’s nothing in the world like bombing that spectacularly. It’s incredibly humbling and, in some ways, relieving. To make such a bad choice that is met immediately with unanimous, fervent disapproval is an invaluable learning experience. I’m better because of it.

And if you’re wondering if the reputation of the scene is worse than the actual scene, well you’ll never know. But trust me, you’re better off not finding out.

Bien à toi,

Queef

*The plaque says it happened in the Fall of 2007, the show DVD is labeled “05-22-2008,” but my emotional scars tell me the scene still hasn’t ended.

**I totally did elicit more loud boos in another show several months later. But after that? Never again! Fool me twice, right guys!?

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