Authentically Our Very Own: Sarah Lawrence’s Lampoon

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If you’ve ever been to a Lampoon show, there are a few things you probably notice immediately. I associate Lampoon with images of audience members incautiously gulping at budweisers and lime-a-ritas, the frustration of having come too late for a good seat, and the bustling energy of the crowd. On a college campus that gets a lot of flack for facilitating a poor social environment (according to the Princeton Review, our quality of life rating is 71, which is low when compared to peer institutions like Middlebury College, 98, or Reed College, 94), Lampoon truly feels like something uniquely our own. If you’ve lived in LA, Chicago, or New York for a long enough time, there’s a good chance you’ve stumbled into an improv show. But Lampoon is improv for us—the humor, the people, the audience—all of these contain traces of our campus experience, so that when Lampooners situate a scene on the construction site of our new student center, we feel genuinely connected to the performance.

After having sat down with four members of the team, Jonathan Sessa (Junior), Patrick Vermillion (Senior), Kathleen Yates (Sophomore), and Richard Bucey (Junior), I realized that above all, connection is integral to what the team does.  What’s most refreshing about speaking to the team personally is how seriously they take what they do. They speak both professionally and excitedly about their work. In short, comedy is never far from their minds, and each member has various histories with it. Patrick in a wry tone stated, “I used humor as a refuge from bullying.” Sessa immediately murmured, “Jesus Christ,” while Bucey narrated, saying, “He welled up as he spoke,” anticipating my article. When listening to the recording, I thought to myself that it was maybe mean to add levity to Patrick’s potentially honest confession. But the fact that humor was added at all reflects exactly what Patrick was saying. “It was way easier to deal with bullying if I had a sense of humor about it,” he continued. After his dad took him to an Upright Citizens Brigade show (a popular improv venue/school, UCB for short), Patrick pursued improv in high school and subsequently decided to get involved here at Sarah Lawrence.

Kathleen similarly got involved in high school. “We had a comedy-sports highschooly thing,” she said, “so it was short form games when I was [there]. But I never considered myself a funny person.” Kathleen didn’t actually try out for her high school team until someone told her to. Lampoon was similar. Already friends with Sam Henneberry, a senior member of Lampoon, she decided to audition because he mentioned it was a good idea. She said, “I auditioned last year and didn’t get on and then I auditioned this year and I did. So it was pretty classic.”

It was “pretty classic” because Sessa didn’t make it onto the team when he auditioned last year, either. He did, however, take time off after his first year at Sarah Lawrence and did standup and took classes at UCB. When I asked him if he still did classes at UCB, he said, “Yeah I do,” just before Kathleen broke in, stating sarcastically, “He’s in advanced study.” Sessa replied, purposefully cocky, with, “I’m in advanced study and my teacher Anthony Atamanuik from 30 Rock and Broad City personally picked up the class.” Patrick then added, dryly, “Both of those are notoriously awful shows.”

The entire interview proceeded similarly, as sentences were often finished by one member for another, though not in an obnoxious way. Instead, it served to reflect the thinking involved on stage at a show. They anticipate each other constantly, and you get the feeling that, though each member brings their own individual strengths to the team, they are often thinking together rather than thinking apart. The team’s most successful scenes are those that progress naturally, stitching together a slow arc through constant interplay; we often laugh most when they are consistently aware of the environment and world that they are building together. And that’s what improv is—comedic world-building. Rules are put into place and imaginary items transform the space into a kind of obstacle course, one that requires constant awareness.

Bucey shared a more unique story of getting onto Lampoon. “I auditioned my first year and it was just Sam, Patrick, Candace, and Shane,” he said. “What was weird about it is that my callback was only me. So it was just me doing improv with those four people.” Patrick said, “He got called back by himself because we forgot to call him back at first. Sam, Candace, and Shane had cast the group and we put up the list and then Christine came up to us and was like, ‘Oh yeah we forgot to call back that one dude Richard.’ We were like, ‘Who is that?’ because he called himself Bucey. We just didn’t understand the name so we forgot about him but no hard feelings right?”

Christine Farrell, mentioned by Patrick above, is the head of the theater department at Sarah Lawrence. She was also the ballistics expert on Law and Order for nine years. Patrick said, “She has a background at Second City (another improv venue/school) and she trained with Del Close who’s considered to be the father of improv. So she’s been teaching the improv classes for a long time here.” It was Christine who founded the group and who made Lampoon a class. Recently the team has been running into trouble with the name Lampoon, as it’s proven to be extremely unmarketable. If you’ve noticed that Lampoon has slowly started to transition to the name Feral Christine, it’s not a hallucination. “The new name is a sort of homage to her,” Kathleen said. It’s also a better name to travel with and is more unique.

Another important person to know is Keisha Zollar. Patrick said that Keisha is kind of the “younger energy” that was brought in because Christine became too busy to continue with teaching and coaching Lampoon. Keisha also teaches at UCB and is on a Harold team there. A Harold team refers to a kind of long form improv structure developed by Del Close, performed for the first time in 1967. Zollar was also on Orange is the New Black and used to be a member of the improv team Doppelganger, made up of Zollar, Sasheer Zamata, and Nicole Byer. As an incredible, all women of color team, I suggest you check out their website at doppelgangercomedy.com.

What’s clear throughout all of this is that Lampoon is intensely aware of where they came from and where they’re hoping to go. Patrick is the second oldest current member of Lampoon, with Sam having been on the longest (though both been on the team since their freshmen year). Patrick said, “[Freshmen year] wasn’t bad—we’ve been a lot better since then.” Apart from their history at Sarah Lawrence, everyone is also inspired by a long list of comedians and comedic showrunners, such as John Belushi, Louis C.K., Judd Apatow, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, Amy Poehler, and Molly Shannon, as well as groups like Derek Comedy, Mr. Show, and Saturday Night Live in general, to name a few. It’s clear that this year in particular has seen an explosion of popularity and accomplishment for the team. Kathleen said, “The fact that we had this huge issue this year of having to stress out about our venue because it wasn’t big enough—that blew our minds.” Beyond that, Lampoon is now nationally recognized as the number one college improv team in the country.

Over spring break, the team members all took a road trip to Chicago to compete in the College Improv Tournament. I asked them all about Chicago and discovered quite a bit. For one, the team noticed that they were in a much more homogenized world than they previously anticipated. Sessa said, “It was just like a sea of white dudes in ties.” “It was pretty male heavy,” Kathleen also offered. Many of the teams they encountered only had one girl, placing the women in a potentially tokenized context. Lampoon didn’t just stand out for the makeup of their team, however. They were discouraged from dividing their fifteen members into two teams for the competition, instead being urged to just move forward with their heavy hitters and bench everyone else. Patrick said, “It wasn’t frowned upon. The guy explicitly was like, ‘Look, if you wanna come to have fun you can split into two groups. But if you wanna win, choose your best players and then go.’” Sessa mentioned, “There were teams that split up in the preliminaries and competed against each other to go to the finals. There was one team that—half their players were just sitting in the audience and it was kinda like, I dunno…” Patrick picked up and said, “They were bummed.” In an interview that Patrick gave after Lampoon performed their final scene in Chicago, he said, “The thing about Feral Christine is that we don’t have an A team and a B team, we have fifteen great improvisers who are all amazing.” They wanted everyone to get a chance to perform in such an important context, which shows the closeness of the group as a whole.

Lampoon was also the only team to do a macroscene, an improv form that allows the players to follow characters into different spaces in real time over a timespan of twenty minutes or more. It’s similar to the way the movie Birdman is filmed, and it’s impressive to watch. The other form they performed in competition is called a monoscene, which is similarly put in real time, but is confined to one space that fits on the stage. The difference is that characters often filter in and out of the environment in a monoscene, emphasizing character development over anything else. A macroscene has a lot more moving parts. Not only do the players have to be aware of the story and the connections between characters, as with a monoscene, but they also have to anticipate where the scene is going and change the space accordingly. It requires absolute attention and awareness.

Though expecting to lose to Dangerbox (NYU’s improv team) during the regional east coast competition, they didn’t. Before going to Chicago, Sessa said “we fucking trained like crazy.” He continued, “We usually do five hours a week. We have a three hour class on Wednesday morning and then we have a two hour rehearsal every Sunday night. But this was just [us] kicked into overdrive and we were doing rehearsals every night we could.” It is Keisha Zollar’s hope, along with the whole team, to make improv something that will draw in prospective students. Lampoon hopes to transform itself into a reason people come to study here, and given their successes, I have to say that I agree with that goal. Bucey also mentioned that it was Keisha who gave them a particularly rousing speech before they went onstage in Chicago. “She was like, ‘Leave it all out on the stage,’” he said. The other members nodded in agreement.

It is in their hopes to publicize their victory that Lampoon has run into some trouble with Sarah Lawrence itself. Patrick said, “I think it’s press for the school but the school doesn’t think so.” According to Sessa, there still is no recognition from the college as to their success in Chicago. It isn’t on the website, despite the website publishing continued tidbits about Fareed Zakaria, last year’s commencement speaker. “He didn’t even go here,” Sessa said, “and there’s a nationally recognized group on campus that does not get a post on the fucking website. I had a professor who spent my conference writing an angry email being like, ‘This is kind of ridiculous. This is a big deal.’”

The members of the team were kind enough to send me links (posted below) to their competition performances, both at regionals as well as the finals in Chicago. It was while watching them that I started to understand what makes Lampoon so special, both in general as well as in regards to Sarah Lawrence. I’m personally blown away by the places they visit during performances. Although I’ve been to a good number of improv shows, I haven’t experienced the surreal, absurd mixture that makes Lampoon so compelling. They never shy away from entering the realm of the uncanny, instead plunging headfirst despite how potentially difficult it can become in those imaginary spaces. During one performance on campus, team members Chloe Sariego (sophomore), Maddie Fischer (senior), and Anna Rock (senior) began a scene where each of them were sitting in chairs facing the audience, distanced noticeably apart from one another. As they all began to mimic the movements of each other, Maddie stated that they were stone-counters getting ready for the war. What ensued was a very strange romp through a fantasy world made on the fly, complete with Sessa hobbling around as a deformed dwarf.

One of my personally favorite monoscenes, performed last year, saw Maxwell Hegley (senior) play a parrot who couldn’t help but snatch up shiny objects (in this context a rare Pokemon card that belonged to a character named Ralphio, played by Chloe). I’ll never forget any of Izzy Roland’s (junior) characters, from Crazy Wizard Bob to the dancing Janitor (also in the monoscene with Chloe and Max). And who could reminisce with a straight face about Anna Nemetz’s (sophomore) memorable portrayal of the Tampon Troll, mentioned by a few of my friends as their favorite scene? In one regional performance, Mallory Muratore (senior) and Andrés Govea (sophomore) travel to space and deal with a love rhombus among humans and aliens. While Andrés perfectly remembered all the details of the world they were in (at one point he gets tangled in an imaginary wire), Mallory plays it brilliantly straight, even when Charlotte Cwikowski (senior) issues forth as an alien baby from Bucey’s Martian womb.

Above all else, though, I want to briefly talk about the macroscene the team performed at the final competition in Chicago. Maddie Fischer and Jacob Ready (senior) began the set as two rather precocious third graders contemplating the finer points of existence while digging through a sandbox. At one point Maddie mentions that she is “plagued by terrible nightmares.” After Sam (the teacher) calls them in after recess is over, we follow them to the classroom where Jacob and Maddie are joined by Chloe and Bucey. All four of them prepare for naptime as Kathleen joins Sam as a student teacher.

Bucey and Maddie briefly have a conversation about nightmares, and as they go to sleep, you can feel what’s coming next. Sessa and Anna Rock (senior) trot out on stage as Sessa shouts, “You’re having a collective nightmare” to all the napping schoolchildren. What ensues is extremely absurd and surreal, but also oddly touching and hilarious. The players who were children in this context actually do manage to do something genuine with each of their characters, creating backstories that allows for the audience to connect with each of them. It’s exciting and mesmerizing to see people so in their element (in a competition no less). As the team travels through the dream worlds of children, societal norms are challenged, the frightening estrangement of Chloe’s character from her stepfather is confronted, and a deceptively deep discussion of choice and change are shared by Maddie and Jacob. Beyond that, in a particularly striking moment, Bucey confronts Sam and Kathleen after he wakes up, as they are kissing during naptime. They quickly use his nightmare as a way to explain them kissing, and in the process render an interesting critique of how our children are subject to a reality created by educators.

The best comedy subversively critiques the status quo while appearing superficial and simple. As Patrick mentioned in his use of comedy to help ease the effects of bullying, it is a way to confront the world softly, providing a funhouse mirror for the audience to look through in order to engage harsh subjects. It is all about connection, not only to the other players on stage, but to the contemporary world and the audience as well.  Moving forward, Sessa says he is excited because it’s really only going to be him and Bucey next year, as many members will be either graduated or abroad. “There’s no shortage of talent here,” he said. Moving forward, Kathleen said that they want to get more people involved for the remaining events and jams.

After having spent the time that I did with Lampoon, I further understood my affection for the team. I felt like they were my friends, because they really are interested in including everyone in what it is they’re doing. And what they’re doing is having fun.

Regional Preliminary Competition: Barbershop from Hell 

Regional Finals Competition: From Mars with Love

East Super Regionals Competition: Summer Carnival

National Finals Competition: Don’t Trust the Dream Man

Chris is a Junior but also old as sin. He writes in confined areas and blares CKY. When not writing, he's lamenting his hot room at the top of Dudley Lawrence. You'll never know if he's crying, because it's just sweat.

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