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Improv in Miami has never been better—and these two theaters prove it

Written by
Ryan Pfeffer

The goal of improv is simple enough: you create a tiny universe—one that’s weird, gripping and hopefully funny—out of thin air, with nothing but a little imagination and confidence. So maybe it shouldn’t be surprising that Miami’s improv community has managed to carve out a home for itself in a city otherwise lacking in comedy. And you can be forgiven if, perhaps, this is all news to you. Among Miami’s louder and shinier entertainment options, our small but scrappy improv scene gets dwarfed. But those days of obscurity may be numbered as two theaters with two very different styles are proving that Miami has a funny bone after all.

Villain Theater

In October 2017, after more than two years of bouncing around between warehouses and bars, the improv troupe Villain Theater finally opened the doors to its very own 120-seat space, a pointy, maroon building with a Medieval Times vibe that sits on a busy corner in Little Haiti.

“The first couple of months, we were like, What the hell is happening?” remembers Peter Mir, Villain’s CEO. “It was like a Field of Dreams sort of thing—we just built it, and, apparently, people really wanted this. They all came out of the woodwork.” What these folks have been so eager to see is improv comedy performed by a diverse group of fresh local talent. “For me, this place felt younger, more energetic and less 40-year-olds–in-cargo-shorts,” says Jannelys Santos, the theater’s chief operations officer.

Like Mir and other troupe members, Santos never felt represented in Miami’s limited comedy landscape until the arrival of Villain. “I’m very proud to say we’re a queer theater, we’re a feminist theater. It’s something we never want to shy away from,” she says. Villain’s inclusivity ethos is reflected in what happens onstage. For example, in February, the theater debuted a monthly midnight drag-improv brunch; a month later, it organized an all-female improv and comedy festival. Plus, its most popular house troupe, YAS, brands itself as “the only queer team in all of Florida.” In the course of last year’s special Valentine’s Day show, YAS captain Josh Hamilton’s boyfriend proposed during a skit. “I did think it was so strange that all our friends paid $20 to come to this show on Valentine’s Day,” Hamilton laughs.

While Tuesday nights showcase Villain’s graduating improv students—Mir estimates there will be about 100 grads by the end of the year—the theater’s most popular nights are on Friday and Saturday. Friday’s T.G.I.F. show invites the audience to participate à la Whose Line Is it Anyway?—and the second act features a performance from YAS, as well as an improvised movie onstage. Saturday Gigantic (a play on Sábado Gigante, a long-running variety show on Univision) packs the house with bits like Tales from the Magic City, a recurring segment in which a local celebrity (think Billy Corben of Cocaine Cowboys) tells stories that the cast then reimagines as a series of ridiculous scenes. For Mir, the success has been a welcome shock. In a voice full of disbelief, he says, “We haven’t taken off a Saturday in two and a half years.” Fri at 8pm, Sat at 8:30pm; $10–$12.

Just the Funny

In the ’90s, long before the days of social media marketing and Eventbrite, David Christopher remembers standing on Miracle Mile and trying to woo pedestrians into his tiny improv show with a teaser skit and the promise of free snacks. “We needed new audiences, so we started performing on the sidewalk about 30 minutes before showtime and offered [people] popcorn.” he says. “It was a different time then, and the improv scene was literally two groups in South Florida. In Miami, it was only us.” His troupe, Just the Funny, has come a long way since—further than Christopher dared to dream with his fistful of snacks 19 years ago. In 2018, the company is celebrating a huge milestone: The 10-year anniversary of Just the Funny’s very own 98-seat Coral Way theater. “I definitely appreciate all the elbow grease we went through to make things happen. It made us hungry and taught us hard work.”

Today, JTF’s appeal lies in its string of talented performers and diverse lineup. The theater puts on a variety of improv shows four nights a week, including Chicago-style improv (a single scene might last up to 30 minutes) and sketch comedy similar to Second City’s. “There’s something for everybody,” Christopher says. Among the highlights, there is the Friday After Hours show, which starts at 11pm and usually syncs up nicely with the audience’s rising intoxication level, and Sunday night’s Spanish-language ¿Qué Pasa Improv? in JTF’s more intimate cabaret room.

Everything culminates in January with JTF’s annual Miami Improv Festival, four days of 38 shows and 14 workshops. This year’s fest included troupes from New York and Chicago, but, for Christopher—who has organized the fest 15 times—the high point is always the local talent. “We had 11 South Florida groups that made it into the festival,” he says. It was a record for the event and a hopeful sign that the seeds he planted decades ago—when empty chairs outnumbered the audience members—are finally flourishing. Thu at 10pm; Fri, Sat at 9pm; Sun at 7pm. $8–$15.

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