Seriously funny

Adsit & Gausas put the theater back in improv.

Adsit and Gausas
CALLING CARD Gausas and Adsit, from left, put their signature on improv.

Toward the end of a recent improvised performance of Adsit & Gausas, Scott Adsit and Christina Gausas circled each other onstage. Their characters—a suicidal photographer and his twin brother's ex-wife—argued heatedly over whether a large cake made in the shape of a cupcake is, by definition, a cake or a large cupcake. Naturally, the baked good was a metaphor for a greater existential issue. Neither would bend; the argument escalated. Then, as the ex-wife passed through the kitchen on her circular warpath, she unsheathed a butcher knife from its wooden block and pointed it at the photographer—and a woman in the audience loudly gasped.

Of course, all that really happened was this: Gausas grabbed at thin air and made a fist in front of her chest. Yet this woman, seated at stage left, reacted so viscerally that it was audible to the rest of the theater. This is high-stakes improv.

And that doesn't make it is less funny; rather, it has the opposite effect. Comedy, after all, is the release of tension. Seconds later, Adsit made a similar move; Gausas asked with a taunting sneer, "What do you plan to do with that?" and Adsit responded, "I'm going to shove this whisk down your throat." The audience erupted in laughter and that woman, one assumes, released the grip on her boyfriend's arm.

Adsit, who also stars in 30 Rock as Pete Hornberger, the beleaguered executive producer of TGS, and Gausas, who's guested on 30 Rock, Conan and a handful of other shows, are two of the most talented improvisers in New York. They're also two of the most seasoned, which is to say they're from Chicago; Gotham's long-form scene is adolescent in comparison. The two-person format really allows their sophisticated styles to shine.

"When there's a big group of very clever people onstage, that cleverness can overtake the human side of things," explains Adsit, a Second City alum. "Knowing that no one will interrupt you, you can allow a moment to evolve."

"We know that we have the whole hour," Gausas adds. "So we can take our time and have quiet moments and serious moments."

Characters created in such an incubator are complicated. Those in an Adsit & Gausas show are also disgusting: greedy, petty, ruthless, manipulative and self-defeating. We see coworkers who are having an affair, a teenage model who teases and then insults her photographer's advances, a woman who pretends to have mice rather than simply ask the exterminator on a date. Self-actualized people aren't funny.

And, as the duo jokes, it's hard to know where to the draw the line between an improviser and his or her characters. When asked why they take time out of their busy careers to fiddle around for no pay in a black-box theater, Adsit responds, "Christina and I both hate ourselves offstage, so it's fun to get to play someone else. This show is like a warm bath."

"Oh yeah," Gausas adds, "otherwise I'd be at home crying."

Adsit & Gausas happens Wed 8 at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre.

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