Does Reality End When Comedy Begins? Not For the ‘Live Humans’

<i> Wheelock is a Los Angeles free-lance writer</i>

A fluttering housewife opens her door to two “contractors” and dithers about a minor room remodel. Ignoring their client, the macho slobs swarm over the house, pounding walls, making holes and gleefully planning major tear-downs. The action escalates into a slapstick metal tape-measure duel between the two men while the horrified homeowner gazes on helplessly.

Everyday situations exaggerated to absurdity are the stock in trade of “Live Humans on Stage,” a Burbank-based comedy troupe that performs every Saturday at 8 p.m. at the Third Stage Theater. About 80% of their material is scripted; the rest is improvised.

“We both had the same thought,” said Suzanne Kent, referring to group co-founder James Henriksen. “We wanted a balance between comedy and drama. We didn’t want to have to go for the big jokes.

“In most comedy groups, the laugh is the god,” Kent added. “I don’t believe that. I think the tear and the sigh are just as important as the laugh.”

Kent and Henriksen worked together from 1979 through 1982 in the Groundlings, where Kent was a founding member. After several years, they realized that their comedic tastes were no longer compatible with the West Hollywood improvisational group and they decided to break away and start their own group.


“I learned a lot from the Groundlings, and what I added to that was a reality element,” Kent said. “Blown-up caricatures and way-out voices are good and fun to do, but I wanted to balance that with comedy that comes from real life, to play it more from the heart.”

Kent and Henriksen took over the lease on the Magnolia Boulevard storefront in 1985, and Henriksen designed and built the 50-seat theater, home to Live Humans and their Thursday night open comedy workshop, where many Saturday night sketches are conceived and polished.

“There are several factors that set us apart from other groups,” Henriksen said. “For one thing, we always try for the humanistic approach and we have some pathos in our humor.

“We also have a pretty wide age range,” Henriksen said. The core group of performers “is 30-something, but we have someone who is 68 and a number of young kids coming up through the workshop, so we’re able to mix ages in our scenes. That workshop is open to anyone who wants to come in. Also, nearly everyone has gotten cast in comedic stuff out of our shows, mostly television sitcoms.”

According to Kent, who plays the part of Miss Renee on television’s “Pee-wee’s Playhouse,” the performance group usually numbers 10 and there are usually about 20 in the workshops. Although no one is paid, both groups include professional actors and non-professionals, a working situation that she prefers.

“I like to mix ages and abilities,” Kent said. “I think it’s important to put people who are proficient in acting and improvisation together with those who aren’t.”

Kent said the group develops a new show about twice a year. A recent Saturday night sketch, “Battle of the Method Actors,” involved an improvised scene with ground rules: no eye or body contact and no cliches. Penalty for an infraction was a threatened “appearance” on a Jerry Lewis telethon. Heads swiveled madly as participants tried to converse without looking at each other.

Another sketch, “Bag Lady,” featured Jaclynne Jacobs, who at 68 is the senior “Live Human.” A stage, film and television actress in the ‘50s and ‘60s, she has returned from semi-retirement and reports that she has started to get small roles in television shows.

“I never tried to do comedy before,” she said, “and I find I’m good at it. I love challenges. Comedy improv has certainly changed my life.”

Linwood Boomer, executive producer of “Big,” an upcoming television comedy series, cast some company members in oddball character roles when he was a producer on “Night Court.”

“The thing with Live Humans is that there’s a sense of humanness about their sketches,” he said. “Their ideas are all simple and clean, and things that people can relate to.”

Eve Brandstein, executive producer at the movie and TV production company Castle Rock Entertainment, said: “They’re very original, and more than other improv groups they actually do material which touches the heart in such a way that it’s a little more profound, and a richer experience. I think they go to deeper levels, but are still funny and entertaining.”