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One woman show: How Cherie Kerr brought comedy to O.C. and has kept people laughing for 32 years

Cherie Kerr, the director and producer of the Orange County Crazies.
Cherie Kerr, the director and producer of the Orange County Crazies, directs her actors during the group’s Improv class at the De Pietro Performance Center in Santa Ana on Jan. 9, 2022. OC Crazies offers classes in improv, stand-up, sketch comedy and workshops for how to develop original characters.
(James Carbone)

On a Sunday afternoon, Matt Morrison and Max Fay improvise a sketch during the Orange County Crazies improv class at the De Pietro Performance Center in Santa Ana. Down in the front row of the theater sits founder and artistic director, Cherie Kerr, giving feedback.

“Don’t break character,” Kerr says. “You have a lovely smile. Remember not to break character.”

Kerr’s guidance and encouragement is part of the draw for comedy students at OC Crazies.

Guy Nelson, from left, Brent White, Matt Morrison and Max Fay at the O.C. Crazies class.
Guy Nelson of Riverside, from left, Brent White of Pomona, Matt Morrison of Los Angeles and Max Fay of Huntington Beach improvise a sketch during the Orange County Crazies Improv class at the De Pietro Performance Center in Santa Ana on Sunday, Jan. 9.
(James Carbone)

“I learned a lot from Cherie” said Tobey Luu, who recently completed Kerr’s stand-up comedy class. “Cherie just creates this very safe creative environment. She is very encouraging and supportive.”

OC Crazies came to Orange County in the 1990s and celebrates its 32nd year this month.

“I find it very fortunate that Cherie created OC Crazies,” said Luu. “I am just happy there is a comedic space like this in Orange County.”

But the improv, sketch, stand-up and comedy-writing school might have never found its way here without Kerr.

Kerr was part of the first class of the Groundlings in Los Angeles, the comedy troupe that launched the careers of stars like Jennifer Coolidge, Will Ferrell, Kristen Wiig and Phil Hartman.

“I was one of the first 12 members of the L.A. Groundlings,” said Kerr. “They were going to come here, to Orange County in late 1980s. But they had gone to New York, and they hadn’t done very well with a satellite situation.”

The possibility of expansion ended, but the artistic director and head of the school from 1979 to 1989, Tom Maxwell, suggested Kerr start her own thing.

Cherie Kerr at the De Pietro Performance Center.
Cherie Kerr at the De Pietro Performance Center in Santa Ana.
(James Carbone)

“That was how the Crazies was born,” said Kerr. “Kathy Griffin helped audition our first group.”

Then Kerr met Don Cribb, planning commissioner for Santa Ana Artists Village.

“I read in the paper about Cherie and her group, the OC Crazies. And I asked her to meet with me. I told her I wanted her here in Santa Ana,” said Cribb.

Cribb was busy expanding the city’s cultural development, determined to turn Santa Ana into the potential urban vision he thought it could be.

Kerr brought her troupe to Santa Ana, and they took to the stage at the Santa Ana Annex Theater, poking fun at Orange County with shows with titles like, “Orangelahoma,” “Gone with the Orange” and “Orange Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.”

“One thing Cherie did right off the bat,” Cribb said. “She actually made fun of stuff in a way nobody thought to make fun of.”

OC Crazies performed three revues a year at the Annex. Then in 2000, the organization found a permanent home at 809 N. Main St. in Santa Ana and built out a 78-seat black-box theater in the space they named the De Pietro Performance Center.

“We have been in this building for 22 years now,” said Kerr.

Over the years, OC Crazies has developed a variety of classes from beginning to advanced levels. Classes are typically offered as six sessions or one-day classes. After the last class, each group stages a graduation ceremony, which is a live improv show for an audience of friends and family.

Max Fay, 13, right, improvises a scene with Guy Nelson, 10, at OC Crazies Improv class.
Max Fay, 13, of Huntington Beach, right, improvises a scene with Guy Nelson, 10, of Riverside, during the Orange County Crazies Improv class at the De Pietro Performance Center in Santa Ana on Jan. 9.
(James Carbone)

A children’s workshop, the “Lil Crazies,” is open to children 8 to 12 years old and has been a staple of the school for more than 20 years.

Kerr has written 13 books, nine of which feature self-help techniques on communication skills. She hosts workshops geared toward corporate employees looking to improve their presentation skills through a program she calls ExecuProv.

That’s how Robert “Robbie” Nelson Jr. found his way to OC Crazies. Nelson became the CEO at Citrus Valley Medical Associates in the Corona area eight years ago, and a business consultant introduced him to Kerr.

“I knew I was going to have to do presentations more and be the face of the company. I was very shy and didn’t like talking in front of people,” said Nelson.

Nelson came out to a one-day workshop and loved it.

“It was all about how to give presentations, how to add humor to it … She got us on stage telling stories,” said Nelson, “And it was so much fun.”

Adam Walker, left, Ivory Kellogg and Laura Dewey audition for the Orange County Crazies Improv class.
(James Carbone)

Nelson returned for stand-up classes and found that his leadership and confidence at work continued to grow.

“Especially when the pandemic happened and I am on Zoom running these two-, three-hour meetings sometimes, and if you have been on a Zoom meeting you know they can be pretty boring,” said Nelson.

Using the skills he learned with OC Crazies, he was able to make meetings fun and engaging, he said.

Nelson is now the stand-up program director at OC Crazies and his two kids are involved in the Lil Crazies program.

Though Nelson said he isn’t looking to quit his day job, he appreciates the confidence he has gained.

“It unlocked something inside of me too. My job had made me so serious, but that wasn’t who I was. I was missing this way to express myself.”

Luu also said she has gotten more out of her time with Kerr than with other classes she has taken.

“I felt like this class was more fun and more free. Even when we are being hard on ourselves Cherie always says something that makes us want to keep going,” said Luu. “What really stuck with me that she is adamant about is everyone is funny, everyone has a funny bone. It’s just not a lot of people explore it.”

Kerr said she is proud of what she has been able to accomplish.

“The fact that we have been able to provide a pretty terrific service to the community for this long ... We are, I think, the longest-standing sketch and improv organization in the county,” said Kerr.

And her students credit their accomplishments to her too.

“I have never seen a teacher get behind a student before to the level that Cherie does,” said Nelson. “Usually with stand-up, the attitude is like ‘get in line.’ Cherie is like, ‘Make your own line.’”

Orange County Crazies’ next stand-up comedy show is scheduled for February. You can find information on shows and classes at occrazies.com.

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