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UA comedy troupe hits union's Cellar

By Graig Uhlin
Arizona Daily Wildcat,
September 28, 1999

A cellar has frightful connotations: dark, dreary, damp. It is anything but funny.

At the University of Arizona, however, there is a small, dimly lit place called the Cellar, on the lower level of the Memorial Student Union, that hosts some of the greatest comedy around.

The Cellar houses the campus' three comedy troupes: Comedy Corner, The Charles Darwin Experience and the new Ambidextrous Armada.

Ambidextrous Armada, which premieres tonight at 10, is an improv show that includes a variety portion in its lineup. Its special guests for the first show will be a classical guitarist and cellist, and in later shows, they plan to include other musical guests, magicians and audience participation.

"We are attracting a different audience who wants to see different aspects of comedy," said president and founder Adam Felson.

Comedy Corner (CC), the oldest of the groups, began in the spring of 1980 when a group of students wanted to have something to do at lunch time on Fridays. It was the first comedy sketch group in the collegiate world. The performances started out as stand-up comedy and then quickly evolved into the now-familiar sketch format.

Comedy Corner's trademark is its brand of dirty humor and political incorrectness.

Yet director Arnie Niekamp insists that there is a "gap between how we are and how we are perceived." He acknowledges that raunchy material yields an easy laugh, but the group always tries to incorporate some satiric aspect in their skits.

"If we are going to have dirty humor, we try to make it smart, dirty humor," Niekamp said.

Those skits, which at once are bitingly cynical and controversial, consistently draw a strong legion of fans to the Cellar every Friday at noon.

Then there is the decidedly different and strictly improvisational Charles Darwin Experience (CDE). Dismayed by the UA's lack of an improv troupe, media arts senior Tony Carnevale, whose first performance was in the fall of 1997, founded CDE. (Carnevale is also a correspondent for the Arizona Daily Wildcat's arts section and an occasional columnist in the newspaper.)

Attending a CDE show on Thursday nights at 10, one cannot deny the overwhelming community spirit that exists between the audience and the performers. The 10-member cast displays an impressive amount of energy, enthusiasm and showmanship that stems from their mostly theater backgrounds, and the audience responds to it.

"We could not exist without the audience," said cast member Tami Torok.

Unlike Comedy Corner, CDE stays away from obscene humor. Vulgarity and sex brings too easy a laugh, they believe, and they always try to challenge themselves to rise above that.

Ambidextrous Armada's audience most likely will come from fans of the Charles Darwin Experience. Their standards for content and the level of audience participation they are hoping for most resemble the style of the older improv group.

There is already a history of derisive comments and sly insults thrown back and forth between CC and CDE, arising from their distinctive and opposing styles.

"There have been minor cases of mudslinging between CC and CDE in the past that I've always found silly, and irrelevant," Niekamp said.

Ambidextrous Armada may just prove that there is more than one way to make a person laugh, and there is no reason for the bickering.

Since each group has its own distinctive style, a campus this size should be able to handle three comedy groups. Even group members concede the merits of the others.

"Hopefully we'll do a show together," Niekamp said.

That would truly be a funny day in the dark Cellar.

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