Improving Improv: The New Movement

by Josh Stein

The overhead lights dim and only spotlight remains. Grey shadows cast along the wall as two figures appear from opposite sides of the stage. “Chris and Tami is a show that Chris and I do every week but this week’s going to be a little bit different. I’ve brought a couple of friends to play with,” explains Tami.

In the next hour, Tami and her friends transformed themselves into eccentric men and women thrust into hilarious situations. One moment Tami’s at game night helplessly describing her understanding of chess. “Ok well I know that the horse-looking one can move vertical or diagonal, but I always forget the difference.” And the next moment, she’s a new office worker destined to be the butt end of every joke.

Chris and Tami is one of the longest running comedy shows performed at The New Movement. It showcases the highly developed chemistry between, you guessed it, Chris and Tami: founders of the New Orleans sketch comedy club. Things weren’t always like this, though, because The New Movement came from humble beginnings. “We started without a home, every event needed a venue,” Tami clarified before the show. Now The New Movement, in a venue that’s here to stay, hosts shows six nights a week.

Just this past month The New Movement had their annual comedy festival “Hell Yes Fest” that pairs “up and comers” with established comedians to grow the local comedy scene.  Tami contributed, “We had over 200 comedians perform in 60+ shows. Every year we get bigger and bigger.” This year, Hell Yes Fest featured comedic legends such as Nick Swardson and Sarah Silverman. One such “up and comer” is Jordan Fried. Jordan studies as an undergraduate at Tulane but pursues his passion, sketch comedy, at The New Movement. Jordan is fascinated by all that there is to learn from the best in the business, “I used to think it was all about being funny. That’s only the half of it. Millions of comedians can get laughs; I need to be doing something different.” Most artists struggle to find an identity, the differentiator that keeps fans coming back to experience them. “It’s all about fighting through. That’s what all great artists have in common. People don’t accept their new style at first because it’s different but after they push back people have the chance to discover their greatness,” Jordan revealed.   

In a city so heavily known for its music, comedic entertainment has been an afterthought for decades. Chris and Tami hope to change that.  “The culture is starting to shift. People in New Orleans are starting to see comedy as more available on a night where they are going out. We have quite a long way to go when people start weighing comedy over music, but there are enough locals aware of the comedy scene that we’re on their radar.” In this effort, The New Movement has become the comedy hub in New Orleans. “The comedy scene is expanding rapidly, there are open mic’s every night of the week all around town,” stated Chris, “I want everyone to know that the biggest and brightest comedy is not just in LA, NY and Chicago. We have it right here in New Orleans, and we’re incredibly invested in becoming the next great comedy scene. If everyone comes out to see a show they love and makes it a habit maybe we can get there.” Chris feels that, as far as their mission statement goes, The New Movement is unique among comedy hot spots in the area. “There are other people doing comedy shows, but no one is putting their priorities on developing a community for comedy. We’re grateful that others are trying to produce good comedy, but just a few clubs can’t develop a scene. We need even more clubs to pursue it on a larger scale. “

Chris, Tami, and their associates have been working diligently to create this turnaround of New Orleans nightlife by embracing the local talent. Both Chris and Tami agreed, “More people are coming to The New Movement as comedy students, not just hobbyists.” Jordan Fried is one of many who are determined to improve The New Movement’s events. “They’re really great at taking in talent and running weird and crazy shows with their ideas,” said Jordan. Chris was delighted to describe a moment in which these weird and crazy ideas came to life. “Recently I was doing a show where a cockroach emerged from somewhere in the theater and was on stage for a bulk of the show. I hadn’t realized it yet, but I did know the audience was laughing at something besides me. Finally, I discovered it was a roach, but it was chilling out, not acting frantic. He was sitting there like he wanted to be in the show. So I decided to treat the roach like a person who wasn’t talking to me in many of my sketches. Eventually, it went away, but at the end of the show it scurried back onto the stage, and I did a call back with the roach! To some people, it was probably pretty weird and gross, but this is sketch comedy. We’ve got to adapt, and we’ve got to evolve.” Jordan recanted one of his favorite moments as well, “They have a night called Knockout where students bring their ideas to the theater and compete (perform) in a tournament style, advancing round by round until a winner is chosen. One weekend an all-female troupe put on a weekend update type of show and told ghost stories. The whole point of the sketch was that they wouldn’t talk about relationships with men. The girls had a lot of fun with the idea, and it resulted in some pretty hilarious stuff.”

Over time, the comedy scene in New Orleans has grown competitive. “Lots of people believe there can only be one next great comedian to come out of NOLA,” explained Jordan. Some comedians have adopted a cutthroat attitude to strangely contrast the light-hearted and positive nature that sketch comedy provides. Jordan has a different outlook: “Improv is about your whole group and being a team player, bettering yourself and not worrying what everyone else is doing.” Chris had a lot to say about the life of a struggling young comic as well, “Their life is a lot of hustle and grinding. A lot of time is taken out of their busy day to go and get up on stage as often as possible even when they don’t feel like it. It’s about developing a shell around you to where one terrible show won’t keep you away from your craft.” Stressful days can prevent anyone from doing what they love, but comedy seems to have such a positive effect on everyone. Tami felt that even on a tough day, one in which you might not want to perform, it’s absolutely worth it. She commented, “The magical thing about doing a show or a class is that you always feel better in the end. It’s therapeutic. It’s like a miracle cure for a bad day!”

Something that truly separates the New Movement is their nightly classes. The veteran sketch comedians devote their time to teaching the intricacies of their favorite art form.  Tami believes, “Things aren’t so competitive when it comes to classes, it’s about gelling with your troupe and learning to improve.” Tami does her best to keep the class as mathematic as possible, so people learn to identify beats (situations that move scenes forward) in their scenes. “We are looking to teach them skills they need to apply so that they can understand what joke is being formed quicker each time,” said Tami.  The classes are split into five levels, each lasting eight weeks. Level one teaches you the system so you can communicate with others on a mental level. Levels two through five continue to educate students on how to map their scenes and add to the jokes of their peers. At the end of each level, the troupe performs a recital. Tami excitedly said, “Level 1 recitals have to be my favorite. They are in front of their family and friends and everyone’s so nervous, but they kill it every time. I call it a crisis bond. The students are always thrilled with themselves.”

The ultimate goal of The New Movement is to help people fulfill their dreams of performing sketch comedy. A dream that’s tougher to attain than it is to dream. Chris, Tami, Jordan and countless others have devoted night after night to make New Orleans comedy relevant. One day they hope to topple the New Orleans music scene, well at least rival it.