I’ll confess, I only tuned in to Einstein Simplified when they started their current standing date at Scruffy City Hall every Tuesday night at 8:15. I was shocked to find that they have existed as an Improv group since 1994. At that time they had ten members who unleashed something Knoxville had not experienced before.
Over twenty years later, only one member remains of the original group and the current incarnation lists seven members. They’ve had regular gigs over the years at Manhattans, Amigos, Patrick Sullivan’s, Side Splitter’s, the Square Room and the Well, before landing at Scruffy City Hall. They will also be featured in this weekend’s Scruffy City Comedy Festival doing improv along with new local improv group Full Disclosure.
I met with current member, local radio personality, Frank Murphy to talk about the group, improv and what an audience member might expect. We grabbed a slot in between his responsibilities at 93.1 WNOX where he is both the afternoon host as well as the Assistant Program Director. In radio for thirty-five years, he has worked in D.C. and L.A., but moved to Knoxville in order to be an on-air personality in 2002. Given the nature of the radio business and mergers an acquisitions, he’s moved around a bit on air, teaming at various times with Phil Williams and Ashley Adams. He worked at Star 102.1 FM from 2005 t0 2013 on the Marc, Kim and Frank show before moving to his current position with sister station WNOX.
So, how does a guy who sits on numerous boards, has won all sorts of awards including being inducted into the East Tennessee Writer’s Hall of Fame come to be a part of an improv group? Well, as you might guess, there’s a story there. It goes to his penchant for doing things outside his comfort zone – like the nine ballets he’s been in, even though he doesn’t exactly dance.
Living in L.A. he decided to check out The Groundlings, an improv group which along with Second City in Chicago is a sort of farm program for Saturday Night Live. He learned the difference between Improv (not planned) and sketches (planned) and fell in love with the spontaneity of Improv. He signed up for some cheap classes in Burbank and he was off and running.
He says there’s a lot going on beneath the surface in improv. He described stand-up comedy as taking a large amount of material and distilling it down to the fifteen seconds which are actually funny, then repeating the process until you have enough fifteen second kernels to string into a routine. With improv, it’s the opposite. It starts with one word or idea and has to be expanded until the humor is discovered. Improv also, while seeming so free flowing – and it is – , also has rules: Accept what the person gives you, advance the narrative and the most important person on the stage is the other person.
Whereas stand-up often feels adversarial between the comic and the crowd, improv is more a group effort, he maintains. Sometimes audiences for stand-up might start with the position that the comic better be good to make them laugh. In improv they are shouting ideas and getting involved. He feels it makes them more supportive from the outset.
So, when he was scheduled to interview for what would become his first job in Knoxville, he searched the Internet for improv in Knoxville and immediately found Einstein Simplified and, incredibly learned they were playing in the Old City when he was to be in town and staying at what is now Crowne Plaza, just up the hill from their performance at Manhattans. And so, he came to see Einstein Simplified on his first visit to the city.
After getting the job, he moved to the city the next month and coincidence intervened again when it happened that Einstein was holding open auditions. Mixed in with mostly Pellissippi students of founder Paul Simmons, he made first one cut and then another and was accepted into the group, largely on the strength of his pop culture knowledge. He does remember an early show in which John Ward was mentioned and he had to be rescued by another troupe member because he hadn’t a clue who the man was, though he said they later met and got to know each other a bit.
Of Improv, Frank says the members have to be able to read each other and anticipate where the other might be going. It’s important, he says, to try not to think so much as to feel the thread. You, “have to surrender to the story or scene.” He also pointed out that the members come from very different backgrounds and have a wide range of interests, which is important for the references and connections they can make.
Einstein does short-form improv, with much briefer scenes than its long-form cousin. He describes it as being similar in feel to “Whose Line Is It Anyway.” The scenes are not connected, though there could be an occasional reference to a previous scene (a “call back,” I learned). While the improv portion is necessarily non-competitive, he says the group does “fast games” in between scenes and those feature stiff, fun competition to “get to the joke.” Then it’s back to improv in which the group gets the laugh, not the individual.
You can see them this weekend on Saturday night at the Scruffy City Comedy Festival and every Tuesday night at Scruffy City Hall. They are also available for additional performances for a fee and do side projects like a benefit for the Love Kitchen coming up this next spring. Check out the video below for a little sampling of what they have to offer.