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Monday, Apr 15, 2024

Lights, camera, improv: a glimpse into Middlebury’s improv comedy scene

Middlebrow and Otters hosted a joint show to start off spring semester.
Middlebrow and Otters hosted a joint show to start off spring semester.

If you’re searching for a laugh, look no further than improv comedy. Middlebrow and Otter Nonsense (Otters) are Middlebury’s two improv groups, each with their own comedic style and format. 

Otters president Joey Disorbo ’25.5 had never done improv before coming to Middlebury and auditioned for Otters on a whim. 

“It’s something you don’t know you can do until you try it. I didn’t have any real pull to do it. I thought, ‘I want to try this,’” Disorbo said. 

Like Disorbo, Middlebrow treasurer Per Alexander ’24.5 had no improv experience before coming to Middlebury. Entering as a Feb, Alexander remembered being excited to join a new activity on campus. 

Otters generally practice three times a week. Rehearsals consist of warm-up games and practicing the type of format they use in their shows. Otters typically do long-form comedy shows, meaning that the entire show follows one narrative — “like a play,” Disorbo described. 

“The scenes are linked to each other, there are continuing narratives, recurring characters and locations,” Disorbo said. “I really like this form. A lot of the humor in a form like this is when we bring things back.” 

Disorbo said that with longer-form comedy, all group members must be dialed into the scene and ready to create a cohesive story. 

“I think it takes longer focus. You get to create a world,” Disorbo said. “You really have to pay attention for the entire time. If you miss a detail and you come in later and say the wrong thing, then there’s an inconsistency. I find it more rewarding to have it pay off like three scenes later when you bring this thing back.” 

Middlebrow centers more on short-form comedy than Otters. Members rotate through different scenes independently of each other instead of adhering to a cohesive narrative. Middlebrow rehearses twice a week, practicing different activities and checking in at the end to reflect. 

“One thing that is really nice [about short-form comedy] is that you’re never stuck with a bad idea,” Alexander explained. “Like if something isn’t working, you can get out of it super fast. The flip side is that you have to constantly be coming up with new really different ideas. Especially when you’re creating a new scene from nothing, it’s hard. Sometimes, it’s hard to figure out totally different things to do.” 

Alexander, who joined Middlebrow in spring 2021, noted how the group’s comedy style has changed over time with the introduction of new members.

“In terms of our comedy style, culturally, it’s been getting more risky in past years. When I joined, it was very goofy. I think it’s still definitely very goofy, but it’s getting more relaxed,” Alexander said. 

Both Middlebrow and Otters value group chemistry and spending quality time together. 

“It’s fun to just hang out and joke around with people as an activity that’s a structured thing,” said Middlebrow President Jake Huggins ’24. “The performances are really fun, especially when they go well. It feels really good.” 

According to Disorbo, building trust in practices is important to maintaining composure on stage. Additionally, different group members bring in fresh perspectives and material. 

“Something I really value about the Otters is that everybody in the group kind of has their own thing going on outside of improv,” Disorbo said. “We come together from our different areas in life to come together to do this. I think that’s really valuable because we can all bring fresh stuff.”

Otters also do joint shows with improv groups from other schools, including Harvard University and Skidmore College. 

“It’s a great way to see what else is happening,” Disorbo said. “Where are we relative to the other groups, what can we learn from them because everyone’s got different little practices. It’s always fun to be in front of a new crowd.” 

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Some of Alexander’s favorite Middlebrow memories are simply the funny bits he remembers from the years of rehearsal. 

“I’ve met so many people that I wouldn’t have met otherwise,” he said. “It’s very fun. I’m glad I stuck with it.” 

Huggins described Middlebrow’s atmosphere as welcoming. “Whenever we get new people, we try and make them feel confident in their ability to do improv,” Huggins said. 

He added that the group works together not to revert back to common tropes. “A lot of people, myself included, have things we fall back on, and we have to try and get people to break those habits in a supportive way.” 

Alexander also described how rewarding it has been to make progress in his improv skills. “I feel like I’ve improved a lot, which is cool because I thought originally you’re good or you’re bad it’s just how innately funny you are. But I think you can improve, practicing it every week, you get a lot better and get a much better sense of what works and what doesn’t work,” he said.  

Ultimately, Disorbo encourages everyone to try improv comedy. 

“It’s not as hard as people think it is,” he said. “I think that it seems really difficult and scary, and in a way, it is scary because you are going up on stage, but the reason it’s not as hard is because you have people there with you. I think everyone should try it once.” 

Charlie Keohane

Charlie Keohane ’24 (she/her) is an Editor at Large. She previously served as the SGA Correspondent and a Senior Writer.   

She is an environmental writing major and a psychology minor from Northern California. Outside of academics, Charlie is a Senior Admissions Fellow at the Middlebury Admissions Office. She also is involved with the women’s track team and hosts Witching Hour, a radio show on 91.1 WRMC. In Spring 2023, she studied abroad in Copenhagen, Denmark. In her free time, she enjoys hiking, watching Greta Gerwig movies, polar plunging, sending snail mail, and FaceTiming her rescue dog, Poppy.