The Colgate Scene
September 2002

In the improv scene
Marty Johnson '96 is making people laugh at a popular Boston club

[Photos by Lou Jones]

In just one evening, she became a participant in a group intervention for someone addicted to forwarding junk e-mail; a hapless vagrant woman duped into buying a cardboard box home from a real estate agent; a roommate proud of the plastic drinking glasses she bought at True Value; and at least a dozen other characters.

Marty Johnson '96 performed this feat of comedic dexterity at the Improv Asylum, one of only two full-time professional improv venues in Boston. In addition to teaching at their training center, the actress does shows three to five nights a week as a member of the mainstage cast, which holds court both at the Roxy in the Theater District and the group's own club, the North End Theater.

Improv Asylum shows are fast-paced, interactive and intended for college-age-and-up audiences. The troupe presents improvised scenes that follow various types of game-like structures, based on audience suggestions. The True Value glasses sketch, for example, came out of the question, "Name the crappiest present you've ever brought to a party." Prepared comedy sketches are scattered between the improvised scenes.

Acting has been a focus for Johnson since childhood, and at Colgate, where she majored in English and minored in theater, she performed in Student Theater and University Theater productions. She first got involved in improv as a member of Charred Goosebeak.

"I saw them perform when I was a freshman and it was so different from anything I had seen," Johnson said. "It was this impulse . . . I want to do that! I went to the audition and got in and was psyched to learn about improv. It was just so much fun." Improv also allowed her to draw from her creative side. "When you're doing straight acting, you don't have the freedom to make it yours as much. I like the challenge of being able to make something up and see what I can do with it at the same time."

Following Colgate, Johnson moved to New York City, where she and several Charred Goosebeak alumni kept performing improv and sketch comedy. She also studied long form improv at the Upright Citizen's Brigade Theater, best known for its TV show on Comedy Central. For her day job, she worked for the New York Pops Orchestra until beginning a career in TV production, with CBS News Productions.

After three years, Johnson wanted a change of pace, and moved to Boston. "I knew I wanted to be doing improv and comedy, so I immediately started looking around." She soon found the Improv Asylum. She began studying at their training center, and then auditioned for and began performing with their touring company. A year ago she was pulled onto the mainstage cast.

"We're delighted to have Marty here," said Improv Asylum co-founder and director Chet Harding. "She brings a smart and interesting look into improvisation and sketch comedy. She's been excelling on the mainstage and now is writing more for us and bringing a unique perspective there as well. She has a lot of thoughts and ideas for improvisation, both for the stage and structures."

Johnson says she loves writing for comedy. In a recent show, she starred in a sketch that she had written about Julie, a woman on an airplane who discovers that the knife she'd absentmindedly stashed in her purse somehow made it through airport security.

"I wanted to write something about the paranoia that a lot of us are feeling today, in light of terrorism and the war," explained Johnson, noting that while fear is certainly understandable, it can breed irrational thinking. "I'll come into Boston, and if there are clouds sitting on the taller buildings, I'll immediately think . . . anthrax! It's not logical, but I think it. So I wanted to take that and see what would happen if somebody let it get the best of them."

Johnson cringes a bit when asked if the popular TV show Whose Line is it Anyway? has made people more aware of improv.

"It's one of those things," she muses. "If you do improv and people say, `ooh, is it like Whose Line?' you're sort of like, `aarrgh, no. . . !' The people on that show are amazing, don't get me wrong, but the type of improv that they do is more about individuals coming up with one-liners -- almost like standup. The kind of improv that I love is long form, working with your fellow actors to build scenes. You're finding connections and weaving things in and out and revisiting them," she explains. "One of the things about improv that people don't necessarily know, especially when they watch a show like Whose Line, is, it's not, `oh, I'm a funny person, boom, I can do improv.' Sure, some people are better at certain things just because of who they are, but it's very much a learned skill."

Until recently, Johnson had been balancing 30 hours a week at the Improv Asylum with full-time jobs as an associate producer in television. She's done two stints at WGBH's NOVA, first for "Cancer Warrior," which aired in 2001, and then for the creation of a grant proposal and pilot for a new magazine-format NOVA program. In between she worked on a weekly show about business and the Internet economy, The Next Big Thing, which aired in Canada.

In June, Johnson left NOVA to pursue comedy full time; she hopes to branch out, perhaps performing and writing for film or television. Her previous television experience may be helpful in her goal. She recently wrote and directed a short video with Improv Asylum actors that was selected and shown at the Funny Women's Festival in Chicago. "Having those skills is what let me do that," she said.

"I'm very nervous because it's new," Johnson remarked of quitting her day job. "But, I figured, I love it. I get to do it every night. Just take this moment out and see what happens. I feel really lucky, not even just to be paid for it, but to get the opportunity to perform. This is enough for me for now."

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