By Olivia Popp
The Groundlings school boasts acclaimed alums including Melissa McCarthy, Lisa Kudrow, Kristen Wiig and current SNL cast member Heidi Gardner. A famed training ground for comedy-inclined actors, the Groundlings can be compared to the Amy Poehler-cofounded Upright Citizens Brigade, which typically attracts comedians and focuses more on fostering comedic timing, narrative emphasis and group work. Both schools, along with the Second City (most well-known for its sketch comedy), are the top-tier comedy and performance schools in the nation, with locations around the country and some even extending into Canada.
“Cooking with Gas” is Second City’s weekly running improvisational show during which the current Groundlings cast invites an alum to perform with them. Unlike UCB and the Second City, the Groundlings has one set cast rather than small performing groups, which makes it more exclusive. (The Groundlings also has a training group known as the Sunday Company and other tangential groups, but “the Groundlings” itself consists of a single set cast.) As a result, the Groundlings are the best of the best – audiences might recognize many of them from television and other projects. (Gardner, at least, is still listed as a cast member of the Groundlings despite being on the last season of SNL.)
“Cooking with Gas” is carefully constructed with a live band, making it a full-length experience complete with an intermission. The director calls for suggestions from the audience, but only accepts those within certain bounds in order to prevent ridiculous suggestions from being thrown out. This “Cooking with Gas” performance began with a hysterical yet powerfully impressive performance of a faux-improvised Stephen Sondheim song; the musical improvisers provided half of the support. Right from the start, the improvisers all picked strong character choices and stuck with them, which is often a hard move to make for beginning improvisers. Even if the character choices are strange, they quickly became believable because they’re played so convincingly.
The first half of “Cooking with Gas” consisted of short-form scenes that switched between pairs of actors, while the second half consisted of a more long-form scene based on a play, with multiple scenes that create a complete narrative. The most versatile of performers stood out as those who could transform in an instant from one to another — including Matt Cook (currently on “Man with a Plan” with Matt LeBlanc) and Edi Patterson,who together performed an utterly hysterical scene in a trailer park with two contrasting characters with the same strong “hillbilly”-esque accents that were virtually impossible to understand. Cook also played a convincingly suave character in the long-form play, while Edi excelled as a high-pitched and oblivious author attempting to record an audiobook during a short-form scene.
Watching professional-level improv such as this is extremely helpful for anybody interested in improv, acting or performance, but “Cooking with Gas” is one such example that puts together the best of improvisers with the best of both short-form and long-form theater. San Francisco has plenty of improv, but it’s nearly impossible to find this level of performative vulnerability anywhere else, with the players diving deep into each character for just a short scene. Despite the high ticket price ($18), it’s 100 percent worth going to see “Cooking with Gas” — you’re guaranteed to get more laughs than you signed up for, as well as your money’s worth.