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Comedy fest takes turn to sketch-rap improv

| Tuesday, Aug. 22, 2017, 9:00 p.m.
W. Kamua Bell
W. Kamua Bell

Sketch comedy is hard enough to do well when you have time to rehearse, as any "Saturday Night Live" episode can attest.

It's even harder when you're doing improv — basically, starting over from scratch every night, reacting to suggestions from the audience.

Rhen imagine doing an entire show based on a historical figure — suggested by the audience. Oh, and it's a musical. And you have to freestyle-rap everything. Like "Hamilton," but improvised.

North Coast's fully improvised hip-hopera "Anybody" is one of the headliners of this Pittsburgh Comedy Festival, along with W. Kamau Bell (host of "United Shades of America" on CNN and "The W. Kamau Bell Curve: Ending Racism in About an Hour.")

The group has been together for eight years, mostly doing non-narrative improv, with a hefty dose of hip-hop. When "Hamilton" hit, they were blown away.

"We did it a 'Hamilton' bit show at (improv school) Upright Citizens Brigade," says North Coast founding member Doug Widick. "We did Louisa May Alcott. It was so much fun that we haven't stopped since."

Widick and Rosenthal don't look like they can rap. In fact, they look — and sound, in their normal speaking voices — like the least-likely-to-rap people you can find.

Widick starts describing one of their practice exercises, which builds off the chorus of Big Sean's "Bounce Back" — "Last night I took an 'L' but tonight I bounce back." His voice goes from theater nerd to battle-ready rapper in about two seconds.

Some historical figures work out better than others, of course.

"Our favorite has been Amelia Earhart," says Widick. "She was rapping as the plane went down."

That one was great, "not because of the wacky characters, but because the show had heart," says North Coast's Rachel Rosenthal.

It's not always easy to tell, at first, which subjects will be easy and which will prove more difficult.

"Thomas Jefferson was kind of hard," Widick says. "There was so much to cover. Which story to tell? Genghis Khan. How much do a bunch of millenials know about Genghis Khan? He invaded China, killed people and supposedly had a ton of kids. To find the comedy in that we got a little invent-y."

If there's one requirement, it's that the character have some redeemable features. Hitler isn't going to make a good show.

"No matter who we get, we want to find a way to lift them up," says Rosenthal. "Hamilton was not a man without flaws, and did a lot of bad things to his family and fought his way to the top. We revere this character with flaws and all."

The gig requires some very specific, very special skills.

"The majority (of the performers) come from improv — The PIT, the Magnet or the Reckless Theater. That's where we tend to meet people," Widick says. "We choose people to work with who are as good at improv as they are at freestyle rapping. Steve Jeanty and Richie Alflson are active in the hip-hop community, outside the comedy community."

You can't do hip-hop without beats, of course. For maximum flexibility, they use beatboxers, who can improvise a beat without any equipment but a microphone.

It seems like a lost art, but it isn't. It's just a bit underground.

"These beatbox shows are just packed," says Widick. "Some are just insane. Like the World Beatbox Championships. The current ranked World Beatbox Champion, Kaila (Mullady) is one of our cast members. The current American champion, Mark Markin, is one of ours as well."

North Coast performs every Saturday at the Peoples Improv Theater in New York City.

Other highlights of the Pittsburgh Comedy Festival include a midnight stand-up show with a return of 2016 headliner Quincy Jones, and a family friendly Kids Comedy Cabaret on Aug. 26, intended for ages 5 to 12, which is "pay-what-you-wish" — part of the Pittsburgh Comedy Festival's plan to make comedy accessible to everyone

Michael Machosky is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.

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