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20 Years of Improv Songs


My father once admitted to me that he spent a good deal of time between installments of the weekly Sunday Night Improv comedy jam thinking of titles and musical styles for "Can You Sing This?" My father attended almost every SNI jam we did for about ten years, and while he liked many of the "bits" (as he called them) that we did, his particular favorite was "Can You Sing This?" I don't know when we started doing it in the jam – probably since the beginning in 1993 – but its format has always remained refreshingly simple. The performer is given an absurd and/or evocative song title from the audience and a musical style is overlaid on that. Then, in collaboration with the piano player, an instant song is created. 

My father felt audiences often didn't stretch the performers enough, either suggesting mundane titles or predictable styles (rock, rap, and jazz being the most popular). That's what got him thinking about titles and styles during the week. In one show, for instance, someone yelled out the title, "Surfing Monkeys." For a style, my father was quick on the trigger, calling out "Zero Mostel." With Noel Katz on piano, Doug Nervik improvised wonderful lyrics – even though the slim Nervik in no way resembled the hefty Mostel, the song captured the essence of Mostel in a Fiddler on the Roof parody that is loads of fun. Watch the video: the audience laps it up – but the performers are having a good time meeting the challenge, as well.

The performances – both good and bad – were, like most improvisations, one-shot deals, created, performed, and quickly forgotten. But not always. Luckily, some of these shows were recorded over the years and now, in honor of Sunday Night Improv's 20th anniversary, I have gone through the poorly organized archives and prepared the best of the crop, which we will be showing on YouTube, and which will also be available on CD and DVD. The titles will be unknown to everyone, but they are evocative (and show the variety of suggestions we get from the audience): "Rutabaga Baby" (performed by Tara Lynn Wagner, who is now a reporter for New York 1), "Something Is Better Than Nothing," "I Was Raised By a Cocker Spaniel," "Simon Was a Blind Mouse," "The Difference Between Hamsters, Mice, and Rats," a personal favorite called "Jesus Is Mean to Me," and the brilliant "Lazy Chair," which should be recorded as a "real" song.

But that's unfair. They're all real songs, and "Can You Sing This?" is a wonderful showcase for talented performers, both on stage and at the keyboards. Indeed, my father always thought we should do a special night of "Can You Sing This?" – two hours utilizing four or five performers  (he didn't say so, but he was probably thinking of showcasing his favorites: Larry Bell, Linda Hill, Cate Smit, Doug Nervik, and Joe Mulligan).  He talked about it for some time, and when he became ill with cancer, I decided to put on the show he had wanted. Tom Carrozza and I planned the big event; there would be 15 performers who would think of their styles in advance, prepare costumes, and get suggested titles from the audience. The big night came, and although he was very ill (he would die two months later), my father attended. 

He watched in silence and afterwards, I asked him how he liked the big show, the culmination of his "dream." He was, typically, blunt in his comments. "You Hollywooded it up," he said. "The magic of 'Can You Sing This?' is that the stage is simple,  and the performers have to evoke a style on the spot, without any preparation or costumes. You don't need all that crap. You just need a singer and a piano. That's what makes it so wonderful."

He was right. So I think he would be pleased with the songs collected on the new CD and DVD, which are available from (or come get one at our 20th anniversary show this Sunday).  It's full of memorable moments. Doug as Zero Mostel. Carole Bugge singing a duet with Rhonda Friedman about why someone "Loved Rhonda Best." Larry Bell and Rosemary Hyziak coming up with rhymes for cocker spaniel in "I Was Raised By a Cocker Spaniel." And I challenge you to quickly get the Chris Griggs/Julian Blackmore song  "Lazy Chair" out of your mind. It's that good.

May 12, 2013