FARGO — The one true thing about any improv show is that anything goes and the performers just have to roll with it.
So when the comedy Fargo-based troupe LineBenders announced its 20th anniversary show would be this Saturday, May 15, at Sanctuary Events Center — the same night as longtime members Tim Larson and Jacob Hartje have their improv show at Moorhead's Theatre B — all parties just shrugged it off and carried on.
“It’s just a weird coincidence,” Larson says. “Fargo is big enough that we can coexist. There are two awesome opportunities to see great improv shows.”
While two improv shows are never the same, the practices between this weekend’s shows are just as different.
On the line
Linebenders' bread and butter is short-form improv that audiences may know best from national comedy troupes like Second City or the TV show “Whose Line Is It Anyway?”
Performers will introduce a concept to the crowd and ask for some input. J.J. Gordon, one of the longest-tenured LineBenders, says a popular one is called “The Pickup Artist” and the cast will ask the crowd for an occupation to help set the scene.
“The audience is actually a member of the troupe, as much a performer as we are,” Gordon says. “Everyone wants to see you fail at least once a show, to really struggle to pull it together, but when you succeed, you all succeed together.”
LineBenders was founded by Fargo actor and acting coach Martin Jonason in May 2001.
“It’s been a small miracle,” says Gordon, who has been involved for 19 years. “Usually the shelf life of a comedy troupe is five years. It’s amazing we can sustain ourselves. We’re so lucky that people will take a chance on a show that is not scripted.”
While they may not be scripted, when LineBenders are taking their show out of town or performing for a private party, they will do some research to make the show relative to that audience.
“It’s finding those moments when we can pluck those nuggets out and incorporate them into the show,” he says.
In nearly two decades of shows with the group, he recalls only four clunkers. The most memorable was a post-prom in Warren, Minn., in a bowling alley, when they were set up by the ball return and had to perform above the clanging of the balls and pins and machinery and a virgin margarita mixer brought in for the students.
“No matter how much energy we put into that show, it didn’t work,” he says.
After a year and a half away from the stage due to the coronavirus pandemic, Gordon is ready to perform again — even if not all of the jokes fly.
“For us as a troupe, we’ve never gone this far without performing. I need this to survive,” he says. “I’m a big believer that laughter heals. Maybe we’ll do a scene about masks and maybe we won’t. But man, am I ready to tease and make fun of some of the stuff we had to do over the last year.”
Tim Larson isn’t as eager to riff on COVID-19 culture in his Theatre B show with Jacob Hartje, "Tim and Jacob are Friends: Scriptless," this Friday and Saturday.
“Jacob and I are open to where things lead,” he says. “It’s been a stressful year and a half for a lot of people and we want to keep it light and fun.”
While LineBenders practices short-form improv, the Theatre B show will dive a little deeper into long-form improv, which allows time and space for more development of the situation.
“We pull from the audience, but it’s more about the creation of scenes and characters and less about going for a joke,” Larson says.
While long-form may be more theatrical, Larson assures there will still be steady punchlines.
“You can’t have a show with Jacob and I and not have humor,” he says.
The two helped keep things light at Theatre B even as scheduled productions went dark during the COVID-19 shutdown. Larson introduced the idea of dramatic reading of classic comics like the first "X-Men," via broadcast Zoom calls, during which Hartje appeared in a Magneto helmet.
Larson says without sets or costumes or many props, improv is an easy production for a troupe figuring out what it can produce in a pandemic. It also opens a door for the unscripted shows at Theatre B.
“We’re trying to explore new territories and what Fargo-Moorhead audiences might be interested in,” he says.
Audience is always a key component of improv, but with Theatre B only able to sell 50 percent of seats and still allow for 6 feet for proper social distancing, only about 20 seats were open for each of the Friday and Saturday shows. Both dates sold out and Larson is hoping to add some last-minute seats. The show will also be livestreamed on Theatre B’s website, www.theatreb.org.
Even with a reduced crowd size, Larson and Hartje are just happy to be back performing before a live audience, no matter how big or small.
“Jacob and I have an affinity for improv. It’s always a good time for improv,” he says.
If you go
What: "Tim and Jacob are Friends: Scriptless"
When: 8 p.m. Friday, May 14, and Saturday, May 15, both in-person and streaming live online
Where: Theatre B, 215 10th St. N., Moorhead, or online at www.theatreb.org
Info: Tickets are pay-what-you-will; www.theatreb.org or 701-729-8880
If you go
What: LineBenders 20th anniversary
When: 7 p.m. Saturday, May 15
Where: Sanctuary Events Center, 670 Fourth Ave. N., Fargo
Info: Tickets are $48 or $60 for a table for four for this ID-only show; www.jadepresents.com or 866-300-8300