Tonight I attended Troy Conrad’s SET LIST show (produced by Paul Provenza) at the IMPROV on Melrose. At some point I should write a whole piece on SET LIST, how brilliant it is as a structure, how much I enjoy doing it and how I fear that by being at the very first experimental play-around-with-the-idea version of it, I may have doomed myself forever to being on Mr. Conrad’s B-list of performers. Not right now though.
Right now I write only of the genius of Eliza Skinner, singer, comedian and improviseur extraordinaire who blew my mind tonight with a combination of talent, professionalism and artistic integrity under the most difficult of circumstances.
Let me set the stage a bit for you. SET LIST forces stand-up comics to improvise stand-up material on a series of goofy topics shown to them in real time at the same time as they are shown to the audience. A huge projection will show up on the wall behind Emo Phillips that says, “CLOWN PROTUBERANCE” and he is expected to go into a routine as though that was the prompt he would have written for himself on his set list when planning what to do for the evening. Once he’s mined it for what laughs he can find, he turns back to the projection to find that the next thing on his never-before-seen set list is, say, “THE PYTHAGOREAN CONSPIRACY THEOREM,” and off he goes on that one. It’s incredibly difficult, great fun to watch, both terrifying and great fun to do and wholly dependent on performers who are experienced enough and comfortable enough with their own comedic voices to be willing to jump off a ridiculous cliff and trust themselves to find wings.
Eliza Skinner takes it a step further. Using a pianist on stage and occasionally drum beats and hip-hop loops played by the same tech guys who show the topic slides, she handles each of the absurd set-list topics as the subject of a wholly improvised song. She does it brilliantly. When she stumbles, it is in the blurring of syllables to make up for an imperfect scansion or a doubling of lines to get to a rhyme that blows the A-B-A-B structure she has set up for a verse or what have you. To an audience it is barely perceptible. To the eye of a fellow improviseur it is often indiscernible unless one notices the flash of disappointment she has in herself. She does the impossible and when she does it with minor imperfections she considers it a small failure. She’s that kind of good.
Tonight, for her big closer, Troy announced from off stage that she would be joined on stage by aging pretty-boy comic and former premium cable celebrity actor Hal Sparks for a duet. Hal had performed earlier in the evening and had done a perfectly serviceable set and he brims with confidence. He joined her on stage and the topic given them for this closing number was “NICE GUY EXTINCTION BALLAD.” Avery, the wonderful pianist set a progression and Eliza began to set up a premise and a song structure. After just one or two establishing lines from Elize, questioning whether there are any nice guys at all anymore, Hal interrupted her flow, denying her premise and declaring himself a nice guy.
She managed to hold her track despite the denial of her premise (an improvisational error of the highest order) to set up the song. Failing to spot the many gifts she had handed him in laying the groundwork for an on-topic song, Hal reversed his original position (that he was a nice guy) and created a verse about how women prefer pricks.
Eliza rankled. This is where she began proving how amazing she really is.
Eliza Skinner maintained song structure, maintained melody and scan and rhyme as she took issue with the sentiment expressed. She sang her disagreement.
Her control of technique and construction was so powerful, so elegant that even as Sparks responded in un-rhymed, half-scanned, sung conversation, it seemed as though they were working together at the creation of a duet. The audience began to respond enthusiastically.
Oblivious to how unsuccessfully he was dealing with the exercise, Sparks became increasingly sexist, increasingly vulgar and increasingly offensive to anyone with any sense of feminist decency. He became a self-serving, self-certain lothario. Eliza, in the moment, angry, now working with a man who had become, in essence, a heckling sexual harasser with a microphone, sang that she would rather be alone than be with anyone like him. She sang her disagreement, her disdain and ultimately her dismissal of him. She sang of his incompetence at the thing that she does well and his intellectual dishonesty. She did it all so organically, so flawlessly that when Hal began trying to sing over her in bursts of defensive semi-lyric it seemed to be a battle-of-the-sexes show tune.
When Skinner left the stage, Sparks remained, not knowing he had lost. He tried to talk to her, self-congratulatory and certain they had been great together; she did not want to engage him. Her anger was real. Her anger was righteous. She felt her set had gone badly.
I understand why. What should have been a cooperative effort had turned into a battle and her opponent had been too self-absorbed to even realize it – a living metaphor if ever there was one for the very struggle women endure on a daily basis. She could not be certain in that moment that she had been the clear victor because she had been insulted, hurt, sung over and treated poorly. In the vulnerability of performance, especially improvisational performance, one becomes the object of other people’s experience and rarely has a moment to be the subject of one’s own. When those moments happen, the performer is left entirely at the mercy of the audience to tell them how it went, who they were during those moments. It is a discomfiting sensation. Unnerving at best, terrifying at worst.
Eliza Skinner proved tonight who she is. Eliza Skinner rocks. In the most difficult of circumstances, in a situation that literally shows up in the nightmares of performers – without a script, on stage, working with an out-of-control partner – she owned her talent, remained fully present, allowed her emotional life and her organic responses to guide her actions and proved that improvisational comedy can be powerful, theatrical art.
That she doubts herself, that she is dissatisfied at times with what she does tells me that she will continue to grow, to refine, to develop. Man, I hope to get to see her perform a lot more as she does. She is a force to be reckoned with and, despite my certainty that I should be booked for the show more often than I am, to tell the truth when I watch her work, I feel like a B-lister at best.
 My characterization, not his actual intro credits