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Section 8 houslings: Damian Hellman, Chris Rager, Mark Orvik, Mark McFarland, Josh Martin, and John Clark
Section 8 houslings: Damian Hellman, Chris Rager, Mark Orvik, Mark McFarland, Josh Martin, and John Clark

Section-al harassment

Pick a night, any night, and likely one of Dallas' more than a dozen improvisational comedy groups is performing at a club or restaurant somewhere between Deep Ellum and Addison. On Fridays and Saturdays several groups perform regular gigs at different clubs -- some sparsely littered with people, others sold out. Still, the assumption that everything improv is like Whose Line is It Anyway? remains, and it's not always far-fetched. Some groups "borrow" the show's games, or slightly rework them to suit the troupe's gimmick. It's lazy for some; brilliant for others. It all depends on the execution.

Improv is a label like rock and roll. Sure, each group performs improv, but that doesn't make their acts similar -- or shouldn't, anyway. There are some standard elements (games, songs, prewritten sketches), but the mix is different and, more important, the people who provide the suggestions for the audience-participation sections are distinct. That can drive the show as much as the personalities of the people sweating on stage. Some audiences are sadistic, yelling out suggestions like Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle. Others go for middle-school humor.

Section 8 is apparently more accustomed to the latter. At a recent Wednesday-night gig at the Addison Improv, one of the items suggested for World's Worst (one of the Whose Line games) was blowjob. The troupe's responses were quick: "Yes, we're back at the Improv" and "Another classy crowd tonight." But if the audience suggestions seem racy, the reactions are even more racy. This is definitely an R-rated show, with plenty of cussing and occasional nudity. (There would be more if a certain sock is misplaced. Think Red Hot Chili Peppers.) Besides the weekly performances at the Improv, Section 8 also performs every Tuesday at the Ozona Grill & Bar on Greenville, where Pavlov's Dogs and the Neopolitan Syndicate are also weekly improv staples. Section 8 has been at Ozona nine months; the Improv shows are new. Manager Trey Belew saw a videotape of one of their shows and asked them to do a 30-minute performance. He decided to add Section 8 to the club's weekly performances by national acts that tour the Improv circuit. "We've tried other regular groups before, but this one really seems to have something a little more fresh," he says.

While other troupes snarl about founding the Dallas improv scene or specialize in more political humor or local news satire, Section 8 goes for the shock value and irreverent humor. Individually they've studied with members of the estimable troupes Second City and the Groundlings, performed in comedy festivals, and been in commercials, indie films, and television shows such as Walker, Texas Ranger and Dragonball Z. Together they've performed at Pocket Sandwich Theatre, Hyena's, Dallas Mavericks' games, and 97.1 The Eagle's morning show with Rich Berra. They will also be performing at Lone Star Park during this season's College Nights.

Section 8 mixes improv games and scenes based on audience suggestions with sketches and songs. The musical elements dominate the show, or at least seem to. It's not surprising, since members John Clark and Mike McFarland both studied with Wayne Brady, the comic music maestro from Whose Line. The troupe, which also includes performers Mark Orvik, Josh Martin, and Chris Rager, along with DJ Damian Hellman, lampoon stoners, rappers (and their white wannabe counterparts), Plano High School students, bumpkins, The Jerry Springer Show (in a song set to Green Day's "Time of Your Life"), and phone-sex lines. The sketches range from the obviously funny, such as George Straight covering songs by Kid Rock, Marilyn Manson, and Nine Inch Nails, to the well-executed, such as a dancing duel between Michael Flatley of The Lord of the Dance and Jesus Christ for the rightful owner of the title "Lord" complete with the dueling fiddles song. Seeing Jesus with his tattooed ass moonwalking and pulling all the Saturday Night Fever moves is well worth the price of admission.

Shannon Sutlief


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