Troupe spins out sitcoms on the fly

From The Boston Herald story on Sitcom Boston. November 27, 1998

If you've ever thought, while watching a sitcom, that you could come up with funnier stuff off the top of your head, meet Dan Goldstein.

"Sitcoms are so formulaic you can make them up on the fly. That's why we love them. You know what's going to happen in 'Gilligan's Island,' but you watch it anyway," said the University of Chicago Ph.D.-cum-comedian, who brings his unique improv comedy show, "Sitcom," to the Back Alley Theatre in Cambridge next week (Dec. 3, 10, 11, 17-18 at 8 p.m.).

Working from the set of precise rules that govern sitcom structure, along with audience suggestions on setting, characters and relationships, Goldstein's troupe will spin out complete 30-minute sitcom episodes, including commercials. In improv, there's always the risk of an unwieldy premise, of course -- "It's a crapshoot," Goldstein admits, "but when it works, it's better than anything on TV."

The show uses an onstage computer to cue the standard twists and turns of a sitcom episode. "Everything about the TV sitcom is predictable," said Goldstein, including the placement of every joke. In "Sitcom," however, the jokes could be more surprising than anything you're likely to see on "Veronica's Closet."

The six-member Boston cast, culled from 15 area improv groups, is a diverse enough bunch to contribute a wide range of comedic perspectives: a Harvard hockey player, a former child TV actress, the New England pole vault champion, a model, the president of a Boston University improv troupe, and Goldstein, now a prize-winning visiting professor in the psychology department at Harvard.

The show's creator learned the basics of improv in Chicago, where, he says, it remains the "dominant alternative theater form." Attending graduate classes during the day, Goldstein worked out improv sketches at night, in clubs including Jimmy's, the 1950s landmark comedy bar that Mike Nichols and Elaine May put on the map.

The premise for "Sitcom" came to him as he prepared a project for a course in artifical intelligence. After studying the standardized framework of television sitcoms (his course project was entitled "Structuralist Gilligan"), Goldstein wrote a computer program that would predict the outcome of any episode. Applying the formula to live theater, he created "Sitcom," which has been produced in cities including Chicago, San Francisco and Munich.

Goldstein says his simultaneous academic and comedic pursuits "help keep my life in balance -- or out of balance. I was already in the ivory tower of academia, disconnected from the real world. Improv gave me a way to stay out of the real world after dark."

Copyright, 1998, Robin Vaughan

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