If it's true, as the saying goes, that dying is easy and comedy is hard, then improvisational comedy must be harder still. That, however, is what the Flying Tongues do best.
Currently performing a revue called "Un-Censored, Un-American, Um-Brella" at AXIS Theatre, this local five-member troupe describes its style as "comedyslashimprov." Though about half of this show is original scripted comedy, the Flying Tongues really take flight when winging it with improvisation.
Their cleverest bit is "Alphabet Soup," whose premise requires Tongue members Jimi Kinstle and Joe Brady to conduct a conversation in which the first word of each exchange begins with a successive letter of the alphabet. To complicate matters, the audience is asked to supply the setting for this dialogue. At Saturday's performance, that setting was the Starship Enterprise, and Kinstle and Brady readily took on the personae of the starship captain and an officer. When "Officer" Brady freed himself from the shackles of the letter "x" by saying, "X-plain this to me," his ingenuity was greeted with approving laughter.
A skit modeled after "Jeopardy!" works almost as well. Here the ** audience calls out the "Jeopardy!" answers, and the Tongues' contestants must come up with the questions. Contestants Bruce Nelson and Larry Malkus proved to be winners at thinking fast and funny. And, as a hip, harmonica-playing, autocratic (even sadistic) host, Kinstle delivered a take-no-prisoners performance that would make Alex Trebek blanch.
Not all of the improv is this inspired. As an encore, the group improvised the events surrounding an incident from a supermarket tabloid, selected by an audience member. The Tongues made an admirable effort, but it's difficult to be funnier than the headlines in a sleazy tab.
For the most part, however, the Tongues' improv has a spark that's missing from many of the set comedy pieces. A mock British soap opera and a skit about a 911 operator with a thick Bawlamer accent not only lacked immediacy, they also rambled -- a difficulty that suggests the Tongues could benefit from a director's objective eye and editing. In addition, a song that presumably has something to do with the show's title makes no sense whatsoever. One problem may be that the song is sung by the four men in the troupe, even though Melissa Sharlat, the sole female Tongue, seems to have the best voice.
But even if their material is uneven, the Flying Tongues themselves are talented, energetic performers, capable of winning an audience over even as that audience is trying to stump them. The title of this show -- and their next one, "Totally Tasteless," which opens at the Theatre Project on Sept. 14 -- seems a bit misleading. It's not so much that their material is risque, but that their format is risky. However, as you'll see if you try to trip them up, the Tongues are on their toes (and I'm referring to more than the red high-topped sneakers this quintet has adopted as its trademark).
"Un-Censored, Un-American, Um-brella"
Where: AXIS Theatre, 3600 Clipper Mill Road
When: 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; through Sept. 10
Call: (410) 243-5237