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Out of Bounds, not out of laughs

500 performers with funny on their minds converge on Austin

Claire Canavan

As anyone who's ever cracked a joke can attest, you never know what will make someone laugh. Some people love pratfalls and pies in the face while others prefer deadpan humor.

Whatever tickles your funny bone, you are likely to find it at the Out of Bounds Comedy Festival, which runs Labor Day weekend and offers 500 performers from around the country (and a few international acts) performing improv, sketch and stand-up comedy at multiple Austin venues.

There's a duo made up of a dad and his teenage daughter (Grandma Hates Technology), an Israeli improv troupe (Three Falling), and a group that improvises in the style of Tennessee Williams (Kind Strangers). If you were a fan of Kids in the Hall, check out Kevin McDonald's show, and if you like political satire, don't miss Will Durst. Overwhelmed yet? Here are four acts to get you started.

FrankenMatt

Comedy duos are usually a classic pairing of opposite styles, like Abbott and Costello, or Laurel and Hardy. In the case of Los Angeles-based FrankenMatt, a two-man comedy ensemble made up of Matt Craig and Frank Caeti, the two might be physical opposites (Craig is tall while Caeti is short) but they pride themselves on being able to trade off between highly physical characters and more intellectual types.

The two first worked together at Chicago's Second City, where some of today's most popular comedians (Tina Fey, Steve Carell) started. They have impressive comedy credits on their own — Caeti was on ‘MADtv' and Craig appeared on ‘The Office' — but formed FrankenMatt in 2007 in part for the challenge of working in a two-man group.

‘We're an atypical two-man group because we don't do slower scenes, we do an insane free-fall of a show,' Craig said. ‘We end up being pretty sweaty and crazy by the end of our shows.'

FrankenMatt does long-form improvisation, which is entirely made up on the spot, as well as sketch comedy, which usually has more of a polished quality.

In their sketch show, the two start out playing characters close to themselves who are taking a road trip. But they quickly introduce all kinds of zany characters. ‘You'll definitely meet Charlemagne Leroy,' Caeti said. ‘He's a bombastic jerk who has a "To Kill a Mockingbird"-esque courtroom scene.'

‘You'll probably meet a gnome,' Craig added. ‘And maybe also a SWAT team.'

They haven't decided what to do for their second festival show yet, but don't worry. They'll improvise.

FrankenMatt perform at 8:30 p.m. Sept. 4 at Salvage Vanguard Apples Stage (sketch) and at 7:30 p.m. Sept. 5 at La Zona Rosa (improv).

The Reckoning

Hailing from Chicago's iO theater, another top breeding ground for comedy talent, the Reckoning is a 10-member group known for seamless long-form improvisation, particularly using a form called the Harold.

In a classic Harold there are three acts, each with three scenes. The acts are interspersed with group games, and the goal is for all the scenes to somehow converge in the end. The Reckoning, though inspired by the Harold, has developed a slightly looser approach in eight years of performing together.

Jet Eveleth described their style as ‘more experimental, a little bit more like theater.' From Eveleth's perspective, the most important aspects of the Harold are including scenic and non-scenic moments, as well as looking for patterns of three that can return again. ‘Some people look at long form as unfolding, and some people see it as storytelling,' she said. ‘I see it as unfolding.'

As for what's unique about the Reckoning, Eveleth said, ‘We're actors interested in playing dark and strange, and that's why it's comedic. After shows we feel great when there's a feeling left onstage, a mood, rather than just a few funny moments.'

The Reckoning will perform in Austin with a smaller group, including Eveleth, Eric Hunicutt, Eddie Pina and Jake Schneider. ‘We can't promise anything with improv,' Eveleth said, ‘but history suggests it will be a unique theatrical experience.'

The Reckoning perform at 8:30 p.m. Sept. 4 at the Hideout Theatre and at 8 p.m. Sept. 6 at Salvage Vanguard Apples Stage.

The Frank Mills

It's no secret that Austin's improv scene has exploded lately, and the Frank Mills, an ensemble made up of two married couples (Rachel Madorsky and Dave Buckman; Erika May and Bob McNichol) and one of their friends (Todd Schanbacher) are thriving in the burgeoning comedy scene. They have a weekly Saturday night show at ColdTowne Theater (along with Midnight Society, also appearing at Out of Bounds).

Before moving to Austin, members of the Frank Mills trained at iO, Second City and ComedySportz, and Buckman served as the artistic director of Boom Chicago in Amsterdam.

Buckman described their work as ‘grounded, realistic, grown-up improvisation. We pride ourselves on not going for the laugh but going for real character emotion.'

They often begin a long-form show by asking, ‘What's been on your mind lately?' This open-ended beginning can lead to some pretty challenging prompts, such as when a brainy audience member responded with ‘computational linguistics.'

The Frank Mills weren't thrown by this potentially confusing topic. Instead, with patience and grace, they invested in their characters and turned the performance into a surprisingly hilarious meditation on the interaction between people and machines.

‘Frank Mills shows redefine for people what they think improv is,' Buckman said. ‘It can be smart and challenging and engaging and really honest.'

The Frank Mills perform at 9 p.m. Sept. 3 at the Hideout Theatre.

Venn Diaphragm

A Venn diagram is a set of overlapping circles that shows how certain data intersects. The punnily named Venn Diaphragm, an up-and-coming Austin improv group, chose their name because they are made up of ‘equal parts silly and smart,' according to group member Erica Lies.

Indeed, the name tells a lot about them. It's vaguely intellectual (the group formed when three of the members, along with this writer, were graduate students at UT's Department of Theatre and Dance) and yet displays a cheeky sense of humor (members have trained at New York's Upright Citizens Brigade and Chicago's iO).

The four-person group, which includes Lies, Nat Miller, Nitra Gutierrez and Pierce Purselley, all started as actors, so their long form shows begin with grounded, realistic scene work that turns sillier as the night goes on.

Their experiences in graduate school also show up in their improvisation in unexpected ways. ‘We talk about feminism and race and postmodernism, but in a really wrong way,' Gutierrez joked. ‘For a while, we had a lot of scenes about children and existentialism,' Lies added.

Venn Diaphragm used to begin shows by asking for a word from the English language. ‘For a while all we got was pizza, bologna, ham, sausage,' Gutierrez said. ‘It was all meat for a long time.' So lately the group has been experimenting with a new form that asks for three locations.

However they decide to kick off their show, you're likely to see improvisation based on smart and detailed character work. ‘It's about watching people and their behaviors,' Lies said. ‘People are strange beings, and we relate to each other in bizarre ways.'

Venn Diaphragm perform at 8 p.m. Wednesday at Salvage Vanguard Oranges Stage.

The Out of Bounds Comedy Festival

When:Tuesday through Sept. 6.

Where:Multiple venues.

For full show information, workshop listings, and tickets, visit www.outof boundscomedy.com .

Kevin McDonald of Kids in the Hall performs at 5:30 p.m. Sept. 5 at Salvage Vanguard Apples Stage and 9:30 later that night at La Zona Rosa.

Will Durst performs at 8 p,m. Sept. 3 at the Velveeta Room (part of a set); and at 7 p.m. Sept. 4 at Salvage Vanguard Apples Stage.