Improv comedy shows are already a kind of high-wire act, with their unscripted, anything-can-happen tension, but the New York improv duo From Justin to Kelly takes those tensions to even greater heights.
Since 2014, Justin Peters and Kelly Buttermore have performed nearly 300 shows in 26 states, but will visit Georgia for the first time when they hit the stage Dec. 6 at the Blind Tiger Comedy & Beer Pop-Up Show, along with Savannah’s Front Porch Improv.
Peters, who is a correspondent for Slate and the author of several books, met Buttermore at the Magnet Theater in New York City, where they both developed a passion for improv.
“What’s cool about it is you can never really get it right. It’s not something that can be perfected like a stand-up act or a musician practicing a song,” says Peters. “Every time you go up on stage, there is just as much of a chance of catastrophic failure as there is of colossal success. I find that razor’s edge one of the most exhilarating places to be.”
Peters and Buttermore have been surprising audiences with their signature avant-garde improv technique they call “The Walter,” a restrictive format that has the duo performing a 20- to 25-minute mono-scene almost entirely in silence, thus making that razor’s edge even finer.
“Our technique is very different than a lot of other shows,” says Peters. “We spend a lot of time in silence, which means we don’t start with this sort of snappy patter … Instead it’s just me and my partner trying to create silent, physical comedy from the start. The reason why that is so terrifying is because a lot of the time, the audience has no idea what is going on, at least to start. We’re always aware, always on the verge of alienating people in the audience.
“We’re very proud of it. It’s our signature form. It’s very different from what people usually see, but when we do it right, it provides a uniquely immersive and interesting community experience,” Peters continues.
Peters and Buttermore begin every show by asking the audience for a location to prompt the scene. At a performance last month, they asked for a suggestion for a location that you might leave a review for, and somebody suggested a morgue. Peters wasn’t sure what kind of morgue gets online reviews, but they worked with it. The result was a scene about two morgue technicians talking to the corpse they were preparing, telling it how lucky it was to be worked on by the highly rated first shift instead of the poorly reviewed second shift.
“You can go to some weird places, but it’s always usually funny,” says Peters.
It was at a comedy festival in Philadelphia in 2015 that “The Walter” was born. Peters and Buttermore were given a kitchen as their scene suggestion.
“I started to go up on stage and just slowly stir a pot and then I stuck my finger in what I was cooking and I licked it and I got this expression of great glee over my face and the crowd burst into hysterical laughter,” Peters recounts. “On stage I’m thinking, ‘I didn’t do anything and they loved it. Maybe I should continue doing nothing.’ We literally built a 25-minute scene just on us cooking a dinner and getting an erotic thrill from preparing and eating this food.”
The result was a standing ovation. Backstage, an elated Peters and Buttermore knew they had stumbled upon something special and needed to pursue it.
The name “The Walter” has two origins, according to Peters — one fancy, one simple. The fancy explanation is that the technique is named after Walter Gropius, founder of the Bauhaus art movement, because of his philosophy of eliminating extraneous parts. “We try to embody this ethic in our own work — zero-waste improv,” says Peters.
The simple explanation is that the bar across the street from the Magnet Theater where Peters and Buttermore officially teamed up was called Walter’s. “Two PBRs for $5. You won’t find a better deal in New York City,” Peters says, jokingly.
The Blind Tiger show is put on by Front Porch Improv and is billed as a “secret society of comedy lovers who meet on Tuesday nights with no scripts, no props, and no promises.”
“Improv is growing all over the country and it’s been a great thrill and privilege of ours to be able to travel around the country the past several years and come to cities like Savannah, where you might not expect that they’re going to have a robust improv comedy scene, but son of gun, they do, and we’re excited to see where improv goes next,” says Peters. “Wherever it goes, we’re going to be there.”