I didn’t know what was waiting for me behind door 27 at Champion Studios. I had never attended the rehearsal of a comedy troupe before. Would they be performing stand up routines for each other? Or would I walk into a scene similar to Whose Line Is It Anyway? Would they be wearing costumes? I checked my lipstick before I walked in to make sure it wasn’t smudged. What if they started making jokes about me?
As it turns out, it was none of the above. When I walked in, I found a group of five men and one woman sitting in a circle, chatting over copies of a script. Having attended an arts school with dramatic and musical theater departments, I found nothing unusual about six adults debating whether a terrible monster would appear before or after a man and woman slept together. It was when they started discussing and demonstrating what the monster’s voice should sound like that the evening took a more unusual – and entertaining – turn.
I was visiting a rehearsal of City Hall, a New York-based comedy troupe started by Josh Wolinsky and Christopher Booth. The two met onstage when performing in an improvisational comedy troupe and then were cast together in a sketch comedy show. They planned to get together to discuss forming their own comedy troupe several times, but Booth kept losing Wolinsky’s phone number. They reconnected in Union Square when Booth, who was holding his first rehearsal for another comedy performance group, saw Wolinsky eating an ice cream in the park. Booth proceeded to lose Wolinsky’s number again, but their paths crossed when Booth saw Wolinsky in the window of a café in Times Square, eating a sandwich.
“Every time I need to find him, I just eat something,” Wolinsky said.
Finally in touch, the two decided to form their own comedy troupe. But first they had to decide on a name. (One option that was considered but rejected was, “Black Coffee – Comedy that Wakes You Up in the Morning.”) The two were sitting in City Hall Park discussing their ideas when a stranger siting nearby suggested, “What about City Hall?” The idea stuck. Some punch lines the two considered were, “Comedy has come to order” and “Changing the laws of comedy.”
With the name taken care of, the duo began auditioning performers. It was a difficult process, but eventually they formed a group of six. Along with Wolinsky and Booth, City Hall features Julia Darden, Patrick Frankfort, Luis Nunez, Zak Slemmer and director Kevin Liabson.
The troupe, which has been together since the fall of 2005, is rapidly approaching the 6th anniversary of their first performance. They have based the format of their shows around their name, presenting a problem to their cast’s puppet, Bundy, and attempting to solve it.
Wolinsky said the structure of the show was inspired by the name City Hall, saying “What does City Hall do? They try to solve problems and fail miserably.”
Each show is carefully planned, with an overall theme and a narrative that contains a clear beginning, middle and end. The scripts, which are first drafted by Wolinsky and Booth and then workshopped with the other members, are written with the goal of remaining true to the emotions behind the situations.
“Truth and comedy are what makes it special,” Booth said. “We are determined to not make ourselves slaves to being funny.”
“We try to stay true to ourselves,” Wolinsky added. “Audiences get that what we’re talking about is true and honest.”
This clarity was demonstrated by one a skit in particular, which depicts a man who has been left on his wedding night and the audience witnesses him realizing that his bride will never come. Audience reactions have varied from nervous laughter to one member becoming so moved that she jumped on stage to hug and comfort the actor.
Along with doing shows in Manhattan, City Hall has traveled to Canada, Virginia, and Los Angeles to perform. They have witnessed extremely different reactions from audience members, with fans buying their shirts and waiting after the show to get autographs. They have also witnessed audience members storming out of the show in the middle of performances because they found the material so offensive.
“The show is not meant to offend,” Laibson said. “We have a point to make.”
City Hall’s shows feature plenty of raunchy humor for adult audiences, but the troupe has written and performed shows for children as well. They said the process differed very little from writing a comedy show for adults.
“It was super innocent, very straightforward – all the same skills as a City Hall show,” Liabson said.
“We’re like kids,” Wolinsky said. “Our show has adopted a kid’s format – basic, simple, childlike problems that we solve in basic, simple, childlike ways.”
While they have repeated sketches in the past, City Hall has a goal for the upcoming year to perform different stylized shows every month.
“We want to challenge ourselves to do all new shows, with no repeats of sketches,” Booth said. Their upcoming schedule includes a Halloween show, The Horrors of the Real World, a vaudeville-inspired show in November and a Radio Christmas Special in December. The themes for shows after the holidays are not determined yet, but it looks like no one is safe from being a target of City Hall.
“As a writer, I try to find comedy in everything,” Booth said. “You have to find what’s true about it and then you’ll find what’s funny.”
E-mail TheTheatreSource@gmail.com with your name, mailing address and phone number for your chance to win two tickets to City Hall’s Halloween show, The Horrors of the Real World on Friday, October 28th at The Tank (151 w. 46th st. 8th Fl.) The tickets include an open bar and a Halloween party following the show!