Reinterpreting News of the Weird with improv comedy

Hawk and Wayne get some strange at American Stage — and it works.

Just two months in, Gavin Hawk and Ricky Wayne’s News of the Weird Live is already a comedy hit, providing a new entertainment go-to — and quite possibly, a reason to believe in live local improv again.

Hawk and Wayne ­— known individually for their starring roles in local professional theater productions, and as teachers, professional actors and all-around leaders in their craft — have been producing original and long-form improv for the past few years. Past shows include The Dumb Show and 321. They’re back for their fourth season at American Stage’s After Hour series with their latest and possibly greatest concept.

Their new show can be seen the first Sunday of the month and it’s based on Chuck Shepherd’s infamous and nationally recognized “News of the Weird” column, which runs locally right here in Creative Loafing (aptly enough, since Shepherd lives in Tampa Bay). The column, often the first thing readers turn to in CL, recounts absurd, out-there news stories, many of them unbelievable, all of them real. Hawk and Wayne, as fans of the column, had the bright idea of using the strange but true tales as a jumping-off point for improvs, asking audience members to choose a “News of the Weird” story from CL for the duo to play with. At the October show, audience members sat with copies of the paper spread open across their cabaret tables and shouted out requests for the next skit.

I love the concept. But I’ll tell you one thing; I didn’t expect the sketches to pan out the way they did.

“Courtroom Follies,” one of the requested titles during last month’s show, was the true story of a man in jail who convinced a judge (via video feed) that he should be allowed to return home due to his wheelchair-bound medical condition, then rose from his wheelchair and quickly walked away — prompting the judge to declare, “He’s been cured!”

Hawk and Wayne took this absurd scenario and made it even more amusing. Hawk’s impression of the judge was spot-on, and Wayne convincingly hammed it up as the thug, sending the entire room into laughter. What started as a simple skit escalated to Wayne becoming a bulimic amputee with a glass eye.

Even some elderly guests keeled over — from laughter, of course — demonstrating that the event is suitable and enjoyable for guests of all ages.

In another sketch, Hawk was a Swedish masseuse in one scene while Wayne was a Chinese convenience store owner in another. Offensive ethnic stereotypes? Maybe — but laughs overcame any discomfort. Especially given that the actors are wildly animated and appear to have more than a cursory knowledge of different types of people and cultures — and more to the point, they’re convincing.

The duo does a lot with a very little — no props and no set beyond a chair or two. The rest stems from skill and imagination.

What I loved most was the pair's willingness to do whatever it took to push a scene forward. Things got a bit touchy-feely as Hawk attempted to grope Wayne during the massage, but neither appeared self-conscious. Unlike more inhibited comics, Hawk and Wayne aren’t afraid of going too far. Their ease attests to their chemistry as a duo. They took cues from each other without a word, sometimes picking up on body language, and always seemed to be on the same page.

Though the skits were longer than expected — around 15 or 20 minutes for each — the show never dragged. The duo could have continued a single sketch for hours and still kept my full attention the entire way through. But they also pass one of the biggest tests of improv: They know just when to end a scene (no doubt a reflection of their long history as acting partners).

News of the Weird Live is a great primer for improv newbies like me, whose experience might be limited to episodes of Whose Line is it Anyway? and a couple of live shows here and there. I’ve never quite understood how actors could come up with so much material on the spot, but Hawk and Wayne make improv seem so effortless that I may even want to try it myself.

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