by Meg van Huygen

"Improv has long been treated as the redheaded stepchild of theater," wrote Jet City Improv cofounder Andrew McMasters in an angry letter to The Stranger in 2002. Know why, Andrew? Because improv fucking sucks. It's tedious, it's overwrought, it's "zany." Because it sucks, most improv troupes can't get the grants or ticket revenue to pay their players, which means they'll take whoever will work for free, so their players usually suck.

I learned this lesson twice. One birthday, I invited a few friends to an improv show, and was embarrassed for life. It was, as I later found out, a quintessential example of local improv: desperate, unprofessional, and heartbreakingly unfunny. A couple years later, I paid $125 for nonrefundable improv lessons and had to quit after two classes, because the teachers were so engrossed in Being Funny that they behaved like big slavering retards. The lesson I learned: Improv will be funny a couple times, then it will take your money and humiliate you. Don't trust improv.

That is, except for your group, Andrew. You should be pissed off, because Jet City Improv has its shit down, and only a handful of people seem to know it.

Founded in 1992 by McMasters and Mike Christensen, Jet City Improv is the only local improv group that's worth a damn. After a decade spent in UW's Ethnic Cultural Theatre, JCI's parent company, Wing-It Productions, took over the ex-Paradox Theatre (5510 University Way NE) last September. In addition to the straight-up Jet City show, Wing-It offers Twisted Flicks (improvised B-movie voice-overs), the Lost Folio (a Shakespeare parody), Major League Improv (a baseball-themed rendition of JCI with innings or something), an improv cage match, and, beginning in January, the Saturday Morning Cartoon Show.

Jet City's premise isn't extraordinary. Five actors are cast, an emcee prompts the spectators for topics, then the actors use little improv games to perform vignettes. The games aren't especially complicated, either. In one, the actors tell a story chunk by chunk as the emcee points to them in turn, switching mid-sentence as the actors scramble to continue the story. In another, the cast tells the same story a bunch of times while shifting between various film genres. It's industry-standard stuff.

So how come they're funny, while so many, many improv groups aren't? Cofounder Mike Christensen speculates, "I think it's [our] high level of teamwork, born of consistent, active rehearsals and a smooth-flowing, fast-paced show. This sounds simple--and boring--but it's what allows great characters, stories, and scenes to develop."

But that's not all of it. Whoever does the hiring at Jet City is prudent to cast actors who're not only clever but also boast strong narrative skills and know their pop-culture references. Says cast member Missy Meyer: "Out of my auditioning group of probably about 50 people, four of us were cast." She adds, "We're not afraid to take on someone with no improv experience, if they show talent."

Another factor: While improv emcees generally use whichever audience suggestion was yelled first or loudest, Jet City's emcees have a gift for ignoring the dumb-assed ones (Emcee: "What your father does for a living?" Frat boy: "Your mom!") and honing in on the creative ones.

But honestly, it's their colossal glow-in-the-dark brains that make them great comedians. I could cite examples of something funny somebody said one time, but the fact is, Jet City Improv succeeds because its actors are quick, innovative, and drama-savvy without jumping up and down and annoying the shit out of you. In his 2002 letter, McMasters defended "a whole world of fantastic improvisational theater" in Seattle. It's generous of you, Andrew, but JTC is Seattle's only fantastic improv theater.

Jet City Improv performs every Fri & Sat at 8 and 10:30 pm, except for the last weekend of each month, when Twisted Flicks runs in the 8 pm slot. The improv cage match plays Sundays at 7 pm through Febuary 22.