Friday Night Live cast keeps laughs coming on campus

When Friday Night Live’s cast took its final bow of the 2012-13 year, there was not a dry eye in the house. Senior members — the mentors of the group — walked off stage one last time as part of the cast, shifting their status to alumni.

The bittersweet sendoff was also foreshadowing a not-so-far-off fate for younger cast members. In as soon as a year’s time, some would be in the same situation, taking a blurry-eyed bow before an audience that had come to know them so well.  

Some of senior member Ricky Needham’s fondest childhood memories are of watching “The Three Stooges” with his grandmother, the woman who came to be his biggest inspiration. She was a painter and photographer who became legally blind, but continued to produce art, as well as attend her grandson’s high school plays.

She was kind of the motivation to keep me going,” Needham said. 

Needham grew up in Cheektowaga. He played soccer and ran cross-country for a while, but neither stuck. He much rather enjoyed playing music, and still does. But because there was not a lot to do in his town, he said, he mostly watched cartoons and hung out with friends. It was in this environment that he was able to hone his comedic talents.

A lot of my humor just comes from hanging out with certain groups of people,” Needham said. “I know what will make my friends laugh and I know what will make people I don’t know laugh.”

Needham grew up being the joker amongst his friends. Many of FNL’s members understandably had and have similar personalities. But Needham said that junior Jacob Kolenberg is the real class clown of the group.

Even before grade school, Kolenberg would test his comedic boundaries at home.

When I was in kindergarten, I very clearly remember we were making wooden boats in school,” he said. “I brought it home and when my sister was lying on the couch – because fifth graders clearly have the toughest schedules in the world – I yelled at her to wake her up and threw the boat. I just thought it was funny.”

Kolenberg admits that he did not spend his time growing up hitting the books.

Hailing from Rochester, he planned on going to a local community college because his grades were sub-par. But he knew he wanted to pursue a career in film. His guidance counselor stepped in, did some research and suggested that he apply to the film program at SUNY Buffalo State. He took the advice, and was soon accepted into a school and program he knew very little about.

It’s sort of my philosophy to just jump into things,” he said. “I think it’s great to have that mentality in improv. It’s got to be super spontaneous.”

Senior theater major Trevor Hall, a Niagara Falls native, was introduced to FNL through his older sister being a part of it. He would watch her performances and feel taken aback by how great they were. As soon as he was accepted to Buff State, he immediately went to join the cast.

I just always enjoyed making people laugh and I enjoy laughing,” Hall said. “So when I saw that it was an all student comedy group, I immediately fell in love with it.”

The doors to FNL were not wide open for the aspiring comedians. Each hopeful had to first pass through auditions, which meant being judged by the current cast. It was three years ago during his freshman year that Needham auditioned. Being musically inclined, he brought a guitar.

Seeing the instrument, the cast told Needham to make up a song about a current member, whom Needham had never seen nor heard of before. He did some “sing-prov” on the spot. Two days later he got a congratulatory call that he was in.

Kolenberg auditioned the following year, when the auditioning process changed to making hopefuls go through a bunch of different stations. At one station, they were told to form a human centipede. The student before Kolenberg knelt on their hands and knees, and so keeping with the spirit of improv, Kolenberg knelt down in the same position, and pressed his face right up against the other student’s backside.

Needham was present for that audition, and said what Kolenberg did was a clear sign that he needed to be a part of the cast.

We had never seen someone go quite that far,” Needham said with a laugh.

According to Kolenberg, the most exciting part of performing in FNL is the challenge. He’s had jokes fall flat before, but believes that’s part of the learning process. At FNL’s Union Bash performance this semester, Kolenberg decided to take a chance on telling a joke about the University Police Department, which happened to be lining the walls.

He said, “Maybe that’s one less ticket they’ll write tonight.”

The audience roared, all the while making sideways glances at the police. UPD laughed along, and the tension dissipated.

It makes people break down those barriers and realize it’s okay to laugh,” Kolenberg said.

Preparation for the Friday production takes place mostly on Sundays. Only so much planning be done for a show that mostly consists of acting on the fly, but the structure and order of the games can be nailed down. This is also the time for game pitches, which may fittingly include referencing the so-called “Improv Bible,” a book of 300 different improv games.

Once the big night is upon them, the cast can be found backstage playing games like “Zip, Zap, Zop,” which Needham describes as standing in a circle and saying one word, clapping, pointing to a person, having them say the next word, and repeating the pattern. Whoever messes up must jump out of the circle. The high-energy exchange gets them ready and thinking on their toes.

Once on stage, the cast is greeted by familiar faces. Their dedicated following has expressed that they would be thrilled to see the curtain open one night and have past cast members behind it.

Needham said that there has been talk of doing an alumni show where past members would make cameos in the games. He hopes that future FNL members keep with this tradition so he will one day be able to return to the Buff State stage and deliver a few more laughs.

You just get so attached,” he said. “It’s been such a huge part of my life, I couldn’t not come back.”

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Twitter: @WulffSamantha