This Could Be L.A.'s Craziest Improv Show

John Gilkey, with beard, leads improv troupe Wet the Hippo, currently performing The Murge.
John Gilkey, with beard, leads improv troupe Wet the Hippo, currently performing The Murge.
Courtesy of Wet the Hippo Collective 2015

Have you watched improv performers spit fake teeth into one another's mouths? Or a performer shave her armpits? Did you ever join an a cappella caroling of “sew her vagina shut"? Have you been lifted up in your front-row seat and paraded around the stage — then dropped on the floor? Were you then escorted outside for damage control — only to be returned for the show’s finale?

Probably not. But for John Gilkey and his improv troupe Wet the Hippo, or WtH, that's all par for the careening course.

The group performs in a show called The Murge every second and fourth Sunday at 9:30 p.m. at the Clubhouse in Los Feliz. Former Cirque du Soleil clown Gilkey live-directs the 60-minute show — meaning he shouts orders as the actors perform.

There is no planned structure. There are no linear narratives, no repeat characters. There is no “game,” the improv term for the main joke, which improvisers identify and capitalize on to create their scenes. This is spontaneous Theater of the Absurd.

Audiences have been polarized — some viewers weep with joy while others scowl in judgmental reprobation. Lascivious, blasphemous and potentially dangerous acts define Wet the Hippo.

It’s not exactly safe, but it’s also like nothing you’ve seen before.

Admission is by donation, but the actors actually get paid — including Max Baumgarten and Eli Weinberg, whose experimental theater company Four Larks is known for creating the acclaimed show The Temptation of St. Antony.

“I ask my students to be as invested as a wire walker,” Gilkey tells L.A. Weekly. “Wet the Hippo’s willing to go there because they trust me to be their harness.”

Faced with The Murge, the audience finds itself right up against the unpredictable performers.
Faced with The Murge, the audience finds itself right up against the unpredictable performers.
Photo by Jenny Nirgends

Wet the Hippo prepares for the show through the Idiot Workshop, a series of seminars taught by Gilkey or other core members. If students show potential, they’re invited to perform in The Murge.

"Gilkey's approach has taught me to be really brave,” says actor Jennifer DeFilippo, who regularly performs with Wet the Hippo. “You learn quickly to trust if you're up there long enough, something special will happen."

No stranger to risk, from 1996 to 2003 Gilkey was a clown for Cirque du Soleil. Every time he took the stage, he had to contend with the fact that, just moments before, acrobats and aerialists had defied death. “It forced me to risk my own life — emotionally,” he says.

After Cirque, from 2003 to 2005, Gilkey oversaw the comedic elements of shows by theater director (and former Cirque collaborator) Franco Dragone, including Le Rêve at the Wynn Las Vegas.

Gilkey met the head of Pixar’s storyboard team, Jim Capobianco, after a Cirque show. In 2006, during the early storyboarding stages of the animated movie Ratatouille, Gilkey was summoned to Pixar to improvise, and “bust them open a bit.” Through his sinewy, gelatinous frame, he discovered the physicality of the characters and added more gags. Gilkey says some of his work made it into the final cut of the animated hit.

In 2013, Gilkey performed in the Cirque show Iris in Hollywood, but he soon burned out. He was let go by Cirque for being, as he puts it, too expensive and not very funny.

“I missed the look on people’s faces after they’d just had their minds blown,” he says. “I wanted to find that again.”

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So he put his efforts into the Idiot Workshop, which he'd established in 2012 with the help of Catsby producer Chad Damiani. (Damiani will live-direct the Aug. 23 Murge, as Gilkey is in Scotland for the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.)

During the initial workshops, Gilkey selected a handful of students and formed Wet the Hippo. The group scrounged for funds to tour California and Las Vegas, and WtH was nominated for Best Comedy in the 2013 Hollywood Fringe Festival. Earlier this year, the traveling circus Spiegelworld reached out to Gilkey for help with Absinthe, a new show at Caesar’s Palace, and he cast it with Wet the Hippo performers.

The Clubhouse improv club on Vermont Avenue in Los Feliz
The Clubhouse improv club on Vermont Avenue in Los Feliz
Photo by Jenny Nirgends

But the group's main performances happen twice a month at the Clubhouse, hidden in a Los Feliz commercial strip on Vermont Avenue between a Rite-Aid and a Jons Marketplace. WtH performs its show, called The Murge, as part of a longer improv production called Catsby (yes, it's confusing — even on the Clubhouse online calendar, you'll only find The Murge listed as part of Catsby).

Throughout the night, audience members and performers mingle in the spacious lobby, which includes a square of rumpled couches. A flimsy shuffleboard table and scattered board games complete the stoner-collegiate vibe.

By 9:30 p.m. on a Sunday earlier this year, audience members for The Murge had filled the theater, which has about 75 chairs arranged in a U-shape. On one wall, below the sound booth, a large plastic tub was filled with water bottles and cheap beer. Audience members signaled to a stagehand to toss one over. 

Above the sound booth was an electronic scoreboard clock. Suddenly, a timer commenced. Gilkey and his clowns, male and female, all shapes and sizes, 12 in total, began to run around onstage. They high-fived one another, jostled people in their seats, jumped up and down and screamed maniacally.

“Are you happy?” Gilkey asked the crowd. “We’ll do whatever it takes to make you happy!”

Thin and gaunt, with a wild-looking beard, he called individual performers by name to come up and entertain the crowd. He made suggestions such as, “Show them how you’re feeling.” When a male performer began a stuttering ballet sequence, Gilkey commanded, “More, more, faster, faster, come on!” The performer intensified his routine, turning red, pushing himself to the max. When he finally collapsed, a new clown quickly took his place.

Some performers ventured deep into Stoppard or Beckett territory, asking absurd questions about existence. Others used only their bodies to communicate — two men formed a human steam train by joining their hands to each other’s ankles, then “cranking” themselves across the floor.

Halfway through the show, Damiani used his entire bulk — he's about 5-foot-8, with a 250-pound frame — to lift a reluctant audience member up by her seat. He paraded around the stage, twirling the laughing woman in her chair. The crowd egged him on, but Gilkey fretted from the sidelines. “Careful!” he screamed. “Don’t drop her!”

The act continued 10 seconds too long. Damiani struggled. Moving to set the woman down, he tripped and dropped her. She smacked the ground and the crowd gasped.

The show ground to a halt. People exchanged glances and shrugs. Then the woman stood up. Damiani grabbed a couple of water bottles and raced over. He escorted the startled woman out to the lobby. Still, Wet the Hippo finished its set on a high note.

When asked, the woman told the Weekly, “I love The Murge. I’m definitely coming back.”

Wet the Hippo performs The Murge at the Clubhouse, 1607 N. Vermont Ave, Los Feliz, every second and fourth Sunday at 9:30 p.m., as part of the improv show Catsbyclubhouseimprov.com

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