In his job as a game writer for such Silicon Valley companies as Zynga, the creators of Farmville, Sammy Wegent has seen a heavy dose of PowerPoint presentations gone wrong. Not only do some powerful tech executives posses poor public speaking skills, but sometimes the wrong slide pops up and their whole talk goes awkward.
Protecting the innocent, Wegent recalls a time when two tech suits were delivering a PowerPoint on their upcoming slate of games. “They were trying to make it into a comedy duo routine, and they weren’t funny people," says Wegent. "They were doing banter that was going nowhere and making bad pop culture references.”
Then it dawned on Wegent: If real people can deliver disastrous PowerPoint presentations with hilarious results, what happens when funny people deliver fake PowerPoint presentations? And together with his friends Anthony Veneziale (producer on the PBS relaunch of The Electric Company) and Scott Lifton (the producer of the stage show Mortified), Speechless, the solo improvised stage show, was born in March 2013 in San Francisco.
In Speechless, which begins a regular monthly run at the Hollywood Improv on Feb. 20, guest speakers separately take the mike, spin a computer wheel that was custom designed by Wegent’s Google engineer friend Chet Hoss, and the wheel lands on a category of speech, such as sales pitch, lifetime achievement award, start-up business or self help speech. The speaker then takes a suggestion from the audience — who typically labels the speaker's profession — and then engages in a TED-like talk.
During the course of the speech, the speaker clicks through a series of PowerPoint slides, that he or she has never seen before, including zany images and charts completely unrelated to the subject, such as a fish head smoking a cigarette, a sleeping pig dressed in a shirt and jeans or a chart that shows male fertility declining while the manatee population is rising over the course of several years. Three judges rank presentations. At the L.A. debut of Speechless at the Hollywood Improv in late 2014, the panel was comprised of actor Joe Canale, from The Mindy Project, Meredith Perry, the founder of the startup uBeam, and an audience participant.
In the Bay area, Speechless has primarily played at the Public Works in the Mission District with creative folks from the tech world taking the stage. However, when the show played the Hollywood Improv, it was the first time that Speechless featured comedians and actors: Marc Evan Jackson (Brooklyn Nine-Nine, 22 Jump Street), Erinn Hayes (Childrens Hospital), Lauren Lapkus (Orange Is The New Black) and Joe Starr (Gotham). It’s all part of Wegent’s plan to make Speechless a traveling show and custom-tailor it to the city it’s mounted in. Of course, L.A.’s shows will center around the entertainment industry.
Any improviser would recognize Speechless as an exercise in “Yes and,” the improv rule that states that when an improviser is provided with information onstage, they can’t deny it, they need to recognize it and incorporate it into their act. While Speechless is generally a fun watch, the hilarity hinges on how solid an improviser the speaker is. A public speech can ramble into a trippy zone, which is the danger of any long-form improv.
Lapkus, in her start-up business pitch, was juggling images of jarred fetuses and a muscular naked man pushing an old lady in a wheelchair, and was lucky enough to end on a slide with the word “T.E.S.T.” Wrapping up her crazy speech, she ended on a self-affirming acronym, prodding the crowd to shout, “Titties! Escaping! Safety! Titties!” Jude Perry gave her stamp of approval, exclaiming, “If 'Titties Escaping Safety Titties' can sell fetuses in a jar, then that’s a great pitch.”
For Hayes, who has dealt with her fair share of absurdity on Childrens Hopsital, Speechless was a walk in the park. Given the wheel suggestion to deliver a lifetime award acceptance speech, the audience suggested she do it as a drug dealer. Hayes took the name of San Lorraine and encountered medical images of a person’s backside and front chest area.
At one point she announced, “Let me show you a picture of my mother,” at which point a map of the United States with divided territories hit the screen. Hayes vamped, “Because if you’re going to make it in this world…your mother better be the fucking United States of America.” Reigning the image into the topic of drug-dealing, Hayes joked, “And if you don’t own your zones, then someone is going to creep into your zones.” Wrapping up, Hayes said, crying, “All you bastards out there are yelling at me, ‘I’m in detox! I hate you so much!’, but I love you because you gave me this lifetime achievement award.” If only more lifetime acceptance speeches were like this.
Then came Jackson, a Second City Detroit alum, who naturally possess the voice of a broadcast news anchor, which heightened the hilarity of his business pitch for the Fart Forecaster. It's an app that enables you to locate a fart before it happens, and then move away from it. His speech truly felt like a 3 a.m. infomercial.
“Looks can be deceiving,” began Jackson. “I look fart free.
“So it’s with deep humility that I present the Fart Forecaster, not so much a creative endeavor as it was born as an absolute goddamn necessity,” he added.
A gaudy painting of a bearded Satan arm-wrestling Jesus Christ popped up, prompting Jackson to comment, “It’s a battle between good and evil: You feel it’s a 50/50 chance, but clearly the devil may win.”
He continued, “If I had to put Fart Forecaster one way, it would be this,” and an image of a young Keanu Reeves cross-legged popped up. “Many know Keanu Reeves from his movies, although many don’t know that the man is made up of purely, stank gas,” said Jackson. The audience members were holding their stomachs in laughter.
A photo of a My Little Pony-like unicorn popped up with the horse emitting a rainbow out of its mouth. Still Jackson bobbed and weaved gracefully, as though this slide was always part of his sale, saying, “Unicorns on the outside look seemingly pure, but are capable of emitting gas like a sarin in a subway.”
After the show, Jackson didn’t have any second thoughts about taking the Speechless ride: “When I first heard about this show, it was a no-brainer. It was like one of those things that someone pitches you that makes you say, ’How have we not been doing this show for weeks and weeks?'”
Speechless will return to the Hollywood Improv on Melrose for regular monthly engagements starting Friday, Feb. 20 at 8 P.M.
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