“The good thing about a really skilled improvisor is that they won’t question what happens. They will just go along with it,” says WWE pro wrestler Ryan Nemeth backstage at iO West comedy theater. The 31-year-old muscleman went on to describe one of the most memorable improvised scenes he’s ever performed, peppering his anecdote with improv buzzwords. “Someone edited the scene; I just thought, I’m going to go out there and start break-dancing and see what happens. It's risky. If no one ‘yes ands’ you, you just look like a fool break-dancing. So I went out there and started doing handstands and cartwheels, and immediately three other guys were in there doing the same thing, flipping over each other. It's like in wrestling, when you start punching someone, they are going to sell it for you and punch you back. Its acting/reacting.”
Last Friday, Nemeth and his WWE colleague John Morrison flaunted this overlapping skill set when they guest-starred in Del Closed Fist Presents: Judgment Day, the most recent iteration of iO’s monthly pro wrestling–themed improv show. During the performances, WWE stars tell personal stories based off an audience suggestion. Then cast members create off-the-cuff scenes based on information given in those monologues. During the most recent show, Nemeth gabbed about topics ranging from apple sauce to the death of his grandfather. This clash-of-context production stems from the fanboy zeal of the show’s founder, Josh Lassman.
“I've always been a big fan of WWE and wresting, in general. Improv is my passion,” Lassman explains. “I’ve always known that I wanted to marry the two, but as with many things it's all about timing. A little more than four years ago I took a physical improv workshop at iO West from professional wrestler Kizarny/Sinn Bodhi. After class we talked for hours about all the ideas I had. He put me in touch with Dr. Tom Prichard, a big name in the industry. Dr. Tom and I emailed back and forth for months discussing what I wanted to do. He started telling other wrestlers about this. I began to have various wrestlers reach out to me showing their interest. iO West gave me a stage, and I began to operatically put on shows. Former WWE superstar John Morrison has been a big part of it since the beginning and in the past two years WWE superstar Dolph Ziggler and his brother, former WWE NXT star Ryan Nemeth have come into the fray as well.”
In addition to summoning the talents of myriad wrestlers, the show also draws upon one of improv comedy’s biggest heavyweights. The title Del Closed Fist Presents references the late Chicago-based improv guru Del Close. Considered a premier influence on modern improvisational theater, Close taught the likes of Tina Fey, Jim Belushi, Dan Akroyd and Chris Farley, whose penchant for physical comedy is a major influence on Nemeth.
It's logical that professional athletes would gravitate toward the more corporeal aspects of improv. In fact, one of the best scenes from last Friday’s performance was when the sole female cast member mounted Morrison’s musclebound back and cast him as Falkor, the flying dragon from The Neverending Story, garnering laughs as the goliath effortlessly flitted back and forth across the stage. Nemeth also likes to use his strength onstage.
“I get really physical onstage in improv scenes, and often rip the crotch of my pants out,” he says. “Like four or five pairs of pants since I’ve moved to L.A. These pants I’m wearing I found somewhere, like, Target, not a cool place to shop, but these look pretty cool. They have a little stretch to them. After a show, I always check.” He quickly inspects himself. “Yup, still good.”
In addition to his physical comedy prowess, Nemeth works best when paired with his older brother, both in the ring and on the boards.
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“All of my favorite moments in comedy and in wrestling have been with him, funny enough. I was always against him when we would encounter each other in the ring, but to me I was working with him to entertain the crowd. Performing comedy with him is always fun because we’ll tell stories about our family and growing up together. Of course, people love to hear what Dolph Ziggler was like as a kid.”
To Lassman, it's this fraternal pairing that stole last month’s show, not just because they were funny, but because they were real.
“Our last show had some good genuine moments between Dolph and Ryan, where they were basically playing themselves,” Lassman says. "[The biggest challenge for wrestlers performing improv is] being vulnerable and understanding you don’t always have to be on ... and be funny. Only they have their experiences and thoughts, so whatever they bring to the show will be gold and we'll be able to have a blast with anything and everything they offer.”
For Nemeth, the biggest difference between wrestling and improv is simple: “It hurts way less to improvise.”