Five comedians took to the six-inch-high, 10-foot-wide stage at the Montague Elks Lodge in Turners Falls on Saturday to perform as part of a weekend of fundraising events for the local non-profit organization the Thrive Project. The venue was standing room only when the show actually began – a good indicator that the organization raised ample funds that night.
The organization is lead by executive director and University of Massachusetts professor Jamie Berger. Berger, who teaches three sections of college writing 112, came up with the idea for the Thrive Project this April. He wanted to create an organization that would help adults who have not been given a fair shot at reaching their goals in life.
“I had just finished school and I was thinking about what to do when I was finished and thought about starting a tutoring business, but then that would be just helping people who have $50 – $75 an hour to pay me,” he said. After a lifetime of living in cities, Berger, currently residing in Turners Falls, has met “a lot of really great people … who weren’t ready when they were 15 and 18 to excel” and struggled to find the motivation to do so as adults. He hopes that the Thrive Project will give them the tools needed to “[get] people out of their apartment and into the bigger world.”
The Thrive Project opened its doors on Sunday after a weekend of events which has been dubbed “Thrive Fest.”
As the emcee for the event, Berger introduced the comedians at the start of the show. First, though, he announced a few events that the organization has lined up for the upcoming weeks and months, including tutoring, movie nights, workshops, and D.I.Y. nights.
“We’re … going to be defined by what people want and need,” he said.
There are already people coming to Thrive for help, as well as people lining up to help the organization as tutors and mentors.
“Whether we raise a tiny bit [of money] or we raise a ton, we’ll exist,” Berger said. One of the organization’s goals for longevity is that it will be able to maintain a “calm, sustained existence,” according to Berger.
After introducing the four headlining acts, known throughout the performance as “The Four Fellows,” the performers came on all at once to tell some jokes together. The comedians – Eugene Mirman, Michael Showalter (“I’m just happy to be doing standup comedy in a haunted barn,” he joked), A.D. Miles, and Leo Allen – bantered amongst each other, remarking on the humorously small stage they stood on, for a few minutes before introducing a special guest, comedian Seth Herzog.
Herzog, like the other comedians, started off his act by making jokes about the location of Turners Falls and commenting on various items hanging on the walls of the Elks Lodge, such as a large pair of antlers.
Each of the comedians had a similar comedic style: They all told apparently true, absurd stories from their own lives. Herzog was no exception, telling a series of hilarious stories of strange people he encounters and kids saying the darnedest things.
Next up was A.D. Miles, a writer for “Late Night with Jimmy Fallon,” who had appeared alongside Showalter in the 2001 film “Wet Hot American Summer.” He made light of his recent divorce and mocked his own effeminate appearance. He dabbled in dirty punch lines and one-liners and explained a quirk that his father has through an exaggerated impersonation.
Perhaps the funniest joke he told was about his cat getting a blockage in his urethra and growing considerably in size after not being able to pee for several days, then passing out after Miles tickled his belly.
“I don’t know about you guys, but my cat d*** maintenance budget is zero,” he joked, finishing the joke with asking his veterinarian, “Is this something I can fix myself?”
Miles then introduced Leo Allen as the next artist. Allen is a former writer for “Saturday Night Live” and has performed at a number of comedy festivals. He started off his act by going off of Miles’ last joke about people misbehaving in a movie theater. Overall, Allen’s humor wasn’t spectacular; his stories weren’t quite as absurd and silly as those of the other comedians. While his jokes lacked in absurdity, the audience appreciated the familiarity of the situations he described.
Following Allen was Michael Showalter, who seemed to be unprepared in comparison with the other comedians. He too began his act by making comments about the size and location of Turners Falls and about the Elks Lodge. He spent a lot of his stage time chatting with and poking fun at a few audience members in the front row.
Showalter did relate a few anecdotes from his childhood – stories of Friendly’s Fribbles and being denied the role he wanted in his high school production of “The Crucible.” The rest of the comedians, standing to the side of the stage, got to poke fun at him when he suddenly fell off of his stool.
The final comedian to perform was Eugene Mirman, a personal friend of Berger and a board member of the Thrive Project. His act was hands-down the highlight of the evening. His wit shone through with every quip made at the expense of various victims, such as the Tea Party and Czechoslovakia. There was not a sentence uttered from his lips that did not garner substantial laughter from the crowd.
The funniest and most interesting part of Mirman’s act was when he pulled out a theremin. “I’m gonna try something here. I’ve always had this fantasy of telling one-liner jokes with a theremin,” he said, lifting the instrument onto the stage.
A theremin is an electronic instrument with two antennae sticking out from it. The antennae sense how close a person’s hands are to them and the instrument produces a sound in accordance with the location of their two hands. Mirman told a series of intentionally unfunny one-liners and produced the appropriate noises using the instrument, causing the audience to laugh uproariously.
Overall, the show was a success for the Thrive Project. The Elks Lodge was packed full of people, many of whom gave donations to the organization. Last weekend was the first of what the Thrive Project hopes will be many annual Thrive Fests to come.
The Thrive Project is always looking for people to get involved. Says Berger, you can even help out by “[telling] your story… we need people to believe they can get a break.”
Ellie Rulon-Miller can be reached at email@example.com.