Guerilla Improv: No Joking Zone

Apr 1, 2006, 3:30 PM

I-A Security:
Agent Connerly, Agent Marks
Undercover crowd members: Agents Carlson, Curtis, Donnelly, Meredith, and Watts

Agent Connerly:

Back in February 2006, I went on a trip to California. While standing in line at LAX to pass through airport security, I noticed this sign:

ATTENTION!  Making any jokes or statements during the screening process may be grounds for both criminal and civil penalties.  All such matters will be taken seriously. We thank you for your restraint in this matter.

This was just too much to pass up.

From there, we came up with the idea of having a No-joking area in some other place than an airport. Our place was a social hub of Kansas City, the outdoor shopping district known as The Country Club Plaza.

With materials and costumes prepared and location scouted out, we descended on our target. The Plaza has a great parking garage system, so we were able to park inconspicuously and make a quick arrival at the site.

Agents Connerly and Marks prepare for their guard shift

Agents Curtis and Carlson drove up and dropped off our signs and split. There were two signs with text on each side. On the sides facing the outside of the NJZ, they simply said "No Joking Zone". On the sides people would see as they left the NJZ, they said "Thank you for Not Laughing." They were placed a good 25 feet apart. They were in an area where there would be plenty of pedestrian traffic, but unless we were REALLY successful, wouldn't cause any problems for the nearby stores. Agent Marks and I walked calmly out of the stairwell and right over to our signs where we quietly stood guard. Our premise, if anybody asked, was that we were guarding this future site of a Federal mailbox. Think like this:
With all the threatening things that can be sent through the mail and all, you know, we didn't want any funny business. Mail isn't funny, maam. We improvised from there. During the scene we discovered the NJZ extended 50 ft. in every direction from the future site of the mailbox, not just to our signs. More and more details came out through the day, of course.

No Joking Zone sign Thank You for Not Laughing sign

At first there was nothing. A few people smiled, a few people glanced and moved on.

To help get things moving, Agents Donnelly and Watts decided to stir things up a bit

Agent Watts

Agent Donnelly told a really cheesy joke to Agent Watts as they entered the zone under the premise she was relating a joke her nephew told her. Something along the lines of "What is orange and sounds like a parrot?" "A carrot!!". Predictably, Agent Marks and I sprang into action. When informed of the NJZ, Agents Donnelly and Watts were offended and eventually faked outrage, violation of their first amendment rights and threatened to call the ACLU. Here is Agent Marks and myself, thoroughly not amused.

Not amused, maam

We asked them to leave the NJZ to continue their merriment somewhere else. At first, they reluctantly complied, but then returned to shout jokes into the NJZ. Agent Watts then pushed it to the point that we had to handcuff her, escort her outside of the zone, and then release her. This was a great schtick that had an impressive effect on onlookers, but we knew we could only take it to that level on other agents. The moment we touched a civilian, we could be in very real trouble. None the less, Surrounding their activities, our undercover agents did a GREAT job of engaging civilians. This brings us to what the civilian reactions were throughout the two hour scene. They were generally of 4 types:
  • Unquestioningly Obedient
    The most disappointing, both for me as a comedian, a freedom loving American, and a human being. When told to keep their laughter to a minimum in the NJZ, they would instantly stop laughing and stare straight ahead.

  • Quietly Amused
    These people saw us, saw it was a joke, smiled, and moved on. They were also the people who tried to convince our undercover agents that it was just a joke and that they were over reacting. They weren't kill joys, they just couldn't tell our people were undercover at that point :)

  • Amazingly Offended
    One guy flicked us off, another gruffly told me to mind my own business. Not many of these, thank goodness. And for my personal favorite type...

  • Confused, then Curious, then Playful
    These were the most challenging dialogues to carry on, as they got very specific, as well as the hardest to keep a straight face during. Our civilians were very funny people.

There were many groups of people who engaged us. Some families, some large groups of friends, a tour group on Segway scooters, etc. Yes, Segway fountain scooter tours. The Plaza has a lot of fountains** and the Segway store uses it as an excuse to train people on the scooters. One of the best parts of the tour group was one of the guys on the tour (in the grey shirt below) turned out to be a regular audience member at our 'normal' shows. He whispered to me, "I thought this was all serious n stuff for a minute there, but then I recognized you... don't worry, I won't blow your cover." Agent Marks told them to hurry on out of the zone as their wheelchairs looked funny.

Long view of our setup and the Segway tour

One particular family was great fun to play with. They had been commenting, joking, and interacting for quite a long time, when they ventured back into the zone and wanted me to handcuff their son so they could get a picture. I refused to arrest him as he had committed no crime. The obviously embarrassed youngster was too nervous to tell a joke or laugh. I stayed in character and told his parents there was nothing I could do. At this point the father cracked some sort of lame joke about me unintentionally, so I handcuffed him instead and escorted him out of the zone. The whole family got a huge kick out of this. Eventually, the family coached the kid to tell a lame joke in the NJZ, and I obligatorily cuffed him and let his family take mug shots of him.

The crowd watching me arrest the kid

Posing the kid for a mug shot

After two hours of general shenanigans, it was time to go, as we had a regular short-form improv show on a stage later that night at a local festival (Creative Bliss). Agent Marks and I were uncertain how to end it, but thankfully, our undercover agents came to our rescue. They mounted a joke insurgence and effectively re-took the NJZ. It started off with each undercover agent coming into the zone, one after another, telling jokes in a town-crier fashion.

Hear-ye, Hear-ye, this joke!

It peaked with Agent Curtis unrolling a newspaper in which he had concealed a rubber chicken. He held it aloft while declaring the right to be funny. Agent Marks and I went in to defuse the situation:

Rubber Chicken tug-o-war

As you can see, we hardly defused it. A rubber chicken tug-o-war ensued. Agent Meredith joined to assist in the revolt. After reclaiming the chicken, Agent Curtis attacked one of the signs and took off with it. Agent Marks took to chase:

Run, insurgent, run!

To the jewelry store!

They ran into the hallway adjoining Swirk Jewelry. I hear while inside, they didn't stay in character. You don't really want to arouse too much suspicion in a sensitive place like that.

On the loose again!

Agent Curtis stashed the sign he liberated and went to re-liberate the chicken. I reclaimed the sign while he went for the second set of signs and passed the chicken to Agent Meredith. I gave chase to the chicken while Agent Marks took off for the second set of signs. Undercover agents grabbed the bricks that had been holding our signs down in the wind.

The second sign

Eat my dust, copper!

As suddenly as it has began, there was nothing left of the No Joking Zone.

As I chased Agent Meredith and let him get away (cliché out-of-shape cop), I stopped to catch my breath in front of our parking garage. Up above there were some teenagers who had witnessed just this tiny part of the chase. Later, as we returned to our car in the garage, I decided to try to get back in character and take a statement from these witnesses. I walked over with my notepad out, asked if I could ask them a few questions. They got all quiet like I was a real cop. I asked if they could describe the man they saw me chasing earlier, height, eye color, anything. One guy said, "Yeah, he was black." "Really, how could you tell from up here?" I asked, fighting off a smirk at his subtle joke. "Because I could see his **** hanging out the bottom of his pants."

I finally broke character and laughed my arse off, like I'd been wanting to for two hours.

Agent Curtis :

The highlight for me was when the family wanted pictures of themselves being handcuffed and walking out of the zone.........3 feet away.

Also, me and Tim running into the jewelry store stopping to catch our breath and Tim saying, "okay, run back out there....pant seriously....GO!"

What a perfect ending, thanks wade for backing me up man!

Agent Marks :

We wanted to do guerilla improv, having been inspired by ImprovEverywhere. Our first question: Other than a coffee shop, which IE had hit in its Mobius Strip mission, Where are there a lot of people sitting around relaxing, making a natural audience for some sort of scene? An airport would be absolutely perfect… except that we would quickly be arrested for doing something unusual. Which in itself is somewhat stupid. They even have no-joking signs in airports, which is really a ridiculous concept in this free country of ours.

So the idea was born — we would enforce a no-joking zone in a place that REALLY didn’t need it, like an area of public sidewalk.

Agent Carlson and I went to work on “No Joking” Signs while agents Connerly and Donnelly assembled security guard outfits and gear. We convened at Agent Connerly’s abode to complete the signs and prepare our assault on the Kansas City public.

The Plaza is a K.C. landmark that’s in many ways the heart of the City. It’s an upscale shopping and dining area, but it’s one of the few parts of the metropolitan area that everyone cares about. The weather was perfect, guaranteeing a lot of foot traffic.

As soon as I saw the security guard outfits that Agent Connerly and Donnelly had acquired/created, I knew we would have to deal with the real security on the plaza — either hired guns or actual cops. I though the costumes might have been too good.

I was right. Within 15 minutes, a real security guard approached us. I immediately loved the fact that his starched white shirt made him look a lot like us... only older, heavier, and with a cool Smokey-the-Bear hat. "What do you have going on here?"

Although we had talked about what we would say if and when approached, for some reason I stayed in character. "We've set up this No-joking Zone to keep the area safe and secure from any laughter or jokes." He blinked slowly, getting it but not amused, and called someone on his radio unit as he sauntered away. (His radio actually worked, apparently.)

Sixty seconds later, he walked back to me, giving me the "Come here" finger. "You can stay, but you can't be between here and the stores." I was ecstatic. He effectively moved us into a higher-traffic area, between a small fountain and the street. And we could relax, knowing the brush with Johnny Law was over.

Relaxed and in character, some of the highlights were:
  • Ending any conversation with a cocky "Enjoy your security," or a stonefaced "Have a serious day."

  • My proudest moment might have been early on, when a group of 10 or 12 were really getting a kick out of the stunt. They were laughing near the fron of American Eagle Outfitters, which forced me to interact with them a lot, asking them to step out of the Zone or go back in the store, or not laugh out loud, as I tried to figure out where some laughter was coming from. I got on a roll, and I heard one man laughing and saying, "How can he keep a straight face while he’s doing that?"

    I only broke twice -- I smiled for a split-second and stiflled a laugh. Once was because of one of Agent Watts's horribly bad jokes. Once was due to Agent Curtis's face.

  • A group of teenage guys was hanging out nearby for a long time, and they had a hard time figuring out if we were for real. One had a t-shirt that someone apparently had at one time found amusing. A man on the shirt is yelling, “I’m busy!” while he’s actually playing a video game. Hilarious.

    Once I noticed it, each time he was in the zone, I would say, “Sir, your shirt has a joke on it, can you either move outside of the Zone, or turn your shirt inside out?” Later on he and his friends approached to more closely inspect my handuffs (to help determine whether I was a legit authority figure.) When they did that, t-shirt guy scrunched up the fron of his shirt with his hands, to cover the illustration on the front.

  • A young couple walked through, thoroughly amused. Each time I told them they couldn't laugh in the Zone, they thought it was funnier. The girl got defiant just before leaving the Zone, cracking up again and refusing to exit the Zone. As the American Eagle group and others watched on, I whipped out he handcuffs with a flair. It would have been a great way to end that little scene, but she only laughed more, and she wouldn't leave the Zone.

    I threatened, "We can do this the hard way, or we can do this the easy way." She giggled and held her arms out to me. Now, we had practiced using the handcuffs before we began, and decided I shouldn't use my set, since it didn't unlock easily. But the moment called for it. I cuffed her, and escorted her three feet to release her outside of the zone. I reached into one pocket, then the other. No key. I worriedly asked aloud, "Does anyone have a skeleton key I can borrow?" She was probably cuffed for two minutes while I found the key and got both wrists unlocked.

  • When we had a pretty big group of on-lookers, Agent Donnelly came into the Zone looking at straight at me with a smug look on her face, as if to say, “What are you gonna do now?” I then realized she was holding the comic section of the newspaper — literally the funny papers.

    “Can you just please fold those so that the comics aren’t showing? Please, let me have them…” She insisted on reading Dilbert (possibly the only humorous comic strip on the page). I couldn’t stand for that, so I grabbed the paper, ran with it to the trashcan that marked the end of the Zone, and then for good measure, ripped the section in two and threw it away.

  • A group of 6 or 8 girls about 12 years old were having fun with us, taunting and tormenting us, playing dumb and asking lots of questions about the Zone. Agent Connerly was politely explaining (over continuous giggling) the danger of laughing in a certain manner was dangerous because it could become infectious with so many people gathered in a small area. I was annoyed by the laughter and broke in with an angry, "You think infection is funny!?!"

Agent Watts :

Getting handcuffed by Agent Connerly was of course one of the highlights for me.

It was really funny when I got worked up, being confused and all about the "zone" and calling for my rights, and bystanders were telling me "It's a's April Fool's Day, don't you know?!" and "Laugh it off! They're just MESSING with you..." and I had to keep character...they didn't know I was actually involved, it was great.

I loved when Agent Donnelly grabbed the "funnies" section of the paper and taunted Agent Marks with it, and he confiscated it and she ran off after him. A dude standing beside me said, "Damn, she's actually chasing him down!"

Also, when Agent Carlson was telling a joke to taunt Agent Marks, and he accidentally backed up on this little girl who was standing behind him...then Agent Marks was all serious and said something like: "This is why I can't have you telling jokes, sir. You almost injured a child. Jokes hurt the children."

Agent Donnelly :

That little girl had a terrible look on her face too, not sad or angry, but just that there was no joy in the world. I told Agent Marks to look at her face and that he was stealing all the joy away from the children, etc. Agent Marks, of course, kept a straight face and was just like "So? He almost injured that child. A sad child is a safe child."

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