Review: Rant-O-Wheel

By: Tony Narisi

The Philly Improv Theater at the Shubin Theatre saw the last installment of the Rant-O-Wheel this Monday night. As the night got started, host Jaime Fountaine filled the wheel up with ten nouns shouted out by the audience and began bringing the finest Rant-o-wheelers in Philadelphia onstage to tell a story, real or made-up, in five minutes or less using three of these words.

First up was the pair of Darryl Charles and Sue Taney, tackling six words instead of three. Using “creamed corn,” “tortellini,” “Steve Buscemi,” “Jersey Shore,” “Skittles,” and “sabotage,” Darryl and Sue told the story of a boy who began an anti-Willy Wonka campaign. Jaime played the role of conductor and had some sadistic fun that really upped the laughs, switching the narrator every word at times or pointing to both of them and forcing them to speak in unison.

Next up was Tom Whitaker, who used “rain dance,” “lava lamp,” and “candle” to deliver a superb monologue, in the form of a video message to a recent ex, lamenting the fact that he’ll never find real love in the City of Brotherly Love. Perhaps most remarkable was his delivery, which consisted of a believable and consistently straight face and a stare into the distance, addressing his ex as “you” the entire time.

Following Tom was Larry Napolitano, who quickly breezed through his words of “donkey lips,” “nothing,” and “Dustin Hoffman” in a rant about how he is miserable regarding his aging to get to what was apparently on his mind all along—a hilarious tirade against Ferris Bueller that eventually ended in the murder and defiling of his corpse on his father’s broken car.

Next up was Hillary Rea who used “swing,” “guffaw,” and “side boob” to recount her childhood fears and embarrassments, which included earthworms being thrown at her and a perpetual fear of boys seeing her incorrectly worn Days of the Week underwear. While hearing her memories, the audience couldn’t help but laugh along with Hillary as they remembered their own rough patches in childhood.

Cara Schmidt came next, using “band,” “Jellies,” and “Aquanet” to reveal one of her deepest darkest secrets to the audience—she’s not that good at driving, as evidenced by her twelve cars in seven years. Throughout her monologue, the audience got a very funny peek into the mind of sixteen-year-old Cara and her six attempts at the driving exam, including her various attempts to sway (or bribe) the system.

Finally, Jaime herself finished the rest of the words on the wheel, using “vagrant,” “chicken soup,” “artichoke,” “yellow,” “burp,” and “Rain Man” to tell the story of Rant-o-wheel itself, in a final monologue that was both heartwarming and laugh-inducing. She then ended the show by saying that Rant-o-wheel isn’t dead, it’s just going into hibernation. So if and when the Rant-o-wheel comes out of its slumber, do yourself and these performers a favor and make sure to check it out and support some great local comics telling some very funny stories.

Ten Questions With...Alejandro Morales

Alejandro Morales is a comedian, writer, and storyteller in Philadelphia. He is a co-host of Philly Improv Theater storytelling show Rant-O-Wheel as well as Camp Tabu and a producer of the upcoming QComedy Fest.

How and why did you get into comedy? I've always been a comedy fan. When I was just a kid, I used to watch hours of comedy on TV, like the original "Whose Line Is It Anyway?," "The A-List" with Sandra Bernhard, and "The Kids in the Hall." I got my degree from the University of the Arts in Screenwriting and Digital Filmmaking, but I've learned since that making movies costs several dollars while doing stand-up is pretty much free, bar tab notwithstanding. I got my official start doing stand-up at Philadelphia's "Gayborhood Games" in 2009, where I botched my chance to be the funniest guy for six blocks. I lost again in 2010, and at the 2011 I cemented my position as the undisputed Susan Lucci of the Gayborhood Games. I stay involved in comedy because there's really nothing else in the world for me.

How would you describe your style as a comedian? What influences and factors do you think contribute to that? I'm at my funniest when I'm just talking to friends at house parties, so when I'm on stage I try to get as close to "me at a house party" as possible without slurring or coming on to someone in the audience. I generally avoid topical humor or celebrity humor in favor of telling first-person stories, because while anybody can make a joke about the president, nobody can tell a story about accidentally flashing a room full of people quite like I can. I don't think I've come myself 100% as far as a particular style just yet; I'm still learning a lot about what works and what doesn't during live performance. My comedy mentor, Brad Loekle, told me it would take ten years for me to find my voice -- I'm a quick study, though, so I'm a try to get that down to five. My primary influence is alcohol, usually vodka because it's low in calories.

Do you have a favorite show or venue you like to perform at? What about it makes it fun or special for you? My favorite show is the one I host, of course. It's called Camp Tabu, and I host it along with "The Hysterical Christine Meehan" at Tabu Lounge & Sports Bar every second Friday of the month. Other than the obvious reason that it's my favorite 'cause it's my show, I also think that the upstairs lounge at Tabu is a great performance space, and the diversity of the crowd makes it special as well. A lot of gay/queer comics and audiences are put off by other shows where they've encountered retrograde attitudes and ugly language about our community, so my approach is to try to screen out the pighead homophobe douchebag element in advance. I'm proud of the audiences and performers we've put together, and on the 14th of October we're celebrating our one-year anniversary along with all of our favorites, including Carolyn Busa, Jaime Fountaine, Erin Mulville, and Andrew Nice Clay. Oh my gosh so excited for that.

Do you have a single favorite moment in Philly comedy or one that stands out? The first Tabu show we ever did, in the fall of 2010, was on the same night as a Phillies game, and when the game was over a group of rowdy guys came upstairs from the sports bar to watch the show. Soon after, Brendan Kennedy went onstage to do his set, and one of the guys hit on him from the audience, saying things like "LET ME IRON YOUR SHIRT" and "I WANT TO BITE YOUR FACE." Then the guy brought Brendan a shot of tequila and the two had a dance-off on stage. Brendan handled the whole thing like a pro and the encounter ended without anybody having to be dragged out of the bar. It was a good night for the Phillies and a good night for us.

Do you have any sort of creative process that you use with your writing or your performance? Or a sort of method that you use to develop comedic material? Most of my best ideas occur to me out of nowhere, nine times out of ten when I'm trying to sleep. I try to write things down as they come to me, and then build around them later. Mostly, though, I just keep my ideas in my head, and build on them and memorize until I have a complete set. Then at some point I sit down and write out my set in full, to cement the memorization. I'm sort of lucky to just be generally oblivious and lacking in common sense, because funny things tend to happen to me that wouldn't happen to smarter people.

What is it about stand-up / sketch / improv that draws you to it? I enjoy stand-up because it allows me to be completely self-reliant, and I get to grind my axes publicly. There's always something that I wish I would've said to to the folks who've done me an ugly turn, and stand-up lets me get that out of my system. It's so righteous! Not only that, but some stories are too good to keep to myself. Right now my favorite set is about this guy I almost dated -- I Googled his phone number after we met and discovered his escort profile, complete with X-rated photos. The phrase "Your taint is on the internet next to your phone number" has got to be the best grouping of words in America since "cellar door," seriously. Lately I've been taking improv classes, and it's starting to grow on me. What I like about improv is the riffing aspect of it. When the chemistry is right, there's absolutely nothing like bouncing off of other people.

Do you have any favorite performers in the Philly scene? Why are they your favorites? I really like Erin Mulville and Carolyn Busa because they are so bold and fresh, and I'm naturally gaydisposed to prefer lady comics. I also like Alex Gross, because of his gentle demeanor. As far as groups, I am a die-hard fan of the Dumpsta Players. They give themselves entirely to what they're doing, and they channel John Waters like nobody else in this town.

Do you have any bad experiences doing comedy that you can share? A particularly bad bombing or even an entire show gone haywire? I went to New York City to do a Sunday night show at a gay bar hosted by Brad Loekle, where I was completely ignored by the audience for almost the entirety of my set. They perked up briefly for one joke about Rachel Zoe, but that was it. After my set was over the bottom fell out of my sneakers and I literally oozed off the stage into a nearby rum bucket to no fanfare whatsoever. The good part is that nobody shouted at me to get off the stage, presumably because for that to happen someone would have had to have noticed that I was up there.

What do you think the Philly comedy scene needs to continue to grow? I think that if the players in the comedy scene continue to reach out to each other and support one another's endeavors the way they have been doing, that can only be good for the scene at large. A rising tide lifts all boats and whatnot.

Do you have any personal goals for the future as you continue to perform comedy? I'm forever hoping that through performing I can get the right set of eyes on my screenwriting work and maybe get a script or two produced. Also I recently did an out of town show in Lancaster, and it was such a blast. I would really love to travel more. Making some money doing this would be nice, too, while we're wishing and hoping.

ShowFile: Rant-O-Wheel

There are a lot of regular comedy shows here in Philadelphia, and in our new feature ShowFile (it's a profile of a show!) we are going to make sure you know a little bit about what is out there for you to enjoy. Our first Shofile is on Rant-O-Wheel, an improvised storytelling show held at Philly Improv Theater at 7:00PM on the first Wednesday of their two-week runs. We asked host Jaime Fountaine some questions about the show.

WITOUT: How long have you been doing Rant-O-Wheel?

Jaime Fountaine: The first Rant-O-Wheel show was held in August 2009, at The Dive, during my Second Stories show.  We’d put one on every few months or so, until July of last year, when Greg Maughan gave me the opportunity to do a monthly show at PHIT.

WO: What gave you the idea for the show?

JF: My friend Steve Martinez told me about a game he used to play when he was hanging out with some anarchists (he’s from California).  They had a giant wicker wheel into which they’d woven slips of paper with various ideas and issues relating to social justice.  You’d spin the wheel and then rant on the topic it had chosen for you.  We thought if you shifted it from social change to storytelling, it could be a lot of fun.

WO: Explain the format of the show.

JF: At the beginning of every show, right after I make sure everyone knows what a noun is, I fill up the wheel with audience suggested words.  Each contestant spins the wheel three times, and has five minutes to make up a story that includes all three of their words.  The only rule is that you can’t use all three words in rapid succession and then expect to talk for another four-and-a-half minutes.  Other than that, anything is fair game.

WO:Do you have any favorite moments from your time hosting the show (any especially memorable stories, or surprise guests?)

JF: One the most surprising performers was a man that volunteered under the name “Douche #7” who, instead of telling a story, warbled an off-pitch version of “I Can’t Live (If Living is Without You)”.  Then he disappeared into the night.

It usually helps when shows take on themes, whether it’s because I’ve put one in place (like when Steve moved to Baltimore), because the audience has agreed on a certain theme through their noun suggestions, or because of some other factor, like the time the show turned into a hotbed of awkward sexual oversharing that just kept snowballing.

There have been a lot of great stories to come out of the show, although I think my favorite is still the story that grew out of Steve and I trying to finish half a wheel of words by ourselves and turned into the story of how we, the illegitimate children of an itinerant Native American brush salesmen, came to find each other in a desert.

WO: What are the elements that make up a good Rant-O-Wheel story?

JF: Confidence, whether or not you’re faking it, is key. If you believe that you can sell a story about scalpings, vacuum cleaner repair, and Walla Walla, Washington, the audience is much more likely to go along with you.  Some people find it easier to go up there with the framework of a real-life experience or an existing story (like The Little Mermaidor Blood Meridian), but it’s not necessary.  It can also help to be a little, but not overly drunk.  It helps with bravado.

WO: What is it about comedic storytelling that you love? What about it is different from other types of comedy?

JF: I’m a writer more than I’m a comedian.  Even when I’m doing comedy, it’s more a character telling a story than straightforward jokes.  I’m a lot more interested in the backstory than I am the set-up and punchline, laying down an entire universe for the audience, and then trying to convince them to live in it for five minutes.  Some people can do that with jokes, which I admire, but I need the space to sprawl out.

The Rant-O-Wheel format is especially exciting, because it’s about beating the limitations of a few words and a few minutes.  It’s not exactly the stuff of OuLiPo, but it’s in a similar spirit – that a lot of fascinating things can still come out of a very controlled environment.

Since the show really depends on audience participation, the show is audience-driven in a very different way than a lot of other comedy shows.  They don’t just set the tone; they’re the impetus for the entertainment.  Everyone is responsible.