The Weisenheimers: Improvising & Taking Names Since '97Nov 01, 2021 10:54AM ● By Greg Jerrett
Photo by Bill Sitzmann
When one thinks of improv comedy, cities such as Chicago, Los Angeles, and even Toronto spring to mind. But Omaha has long been the home base of one of the most popular ad-lib comedy troupes in the Great Plains—The Weisenheimers.
Since 1997, The Weisenheimers have performed for different audiences from the schoolhouse to the conference center, from the Omaha Community Playhouse to the Omaha Entertainment and Arts Awards, where they have garnered five awards for their comedic stylings.
The Weisenheimers were “born from the ashes of a teen improv group,” according to founding Weisenheimer and group historian Monty Eich. College friends Eich, Matt Geiler (featured on America’s Got Talent Season 12), Marv Pratt, and Jen Smedley (co-creator of #imomsohard) decided 27 years ago to bring their mercurial, short-form improv to Omaha. They soon went from doing primarily festivals and clubs in Omaha to performing at corporate and private gigs from the Mississippi River to the Rocky Mountains.
They became road warriors early on, traveling in their minivan, The Weisenmobile, advertising “Improv Comedy for Hire” on the side. Eich said the best shows are the ones where they come out for an association gathering, a company holiday party, or a high school after-prom shindig, and exceed expectations.
“The best are when we start in front of a group that is part apathetic and part confused and end with an audience having a great time with us,” Eich said. “I am proud to say that happens a lot.”
Traveling to perform for everyone from those wearing suits and ties to those wearing jeans and cowboy boots makes for some odd moments, and the moments of eccentricity are what stand out.
“When the group was young we got booked in a saloon in Rickets, Iowa,” Eich said. “It was an unmarked bowling alley that had flooded and should have been condemned, but a former rodeo clown bought it. Our stage consisted of three oak doors duct-taped together on cinder blocks that some dancers had used the night before. At the end of the night, the owner/clown paid us damp cash out of a hole in the drywall he used as his safe in the office.”
In another case, it turned out these improv players were not the only spontaneous ones.
“We did a show once in Alliance, Nebraska, for a bank,” Eich said. “Turns out the president and pillar of the community had died a few weeks before. The new president gave a very moving and emotional eulogy, he was almost in tears. He ended his tribute by thanking the deceased man’s wife and children, promising to continue the man’s life’s work and, without any pause, introducing ‘the comedy act from Omaha.’ I am not sure who was more surprised, the audience, the widow, or us.”
Fortunately, the comedians are well-trained at speaking off-the-cuff. Eich learned unscripted comedy from watching it on various popular programs in his formative years and joined a teen improv troupe at 16, but he admits he never really studied acting or improv until much later in life.
“I had heard about improv through interviews of Saturday Night Live cast members, Second City, and The Firesign Theatre,” said Eich, adding that the improv of Whose Line is it Anyway? was a better fit for his live-in-the-now philosophy. “I’m more of a wing-it than plan-it person.”
While Eich has been doing improv ever since, he only just took his first formal training in the art of improvisational comedy last year in San Jose, where he now works as a voice designer for an online bookstore that he prefers remain nameless.
Eich describes these performances as an exchange of energy between the audience and comedians.
“When you’re performing and making the audience laugh, it’s about energy,” Eich said. “I’m getting emotion back and forth, but it is not necessarily a conversation. And this may sound weird, but I love my audiences and I can get very vulnerable on stage. I express things about me and some sides about me.”
In 2005, Smedley left the group when she moved to Los Angeles. Actress Theresa Sindelar started filling in from time to time, becoming a full member in 2008.
Sindelar grew up in the Omaha metro area. Her road to ad-lib began in her high school drama department.
“I remember in drama having substitutes and they would do improv games,” said Sindelar, who was also inspired by Whose Line and Second City comedians Colin Machrie and Ryan Stiles. “Improv was such a natural fit. I loved it.”
In 2008, Pratt moved to Austin, Texas. Geiler, known also as The Dancing Pumpkin Man from his video that went viral, left for Los Angeles that same year, making way for current member Cullen Chollett. Chollet recalled that he developed a taste for spontaneity in speech class in Underwood, Iowa.
“Julie Larson, my high school speech teacher, asked me to compete in the improv category for speech competition my sophomore year. I did it, and I was hooked,” Chollett said. “I ended up going to the All-State Speech Competition in Des Moines my senior year.”
Sindelar, Chollett, and Eich enjoy bringing laughter to the Midwest. Naturally, the COVID-19 outbreak put the kibosh on public performances for a while.
The Weisenheimers powered through, shifting their focus toward their online performances via weisenheimers.com, their Facebook page, and their podcast It Could Be Worse.
Eich confirmed they will be returning to the stage at Omaha Community Playhouse in November.
For more information visit weisenheimers.com.