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Omaha Magazine

A Novel Strain of Comedy

Apr 26, 2023 03:09PM ● By Leo Adam Biga
pandemic at the disco

Photo by Bill Sitzmann.

Omaha improv duo Pandemic! @ The Disco have enjoyed uproarious success, earning rave reviews at the Backline Comedy Theatre and ‘Best Comedy Ensemble’ nods from the Omaha Entertainment and Arts Awards. 

"To get that feedback from both the Backline community and the arts community at large is so sweet,” said Robyn Helwig, an Oregon native who moved to Omaha in 2016 to work at The Rose Theater.

“I never went into it with any expectation it would be anything other than a fun thing I do once in a while,” said Matt Johnson, the other half of Pandemic! @ the Disco. “To see it get that recognition feels really special. It’s validating.” 

The pair met when Helwig served as music director for a five-person musical improv team that included Johnson. 

“Once, only the two of us were available for a show, and we were like, ‘Are we really going to try this ourselves? Okay, I guess we will.’ And it actually worked really well,” Helwig recalled. 

They debuted as a duo in the Backline’s weekly ‘Arena’ series, wherein a democracy of laughs holds court. “You try to keep winning to hold that spot for as long as possible,” she said. “It’s a great way to get featured in a 20-minute slot once a week”

“[We] share a certain passion for storytelling,” Johnson said. “We don’t just do funny musical scenes, we tell a funny musical story with character development and arcs.”

“I think of my work as a storyteller always,” Helwig echoed.

Chemistry and creative dynamism are essential, the pair taking cues not only from each other—but from the audience—to craft a patchwork narrative via music and comedic timing.

“Because we know each other so well and have been doing improv together so long, we really know where the other thrives,” Helwig said. “I know if I set up something, he’s going to hit a home run.”

Whereas most improv teams practice regularly under a coach, Pandemic is propelled by controlled chaos alone.

Omaha comedian Matt Geiler “has given us notes,” Helwig said, adding, “so I guess in that way he’s a guest coach.” 

“As far as preparing for our own shows,” Johnson said, “we did that at the outset–  talking about story structure and wanting certain beats. A few times we’ve revised it over the years. Now we don’t really have to because we’ve done it so many times.”

Despite years of performing together, onstage sparks haven’t fizzled.

“Sometimes I leave the stage feeling there was electricity running through my body,” Helwig said.
“It’s an electric thing happening in the moment,” Johnson affirmed. “Improv is in many ways a conversation between the performers and audience. We do things and we get feedback…and we build from that together.”

“We prompt the audience with questions, so we get a lot of information to pull from,” Helwig explained, “and we just run with it.”

“It’s an intense but ephemeral experience,” Johnson added. “Once that show’s done, it’s gone forever.”

“We have all these ideas laid out but we don’t know what the story’s going to be until we get there,” Helwig said, “except for a villain and a hero. The hero’s tragic flaw propels a quest.”

That the storyline and songs are devised on the spot, partly based on audience suggestions, she said, elicits “disbelief” from audiences.

“Especially if they’re unfamiliar with improv, people feel like a magic trick has been pulled on them,” Johnson said. 

Backline owner Dylan Rhode admires how the duo comes up with “catchy hooks” and “sincere perspectives,” all with “no fear of going wherever the journey takes them.”

“They are an inspiration to everyone wanting to create improvised musicals,” he said.

Heiwig is also part of “Biscuits,” an improv show that hits the Blackline stage every fourth Friday. Additionally, she coaches the Backline’s musical house team—which performs every second and fourth Tuesday—and teaches musical improv workshops throughout the Midwest.

She ascribes her penchant for staying busy to her attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder. 

“I have a theory every improviser has ADHD,” Johnson laughed.

For his part, Johnson is the creator of an improvised play he hopes to present quarterly, dubbed “Bottle Episode.”

“The gimmick of the show is that I serve the performers actual booze as they come on stage to create characters. It’s all improvised,” he explained.

Improv, like traditional theater, is about “playing pretend,” Johnson said, “but instead of being directed and working from a script, you are the actor, writer, director in a very instantaneous way.” 

“The collaboration of ‘writing’ a story together live on stage is so fun,” Helwig said.

Helwig never imagined staying in Omaha beyond a year, but relationships and gigs have kept her here long enough to earn a master’s degree at College of Saint Mary.

She appreciates the “supportive” atmosphere and “many opportunities” afforded her. 

“It’s such a family,” she said.

With the bond she and Johnson enjoy, they hope Pandemic! @ The Disco’s creative synergy inspires—or perhaps, infects—onlookers with a desire to try improv themselves.
“It’s a special thing unlike anything else,” Johnson said. 

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This article originally appeared in the May 2023 issue of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.  
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