He was not sure how it happened to him. On a stage, in front of a crowd overtaken by laughter, it bit him hard: the performing bug.
Nineteen year-old Lloyd Ahlquist realized that when he spoke off the cuff, or improvised; people listened, and then they laughed. Their laughter energized him. It egged him on to give them more. So, he said more, and they laughed more, a most symbiotic relationship.
Years later, Ahlquist and his band of 15 brothers perform improv weekly at Santa Monica's Westside Comedy Theater, as the comedy troupe Mission IMPROVable.
One year into its existence, it is emerging as the place on the Westside to see comedy, learn the art of funny, and is developing into a community of creative performers.
Throughout college, Ahlquist performed improv, discovering how to uncover the funny in life's most mundane situations. He quickly realized that, like other improvers, he was devoting more time to practicing and performing improvisation than he was to his academic studies.
Accompanied by a few friends also aspiring to pursue careers in improv, Ahlquist dropped out of college and moved to Chicago. Considered the "Mecca of improv," Chicago is the home of comedy clubs Second City and Improv Olympic, where comedians Steve Carell and Tina Fey got their starts.
In --- Ahlquist co-founded Mission IMPROVable National Touring Company, which has now landed a regular spot at the WCT.
WCT newbie and stand-up comedian, Andrew Pelosi, recently enrolled in a stand-up comedy class at the theater's Training Center. Pelosi performed at open mics in San Diego, but saw that "it's not really a culture that really fostered comedy. It wasn't taken very seriously. It was too limited."
A towering six-foot-something, Pelosi is buff, tan, and possesses a surf-god studliness. Underneath the surfer exterior is a sharp intellect and a keen sense of what is funny.
Before Andrew ever set foot on a stage, he studied "all the classic guys," like Richard Pryor, George Carlin, Bill Cosby, and Redd Foxx.
"Carlin and Pryor were geniuses," Pelosi raves. "Their writing wasn't based on a punch line. Their humor was based on an appreciation of basic life situations."
Pelosi models his comedy after theirs, and developed his style after dissecting their routines and analyzing their delivery methods. "You just have to look at an ordinary situation and realize that there is humor among us," he says.
His routines are comprised of stories from his life. including tales of his embarrassing pre-teen battle with scoliosis and failed attempts at getting girls to make-out with him.
"I would love to be able to be the next well known recognized comic, " Pelosi says, "but it requires patience, honing your craft, getting to know other comics, not feeling like you deserve success right away."
Semi-short, a little stocky, and balding slightly, Chris Gorbos, co-owner of the theater and member of Mission IMPROVable, is a self-described "average" white dude.
When asked about his life as a freelance artist, he laments, "I worked at a t-shirt store for about 11 months and I wanted to kill myself. With jobs like that, you just feel your life draining away. I think, ‘Jesus, I'm never going get this minute back, and I'm holding a t-shirt.'"
Gorbos' comedic roots originated in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. He started performing improv when his high school hosted a two-day arts festival in lieu of traditional classes. He loved the experience so much that he studied Theatre and Slavic Languages at Northwestern University in Chicago, where he met Ahlquist.
"Arts and education are super duper important," he explains. Sensing he may have put his foot in his mouth, he continues, "I don't think they're important comparatively, though. Lloyd didn't graduate, but Lloyd is world smart."
Smart enough to buy and manage a theater in a thriving metropolis.
Friday nights at WTC showcase the theatre at its best. Hard, loud laughs and claps flow freely through the Theatre, spilling out onto the alley that nestles it between Santa Monica's bustling Third Street Promenade and 4th Street.
If it is a packed house, 50 people are crammed into the small black-box theater which smells like cheap beer mixed with bottles of Charles Shaw wine. There is no bar, but the B.Y.O.B. rule is supported enthusiastically by patrons and promoters.
At show time, the theater goes black. The Mission Impossible movie music begins, "Dun, dun, dun, dun, dun, dun, dun, dun, dun,…" Red lights flash. Five men run onto the stage in a burst of energy. "This mission will begin in 5-4-3-2-1!"
"We're going to take all of your suggestions and spin them into comedic gold," one agent promises the audience, in describing improv. And they do. Every Friday night in Santa Monica and in every city they tour.
Is dropping out of college generally a bad idea? Probably.
Was Ahlquist's decision to drop out a good one? Stop by Mission IMPROVable's Westside Comedy Theater one Friday night to see for yourself.