We all know how wonderful and diverse Memphis’ food and music culture are. It’s something that not only this blog, but many others are entirely dedicated to showcasing. However, some sides of Memphis culture can be easily overshadowed by those attractions that have been staples in this city since its beginning. Take one example, comedy. Compared to BBQ and blues, you don’t hear as much about the Memphis comedy scene. Performers throughout the comedy community are working hard and fast to change that, but when seasoned Memphis comedians come together, it’s a difficult group to pass up.
The Bluff City Liars are a 100% Memphis founded improv troupe featuring founding members Ben Frederick (better known as Benny Elbows), Brandon McAninch, Tali Rosenfeld, and Erick Ioya. The four met through previous improv troupe, MISC, where they gained experience in performing improv together at venues such as TheaterWorks and Midtown Crossing Grill before founding Bluff City Liars in the spring of 2018. They were quickly joined by Laurel George and Mike Degnan.
I sat down and talked with members Tali and Laurel to get a better idea of what BCL is all about.
It was clear from the start that there is something different about BCL, something that hasn’t really been introduced to the Memphis performance scene before. When asked what they feel makes them unique, they had this to say:
“Other troupes have done more of ‘Whose Line’, but with BCL the energy is different. We improvise more like plays. Long form versus short form. Basically, we’re improvising longer scenes.” — Laurel George
“We all just want to work on new things and actually follow through. We try to do something new for all of our big shows. The goal for other troupes has been to get your friends to come, but the goal for Bluff City is to get strangers to come.” — Tali Rosenfeld
And they have definitely had some big shows just in their first 8 months. Most notable, comedian Kevin McDonald reached out to the troupe in November to do a weekend workshop and improv show, which over 150 people attended. When first approached by him, the troupe’s initial reaction was, “We didn’t think it was him. It seemed like it had to be fake,” as Laurel puts it. The show was such a big deal that BCL became the only improv troupe in Memphis to receive a grant from the city so that they could afford to have the show in a large enough space for the huge crowd that it drew.
The workshop was open to the public, and as Laurel puts it, “Some attendees were comedians, some had never done anything with comedy,” which says a lot about BCL’s mission not only as an improv troupe but as a piece of the Memphis comedy scene as a whole. When asked how they fit into this scene, Tali responded automatically, “We stick out like a sore thumb. The funny thing is though, a lot of people come up to us every show and say, ‘I had no idea you guys existed. I’m always looking for improv.’ That’s a big reason we’re trying to get into publicity. One of our first shows we decided to stand in the lobby before and after the show just so people could talk to us.”
Laurel and her husband have been responsible for the troupe’s TV appearances and press releases, but when asked how they’ve managed so many big shows in such a short amount of time, she answered, “Honestly a lot of it is just Benny. He has so many connections. And he always has.” Tali added, “Benny and Brandon have been two major parts of us getting publicity. We work really hard to produce our shows.”
In fact, one of the more recent reasons you may have seen BCL popping up in your feed was their Save Our Elbows Benny-fit show which raised roughly $1,000 towards medical expenses when the troupe’s ring leader was shot at the end of last year. As a ten year long Memphis stand up comedian, Benny clearly holds a piece of Memphians’ hearts. Don’t fret though —he’s made a full recovery, and as Laurel described, “Is back to tap dancing in practice.”
The comedy scenes in other cities, as Laurel says, “have a divide between stand up and improv, but here it doesn’t seem like that.” This community is perhaps what has given BCL the foundation to explore so much new territory in such a small amount of time. With every member coming from a background of different disciplines within comedy, you may think their styles wouldn’t mesh well together, but it seems to be just the opposite. The Bluff City Liars have had several extremely fresh and creative shows such as WWW dot dot dot, the Benny-fit Show, as well as their most recent, BCL TV Live Special where they put on improvised takes of your favorite late night TV genres.
While BCL has done an impressive job at being able to both stick out from and bind together Memphis’ comedy scene, perhaps what surprised me the most about this troupe was their willingness to engage with our community and welcome newcomers to their scene. Laurel recalls her introduction to the troupe:
“I went outside after a show and talked to Benny, introduced myself and told them that I was interested in getting involved with improv. They asked if I had experience and… I started coming to practices and just never stopped showing up.”
As we were wrapping up, Tali left me with this;
“One of my favorite things is talking to someone who came to our show and either they know nothing about improv, or they know a ton about improv, and either way we can just nerd out about improv together. And we get people who will know nothing about it but be super interested in it. There was someone I talked to at our Kevin McDonald show, and she had never met us before. It was so cool to be able to talk to a total stranger who cares about improv in Memphis. It’s like, wow, there are other people. I make a point to stay in the stage area after the show so people can come up. I don’t like the idea of just going backstage. My favorite memory of one of our shows was when someone came up, and they were nervous to talk to me. I was like, this is insane.”
The members of Bluff City Liars are all taking huge steps towards broadening a small scene to be more inclusive and accessible not just to comedians, but to everyone who has ever been interested in doing improv, stand up, or just nerding out.