A PIECE OF
By SINJIN SMYTHE
It was a dramatic moment. With only a few minutes left in the second night of the 1994 New York Improv Festival, the annual improv competition, out strode Larry Bell, captain of the second-place team improvisation group Bright Lights Big Witty. They had been neck-and-neck with two other troupes, and the question was, Could they win? A bold choice was needed. After taking a suggestion from the audience, Bell, announced with gusto, “Ladies and gentlemen, we now present, The Three-Minute Musical!” And then, in a flash, the four members of Bright Lights – Bell, Allison Castillo, Beth Littleford, and Denny Siegel - presented an entire musical, with a beginning, middle, and end, a romance, a couple of songs, and plot complications – in just three minutes. The crowd went wild.
It is daring moments like that which Larry Bell lives for. A regular performer at Sunday Night Improv and a former member of Chicago City Limits, the diminutive, feisty Bell is known for his finely etched characters, his sharp wit, and his ability to sing improvised tunes in styles ranging from romantic ballads to punk rock Yiddish folk anthems.
He grew up in Lakewood, New Jersey, and started performing magic shows at age 10. He quips that he did magic “to meet chicks” but by age 13, he was a success at making, crowds of 100 and 200 appear out of nowhere just to see him. “Originally, I started doing it because of the magic, but then I started becoming involved in the performance aspect. I liked that,” he notes. That in turn led him to acting.
His first starring role was in a high school production of Play It Again, Sam, and while at the University of Michigan he appeared in a range of roles. He also became involved in a college sketch group called Sunday Funnies. Although he says the sketches were “stupid, just crap,” the sketch-writing itself fascinated him.
After graduation, he continued to perform, but it was only after he came to New York City in the early ‘90s that he found his calling. One night in 1992, he caught a performance of Chicago City Limits, which he says was “epiphanal. I said to myself, ‘That’s what I want to do.’ ”
He explains: “I had tried stand-up [comedy] before that but by the time I started getting good at it, I didn’t like it anymore. The atmosphere was isolating, depressing, anti-social. I found it very lonely. When I saw improv, it looked like everyone was having a fabulous time on stage. I decided if anybody is having that good a time, it has to be me.”
He took classes at Chicago City Limits and then spent a year with the Wingnuts performance workshop, where he says he got his best stage experience. He performed with the troupe, Bright Lights Big Witty, winning the top $200 prize in the 1995 New York Improv Festival. He later joined the Chicago City Limits national touring company. He quit in late 1997. He finds very little frightening about the unscripted nature of improv comedy. “When I’m working with someone good in a scene, I’m not working,” he observes. “I’m just living through the moment. The most important things to me are having a solid scene and having a good time.”
Improv has led him back to sketch comedy. His improvisation work introduced him to the members of Ms. Dee’s Comedy Iced Tea, a sketch group. He also performed with Denny Siegel on the comedy TV show QuikWitz. “I learned sketch writing out of improv,” he says.
He loves the Sunday Night Improv comedy jam for the same reason many audiences do: “I like working with people who have different energies on stage. You never know what’s going to happen.” He is married, with two children, and lives in in Manhattan.
The most challenging thing he’s ever done in improvisation? “Sitting in a van for 14 hours straight with the touring company. Besides that, it’s all been cake. I don’t tend to get too nervous before an improv show because the challenge doesn’t come until I’m on stage. And then I’m too involved to notice any pain.”