Just the Funny's Actors Search for Truth in Spontaneous Jokes
Up a narrow stairway off Coral Way, in a windowless backroom on the second floor, a young man screams, "I don't know which medications I'm taking anymore! I want to be me, but I don't know who that is!"
Sweat gathers on his wide sideburns. He hasn't yet changed out of his polo shirt from the cell-phone store where he works, though the shirt is wrinkled at the hem from having been tucked in all day.
"Good," Mike Nato mouths. Nato is boyish even in his early 40s, with messy blond hair atop his head and lines around his eyes that make him look like he's laughing even when he isn't. He has told his student to "think of the color black and try to embody that color." But before beginning the exercise, he warns in earnest, "I once gave a student orange, and it broke him. He just stood there, and then he broke."
The unadorned off-white walls and mismatched chairs seem better suited for an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting than an improvisational comedy class, but that's exactly what Nato is teaching.
"I don't want this," his student bellows, a freight elevator door behind him instead of a curtain. He's trembling, his round face turning red. "Nobody sees me."
"And scene!" Nato barks. The six other class members applaud more than politely. "I'm just glad I gave you black instead of orange," he says.
The class includes a shaggy stoner hanging off a dining room chair and a clean-cut, square-jawed man who later acts out the color green as a financier who says, "I'm gonna drop my balls on your face." There's also a giant whose face bears patches of gray stubble and who clutches his side thanks to a recent bicycle accident. He will be assigned purple and deliver a harrowing monologue of having been abused as a child.
Just the Funny — that's what the bright yellow sign says in front of the 108-seat theater. Founded in 1999, it's one of Miami's longest-running improv groups and winner of five New Times Best of Miami awards. Later in the class, the cell-phone salesman will not be able to stop laughing when playing a convict with a foot fetish who's lusting after his cellmate's socks. But when he strays too close to shtick, Nato stops him.
"Don't distract yourself with jokes," he says. "Find something truthful and the jokes will come."
That's close to the essence of Nato's philosophy, says Maria Tomaino. She's in charge of events and marketing at the University of Miami's career center, and she's also a Just the Funny main-stage player. "When people come to our shows, they are paying to see live art," she says.
Carlos Rivera, who by day works in accounting at a property management company, proudly crows about having played characters such as a "combination gynecologist and brain surgeon" but will then quickly transition to talking about "craft" and "truth." Tomaino compares the restorative benefits of improv training to yoga in their abilities to harness energy and "give people the power to be themselves."
But in recent shows, Nato has also played a horny zombie and a man accused of using a tomato to sleep with his friend's wife. Luis Madera, another cast member, cites one of Nato's performances as the funniest thing he's ever seen on the Just the Funny stage.
"We were having an intervention onstage for Mike, who was addicted to tomatoes," Madera recalls. "If he could steal a V8, he would. He would find excuses to be alone with other people's pizzas. And it was silly, but he acted just like an addict. He was an addict up there."
There are two things to note here. The first is South Florida's apparently lurid interest in tomatoes.
Second, there's the cast's devotion to summoning truth and not jokes in the footlights. The Just the Funny performers don't talk about their performances as though they are comedians but as if they're all on spiritual quests. Nato says that to succeed in improv, "you really have to get away from yourself and go down this journey. And then five years in, you start to find yourself again."
Nato is cagey about his own journey, offering, "I'm from Detroit and was there for 31 years. I left about eight years ago to start over."
Sitting in the front row of the theater where two nights earlier he'd been a jock secretly in love with one of his fantasy football buddies, he looks away to the empty stage and quickly moves past the reasons for his reinvention. "I'm a single man. I have no family in the United States. This, to me, is my family."
He works in IT and has a master's from Florida International University. He installed the camera system in the Just the Funny theater but otherwise keeps one world confined to its 9-to-5 hours and lets another one live on the stage and in class. "My full name is Michael Schiavinato," he says, "but my name here, 'Mike Nato,' is something that digests easier. I'm perfectly fine with being that."
Jonathan Cabrera is one of the youngest and sharpest members of the cast. His style tends toward the surreal, conjuring tiny Jeeps that buzz around like mosquitoes, and making narwhal puns (it's possible: "I don't want no ceilings, nor floors, narwhals.")
"Currently, I'm looking for a job," he says. "I was a shipping and receiving manager, but in the past few weeks, I've also been an architect, a bank robber, a cave dweller, and a superhero. When you're a child and you're playing, you can be anything. Doing improv, you can keep that alive as an adult."
The best performers keep some part of their real selves onstage at all times, Cabrera says. "Maria on- and offstage is really loud and high energy. Mike is the same way. And I have fun. You may be performing, but it's still brand-new things you've never seen before, and you're going to find it funny too."
Miami isn't the easiest place to hone an improv obsession. Cabrera, for one, pines for "a larger place where they have a broader improv community. But part of me wants to build something here in South Florida. I'm from here."
Even Rivera, who has been in the group since three months after it began in 1999, is "toying with the idea of moving to Chicago or Los Angeles to study the craft a bit more." From his perspective, what Miami improv lacks are performers who have left to study the craft elsewhere and have returned with their knowledge.
There's hope that Just the Funny will continue to grow, though. It had been nomadic like most other Miami improv groups until it landed its theater space nearly six years ago. Tom Neile, one of Just the Funny's owners and cast members, outlines a five-year plan for the group: "We're very close to being able to serve alcohol, and that's going to be a big step for us."
Informed of Neile's plan, though, Nato is less enthusiastic. "They say that's what's going to take us to the next level, but it's not," he says of alcohol sales. "We have such talent here in Miami, and when I go to these other cities like New York, Chicago, and L.A., I keep thinking that we're doing the same thing. But until we build that marketable entertainment world — one where Lorne Michaels is flying down to see shows or something — it's going to be an underground thing. That's not bad. It keeps it pure."
Some former Just the Funny players have gone to those cities in search of a bigger platform. Eddie Mujica is in the Second City theater's touring company. Joey Greer works as a comedian in Los Angeles. Maxx Maulion also went to L.A. and starred in Tony Tango, a South Florida-set comedy that screened at this year's Miami International Film Festival.
As for the current cast and current shows, Tomaino cautions, "You have to be there. Watching a recorded improv show is like watching recorded fireworks." The classes are something else altogether. They are like watching fireworks in your hand, the fuse sizzling.
Nato's class has moved to the theater's stage to take advantage of the air conditioning. The students are looser and freer as they enter the third hour of exercises and instruction — the phone salesman now an ebullient purse snatcher who delights in targeting old women. A thickly accented man in a dress shirt explains his incarceration for loitering: "I never really did anything with my life. And so one day I went outside. And I stayed there."
The lanky stoner brushes his hair off his forehead and tells 108 vacant seats about his life of regret as a superhero. "I'm taking off my mask and starting over," he says sincerely. "The rest of the world can burn, but who is going to save me?"
There's no joke, but Mike Nato nods and laughs anyway.
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