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Improv Asylum looks to break out

Hub comedy troupe has a show on Channel 5 – and national aspirations

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By Laura Collins-Hughes
Globe Staff / June 30, 2011

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The conventional way to go about shooting a television segment on a public beach would be to apply for a permit. But when the comedy troupe Improv Asylum wanted to shoot a “Deadliest Catch’’ parody on Duxbury Beach, they took a more streamlined approach.

The sketch — for “Improv Asylum’s Vanity Project,’’ the summer series premiering Saturday on WCVB (Channel 5) — was called “Clam Wars.’’ So company cofounder Norm Laviolette popped into town hall in Duxbury, where he lives, for a shellfishing license.

Any more bureaucracy than that, he explained, would have gotten in the way of the comedy. “This needs to move fast,’’ said Laviolette, one of the show’s three creators. “We’re runnin’ and gunnin.’ ’’

The hope is that Improv Asylum, with its fast-paced, not-by-the-book style, can launch itself to a higher level. The company, a local mainstay for 13 years, has national TV and film aspirations. To get there, the troupe is taking advantage of a seasonal programming lull, deploying the show while “Saturday Night Live’’ is in reruns.

“Every jerk has an idea,’’ Laviolette said. “Very few jerks have 10 full episodes.’’

By independently producing the scripted, half-hour show, which will air Saturdays at midnight through Labor Day weekend, Laviolette and cocreators Jeremy Brothers and Chet Harding are also taking a stand as homegrown performers. Since the passage of a movie tax credit in 2005, the state has seen an uptick in feature film and television production, some starring Boston’s favorite Hollywood sons. But Laviolette said Massachusetts still isn’t an easy place for locals to succeed on the screen.

“Certainly with Ben Affleck and Mark Wahlberg, they have committed to this area, and they’ve brought a lot of things here, which is awesome,’’ he said. “What we’re saying is, some of us are choosing to stay. But by choosing to stay, I’m not giving up on wanting to work at a higher level. And so we’re going to make our work ourselves. For now.’’

It’s not that Improv Asylum hasn’t tried pitching its ideas in Los Angeles. But the company isn’t the established brand there that it is in Boston. That name recognition helps immensely in getting permission to shoot in private locations ranging from coffee shops frequented by troupe members to Symphony Hall, where they did a piece with Boston Pops conductor Keith Lockhart — a running gag that will be sprinkled through the first episode.

The troupe’s live show, performed in its 180-seat Hanover Street theater, will always be the engine for its work, said Laviolette. Some of the sketches in the “Vanity Project’’ are adapted from the stage, and some will be written for characters that were developed there. But Harding, a cofounder of the company, said they’re still debating how much of the old to mix with the new. They’re also trying to figure out which pieces need a live audience to be effective, and which can come off in a recorded medium.

“Obviously, we know there’s some stuff onstage that worked very well onstage,’’ Harding said. “We know it’s funny, but which of those translates well to video?’’

On a drizzly day last week, more than a half-dozen people were crammed into the upstairs hallway of Stacey Princi’s Winchester home. The head producer of “Improv Asylum’s Vanity Project,’’ Princi had lent her house to the show on other occasions.

This time, her 2-year-old daughter’s bedroom had been transformed into the room of an adolescent girl, complete with a Justin Bieber poster on the wall. It was the set for a sketch called “Grounded TV,’’ written by and starring Taylor Burris.

“Taylor has done that scene probably 200 times, because we used to do it onstage, but it’s probably been three or four years since she’s done it,’’ said director of photography Chris Loughran, who shoots every piece in the “Vanity Project’’ and doubles as the editor of the series.

Burris, now living in Los Angeles, is a former main-stage performer with Improv Asylum who was brought back for the “Vanity Project.’’ In the sketch, she plays a grounded teenager who secretly webcasts her detention, including visits to her room by her mom and dad. To get the right look, it was shot with a camcorder.

After several takes, the group migrated down the hall to review the video in the navy blue, sports-themed bedroom of Princi’s 4-year-old son.

“This room and my dining room are the only rooms we haven’t shot in,’’ Princi said.

Brothers, who was directing the sketch and also playing the dad in it, sensed an opening.

“I’m going to play a little boy in this room,’’ he said, looking around.

For Improv Asylum, the gradual move to television is informed by an online push that it’s made over the past year and a half. The company’s video “Tom Brady’s Car Accident 911 Call’’ has been viewed more than 450,000 times on YouTube; its video “The Oscar-Winning Boston Movie’’ more than 57,000 times. “Vanity Project’’ will have an online presence as well; under a business agreement with Improv Asylum, sneak preview clips from the show will also run on Boston.com, with the possibility of shared advertising revenue.

Online viewers aren’t paying customers, but they represent a lot more eyes than can fit into Improv Asylum’s little theater.

“And so the scale of what you can reach, it is bigger,’’ Laviolette said. “We also know that our audience will follow us outside of the walls [of the theater]. That was important for us to see.’’

What the company can’t see online or on television, however, is the audience’s reaction.

“That’s the big leap from live performance to camera performance,’’ Laviolette said. “It’s a great unknown.’’

“Improv Asylum’s Vanity Project’’ is being shot on a slender budget, its ever-changing production schedule designed to accommodate the company’s regular work as well: performances at the theater, classes, corporate training sessions, private shows, speaking engagements.

These 10 episodes will give the company a tangible creative product to sell to potential partners. If all goes as planned, Laviolette said, any subsequent episodes would be financed differently, so that — for the length of production — the series would be the only full-time job for the people involved.

In the meantime, their guerrilla TV-making efforts continue. There was, for example, a scene they shot in broad daylight sans permit on the Rose F. Kennedy Greenway, not far from Improv Asylum headquarters.

“We try to be as inconspicuous as possible,’’ Loughran said, though that effort can ultimately be futile. “Since we are doing comedy and screaming and yelling most of the time, we do tend to draw a little bit of attention.’’

That’s what happened at the end of the day they spent on Duxbury Beach, where until then they’d been shooting “Clam Wars’’ undisturbed.

“Part of [the sketch] does involve, like, me walking around with a shotgun, shooting clams,’’ Laviolette said.

“Not only did you have a shotgun, but I’m dressed as a police officer, waving a gun on a bicycle,’’ Brothers said.

It was at that juncture in the script, they said, that the harbormaster’s office stepped in.

“Finally all these cars roll up and they’re like, ‘You guys have firearms?’ ‘Well, no. We have props,’ ’’ Laviolette said. “And honestly, they were great. They were like . . . ‘You’re supposed to get permission to do that.’ ’’

“At one point,’’ Brothers said, “Norm flashed his clamming badge.’’

The harbormaster’s office did not respond to the Globe’s request for comment. But Laviolette, who may want to shoot another “Vanity Project’’ segment on Duxbury Beach, said he’d do things differently in the future — at least in the town where he lives.

“I figure, the next time I’ll go and I’ll get permission,’’ he said.

“We learn,’’ Brothers said. “We’re learning.’’

Laura Collins-Hughes can be reached at lcollins-hughes@globe.com.