‘The British are coming’ to ‘Freq Out’

By Lisa Schulz

Harrison O’Neal sits cross-legged in a leather chair with an old book in hand, his hair styled in a greased comb-over and fake rotten teeth in his mouth. A fireplace, statue and a painting mimicking his formal posture surround him in an odd scene introducing four exchange students from Bath Spa University in England to satirical American humor.

Columbia’s Television Department dipped its toes in British humor during its second annual student-produced live sketch comedy show, “Freq Out: A View from Across the Pond,” before a 300-member studio audience. Frequency TV, the department’s Web channel, recorded and broadcast the hour-long performance April 14 in the Media Production Center, 1600 S. State St.

“We thought that British humor didn’t understand or do sarcasm at all, but it turns out they’re more sarcastic than us,” said O’Neal, senior television major and a “Freq Out” writer and producer. “We thought that was kind of funny. Before they came over, we’re like, ‘Alright everyone, watch your sarcasm because they don’t get it.’”

Seeing other countries honor or borrow styles and working with international students was a reminder that the TV industry is bigger than the Chicago market, O’Neal said. BSU faculty member Phil Purves joked that the British Broadcasting Channel is worried about Americans catching up with British humor.

“Freq Out” won a Student Achievement Award from the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences in April 2011, as previously reported by The Chronicle on Nov. 21. This year’s sketches included parodies inspired by the British pop group Spice Girls, talk show hosts, Americanized shows and American-made products. Both English and American stereotypes were a prevalent theme throughout the show.

Robin Bargar, dean of the School of Media Arts, parodied a college administrator. He guest starred in the first sketch, in which he received an office call notifying him “two fat guys are here to see you.” After taking a seat, O’Neal and another cast member attempted to convince Bargar of the show’s humor and legitimacy. With a serious face and a straightforward yet sarcastic tone, he denied the program the opportunity to be part of Columbia.

Poking fun at stereotypes in comedy promotes easier discussion, rather than being fearful or ignoring the problem, Bargar said.

“It’s actually calling attention to the stereotype of being an administrator [and] being a new dean,” he said. “Then we had this prioritization process which also has a lot people making hard decisions, so administrators [at Columbia] are even more alienated [right now] than they really are. I thought this was a good chance to recover from that.”

The prerecorded sketch served as Bargar’s greeting to BSU students while he was in California for the Semester in L.A. program. Even with a background in filmmaking and music composition, he said he used exaggeration to make up for his lack of acting skills and avoid interfering with the flow of the “very talented” student actors.

Unintentional occurrences accompanied the live production, like delayed lighting control and a ringing sound that possibly came from an audience member’s cellphone. Director Andy McCoy improvised by taking a deep breath in frustration and gripping his hands around the bars separating the sound panel from the audience. In times like these, O’Neal said it’s best to be prepared for the unexpected.

Michael Niederman, Television Department chair who played an on-screen role because the cast “needed an old person,” said improvisation and mistakes are part of the learning experience.

“The whole process is to prepare students to deal with what comes up,” Niederman said. “The difference of the people who succeed in the universe and people who don’t succeed is the ability to deal with what comes up.”

Live comedy comes with the pressure of correct timing and an audience’s response, Bargar said.

More projects that require teamwork and extend to pre-professional work are very important to a student’s creative education.

“[The students] are actually challenging themselves because the risk factor is really high because if it’s not funny, everyone knows it’s not funny,” Bargar said. “When they had the right combination of people, props and timing, it was no different than what you would see on a comedy program like ‘Saturday Night Live.’”

Similar to “SNL”’s format, Fly Phoenix, a Columbia band that performed at Manifest 2010, played during intermission.

In lieu of commercials, producers played a prerecorded performance from the BSU band Rhubarb.

“Freq Out” did not achieve its goal of securing a guest celebrity but will try again next April, O’Neal said. The team has already began planning for production next September. He said another award is not out of the question.

“I actually don’t have anything negative to say about one aspect of the show,” O’Neal said. “[But] I think that if we did the show in order to win the award, then we’re doing it for all the wrong reasons.”