Garrens legend is only five years young

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    By JILL DAVIES

    Ask anyone around campus who the Garrens are and you may get an answer similar to this:

    “Oh yeah, The Garrens. BYU’s funnymen. The Garrens Comedy Troupe has been around forever.”

    Actually, just five years to be exact. The Garrens, who are celebrating their 5th anniversary this weekend, have become so much of a household name since Eric Snider founded the club in January 1993, few remember when it wasn’t around.

    “The Garrens are an institution at BYU as much as the Varsity Theater or the Cougareat,” Snider said. But the Garrens — once a club, now a business — have come a long way from being the good idea of a DT Q-Hall resident.

    Snider did some acting in high school and toyed with the idea of starting his own comedy troupe. Once he arrived at BYU, he did the paperwork to start a BYUSA club.

    Snider and his friend Braden Jacobs brainstormed for names in the inspirational Morris Center. Joyce Garren, head resident of Q-hall at the time, was mentioned in passing. Snider repeated her name in his head. “What about the Garrens?”

    “I said it (in a way that) if it was a dumb idea then I was just joking after all, but if it was a good idea, I was serious,” Snider said. Jacobs liked the name. “The Garrens” it was.

    Snider and Jacobs held open auditions for the Garrens and came up with the original nine-member cast. (Well, 10, actually, but one member dropped out after the second rehearsal — “like the fifth Beatle,” Snider said.) They rehearsed and performed sketches written by Snider and other members of the troupe.

    By their third week of shows, the Garrens was a sell-out. That first season, mainly freshmen — lacking cars and low on cash — flocked to the Garrens since admission was $1 and the shows were on campus.

    The humor centered around BYU and LDS culture. Popular sketches and songs used jokes that had been around “since the Restoration,” Snider said, but had never been done on stage before. Hits included “A Whole New Ward,” “Sweet Spirit,” “Testimony Bingo,” and the crowd favorite, “Seminary Filmstrip.”

    A different episode of Seminary Filmstrip was performed each week, Snider said. Two cast members would strike a pose while Snider and cast member Jenni Smith made wisecracks based on their positions. Someone made a beep sound, the actors changed positions, and the dialogue continued. “It was just a big ol’ crowd-pleaser,” Snider said.

    “We rarely, if ever, crossed the line from ‘funny’ to ‘sacriligious’,” Snider said. “We tried to be careful about that.

    As time went on and the Garrens expanded, so did their humor. “Saying, ‘That’s impossible! That’s like trying to find a Dr Pepper on campus!’ is not a joke, but people will laugh at it — for a while,” Snider said. “If you’re going to be doing jokes about Mormon culture and BYU it does limit you. Those jokes are like shooting fish in a barrel.”

    So the Garrens worked to be more sophisticated, more creative, more clever. Older and more experienced students joined the cast. Eric left the Garrens to serve an LDS mission three months after the troupe’s first show. By the time he returned, the Garrens had gone from club to business under the direction of Lincoln Hoppe, current director of the Garrens.

    “We were always jumping through hoops because the Garrens … didn’t fit into any of the areas that BYUSA had set up,” Hoppe said. The club was making a lot of money but, as a club, was unable to pay the actors. Being a business gave them more options. What had begun as a club had become a troupe of “serious” comedians.

    “(The Garrens) is a serious acting company. We try to make things as professional as we can,” Hoppe said. “The more specific and clear comedy is, the funnier it is — and it takes hard work, practice and solid writing to get to that point.”

    Improvisation has become a stronger presence with the Garrens in recent years. Each season, the cast performs at least one “all-improv” show. Snider said the troupe has different “improv-games” — basic formats of how an improv will be done — but the improvisation is genuine.

    In order to prove to the audience that a sketch is unplanned, the Garrens usually ask members of the audience for ideas. “It’s sort of like the magician,” Snider said. “`No tricks and nothing up my sleeve.’ You show the audience that you’re making the ideas up as you go along.”

    There have been hundreds — maybe thousands — of bloopers along the road, Hoppe said. Clothes ripping off, people forgetting to come on stage and random comments from audience members come with the territory.

    Even cast members like to throw each other off at times, Hoppe said. Their favorite device? Kissing.

    “One time one of the other male cast members kissed me during the scene because it was funny and unexpected,” Hoppe said. “It got a huge reaction … it was just (a peck), but it threw me off.”

    Whether the Garrens have been poking fun at the BYU dating scene, Preference or a cappella music, they’ve helped students to laugh at themselves, Snider said. The troupe made several jokes about the Cody Judy incident in the Marriott Center in February 1993.

    In this incident, Cody Judy burst into a fireside address by President Howard W. Hunter, then President of the Quorum of the Twelve, and claimed to have a bomb. He was stopped without any serious difficulties, and it was discovered that he actually had no weapons at all. The Daily Universe quickly dubbed the situation “The Marriott Center Ordeal.”

    “It obviously wasn’t funny at the time,” Snider said. “But after a couple days went by and we realized he never had any weapons, he was just crazy, everyone began to laugh about it.” The Garrens’ sketches were a good example of “showing that we were able to laugh at our fears that had been unfounded,” Snider said. Those sketches about Cody Judy — President Hunter was never mentioned or referred to — were among the most popular of the semester, Snider said.

    Of course, BYU students aren’t the only ones laughing to the upbeat humor of the Garrens anymore. The Garrens have appeared on local television programs, toured all over the United States, and their CD, “Garrens Comedy Troupe Live!”, has aired on national radio and as far away as Australia. The troupe will be releasing their first video later this season.

    Despite their success, the Garrens don’t exist for the money, the laughter or the fame, Hoppe said. “The Garrens exist to change the world one person at a time through laughter.”

    Hoppe said not all of the sketches are designed to make people better, but they are designed to make people think. “Even by making fun of stupid things that people do, some people realize … it’s stupid to make fun of people, it’s stupid to be racist,” Hoppe said. “For me, there’s absolutely no point in doing anything like this unless you’re helping other people.”

    The Garrens have progressed for five years because they help people to take life a little less seriously, Snider said.

    “Usually, if there’s ever been a point to a sketch, it’s been, ‘Gee, isn’t life silly?'”

    So how long will the Garrens be around?

    “The day we stop getting better is the day to quit,” Hoppe said. “For me, (the Garrens) is an improving kind of thing, a constant testing to respond to the challenge of, ‘That was pretty good — that was dang good — how are we going to make it dang better?'”

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