Funny Business

by Brian Clarey

Skydiving! England! Sarah Palin! Wall Street! Suffragists! Estelle Getty! What’s so funny about that? Well… nothing actually, except maybe for Estelle Getty, who definitely had her moments. But in the hands of a seasoned improvisational comedy troupe, these everyday people, places and things can be tweaked to the point of hilarity — usually. They can’t all be funny. On Saturday night in Greensboro, before the grand re-opening of the Idiot Box improvisational theater, which has recently been relocated lock, stock and barrel, piece by piece from across the street, Steve Lesser paces on the sidewalk out front. He’s not worried about the crowd making the transition to the new location: This space on the corner of Elm and McGee, which once housed O’Kennedy’s clothing store, sits right in the heart of the action, closer to the street than the old spot below the Empire Room, with more street-front signage and big windows looking on the thoroughfare. The first show at 8 p.m. drew 75 or 80 people, according to Lesser. And now the line stretches to the curb with a whole new crop of viewers looking to plunk down five bucks for a couple hours of funny. “The difference of hearing the crowd roar when I got on stage — it was amazing,” he says. “I got chills.” No, right now he’s sweating the arrival of his wife, the big star and emcee for the evening. The second show — the good one — starts at 10 p.m., and it wouldn’t be the same without her. It’s a team effort. Jennie Stencel, Lesser’s wife, hits the scene at 10:14, adjusting the ties on her white blouse and smoothing out her jeans. Less than 60 seconds later she’s on stage and rolling. “You’re sitting on a floor that I mopped thirteen times today,” she tells the audience, which has by now filled the room, hit the bar and settled in. “So pick your feet up.”

The Idiot Box 203 S. Elm St. Greensboro 336.274.2699;

WXII “Morning Show” Monday-Friday, 6 a.m. – 8:30 a.m.; cable channel 11

There’s a lot to love about Jennie Stencel. She’s beautiful, for one: a young, trim mom with fine, cornsilk hair and chiseled, patrician features. She’s successful, helming the Idiot Box with her husband for five years as performers, lecturers and businesspeople; and, a couple years ago, landing a spot on WXII’s weekday morning show (cable channel 11) as a traffic reporter while still somehow managing to raise her three children. But her most dominant trait, one that practically assaults you even if you’ve known her only a couple seconds, is that she’s aggressively, ruthlessly, stridently funny. That’s what drew Lesser into her orbit, more than the blonde locks, the clear blue eyes or her pleasing proportions — that wicked sense of humor that meshed so closely with his own. They met at an improv workshop in Chapel Hill, and the rest is sketch-comedy history. Part of her humor is incongruous, as apt to make a fart joke as feign schoolmarmish prudency or drop a sly, salacious wink. More Jenny McCarthy than Goldie Hawn, her husband calls her the “total package.” And she keeps everyone around her on their toes. If you have an internet connection and a heartbeat, you likely already know Jennie Stencel, even if you’ve never been to the Idiot Box or tuned in to the morning show or seen her at the playground with her kids. Go ahead and Google “rapping traffic girl.” I’ll wait. Yeah… that. It was shortly after the station brought her on to spice up the morning show. Some nice eye candy, a couple of laughs… what could go wrong? But television talent screws off at work just like the rest of us, and one morning after losing a bet to another talking head, Stencel had to rap the traffic report. Ten years ago it would be just another example of a mid-market television stunt that didn’t quite work. But the information age can be cruel: The video made it to YouTube and went viral, bringing the cringe-worthy performance to the attention of MSNBC, “The Soup,” Gawker and a horde of eviscerating bloggers. “Uh…,” she says. “I kind of got in trouble for that rap. But it got two-hundred thousand hits really quickly.” Comments on the YouTube page include sentiments like “Yes, yet more proof why white people shouldn’t rap,” “im gonna puke” and a simple “horrible.” But it’s probably drawn more viewers cumulatively than the last episode of “M*A*S*H.” The clip brought the Winston-Salem-based station into the national eye, publicity that couldn’t be bought for blood or money, and gave the morning show a big enough bump in the ratings that the controversy melted away. Eventually. “I don’t get in trouble anymore,” she says. Even the time she walked off set back in May — an event that has reached infamy both among the show’s crew and its viewers — was not a career-ending move. “It was in a ratings month,” she recalls, “but that’s not why I did it.” It was, simply put, an act of improvisation. “Nicole [Ducouer, a morning anchor] made fun of me,” she says. “And I didn’t have anything to say, so I got up and left.” Staying true to her comedy instincts, committed to the bit, she carried it to its end. Later that day, while leading a corporate training exercise at Krispy Kreme, she got a phone call. From her boss. “You’ve got to do something tomorrow,” he said. “It became kind of a story line,” she says. “Once you do improv, whatever you say you have to commit to. If you started it, finish it. It’s a rule of comedy.” Don’t call her goofy. “Goofiness on stage kills us,” Lesser says. “It kills what we do — in a bad way, not ‘kills’ in a comedy sense — if it comes across as insincere. We’re not trying to be clowns up there.” “The truth of it is what makes people laugh,” Jennie says. It’s the day before opening night in a week that’s been filled with planning, moving, inspections, last-minute construction — nothing funny about that. “Physical comedy always tends to work,” Lesser says. “Going in reverse is funny,” Stencel says. “If you repeat something often enough, it’s funny.” The TV show “Alf,” they agree, was funny. “The dad sounds just like Joe Lieberman,” Stencel says. “How come nobody makes a big deal about that?” A personal episode with kidney stones outside Disney World, Lesser recalls, had comedic potential. “It’s funny now,” he says, “but it might be a joke killer. Too many guys would relate. Childbirth might be funny….” “Things about it were funny,” she says. “I got to poop on a table in front of a whole bunch of people. “Poop is always funny,” she says. “Okay,” she says from the Idiot Box stage. “I need an activity.” “Mountain climbing!” a mouth shouts from the darkened seats. “Okay, let’s take away the mountain; let’s make it some landmark somewhere in the world.” “Gatlinburg!” “Gatlinburg?” she says, writing it on a pad. “Oooo-kay. Now let’s take away his walking stick and make it something else. “A crutch!” “A crutch? Way to change it up, lady.” It’s an improvisational exercise wherein the troupe, using mime and nonsensical language, must convey the audience’s Mad-Libbing to another performer, who is waiting in silence. “Now,” Lesser says from the stage, “I know a lot about Gatlinburg, but….” “It’s in Tennessee!” the disembodied voice shouts. “So it’s in Tennessee,” Lesser says. “That’s all we need.” And the bit goes down, culminating in a description of a game of foosball played on a matchbox against Sarah Palin, and the little players on the table are all suffragists. I know it doesn’t sound like much, but trust me: It kills. The troupe is sharp and light on its feet. Three of the five performers hold PhD’s, including Dave Dobson, who achieved a bit of internet notoriety himself when he invented the infernal downloadable timewaster known as “Snood.” Lesser also holds a PhD — in neurobiology with a day job as an executive at Medidata, and he uses his corporate savvy to market his improvisational skills to a whole new audience. “We do corporate training sessions,” he says. “In order for us to do what we do, we have to work together. It’s the same basic concept. Things like listening — everybody thinks they do it well, but a little practice helps. Morale building.” “They usually by the end like each other more,” Stencel says. “This is so different from stand-up,” Lesser says, though stand-up comedy is often on the menu at the Idiot Box. “You’re up there with other people, and they make you look good. A good improv performer is not trying to make himself look good. He’s there for everybody.” “Thirty seconds!” Jennie Stencel takes her place at the anchor desk alongside Nicole Ducouer while the other morning anchor, Kimberly Van Scoy, settles in the interview parlor with two guys who are putting on a chili festival this weekend at Tanglewood Park. Van Scoy, a seasoned broadcast journalist who includes stops in Memphis, Anchorage and Boise on her resume, coaxes out the whens and wheres while Ducouer and Stencel work out a bit off camera. When they throw it to the anchor desk, Ducouer starts in. “I was a judge at a chili cook-off,” she says. “I had to sample like sixty kinds of chili. “Did you wear a bikini?” Stencel asks. “No, I didn’t wear a bikini,” the anchor says. And she remembers the chili didn’t have any beans in it. “So,” Stencel says, “there were no fanny burps?” Ladies and gentlemen: fanny burps. Ducouer blushes under her makeup; Austin Caviness swallows a guffaw over in the Weather Center. This was clearly not part of the set-up. Stencel is unfazed, and before she drops the traffic report — fortunately for us all, not in street verse — she uncorks a sharp raspberry. “I didn’t really know what to make of her,” Van Scoy says after the segment. “But she grew on me real fast. She keeps it light — we needed to laugh. Life is serious; there’s so much bad news. I love that we can laugh in the morning. “You have to really be on your game in the morning,” she continues. “That’s why I believe Jennie is such a big part of our family — she can shock me awake sometimes.” After the traffic rap, Van Scoy says, “I was like, ‘Okay, this show is going in a totally different direction.’” Ducouer is a relative rookie, with just a couple years as reporter and anchor under her belt, and she also recalls the traffic rap as a jarring incident. “It was like my second day,” she says. “I was like, ‘Who is this girl? Why is she on TV? Someone’s gonna get fired.’” Between segments — Stencel appears on-air about seven times between 6 and 8:30 a.m. — she jockeys between computers at a peripheral workstation in the newsroom, generally with a couple crew members looking on adorably. She deciphers the traffic patterns on a PC and then creates a graphic on a relatively ancient jellybean iMac. “I was not good here for a while,” she admits. “Nobody taught me anything. The girl I replaced trained me…. Can you imagine? They kept talking about a ‘package.’ ‘We’ll do an MOS.’ I was like, ‘What language are you speaking?’ “Improv helped,” she says. “I could just pretend I knew what I was doing.” She goes off to read her report in front of the blue screen in a corner of the studio. Her notes about an accident on Business 40 are written on a receipt from Target. “I think she’s helped solidify us as a really good team,” Van Scoy says. “And the ratings show it. Other stations in other markets — they’re doing this all over.” Now husband and wife sit in the sunlight streaming in from the front windows of the newest incarnation of their funny, funny lives. Which one is funnier? “Me,” Stencel says. “She’s quicker, obviously,” Lesser says. “But it depends on what you’re talking about. We’re different. If you were to ask the audience, they’d each say something different.” “We complement each other,” Stencel says. “If he’s having a great show, and I’m having an okay show, it still makes me happy.” “More so than with the other performers,” Lesser says, “when something doesn’t work, we feel for each other.” Lesser estimates that the two have been on stage together perhaps 3,000 times, at least 1,000 of them under the Idiot Box banner. “Our social life is here, too,” Stencel says, “with the people we spend three nights a week with. If just one of us did this, we would probably be divorced.” She sweeps a strand of blonde behind her ear and scrunches up her face. “Being in love is great,” she says, “but there needs to be some compatibility.” To comment on this story, e-mail Brian Clarey at”” ‘