A headphone-wearing frat-type crosses the street toward Pimprov’s Marz Timms, Mark Bratton, and Keith Smitherman. He bounces to the beat, fingers tucked under his book-bag straps. “That’s what we call a walking victim,” Bratton says. “Guy like that is gonna get jumped.”
Bratton is a cop. Timms and Smitherman also have day jobs: computer technician and community coordinator for a head-start program, respectively. The fourth Pimprov member, Joe Henry, is a firefighter. Together, they moonlight as pimps—improv-comedy pimps.
Born three years ago as Chicago’s only all-black improv group, Pimprov doles out comedy on at least two levels. “We play guys who are actually pimps who took a comedy course,” says Smitherman. “They’re not trying to be stupid; they’re really trying to be the best comedians that they can be. But they’re pimps—their humor is shaded by their background. That’s difficult, because we have to be a character who is trying to be another character. So it’s like two steps away from ourselves.”
So the group came up with pimp identities—Ho’ Lease, Poochie, Grand Finale, and Timepiece—whose greatest personal expressions materialize via their costumes. They all own elaborate wardrobes, and Bratton even has his pimp clothes specially tailored. Smitherman’s tight yellow pants are the only wardrobe mainstay—they’re lucky, he says, because they helped him land his fiancée. “We just add decoration to improv,” Timms says. “You go to see a normal improv group, you see a bunch of white guys and a couple of girls, and they dress like they’re going to the bar to hang out or whatever. We want to bring improv to the masses, and the way to do that is to make it more like a show.”
Nothing escapes Pimprov scrutiny, not even the audience. They “cold call,” trying to recruit prostitutes from among the spectators, and even got two women to make out onstage once. Staying in character as pimps lets the foursome break from familiar improv standards, comment on each other’s performances, and break into onstage fights. “Art is supposed to be free, creative and stuff,” Smitherman says. “But improv is kind of stuffy and has a lot of rules and things that you’re supposed to follow. The good thing about our act is that we can break all those rules without people thinking less of us. We make a point of pointing them out and making fun of the conventions.”
“To be able to break the rules the way we do, you have to know the rules,” Timms says.
Pimprov is independent at the moment, but the group came up through Chicago’s fancier improv outlets, studying at Second City, I.O., and the Annoyance Theatre. They’re slotted for two shows at this year’s WORDSFest, a two-week festival celebrating Black History Month with poetry, comedy, hip-hop, and dance. On the surface, a group of improvising pimps might seem like a poor choice for a celebration of black history, but WORDSFest organizer Dionna Griffin recognizes the satire. “Comedy provides us a means to look at certain truths in our society and to laugh at them, ” she says.
Pimprov’s members are also sensitive to the line between satire and banality. They argue that they don’t adhere to the norms of ethnic comedy. By toying with audience expectations, they can shake things up. “I’m our worst critic,” Timms says. “If we don’t do a good job, we’re gonna come off the stage and the audience is gonna think we’re a bunch of ignorant black men. I think our audience gets it because we like to play to the top of our intelligence.”
But some people don’t get it. After a show in New York, a couple of producers with ties to HBO approached Pimprov about signing on for a show, saying they were looking for “an ethnic group.” Though they’d eventually like to pay the bills through their comedy, the members of Pimprov turned down the job because they didn’t want to do the sketches written for them. “They thought we were like, ‘Shit, fuck, ass, bitch, nigga, ho, tramp!’” Timms explains. “They said, ‘We bought the box set of The Jeffersons, and we watched The Jeffersons, so we know what makes the Jeffersons funny.’”
“They think ethnic humor is being crass and ignorant,” Smitherman adds. “Our pimps are very smart. They’re doing good comedy, the best way that they know how.”
Bratton resents the comedy world for always wanting to play it ethnic, pointing out that his favorite performer is Dennis Miller. Timms agrees: “Dave Chappelle set us back 20 years,” Marz says. “He has thoroughly embraced everything people expect blacks to do when they’re comedians.” —Emily Withrow