With the eighth annual Gilda’s LaughFest approaching, comedy acts will be stopping by Grand Rapids for 10-days straight. One act that won’t be leaving though is River City Improv, a group that has spent almost a quarter-century entertaining the city and has shown no signs of slowing down.
Longevity in comedy isn’t accidental and River City Improv is the result of loving what you do. GR|MAG talked with Jeff VanHaitsma and Pete Vandersluis, who with nearly 50 years of experience between the two of them, are the experts.
GR|MAG: Are you all based in Grand Rapids?
Jeff VanHaitsma: Yes. Our whole team is greater Grand Rapids natives, but also very passionate about West Michigan which is a big part of the group. What makes River City interesting is that we are all passionate about our community and passionate about clean comedy that’s actually . . . good . . .
Pete Vandersluis: Funny. Funny is important.
Jeff: I think there’s a lot of people who want [good family comedy] and it’s hard to find. River City has really built that niche here in West Michigan over the last 24 years.
GR|MAG: How has River City stood the test of time and remained relevant in Grand Rapids so long?
Pete: Well, the beautiful thing about improv is the information we play off comes from our audience. So, whatever’s happening is what we are forced to talk about. Ten, twelve years ago we didn’t get stuff about Trump, but now we do.
Jeff: [Improv] naturally stays relevant.
GR|MAG: Have you had to change any techniques to adapt?
Pete: The principles of improv are: working together, agreeing with and building off topics, so in that regard, we are doing it the same.
Jeff: Technique-wise, not a lot of changes, but where we’ve grown is we have a blend of people. We have fresh new faces and old farts like us, and that creates a lot more relevance to the crowd and different dynamics.
Pete: There are some things that get thrown on stage that some of us aren’t even aware of, but as long as you make it funny it’s all good. What else matters?
GR|MAG: Is it difficult to add new people to the group and keep the chemistry?
Pete: It’s about learning how people work on stage. There are habits that you fall into and it’s just trying to learn where each other tends to fall.
Jeff: I think what’s important in improv, and the foundation of what River City is built on, is chemistry. It’s more about: Can we relate personally? Do they fit into this group? Are they passionate about quality clean comedy? We never do a show that we walk off and go, ‘Wow I wouldn’t have paid to go see that.’ And the other big thing is we are all Christians who are passionate about living a life that is bigger than ourselves.
Pete: I was looking forward to joining the River City Improv group, but I had no idea that I would gain friends—and to a large degree, a family.
GR|MAG: Do you believe that family aspect is noticeable to the audience?
Pete: I don’t think it’s overt, but you just know it.
Jeff: One thing I hear all the time is that people’s favorite part of the show is watching the ones on stage who aren’t performing because they’re having so much fun. I have as much fun watching a scene as I do when I’m in one.
GR|MAG: With Laughfest coming up soon, how has that festival’s tenure brought more recognition to the group?
Pete: [In terms of recognition], we’ve had people as far away as Ottawa County talk about us.
Jeff: (laughs at Pete) We have a very loyal following. Being in Laughfest has gotten us people who never knew we existed, so Laughfest brings us an entirely different crowd.
Pete: For us, it’s just a great way to assist our community, but it’s also a great way to let our community know who we are.
GR|MAG: Are there any expectations for Laughfest as a group?
Jeff: It’s exciting. We get a different crowd, which typically brings out different perspectives and leads to an entirely different show.
Pete: Sometimes the crowd is more . . . eclectic.
Jeff: Good word! But having Laughfest here is so cool. Grand Rapids has a rich improv history and great improv scene because they’ve invested it. It isn’t just about River City; it’s that Grand Rapids has embraced it.
GR|MAG: What do you want to make sure everyone knows about River City?
Pete: We’re funny! I think there’s a misconception with ‘clean comedy’ where people think it isn’t as funny. Sometimes ‘blue comedy’ is the easy route.
Jeff: Some people think you have to lower your standards to enjoy clean comedy, but we’re picky about who’s on our team and provide a great product to audiences.
Pete: Every show is different. It is like an inside joke that only the people in that theater will understand.
River City Improv Laughfest Schedule:
- March 10, 7:33 p.m. at the Ladies Literary Club
- March 17, 7:33 p.m. at the Ladies Literary Club