This was going to be a quiet year for the Heart of La Crosse comedy troupe. Just a December show and a few side projects by troupe members, and that would be it for 2005. But then Marie Heider came calling.
Actually, it wasn't Marie Heider calling but Dan Heertz, arts director of the Marie W. Heider Center for the Arts, a new auditorium and arts space at West Salem High School. He was hoping to get a comedy show going as a fund-raiser for the Heider Center and called Heart of La Crosse member Lisa Warsinske, who with her husband, Jim, have a comedy-for-hire firm called Comedy Alley.
Heertz was thinking about hiring Comedy Alley, not daring to hope he could get the Heart of La Crosse, especially on the heels of 2004's silver anniversary "best of" show and last month's Christmas show.
But Heertz not only got the Heart troupe, he got a larger than usual cast, with at least eight players lined up to take part in the Jan. 22 show instead of the usual five or six.
The Heart of La Crosse was born in 1980 when three theater majors at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse - Dan Lee, Kapp Kapter and Sean Ryan Kelley - went to a Minneapolis show at Dudley Riggs' Brave New Workshop. At that show, the trio experienced a night of sketch comedy and improvisational humor in the vein of "Saturday Night Live" and Chicago's Second City, and they convinced themselves they could do it, too.
The group drew only 35 people with its first show - "Brat on a Bun, or Hold That Kraut" - but the troupe and its irreverent, no-holds-barred humor soon caught on, partly because many of the sketches poked fun at local targets.
Heart of La Crosse's first life ran for about four years, then the troupe went into a kind of extended hibernation, doing only one show in 12 years. Basically, Lee said, they all got real jobs and didn't have time for comedy.
In 1996, though, Lee got the troupe going again and Heart of La Crosse has been performing regularly ever since. A speech, theater and English teacher at La Crosse Logan High School, Lee said the reason he returned to comedy and keeps doing it is pretty simple: "It's that adrenaline rush of writing something and then hearing people laugh at it."
Also, Lee added, "I just love to take good cheap shots at the city of La Crosse and people who can't defend themselves."
The idea of the West Salem show appealed to Lee, Heart's director and producer, in part because of his West Salem roots. Both sets of his grandparents lived in West Salem, and he was born in the house of one of them - Edwin Vogel, once the "strawberry king of West Salem."
Also, he noted, his mother was a classmate of the late Marie Heider, whose generous bequeath made the West Salem High School's arts center possible.
The West Salem show also is appealing because it gives the Heart troupe a new target for it's humor. The show is titled "If This is West Salem, Where's the Car Dealership," and it will feature a sendup of the classic musical "West Side Story" called "West Salem Story."
A comic mini-musical, "West Salem Story" is an adaptation of the previous Heart parody, "North Side Story," which was set in La Crosse.
The 90-minute show will feature mostly classic sketches, political jabs and song parodies from past Heart shows, tweaked a bit for the West Salem audience, as well as a good dose of physical humor.
Lee's favorite sketch, "The Naming of the Towns," which dates back to the first Heart of La Crosse show, will be part of the West Salem bill.
The show also will feature a 20-minute segment of improvisational comedy, along the lines of Drew Carey's show, "Whose Line Is It Anyway?"
Lisa Warsinske, who grew up in Onalaska and was barely out of middle school when Heart of La Crosse was formed, gets a big kick out of the improvisational segments. With improv, the audience gets input into the show and the cast has to really think on its feet.
And contrary to what a lot of people think, Warsinske said, "you absolutely do rehearse improv."
Warsinske has sung with the Apple Annies since 1994, has done voice work for commercials and has done on-air radio work for a number of stations, but her stage experience was pretty limited when she auditioned for Heart of La Crosse in 2000.
The troupe was looking for a female cast member, and Heart member and fellow Apple Annie Carolyn Nelson urged Warsinske to audition. "Since I was born a girl, I got to try out," Warsinske said.
She got the spot in the cast, and Warsinske's husband joined the troupe soon after. Although the Warsinske's earn money through their Comedy Alley business, nobody in Heart of La Crosse can do without a day job.
Four members - Lee, Bret Emmel, Tami Ray Weiss and Barry Monte - are teachers. Brad Williams is a longtime reporter for a local radio station, Jim Warsinske is the manager of Sign Pro in La Crosse and David Murray, who is working on a one-man show, works at The Company Store.
In addition to pulling weekend disc jockey shifts at Z-93, Lisa Warsinske, a former radio news reporter, works at Gundersen Lutheran as a senior office assistant. And despite her years in Heart of La Crosse, she said, "I'm not the funniest one here."
While the West Salem Heart show will feature a lot of classic sketches - including "Slide Whistle Blues," "Gladys Goes Shopping" and "Butcher Brothers - the troupe also spent some time writing some new material.
"We've got some great comedy material for this show," Lee said.
Much of the material is biting sarcasm and it might seem like the troupe holds nothing back, but Lee said there actually are lines the Heart of La Crosse doesn't cross. "You wouldn't believe the things we can't put on stage," Lee said. For example, he said, recent ideas rejected included a song parody, "Tsunami," set to the song "Volare."
With the improv, he noted, it's hard to tell where the comedy will go. "Once it's out of their mouths, you've got to go with it," Lee said.
Parents should consider the show rated PG-13, although the majority of the comedy will be suitable for families. Warsinske pretty much has to keep her material clean because she usually tests it on her son, Trevin.
"I run my comedy past my 9-year-old," she said. "He won't laugh unless it's funny."
AT A GLANCE
WHAT: Heart of La Crosse comedy troupe show, "If This Is West Salem, Where's the Car Dealership."
WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 22.
WHERE: Marie W. Heider Center for the Arts at West Salem High School.
COST: Tickets are $5 in advance, $7 at the door. Tickets by be reserved by calling 790-5452 or purchased online at www.ticketleap.com.