Comedy and Chaos 

Bob’s Family returns to Missoula by unexplained powers

Linear logic is something that most people have no practical use for. In ways that we can only begin to understand, Chaos Theory is what makes people the fallible but damned interesting creatures that they are. Freudian slips and the uncanny ability people have to run into the same so-called “random” person every single morning on the way to work, as well as when they leave the house unexpectedly for a midnight snack, prove that we have little control over events, and even less over the order in which they occur.

Improv comedy is a nice, neat showcase of this. Well, nice and neat might not quite apply, but relative to how Bob’s Family got together, nothing is more cookie-cutter controlled. What witticisms and bodily free-fall that come with the unmeditated reactions of comedians to each other are all to be expected. However, the combination of Beer, God and Public Television that have all played a role in the yo-yo come and go of Missoula’s favorite improv group are of a more mysterious nature.

In the fall of 1997, the bald and bloody head of a newly born improv group named Bob’s Family popped out in front of six people at the Crystal Theater. It was gig numero uno and a somewhat inauspicious start to what would turn out to be a wildly successful run entertaining Missoula and enhancing the diversity of its nightlife. Since that odd start as opening act for a kung-fu movie, Bob went on to play throughout the city, most prominently at The Old Post. “We played at a bunch of places in town and the Old Post was really the best audience,” explained founding member Eva Gilliam.

But a good thing can only last so long, and for the members of Bob’s Family, there were enticing opportunities pulling them in various directions. So, in September of 1999, the Family separated and the group’s members went disparate ways, physically and artistically. Maggie Carey went to Austin to pursue an MFA in film, but has returned to Missoula for the summer to produce a documentary for Montana PBS. Chris Fairbanks also ventured to the Lone Star capital to try his hand at stand-up comedy and, unexpectedly (chaos at work again), started work “designing T-shirts for frat boys.” Gilliam, the facilitator of Bob’s birth, spent time doing carpentry in Antarctica and then returned to Missoula to work with an environmental consulting group. Curt Shirling has been bringing tearful joy to millions and millions of tourists in his job as a tour bus driver in Chicago, that is, when he’s not working his way up the “Saturday Night Live” ladder. And Jason Anthony is writing theater reviews, a play or two of his own, and working his way up the socialite ladder in New York.

A year and many adventures later, Bob has made his way home. While their lives will continue to go on elsewhere after the reunion show, the group is happy to be back in a city so “open to improv,” as Fairbanks says. “In Austin, there’s a lot of good groups, but it’s almost flooded with that kind of thing. … People know what to expect.” It seems Austin likes its comedy in measured lines, and so holds a tight rope around chaos. While “the relationship between comedies and Chaos Theory is fascinating but unexplored,” according to Anthony, there can be no doubt that it is working for the benefit of Bob’s Family and their Missoula audience.

The group is hoping that the freshness of both their own comedy and the unjaded attention of the audience that Bob’s Family came to depend on in Missoula, will be resurrected when they try out a multi-media approach to comedy this Thursday and Saturday. New things such as a “Kids in the Hall”-influenced incorporation of short films, as well as pre-planned sketches, a little stand-up action and song-and-dance (if we’re lucky), will be scattered throughout the 90-minute show.

And it’s not just the different mechanisms for laughter that have changed. It seems time away from Missoula has made Bob’s Family even more endeared to the Garden City’s charms and quirks. Listen for a nod to local breweries, the environmental, stoner, and loner sets, and that old Montana adage that if you’re standing you could be steering. And always remember they’re laughing with you.

Because, Missoula, they’ve missed you.

Bob’s Family brings the joy of laughter to The Old Post Thursday, July 27 and Saturday, July 29 at 9 p.m. $2.

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