A group of around 10 Barnard and Columbia students stand in a circle rhythmically banging their hands on their legs, finishing each other’s sentences with anything but the expected. Trust, focus, and humor mix to create a bond between the members of Third Wheel in a lighthearted space away from academic stresses. On Tuesday and Sunday nights, their meetings become sources for both relaxation and serious, provocative humor.
Third Wheel is the newest improv group at Columbia. When Third Wheel Co-founder Isabel Bailin, a Barnard junior best described as the Amy Poehler of the troupe, arrived on campus in 2013, she auditioned for the only two improv groups that existed at the time: Control Top (an all-female group) and Fruit Paunch.
“That semester, Control Top called back 17 girls and took one. Paunch called back 12 and didn’t take any new girls,” Bailin says. “So I took all the people who I thought were good and made my own group.” Bailin and Co-founder Amelia Arnold, a senior at Barnard, began informal rehearsals in the fall of 2013 and the club became official the following year.
The group members decided upon the name Third Wheel after sitting in a circle for hours improvising title ideas. The name was chosen because there were only two other improv groups on campus. “It just seemed really fitting to be the awkward third one,” Bailin says.
This year, Third Wheel had 53 people audition—their biggest turnout yet.
“The best part of the semester for me was how many people came to audition and how there was such a clear interest in improv,” Bailin says. However, Third Wheel cannot accept all who audition. Out of the 53 auditioners, they only took in four.
The club’s members do strive to remember their roots in rejection and their promise to foster inclusivity. They try to promote community input and diverse perspectives during their weekly Rehearsal Squad programs—hour-long rehearsals open to everybody, regardless of experience.
“One of the reasons for this group was to have more of an opportunity for other people who want to do improv,” says Third Wheel Co-head Aaron Fisher, a Columbia College sophomore and former Spectator news deputy.
With Rehearsal Squad, Third Wheel welcomes and appreciates anybody and everybody who shares a love for their art form.
“We really do value that we are not exclusive,” Bailin says. “We love Rehearsal Squad and we will always have it for anybody to come and do improv with us.”
Rehearsal Squad is a tangible symbol of the group’s goals for openness and mentorship.
“A major part of the group is that we work with everyone all the time. There’s not one person overshadowing everyone else or only working with one person,” Bailin explains. “It’s a very communal experience.”
Third Wheel, despite its public commitment to unity, has distinct personalities at the individual level.
“It’s interesting because we all have our kind of niche,” Bailin says. And she’s right, the chemistry between the members is palpable.
Strong personalities mix with the subtle and clever, dry humor mixes with the dramatic. Bailin explains that some members are theater majors who bring in new techniques, while others have never stepped foot on stage.
“We all have our shtick,” Bailin says.
That said, the chemistry hasn’t always been perfect.
Despite the support system the group has created and the inclusivity on which it prides itself, they have had a conspicuous amount of turnover in the past year, with several students—including one of the founding members—leaving the group this past semester.
“We had an interesting thing happen this semester,” Bailin says. “Four people decided to leave on their own accord at the beginning of this year. They had a lot going on and they decided [Third Wheel] was not a priority for them. We respect that and found more people who wanted to be apart of something wonderful.”
Third Wheel makes serious demands of its members, particularly that they honor a rigorous commitment to the long-form art that the group creates in its performances. Those biweekly practices have to eventually translate to the stage.
When the group began in 2013, it focused on short-form improv performances consisting of two to five minute games or exercises with no narrative or story line to follow.
“Short-form allows you to really get into the head of an improv-er,” Bailin says. “You have to think quickly; you have to say yes.”
Recently, the group has been increasing their emphasis on long-form improv, which involves narrative and character development.
“In long-form, you really have to listen and focus on your character as well as everyone else’s character in the context of the game. You have to keep the narrative going,” Bailin says.
The illusion of a natural rapport that the members of Third Wheel try to manifest on stage depends on the group paying careful attention to principles of comedy.
They try to follow an essential rule of improv: Always say yes. “Once a scene or a character given to you by a fellow member is rejected, then it’s really hard to continue a scene,” Bailin explains.
During Third Wheel’s October performance, “Tricycles Have 3 Wheels,” the group invited an audience member, Maddie, to the stage.
“Don’t try to be funny,” Fisher told Maddie. “We’re just looking for material, it’s not your chance for stand up.”
Fisher questioned Maddie for material with cleverness and nonchalance. It was as if they were getting to know each other at a coffee shop. Then Fisher asked what her last name was.
“It’s private,” she said.
And without a moment of hesitation, they decided her name was “Itsprivate”—one word.
“It actually became a really great part of the show,” Bailin says. “But you have to always be on your feet.”
Fisher adds that they always try to ask questions that build information and push the scene forward.
“It’s better to ask questions like, ‘Why do you have a banana smeared on your shirt?’ because then you are adding information,” he explains. “But if you just walk into a scene and you say, ‘What are you doing?’ then you’re putting all the weight on your scene partner and you’re not actually helping to progress the scene.”
Despite the sophistication of their practice methods, the group finds their source of comedy in the mundane.
“Humor doesn’t necessarily come from the crazy characters or voices, but from realistic situations,” Fisher says.
The realism of their comedy means that improv can often help the actors to develop practical skills. The members of Third Wheel have found that improv has helped them in the classroom, job interviews, and general day-to-day life.
“It helps when dealing with people in general,” Bailin says. “If there’s an issue that comes up and you need to figure out a solution quickly, your mind is very garnered toward that mode.”
Fisher, a history major, is considering a possible career in politics. “If I ever had a government job, it would help me improvise what to say to other people,” he says.
Comedy can also be a source of catharsis. Third Wheel has become an informal outlet and support system for academic and social stress.
“Having improv to just let everything out and be you is so rewarding,” Bailin says.
Especially during midterms and finals, the group can serve as a way to relax and refuel for its members.
“I was stressing about a big midterm all weekend and I was really nervous about missing an hour to go to Third Wheel rehearsal,” Fisher explains. “When I got there I was stressed for the first few minutes, but it really helped me relax by the end. It helped me study for the rest of the night.”
The original members of Third Wheel all experienced the pain of being excluded from their love of comedy, and that memory still drives the way they conceive of the group’s mission. They have strived to make their club a place where people can engage in high-level improv while still feeling a meaningful sense of community.
“Third Wheel originated out of rejection,” Bailin says. “Which is a terrible way to say it, but we have taken that rejection and made it into something so beautiful and so absurdly fun.”