The independent newspaper of the University of Iowa community since 1868

The Daily Iowan

The independent newspaper of the University of Iowa community since 1868

The Daily Iowan

The independent newspaper of the University of Iowa community since 1868

The Daily Iowan

Behind the scenes: Iowa City’s longest-performing improv group, Paperback Rhino

Paperback Rhino performed at The James Theater on Thursday for the first time in their storied career. While every performance is improvised, the troupe puts in countless laugh-filled hours behind the scenes.
Ava Neumaier/The Daily Iowan
Cecilia Oberdoerster and MK Shultz perform during an improv comedy show by Iowa City-based improv team Paperback Rhino at the James Theater on Thursday, March 7, 2024. (Ava Neumaier/ The Daily Iowan).

As the comical collective of Paperback Rhino exploded on The James Theater stage Thursday night, the audience was abuzz. Before the night of improvisational games had begun, Captains Payton Chapman and Cecilia Oberdoerster, hyped up the crowd.

“We are Paperback Rhino! Your favorite — hopefully — improv group,” Oberdoerster shouted.

Before Iowa City’s longest-performing comedy group took the stage at The James, a hard week of practicing preceded.

Paperback Rhino, or PBR, has performed in Iowa City since 2003. From a radio show to attending college improv festivals, and even opening for an event with Oprah Winfrey and former President Barack Obama in 2008, the troupe has done it all.

Typically, planning enough shows to last a full semester is difficult given the lack of dedicated comedy performance spaces. However, a residency at Joystick Comedy Arcade allows PBR to consistently take the stage.

“Plus, ‘residency’ makes us sound more professional than we are,” joked PBR recruit Jakob DeLong.

Among the lineup of Joystick shows is the group’s inaugural performance at The James Theater on March 7. To get back in the swing of comedy, Chapman and Oberdoerster decided to bring a different vibe to the group.

“This semester we’ve tried to spend more time as a group outside of practice,” Oberdoerster said. “We want performances to feel less like a comedy group on stage and more like a bunch of friends.”

Just observing the group for a few hours during a week of practice made it clear everyone was in tune with each other. With trust, the humor is quicker and bolder.

“The comedy comes from trusting each other,” said new member Isaac Den Hartog. “If we’re having fun, so is the audience,” he said.

An improv performance from PBR consists of several short bits called “games, a long-form improv story, and a joke wall to conclude the night. The more narrative long-form improv bits are what the Rhinos are known for.

“It’s called Close Quarters, when there’s a big setting with a few smaller scenes and we all play different parts at different points in the scene,” Chapman explained. “It comes together at the end like a sitcom and there’s one overarching theme.”

Having a throughline within bits is the biggest challenge PBR faces with every performance, but it also leads to the most satisfying moments — for both the audience and the performer.

“Narrative is a major factor in comedy. The audience loves it when you can call back to jokes from earlier in the show,” said fellow troupe member MK Shultz.

The freshness of each performance is what keeps PBR excited, though. There is a focus on variety in the improv games the team performs.

“Changing things up gives us the chance to try different ways of interacting with the audience or trying a new voice or new joke we’ve been thinking about,” said Oberdoerster. “Plus, our friends and family who see us multiple times don’t get bored.”

Although the group has mastered Gen-z humor, the electric vibe PBR brings to their shows is truly for anyone, according to second-year member Abby Wight.

“Our jokes are targeted at a fellow Gen Z audience, and we always make sure we’re punching up” she said.

“We treat it like we’re talking to a bunch of twenty-somethings,” Oberdoerster added. “The references can get super specific, like when we make Jakob do his Sydney Sweeney [character] who my mother would not know.”

Everyone looked toward DeLong.

“You really set me up in a pickle here,” he laughs.

However, PBR were not in a pickle during their debut performance at The James. In fact, they had the audience laughing for the whole hour. The games they practiced throughout the week were remixed and brought new life in front a new crowd Thursday night.

RELATED: Behind the scenes: UI Theatre’s revives Sondheim classic ‘Into the Woods’

Although the structures of the bits remain the same, every crowd brings new characters to every scene. In one bit, Chapman played a lawn care company owner looking to hire one of three characters chosen by the audience.

In Thursday’s performance, the audience cast Den Hartog as J. Robert Oppenheimer, DeLong as a man “afraid of smiling,” and Wight as Kanye West.

The eclectic group elicited laughs from the audience and firmly established an interactive energy that carried throughout the night.

A few moments didn’t land throughout the night, simply because everyone was having so much fun. When the friendship and energy between PBR is as palpable as it was during their round of hilarious hijinks at The James, it feels as if the audience was let in on an inside joke.

“At the end of the day, you’re just trying to make the other six people on that stage with you laugh,” Chapman said. “We’re not trying to appeal to anyone; that’s where the comedy comes from.”

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About the Contributor
Charlie Hickman
Charlie Hickman, Arts Reporter
Charlie Hickman is a sophomore at the University of Iowa. He is majoring in English on the Pre-Law track with minors in Political Science and Cinema.