How to capture improvised comedy, which is the essence of having to be there, on film? Recorded, performances are always going to feel flat without the high wire act immediacy of watching people pull characters, jokes and storylines out of thin air. The central hour or so of Alex Karpovsky’s documentary “Trust Us, This Is All Made Up” is a straight shot of a show that improv specialists T. J. Jagodowski and David Pasquesi did at the Barrow Street Theatre in New York, where they have a standing monthly gig. Filmed on multiple cameras capturing the goings-on from different angles, it’s essentially concert-style footage that suffers from that sense of remove while remaining a lively enough document of what Jagodowski and Pasquesi are legendary for — long-form improv, done on a stage bare except for three chairs, all of it, as Jagodowski assures before the pair start, invented on the spot. But it’s the context that surrounds the show that makes the film interesting.
Jagodowski and Pasquesi, Second City veterans who’ve been performing together for five years, have found a kind of spirituality in what they do. And what they do is a long way from starting out sketches by asking the audience for suggestions of a pet name and a genre of film. They spend the day walking around the city, taking in the sights, and from that spin out a single show scenario, in this case one about office discontents that spans seven characters. But they imagine their performance as akin to joining a show that’s already in progress, channeling something that’s been there all along, needing, zenlike, only to get out of their own way in order to allow the action to unfurl. It’s not an angle that I’d ever have associated with improv, but once the show starts it doesn’t sound flaky at all. Jagodowski and Pasquesi do seem to have a near-mystical ability to understand what’s on the other’s mind and to take cues before they’re even given, a sense that Karpovsky represents visually by having the off-stage bookends play out in split screen, coming together only during the production. Once everything’s done, and the audience files away, the shots break up again as the two comedians excitedly go over what went on, guessing at character backgrounds, marveling at structure as if they really were just mediums, with no more hand in the action than those watching.