The Critical Hit Show creator Eric Fell reflects on five years of live Dungeons and Dragons improv
The Rio Theatre is home to two of Vancouver’s most beloved monthly comedy events: The Gentleman Hecklers—a live show where three comedians provide hilarious commentary for some of the best worst movies of all time—and Dungeons and Dragons event The Critical Hit Show: A Live Improvised Epic Fantasy. Created by Gentleman Heckler Eric Fell, The Critical Hit Show is set to celebrate its fifth anniversary during the JFL NorthWest Festival. Being a part of the Just For Laughs “Best of the West” line-up for the first time is just the cherry on top for this highly successful, unique and interactive show that, quite frankly, boasts some of the most loyal fans in Vancouver. But this is by no means a show that caters only to the D&D enthusiast. With the JFL show slated to take place on Wednesday, February 22, 2017, at the Rio Theatre, we sat down with Fell and spoke about Critical Hit’s distinct evolution.
Vancouver Weekly: How did The Critical Hit Show come about? What is your origin story?
Eric Fell: Honestly, I walked by a gaming store and I picked up a Dungeons and Dragons book and was like, ‘oh wow, I haven’t played this since I was little!’ I picked up the Dungeon Master’s guide and I opened it up and saw a page that [talked about] using improv in Dungeons and Dragons. And I thought, ‘oh my god this could be an improv show.’ I had done a lot of improv up to that point professionally, and there were people playing D&D at the store and I played. I played every Wednesday…for months…in secret…not telling anyone!
At the time I was doing a podcast with Allen Morrison and Shaun Stewart and said, ‘guys, we should do an improvised D&D show!’ And they said yes. That’s basically how it started. The first show was the end of February 2012, so our JFL NorthWest show is going to be the fifth anniversary. Which is crazy! We thought we were only going to do it once.
VW: Your fans are pretty loyal. It seems like the audiences at your shows are made up of people that go every single month and have made it their thing.
EF: The audience at The Critical Hit Show is unlike anything I’ve ever seen. They come back month after month after month and follow the stories of the characters our insanely talented improvisers have brought to life. There are people who have made friends in the audience, and it really is a community. At our Christmas shows audience members give us Christmas presents. And one year at Halloween some people actually dressed up as us. It was oddly flattering.
VW: So you have this loyal following. But now you’re going to be in the JFL NorthWest Festival for the first time and will have a lot of outsider people checking you out.
EF: I make sure that every single show stands on its own so you can come not knowing anything about Dungeons and Dragons or anything about role playing games. If you think about it this way, each one is a stand-alone movie. There are some things weaved in here and there that are reoccurring things about the characters, but it doesn’t get in the way of the fact that we try and make every show like it is someone’s first time. You’re not being thrown into the deep end.
VW: So you came up with all the characters yourself?
EF: I did not. When we cast the show each cast member was tasked with creating their own character. They built on some guidelines from the books and created really amazing characters that people seem to connect with.
VW: So your cast includes yourself as Dungeon Master, head writer for Simpsons Comics and Futurama Comics Ian Boothby, fellow Gentleman Heckler Shaun Stewart, Standard Action web series creator, and actor Joanna Gaskell, comedy improv performer Allen Morrison, and actor and fire dancer Barbara Beall. That’s quite the well-rounded cast.
EF: I couldn’t have asked for a better cast. They show up month after month and go along with whatever idiotic scenarios I come with; whatever strange monsters or odd characters I create.
VW: What usually happens during a typical show?
EF: The heroes usually meet in a tavern, go on a quest and fight monsters. Monsters played by audience members by the way—there’s a lot of audience participation. They then learn a valuable lesson at the end…or they don’t.
VW: Like a moral to the story?
EF: There’s nothing moral about these characters. They’re heroes, but they’re assholes. But I can’t promise anything but a heck of a good time. (*he says lifting his glass and winking*)
VW: Are there any special moments that stand out for you in Critical Hit Show history?
EF: there were some monsters that I created called the Bear Bees; half bear, half bee. And they seemed to really take off. Someone started a Bear Bee account on Twitter and people were requesting the return of the Bear Bees. The audience continuously surprises me. It’s like having our own Wikipedia. If there was something that happened a while ago and the character forgets, someone in the audience will scream it out.
VW: Your shows seem to have a real DIY quality to them that many find endearing.
EF: Oh yes, [I’m always] passing things out to the audience throughout the show. And 15 to 20 people throughout the show are invited up on the stage. Our monsters are very dollar store—[in that] I buy all the props from the dollar store—so there’s a certain DIY charm to it. I take great joy in designing these monsters.
VW: It would seem that JFL NorthWest is the perfect time to turn new people on to the show and just really embrace the journey so far.
EF: I think the fifth anniversary is going to be a big one. Our audience is the most amazing audience I’ve ever encountered in the thousands of comedy shows I’ve done over the years. I’m really grateful to them and to the cast who have been such a great team. The show wouldn’t exist without them. The Critical Hit Show is amazing and you don’t need to know anything about gaming to enjoy it, just like you don’t need to know anything about flying space shuttles to enjoy Star Wars.