Improv troupe gives sick children a reason to smile

Every month, comedians go to three New Orleans metro area hospitals with one goal: making sick youngsters laugh. It’s a goal that unites philanthropists and performers in the city, the region and beyond under the banner of Funny Bones Improv.

Founder Jolene Fehler brought the nonprofit Funny Bones with her from Chicago to New Orleans about three years ago. “It was all about giving back to the community,” said her husband, Funny Bones board member and Treasurer Robert Rothman.

Fehler’s background in both business and comedy served her well. She said they combined to give her the skills she needed to to create an organization that now spans two cities, as she has been able to maintain the Chicago chapter while operating the organization from New Orleans. Both cities have separate events, she said, but operate together to achieve the same goal: helping kids.

Performer Sam Barnhart met Fehler through improv performances.

“She had auditions for this new thing called Funny Bones,” he said. “She explained it, I thought it was awesome, so I just jumped aboard.”

For Barnhart the best part of a Funny Bones performance is the way that “laughter therapy” relieves the stresses of kids — and their parents — who are dealing with illnesses. “Even if it’s just 30 minutes on a Tuesday,” Barnhart said, “the ability to laugh gets them out of the hospital mindset for a little while.”

Fellow performer Grace Blakeman agreed, and added that performing for kids in a hospital is very different from performing before an adult audience in a comedy club.

“When you’re performing at a theater, people are there specifically to see you,” Blakeman said. “These are kids at a hospital, and what kid wants to be at the hospital? So they’re not as energetic at first. You have to bring the energy with you.”

The comics focus on content kids love. “I’ll make some pop culture references that they understand,” Barnhart said. “Drop in a joke about Justin Bieber, for example. We also work in some make believe — dragons, kings, queens. It’s more fun than, you know, two people at a coffee shop.”

“You want to stay away from anything that could be a downer,” Blakeman said. “We like to make things whimsical or magical, to take the kids into a fantastical place where anything wonderful can happen.”

Funny Bones shows are 45 minutes long and interactive, involving such features as the “Wheel of Improv,” which audience members spin to inspire new directions such as “crazy game” and “barnyard symphony.”

Participating hospitals in the New Orleans area are Children’s Hospital, Tulane Hospital for Children and Ochsner Medical Center. The support of donors makes it possible for Funny Bone to avoid any charge to hospitals or families.

The biggest reward, for Fehler, for the performers who work with her, for those who give time and money to support Funny Bones, is the kids’ laughter.

“It’s so rewarding to make the kids feel better,” Blakeman said. “A mom once told us after a show that this was the first time she had seen her son smile in a long, long time.”

And the laughter, both Fehrer and Rothman said, won’t stop in just New Orleans and Chicago. “We’d love to be in cities across the country,” Rothman said. “There are kids everywhere who just want a reason to smile.”