UNC Chapel Hill’s comedy club turns students into professional entertainers

By Christian Avy

As the lights turn on, all that’s on stage is a dry erase board with an altered Cubs logo, and a few chairs. As the electrifying guitar strums and the snare drum beats, the English music band, The Go! Team’s Junior Kickstart begin to permeate the room. All of a sudden, blue-shirted students come running through the aisles and onto the stage. One by one, their names and numbers are called over the loudspeaker, and they are introduced with an enthusiastic crowd similar to one seeing the mid-90s Chicago Bulls for the first time.

“Number 57, Matt Caaaahilllll! Number 29, Bridget MacPherrrrrsoonnnnn! Number 867-5309…”

This is the introduction guests are treated to when attending a Chapel Hill Players, better known as CHiPs, improv comedy show.


Founded in 1995, CHiPs describes itself as UNC’s premier improv and sketch comedy group, and in a typical year, puts on three shows per semester. Each show has its own theme used primarily for promotional material and is incorporated into a sketch or two. For example, the most recent show CHiPs was able to put on in early 2020, had a “murder mystery” theme, and featured a sketch that portrayed Dora the Explorer, guiding the audience through her blood-splattered backyard.

Most of the current members of CHiPs had little-to-no experience with improv before they joined. Many of them didn’t even have acting experience. What resulted was an eclectic bunch of “comedians,” “actors,” and people whose friends told them that they were funny.

“I have always loved comedy but I never have really thought of myself as a funny person,” Sally Kate Buckles, a junior in CHiPs, said. “I had the passion for it, but I didn’t know if I had the talent or the ability. Luckily whoever was on CHiPs at the time saw that in me, because I had no acting experience except for when I did The Wizard of Oz when I was like, eight years old.”

The process of joining the organization takes place over a couple of days of auditions and callbacks, but the most memorable is always the first night.


“The way auditions work is that we just kind of throw you in the deep end,” said Bridget MacPherson, the group’s director. “You get up with a random person and then you both do a scene with a one word suggestion.”

Jamie Krantz, MacPherson’s partner for the audition, said their suggestion was simple: Papaya.

“I remember acting as an ancient wise woman and explaining the importance of this papaya to some teenager who wasn’t really having it,” said Krantz. “She didn’t want to listen to this crazy old woman who talking about the importance of papaya.”

The idea may seem random, but MacPherson says it allows CHiPs to look for certain qualities that they want in their new recruits.

“Now I know they really just look for humor and teamwork,” she explained. “You don’t have to be super funny. You don’t have to be perfect at what you’re doing. It doesn’t have to make sense or be super entertaining the first time. It’s just to kind of see where you’re at.”

Once the auditionees have been filtered through and vetted, the survivors are placed on Incs or the Incubator Team- a smaller, typically younger group that acts as a training ground for future CHiPs.

While on Incs, the new members meet separately from the main CHiPs group and receive coaching from two current CHiPs throughout the semester, building up to one final show.

Many current CHiPs look back at their times on the Incs team fondly, despite the divide between it and the main group.

“I learned so many new strategies for improvisation and fun new games,” said Krantz, who is now in her second semester as the Incs coach. “I remember always coming back from a practice feeling like I did an ab workout because I was laughing so hard.”

At the start of each semester, the Incs go through a new audition process, this time, to determine whether they will be brought up to the main CHiPs squad, or if they will stay with the Incs for another semester.

The induction into CHiPs involves a top-secret tradition, one that none of the members would reveal, no matter how hard they were pressed on the subject.


However, the group has many other traditions they could discuss, including one prank they play on incoming Incs, where they include the name of a fake student who auditioned, yet never returned, on every first callback post. The name never makes it past the second callback, but every year, it trips up unsuspecting newcomers.

“It got me so bad,” said Matt Cahill, a senior CHiP. “I thought that the name was actually one of the people who auditioned, and I was thinking: ‘Dude, this guy sucks. Why is he being let in? I don’t want to be a part of this if he’s on the team.’”

When they get into the main group, the CHiPs get to participate in and write sketches for the two main shows, and can become one of several positions, such as treasurer, artistic chair, or Incs coach.

Though the public usually only gets to see the group in the shows they put on, and the personalities they portray during their sketches and games, a look behind the curtain shows a tight knit cast of characters who cherish the camaraderie they’ve found through comedy.

“It’s one of those things where you just go and you’re kind of delirious from 8 to 10 p.m. in the Student Union,” said Buckles. “When you walk in everyone’s got Alpine Bagels with them and for the first hour of practice, everybody takes turns telling everything about their life since we’ve last checked in. It makes you so much better at connecting with people when you’re on stage with them, because you can better understand their emotions and read them.”

So, what is CHiPs all about? If you ask them, they’ll tell you it’s about improv.

If you ask them again, they’ll tell you it’s truly about the community that they have formed.

“It’s just so awesome to be able to share improv with people,” MacPherson said. “A lot of whom, much like me, have no idea what they’re doing at the outset. [Those] who come on a whim and never did theater or thought they’re funny. To teach them, and show them that they can be the funniest person in the room, is just so awesome.”

Edited by Modupe Fabilola