We’ll jump right in — the same way the two funniest high schoolers in America do with their onstage bits.
It’s last year. Blake Knapp doesn’t know Ben Gruenbaum.
But Blake, of Blue Springs High School, is watching as Ben grabs waves of audience laughter in an improvisation humor competition.
Ben, of Lee’s Summit North High School, is driving the crowd nuts as Superman, tossing in some Cirque du Soleil-esque flips.
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Soon enough, as months pass, the two will become fast friends as well as rivals on their way to standing alone as the two top humorous interpretation performers in the nation.
That was last week at the National Speech and Debate Tournament in Johnson County.
“The most emotional week of my life,” said Ben, who won first place.
A spokesman for the tournament called the top finish by two performers from neighboring high school districts rare, if not unprecedented.
Even a year ago, as strangers, the two marked each other as the guy to beat.
Take that acrobatic Superman performance by Ben. After watching it, Blake took the stage and added his own improvised flip.
Perhaps not quite as athletically, but he landed, found Ben in the audience, and flashed a who’s-the-big-shot-now? stare. And the crowd roared.
This past school year, the teens took their humorous, head-to-head interpretation performances to the top of one tournament after another.
And along the way, there was no stopping their braggadocio.
Like in the district finals earlier this spring when a well-meaning judge concerned about the time limit pressure on the performers actually asked the audience to hold back its laughter — seemingly forgetting that laughter is this breed’s lifeblood.
Blake happened to be first up. The opening of his solo skit featured Blake as a sharp-elbowed, head-bobbing, ba-gawking chicken.
This time he strutted by the judges’ table and bent down beak-to-nose with that particular judge, paused a moment, and then:
The two began to have a lot of fun with their personal competition.
The top award winners in the various competitions along the way are announced onstage from the bottom up Miss-America-Pageant style.
About the second or third time that Ben and Blake were again the last two standing, they turned nose-to-nose and awaited the winner announcement, staring menacingly at each other like battle-juiced boxers.
They both want to be performers. They bring a brash confidence, but with an insecurity forever clutching at them until that first audience laugh — whether from a pair of judges, or an auditorium filled with their peers.
Their acts have evolved along the way, tinkering with voices, adding sight gags, finding new lines to prod their audience.
Blake told the story of a Mississippi farm, with a talking chicken, a brash spider, a bully, a cranky nana and a young boy who is gay — all the characters distinct in sight and sound packed into 10 minutes.
Ben flashed from grim private eye to mobster to effeminate bartender to brutish hit man to Eddie-Murphy-ish cop in his 10-minute roll.
But the notion that either one of them could make the nationals, then work up through the elimination of 245 performers from throughout the nation was, well, “everyone’s dream,” Ben said.
They couldn’t believe it when they both made the cut to the final 60 out of 245, let alone the round of 30, 14 and six.
As they were headed with the other four finalists to the awards stage at the Overland Park Convention Center, one of Ben’s coaches, on the long shot that the two of them might win again even here, felt a need to rein in the duo.
Don’t do anything stupid, he told Ben. This is the finals.
They didn’t need the warning. Genuine shock had finally numbed them.
So nothing stupid at the end. Just two actors on the stage, fists together, held high, overwhelmed.