One Hilarious Herd: Mad Cow and the Improv Tradition at Elizabethtown

Elizabethtown College has a lot of little fanbases. While our overall campus population is small, there are certain experiences that are uniquely E-town; the acapella group performances, T.G.I.S. and surprisingly cut-throat bingo, are just a few examples. There’s also a long-standing on-campus performance group that holds a special place in the E-town community as the funniest family on campus: the Mad Cow Improv troupe.

Mad Cow came into existence in the late 80s, early 90s. The date is intentionally vague due to the changes the group went through in their beginning years. In the tumultuous 90s, Mad Cow was not always “family friendly,” which attracted positive attention from students and incredibly negative attention from the school board. They had to clean up their act and, despite censorship, became a popular act among students.

At their shows, it’s obvious that the cows put everything they’ve got into the performance. You can see up to five cows literally sprinting to collect responses and phrases for their games before every show. Likewise, each show opens with a homemade video which the cows act, direct and film in their spare time. A rolling slideshow of questions with responses from the cows serves as both an introduction to the crew and what one could call a comedy appetizer to get everyone ready for the evening.

Something that sticks out to audience members almost immediately are the names; each cow gets a shirt with a custom name and graphic on the back. It began in the primary years of the group and has stuck ever since. After callbacks, the group has a “family day” at the home of one of the cows and from the stories told, the names are picked for the shows. Max Miller, one of the group’s “calves,” so to speak, was recently christened “Flammin’ Plunger” by the other members of the group.

My first exposure to Mad Cow was the Campaign show my first year. If my memory serves me right, a cow named “Tiny” was on a table attracting passing students like the world’s most portable circus barker. Eagerly, loudly and ridiculously, the cows draw a crowd wherever they go.

Every year, the cows hold workshops and tryouts to find new aspiring comedians. That’s where they found junior Pleasant Sprinkle-Williams, formerly known as “Bath Bomb” and “FAFSA,” currently known as “Gum Ball.” Surprisingly, her journey to the stage was unintentional.

"I actually didn’t audition to get in - I was an emotional support for my friend who was auditioning. And that’s the story for a lot of folks,” Sprinkle-Williams said.

Another strong suit of the group? The answer shouldn’t shock you; philanthropy. Traditionally, they pick a charity every year to raise money for and, such is also the case with their shows, they tend to outperform. Last year, money went to the Human Rights Campaign and they raised the funds through several creative avenues. Ticket sales, spare change donations, t-shirt sales, bake-offs and pleading the clause at a competitive club charity donation event. This only includes the most visible of Mad Cow efforts - a lot goes on behind the scenes to make Mad Cow what it is.

I grew up in the house of an improv comedian, so I learned quickly the difference between a great run and a great big flop. A good improvisational moment comes from capitalizing on what you have, not what you don’t. It’s easy to create these incredible, unseen clauses that change the stage like a child desperately trying to win a game of their own invention. The real hilarity comes from using the information provided and looking at it from a perspective that no one has had before, an idea that many of the cows have mastered.

"The key to being funny," Sprinkle-Williams said with a smile, "is to not believe you're funny. It all goes to your head if you actually believe you're funny other than just in the moment."