Pop Scholars: Smart-dumb comedy born from a smart-dumb education


Photo courtesy Pop Scholars

Pop Scholars has been performing at Wealthy Theatre since 2013.

SEPT. 10 — Dust flies from speakers as the 110-year-old Wealthy Theatre pulses with renewed energy. The marquee outside reads “THEY’RE BACK!” Inside, the audience is a shaken Coke and the walls of the theatre stretch to contain their growing anticipation. Pop Scholars, an improv comedy group made up of four Calvin alumni, is performing their first show since the start of the pandemic.

The room roars as Dave Lyzenga, Mike Ryskamp, Matt Sterenberg and Andy Allen sprint onto stage. It doesn’t take long for them to get the audience laughing.

“We did a show over a year and a half ago and it’s the last time we performed together,” Lyzenga starts. “We haven’t practiced and we are still cocky enough to come out here and charge you all money to watch whatever is about to happen.”

Although the audience is glad to have them back, Pop Scholars had to decide for themselves if it was morally right to perform during COVID. In the end, Pop Scholars decided to have vaccine and mask mandatory shows.

In response, they received several angry emails by unvaccinated fans who wanted to attend their shows. Allen was amused while reading the emails, hearing from some that they would no longer support their “art.”

“It was amazing to know that people think we do art. We’re artists,” Allen joked. “We just found out, so that’s pretty cool.”

As funny as the four of them are, they are not career comedians. Ryskamp works in the trucking industry as a dispatcher. Allen works for a non-profit dealing with teenagers experiencing homelessness. Lyzenga is a software engineer and Sterenberg is in sales.

But before they launched their careers, they were just a bunch of Calvin guys. Ryskamp graduated from Calvin in 2005, Lyzenga and Sterenberg in 2008 and Allen in 2009. All four of them were involved in Calvin Improv, although Ryskamp was the only one to make the team as a freshman.

“Transparently, Calvin wasn’t a great experience for a couple of us,” Allen said. “Improv was what we loved the most.”

While some members may not have enjoyed their time at the college, Calvin did bring them together and form their team — a team that, according to Allen, now specializes in “smart-dumb” comedy.

“In some ways, that’s from a Calvin education,” Allen said. “A smart-dumb education.”

After they had all graduated with “smart-dumb” degrees, the four found themselves wanting more improv and formed Pop Scholars. Their first show was in May of 2009.

“We started in a small black-box theatre and performed for 20 people most nights,” Pop Scholars said. “Eventually, we were selling out 4 shows in a weekend.”

When they began performing, Pop Scholars explored everything.

“We would practice weekly for hours and hours and hours, then head to the bar and talk improv and life. We did long-form improv. We did sketch comedy. We changed formats of our show,” Pop Scholars wrote in an email to Chimes. Now, their shows are characterized by short, punchy improv comedy.

Though they may make it look effortless, Pop Scholars’ success onstage is only made possible by 12 years of friendship and practice.

“We know that what impresses people about Pop Scholars is usually the speed and timing of the show,” Pop Scholars said. “That only comes from an intense familiarity and intimacy.”

After years of work, they’re finally happy with where they are and don’t find it necessary to keep practicing. It’s too difficult to get together to practice anyways now that they’ve gotten older. Plus, Lyzenga now lives in Chicago.

“It was easier before we lived in different states and didn’t have five kids between the four of us — Matt and Andy are dads, you can generally tell by their jeans and shoe choice — but we make it work because we love performing together and we’re amazing friends,” Pop Scholars said.

Though they may be older now and their lives may be fuller with work and family, they still find time to get together each month and perform.

“Most people don’t have a hobby like we have and most people haven’t done the same hobby with the same people for 12 years. We count ourselves really lucky and are grateful for each show. And as sentimentally cheesy as that is, it’s true,” Pop Scholars said.

“As soon as Pop Scholars isn’t fun for us, we’ll call it,” Allen said. “But we’re still four great friends that are trying to have a really great time while doing dumb improv comedy … really well.”

You can see Pop Scholars at their next show on Oct. 15. Tickets are $14 and can be bought on their website. If you’re an on-campus student without a car, you can take the 6 bus from Calvin to Lake & Auburn and walk two blocks to Wealthy Theatre.