Mom’s home: EPZ meets its maker

Evil Petting Zoo founder Carrie Helton Harris '00

Still feeling the exhilaration, Carrie Helton Harris ‘00 walked out of Classic Hall late on the night of April 10, 1999. For nearly two hours, Harris’ brainchild – dubbed Evil Petting Zoo (EPZ) – had delighted more than 100 students in the jam-packed film room.

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Evil Petting Zoo logo

The nine-member, all-student cast’s improvisational comedy debut was not perfect. The positive response of the crowd, however, provided Harris with a sense of accomplishment. A simple post-show comment from Tom Evans, professor of theatre, provided long sought-after, highly prized validation.

With the event conquered, Harris eased back into normal life. She completed spring term, returned home to Danville, Ind., and later earned her degree. For more than 20 years, she never realized how that performance in a cramped Classic Hall classroom would resonate with Hanover’s students. She certainly had no idea that “one-off” show would give birth to a campus treasure.

Evil Petting Zoo’s beginnings can be attributed to Harris’ lifelong fascination with physical comedy and her indifference to theatrical offerings on campus in the late 1990s. [The name comes from a line in the popular 1997 film “Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery.”]

Struggling to find her niche with roles in the College’s theatre program, Harris became more than mildly intrigued by improvisational comedy during a one-semester transfer to Indiana University. After reenrolling at Hanover, a prior brush with Full Frontal Comedy, Indiana’s student improv group, provided the inspiration to create a similar live comedy experience during her final months on campus.

“There were plays and auditions happening, and I never really got cast in any of those,” said Harris. “They were not really doing things that I’m super interested in … let me see if there could be an interest in improv.”

Original flyer from Evil Petting Zoo's 1999 debut performance
Original flyer from Evil Petting Zoo’s 1999 debut performance

Trying to sell her idea, Harris started the outreach with classmates in Hanover’s theater department. With each person recruiting friends and acquaintances, enough to warrant a need for auditions, a small group eventually formed. Beginning early in winter term, the unit formed a plan, delved into improvisational comedy and held regular rehearsals ahead of the atypical theatrical performance.

“We could do whatever we wanted,” Harris reflected, “But did people know what we’re doing? Did they know what this is supposed to be? We had no idea what the reaction was going to be.” Amazed by the attendance, she continued, “I could not believe how many people showed up. It made it almost like we were in the round because we had to just kind of scrunch in.”

The successful debut performance, with the prophetic “A night you won’t soon forget, no matter how hard you try” on their simple flyer, was echoed by “The Triangle” entertainment editor Kimberly Ellis Hawthorne ’01. Commenting on the troupe in the following week’s edition, Ellis penned, “Their different styles and ideas meshed together well and provided for some very hilarious situations. Evil Petting Zoo put in a very entertaining performance, and many are hoping for an encore in the future.”

While the audience’s response was well beyond Harris’ expectations, the brief, unexpected encounter with Evans would outshine any standing ovation. Still touched, she recalled, “I’m walking out of Classic Hall feeling, ‘Okay, well that’s that.’ And then out of the blue comes Doc Evans. I turn around and he said, ‘Nice job.’ It was like the end of [1985 film] “The Breakfast Club” and I just throw my hand in the air.”

That broad approval endures, indicated by a succession of encores that have now lasted more than 20 years. Evil Petting Zoo continues to flourish, annually featuring a cast that has ranged from three to 10 members. Propelled by the ingenuity of its cyclical blend of veterans and newcomers, called “zoo babies,” the popular troupe now performs monthly shows throughout the academic year, entertaining (now much larger) campus audiences.

Louis Holbrook ’22, current cast member and past president, stated, “People are so eager to come to our shows because they know they’re getting a genuinely once-in-a-lifetime experience and performance. It’s always a unique time that our audience helped build with us.”

Harris lived in Virginia for more than 15 years while working as a stand-up comedian and actor. Now an Indiana-based reconstructive mortician, she returned to Hanover in early 2022 – her first visit since graduation more than two decades earlier.

Carrie Helton Harris ’00 visits with the current cast of Evil Petting Zoo

While on campus, Harris met seven current Evil Petting Zoo cast members in the Shoebox, one of the campus venues for EPZ’s shows. She was astonished by the realization of her creation’s impact, longevity and popularity.

“The very first feeling I had was like I had a one-night stand and love child with Hanover that I didn’t know about for all these years,” Harris quipped with comedic flare. “And then I meet it later, and I’m like, ‘Oh, you’re my 20-year-old. Hi. I’m your mom.’”

For the current students, the “reunion” in the Shoebox with Harris was an opportunity to meet the “mother” of the troupe, learn about its origin, share stories about performing, relay the current state of the organization and sign an EPZ sweatshirt. Harris, meanwhile, offered appreciation, while also hand-signing and gifting a large collection of comedy-, theatre- and improv-related books used through the years to hone her performance craft.

“It doesn’t feel like 20 years have passed,” said Harris. “The neatest thing I came across was some improv weekend that pulled a lot of different troupes from different schools. And I saw Full Frontal and Evil Petting Zoo. They’re all on the same list for that weekend! That is so crazy that EPZ is now competing with Full Frontal, which was the whole impetus to this.”