Improv Interviews

There have been a lot of people in this community who I’ve wanted to talk to for a while, whose ideas and stories I’ve wanted to hear more about. I’ve started interviewing some of those people with the intention of posting the interviews here, in my cleverly titled journal ‘improv interviews.’ If you have any questions or comments (or tips on how to get in touch with super-famous great improvisers), feel free to PM me.

The first interview is with Armando Diaz.

To quote Armando’s bio on the Magnet website, ‘Armando Diaz is widely regarded as one of the finest improv instructors in the country.’ He began his career in Chicago where he was involved with ‘the Armando Diaz Experience.’ He came to New York where he has been an instructor at the UCB, PIT, and Magnet Theaters. You’ll find the rest out in the interview. All racist diatribes have been removed.

Josh: Where were you born?

Armando: I was born in Harvey, IL in 1966.

J: Is that a small town?

A: It’s a south suburb of Chicago, like 30 miles south.

J: What were some of the things you found funny when growing up?

A: My Dad’s sense of humor was pretty silly. He was kind of a silly guy. My mom’s was pretty wicked. It was more when she was mad at us that she was hilarious. She would say something heated to us and it was pretty exaggerated and funny.

I don’t think growing up I was exposed to a lot of comedy besides the tv. I guess growing up comedy was kind of a defense mechanism. But it wasn’t until later on, like in High School that I started to get interested in comedy seriously.

J: How did you get interested in comedy at that time?

A: Well, in High School, I became friends with Kevin Dorff [writer for Conan O’Brien and improviser]. I met him in, I think, Sophomore or Junior year. We were in the same Chemistry class. He was a total class clown. I was kind of a quiet guy. I was the kind of guy who would make jokes under my breath. Usually no one would hear them, but then Kevin would hear them and he thought they were funny, and he’d kind of joke back. Or repeat them and stuff. So he was kind of the first person who I connected with comedically.

So then later on I had another class with him. And it was really kind of a bullshit class called Consumer Education, or something like that, Consumer Studies. One of those things that High School makes you do, because they think they’re going to prepare you for life or something. So we had this real terrible teacher, he was the gym teacher, who taught it. He was a real dick and hated us both. So we just pass notes and write comedy bits, put captions in our books. That was the first time I started wanting to do comedy.

He was kind of a big fan of comedy already, like the National Lampoon, things like that. So he was kind of my introduction to it.

J: How did you get involved in improv?

A: Well, after High School I decided I was interested in film. So, I ended up going to film school. After about a year and a half, I ended up bumping into Kevin again.

J: At the same school?

A: No, Kevin had gone to U of I, and I had gone to Columbia College in Chicago. And Kevin had flunked out, was back in the city, living with his brother, working at a gas station…

J: Really?

A: Yeah. He worked at like an AMACO, QuickyMart, and was taking some classes at a Junior College, which was absurd because he was like a total AP student in High School. I just don’t think he was destined for academia.

So, we run into each other. And I had taken an acting class as part of film school. If you wanted to be a director, they encouraged you that to study that, and in it we did a lot of improvisation. And Kevin’s sister had gone to see ImprovOlympic a couple times, and brought Kevin to it. So she suggested that Kevin should take a class, so we both decided ‘ok, we’ll take that class and check it out.’

J: So, you decided… this wasn’t all decided at that one meeting at the gas station?

A: No, we started hanging out, and it just kind of came up. And I had the same idea of taking an improv class, because I had gone to sit in on a Player’s Workshop class at Second City, because I had a friend who was a fellow film student who was in it, who was like ‘yeah, you’re a pretty funny dude. You should come check out my class.’

And so for some reason Kevin and I both came up with the same decision at once. He suggested ImprovOlympic. I had seen Second City, so I decided to go try an ImprovOlympic class, and I liked ImprovOlympic a lot more, because you just got more into it. So we both just ended up taking that.

J: How did you get ‘more into it’ at ImprovOlympic?

A: Well, there’s Players Workshop and then there’s Second City. Player’s Workshop is kind of this separate entity that was kind of affiliated with Second City. It was really basic. It was the kind of thing where you’d just be working on object work for three hours, you know? Like this is a camera [mimes taking a picture], sweep the floor [mimes sweeping with a broom]. It was basic, but in Charna’s class the first day we were just in, doing scenes. That class was just exciting and just amazing. It’s the kind of thing like where you’re like ‘wow.’ We had discovered this really great secret.

The funny thing about it was the first class we showed up to, we were supposed to show up to this bar, called the ‘Red Barron’ or the ‘Red Lion’ or something like that. The class was supposed to be at the back of the bar. It was this empty German bar. And the German bartender takes us to the back and says ‘well here’s the class.’ It was just this empty room with naked pictures shellacked all over the wall. There was just this kind of little plywood stage. And Charna didn’t show up. None of the other students showed up. It was just me and Kevin, and I was just like ‘Kevin, what kind of class is this?’ We waited for like half an hour and the bartender was like ‘phone call.’ And Charna said ‘yeah, we delayed the class one week.’ So, I was like ok. I’ll come back again. So the next week we actually had our first class and that was awesome.

J: So, they didn’t have their own theater space?

A: Oh no.

J: What year was this? And what was ImprovOlympic like at the time?

A: I think it was like 89. It was either 88, 89 when we took that first class. And they didn’t have a space. It was just Charna, Del, and another teacher Noah. And they had shows, in a bar, kind of like the Parkside [a bar with a performance space in New York] or whatever. So on Fridays and Saturdays like at 8 or something they’d do their shows, then there would be bands and stuff later. The bartender would let them do it, because they would get drinks. And Charna would teach class at rehearsal studios. It was actually mostly in the back of bars, because it was all free. So it was really fly by night. There was no space. And that lasted for maybe four or five years. The venues got better, because they got more students and more teams. And they could get a bigger bar with a bigger stage. And they would be there for longer periods of time. But there would always be that, we’ve been here nine months to a year, and ‘Uh-oh, we got kicked out. ImprovOlympic doesn’t exist for three or four months until they find another place.’

It was such a new thing, you know? Such an underground thing. It was just such a little cult. No one really knew too much about it. But everybody knew Del, and everybody wanted to study with Del. That was a big attraction. And when you went there it just seemed like most amazing thing in the world. It was just like a great discovery. And it was the only place the Harold was going on. It had awesome performers and stuff, but it wasn’t until Charna finally felt the confidence to get a space that ImprovOlympic became ImprovOlympic. Until then it was like, ‘we’re a bunch of losers. …We all really love this thing. Wouldn’t it be great if we could do something with it? Or if anyone got into Second City.’

The biggest deal was Second City hiring Tim Meadows, who had studied at ImprovOlympic. All of the sudden, there was kind of this legitimacy. A lot of it had to do with Del, because he directed Second City. He’d be like ‘you have to check out this guy Farley,’ which gave him an audition. And Farley got hired. And that just kind of really started to establish ImprovOlympic.

J: So there were only three classes at the time?

A: There three levels, level 1, level 2, and then Del’s level.

J: And when did you start to get performing at ImprovOlympic?

A: For some people it was like the fifth or sixth week of level one.

J: They were put on a team?

A: They would pluck them and have them sit-in sometimes with a group. It was pretty daring and reckless in a way, because they were still figuring out the Harold. Even the best teams still kind of derailed, and couldn’t get through a whole Harold. So some people would get put on sometimes in level 2. I didn’t get on a team until Del’s class, so that was comparatively late to everybody else. They didn’t really have a methodology to making up teams back then. They were kind of making it up as they went along.

J: Who were some of the performers back then?

A: Dave Koechner. Kevin Dorff. This guy Jay Leggit who was on ‘In Living Color.’ Mitch Rouse.
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J: Tim Meadows and Chris Farley, were they around at the time?

A: Farley was around. Tim Meadows had already been hired. I think he was on a team before. There were guys like Dave Pasquesi and Mick Napier who were a generation before me and had already gone off and started doing their own thing. Then afterwards just some amazing people started coming through.

J: Did you know that these people would become like these big comedy names in the future?

A: Yeah, definitely, because you could just see it right there in front of you. And what I’d seen comedy-wise, it didn’t seem like anything was all that exciting except for what was going on at ImprovOlympic. It just seemed like this is so much funnier than what’s on tv. And it’s really smart. Yeah, everyone kind of had that feeling, like this seems to be something powerful, except for the fact that we’re in a bar, out in the middle of the train tracks, in the west side of Chicago, and there’s only eight people in the audience. And they’re mostly friends or commuters who didn’t have anything to do. So it seemed like people were destined to do something, you know? And it just felt like the energy, and the conversations that happened after class, it just seemed like people were there because it was so powerful. There was no …[big payoff]. You’re just going to play in a bar. There’s nothing respectable to that. It wasn’t like you were achieving anything to do that. So it was definitely about the work. And they had the work-ethic.

J: So how did your goals start to change as you got more involved with improv, and want did you start to want out of improv?

A: Well, you know, I always kind of wanted to work in film. I think things started to change after I had done ImprovOlympic for a while. After a couple of years, I was like ‘that’s fun, but I’m not going become an actor,’ that was never one of my goals. It was after I left and came back and ended up performing again, then started to teach and direct. So that’s when any goals asserted themselves, when I started seeing that I really enjoy teaching and directing.

J: So, what do you mean, after you left?

A: I left to go back to school. I had dropped out of film school, then I decided to go back and finish my degree. Once I finished my degree, all of the sudden improv came back. We started doing the ‘Armando Diaz Experience.’

J: How did that happen?

A: Well, by that time ImprovOlympic had grown and gotten their own space. A lot of people were hired by Second City, working on their resident company or their touring companies. They talked for so long about how great it would be if Second City started hiring all these ImprovOlympic people, how much better it would be, but then they realized Second City is still going to be the same animal. It’s about doing those sketch reviews and stuff. They kind of missed the whole long-form aspect of being able to just get up there and just perform with each other, instead of you know doing the same thing over again. The excitement was gone.

So, Charna was opening her new space and needed shows. So, I was hanging out with Dorff and Adam McKay and Koencher at our apartment. It was like five in the morning or something like that. They started talking about ‘yeah, Charna wants a show with the alumnis.’ Then Adam McKay came up with the idea of ‘The Armando Diaz Experience.’ The idea being that all the focus would be on me, like everyone would have to serve me was his idea. Because he wanted it to be egoless. It would be a rotating cast and he was worried about people’s jealousies, worried about people not taking things seriously. So, he just came up with the crazy idea, just ‘ok, we’re going to do a show, and everybody’s just there to serve Armando’s whims and wishes.’ And Dave totally yesanded the idea. Me, I’m just like whatever.

Then they drew up cast lists. Eventually the night ended. I was just like, ‘that’s funny, whatever. I have to go back to my videotaping weddings job. I don’t have time for this.’ Then I got a call from Dave the next day. He was like ‘I talked to Charna. She loves it. We’re doing it in April,’ which was a couple months later. And I was just like ‘doing what? I don’t even know what my role in this is.’ So we were slated to do this show called ‘The Armando Diaz Experience.’ It was just one of those things where it’s just kind of like [makes a motion of being forced out into the spotlight reluctantly.]

J: Did you say ‘at our apartment’?

A: Yeah, me and Kevin were living together.

J: With Adam McKay and Dave Koechner?

A: No, they were just over. Those guys had better jobs than us.

J: So how important to ‘The Armando Diaz Experience’ to you, just as like a show?

A: It was huge. It was definitely huge in terms of getting to teach, and coach and things like that. First off, I pretty much was done with improv, then the show was very successful, and I had a good time doing it, and had opportunities to coach and direct. So I started directing some shows and stuff. I don’t think I would have gotten that consideration as easily if it weren’t for that. That really led to me getting to develop as a director. So, that’s what kept me doing it.

J: What are some shows that you got to direct, and how did they help you as a director?

A: It was definitely a lot of trial and error. I did a show called ‘Fist Soup.’ It was kind of a long-form idea. It was kind of a big town kind of thing. All the characters lived in the same town, the same environment. Kind of improvise a bit of a story. It was mildly successful on our first outing. Then we tried doing a Sitcom based on a person’s life. The idea was every two weeks we’d put up a live sitcom. I learned a lot about writing and staging things. I learned that you can’t write a sitcom in two weeks and stage it and memorize it. It was a bold idea. It was fun. I directed a lot of groups that were improv groups. I developed a form called the Evente. I started developing it in Chicago.

J: How did you come up with the evente? What was the original concept?

A: I worked with a couple groups, but I mainly got it off the ground with a group called ‘The Pack.’ It came about by wanting to do something where there were flashbacks, and using that device to tell a story, flashing back and flashing forward. It was influenced by Rashomon and the Usual Suspects. The Pack ran it for over a year at a place called Sheffield’s and really started to get it to work. Then I ended up doing it in UCB in Chicago with a cast [I think this should be either New York instead of Chicago or at the Chicago Improv Festival.] I brought it back a couple years later with Respecto, where we kind of approached it in a slightly different way, then with Jenny I think I got the last bit of it. It took years working on it on and off.

J: So how has it evolved and how has it taught you how to create a form?

A: Well, the structure wasn’t as big of a deal as so much learning how to teach the structure. Same thing with the Harold. Harold structure existed for a long time, but it took years with people experimenting with it until they learned how to teach it. And that’s when it really started to work. People didn’t really understand it until they started to play with it. So, I had to come up with different ways to teach certain concepts, about understanding time, and how game and story relate, instead of just writing the story, you know what I mean? That game playing, playing from the inside, instead of trying to write the overall story, I was kind of grappling with those concepts, of letting the story tell itself, instead of forcing it. These were kind of the principles that I messed around with with Fist Soup, but in the opposite way where we were trying to think about conventions of stories, and playing arcs and things like that, which didn’t end up working. The main thing was the tools, coming up with the tools for how I’m going to teach it that made the form work.

J: Who were some influences on you as an improviser and you as an improv teacher?

A: Noah Gregoropoulos, Mick Napier were both really big. Obviously, Del. Del more in a spiritual way than a technical way. Mick and Noah definitely in their teaching methods. So I’d say those three main people.

J: Where would you say you’re closest to now as a teacher? Would you say you’re closer to the Annoyance style, ImprovOlympic, or to another teacher who you studied with?

A: I would probably say still a little bit more IO, but the thing that was really great about Annoyance was the way it just attacks it. It gets people to jump in there and do it. It’s sort of the way I like to teach. It’s has more to do with making them do it, and learn through experience, more than other ways where you sort of talk through it. You know it’s kind of a mixture of all them. But aesthetically it’s more ImprovOlympic. In terms of intensity some shades of, you know obviously stolen and mangled excersizes that I took from Mick Napier.

J: Were you doing any performing after film school?

A: No, it wasn’t until I did the Armando Diaz Experience [that I got back onstage again], after that I didn’t do any performing at all.

J: You were involved in an early incarnation of the UCB, right?

A: I helped out with one of the shows. They did a show called ‘Conference on the Future of Happiness.’ We did a version of the video roadtrip with it, which they did in the original show, which Neutrino kind of does as a full form. We’d do a bit where we’d grab someone out of the audience, and during the show tape some bits, then come back and show it at the end of the show.
J: Was it good work? Were you satisfied?

A: Yeah, it was a lot of fun, because the concept of it is just exciting. You’ve got somebody who you’ve never met before whose thrown in the middle of it. And you’ve got someone whose a plant playing characters. You’ve just going out into the middle of the city and being improvisational, being like ‘oh, there’s a gas station.’ How can we use this as a bit? There’s a florist, or, you know, there’s some people on the street. So it was cool because you were improvising on film, or on video, and you only had 15, 20 minutes to do it all, so it was a lot of great chaos. Then also as much as you could use film language, use the camera to take interesting shots and tell the story in an interesting way, that was such a great idea. That was all Adam McKay’s idea for their original show which they did in 1991, I think. But it always just worked, because it was in the moment, and I guess sort of the danger of it just inspired you to make some things happen.

J: So what brought you to New York?

A: UCB wanted to start a theater. They had been teaching classes and doing some shows out of Solo Arts. They had gotten signed by Comedy Central, so they needed somebody to kind of help take over classes, help them out getting their theater space and stuff. So I came out in 98 and was teaching classes for them while they were doing their tv show the first season. Found a space that Fall or Winter. I think it was January or February 99 we actually opened the space. So I was real interested in coming out there to try and help them run the theater, and teach. I had ideas about how we could take what ImprovOlympic was doing and maybe build on that. I was excited to be in New York too. I had been out here and had taught a workshop for the UCB like a year before. And had a really great time. People seemed to have a good time in the workshop. So, I was like ‘yeah great, I’ll come out here and do that.’

J: So how did you hope to build on what ImprovOlympic was doing?

A: It was always the kind of thing where there were a lot of real talented performers, then they’d do Harolds or improvise. After that it’d just be the kind of thing, where’d they’d hope to get hired by Second City and stuff. So I was just like ‘well maybe all those talented people could create more of their own stuff.’ Just kind of finding different ways of doing things, different ways of running the team system, different ways of generating sketch shows and improvised shows. One thing I’ve always wanted to do was help raise the profile of improv, in terms of it being theater, in terms of it being art. Instead of it being something where it’s your friends just getting up on stage. And you have to kind of worry about getting over those cringe-worthy moments. ‘Ehh, it’s Bob from accounting doing improv.’ That’s a fun experience, but wanting to also help it keep pushing itself. I’ve always thought that there’s lots of potential with that.

J: How did you want the team system run differently?

A: It’s the kind of thing where before people were just kind of thrown on teams. Sometimes teams worked, and some teams didn’t. Then after months and months, they eventually just of disappeared. It was kind of just like ‘Ok, we’re not on the schedule anymore. I …guess we’re not a team. …Alright.’ So there was kind of like a gap in terms of any real methodology for doing it. One of the things we tried to do was to have a bit more of a process for putting teams together, and how you choose people, and how communicate with them. And the criteria. Because there was just so much speculation as to why you’d get put on a team, or get taken off a team.

So we were trying to do that at UCB, but it was hard because we went from having 3 or 4 one semester to jacking up to 11 level ones the next semester. And it was just like we’re handling this many people, and we’re going to give everybody a chance? It went from ‘ok, you’ll be on a team. It will be a chance to learn,’ to ‘Oh my God.’ Now you’ve got three times as many people and can’t give everybody a chance to be on a team even if you wanted to. So it just kind of got out of control. I was just like at that point I couldn’t keep doing it, because it just… you know, there’s no rhyme or reason.

But that’s always the biggest thing: finding a fair way to do it, because it’s such a hurtful thing not to be on a team. Everybody’s feelings get hurt if you don’t make it, but then again not everybody’s ready for it. And there are some who you don’t know. You put them on a team and you might have your doubts about them, then all of the sudden they get a chance to play on a team for a while, they gel and all of the sudden they’re awesome. And who are you to say you know best. And there are some people who you give them a chance and they never grow anymore. Then you have to deal with the hurtful process of what should I do? Should I take them off? Now that I put them on? It’s kind of like ‘here’s you baby. Oh wait a second. It’s not your baby anymore. We’re giving it to someone else.’ That’s still the biggest nut to crack.

It’s a bit different when you audition for a play. You’re like ‘ok, well, didn’t make the play.’ It’s such an emotional thing for people [to get taken off a team]. So, you know, still trying to work on that. Trying to find a different ways of doing it.

J: So how would you describe your approach to that at the Magnet?

A: Well, we’re getting to put people on teams in a class setting, so you really get a chance to see them under fire, and really know how they’re doing before you make that decision. Because I think there’s such a gap between, someone’s in a class, you toss them on a team, then you don’t get to watch them very much. Then you come back a few months later and get to watch their group, and you’re like ‘oh my God. These guys are terrible.’
Hopefully, by the time they’ve done so many shows, you’ve had the chance to work with them and give them notes and things like that, when you put them on a team you’re going to feel confident that you’ve taught them the things that they should know, and that they can perform them at a reasonable level.

And the people that you don’t put on teams, hopefully the opposite. You know that you have given them a chance and they understand that they know that they’re there to learn, and you’ve given them feedback. It’s not an arbitrary decision. So hopefully that’s something they can accept easier than it just being like ‘alright, let’s have an audition I’ll see you for three minutes and hope that was a representative sample of what they can do.’ So the hope is by doing the team performance workshop at least everyone knows exactly what you’re supposed to be doing on stage, so it isn’t like ‘oh they haven’t taught it.’

J: What was your impression of New York improv when you came here?

A: It was very spare. Chicago always had a piano player when you would do improv, so that’s how we always saw it, because you get used to it. There weren’t the same time constraints in Chicago. There would be an 8 o’clock show and there would be a 10 o’clock show, so a show would last ninety minutes. It was kind of loose, a Harold could last 45, 50 minutes. Some benefit was people could take their time and find things. The drawback was that sometimes shows could be kind of slow and plotty. It was like ‘when is this thing gonna be over?’ And then the music could be this kind of great element that added levels to it, and some times it could be something that was too much.

In New York, because UCB was renting by the hour, they tried to pack as many shows as possible. It was like ‘ok, there’s a 7 o’clock show, there’s going to be an 8 o’clock show, a 9 o’clock show, then a 10:30 show.’ It was like ok. We need the audience in and out between the shows. The players warmed up and you’ve got to do the full show, and there wasn’t anyone to pay a piano player. So it was a very spare bare-bones type of style. I think for a while it kind of devolved into something very conceptual and very verbal. The first things I was seeing were totally about dialog and concept. One of the things I was trying to do when I would teach was to try and make sure that people embrace in other elements. I think once they got a theater there was more of a chance to use that kind of stuff.

J: How have you seen the New York improv scene change since you’ve been here? And what do you think are some of the things responsible for that change?

A: What’s good is that more heads are in the game. There’s more teachers from Chicago. More people doing workshops out of town. More different types of influences. It used to be: there’s Chicago City Limits, Gotham City improv, UCB, a couple other things here and there. The UCB used to be the main authority, you know, and now there’s people studying a lot of different places, bringing in other schools of thought, trying to expand [the improv scene.] I feel it’s getting more depth and more variety which is good. You know, being able to play the game, but also being able to develop character and play detail, and play slow if you need to or fast if you need to. It feels like it’s getting to be more like Chicago was in the 90’s. You have broadening skills as well as strong performers doing strong work, so it just feels like it’s filling out. Before it was kind of skeletal. Now it feels like it’s a good thriving scene.
J: So what do you hope to accomplish with the Magnet that you weren’t able to accomplish at the UCB or at the PIT?

A: [Laughs] Uh, make a good living. ...My whole thing is that I feel that the culture of a place is important. I feel it filters into the work, the performers, so having a place of your own allows you to create the culture of it. It’s not only what you do onstage, but also how everybody behaves off the stage, how they treat each other, the relationships, things like that. But also, I think being able to change the emphasis of, teams are good, that’s fine. But the Rep is something good. It’s something I’m excited about. It’s an alternative to teams. Think of shows being cast like plays, and being part of a company. Everyone gets so team obsessed. A team’s a great opportunity to get your legs as a performer, but it isn’t the only thing. If we only do that we’re not going to expand forward very much. So that’s one thing. Then just with shows hopefully break open, even on team night, the way you present a show, try to make shows more audience friendly. Try to get more theater audiences in there, instead of just people’s friends. Try and really get it to be more artful. Another thing I’m really happy with about the Magnet is more of an exchange of ideas, like not only improv but theater, music, art. You shouldn’t live in improv seven days a week. You should find other influences and influence other people too. Hopefully, we’re putting that idea out there.

J: It seems like the Magnet has become pretty popular pretty quickly. Do agree with that? Were you surprised with it?

A: It seems like things are going well, and that’s good. For me, for the most part, I’m happy with what the students are doing. I like the work that they’re doing, and the way the program’s shaping up. So that’s good. I like that people are signing up for classes and we’re able to pay rent. I’m not surprised that it’s going well. I’m very happy about it. It’s exciting that there’s interest in our point of view.

J: You performed at the first Ampersand for half an hour. How long had it been since you performed?

A: Probably about 9 years, 8, 7 years. I used to sit in on some ASSSSCATs and stuff, but it’s sort of a different experience. Probably about 7 years.

J: How did you like it?

A: It was fun. It was really nice. I like that form, which is why I think I was interested in doing that. Just the chance to do a scene. And work with Christina Gausas, because I knew she was a great performer, and we could take some risks with each other. We had a friendship, so there was a lot of trust in it. So I really enjoyed that. It’s been fun every time we’ve done it. It was the kind of thing that was very different from sitting in with a bunch of people who can kind of get tag out happy. For me that doesn’t expand me as a performer at all. You can do that at a bar, just throw out jokes and see who’s the funniest. I thought it was kind of a great challenge to be out there longer and see if you can sustain it.

J: What is ‘the game’ and how important is it to good improv?

A: The game’s very important in improv like all components. You need all of them. You can’t just go ‘hey, you need environment. Or you need dialog, or chairs or whatever. You need history.’ All those things contribute to the game, so the game is only as good as the specifics that you bring to it. We can play a one-upsmanship game where I would keep on topping you, but what’s going to make it funny are the ways that I top you, the specifics that top you. Therefore, that’s the reason that you want to develop a character, and you want to develop the location, the history, whatever, because then I have lots of interesting, more profound, heightened, high stakes ways to top you.

To me the game is only a structure, the same way that Harold’s a structure. What makes Harold work is what you bring to Harold. And what was great about Del was how much he would inspire people to be able to play the structure, but being able to play it in a way that you aspired to something smart and meaningful. He didn’t say ‘play the game. Play the game. Play the game,’ but if the game’s not meaningful, then it’s sort of not interesting. It’s not going to be very funny. So to me the game is a structure and you can learn to recognize it, but you also have to be an interesting human being and have something to say.

J: Do you have any opinions on why the game is funny?

A: We respond to patterns. We like music and music repeats itself. Music has a verse and a chorus and verse. The rule of threes. We just get used to cycles. The universe is like that for some reason, and every living thing on it seems to be hardwired to it. And there’s probably some kind of Eastern philosophy that talks about this.

So we get pleasure every time a pattern in music happens. The same thing with game, with the joke that keeps coming back. We don’t want to hear it consistently. We want to see it [then have it go away.] In music, there’s this thing: the build up of tension, the release of tension. Most music is based on it. Build tension release tension. There’s a pattern to it. In comedy, it’s the same thing: the building of tension the release of tension. And that’s what the game does. And why that is? I don’t know. I don’t know the nature of the universe, but it seems like that’s just how it is and how we respond to it.
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J: To you, what are some of the most important elements of good scene work?

A: There are techniques like take your time, listen, try and connect with your partner. Those are techniques that hopefully get you to a place where you find inspiration and you are able to use your intellect, and you’re able to fill that scene out. So I think good improvisers are able to tap into that stuff immediately and are very open to their partners and open to what’s going on onstage. You know that whole cliché of being in the moment. But it’s just whatever methodology you use to sort of ‘be there,’ that’s what good improvisers do, because their very sensitive. They are aware the moment anything deviates, anything special occurs. They’re able to react to it and exploit it and use it.

In scene work, you can work in great detail and get very specific, and get a real sense of rhythm, and a sense of patience. You just wait for the right moment to play the game, or make a move. Experience helps that. Sure there’s a lot of opportunity for jokes or game moves that are mechanically right. But the good improviser picks the right moment. Just like a basketball player is like you can take shots all time, but you want to take good shots. Shots you can make.

And you don’t always want to do the same thing over and over again. You’re going to challenge yourself to not play the same stock characters, not to play the same statuses or those kind of things. In good scene work, you’ve got all those tools at your disposal, but they’re so innate, you’re that well-trained, that you don’t have to think about the process of doing it. You can just put yourself in a place of inspiration and then just do it. It kind of like having this antenna tuned to this frequency. Just being able to open yourself up to that frequency every time you got on stage, and not having to rely on the mechanics of it. Like ‘ok, every time he does this I’m going to do that.’ While that’s in the back of your head, you have the choice whether to do that and how you’re going to do that. Hopefully, you don’t have to go through a thinking process. You just do it. You just play the scene. That’s one of those things where you want people trained but you want people to be able to throw out all that training out and just be in the moment and just tap into who you are and what you know and let that come out.

J: How do you work on getting improvisers into that moment?

A: A lot of just getting them to do scenes, and keeping the analysis very minimal and very essential. And put more emphasis on illustrating what’s good and why it’s good, so they recognize it and encouraging that. And moving them away from bad habits and stuff like that. So in the beginning it is more about trying to get them to be more open to things, even though it can kind of be a little sloppy or have some mistakes. Later on with advanced improvisers, it’s a bit more of the opposite. It about challenge them to take away the usual go-to things. Calling them out on stuff they do all the time, or calling them out on work that’s not that smart or thoughtful.

Essentially in all cases the thing that you’re trying to get them to be excited about improv and love improv. Therefore, you have to be interested and excited about it yourself. So it’s always challenging, especially when you teach a lot of classes, to continue to find interesting things about improv and enjoy it. And get to see that joy and excitement through your eyes. But it’s also like doing scenes. You do scenes with the same group all the time, you’ve got to find a way to be excited with working with them. It’s like a marriage. You’ve got to find interesting things with your partner and still love each other and enjoy each other. Sometimes that has to do with breaking up the routine. Taking some risks, stretching yourself. Same way when you teach. It’s a constant challenge to keep being excited about improv and making people excited. But I think once you create that excitement and love everything else falls into place a lot easier. I know just with my own experience just when I started taking classes. There was just so much excitement that I saw in my fellow students and teachers, and that was the thing that motivated me to do everything. That excluded any sort of mercenary aspirations, like I want to be on tv or whatever. The best thing in the world is now, while you’re in that scene, while you’re in front of an audience. And that’s essentially why we do anything. If you get paid for it, you can make a living off it, great. The work itself has got to be the thing that keeps you going.

J: So how do you stay inspired by and excited with improv?

A: [puts his head back and says in anguish] I don’t know.

J: [Laughs] Ok. Next question. [The tape conveniently runs out, giving Armando a moment to think] So, we were talking about staying inspired.

A: Yeah, if you can make discoveries each class, where you can think about it in different ways [it’s helps you to stay inspired.] It’s philosophy. You start to examine how improv works, sometimes you find different ways to phrase things. Sometimes you invent new exercises on the spot.

Sometimes it’s the students themselves. They wind up doing really funny, original work, and these are people you’ve never met before. They bring in experiences you haven’t had, because of who they are. They’re from different walks of life. I like working with the students. I like people. I have a fun time with them. So when they’re fun it makes it makes it easy to keep the class interesting. But they’re fun because I’m having fun, so it’s a bit of both. But I try and go there to be entertained, you know? So I try to create the conditions where the class can be entertaining, and the class can fly by. So you just have to find a way to be playful if you can, and try to enjoy it.

J: If you had any advice to beginning improvisers, what would it be?

A: Be open to it. Meet people. Don’t take it too seriously. Really try to enjoy it, because when you enjoy it you tend to learn more than when you put pressure on yourself and you have some sort of crazy goals, like to trying to be funny. Most of the times people end up being funny, it’s accidentally. They’re just being honest. The more they can be ok with themselves usually the more successful they are. And also, get to know people. It’s just like ‘ok, I’m being myself. I’m being who I am.’ So other people will feel good about doing that and you become friends with them.

You also do funnier work. It’s so much easier to joke around with your friends than with a bunch of people who are judging your work, you know? There’s sort of no reason not to have a good time, even though it’s not a natural activity. It’s one that can make you nervous or whatever, but the world’s not going to end because you do a bad scene. You’re going to do millions of bad scenes. I mean, not millions, but hundreds or dozens. So, have a good time with it.

J: Do you have any advice to experienced improvisers?

A: Again, same thing, have a good time with it. It’s up to them to keep challenging themselves, and making improv worth doing. Don’t take it for granted. Know the difference between a fuck around show and a show that you should care about. It’s fun to do shows and to have some beers and blow off steam and have a good time, but it’s also good to do shows where you’re rehearsing, you’re showing up on time, you’re being professional, you’re giving your all and you’re risking a lot. That’s when you’re going to continue to find improv interesting, because you’re like ‘yeah, we really tried our hardest for that show and we really were challenging ourselves, treating every show like it’s important,’ approaching it that way. Then inevitably the shows are good, the work is good. It has meaning as opposed to the times you’re like ‘ehh, that show was so crappy.’ And ‘what are we doing? Nobody wants to rehearse. There’s no one’s in the audience.’

Just be honest. If you’re not enjoying it, if you don’t find value in it, if you’re embarrassed about it, don’t do that show. Doing shows just to do shows is stupid. Be selective. It’s fun to have your ‘bowling night’ kind of show, but you should do shows that make you better. You should play with players who make you better. Don’t waste your time. And, I don’t know, go live your life. Experience things other than improv. Read. Museums. Travel. Take other classes. That’s what’s going to continue to replenish what you have to offer onstage.
J: What do you think are some of the important qualities for being a good improv coach or teacher?

A: It takes a little while to assemble a number of exercises that work for you and you can use. I think that being able to understand how improv works is important, and how you get from point A to point B in terms of getting people to do something. Because the real key is anything you do, say you’re trying to teach the Harold, you have to know how to break down the skills that they’re going to learn. There’s a whole mess of skills that they should have a handle on before they’re actually tempted to do a whole Harold. So, let’s make sure people know how to do scene work. Let’s make sure they know how to do an opening. Make sure they know how to do a group game. Now let’s start putting parts of those things together. In some ways, you just have to know how to dissect something and organize yourself in a way that you can get to places.

Another thing is that you have to have a good personality. In the sense that, you can be easy-going, but then you can also …crack the whip when you need to. You’re there to coach or teach, so you’re there to make sure they get work done. And people will tend to just want to sit and talk. It happens at all levels. People just will kind of get lazy, or start wasting time and stuff. So, whether it’s veteran performers or level 1 students, you’re the boss, you’re the director, you’ve got to make sure that you keep things moving along and that you actually get some work done. It takes a bit of authority. How it comes across depends on your personality. You don’t have to be yelling your head off. You can be pretty laid back and do it, but the thing is you have to have some authority to teach.

You also have to be patient. You can’t be too impatient about people’s inabilities or people asking the same questions. You can’t get frustrated because people aren’t getting it. Be flexible. That flexibility will allow you to say ‘well, this approach isn’t working, so let’s go in a different direction. Let’s go around the problem. Let’s approach it from the back side. As opposed to beating your head and being like ‘learn it this way. Just memorize this.’ So you find other ways to communicate. Being a good communicator is good.

And being perceptive. You have to sense when something’s going wrong. You have to sense what it is. You really start to understand what you need to tell people. Some people need to be told a lot. Some people need to be encouraged. Some people can be left alone because they’re just kind of …letting it roll off their back. Some people need really specific instruction. Some people just want to be heard or whatever. You start to be more perceptive about what’s going on and you can act on it in a timely manner. You can act on it in the moment, and it will be most effective then.

J: Where would you like to see improv go in the future?

A: [Puts head back]…Space. …It’s good that there are shows that there are shows that are doing it on tv and stuff. I would love for tv to see some of the things that we do right now. Shows like ‘Curb Your Enthusiasm’ use improv, but they sort of use it in a fairly basic way. It’d be great to see a Harold on tv. I don’t know if tv’s ready for it. Just because that experience is pretty amazing. It’d be great if tv audience started to get that. It would great if improvisers could make a living off of improv, just the way that actors do or stand-up comedians do. Just being like ‘hey, I did a Harold. And we got paid to do it on tv.’

You know, hopefully, continuing to discover new techniques and forms and styles. That would be great.

J: What have some of your favorite shows and teams been?

A: I really enjoyed Mother. Love those guys. Love working with them. I really enjoyed working with Respecto, the Swarm. Blue Velveeta was a great team, although they don’t ever get mentioned in the history. They’re the ones that really made the Harold work. They’re the ones that did Harolds that kicked ass consistently. They found a way to do it. In the time after that The Family came, and I always enjoyed them. TJ and Dave I totally enjoy. These are all sort of basic things that people know about.

TV shows, I love Mr. Show. I thought that was one of the best sketch shows to come out in the last ten or fifteen years. More people should see it, because there’s a lot of really great satire on it. There really hasn’t been any satire on tv. That’s been a really underrated show, but I think people are catching onto it on DVD.

J: What do you think of the state of comedy in popular culture today?

A: I think it’s starting to rebound a little bit. The hard thing is it’s hard for there to be breakout shows. There’s much diversity. There’s so many cable channels. There are so many ways that people can go out and have a good time. There’s so much going on it’s hard for anything to stand out. It just feels like everything’s diluted.

Also, the problem is there’s too many producers muddling the comedy. With the bureaucracy of a tv show you’re surprised that any comedy comes out, at all. It’s not an easy thing to get anything done with the process of tv. So that’s just hard in the first place. Then the emphasis becomes non-comedy people, non-performers running things. That can really interfere with being able to do a comedy show.

There seems to be more homegrown stuff. I think that gives the opportunity to reinvigorate comedy in general.

The other thing is I think people need to learn how to write. Just in general. Movies. Television shows. Whether it’s comedy or dramatic. The level of writing has really dipped in the last twenty, thirty years all across the board. If anything’s going to help, it’s somehow we develop writers more. As much as you can go to film school and learn how to put a camera in interesting places and stuff like that, every film I worked on was a piece of shit. There just weren’t any good ideas. So it’s just like spend less time learning cinematography and more time writing scripts.

J: Do you have anything that you want to say to the improv community that you didn’t get out in this interview?

A: [Puts his head back and thinks] …I love you improv community!

J: [Laughs] Awesome. Well, I think that’s about it.
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Now that I know how to post pictures, here's a cool photo of Armando:

Billy Merritt

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Billy Merritt is a long-time teacher and performer at the UCB. You may have seen him on Boiling Points and Best Week Ever and some other shows that he's probably not too proud of. He's been doing improv in New York for as long as just about anyone beside his Swarm and Stepfathers teammate Michael Delaney. He is probably as responsible for helping to build the NYC long-form community as anyone else.

Josh: Where are you from?

Billy: Originally?

J: Yeah.

B: Gainesville, Florida.

J: Is that a big city?

B: It’s a college town. I was a University brat instead of an Army brat. My Mother and Stepfather worked for the University of Miami, so we lived in Miami until I was in 6th grade. In 6th grade we moved up to U of Florida, which is in Gainesville.

J: Did they teach at the University?

B: My Stepfather did. He was an Oceanographic Engineer down in Miami and switched to just computers up in Gainesville. He eventually became the Dean of a section of the college of Computer Engineering at the University of Tennessee.

J: What was it like growing up with him? Was he a big academic presence?

B: No, actually he was a country bumpkin. You know, simple. I mean he was an Oceanographic Engineer, then he worked at a thing called Iphus [sp?], which is the largest farm college in Florida, where he handled the computers. So he’s always been …like a country bumpkin.

J: A country bumpkin who’s amazing with computers.

B: Yeah, like a …country nerd. Let’s put it that way.

J: What was the earliest influence on your sense of humor?

B: When I was a real little kid, real little, I watched PBS. This was back before there was satellite or Cable. And PBS had Monty Python on it. So, I watched a lot of Monty Python and Benny Hill, and of course Second City whenever that came on. SNL whenever that came on like everyone else. I was in the ‘Saturday Night Club’ [at school]. The next week we would all reenact the sketches [from the previous SNL]. Everybody would do the Wild and Crazy guy and stuff, that’s how long ago it was.

J: This was in High School?

B: This was in Middle School, a long time ago.

J: So, you were performing even in Middle School then?

B: Well, we were performing to each other as kids. I mean, I didn’t get on stage until High School maybe, in my senior play.

J: When did you first know you wanted to be a performer?

B: I took a 10 year break between High School senior play and getting back into it again. I was a very bad football player for a while, then I got into the wonderful world of restaurant management and did that. I didn’t get back into theater, I didn’t even know that I was going to do comedy, until 10 years after all that stuff. I’d say my twenties, my mid to late twenties, I got back into it.
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J: How did you get back into it?

B: It’s weird. The company I was working with sent me to West Palm Beach. And in the middle of that they just decided ‘eh we’re not going to do franchises anymore,’ and I was a franchise manager. I had gone down to West Palm to work on opening a location. I was supposed to be down there for three months, and in that time the owner who was kind of a faux hippie said ‘eh, this isn’t cool. I don’t want to do this anymore.’ And he just quit doing franchises, so I was just kind of stuck down there.

It was like I could go back to Gainesville or stay down there. So I stayed down there and started bartending, and got into the, what is it? The ‘Miami Vice’ style of bartending. It was nice. Bars on the water and boats and all that stuff, but after a while you start to get burned out on it. So I started going back to school. And the exact thing that started getting me back into theater was …food.

J: Really?

B: Yes, because I went back to Palm Beach Community College, and was going for Political Science for some reason and I saw this big building and figured that had to be the cafeteria, because I was hungry. …I was hungry.

J: [Laughs] Got it.

B: So I went over there, looking for the cafeteria, because it was a brand new looking building, and it turned out to be the theater.

J: The same thing happened to Nipsy Russel.

B: Are you kidding?

J: Yes.

B: Ok, because Nipsy and I very similar. I went in looking for food and some guy put a paint brush in my hand and said ‘start painting’ a set. And of course I just ate it [mimes eating the paint brush]. Delicious.

And the amazing thing about this school that I went to is the Duncan theater. It’s a very advanced theater. They put a lot of money into it. Burt Reynolds himself put in three million dollars for this theater. They were going put the Florida ballet in there, and the palm beach opera was going to play there. …Palm Beach and West Palm Beach has a lot of ‘old money,’ and they spend a lot of money on the arts. It’s like an inordinate amount of money, so this place has like a ten million dollar theater for community college students. And the teachers there had been teaching there for over 30 years, so they were really good teachers. And that’s where I met the person who influenced me the most, Frank Lahey. And that’s how I met Michael Delaney, because he was in that school too. And Dave Blumenfeld, also from the Swarm. We all met at that theater. …Frank Leahy was known for discovering Burt Reynolds,

J: Really?

B: Yup, and “discovering” George Hamilton, discovering Judge Reinhold. That’s some of the great actors of our time.

J: Right.

B: So it was pretty cool. We were really lucky to have a tight knit community. And I would say that those two years where I got into acting was what sealed it [for me wanting to become a performer.] …And this theater is about the size of some of the main houses on Broadway. It seats about 750 people. And it sells out because they’re all …“blue hairs,” who’ve got nothing else to do, but sit around and watch plays. We did ‘Rags,’ ‘Gemini,’‘the Mystery of Edwin Drood.’ And that’s the play that got us into improvisation, the musical, ‘the Mystery of Edwin Drood.’

J: How did that get you into improvisation?

B: The play is a murder mystery written by Rupert Holmes where the audience decides who does it by the end, so there’s a lot of improvisation involved. And the director, Frank Leahy, had us play Victorian Vaudeville actors playing Dickensonian characters. …It’s like an English accent on top of an English accent. We’d have to go out and talk to the audience fifteen minutes before the play as these English people. A lot of the elders thought that we actually were English.

The great thing about that area is that it’s a great incubator for actors, because you have built in audiences. No matter how old they may be, they’re still going to be there. They still like theater, but you have to do the classics. When I was down there, you could do this role in ‘My Fair Lady,’ this role in ‘West Side Story’ and have a career, if you just keep doing them over and over.

J: Did you know that you and Mike Delaney and Dave Blumenfeld were going to work together for a long time?

B: No, well, we started down there doing a show late Sunday nights at 11 o’clock at night at this little place called the Art Spark. Delaney had also seen Second City and probably knew more about improv than any of us, as far as improv games and stuff. So we got this spot and we said ‘well, let’s go up and do it.’ A couple other players, friends of ours hooked up with us, and we actually became a group called the ‘The Comedy Squad.’ And that was the true training for comedy for us. Because we didn’t have anybody to study with for improv, we just had to learn on our own.

We did some horrible improv. We did a lot of sketch. We’d write sketches every week, so we were very prolific. I’d say there was a year, a year and a half where we’d just write new stuff every week. And audiences kept coming. It became a big fish in a small pond kind of thing. Delaney moved up here first, because his now wife Linda moved up here. She was a ‘real’ actress. She came up here to work at the to join the Neighborhood Playhouse. Delaney followed her up here, and we followed him up here. Because the question was were we going to go to Chicago or go to New York.
J: The decision to go to Chicago would have been based on improv?

B: We had an ‘in’ in New York, meaning a place to live, a place to stay until we found a place to live, and National Improv Theater was up here. And in the 80’s that was a fairly decent-sized improv theater.

J: So, actually what year is this?

B: Uhh.

J: If you don’t mind saying.

B: I can’t remember.

J: Was it in the 80’s?

B: No, they were big in the 80’s. We didn’t come up here until, I want to say 93 or 94. The early 90’s. I’m really bad with dates. Grunge was big. ‘Jeremy.’ ‘Jeremy Farted’ was a big song.

J: I don’t think that’s a real song.

B: What is it? ‘Jeremy spo-oke in class…,’ that’s when we moved up here. It was the waning years of National Improv Theater, and they were looking for anybody and everybody. And that was our first honest teaching in improv. A lot of the stuff we already knew. We had studied all the books. We had taken acting classes, so we knew how to act and stuff like that, but …they were good. There were some really good teachers at National Improv Theater: Chris Smith, Jim Meskeman is still probably one of the best improvisational actors I’ve ever seen. You see him all the time in little bit parts.

They had a really unique system of improv, because all theaters have a system or technique, so everybody can latch on to one thing and know ‘that’s how we do scenes.’. At UCB it’s ‘the game.’ National Improv Theater had this nice little space. It’s not there anymore. It’s where the Gristede’s is on 8th and 22nd.

J: That’s really nearby [the UCBT is on 26th and 8th].

B: Yeah, it’s all in the same area. Improv has only been in the Chelsea area of New York.

As it turns out they were Scientologists. And they had developed Scientology. Well, Scientology had developed within the theater. When it started, they weren’t into Scientology, I believe, but eventually each and every member became a Scientologist. So a lot of money got funneled out of the theater. And the theater grew big in the 80’s, because there was the whole boom. They got a lot of money from Wall Street, people just donating money to them. And they were big with Stand-ups. Stand-up was big at the time. So they always made a big deal about, Jerry Seinfeld taking classes there when he was starting up. Rita Rudner started classes there. Griffin Dunn started classes there. A lot of actors in New York at that time. Giovanni Rivocese, he was taking classes at the time. Delaney knew him, I think. Leo Allen was there.

J: Doing stand-up or improv?

B: I think he was taking improv classes, but he was always doing stand-up.

But jumping back, this is important lore, improv lore. National Improv Theater was started by Tamra Wilcox. Tamra Wilcox was a large woman. She had some sort of disease or something where she just kept gaining weight, so she was sickly, but she was very smart, and she really knew her shit. She was on the Committee with Del Close back in San Franscisco back in the Hippie days. And she and a bunch of other people in the Committee did the Robert Altman movie ‘M.A.S.H.’ You can see Tamra Wilcox as one of the cheerleaders in ‘M.A.S.H.’ She always used to say ‘that’s what I used to look like.’

And she used to pontificate on the theory of improv forever. Just really good stuff. And not to jump on anyone’s religion, but Scientology took over the whole theater and how it was run. And in my opinion kind of ran it into the ground. A lot of those guys moved to L.A. Of course in the celebrity center, for Scientology in L.A. And I believe the UCB is near them.

J: Did they ever try to recruit you?

B: Oh sure. Every day. It was just weird little things. They’d give you pamphlets and things. And once they realized it’s not going to happen, they’d go ‘ok, great.’ And they might be a little resentful. And we might be a little freaked out by them or something, but there were no spaceships in the basement or anything.
J: What were some of Tamra’s philosophies and how did they influence you?

B: The main thing I got out of them is that you don’t know who you are until your scene partner tells you who you are. That’s how they taught it. So you have no idea. You have an idea for your scene partner and he has or she has an idea for you. That’s how their level 1 and 2 started. Obviously, as you get more developed like all rules they start to slack up a bit. That helped me with not driving scenes as much. And not to be funny. And not to tell jokes. Because when you go out and come in with an idea, you’re going to tell a joke. But if somebody tells you something, and you have a great idea, instead of making it your idea, you give it to someone else. It gives you a sense of going back and forth and giving. That was one of the big things that I got from them. And a lot of little techniques. They were always about the little things, [such as] mirroring.

In classes they had a checklist. I ended up teaching there too. You’d have to check things off from this little booklet. And each class you’d have to go: ‘did you do this exercise? Did you do this exercise?’ But by doing that, every single person had the same sort of base knowledge. Even today, Delaney or Dave and I kid around and say lets do ‘Pot of Glue.’ Inflatables, that was my favorite. Very simple little exercise where two people were onstage talking to each other. And as you’re talking, you’re inflating him: ‘You’re great. You’re super. You do great work. You’re really smart.’ And it’s like they’re being pumped up, pumped up and then say one thing bad and deflate, deflate. There was no purpose to the exercise. There’s no entertainment value to it, but you learn a little teeny thing like that and throw it into your improv.

J: And you actually physically inflate as you’re doing it?

B: Yeah. They did a lot of little things like that. …Every class you learn something.

J: So what were you three [Billy, Michael Delaney, and Dave Blumenfeld] doing with improv at that time? Was Linda Delaney improvising with you?

B: Linda was up here. And also another friend of ours Greg Madera moved up here with us as well. He has since moved down to Nashville, has a kid and all that stuff. We formed a group called ‘Lost Footage.’ That was our first New York improv troupe. We thought ‘we’re gonna be the best group ever. We’re gonna fuckin’ rock.’ ‘Lost Footage’ was where we met Bobby Curious a.k.a. Bobby Kennedy. Bobby Curious is drunk Indian Bob in the ‘Sunshine Gang.’ He plays the guitar and all that stuff.

J: Was he improvising?

B: Yeah, we met him at National Improv Theater, but he was our musician in a sense. We did some musical improv stuff. He basically gave music to all the scenes, but with guitar, not piano.

J: So were you guys performing at the National Improv Theater?

B: We started performing at the National Improv Theater, Friday nights, just like we’re doing here. They kept half the money, and we were supposed to get the other half of the money.

J: And that never happened?

B: They left town [laughs.] …It was a small space. Honestly, it was nicer than this space [the UCBT]. It was nice and well put together, but it was smaller. And our houses were smaller. If we had 20 people, it was a good night.
J: So how long was it until the UCB came to New York?

B: There was a couple year gap between then and when the UCB came, and during that time we actually created our own theater space in the basement of the ‘Hans Akookoo [sp.?] Natural Remedy and Treatment Center.’ Dr. Ken Kubiachi loved our work. He was an acupuncturist and Chinese herbal medicine doctor, and at that time Delaney was very ill with his kidneys. And somebody had mentioned: ‘Go to Dr. Kubiachi.’

Eventually all of us went to him. He gave us awful Chinese teas with tweas [sp] and stuff in them. But he had a basement space. …He loved it. He loved improv. He thought it was great. He had a big giant space, and said if we put in some flooring and put in a few risers, we could do shows there. Friday nights. He wanted to teach classes there. He wanted to do all kinds of stuff there. He wanted to make it a performance/health center. And we would do our shows there.

If we had twelve people, [it would be a good night.] That’s where we came up with the rule if there were more people in the audience than on the stage we do the show, but if there’s less than five we don’t do the show. So we spent a lot of Friday nights just playing guitar and drinking beer.

J: Were you happy there?

B: Yeah, it was fun, but honestly by that time I don’t think improv was a career. It was just something I was doing on Friday nights. I personally came very close to moving to Vegas. I was offered a job doing events management stuff. …And it’s like do we go to Vegas, or…

J: Well, would they [Michael and Dave] have gone with you?

B: No. At that time I was married. It was between me and my wife if we were going to go out there. And I think we just hunkered down.

While we were there, I think the UCB came to town. I think the first workshop I had was with Matt Besser. I didn’t know who he was or what was going on. I think Dave and I went to the workshop with a bunch of other people who we knew from N.I.T., because not everyone at N.I.T. was a Scientologist. There were a lot of other people there.

We took the workshop and I remember going as we walked away, ‘who the fuck does this guy think he is? He’s telling us everything we’re doing is wrong? What is ‘a game?’ What is this [makes a cloverleaf pattern with his finger]?’ He spent all this time talking about the cloverleaf pattern.

J: Playing a game then getting away from it?

B: Yeah, but it stuck. Then I met Ian [Roberts]. Ian coached us personally, and that was really good. Then we saw them perform, and it was like ‘oh, wow.’ First, we had seen their sketch show, which we were like ‘ok, it’s a good sketch show.’ We were still like [defensively crosses arms]. Maybe that was just me, and not everybody else. Then we saw ASSSSCAT and I went ‘ohhhh, that’s what they’re talking about.’ And that’s when we met all of them.

J: Did that blow your mind? Was it better than any improv you had seen before?

B: Um, I wouldn’t say that, because there was some good stuff going on at N.I.T. But it was the kind of improv I wanted to play. I didn’t sit back and go ‘wow, I could never do that.’ I was like ‘yes. I want to do that.’ So it motivated me, instead of blew me away. And that’s what got me going like ‘yeah, lets do this’ and it really made me want to work with them. Because we knew their reputation. And at the time, we’d be hungering to learn how to do a proper Harold. The people who we had come in and teach us before didn’t know what they were doing. These guys knew what they were doing. So that’s what we really wanted out of them.

J: How was ASSSSCAT different from the impressive stuff you had seen at N.I.T.?

B: More laid back. More to the point. The big guns at N.I.T. wore all black, nice button down shirts, tucked in. It was like an off-broadway experience. They had won cabaret awards and stuff like that. So they were more adult. ASSSSCAT is for kids. It’s fun. It’s the kind of comedy that we liked. For instance, the main group at N.I.T. would do a form called ‘impressional styles.’ Jim Meskeman could do any impression. It was incredible, but his impressions were like James Mason, Sean Connery.

ASSSSCAT was totally different. It was kind of more of the humor that we got, what we liked, and how they got to it was quicker. It was just what we wanted. It was like this [snaps]. It was just really good.
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J: How did you start getting involved with the UCB? Did they have a theater or performance space at the time?

B: At that time they were all over the place until they hooked up with this place called Solo Arts, which was on the 6th floor of a building in Chelsea. They did their show, then they started teaching workshops on the weekends. And that’s when we started meeting people, like Sean Conroy, Secunda, Daly, Terry Jinn, Leo. A lot of Chicago City Limits people heard about [the UCB], and they became involved. And National Improv Theater people became involved. So all of those people who were kind of tired of that kind of stuff said this is what we want and this is what we understand to be long-form. At N.I.T. it wasn’t long-form. It was mid-form. Their Harold was more of what we call a montage here. This was a true structure, an interesting thing to do.

It was just the four of them. And they split up the workshops. More people kept taking the classes. Groups started forming. A couple of the members of Lost Footage got together with a couple other people and we formed a group called Naked Apartment. From there we started doing ‘kind of’ Harolds.

We were kind of doing shows on our own. By that time we knew how to put up shows on our own. So UCB would do one set, we would do one set, Lost Footage would do a set, then Hammerheads would do a set. Then after that Lost Footage would turn into Naked Apartment. Then as Naked Apartment kind of started to dwindle and as Hammerheads started to dwindle that’s when the Swarm got together.

Amy wanted to try a new form, and I think it was Delaney and Secunda who put the group together. I just got a call. I was lucky enough to get a call.

J: So Delaney and Secunda put together the Swarm?

B: I think so. They would know that better than me. I know Amy had a form she wanted to work on, and I think Delaney and Secunda talked to her about it, or something along those lines. They got Katie and Joanne and me from Naked Apartment. Sean and Daly and Aaron Bergeron from the Hammerheads.

I remember meeting at their apartment, and we did not well with the form. It was not a good form for us. It was a hip-hop style structure.

J: How was it hip-hop?

B: Have you ever heard Wu-Tang Clan? This song and this song start to merge together. Whatever this person was singing about would influence the other person, and it would go back and forth, then they would sing together, then go back to their song. And she wanted to do the same thing with scenes, but [makes a frown].

J: So it wasn’t explicitly hip-hop oriented?

B: No, we weren’t doing hip-hop. But Eugene Cordero was our mixer, I believe. This was before I even knew who Eugene was. Amy set it up at our first show where there was just somebody spinning tunes.

J: Is she really into hip-hop?

B: She was at the time. I’m sure she is now too. And that’s how the name Swarm came about. We were sitting at ‘Duke’s,’ ‘Duke’s Barbeque’ coming up with a name. We came up with 3 different names. El Sabor because that was the name of the hot sauce on the table at the time, The 5 Conundrums of Dr. Fang, or something like that, and the Swarm. The Swarm was a certain part of the form where we would have to yell out [slow-mo] ‘Let’s break it down!!!’ And two people would freeze and we would paint the picture really explicitly. Then we’d back out.

And Amy kept telling us in rehearsals ‘it’s like you’re Swarming. I want you to swarm more. Swarm all over the place. Like you’re bees.’ So that’s how it came about.

J: That’s interesting [laughing]. When you started taking classes with the UCB, did you know your classmates from before? And could you immediately tell they were very talented.

B: No, I didn’t know who Sean was. I didn’t know who Andy [Secunda] or Andy [Daly] were. I found out later that Secunda said his very first improv scene was with me. It’s like ‘I didn’t know that. I wouldn’t have done it with you if I had done that.’

J: Was it a good scene?

B: Yeah. I remember it was a basketball scene. He was my manager, and I wanted to get paid per bounce of the ball, like $5 a bounce. It was a hilarious scene. It was a brilliant scene.

J: So he, Andy Secunda, must have progressed really quickly, if that was his first scene and then he was working with you guys shortly after.

B: Oh, he had been doing comedy long before that. He was writing and doing sketch and stuff like that. I’m sure he had done versions of improv, but not an improv scene, like getting a suggestion and starting a scene.
J: So, when did you start teaching at the UCB?

B: I was trying to think of that. I counted them out. I’ve taught 78. It’s been about 3 or 4 years. Maybe 5 years now. I don’t know. Before then I was coaching. I think Delaney starting teaching before I did. The first teacher they brought in after the UCB was Armando. He became the head teacher there. Then Kevin Mullaney came in and started teaching. Then New York people started teaching, because they wanted to get ‘the game’ established. I think Armando was big [on the game] when he came. When Kevin Mullaney came [he was very big on it]. Because he was very technical with that. They’re the guys who helped established teaching the game. Then of course as the UCB got their own show and got busier other people started teaching. I think Delaney was the next teacher, but I’m not sure. I can’t think of who else was teaching at the time. I’m not sure if Sean [Conroy] was teaching or not, because Sean was teaching at CCL too.

J: So what is ‘the game’ to you?

B: Game is structure. Game is the premise or what is funny about this. A game can be anything at any given time. I think the trick of knowing a game is not knowing it and just instinctively playing it. Because if you ‘know’ it, then you’re just playing it way too much. You know, that’s what ‘gamey’ is. To me, it’s important that you know what it is so you can get away from it then come back to it again.

I think all great comedy sketches have that [circles his finger] circle, the magical circle. Here’s the game. Now let’s get away from it. So when we get back to it …we ‘if that then what else’ and it gets bigger and bigger. It’s got a lot of different things. A lot of different phrases. I don’t think there’s one single sentence that explains it, because I think every scene can be different.

J: Do you think ‘the game’ has gotten a bad wrap? Or do you think that people appreciate it for what it is, that it doesn’t necessarily exclude relationship?

B: I was just thinking about that, because I hear a lot of people saying ‘no, we want to do relationship based scene work.’ And I’m just like ‘well of course there’s relationship in games.’ Do you have to mention that? That’s just silly. As I said before, if you play game so hard that that’s all there is is game, you don’t know who you are, where you are, it’s not going to be a good scene no matter what. You have to know that stuff. But if you only know who you are and where you are you have no reason to be in that scene. There’s no structure. No way to put it together. Nothing to bind it. Then you don’t have a scene either.

So, giving the game a bad wrap, I think that usually comes from people who don’t get game. …Eh, that’s just as insulting, and I don’t want to be insulting about it. I just think the term ‘slower scene playing’ sounds like an insult to me. I think there’s just as rewarding stuff in quick scene play as there is in slow scene play. You need to know the same amount of stuff in both of them.
J: What makes a good improviser?

B: Listening. Listening is not just with your ears. Of course that’s the start, but listening is a state of being onstage, of truly understanding and seeing everything onstage and being affected by it. If you listen hard enough, you’ll be affected by the words that are told to you. You’ll be affected by the things that are going on. Listening with your eyes, and seeing everybody onstage and seeing what they’re doing. There’s a stage comfortablity that you see. You know who the good listeners are onstage. They’re the most comfortable onstage. They’re not worried about what’s going on. They know truly what’s going on.

J: What advice do you have to people who are just starting to improvise?

B: Relax. Don’t expect immediate results, and don’t get frustrated by it. So many people rush their improv experience, and try to get to it as quick as they can. Some people get it quicker than others. It took me a while to get game compared to other people. Once I got it, I couldn’t get rid of it.

I see a lot of people get on teams or whatever, and think ‘well, that’s it. I’ve got to get to this level. Now I’ve got to start telling these kind of jokes.’ Patience is key. Number one patience. Number two like I said about reading and ingesting as much information as you can, study all improv. Study with all teachers. Study as much as you can, so you can develop your own idea about what improv should be. Because until you’re comfortable with what you think improv is, you can’t do what you think other people is. Does that make sense?

J: Yeah.

B: Ok. Good.

J: What advice would you have to more experienced improvisers?

B: More experienced than me?

J: People like around eight years in or so.

B: Oh. Watch your ruts. Watch your bag of tricks. And going to them. Know that you can do new characters. You can find new ways to play. Get used to throwing some of your go-to’s away, so that you keep growing. Don’t get lazy. Keep learning. I’m not watching as many movies as I used to. I need to get back into that for myself. Always, reload. Sometimes you get so caught in it you forget [that you’re making a basic mistake]. For me, it was almost a year in until I realized that I kept asking questions in scenes. Recognize what you’re doing.
J: What makes a good improv director?

B: In my opinion, a good improv director has a vision and is willing to alter that vision, especially an improv director as opposed to a sketch director or any kind of other director. A good improv director has to direct improvisationally, and has to see what do these people want in the show and has to see where it goes, while keeping that under a gentle guideline of a vision.

I was just going over my notes for the ‘Third Degree,’ which is a courtroom drama, because I’d love to play around with that again. I worked with the people for a good six weeks, before even thinking about putting it onstage, developing an improvised world that they can live in. And see what they can do with it, and let them do it. Because you have no material without the players themselves, so it’s important that you direct the players, not the material.

That means you have to go every now and then ‘I don’t know. What do you guys think?’ Because if you don’t, I’ve found that if I strictly throw down a vision, or say this is how it’s going to happen, [it doesn’t work.] Like in ‘B-roll,’ [an improvised documentary], we’re always dealing with the ending. And everybody’s afraid to say something, and just figure ‘well, this must be the way it is.’ Well, that’s not going to work. People have to decide it. It’s Socialist. The people have to decide how they can best play that out. So, it’s interesting. I think improv directing is directing people more than it is directing a show.

J: What makes a good initiation?

B: I initiate differently as much as possible. I think initiating the same way all the time is a horrible way to do it. Sometimes you go strong premise. Sometimes you’re going to sit back and listen, [and go] off what your scene partner says and support the hell out of it. Sometimes the two of you are going to look at each other, and feel what the vibe is between the two of you and that’s what the scene is going to be about. Sometimes you’re going to attack it like Mamet, fast and furious. Sometimes you’re going to slow it down a little bit, be more observational or something like that.

Good initiations, just like good improv have to have texture, have to be different every time. You don’t want to attack a scene the same way every time, not over your fifteen year career. It’s not going to help you.

J: How has acting influenced you as an improviser?

B: I have to go back and re-think that every now and then. I’ll re-read the same book every three months, Michael Shertloff’s ‘Audition’ book. And I go ‘oh, that’s what he’s saying. How does that apply to improv?’ So, it’s a huge [influence].

I don’t think I’m that good of an actor. I play a big actor game, but I don’t think I’m that good of an actor. But I appreciate the artform, and I think it’s all about …acting is listening. Acting is a sense of being. So, once you’ve got structure and game, and you know how to do improv, it’s just acting. That’s what it is. Acting is the art of imitating life. It’s not imitating life. There’s an art form to it. And that’s what’s fun.
J: How do you get in an improv mindset before a show?

B: I used to read a magazine, in the old days. Just get some information brewing in my head. Because information will breed more information. You always think in patterns. So that’s one way to go.

The big thing with the Swarm and Stepfathers has always been, without saying it, having a conversation. Having that group and having no one else but that group sit and just talk to each other. By doing that, because communication is competition, you hear a story and you want to top that story, so you start to listen to each other. You start to get into a rhythm of conversation with each other and you can take that rhythm onstage. Really, it’s a lot of this ‘yeah, I hear you man, but listen to this.’ And just topping each other. And you start doing your bits and you start warming up from that.

And the other thing we did in Swarm shows is a game of good ol’-fashion water toss. This is a secret. I shouldn’t tell anybody. You take a half-empty bottle of Poland Spring water and throw it toward each other and you catch it. Best warm-up in the world. …I’m going to get in trouble for that.

J: I can get edit it out. …When you and the rest of the Harold team committee are forming a Harold team, do you look for certain people to play certain roles?

B: Well, the committee’s not there anymore. I don’t know what it is. It’s amorphous. Whatever it is. There’s a secret …whatever. I don’t know.

You want variation. You don’t want all the same kind of people. There’s lots of different things. You want an aggressive player that’s going to get out there. You also want that straight person that’s going to help ground a lot of the scenes. That’s kind of the two things you want. You want high-energy, aggressive, can-do people, not people who will push people away, but people who go ‘yeah, can-do!’ Mixed with the same amount of people who ground the scene and will go ‘uh-huh,’ and hear you. And help justify. So you need a good mix there.

As far as saying, you need to have 6 guys, and 2 girls or whatever. It just ends up that way. It really isn’t [planned.] It doesn’t work that way. I’ve been with troupes that have said ‘you have to have a big guy and a little guy. An ethnic [person].’ And all that stuff, but it doesn’t really work that way. Honestly, we try to get as many of the best players out there as possible.

J: Where do you see improv going in the future, artistically and commercially?

B: Artistically, new and different ways of doing improv. Not doing it the same old way. Always striving to do something unique and different. For me, last year it was a lot of fun to do the ‘Sunshine Gang’ with Gethard, Huskey and Chad Carter, because it was a new way to attack improv, going back in time and doing it then. That’s what’s exciting.

Commercially, shows that are a little bit freer, shows like ‘Reno 911,’ shows like ‘Curb Your Enthusiasm.’ I really hope that is the way it goes. For me personally, for my own career, it’s obviously going to help. I’m getting more auditions now than I have before because of that. But, I don’t know, I think there’s a ceiling though to how far it can go. Right now there’s a ceiling. The networks aren’t very crazy about it. But you see shows like ‘the Office’ get that chance. So hopefully that ceiling will be broken.

There’s a thing commercially, just the experiences that I’ve had, there are a lot of people who aren’t in the writing or acting or creative aspect of it who have jobs, jobs they have to keep. To do that they have to affect what’s being done onstage or done on camera. They have to put their thumbprint on it to keep their job. That’s how you get shows like ‘Joey.’ They start out one way, but then they turn out this way. I think that versus improv is what’s going to go-head-to head. All those higher-ups, all those producers that have to touch the show, all those [people] that should be worried about the budget of the show, but want to be on the creative end, they’ll have to be able to let it go. You can’t edit good improv. You have to just let it go.

J: Do you have anything that you want to say to the improv community that we didn’t get out?

B: Relax. I think we are relaxing now as it grows, as UCB turns into the monster it is. The growing pains are starting to smooth themselves out. …It’s all good. I would love to within the next few years see the improv scene be not as isolationist. That happens with a lot of improv. It becomes very territorial. I’d like to see the scene grow, become a little more all-encompassing. There’s UCB which is the juggernaut, but there’s some good stuff over at the Magnet, the P.I.T. not so much. They suck. [meant as a joke] Gotham’s a joke. [another joke] You know what I’m saying. But the idea is let’s be more all-encompassing. If you’re doing improv, there should be no reason to say ‘no’ to anything. You’ve just got to take it all in and make your own opinion. It’s all good. Except for the P.I.T. [a final joke.]
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Brian Stack

Brian Stack and Neil Flynn in the back, with Molly Erdman and Rich Prouty portraying 'Mr. and Mrs. Winston' in the front.

Brian Stack is an improviser and writer for “Late Night with Conan O’Brien.” He was a member of the celebrated improv groups Jazz Freddy and Blue Velveeta. To put it simply, he’s one of the funniest guys around.

J: Where were you born?

B: I was born in Park Ridge, Illinois. My dad was in the army on active duty up until I was about 5 years old, so we moved around a lot during those early years, but I spent most of my life before college in Palatine, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago.

J: What were some early influences on your sense of humor?

B: The biggest influences on me when I was growing up were probably things like Monty Python, SCTV, Woody Allen, Peter Sellers, "The Muppet Show", early SNL, Nichols and May, etc. I remember loving Steve Martin and Richard Pryor back then too, but I'm not sure how much actual "influence" they had on my sense of humor since they seemed so completely different from me.

I've also always loved old movies like Billy Wilder's "The Apartment", dark "comedies" like Paddy Chayefsky's "Network" and "The Hospital", as well as old "screwball comedies" from the 30's like "The Awful Truth", "My Man Godfrey", "His Girl Friday", etc. I think they all hold up really well today, too.

James L. Brooks has always been another big hero of mine. He's been involved in a lot of my favorite stuff over the years, from movies like "Broadcast News" to the old "Mary Tyler Moore Show" to "The Simpsons".

J: How did you first get involved with improv?

B: When I was a freshman at Indiana University in Bloomington, Mick Napier lived on my dorm floor. I thought he was one of the funniest people I’d ever met in my life, and I still feel that way. If I hadn’t been lucky enough to meet Mick, I seriously doubt I would’ve ever ended up doing improv later on.

Mick started up a couple of improv groups at IU, which included people like Joe Bill, Faith Soloway, etc., and he encouraged me to audition, but I was a big chickenshit and never did. I used to go see the group perform sometimes, though, and they got me interested in improv, at least as a fan. Just for fun, I took an introductory acting class my senior year at IU, and one day the teacher had us do a 2-person improvised scene as an exercise. I had never had that much fun before in my life. It may sound really corny, but I was hooked from that very first scene.

Mick was a year or two older than me, so he moved to Chicago and started up with ImprovOlympic while I was still at IU. He’s the one who told me about ImprovOlympic and I took a class with Charna Halpern the summer after I graduated. I loved it there, but I had already committed to going to grad school at University of Wisconsin-Madison that fall. Luckily, there was a great little improv theatre in Madison called The Ark Theatre. I was so mad at myself for never auditioning for Mick’s group that I forced myself to audition for The Ark. That was where I did my first actual improv performing in front of an audience, and I had a great time there for a couple years before finishing school and moving back to Chicago.

J: It’s pretty incredible that so many influential people in the improv world knew each other in college, let alone were involved in the same college troupe. What do you think is responsible for that? Is it more than chance?

B: That’s a good question. I wish I had a good answer, but your guess is as good as mine.

J: Did Mick have any goals with improv at the time? Could you tell this is the kind of guy who’s going to do something major in theater?

B: I don’t really know what Mick’s improv goals were back at IU, other than to have a good time with his friends. I could definitely tell that he was hilarious, extremely smart, and very original, and I thought he was one of the most entertaining people I’d ever met, but since I knew nothing about the theatre world, I had no clue what his potential was as far as theatre was concerned. I’m not the least bit surprised that he became a brilliant teacher and director, though, now that I look back on it.

J: What about improv was so appealing to you, even from that first scene?

B: It’s a little hard to describe. Thinking back, I think it was the fun of creating something spontaneously with someone else without all the second-guessing and self-doubt that I’ve always tended to experience when planning something in advance. I loved that, by definition, nothing could be planned in improv, and that you were building something as you went, discovering what the scene was about as you did it.

J: What was the Ark like? How many people were involved? Did you continue to
work with any of them after college?

B: I loved The Ark. It was started and run by a couple named Dennis and Elaine Kern. The original Ark group there which had started a few years before I got to Madison had performed improv in bars and rock clubs, but by the time I got there, they had a theatre of their own. It was pretty small, but it had a great feel, and it was a perfect place for me to start out.

My improv group at The Ark had, on average, about 8 people in it at any given time. I lost track of most of them, unfortunately, including Dennis and Elaine, but Todd Hanson, now a great “Onion” writer, is still a good friend of mine. I’m so glad he lives in New York now. Also, Chris Farley was in my very first Ark group before he moved to Chicago in ‘87 to start at ImprovOlympic. By the time I got back to Chicago in the Fall of ‘88, Chris was really on the fast-track. He was already in the Second City Touring Company, and Del Close put in him the Second City Mainstage about 5 months later, where he worked until the Fall of ‘90 when SNL hired him.

I never got much of a chance to “work” with Chris after he left Madison, but he did sit in a few times at some of our early Monday-night “Armando Diaz Theatrical Experience and Hootenanny” shows at ImprovOlympic in ‘95 or so when he passed through Chicago. It was so sad when Chris died. He was such a great talent, obviously. I just wish he got a chance to show more of what he could do. His movies don’t come anywhere close to doing justice to his talent, in my opinion. I still remember a scene he did in SC-Mainstage with Tim Meadows and Jill Talley that had some of the best natural acting I’ve seen onstage.

J: What was it like working with Chris Farley in that Ark troupe? Did he
always have the same intensity, even in rehearsals?

B: I only had the privilege of working with Chris in Madison for a little less than a year, but he was always a great guy to perform with. I wish I could’ve worked with him longer, it was only about 10 months or so at the Ark, but like so many other people, I always loved watching him work later on, and I’m grateful that I knew him at all.

In addition to being incredibly hilarious onstage, Chris was often just as funny offstage. For example, if a pretty woman was walking by us in the street, he would sometimes drop down right in front of her and start doing push-ups, saying, “...a hundred and ninety-eight...a hundred and ninety-nine....” Most women found it hilarious, but some were just baffled or annoyed. When we handed out show flyers on State Street, he would often say something really confusing to the person he was handing the flyer to, like “See more of your family!” He would also sometimes stand in the lobby after one of our shows and enthusiastically shout, “Great job, folks!” to audience members as they were leaving the theatre. Maybe you had to be there to really appreciate all that stuff, but the effortless comic energy he had, and the total commitment he gave to everything were always amazing to see.

I remember one night when our Ark group went out for beers after rehearsal, and Chris was making a middle-aged couple in the bar laugh so hard that the husband was falling off of his barstool. I’ll never forget that the guy asked Chris, “What’s your name? I want to remember it.”

Chris obviously had some personal demons, but he was a wonderful, big-hearted person. I remember when they had a memorial service here in New York for Chris right after he died, I noticed a bunch of old people there. I assumed they were relatives of Chris’s, but it turned out that they were old people that Chris used to visit through the Church every week when he lived in New York. He would just go to lonely old people’s apartments every week to make them laugh, talk with them, bring them some lunch, whatever. He never told anyone about it or publicized it. He just did it because he was a great person. Unfortunately, they don’t put that kind of stuff in the newspapers.
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J: What was it like when you first started taking improv classes in Chicago?
What kind of impressions did Second City and Improv Olympic make on you?

B: I really liked my classes at Second City overall. I was lucky to have my beginning “Level One” class in the SC-Mainstage space with Michael Gellman. He was a great teacher, and it was so cool just to be on that stage. I got a little spoiled by that experience. Some of the spaces I had for later classes were hilariously crappy, like an empty apartment above the bar across the street from Second City. I lucked out with all my teachers, though. I had Norm Holly, Barb Wallace, and Martin de Maat. They were all very different, but I learned a lot from all of them.

This will undoubtedly sound very corny, but when I walked into Second City back then, I felt like a monk from some remote mountain village who had just walked into The Vatican. I’ve never lost my respect and admiration for the place, but back then as a student, it was particularly inspiring just to be in the building.

Regarding ImprovOlympic back then, as I mentioned before, I really enjoyed Charna Halpern’s class back in ‘86, and the performers I saw onstage that summer were very inspiring. I particularly loved watching Dave Pasquesi on the Barron’s Barracudas team, and I was happy to see him working at Second City when I got back to Chicago from Madison in ‘88. Dave is still one of my improv heroes, and it’s so cool that he’s working with T.J. Jagodowski now. Those guys obviously inspire everybody that watches them work.

When I started back at ImprovOlympic in ‘89, there was a whole bunch of amazing people that had come in during the previous two years, like Kevin Dorff, Susan Messing, Dave Koechner, Pete Gardner, Jimmy Carrane, Pat Finn, Jay Leggett, and lots of other great performers. I felt like a complete beginner in many ways for a while when I watched those people.

I ended up on a “Harold” team with people like Jenna Jolovitz, Pat Walsh (Matt’s brother), Beth Cahill, E.J. Peters, and others. We all got along really well, and it was a fun team to work with. Our first coach was Dave Koechner and he was great, and so was our next coach, Noah Gregoropoulos. I ended up working with Dave and Noah later on in several groups, and they became good friends of mine, but back then they were kind of mentors to a lot of us who were just starting to do The Harold onstage.

The classes at IO back then were basically 3 levels. First, you had Charna for Level 1, then Noah for Level 2, and then Del Close for Level 3. Unfortunately, I never got to study very long with Del. Shortly after I started taking his workshops, he decided to move to LA and pursue the acting thing for a while. When he came back, he got back into teaching again, and later began working with great groups like The Family.

J: What did you do after you moved to Chicago in ‘88 and before you started working with Jazz Freddy? Did you perform at Second City or the Annoyance?

B: I never actually studied or performed at The Annoyance. That’s kind of odd to me when I think back on it since Mick was so instrumental in getting me started in improv. I had a lot of friends who did stuff at The Annoyance and I always had a great time seeing shows there, but I never actually got involved over there in any way. I started Second City classes in the Fall of ‘88. I went through The Training Center and finished up our “Level 5” show, directed by Martin de Maat, in early ‘90. I didn’t actually get hired into The Second City Touring Company, however, until late ‘92.

When I started working at the ad agency in ‘89, first in the Research Department and later as a copywriter, I started taking classes and performing at IO. I performed on a few Harold teams there over the next year and a half, primarily on the one I mentioned earlier with Jenna Jolovitz, Pat Walsh, Beth Cahill, etc. I also sat in occasionally with “Blue Velveeta” and other teams.

In the Fall of ‘90, I was feeling kind of burned out at IO for some reason I no longer quite understand. I think I was depressed about some personal stuff at the time which probably bled over into improv. I still loved the people at IO, but I decided to take a break from improv, not knowing how long the break would be.

While I was on my “hiatus,” in late ‘90 or early ‘91, some members of Blue Velveeta, Kevin Dorff, Jay Leggett, Brian Blondell, Brendan Sullivan, Mitch Rouse, etc., split off from IO and took over the space that IO had been using called Papa Milano’s. I’m not sure if it was an ugly split at the time, but if it was, it’s all been forgotten, I think. I think Brian McCann had become a full-time member of Blue Velveeta back at IO shortly before the split but I’m not sure. McCann had been at IO since ‘87 or so. His first IO team, Fish Shtick, included Chris Farley, James Grace, etc. The Blue Velveeta guys, including McCann, brought in some other IO guys like Dave Koechner, Andy Richter, and Noah Gregoropoulos to do shows with them at Papa Milano’s. The shows were billed as “The Comedy Underground featuring Blue Velveeta.”

One night in early ‘91, the “Comedy Underground/Blue Velveeta” guys asked me to sit in with them as a guest just for the hell of it. We all had such a great time that night that they asked me to join the group. We mostly did short-form stuff with a lot of audience suggestions, but it tended to be scene-related stuff or character-driven things like “Experts Panel,” etc. Also, because we had an amazing piano player, Dave Adler, and some of the guys, especially Jay Leggett, could sing really well, there was usually a little music-related stuff in the show, too, like improvised songs or whatever. I must say, even though I lost interest in “short-form” stuff later on, and I found long-form stuff a lot more rewarding overall, I really enjoyed my time in “Comedy Underground.” I felt lucky to be working with so many great performers, and I think our shows there were really funny.

I never had a clue what was going on in terms of the “business” end of things at Comedy Underground. Jay Leggett seemed to handle all of that. Eventually, I think Jay had some kind of gripe with the Sopranos-like owners of Papa Milano’s, and “Comedy Underground” folded up shop in the summer of ‘91, I think. The people from Comedy Underground went in different directions at that point. Jay Leggett secured a deal at Chicago’s “Improvisation” comedy club down near Lou Malnatti’s on Wells Street for “Blue Velveeta” to do improv in their side-space next to the main “stand-up” room. For a while, I think that “BV” group ended up being Jay, Kevin Dorff, Brendan Sullivan, me, Mitch Rouse, Brian Blondell, and Brian McCann. For some reason I can’t remember, Kevin and Brendan left the new "Blue Velveeta" pretty early on, I think. I’m pretty sure that Mitch did, too, for some other reason. It’s all kind of a blur at this point. I do know that at one point the “Backstage at the Improv” incarnation of Blue Velveeta included just Leggett, McCann, Blondell, and me. Sometimes some other guests would sit in, but that was the core group for a short time anyway.

Some of my old IO friends, Dorff, Noah, Koechner, Pat Finn, Richter, Leo Ford, Rachel Dratch, began doing improv shows at a place called “At The Tracks.” ImprovOlympic teams used to do Harolds there up until the summer of ‘89 or so. The owner, Carl Berman, was a great guy and he had always loved the performers. He told the group they could do shows there every week if they wanted to, if they didn’t mind opening for bands now and then, etc. One night I sat in with them and I had such a great time that I decided to leave Blue Velveeta and join up with the “At the Tracks” group. I liked working with the “Blue Velveeta” guys but the atmosphere at the Improv comedy club never felt very comfortable to me. It was a big, slick-looking “stand-up” club, and I felt a lot more at home at Carl’s place. The Improv felt like a job and Carl’s was more like a party.

We named our “At The Tracks” group “Gambrinus, King of Beer” after a hilarious poster we saw in a bar featuring a Czech king from the Middle Ages who supposedly beat Attila The Hun in a drinking contest. The “Gambrinus” group was less like a legitimate improv group and more like a drunken, undisciplined softball team. I’m embarrassed to say we often had pitchers of beer backstage and the bar was about 9 inches from the stage. It was hard to take anything seriously since most of the crowds weren’t even there to see us. We had a lot of fun in that group, though, and we did some funny shows. I think we got a lot of stupid stuff out of our system.

When Pete Gardner started sitting in with our “drunken joke” of a group, it ironically led in some ways to the formation of the “Jazz Freddy” group later on. Pete got along with us really well, and I think that’s one of the reasons he later invited some of us into the workshops that led to Jazz Freddy. That’s funny to me since Jazz Freddy was the complete antithesis of Gambrinus in terms of discipline and focus. I did love the “Gambrinus” t-shirts, though.
J: When did Jazz Freddy form? What was the impetus to form that group?

B: Jazz Freddy formed back in ‘92. The group grew out of improv workshops run by Pete Gardner, a.k.a. Pete Zahradnik, at Live Bait Theatre in Chicago. The workshops were never started with the goal of putting up a show with a name or anything. All of that developed kind of unexpectedly as we went along.

Pete had previously been involved in the longform group Ed, which was directed by Jim Dennen. Ed had done two very innovative, well-received runs of shows at The Wrigleyside, and The Remains Theatre in Chicago. When the second run of Ed finished up, Jim Dennen decided to direct an experimental show called “The Filmdome,” which turned out to be really cool, but only featured a small number of performers like former Ed members Melanie Hoopes, Lauren Katz, John Lehr, and Carlos Jacott.

Pete decided to start up some new workshops of his own that would feature a lot of open scenework, and he invited former Ed performers Stephanie Howard and my future wife Miriam Tolan to come by for them, along with some other people he’d met in or around “Ed” like Susan McLaughlin, Chris Reed, and Meredith Zinner. Since Pete had also done a lot of work at ImprovOlympic, he invited some IO, or former IO, people to join in the workshops, too, like Kevin Dorff, Pat Finn, Rachel Dratch, James Grace, Dave Koechner, Jimmy Carrane, Noah Gregoropoulos, and me.

The workshops at Live Bait Theatre in Chicago were really fun right from the start. I could tell immediately that there was great chemistry between the people in the group. There was such a wide variety of personality types and performance styles. We mostly just did open scenes for each other, but everyone seemed really eager to push themselves a little, and try things they hadn’t necessarily ever done before onstage.

We did a lot of intensive rehearsals and workshops before there was even talk of actually doing any shows, but eventually we decided to do some shows on Monday nights at Live Bait. We had a lot of friends and fellow performers come by early on since few people did shows on Monday nights. I’ll always be grateful to those people for coming out and supporting us like that. I think some guys like IO’s Craig Cackowski came to about 10 shows during our first run. Thanks to the great crowds we got on Monday nights, we eventually did some shows on Friday and Saturday nights, too.

James Grace left very early on to go to LA, I think, and Meredith Zinner dropped out to do “Arabian Nights” at Lookinglass, but Carlos Jacott joined up with us as soon as Filmdome finished up. He was with us for most of the first run, and I’m pretty sure he did the entire second run. Man, was he a great addition to the group. He’s one of the best improvisers I’ve ever seen, and he’s obviously a great actor, too. We also had several great guest performers sit in with Jazz Freddy, usually one at a time, including Dave Pasquesi, Brian McCann, Theresa Mulligan, Evan Gore, Lauren Katz, etc. Theresa ended up becoming a full member of the group for the second run, and so did another woman named Molly Allen.

The first run of Jazz Freddy shows began in July of ‘92 and ended in the late fall. I think the second run began in early ‘93 and ran through to the summer. Pete, who’d been both performer and director for the first run, decided to just be a performer for the second run, and brought Jim Dennen in to direct. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to do that second run myself, but I always loved seeing the shows when I could.

J: What was Pete trying to accomplish with the workshops? Did he want to do slower or more serious scenes or just to work with people who he liked?

B: I’m not entirely sure what Pete’s goals were when he started the workshops. I do know that the "Ed" group he had worked with had been very disciplined and focused in workshopping scenework, and since the results were so great from that, I think he wanted to do more of that kind of thing, at least in workshops. I remember there being a big emphasis on doing patient, reality-based scenework in the workshops that led up to Jazz Freddy. I think a lot of us were eager to push ourselves into that kind of thing, especially after sloppy “throwaway” stuff like “Gambrinus.”

I think the fact that everyone in the group liked each other a lot made the whole process more fun and productive. The former IO people like me benefited a lot from the attitude and focus of the former “Ed” people, and Pete was kind of the bridge between the two groups. The great thing was, the “Ed” people were serious about the work but they never took themselves seriously at all. That made them the perfect kinds of people to work with, I think.

J: I’ve heard that a Jazz Freddy show might not get a laugh for a half hour but it was still amazing. What do you think so many people found amazing about it, even if they were not bent over with laughter? It seems like it was much more dramatic than most shows, was that something you guys were intentionally going for?

B: To tell you the truth, I’m always a little surprised when I hear comments like the ones you’re referring to. While the emphasis in Jazz Freddy may have been on doing patient, relationship-based scenes, I remember most of our shows in the first run being very comedic overall. It could be that director Jim Dennen may have tried to make the second run a little more “dramatic,” or maybe he altered the form a bit to encourage different kinds of scenes than the more “comedic” ones that developed in the first run. Since I wasn’t in the second run, though, I probably shouldn’t speculate about that. I should ask Miriam or Dorff for some of the “second run” details.

J: Was there a form that Jazz Freddy did? An opening?

B: I’m probably going to get some of this wrong since it’s been such a long time, and I apologize in advance, but here’s my best recollection of the Jazz Freddy “form”:

The main focus was on just trying to do the best scenework we could do, but there was a basic “jumping off point” for each half of the show called “2 back/1 forward.” Two actors would start the first scene after getting some simple suggestion like a location or a proverb, and that scene would be allowed to progress for a while. Then an actor would come in and “tag out” one of the actors in the first scene and take the remaining actor “back in time.” It could be “thirty seconds” back in time, “20 years” back, or whatever. For example, if the first scene involved a dad talking to his son, the next scene might involve the dad as a kid himself talking to his own dad, or the dad earlier that day at his job with a co-worker. The next scene would involve a “tag out” of one of the second scene’s actors and the remaining actor would somehow be taken back in time. The third scene would also involve a “tag-out” and a jump “forward” in time. After that, the scenes were wide open. The second half after the intermission would start the same way as the first, I think, and ideally some connections would form between characters or themes in the first and second halves. Not all the scenes were 2-person scenes of course. Many of the scenes turned out to involve big groups.

J: I’ve read that Jazz Freddy was a pretty slow group, but that you guys also either created or popularized the tag-out. Did you guys use tag-outs and were still slow, or did things speed up when you used tag-outs?

B: The “tag-outs” were basically just a device for removing one actor so the next scene could begin. Ideally, scenes would still be given enough time to develop before the next tag-out came along. If I remember correctly, the “tag-outs” rarely made the show get really fast-paced, but I do remember some shows having much more frenetic energy than others.

J: If Jazz Freddy was responsible for creating the tag-out, how was it created?

B: I wish I could remember if Pete Gardner invented the “tag out,” or if it was something he brought over or adapted from his days in “Ed.” Sorry, I’m not sure how exactly how it developed as an editing technique.

J: Why did the run of shows for Jazz Freddy end? Was someone just booking or renting space at the Live Bait theater? Did you guys ever consider going to IO and trying to get a regular show there?

B: I could be wrong, but I think the length of the runs just felt right to everyone. Also, since Live Bait did have a schedule of shows, I’m sure that was probably a factor, too. We never really considered doing “Jazz Freddy” shows at the ImprovOlympic space. Not because we didn’t want to work at IO, but because everyone in JF started going in somewhat different directions after the two runs finished up. A lot of us ended up back at IO later on though, in around ‘95 or so, when the “Armando Diaz Theatrical Experience and Hootenanny” started up on Monday nights at IO. That initial “Armando” cast had a lot of other people in it, too. That show was always so much fun to do. I did the “Armando” show whenever I could until I left Chicago in April of ‘97. Doing the ASSSCAT shows in New York has always felt kind of like a continuation of that in some ways.
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J: Did you know Miriam before you started doing the workshops together?

B: I met Miriam very briefly in the Second City Training Center, but I didn’t get to know her at all back then. Her “Level 5” show started up just as ours was finishing, and I remember seeing her perform in it and thinking she was hilarious.

The next time I saw Miriam was about 2 years later. We were both at a “callback” audition for an improv group at the now-nonexistent “Funny Firm” stand-up club in Chicago. Believe it or not, the other guys at that callback were Adam McKay and Ian Roberts. I had met those guys in passing at IO, but I never really knew them at all at the time. I think we all did a show or two with the main guys in that group, but it was pretty depressing. The crowds, mostly guys with mullets and girls with big hair, were the worst. Every time I see clips of Bill Hicks screaming at the crowd at The Funny Firm it reminds me of doing those soul-crushing shows there. We never yelled at anybody ourselves but I think we all wanted to.

J: Do you feel like your personal relationship with Miriam made it easier to
improvise together?

B: I’m not really sure about that. I think it helped in some ways that we were just friends when we first worked together, but I always had a great time working with her later on, too.

J: Why couldn’t you participate in the second run of Jazz Freddy?

B: I actually started work on the second run with everyone else, and I did a few workshops with Jim Dennen, but then I got offered a full-time slot in GreenCo, one of the Second City Touring Companies and I just couldn’t turn it down. At the time, GreenCo included Pat Finn, Suzy Nakamura, Renee Albert, Todd Stashwick, and Jay Johnston. It was a tough decision, but I have no regrets about joining GreenCo since I loved working with them so much, and with later GreenCo members like Adam McKay, Neil Flynn, Miriam, etc., and since I got to watch several of the second run Jazz Freddy shows.

J: What was TourCo like? Where were some memorable places you went? Were you doing long-form and sketch?

B: I loved touring so much. While I really enjoyed working in the Second City-ETC resident company later on, I think many of the best times I had at Second City were when I was touring with GreenCo. Luckily, I got to work with a few of the GreenCo people in ETC later on, like Neil Flynn and Miriam. Since about 90 percent of the touring experience is spent offstage, in the van, in restaurants, etc., it obviously helps a lot if you get along with the people you tour with, and I had a great time with all of them.

As I mentioned earlier, the first GreenCo group I toured with included Pat Finn, Suzy Nakamura, Renee Albert, Todd Stashwick, and Jay Johnston. Jon Glaser and Rachel Dratch sat in for a few shows early on, too. Later on, some of the other people that passed through GreenCo while I was with them included Miriam, Nancy Walls, Adam McKay, Theresa Mulligan, Laura Krafft, and Neil Flynn. Just before I stopped touring, Amy Poehler did a GreenCo tour with us, too, but I can’t remember if she stayed in GreenCo after I left. All of those people were so hilarious to travel with, and I loved doing shows with them, too.

The kinds of places we played on tour varied so much--from beautiful professional theatres to crappy little dumps, from college auditoriums to hotel ballrooms.

In terms of “memorable places we went,” I think my favorite tour we ever did was through the Colorado/Wyoming area. Second City usually called that “The Ski Tour.” I had never been to that part of the country, and I fell completely in love with places like Crested Butte and Jackson Hole. I can’t really ski worth a damn, but it was so beautiful that I still enjoyed myself on the relatively “easy” slopes. Miriam actually did her first skiing ever in Jackson Hole, and it was so hilarious to watch. She didn’t fall down much, but she had no idea how to stop. The crowds were amazing out there, too, especially in Crested Butte. It was like a great college crowd that never gets much entertainment passing through town ordinarily.

One time, we played a rock club in Ashville, NC that was owned by a lovable old hippie that clearly didn’t care at all about money. I saw a poster on the wall that said the old 70’s band Foghat was coming to play there shortly after us. I asked the guy, “How are the ticket sales for Foghat?” The hippie smiled and said, “I’m taking a fuckin’ bath on that one, man!”

We also once played a little college in Bangor, Maine. We asked where we’d be doing the show and some mildly-stoned guy led us to an ordinary classroom. We thought he was joking at first. We then asked him where the “lights” were, and he flipped the lightswitch on the wall. Then we asked if people even knew we were coming, and he just shrugged. Renee Albert ended up going over to one of the dorms and rounding up 5 or 6 guys to watch the show. It ended up being a pretty fun show, actually. Since there wasn’t even a piano, our piano player sat in as an actor for our improv stuff.

Sometimes, the most fun we had was in places we’d never have been in a million years if we hadn’t been sent there. For example, I remember being in a little “bowling alley” bar somewhere in rural Indiana after one of our shows. The only people in the bar were us, a drunk redneck couple, a toothless old trucker, and an 18 year-old kid with a karaoke machine. We spent the next few hours eating jalapeno poppers, drinking 3-dollar pitchers, and taking turns singing karaoke like idiots. The drunk redneck woman’s off-key but heartfelt rendition of Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You” was rivalled only by Neil Flynn’s swinging version of “Mack The Knife.” Bobby Darin would’ve been proud.

J: TourCo sounds like a pretty intense experience. Were there any instances where a group didn’t like each other and had to be broken apart?

B: There were never any entire groups that were broken up over personal conflicts, but as with any other organization, some people got along better than others. I rarely saw any intense animosity between people, but sometimes people just didn’t “click” with each other. When I first got hired into the TourCo, I understudied for all three companies before joining GreenCo full-time, and there was completely different chemistry between people in all three of the groups.

I recall one trip in which the people in the van hardly said one word to each other the whole ride to and from the show. I didn’t think anyone necessarily hated each other in that group, it just seemed they were just in their own separate worlds when they weren’t onstage. My later experience in GreenCo was the exact opposite of that. We always had such a great time together in GreenCo, on and offstage. I’m very grateful for that, and I never took it for granted.

J: Was TourCo the sole source of income for most people in it?

B: Most people in TourCo had to find other sources of income to get by. We were paid Equity wages for shows, about 70 or 80 bucks a show back then, I think, plus about 30 bucks in “per diem” money per day when we were actually traveling out of Chicago. There were some times of year when we did very few shows, though, like the summer months when we sometimes did as few as four or five shows a month. Every three weeks, each TourCo would do a Monday night “home show” in the Mainstage space since the Mainstage cast had Monday nights off, but sometimes that would be it for another week or two in terms of shows. During the non-summer months, we usually did a lot more shows, partly because of all the college shows we did.

Most performers worked other kinds of jobs to supplement their income--teaching, waiting tables, doing commercial work, whatever. I had to leave my full-time job at the ad agency when I started touring, but I was lucky enough to start getting some “voiceover” work after that. I’ve always enjoyed doing that kind of thing, and I still do now and then when I have some free time here in New York. If I’m able to do it at all, though, it’s usually just in the morning before 11 or so. We start work around 11am usually, but we often work until 11 or 12 at night.

J: You seemed to have worked pretty closely with dozens of people who are now well-known comedians. Did you think that so many of your friends would be come accomplished in the comedy world?

B: Well, I found many of the people around me to be incredibly hilarious, and I saw the reactions they got from audiences, but back then “success” or becoming “well-known” seemed to me like something that happened to people in some other dimension or something. I knew nothing about the way “show business” worked, or how unknown people got brought into the “business.” Later on, the whole process became far less mysterious, but that was kind of a gradual process for me.

Looking back, I’m not the least bit surprised that many of the people I was lucky enough to watch and/or work with became well-known later on. There’s obviously a lot of luck, good and bad, involved in comedy though, and humor is such a subjective thing, so I’ve never assumed that the people whose work I love will necessarily become successful, even if I think they deserve to be. We’ve all obviously had the experience of thinking that sometimes there’s justice in the world in terms of who becomes successful and sometimes there’s not.
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