“Awkward Moments” is a monthly column that asks comedians “What do you do when…” In this installment we talk about improv, pimping, and how performers’ real-life identities shape the offers they get on stage.
Improvisers have various definitions for “pimping,” and many discussions (and arguments) about the subject seem to stem from a difference of semantics. Most can agree that “to pimp” implies the act of setting up another player to do something very specific that they might not ordinarily do. This is a silly generalization because, in improv, making stuff up on the spot makes us do a lot of stuff we wouldn’t “ordinarily do.” Whether you view pimping as playful or malicious depends a lot on your perspective, the context of the scene, and whether there is trust between the performers.
Examples of pimping range far and wide, from “here, read me this poem. It’s in French,” to “remind us of how good a break dancer you are.” Some will say asking a lot of questions and forcing your scene partner to provide information for the scene is a form of pimping, although I think that’s more like wimping. Pimping can seem like a cheap gag or a mischievous prank. It can be a way for players to gift their scene partners with something fun to do, but it can also be an excuse to control their behavior and the direction of the scene out of fear. Like all improv “rules” or guiding advice, one size does not fit all.
Ralph Andracchio, the new Artistic Director of the Philly Improv Theater, says it can be tricky to pimp:
“Pimping, if done sparingly and well, can be really funny and add a really playful element to a show. I say this should be left to the more seasoned groups, as pulling off a really well-done pimp is tricky. The danger being the person doing the pimping can come off looking like a heavy-handed jerk. Pimping in certain short-form games or during a group game can be acceptable and fun, though. I prefer to steer my students or teams I coach away from pimping, simply because it can be read as mean by other players and the audience. And it more often than not pulls everyone out of the story you’re trying to tell into a game that doesn’t have the legs to carry through the rest of the piece.”
Darryl Charles of ComedySportz and Beatbox Philly is an advocate of the pimp. “Being pimped is fun because it can take a lot of the ‘what am I going to do?’ out of improv,” he says. “It’s fun to screw your friends over in front of people. Forcing them to display a behavior or holding them to something they ralphed out can be fun and funny. I’ve noticed that audiences tend to like when something that was probably a mistake gets held instead of thrown away and forgiven, especially when it’s magnified and played with.
“One time in a Rookie Card show, Marc Reber set himself up to be a blind cop and while he was staggering around the stage in a scene I tagged out his partner and removed all of the chairs. He was just left walking around for like a minute before anyone did anything. The crowd loved it.” Does Darryl think it’s important for the improvisers to be pretty comfortable with each other if they’re going to pimp? “It helps in general and with pimping. It helps if you know someone’s sensibilities and strengths and play to those things, or away from them, when pimping them.”
How you view pimping might have more to do with how you view improv in general, and what your process is as a performer. Ralph emphasizes investment in the world you’ve built over quick bits. “I’m a fan of honest character work and emotional responses in improv,” he says. “We are storytellers, and the audience is there to hear and get lost in that story. Any kind of game-playing (like pimping) can be a distraction and ultimately pull the scene into an unintended and superficial direction where all involved are just looking for the next laugh. If you are truly present, listening, and responding truthfully your scenes and your show will ultimately lead to those hard-earned laughs that we all crave. No pimping required.”
The art and the crime of pimping is one that’s been discussed at length on the IRC message boards at ImprovResourceCenter.com, where improvisers can get pretty far into the weeds talking shop. On a thread asking about how to defend oneself against a pimp, responses vary wildly. Jill Bernard counters the sentiment that there even is such a thing as a pimp, writing “Why is there anything your partner could ask that you can’t do? Who told you you can’t fly? What’s the point of doing these silly make’em ups if you’re just going to say, ‘No I don’t have a Bill Cosby impression’? It’s only a pimp if you’re a wuss.” Ben Hauck, on the other hand, advises that “too much pimping may make for some really funny scenework, but it can undermine the group mind as it potentially humiliates the other player. Humiliation can threaten the trust a person has in a group.”
I think that the potential for humiliation ultimately lies in the intention and inspiration behind the offer made. Improvisation has a way of exposing instincts and biases as performers are forced to behave intuitively, and the added pressure of fear can sometimes push us toward shortcuts that sell out our scene partners. This is where “pimping” can gain the additional baggage of labeling or endowing improvisers based on superficial or inherent aspects of their identity. By this I mean one improviser pimps out another improviser because of their physical appearance or off-stage life.
Dennis Trafny of Beirdo says this happens to him often. “Mostly by newer improvisers but it happens often,” Dennis says. “How it goes is, they usually reference my character being bald and almost always I can see in their eyes that they immediately regret saying it. I think it’s a combo of worrying about hurting my feelings as well as realizing they aren’t playing pretend too well. That’s usually when I “yes and” the shit out of it so they get comfortable and to let them know it’s totally OK. But hopefully baldness is just a detail and not the game of the scene. My favorite response is to do a hair flip and go “yeah but the stuff on the sides is super badass though.” Only once did I ever leave someone hanging. It was a class show and my character was a son who left the scene. The improviser playing my “dad” started to panic and in desperation was calling for me to come out. As I was about to take a step out he goes “yeah, my super bald son. Man is he bald. I’m so embarrassed for his baldness. I have so much hair,” (plays with his own plentiful hair) “and he has none. Bald bald bald bald.” There was no mention of my character being bald prior. He was talking about me the improviser, not my character. I just stayed on the back line. He was drowning and I stared into his eyes while he flopped around to a dead silent audience. If I was in that scene again though, I would’ve played the game and gone “What’s up my dad who is painfully unfunny.”
“I actually haven’t run into it myself,” says Ralph of these kind of pimps, “but I think at least from my perspective, someone’s race or gender would affect how I play, and not necessarily how I respond to my scene partner. Meaning, I wouldn’t pimp my scene partner out about eating if they’re fat or periods if they’re a woman, but I may take on a different persona depending.”
“I’ve been in scenes where I was labeled as a black person when it wasn’t particularly relevant,” Darryl says. “I’d offer the advice of acting naturally to the situation. If it’s offensive, you’re probably not the only one taking it that way so find a way to respond (in character, if you can). If you’re not offended then no harm no foul, I guess?”
Joe Coughlin of Cake Bear says he hasn’t necessarily been the victim of a pimp because of a personal attribute, but he does have to navigate some limits when responding to one:
“I think because I enjoy playing a lot of different characters that I haven’t been pigeonholed too much in my improvisation and people have fun naming me all kinds of different things. But the real challenge when it comes to pimping for me is when I’m called to do something that my body might not really be capable of doing. As an “Improviser of Size” (formerly known as iOS until Apple sent me a cease and desist), I’m just not really capable of doing stuff like climbing on rickety chairs without fear I might fall to my death.
“For example, recently at the PHIT House Team auditions, I found myself playing a new yoga student. There was no way my body was going to be able to do the yoga pose I was instructed to do, so I saw two ways I could play it: 1) Do it differently, but funny or 2) Do it not at all because the character I’m playing wouldn’t do it. I opted for choice 2. Because I hadn’t done much in the scene yet; I had some wiggle room, I loudly exclaimed “Oh, HELL no!” and looked on with disdain. Then the edit came. The lesson is…I’ll play the character, but the person playing it doesn’t want to die on the floor because he couldn’t get out of the pretzel move he was pimped to do. It’s embarrassing, but you deal with the reality of the limits of your body.”
Singer and comedian James Bradford is familiar with being pimped out because of a real-life attribute in improv scenes. “I have so many instances of my weight being made part of a scene,” he says. “I could think of 20. Often it’s in the form of the character making a jab/snark at my character’s expense, in a scenario where the body of my character had never been brought into play before that moment. Steve Kleinedler taught me how to maneuver around things like that without destroying the scene or rejecting an offer, and I think I’ve become pretty good at it.”
“I think it comes from inexperience,” James says of why these offers happen. “In my Improv 101 class I found classmates constantly referencing my weight. It got to the point where I actually spoke up for myself, and the teacher backed that up and then everyone felt terrible and apologized to me after class. I just knew that if I didn’t say something there in a learning environment it would keep happening. In retrospect, I should have taken my teacher aside and let him bring it up.”
Does James think that fat comedians are expected to approve of their weight being a source of humor?
“You know, it’s funny, but I don’t think that’s it. And I just wrote a whole article about how society treats fat guys, and one of the things I talked about is that assumption that fat men are okay with being fat so everyone else can joke about it. Though you may be onto something, because rarely does my sexual orientation get brought into a scene in improv. HOWEVER…I do find that when I try to portray a female character, because I’m gay in real life my scene partners just assume I’m playing a gay male, and it throws me off my game because I thought I was being so obviously female. Like I was once playing a mermaid, and it couldn’t have been more obvious. Laying on the ground, flapping my tail, talking about Ursula or some such. And my scene partner (another mermaid) commented on my beard. Having taken Steve K’s classes, I would now in that situation say something like ‘Oh, I know, this beard is the worst. I’ve just completely run out of Nair! I have to send my husband Prince Eric out to buy some.’ Or something like that.”
The word “pimping” can and has been employed to mean many different things (and not just in improv). What seems clear is this: giving outrageous gifts to your scene partners is fun. But just like any other kind of improv move, it’s not fun if it’s all you do, and it’s not fun if you’re motivated by fear. The worst kind of pimp, in my opinion, is made by an improviser who feels she is failing and so she rears back and comments on the scene by pimping out her partner apropos of nothing. Another big factor is trust. Teams who have been performing together for a long time and are invested in each other as people are necessarily able to do things that classmates can’t. For example, the best improv teachers will make it clear at the beginning of their classes that students are expected to avoid sexually explicit scenework because they just don’t know each other well enough to navigate it responsibly. And trust me, there’s nothing more alienating than getting pimped into a blow job scene with someone you’ve just met. Improv and otherwise.
Join the conversation! Have you been pimped, either for something awesome or something awful? What’s the best or worst pimp you’ve even seen? Tell us in the comments!
Hilary Kissinger is a writer and improviser splitting time between New York and Philadelphia. She performs with Philly Improv Theater House Team Davenger and writes about movies for FilmMisery.com. Chat with her on Twitter @HilaryKissinger.
What Awkward Moment in comedy would you like to see Philly’s comedians tackle? Ask “what do you do when…” by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
“It’s Elementary” is a monthly column that asks comedians to share funny memories from their elementary school years, or “periods” (get it?? Like moments in time, but also like in school!) from those formative years that have informed their comedic identities. Or, they’ll just submit some random anecdotes. Whatever they want, really.
by Dave Metter
I have long been fascinated by what has influenced and inspired other comedy writers, especially during their youths when their comedic senses were still so nascent and less judgmental. Be they films or television shows, random anecdotes or funny relatives, I ask comedians to share a few experiences or works they recall notably from their elementary school years. This premiere edition of “It’s Elementary” features Philly stand-up comedian Carolyn Busa.
1st Period: Jeopardy Theme Song
The first time I truly thought I was the most hilarious person in the world was kindergarten. I was sitting at a table with none other than Tommy, better known these days as Tom. Tommy was trying to relay a story to me but he couldn’t remember the next part. Typical kindergartner. Well, as I sat there patiently waiting for Tommy to remember his next line I started humming THE JEOPARDY THEME SONG. Freaking hysterical, right? I was all “Oh I’m waiting for him to say something. Alex Trebek waits for people to say stuff. Alex Trebek is on Jeopardy. BOOM!” I went home and had to tell my parents about my hilarious on-the-spot thinking. However, when I couldn’t remember the next part of my story, instead of humming the Jeopardy theme song, my parents left me at the kitchen table. The next day I learned the letter F.
2nd Period: Kelly can’t eat peanuts!
Man, I’m realizing now what an impact kindergarten had on my sense of humor. At the time you’re all wrapped up in the little things like the ABCs and sharing and the correct way to handle scissors—what you don’t realize is your life is being shaped. In my case that shape is some sort of amoeba-type thing, but STILL! I met my oldest friend in kindergarten: Kim, better known these days as Kimmy. Well Kim invited me over to her house. It was my first time ever at her house and I was trying to make a good impression. We were sitting at her kitchen table talking, eating peanuts, spelling; just a couple of new friends shooting the shit when in walked her dog Kelly. This was one of my first dog experiences so I was super stoked to get in there and play with this creature. Kelly was all about it and just absolutely begging for more attention. We realized she really got a kick out of when we threw peanuts on the floor, so we made a trail of peanuts around the kitchen table. There she went picking them up one by one, spinning circles around us. Every time she picked one up we erupted in laughter. Dog! Peanuts! Hilarious! Her parents must have heard us laughing so they came in to SEE WHAT ALL THE FUSS WAS ABOUT. That’s something parent’s would say. When her mom saw we were eating peanuts she said, “Make sure you don’t give them to the dog. Kelly can’t eat peanuts!” Dayum. Well, for whatever reason, we both nearly peed ourselves. I imagine if Kelly started vomiting up the peanuts we fed her I would have shot water out my nose and experienced my first snort. This event marked the first time I noticed two of my now-favorite funny things: Dogs and Mistakes.
3rd Period: Friends
Yeah my actual friends were great, awesome, funny blah blah blah. But the real friends that made me laugh were Ross, Joey, Chandler, Phoebe, Monica and Rachel. Friends was my first obsession. I lie. Dolphins were my first obsession. It was a big day when all my Darwin (SeaQuest DSV!) posters came down and Matthew Perry cut-outs from People magazine went up. I started writing because of Friends. Half of my diary entries consisted of recaps of Ross and Rachel’s endless struggle. I started a quote book that began with Friends quotes: “What kind of scary-ass clowns came to your birthday?” (Chandler Bing), “Hummus! I got the hummus!” (Phoebe Buffay), “Whatever, my girlfriend’s a lesbian” (Ross Geller). The Friends quotes turned into real friends’ quotes then family quotes and eventually the notebook turned into my own ideas. Just thinking about the gang brings a tear to my eye. I sure do miss them. What? Their reruns are on TV no less than four hours a day, seven days a week, and Courtney Cox is back?! Next you’ll tell me The Rembrandts are getting back together…
4th Period: VHS Tapes
Which brings me to probably the most important piece of technology of my childhood: The VHS tape. I have a lot to thank the VHS tape for. My entire childhood is recorded on tapes that now sit in dozens of boxes in my parents’ basement. In chronological order, no less. There are some gems that when watched now prove I was indeed always annoying and starved for attention. There’s the classic New Kids on the Block dance-off with me and my sister in the living room. I don’t know what’s funnier, my sad attempt at mimicking my sister’s hitch kicks or the puke-green shag carpet that blanketed our downstairs. There’s the tour of the Museum of McDonald’s Happy Meal toys we set-up in the basement. Yes, we had enough Happy Meal toys for a museum; yes, I’m fairly sure that’s why I’m a vegetarian now. And my personal favorite, the Joan Osborne “What if God Was One of Us?” music video. This consisted of pre-braces, overbite Carolyn lip-synching and walking around her room in an oversized dolphin pajama shirt (callback!). But more importantly the VHS tape allowed me to tape all my favorite comedies as a child. Friends, of course, Saturday Night Live, The Rosie O’Donnell Show (come on! Cutie patootey!), The Simpsons, and everyone’s favorite, The Price is Right. Apparently daytime TV really cracked me up. DVDs are so fragile when compared to the mighty VHS and for someone who slept with an equal amount of stuffed animals and Best of Friends tapes, my heart remains with Kodak.
Carolyn Busa will take part in the podcast Bob & Dave are Terrible People this Wednesday, March 6th at 9pm on LaffCast.com, and is performing at the Women in Comedy Festival on Thursday, March 21st at Nick’s Comedy Stop in Boston, MA. She also co-hosts the Laughs on Fairmount open mic with Mary Radzinski every Monday night at Urban Saloon.
Dave Metter is a comedy writer from the Philly burbs. Follow Dave on Twitter @DaveMetter.
Matt Holmes is an improviser in Philly. He performs a full improv comedy set with a complete stranger from the audience in Matt& (“playful and winning” –TimeOut Chicago). He also teaches improv, coaches improv groups, and co-founded Rare Bird Show (“Top Shelf Improv” –The Apiary, “arguably the best improv group Philly has ever produced” –AV Club).
Look for the next installment of “Discussing a Bit,” Matt’s monthly WitOut column, on April 1st.
Have a comedy issue or theory you’d like Matt to examine? Email email@example.com.
“Awkward Moments” is a monthly column that asks comedians, “What do you do when…” In this installment we talk about having a bad show.
Everyone’s been there. At least I hope they have. If you’re reading this and happen to be a performer that’s never had a bad show, don’t ever tell me about it because I’ll just turn it into fuel for my Insecurity Machine (patent pending). Actually I feel sorry for you, I really do. You’ve missed out on one of the great shared experiences of a performer’s life. You’ll probably start to doubt your own talent and question your perspective, spend years undermining your own success in search of “authenticity,” take a poignantly reductive job cleaning rich people’s toilets (“We all poop, don’t we, Yorick,”) and spiral into addiction and self-destruction once you realize you’ve given up the best years of your life. You should have just done that Tarantino-prov bit show at Connie’s Ric Rac.
For the sake of this column, and my self-esteem, let’s assume that bad shows happen to everyone, because that’s what all my interviewees said anyway. Whether of our own design, by factors outside of our control, or some alchemy of audience, material, and presentation, we all have to bomb sometime. I’ve asked some of Philly’s stand-up, improv, and sketch comedians to share how they deal with a show that’s going poorly, and how they recover from the experience.
Continue reading Awkward Moments with Hilary Kissinger: Bombing
Hey Rube will perform for the final time as a House Team this Saturday night at Philly Improv Theater. The group made their debut in August 2011 and have since performed at venues all over the area and festivals including the New York Improv Festival, Del Close Marathon, and the Philadelphia Improv Festival. They were crowned Best New Group at the 2012 WitOut Awards for Philadelphia Comedy, and were nominated for Best Improv Group at the 2013 WitOut Awards. The members of Hey Rube and their director Matt Holmes took some time to reflect, and say some nice things about each other.
Aaron Hertzog on Dennis Trafny:
“Dennis blows me away every time I see him perform. The only thing I know for sure when Dennis enters a scene is that at some point he is going to totally surprise me. He can take a seemingly everyday boring offer and come back with something that is (incredibly) completely off-the-wall but also somehow makes it easy for his scene partner to react to and build with. I don’t know if it’s a natural skill or something he’s had to work tirelessly on (or a little bit of Column A and a little bit of Column B) but either way I am completely impressed. He can also bring great intensity to a character (seriously, look into those eyes), and inject some much-needed energy in a show at a moment’s notice. Of course, this also makes for extra special moments when he decides to tone it down and show us his tender, soft side.”
Tara Demmy on Mark Leopold:
“Before Hey Rube, I didn’t know Mark Leopold. He was just one of those guys with a really great name. Now I know him as one of the most talented performers I’ve ever worked with. His character work is the best (Dr. Dandelion) and he is a super intelligent and creative player, knowing when to give a set that necessary plot twist. When I’m in scenes with Mark I have trouble not just hanging out and watching him work, laughing along with the audience. One of my favorite moments was when Hey Rube was doing one of our usual group scene orgies and Mark came on and just sensually untied Jen’s shoelace. The best. Catch up with Mark playing “5 Things” at ComedySportz or doing a “props made out of only cardboard” sketch show with The Hold Up or even doing a show in the Philly Fringe (his 2012 Fringe show Archdiocese of Laughter was one of the best comedy shows I’ve ever seen—he made a rap out of my favorite hymn: Gift of Finest Wheat! Genius). See you there—I’ll be the girl in the first row wearing my ‘I heart Mark Leopold’ T-shirt.”
Lizzie Spellman on Alex Gross:
“The first time I really hung out with Alex, he took me to a gay club with a hot Asian chick. I’ve come to learn he is one crazy cat (and I’m not just saying that ’cause he owns way too many cat shirts). Alex is so fun to play with on stage. When he makes a choice he always fully commits to it. He can go super weird with a character, but it’s always grounded in truth. I think if Hey Rube were a rock band, Alex would be the guy smashing his guitar on an amp and flipping off the crowd. I tell him all the time and I really mean it, he’s become like a little brother to me. That’s why I forgive him for drunkenly walking in on me in the bathroom and proceeding to pee in the shower. But that’s another story…”
Mark Leopold on Aaron Hertzog:
“I first saw Aaron something like six years ago. I went to an open mic and did some terrible set where I impersonated Forrest Gump at one point, and I saw this big man with a big personality just own the crowd and receive their adoration with composure and charm. It was amazing. I then retreated to the suburbs for three years. When I got cast on Hey Rube, the only person I actually recognized was Aaron and I was immediately intimidated by the prospect of playing with him. My fears proved to be completely unfounded of course. Aaron is one of the sweetest, most open, gentle and loving people I’ve met. His ever-present playfulness is infectious and when you have the good fortune to be in a scene with him, it’s such a familiar feeling of silly frolicking that you can’t help but have fun. Fun. That’s really the best way to describe what Aaron is like. He’s just like someone who it’s always fun to be around and with. He has a gift for vulnerability. He is just so brave and so foot-forward, always ready to give himself to the show or scene. Whether it’s dark or emotional, serious or silly, Aaron commits totally and performing with him is so easy and simple because you know he is going to completely receive what you give and build with it. Some of the most satisfying moments of collaboration in my life have been with him. Aaron is wonderful and any city, town, or village that doesn’t leap at the chance to welcome him is just tragically stupid.”
Rob Cutler on Lizzie Spellman:
“Lizzie is commitment personified. She’s an incredibly gifted performer, but the original characters she creates and maintains are nothing short of brilliant. Whether she exhibits the child-like innocence of a three-year-old, or the decrepit bitter wisdom of a wicked crone, Lizzie will up the intensity with every passing moment. She’s a multitalented performer, whose musical prowess is displayed often with her ukulele, singing some of the most irreverent, funny, and original songs I’ve personally ever heard. She has a gift for character and her future on stage is limitless. On the personal end, I’ve yet to meet a more patient and engaging personality. She has kind words for everyone I’ve seen her interact with (even if they were complete assholes). In short Lizzie is funny as hell, sweet as sugar, with talent oozing out of every pore. We should all be so lucky as to have someone like Lizzie in our lives. I’ll miss you Rubes!”
Jen Curcio on Tara Demmy:
“I will never forget the first time I met Tara. It was at Hey Rube’s first practice. I was really jealous of her because she was prettier, cooler and funnier than me. Then I got over it. Tara is a total improv pirate and for those of you who are not familiar with the term that means she attacks the scene. She is fearless in her choices, yet fully commits to and supports her scene partners’ choices. Tara is able to play characters that have a sharp contrast in stage presence. She will support anything and add value to it. I feel so lucky to have been on a team with her, I learned a lot from watching her be an awesome improviser!”
Alex Gross on Jen Curcio:
“Oh, geez. Jen is the worst. I’m just kidding! I know that really freaked you out Jen but seriously, I’m just kidding. I swear! Jen is one of the kindest and weirdest people I know. She is always thinking of others before herself and she’s given me countless car rides home. Her paranoia and craziness are right on par with mine, which makes me feel like she’s my improv twin. I’ve done some of my favorite scenes with her and she is always a joy to work with, no matter how many times she initiates scenes with hints of a gangbang starting. Jen is an improv powerhouse who isn’t to be fucked with and I’ve had a blast working with her. Rubes for life.”
Dennis Trafny on Rob Cutler:
“Rob is the ‘Phil Hartman’ of Hey Rube: really solid in every scene and he reigns in the crazy. He never gets scared on stage and is always cooler than the other side of the pillow. I don’t think I’ve ever seen him hesitate. Not once. Never. Not even for a second. No ‘uhhhh’s or ‘ummmm’s. Nothing. He’s a beast. He also plays characters smartly, and on many occasions, very cleverly ties all the preceding scenes together. He is no one-trick pony either. He has a gift with puppetry and is awesome in Friends of Alcatraz . (If you haven’t seen it, you should!) Good luck with your future projects Rob!”
Matt Holmes on Hey Rube:
“It’s sad to see Hey Rube end, but things that burn brightest snuff soonest.
I got more out of directing Hey Rube than I ever thought I would. First, I learned to get past your perfect idea for how things should go. It’s better to be flexible and make it work. It took us a few months to all get in the same room together at the same time, but that didn’t matter much.
Then, I learned all kinds of insights about improvising, telling a story in a visual medium, teaching people, using people’s strengths and working together on their weaknesses, building something together in small steps, and creating a show (style, format, framework) that is a signature.”
Hey Rube’s final show will be Saturday, February 9 at 10pm at The Philly Improv Theater at The Shubin Theater (407 Bainbridge St.) Tickets can be purchased online.
This past summer, one of Philadelphia’s longest-running short-form improv groups, The N Crowd, held auditions in search of a fresh crop o’ cast members. But no one wants to hear opinions from a bunch of green-ass newbies who don’t know what they’re doing yet, so we decided to check in with them after their first six months. Here they are reflecting on what it’s been like being part of the group so far.
Bert Archer: “[Cast member] Jessica Snow probably doesn’t know this story, but I was one of her “pillars” in a show in 2008. As soon as the game started, I made it my job to try and throw her off. Every time she tapped me for a suggestion I gave her a vulgar phrase, and it didn’t phase her at all. She killed it. I not only fell in love with her…but with improv as well. A year later I would do my first-ever improv performance in front of a crowd…with Jess Snow. It’s going to be great to see what her and I, and the rest of the Crowd, can do.”
Alison Zeidman: “I auditioned for The N Crowd because Corey Holland (who’s now on the team with me, and also my duo partner in Steve Rogers is Dead) told me he thought I should. I didn’t have any short form experience, and I didn’t even know they were casting new members until Corey told me about it. After my audition, I think I texted him something like, ‘Bahahahhahahahahahahha well that was terrible. I guess short form’s not for me.’ Then I got a callback. And now I’m on the team. I’m having a great time and learning a ton from everyone, so I hope they don’t consider casting me a mistake. Because now we’re like family, and I don’t want to be the unimpressive middle child of The N Crowd. I’m already the unimpressive middle child in my biological family.”
Corey Holland: “Being on The N Crowd has given me the chance to perform short form improv for audiences that many times have never been exposed to improv before. I also perform with indie teams Malone and Steve Rogers is Dead, both of which are long form teams. Some seem to think you have to choose a preference of which you like better, or which IS better, but performers should stay open minded. Experience and practice all styles to better yourself on stage. Every member of The N Crowd is immensely talented and involved in at least a baker’s dozen other things, but still has time to put on a weekly comedy show every Friday night. Consistently awesome shows are rare…like holographic card rare. More people should come see The N Crowd. We have T-shirts.”
Steve Grande: “What I have enjoyed most about being in The N Crowd, aside from the awesome cast members and the atmosphere, is the fact that we get to perform to sold out non-improviser crowds on a weekly basis. I know that a lot of other shows don’t have that opportunity, and as a person who produces comedy shows in New Jersey, I feel like this is a scenario that we all strive to obtain. Over the past six months, I have seen first-hand the hard work and dedication that its members have put into this troupe in order to have that reputation. I am extremely happy and humbled to be a member of a group that has been a cornerstone of the Philly comedy scene for the past 8 years.”
Matt Lamson: “I was so excited when I first got on The N Crowd because I prefer short form improv, whereas long form seems to be more prevalent in Philly. At first, I was a bit humbled and felt almost anxious being around these seasoned players, but everyone on the team is super chill and we’ve become fast friends. I’ve had so many awesome opportunities with The N Crowd like playing in the Philadelphia Improv Festival, at Pottstown’s Steel River Playhouse, and next week I’m traveling to North Carolina [for the North Carolina Comedy Arts Festival]. I can’t wait to see see where we go as a team.”
You can see The N Crowd this and every Friday at The Actor’s Center (257 N. 3rd Street) at 8pm. Tickets are $12 in advance; $15 at the door.
by Alex Grubard
This past week was the stand-up comedy portion of the month-long 2013 North Carolina Comedy Arts Festival. The festival takes place in central Carolina right inside Tar Heel country. Centralized in Carrboro and Chapel Hill and including venues in Raleigh and Durham, NCCAF is now in its 13th year and features one week of stand-up, one of improv and one of sketch. The biggest shows are at the Dirty South Improv Theater in Carrboro, which seats 100 and despite its name is kept in pristine condition using classic Northern efficiency.
I applied to the festival this year and was accepted. The application included a headshot, bio, online video and an application fee, which sucks because I don’t have any MONEY. I paid for it using beach chairs I borrowed from Temple.
Every comedy festival is different and they intentionally focus on unique elements of comedy and show formats. Carrboro and Chapel Hill are young college towns full of students from University of North Carolina. Tar Heels. Even the firetrucks are Carolina Blue. Even the police sirens are Carolina Blue!
The Chapel Hill comedy scene has a comforting, hometown feel. Like a local film festival it showcases a lot of young, independent talent for a group of cultured comedy audiences somewhere other than a major Metropolitan city. A lot of graduate students and oddball dirty southern locals came out to all of the shows. I talked to all sorts of fun, drunk, American young people who were fixing to save the world one little league basketball team at a time.
I felt that while watching and performing on shows I noticed the crowds were not as rowdy and riotous as Philly crowds. They tended to have a liberal sensitivity about misogynistic or homophobic jokes. Unbelievable, right?! They would often pass it off when it was brought up as, “This is Carrboro.” Whatever hippy dippy stuff that means. Needless to say I went to Carrboro Farmer’s Market early Saturday morning for a cup of local coffee and a hot sweet potato maple doughnut.
The comedians invited to the festival this year were all booked on 2-3 shows at the Local 506 or the Dirty South Improv Theater performing 10-15 minute sets. Comics also could volunteer to host or do one-minute guest sets on shows throughout the festival. For several comics this was their second or third year performing at NCCAF.
Comedy festivals are a great way to interact on stage and off stage with comics from other cities. The festival’s producer Zach Ward began and operated the DSI Theater for years before moving to Boston just a few months ago to take over running ImprovBoston in Cambridge, Massachusetts. There were numerous comics from Boston, Chicago and New York as well as Philadelphia’s Ian Fidance, Lisa Yost, Latice and myself. Obviously the four of us were the best and everyone said so. Go Philly! For a full line-up of all the hilarious comedians go to http//www.nccomedyarts.com and read about what’s happening the rest of the month. And if you’re interest is peaked about NCCAF and the Triangle cities in North Carolina, but you’re bummed you missed out on the stand-up week, you’re in luck! Steven Wright will be headlining the festival February 8th.
Alex Grubard (@alexgrubard, http://alexgrubard.tumblr.com) is a stand-up comedian who has performed at the North Carolina Comedy Arts Festival, the Cape Fear Comedy Festival, the 1st and 2nd F. Harold Comedy Festival and Live Arts & Philly Fringe. He has written about comedy for Campus Philly, the NY Examiner and now WitOut. He is a student at Temple University and he needs you to buy him beer, because he doesn’t have any MONEY.
by Matt Holmes
Disney character designers followed a rule: make the characters distinguishable in silhouette. Matt Groening followed that rule for his Life in Hell characters (including a distinctive one-eared rabbit) and again when designing The Simpsons (you can’t mistake Marge Simpsons’ hair).
- The Teletubbies have one-of-a-kind antenna shapes atop their otherwise-similar bodies.
- The Power Rangers have uniformed costumes, shapes, and sizes, but their different colors are highlighted.
- There is no Betty Rubble vitamin, because she’s too similar to Wilma. Instead, there’s one shaped like the Flintstones’ car.
The point of this rule is differentiation. You don’t want your audience confused about the facts of the matter, who’s who, or what happened to which character. It’s a good tip to make your characters different.
If you’re telling a story about your wife and her sister, don’t let the listener get lost about who said what.
- Stand-ups and storytellers will clarify by using different voices, postures, gestures, and locations. They’ll stand in one place as one character and elsewhere as another character, or even just face different directions.
- In improv, sometimes one person will play multiple characters or multiple players will trade off playing one character. They use distinct or exaggerated traits to make it clear without anyone having to think about it.
- You don’t want a story about your crazy aunt to be too similar to a story about your eccentric grandmother. Even if it’s a true story, you might want to adjust it or even just combine them into one character.
These examples are basic and visual; that’s the lowest level of clarity. You don’t want confusion. A higher level than just basic clarity involves getting into the emotions, subtexts, backgrounds, and other personality traits. More than just keeping track of your characters, you want to say and do something unique with each of them.
- If two different characters serve the same purpose, it might be more efficient to have them boiled down into one. This happens sometimes when a story is translated from book or stage show into a movie.
- In a longform improv show, if you start off with clearly different scenarios, you’ll reduce your chances of having to do the same kind of scene twice in a row. Plus, it’ll be more impressive when you weave them together later.
More than just how they look, you’ll often see characters fitting different roles or even clichés and stereotypes. One will be the leader, while another will have a darker anti-hero tone.
One might be dumber, smarter, scared, sexy, hungry, scheming, or have some other wacky caricature to help differentiate them. You might see “the girl” as a token stereotype or even two(!) female characters (usually in Ginger/Mary-Ann roles; it can be rare to find real, unique female characters that get fully utilized).
Main characters act as an avenue into the story. We see from their point of view and know more about them. If everybody is the main character, then nobody is. If a supporting character is more interesting, we’ll wish it was their story instead.
And it’s not just characters that you want to be unique.
- If you have two sketches that are similar, you might want to combine them or go in different directions with them or just break them up so they’re not back-to-back.
- If you’re doing a bunch of improv games, create an even mix of lengths, styles, and audience-interaction.
- If you have a bit about how people tweet stupid stuff and another bit about how Pinterest projects never work right, figure out how you can make those jokes different from each other.
Many different people have played the character of The Doctor on Dr. Who, and though they’ve brought their unique take on it, they’ve maintained a consistent line and a consistent personality by repeating what makes the character different. Conversely, The Facts of Life started with a bevy of characters that disappeared, condensing the show into fewer unique roles.
Keep an eye out for how characters are differentiated.
- If you see a movie where an actress has a different hair color than normal, it might be because they didn’t want her confused with another character.
- If you see characters with bows, glasses, or hats, it’s probably to help make each character unique.
Differentiation matters in storytelling, and all comedy (all communication) is telling a story. You can have similar pieces that work as part of a larger whole, you can segue from one thing to another by having things overlap, you can have characters that are similar on purpose if that’s your point, you can tell a story with parts that aren’t 100% unique. Just be aware of how you differentiate this from that.
Matt Holmes is an improviser in Philly. He performs a full improv comedy set with a complete stranger from the audience in Matt& (“playful and winning” –TimeOut Chicago). He also teaches improv, coaches improv groups, and co-founded Rare Bird Show (“Top Shelf Improv” –The Apiary, “arguably the best improv group Philly has ever produced” –AV Club).
Look for the next installment of “Discussing a Bit,” Matt’s monthly WitOut column, on March 1st.
Have a comedy issue or theory you’d like Matt to examine? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.
And you know what that means—they’re entering the “terrible twos”! Actually, my mom always said age 3 was the roughest. So watch out next year, when this gang is toddler-aged. If the developmental patterns of early-stage humans are any indication of behavioral phases for improv groups, it’s gonna be tantrum city!
Anyhoo, in honor of their two-year anniversary, the members of Iron Lung have taken a moment to feel some feelings about one another:
Corin Wells on Kevin Pettit:
“Everyone who has had the opportunity to both befriend and improvise with Kevin can notice parallels in who he is on stage and who he is off stage. On stage, he supports his scene partners whole heartedly. He listens intently. He’s patient. And he’s a goof. But you can go to any of his shows to see what a great comedian he is (Hot Dish and Davenger at PHIT, Feb. 2nd at 8:30PM). I’m going to talk about Off-Stage Kevin. All of those on stage attributes come from who he is in real life: a supportive, caring, loveably huggable, hilarious teddy bear. He’s been Iron Lung’s keystone, making sure that we not only practice, but that we hang out and have fun together. He’s always the first to suggest we get a drink after practice or Bar-B-Q at someone’s house. He’s the first to volunteer to help you move, even if it’s for the 7th time, or suggest making turkey burgers for a Game of Thrones viewing night. He’s the first to offer a bottle of wine and a listening ear when some guy is being a douche. Kevin is a big part of the reason that I joined Iron Lung and being Jersey-ites, I think we both pushed each other to make the smart move to Philly. I am super lucky and blessed to have had Kevin on my first-ever improv team not only because he’s a fantastic improviser but because he’s an even better friend. I owe him so much. Watching him grow from amazing to phenomenal in these two years by getting cast on Witout Award-winning Best New Act Davenger and going back to school is so rewarding and inspiring. I wrote a Tanka/Acronym poem to better express all that I feel for him:
Kevin Petitt, oh
Even still I smell your brown,
Vinegar stained pants
In that small black box theater
N’er will I ever forget“
Kevin Pettit on Jess Carpenter:
“Jess Carpenter might be the nicest person I know. Literally. He is probably one of the most honest people I’ve met as well. The thing I love most about Jess is that he is always learning something, always trying to make himself better and trying new things. I’m so glad we got to spend the last two years cracking each other up!”
Jess Carpenter on Dennis Trafny:
“Dennis is one of the first people I met in improv class. He is very physical and can make anything creepy, ANYTHING. I am in awe sometimes when I see what he comes up with from the offer. He can take the most mundane scene and make it a roller coaster ride that everyone in the room can enjoy. The audience is always in on the joke when he is on stage and his playful characters are easy to like. Even the psychopaths…which are numerous.
My favorite thing he does is refers to his characters’ hair—and never a lack of it. [Editor’s note: Dennis lacks hair.] I don’t think he’s ever actually played a bald character, but on the other hand, some of his female characters have had beards.
I am lucky to have shared the stage with him the many times that I have. Did I mention how creepy his characters can be? And funny fact: He loves to dance, but it’s in a kind of an interpretive style!”
Dennis Trafny on Maureen Costello:
“M is for her alter-egos, Marlene and the Million Dollar Man
A is for aficionado, of the donut variety
U is for umlaut; she has an amazing German accent (and a lot of others as well)
R is for ratty; in most of her solo photo sessions she morphs into disgusting characters
E is for eccentric; you know she’s about to say something weird when she starts laughing to herself and then you can’t understand her for the next 2 minutes while she laugh-speaks her idea.
E is for ebony; she is very pale.
N is for number 1! She is a great improviser, friend, blogger, tweeter, lady, American, human, stalker, photographer, vegetarian, Jack Russel owner.”
Maureen Costello on Tara Demmy:
“Tara Demmy and I first bonded over our mutual love of cheese fries and I like to think that we haven’t looked back since. Over the last two years I can fully state that I’ve learned a lot from her as an improvisor and not just a lover of cheese and potatoes. Tara is definitely a pirate. She is fearless on stage and will commit to the most ridiculous of scenarios. Whereas if I was playing a dinosaur with daddy issues, I would probably say “Maybe I won’t dye my head scales pink and pierce my dino navel,” but not Tara—Tara would go all the way. Tara would go out with her dino friends and steal cigarettes from an improvised 7-11, then give you the finger when you’re trying to use the crosswalk like a normal dinosaur just trying to get to work on time. Anyway, what I’m trying to say is that Tara can commit to what she starts and when she does it, she’s like an improv tornado, both majestic and beautiful but with the intense power to turn scenes upside down (in a good way, not a natural disaster way, maybe I shouldn’t have compared her to a natural disaster). Tara is a lot like the Lincoln assasin—OK, I’m done. Tara is spectacular. I’ve learned so much from her and am glad to not only call her a teammate but a friend. I don’t know what I’d do with out her. Tara, never leave me!”
Tara Demmy on Carly Maurer:
“Carly is the master of commitment. That girl knows what she wants in a scene and she gets it. She is a super intelligent and cognitive player, but does not let that get in the way of her yesAND-ing her fellow Iron Lungers’ outlandish initiations. Carly’s facial expressions (whether it be a tired kitten or a disappointed yoga teacher or a young teen boy picked last for basketball) are the best, especially when they are accompanied by a long pause—genius. Watch out Harold Pinter!”
Carly Maurer on Simon Burger:
“Simon is all about commitment. When he steps out with a character or physicality you have to jump on board because you know he’s going to stick with it. He has a way of really engaging his scene partner which helps bring the scene to life. Simon also brings his own brand of wit and intelligence to the group which keeps us all on our toes.”
Simon Burger on Corin Wells:
“I took my first improv class with Corin, and she has improved more than anyone else in that class, by far. Corin is a fountain of hilarious experience and a powerhouse on the stage, and I would put her on my improv super band.”
Is there such a thing as a sophomore slump for improv teams? We may never know, because clearly these guys love each other and have their ish together, and I’m sure we can look forward to spectacular scenes from this group for years to come! Decades, even. They could be the Rolling Stones of improv groups! Only with less drug use. Or maybe more! Time will tell!
See Iron Lung this Friday at ‘Sideshow Presents: Iron Lung’s 2-Year Anniversary Show/PARTY’ (featuring a special announcement—hopefully it’s not that they’re breaking up, or I’ll have to take back everything I just wrote about their potential to be an immortal supergroup!). Show is 8pm at the Arts Parlor (1170 S. Broad Street). Admission is $5.
Want even more Iron Lung? Check out the latest episode of the Gettin’ Close with Mike Marbach podcast!
Are you producing a comedy show in Philadelphia? Bedtime Stories creator Gregg Gethard has some ideas he’d like to try to make Philly comedy more attractive to new audiences, and he’d like to see the rest of us trying ’em out, too. Read below, and feel free to add your own opinions and suggestions in the comments.
by Gregg Gethard
The Holiday Inn in East Somerville, MA is located in the absolute ass end of greater Boston. Do you know where the car rental return places are down near the airport? That’s essentially where this Holiday Inn is located.
However, this past weekend, it was the home of a joint comedy show between The Union Square Roundtable and The Chris Gethard Show. Over 80 intrepid comedy nerds made the trip to a part of the area that is a vortex of nothing. And while both the USRT (which is to Boston comedy what Bedtime Stories and The Theme Show are to Philly) and The Chris Gethard Show have their followings, the main selling point for the show was the swimming pool.
The USRT folks rented out the hotel’s pool area, which also has wall-climbing, ping-pong, foosball and a basketball hoop. It also had space for a video projector and for a band to play. It was a comedy show in one of the most bizarre venues imaginable.
It also taught me a valuable lesson: We need to do a ton better in marketing our product to the Philadelphia audience. And one of the ways to do so is in our choice of venues.
We often complain in Philly comedy about our audiences, which are in most cases other performers and family and friends. We’ve complained at length about a lack of media attention (although that has gotten a LOT better) but we really need to do a lot on ourselves to market our shows beyond “Facebook invites/e-mails/press releases.”
Here are some thoughts. I plan on doing a lot of these with Bedtime Stories but feel free to steal them (or give me ideas to steal) because it’s for the greater good:
Continue reading Gregg Gethard Has Some Ideas