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Featuring Aaron Hertzog
Professionally Filmed by Alison Zeidman
Musical Score by Greg Maughan
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Back in July at Joe Gates’s apartment, I met with the producers of Polygon(Joe Gates, Marc Reber, Milkshake and Rick Horner via phone) to talk about how they got started, how they’ve blown up, and what’s next for their beloved monthly variety show. During our chat, Joe offered me cherries he’d received in the mail from his mother, Rick was interrupted several times, Milkshake shared his views on circumcision, and I learned that the men of Polygon have a…special…place in their hearts for my own improv team, Malone.
Alison Zeidman:Can you guys tell me how Polygon started?
Joe Gates: My group Rintersplit, which is Marc Reber, myself and Matt Akana, and Rick Horner with Claire Halberstadt as Suggestical, a little over a year ago had a show out at Milkboy in Bryn Mawr, and then we went out to a diner afterward and we were talking and it was like hey, it would be really great to start something up for people coming out of classes who really want to perform and really want to form a group, but aren’t finding spaces.
AZ: Is that still the primary goal, or mission, for Polygon? To be a place for new groups, or groups that struggle to get shows elsewhere?
Rick Horner: I might say our purpose is to encourage new comedic technique and encourage the performances of groups that are in the Philadelphia area at a pretty professional level, and focus on group dynamics as opposed to individual abilities, and really kind of provide a framework for the administrative operational side to encourage the integrity of the folks that are performing to perform in a professional way.
JG: We’ve actually been doing the Polygon show for over a year now; our birthday was back in April. We started out at another venue and ever since we’ve moved to L’etage we’ve just sort of upped the ante. I have more of a theater background [and at L’etage] we can just run it like a theater show.
AZ: Where were you guys before, and why did you move to L’etage?
JG: We were at Tabu before, a sports bar, and it was more of a…it was difficult to work with the sound of the bar behind us and it was a converted area that was sort of a stage but not quite, and we thought well we could get a place with an actual stage, and that’s where L’etage came in. We have a tech booth there, and we can do lighting, so instead of waving a phone madly at somebody to be like you have five minutes left, we can actually dim the lights and make it very professional. Originally we were only improv, but we saw a lot of things like storytelling really growing, and sketch, so we thought let’s include everybody.
AZ: Do you do most of the outreach to find those performers and groups, or do they come to you?
JG: Originally it was more of us doing the outreach, but we started to post on Facebook and just kind of put the word out there. So some of it’s kind of coming from the community now, now that we’ve kind of established ourselves a little bit.
AZ: So it’s new groups, developing teams, and also people trying to test things out a little bit.
JG: Yeah. I mean we’re not an open mic [laughs]. It’s different from an open mic in that you don’t get just three minutes and then somebody cuts you out. Again it’s more professional; we’re trying to make this like an actual show.
AZ: And where does the name come from?
RH: I think there was a strong push to make it Voltron because of the idea that Voltron is a bunch of pieces that get pushed together, but I thought that was just a little bit too straight on the money, so we kept discussing it until we came up with Polygon, which is just many different facets of something that’s all one thing.
AZ: Rick, you’re involved with so many different projects, your own groups, and F Harold, too. What do you feel sets Polygon apart, or what’s different about it for you as a producer?
RH: I think Polygon is just another piece of the puzzle. I would say that these things, whether it be Incubator or F Harold or Polygon, these are all levers that are designed to provide growth, whether it be with a mentor, or a venue. Whatever type of thing is needed. And I think for Polygon it’s really switching the lever of connecting folks and exchanging ideas and information with a bunch of people who are actively involved in the sketch community and the improv community and the stand-up community. So it’s a meeting point, and some of our shows have been really fluid like that, but it hasn’t always been that way. Thus far we have sought people out; it’s just now that folks are realizing that we’re more than just a monthly show, and they’re starting to seek us out.
AZ: And it seems like as much as it is for the community, the Polygon shows that I’ve been to usually have a lot of non-performers in the audience, so I’m curious about how you guys go about marketing your shows.
RH: Marketing is definitely a big focus for us. It’s fun to perform, and it’s more fun to perform for an audience, but given a choice between an audience of your peers, who are also doing it, and people who have never seen you before, it’s more fun and yet more challenging to perform for people when they have really no idea what to expect.
JG: I think the last Polygon we had maybe thirty people who were non-performers.
AZ: And why do you think that is? I work for the Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance and I know from communicating with Marc that you guys are advertising on Phillyfunguide. Has that been successful for you guys? Or maybe it’s not just that, but do you know how these outside people are finding out about you?
Marc Reber: We had a bunch of people mention that they’d seen us online, and Phillyfunguide does come up high when you search on Google.
RH: I think we are working on market research and figuring out who’s coming to our show and who our target audience is, but we’re kind of locked in on what we feel like people might be willing to pay, and frankly I think that it’s less than what is being charged at other theaters. I feel better about having a well-attended show that costs less, as opposed to a medium-sized show that costs more.
MR: And I think the last three months, we’ve tried to branch out our marketing, and I think it has improved things because we’ve definitely seen more and more people, who aren’t just improvisers.
AZ: So besides Facebook and Phillyfunguide, if you were going to make a recommendation for somebody else trying to market their show, could you say more about what’s worked for you guys?
MR: I think the next step is seeing what actual advertisement does. The online stuff is very voluntary–like someone has to actually be looking to go to an event to happen to be on Phillyfunguide, as opposed to seeing an advertisement as they’re reading a newspaper or something. But either one of those, the online or the advertising, is just a way to expand your audiences.
JG: I think opening up Polygon to more than just improv has helped the numbers, too. I spoke to a couple at the last show and they said we’re just here to have a good time. We have no idea what’s going to happen, we just like to get out of the house. And I was like, this is the perfect place for you.
MR: And I want to second that to the extent that opening up to all forms of comedy in Philadelphia has made it easier to find acts, and that leaves more time for things like marketing.
AZ: Do you think the venue has anything to do with it?
MR: Yeah, it’s just a really great venue. It’s hard to deny that. And the bar is right there, it’s a very nice bar, it’s just a pleasant…it’s a total experience. And that venue has always been very popular, so we’re very lucky to be in that space.
AZ: Can we get into the specifics of what it takes to put on your own show? What are some of the technical challenges of just producing the show the night of, or leading up to it?
JG: Getting a variety of acts to come in, that’s the main challenge I think. And I think one thing that people talk about often on the Philly Comedy Network on Facebook is getting the shows to start on time, so curtain is always at 8:05 just as a courtesy, but performers have to be there ahead of time. So call time is at 7, and then doors open at 7:30, and you let people in and really I think the call time for the performers was the most difficult thing, but it was also the best thing for the show in terms of structure. Because they have time to warm up, sort of situate themselves, look at the stage instead of coming in maybe five minutes after one group has already started and seeing oh that stage isn’t going to work for us, or the lighting is wrong, or we need more chairs. So getting everybody there ahead of time, it just makes everything work kind of like clockwork. And definitely getting a space that you love and other people love coming to and love performing at, that’s pretty important. And I guess just kind of organizing the groups is kind of fun too. You want something really powerful and awesome, you want something that people have never seen before but will really make them think about coming back, and you want new people too. We love new people, we love their lovely faces. And I think [your team] Malone is an excellent example of that; you guys are kind of really climbing the ladder.
RH: Yeah don’t forget to mention Malone, say something about how great they are.
JG: Malone is one of the most attractive…
Milkshake: They’re really good looking, is the thing. It’s hard to compete. No matter how good your team is, you have to compete with the fact that Malone is a very, very fuckable team.
MR: And there are more than five of them, so.
Milkshake: There’s more to choose. As if you needed to choose. Any one of them, male or female, they’re all..
AZ: One of our members is under 18…I’ll just point that out.
Milkshake: I don’t care! I don’t discriminate!
MR: Let’s say very kissable.
JG: I would hold hands with any member of that team, on a date, in a meadow.
AZ: Let’s talk about what upcoming things you guys have planned.
JG: Well I’m really looking forward to the October show. October is one of my favorite months. I grew up with ghost stories and things like that, so I want to get Rintersplit to perform in October because we’re kind of more ghost-oriented, and there are a couple of storytellers I would really like to get in and tell some gnarly ghost story stuff.
AZ: Do you usually try to do themed shows?
JG: I’m getting more into it. Like our last show we had at Tabu, it was all ladies’ night, lady-oriented, and it was Mani Pedi’s first show and they are fantastic.
MR: But that’s not really our point, our point is more just to have a show that everyone can enjoy, that performers can enjoy, and an opportunity for us to perform, because we are among the independent comedy community. So if the theme works out great, and if there are opportunities like October and Halloween, then it’s like hey, why not go for it.
AZ: Can you guys talk a little bit more about some of the new components of the show, like Philly Secrets?
MR: Well Milkshake is the director and he had the idea of doing something along the lines of Post ecret, where the idea is that people send in their secrets and essentially they’re shared but still secret because they’re anonymous. And to the extent that these are very moving pieces, they provide a lot of emotion and a lot of background, things that are all in improv.
Milkshake: I think just one nice thing about the Secrets show is that the source material itself, the secrets that we use, particularly when they come from PostSecret it’s a very visual experience, it’s a quick snapshot of somebody’s situation that they’re having difficulty dealing with. So they create this anonymous art, and they send it to Frank Warren in Baltimore and they get it off their chest and they share it with other people. Just those in and of themselves are so interesting that to do theatrical work that’s inspired by that, wow, you’ve got a great diving board into a beautiful swimming pool to kick off from.
AZ: Are you using the secrets from PostSecret, or are you soliciting your own?
Milkshake: We’re soliciting secrets from Philadelphia, however the method by which I had chosen to do that was insufficient and I wasn’t getting the responses that I need. We’re still working on acquiring more, but yeah, the first two performances were entirely reliant on secrets from the PostSecret website. And I have no beef with that, but I want to do the show about secrets of people from Philadelphia. And the scenes that we see can be usually funny but not necessarily, especially with somebody like Kristen Schier on the team, who loves any opportunity to do improvised dramatic work. And a nice thing that was pointed out to me is when you take a secret that’s difficult to deal with, like one that’s about abuse or addiction, that usually won’t be a funny scene, but the scene after that, as long as it’s remotely funny, the audience is so ready to laugh that the response is usually pretty explosive.
AZ: How was it determined that Phily Secrets would be a good feature for Polygon?
JG: It’s so fresh, and so new, and it’s a very rich format and it’s laden with dramatic scenes.
Mlikshake: And there’s a lot of sexual ones. There are a lot about penises.
JG: [whispering] This is going in the paper!
Mlikshake: Well, she’ll snip and cut. Edit.
AZ: I don’t want to snip and cut any penises…
Milkshake: Don’t, no! Don’t do that, it’s not necessary. It has no medical benefit. But I was going to say, I would like to do an entire Secrets performance where we’re free to choose the sexual material if we want to, but not have it foisted upon us. And that’s kind of my job as host and curator, to choose the secrets that we’ll work from. But then I think to myself, it would also be cool to have a show where every scene is of a sexual nature.
JG: I’m going to go back and try to answer the question that you asked. I think another one of the reasons that we picked Secrets as kind of a Polygon mainstay is because there’s so many different things that come out of it that we don’t really see in improv, and that’s kind of what we’re all about, the new stuff, the fresh stuff.
AZ: And it sounds like Secrets also has this level of built-in theatricality and drama, and sort of that elevated level of theater that you’re trying to present with Polygon.
JG: When I was a student of dramaturgy, three of the questions that we always asked ourselves of a play where why this play, why now, and why this audience?
Milkshake: We did go over those questions. Did I answer them well?
RH: You answered them. I don’t know how well.
Milkshake: Were you dissatisfied, Rick, with my answers? Do you remember dissatisfaction?
RH: Well you seemed dodgy and unconfident, that’s all.
Milkshake: OK, that sounds like me.
JG: You mentioned at many times during your presentation that people are fascinated by real people’s lives. But also these people are opening themselves up to us. And kind of trusting us with a secret.
Milkshake: And in turn I feel like the work the cast is doing by improvising a scene is kind of metaphorically putting their arm around that person and embracing them. We’re exploring it and experiencing it with them, sort of, to the best of our ability, through theatre.
AZ: So just to wrap up, Polygon is once a month at L’etage, and the best way to book a show is to…
JG: Contact Joe or Mark.
AZ: And if you have a secret that you want to see explored in Philly Secrets?
Milkshake: The best way is to go to formspring.me/phillysecrets.
MR: And Polygon is once a month, at L’etage, but we’ll also be part of Fringe again this year, and I’ll let Rick talk a little bit about that.
RH: We’re finalizing the venue, but I expect that this year there’s going to be some good surprises, which I’m not certain I’m ready to divulge quite yet. I might describe the Fringe this year as more opportunities for people to get involved. And there’s likely to be some sort of a process specifically to submit to the Fringe shows which will be coming out pretty soon, so people will have slightly more control over their involvement.
JG: So look for updates online, and if you have something new and beautiful and need a space to do it, we’d love to check you out.
The next Polygon show is Tuesday, August 14th at 8 pm at L’etage (624 S. 6th Street). Tickets are $5.
Tap City is a brand new sketch project from stand-up comic/improviser Aaron Hertzog and improviser Luke Field, two of the most modest fellas you’ll ever meet. They have zero confidence in their abilities as sketch writers (or possibly all the confidence in the world, and this entire interview was a sham). Their debut show is this Wednesday at Camp Woods Plus, and there’s a strong chance that anyone, everyone or no one who comes and laughs will get a big fat kiss from Luke.
Alison Zeidman: How did Tap City start?
Aaron Hertzog: I started doing stand-up as a way to get into sketch, because I thought I would like sketch more. That’s kind of backwards I guess, instead of just starting a sketch group. I was like, I’ll do this, and then meet people to do sketch groups with, and then it got away from me. I liked stand-up more than I thought I would. And then eventually I wanted to do a sketch group, and Luke was the first person that I thought of that I wanted to work with and who wasn’t already in a group.
Luke Field: I come from a pretty strictly improv background, and I wanted to…expand my horizons…comedically. We were originally working with a few other people, a lot of busy people, and it kind of petered out. Then we just found that we were writing some things that were almost exactly similar in tone and style, so we just started meeting together.
AZ: How did you come up with the name Tap City?
LF: We went to a website of old hobo slang.
AH: We went to a bunch of websites. That wasn’t the first one we went to.
AZ: OK, what was the step before the hobo website?
AH: We were kicking around ideas, things that we liked, words, phrases, random things, just trying to keep together a short list of ideas. And I think we both liked the ring of the word “city,” but never went back to it, and when we finally had to come up with a name we were looking up old slang websites—
LF: I like old people.
AH: Yeah, we both like old-timey slang and stuff like that. So we found one that was old-timey hobo slang.
AZ: And what does it mean?
LF: It means you’re broke. It’s a really thrilling story of discovery and excitement.
AZ: Through Google.
LF: Which is modern day Indiana Jones.
AZ: Can you talk about what sketch does for you in terms of creative fulfillment that you don’t get out of stand-up or improv?
AH: I like working with other people, and bouncing ideas back and forth. I love the writing process in sketch. Like if I come up with an idea and I write a first draft, and then Luke will read it and give me ideas and jokes, and things to tighten up. I love the collaborative creative process of coming up with something together. Some of my ideas come from improv scenes that I want to make better. It’s like the core of it was good, and now I want to strengthen it.
LF: I’m doing improv 3 or 4 times a week, and it’s sort of disposable, but you’re generating a lot of material. And I just wanted to challenge myself, too, because I had never really done any writing. Also it’s just a really good way for us to just beat ourselves up emotionally, and hate the work that we’re doing.
AH: It’s good pressure to put on yourself…
AZ: What kind of pressure do you feel with doing sketch?
LF: In improv, the audience gives you some leeway to fail, I feel. Even though you don’t want to. You want to get up onstage and put on a great show. And ultimately a great improv show will feel and sound like a sketch show. You’re basically writing a sketch on your feet. I feel like if we’re presenting this material that we’ve been working on for months and months and months, though, an audience is going to scrutinize it a lot more. So that makes for me an added level of anxiety.
AZ: Do you feel those expectations from an audience when you’re doing sketch, when you’re actually performing? Can you get a sense of that with the laughs or whatever feedback you’re getting from a sketch audience, versus an improv audience?
AH: I think so. It’s gotta be a lot tighter than an improv scene.
LF: I know for stand-up and especially for me for improv, we’re trained to just hear that laugh and follow it. Well I know it’s not like part of the training, but for me the first thing that I hear a laugh from, I think that’s probably something interesting that can be repeated and done over again, explored more. And even with stand-up it becomes a rhythm—I guess. I don’t know anything about stand- up. But it’s a little bit tougher when we’re just sitting together by ourselves.
AH: Yeah, to know what’s funny. Stuff that makes us laugh might not make a crowd laugh and that’s something that I’ve learned through doing stand-up for almost six years, that everything that I think is funny a lot of people aren’t going to think is funny. And it’s just trying to figure it out before you get onstage, and also doing stuff onstage that fails, too.
LF: That’s why Sketch Up [at Philly Improv Theater] is so great.
AH: Yeah, for stand-up I have open mics. I can go to open mics almost any night a week if I have a new joke and try it out, and it’s less pressure because it’s just an open mic and if it doesn’t go well it’s probably just for other comedians. But with sketch, other than Sketch Up there’s no real way to test stuff. We have a sketch in the show on Wednesday that we just did at Sketch Up because we wanted to see how a crowd would react to it, and it was good because we were able to cut the sketch down and tighten it up.
AZ: When do you feel like a sketch is finished, or in a finished enough state to be presented for your show? Do you feel like a crucial step is getting feedback from an audience and then going back and editing?
AH: Just from watching sketch and being around it, you know the beats of it and you know like an outline…you know where you want the sketch to go and how you kind of want it to end, but I don’t know, as far as knowing when something is completely ready, I never feel like something is completely ready. I hate everything I do [laughs] and I work on it forever.
LF: I feel like a total fraud giving this interview.
AZ: If you hate everything you do, what drives you to keep doing it?
LF: Just a lot of self-hate.
AH: Yeah, I need the self-hate to keep going. Because I need something to hate myself about.
LF: It’s the Dunning-Kruger effect. People who feel they’re really good at something are usually going to be the worst at it, and then the people who [are actually good at something] will never be totally satisfied because they also [know enough about it to know] how much better it can be.
AH: So what we’re trying to say is that we’re really good because we don’t think we’re good. Right?
LF: We’re determined…and it’s nice to have some great sketch comedy in the city to kind of look to. and is something to strive for.
AZ: Are there specific goals that you guys want to reach as Tap City? Or is there just a general sense of always striving to be better?
AH: I don’t know, I don’t think we set any goals other than to just have good shows.
LF: Yeah, the goal was July 25th. And then after that it was kind of…we’ll see what happens. But for me I want to just get stronger as a writer. Get in the habit of writing every day, or more than I already do, and maybe find a style. I feel like every sketch group in the city, the ones that have been around for awhile, all have their own style and voice.
AZ: And you feel like you guys are still working on yours?
LF: Yeah, we have nothing.
AH: We have things that we wrote that we thought were kind of funny, but I don’t feel like there’s a coherent voice yet. And like Luke said, I also want to use it as an opportunity to just make myself write all the time, every day, and to put stuff out in front of people even if it’s just Luke. Even if it’s just sending it to Luke and getting notes and rewriting. I’m not a good rewriter, so that’s something I want to work on. I write something and then I get stuck in it and it’s hard for me to change it.
AZ: This might be a really weird question and might not make any sense, but I’m going to go for it. Is it important that you know a sketch is funny when you’re writing it? I feel like in improv you’re told “don’t chase the laugh,” and just commit to your character and commit to the relationship in the scene, and the humor will come out; you’ll discover the humor or the audience will discover things that they find humorous just because you’re committed and you’re playing the scene. With sketch, do you feel like you could just write a scene, and not necessarily write jokes, and still have it be funny? Or is it more deliberate, that it has to be funny?
AH: I think it deliberately has to be funny. I’ve seen some sketches from groups where it’s like there’s a character sketch and the joke to the audience is supposed to be either you know a person like this or it’s a crazy person and look at how crazy they are, and there’s not a lot of hard jokes in it, and it falls flat. I think for sketch, it has to have jokes in it and it has to be more than just—because there are a lot of funny ideas, but translating it to sketch has to have the jokes. I think I have a lot of funny ideas and premises in my head, but turning them into sketches that are actually funny is the hardest part.
LF: In improv, you might start from a real place and you can get away with that in improv, but I think in sketch you have to heighten it. Yeah, you know somebody like this, but we want to push it to the max.
AH: Yeah, I think in improv you get away with it more, or it’s more acceptable, because you’re making it up. But in sketch, all of the things you’re supposed to be thinking of in improv, like heightening things, or “if this is true, then what else is true,” since you have the time to write that out and actually think of it and prepare, you have to do it. If you don’t necessarily do those things in an improv scene you can get away with being a funny character or working the relationship or the situation and it can be kind of stagnant and not go anywhere and still be funny, but in sketch if you try to do that it’s just…yeah.
LF: I’ve seen a lot of improv shows and been like, “oh that was interesting.” But if I’m seeing sketch I don’t want it to be interesting, I want to think, “oh that was fucking funny.”
AZ: So you can have a good improv scene that isn’t necessarily funny but with sketch it has to be funny.
LF: Ultimately I think the goal in most improv–and I’m sure there will be people who disagree with me–but you’re trying to make the audience laugh. And with sketch it’s even more of that. At least with sketch comedy–I don’t know if sketch really lends itself to tragedy.
AZ: Maybe that could be the niche you guys are looking for.
AH: It’d probably be a lot easier. And we might get more laughs, too. If we’re just being serious, deadpan…I think you just helped us develop our voice.
AZ: So without revealing too much, what kind of things can people expect from you on Wednesday?
LF: You’re going to see two charming, gee whiz, aw shucks fellas do their best, even though they’re green…
AH: Don’t sell us short, Luke!
LF: I think it’s going to be…OK…
AH: Well, what do we expect or what should other people expect? Other people will expect to see a good show from Camp Woods, and a first show from Tap City.
LF: Tap City: We’re first.
AH: Tap City: the openers. But no, I’m excited, I like all of the sketches that we’re doing. They’re all things that we have sort of tested at Sketch Up or other open mics or things that we’ve both taken into the sketch writing classes at PHIT, but a lot of them [aren’t things we’ve performed] with each other, which will be interesting.
LF: I’m just ready to have fun. And until that moment when we get onstage, I’m going to be tearing my hair out in agony, and self doubt, and…
AH: I’m not going to eat, between now and the show.
LF: I just ate my last piece of food, a brownie from Cosi. By the way, plug for Cosi: The brownies are great, you should get the one with cheesecake in it.
AZ: Cosi brownies: the official dessert of Luke Field from Tap City.
LF: I have a lot of official desserts.
AZ: Just send me a list, and we can run it alongside the interview.
See Tap City this Wednesday, July 25th at CAMP WOODS PLUS!, 8:30 pm at L’etage. Tickets are $10 at the door.
When he’s not logging hours as Philly Improv Theater‘s Education Director or piddlin’ away time on conversations with comedy unknowns like Rich Talarico (improviser and writer who’s worked on a bunch of stuff no one’s ever heard of like Saturday Night Live) and Greg Proops (from another show no one’s ever heard of, Whose Line is it Anyway?) for his Gettin Close with Mike Marbach podcast, Mike Marbach‘s other regular gig is producing The Sideshow at The Arts Parlor. We sat down before Mike had to coach a practice for PHIT house team Asteroid (yep, he does that, too) to talk about what goes into producing a successful comedy showcase, and what’s next for Sideshow this season.
Alison Zeidman: How did Sideshow start? Give me the origin story.
Mike Marbach: I [originally] wanted to do it in Chicago. In Chicago I was part of a group called Club Group Team, and we did a form that was very organic, very much like ZaoGao does now, a form called Punchline. And then there was also this form that somebody would do called Kumate, which was an improvised martial arts thing, and then what I wanted to do was have a revolving third spot, which would be something else that was completely different. It wasn’t picked up. So, when I moved to Philly, I still had the idea in mind and because PHIT only has The Shubin two weeks out of every month, and I wanted something to fill that space, because I teach a lot, and I had a lot of students in classes that weren’t seeing shows. There would be some weeks where there were zero improv shows to see, and I hated that. So that’s one of the main reasons I started Sideshow, just to fill the in the gaps between PHIT weeks, so there would be at least one improv show to see each week.
AZ: But the idea is that it’s its own entitity, too, right? It’s not just something to do because you can’t go to PHIT?
MM: Right. It’s not an extension of PHIT. Your [free student] pass is no good at Sideshow. Because one of the other reasons I started it is that I wanted to have a low-cost place that allowed me to just give the money back. I don’t make anything from doing Sideshow. The Arts Parlor costs very little to rent, and then any money above that goes right back to the performers, so it’s pretty much whoever they can get to come out, because I don’t do much in the way of advertising. Actually I didn’t used to, now I’m starting to do a little bit more, becuase of course the more people that come to the show, the more money the performers make.
AZ: So are those the primary goals? More opportunities to be able to see comedy and see improv, and also more opportunities for performers to make a profit?
MM: Yeah, and there’s a few other things to it too. There were groups that were popping up and premiering their act at places like CAGEMATCH or a festival, like the Philly Improv Festival or F Harold Festival or Duofest, and that’s cool and all, but if I was improvising in those gorups I would definitely not want my first show to be in a high-pressure environment such as a festival. I’d much rather do it in a more controlled, fun, supportive environment—not to say that those aren’t, but I mean, you can pack this place with as many people as you want, with your friends, with your family, and you have a lot less control like that at other shows.
AZ: So people can use it as a testing ground.
MM: Yeah. And that was one of the main ideas especially at the start, definitely more experimental. I really envisioned it just being more of a show for performers, rather than a show for anybody else. I didn’t think it would grow the improv scene by any means, I just wanted a place where people could cut loose and do something that was different. Then that started growing pretty fast.
AZ: Have you ever had to turn someone down, if they pitched an act and it was just too weird?
MM: No, nobody’s ever been turned down. People have been postponed, because [it’s become very popular], but I’ve never turned anybody down for it.
AZ: Since it’s an extension of the improv scene and a place to see more performances but also a place for people to workshop things, who would you say is the primary audience? Is it more insular, or open to the general public?
MM: At first the main idea was that it would definitely be an insular show for performers, but even after the first show I quickly learned that that wasn’t really the case. Maybe because of the fact that it all comes down to the money of things, that people know that the more people they bring to the show the more money they walk away with. But we definitely do get a lot of performers too, because as friends of each other we love seeing people step out of their comfort zones and do things that they don’t normally do, or be in a space that they’re not normally in.
AZ: Yeah it’s interesting, whenever I’ve come to a Sideshow it’s always been really packed, even though you’re saying historically you haven’t done too much marketing for it. But you said you’re starting to try to do some more of your own promoting, instead of just leaving it to the performers?
MM: I could, but I kind of like leaving it to the people. I mean I produce the show, and I book the acts with the help of the guys from Beirdo, but it started off mostly just people that were in the shows doing the publicizing, and it kind of remains that way. I like the producing of it, the booking, but beyond that I don’t really want to have that much to do with it. I don’t know, it’s done well so far without me pushing anything: We’ve gotten the attention of different papers, different online blogs and things like that, and we’ve been able to do partnerships with Troika that have been really successful…plus, there’s only so many chairs.
AZ: Can you talk a little more about what really goes into putting on your own show? What you’ve learned, or maybe what advice you might give to somebody who wanted to start their own thing?
MM: Find a place that’s cheap enough, because there may be nights when you’re not going to make the rent. Don’t pick a place where you’re going to consistently lose money—and that’s where the Parlor’s been fantastic.
AZ: How did you find this place?
MM: Asteroid has practiced here weekly for about two years, and there was a group I used to coach called Leo Callahan who used to do shows here about once a month before they split, so I just kind of picked it up after they were done. Um…what else…ask admission. Ask people to pay for your shows. Free shows are cool, but I really feel that what we do has value, and maybe I’m only putting the value of $5 on it, but that’s also because I want it to be super accessible. Plus it fits the space. This isn’t a theater; this is a converted, sweaty dance studio. And really think about what kind of show you ‘re trying to put on. Think about if you want to do a variety show, or if you really just want to do an improv show. And vary up the acts within that as well. On Sideshow I’m not going to book three duos in a row, not just because duos can bring in less people—that’s one of the reasons, sure—but also because I wouldn’t want to sit and watch three duos in a row. And just make sure it’s a good show, make sure it looks good. People that know me know that I’m very big on dress code. I’m not asking people to wear suits and ties when they come to a Sideshow show, but I want them to step up, I guess. Make it a production, just raise the production value. I have to do whatever I can do because of the fact that this is a sweaty dance studio, so I want to make sure that that atmosphere of a show overtakes the crappiness of the space.
AZ: Do you have any tips for somebody else who might be dealing with a crappy space? Does that come in with lighting, or hosting, or…?
MM: Yeah, hosting is huge. Make sure people can host. I’m not a good host, which is part of the reason why I don’t want to be up there. And look at what you can do with the space. If you can clean it up, clean it up. If you can flip some things around and make it so you can control the lights, do that. When they were doing shows in here before, there were no blackouts, everybody ended their own shows. I’m very big on light pulls, when I’m doing a show, [because] my sense of timing in a show is not good, and I don’t want to have that worry. So do what you can do with the space that way, as well.
AZ: What do you mean? Did you guys get the circuits moved or something?
MM: [Laughs] No, we just moved the space. Like when you look into the room, where the curtains are [on the side], that’s anticipated as the stage. And they have like six lighting switches on the far back wall [on the same side as the curtains], so we changed it so that when you walk in, all the chairs are facing the front [and then we have access to the light switches]. And I block the windows during the summer so that the sun doesn’t come in, and I have just the front two lights on. It’s a very cheap way to go about doing it, but when you walk in you wouldn’t really know that it’s a cheap way to go about doing it, you’re not thinking about it, it just looks better than it really is.
AZ: So you said you’re trying to be hands-off with marketing and not really trying to make the show appeal to outside audiences, but it does seem like there’s a lot of thought and professionalism being put into this. Is that just because this is the way you want your show and these are your personal standards, or do you feel at any level that you have to compete with what else is out there?
MM: No, I’m not really trying to compete at all. It’s just something that kind of now has…it’s just kind of associated with me, so I just want it to be as good as it can be. When I say I’m hands-off for the most part, that’s the night of. But leading up to that I do everything I can to make sure the show is going to be good. And even though I say I don’t really do any marketing stuff I do make all the Facebook pages, and I contact different news people out there from time to time to try and get some things, but beyond that, not too much more.
AZ: We already covered this a little bit with the mission of the show and the benefits it has for performers, but is there anything you feel sets Sideshow apart from other shows in the city, even if you’re not necessarily trying to compete with them? Something that’s just a different element that you have, from the audience’s viewpoint?
MM: It’s going to be a well-balanced show. You’re going to see at least three different acts, whether that’s a stand-up, a sketch and an improv group, or three very different improv groups, you’re going to get a good sampling of comdy that night. There’s going to be something that you like. And it’s just the atmosphere in that room, in that sweaty dance studio, when it becomes Sideshow, which is so extremely supportive of people. We’ve had different teams debut there, we’ve had teams debut new forms there, and the mood is just kind of electric.
AZ: And where did the name come from? There are a lot of things that I could guess contributed to it, but is there an official backstory?
MM: Well, the original main idea was to show acts that you weren’t really going to see anywhere else, lots of new or weird things, almost like a carnival sideshow. People doing things they wouldn’t normally do, types of improv you wouldn’t normally see. Just weird concept things that people just wouldn’t be able to do anywhere else, that maybe aren’t quite right for PHIT.
AZ: Do you have an example?
MM: A lot of the Troika stuff. Troika in general—a lot of those things tend to be more concept-heavy, so that turned out to be perfect for Sideshow. So yes, it just goes back to seeing weird and different things. Which I’m still looking for. It’s not necessarily the prime directive anymore, so much as just giving people just another space to perform, and just making sure there’s a show once a week. We’ve been on a long hiatus because I also don’t want to take away from any shows that are happening. So when F Harold was going on I canceled a show, then PHIT had six weeks of shows, then we had Duofest, then more PHIT weeks, but now we’re back. And we’ve got the show this Saturday which I’m calling Short Attention Span Theater. You get up to 15 minutes to do whatever the hell you want to do. If you want to spin plates you can spin plates. If you always wanted to do a one-person improv set, or attempt stand-up, sing a song, whatever people want to do, they can do it.
AZ: What do you have scheduled as of right now?
MM: Right now it’s a little improv-heavy. I’m reaching out trying to get people to really vary up what we’re doing, to make sure we have some of that balance I was talking so much about.
AZ: From purely a producer’s standpoint, other than just scrambilng to fill in more acts right now, has there been any big challenge, or something that went wrong, that was a good learning experience? Or just a fun disaster story?
MM: Um, hm….not really. I guess I’ve been kind of lucky with things. It’s a very well-liked show, and there haven’t really been any problems.
AZ: How about any favorite moments?
MM: I’ve seen a lot of teams have their best shows here, which is awesome to be able to say.
AZ: Do you think that comes from the low-pressure environment?
MM: Yeah, I think that’s definitely one of the reasons, plus they get a crowd that’s full of people that they are bringing, so it’s all people who are there to support them. One of the days, if I remember the date exactly, it was November 18th, 2011—
Luke Field [coming in for Asteroid rehearsal]: Never forget.
MM: Yes, never forget. Iron Lung was debuting, there was the team Bed Savage having their first show, Get a Room also performed, and I think maybe Kristen [Schier] was doing some clowning. And there were about 100 or so people, and each team walked away with $85, and that was just the icing on the cake, because each team had awesome shows, in front of a fantastic crowd. So that was one of my favorite moments. Plus all of Troika, and I’m sure this Saturday and all of the rest that we’ll have will also be favorite moments.
AZ: Anything new that you’re planning for this season? It sounds like you’re really trying to push people to experiment.
MM: Yeah. We did a one-act play, Hidden in This Picture, which I directed last year, and this year I want to get some plays written by Philly people. That one was written by Aaron Sorkin, but I want to get some more original stuff so that we put on plays that were written, directed and performed by Philly comedians. So that’s one big goal this year to finally make happen, and also just to continue to put on some well-balanced shows and watch people continue to learn and grow. And to do whatever I can to keep Luke Field out of here.
LF: Did you get that on tape? He’s out to get me.
Look for updates on The Sideshow at http://www.facebook.com/#!/SideShowImprov and see the first show of the season TONIGHT (July 14th) at The Arts Parlor, 1170 South Broad Street (at Federal Street). As always, the show is just $5.
To teenage girls, they’re The Beatles. To Hasidic Jews, they’re lobsters wrapped in bacon burning Israeli flags and eating cheeseburgers. To us, they’re Gross Butler. They’re not trying to offend you; they’re just gonna fuck with you a little bit. And in the end, they really just want to rock your face and steal your heart.
Alison Zeidman: How did you guys meet, and then how did you decide to form your duo?
Alex Gross: Like a year ago Greg [Maughan] would just ask me to ask improvisers to do a show that was supposed to never be seen again, just on Sundays if he needed a group to perform. And so the one day he asked me on Sunday, and I texted about fifteen people, and they all told me maybe, except for Mike; he was like, “YES I’ll do it!”
Mike Butler: I think it was the Saturday before, he asked me. And I don’t know how long before that Greg told you to put together a group. I just assumed that he told you earlier in the week and you just decided on Saturday to start putting it together.
AG: No it was definitely that Saturday, that day.
MB: So Alex said do you want to be in a group, and I said fine, because I knew Alex from Incubator. And he had seen my [PHIT] 101 show earlier in that year as well.
AZ: So you guys did that show together, and just decided to keep going?
AG: Yeah, it was actually a really really good show because uh…yeah, I was just really surprised and Greg was surprised, and we had this sixteen-year-old girl in the audience who was just non-stop laughing. And I was just like, OK, that’s our basic dmeographic.
AZ: Is that semi-serious? Do you guys cater to maybe…a less mature audience?
MB: Oh no, actually our stuff really is mature, a lot of people enjoy it, but on some level I guess sixteen year-olds do really like it. Though Greg told us that at our first performance, there were four Hasidic Jews who had come to the Shubin to see the show, and then walked out in the middle of our performance.
AG: Like the second scene in!
AZ: Can you think of what you might have said or done that would have made them leave?
AG: We were going very religion-heavy at some point.
MB: I thought it was the scene where we were in prison and you peed on me.
AG: That might actually have been it.
MB: And they just kind of walked out, and they didn’t take their money back either. So we have that distinction: Our first performance ever, four Hasidic Jews walked out.
AZ: Is that typical for you guys, to have scenes that are more controversial, or maybe even vulgar at times?
AG: I think it’s a lot about how the audience is responding. Because we’re definitely very much reliant on the audience.
MB: Overall, it’s not like we go out and say, “hey, we’re gonna have the dirtiest show ever.” It’s just our personalities, and we just go wherever it takes us.
AG: Yeah, I don’t think we try to be dirty. I think our show is just dirty because we’re dirty people.
MB: And if you try to be dirty you’re going to fail at it; it’s going to seem forced. But if you’re just naturally…
AG: Fucked up.
MB: I wouldn’t say dirty or fucked up. I like to say aggressive.
AZ: Can you explain what you mean by that?
MB: Usually you see an improv show and if stuff starts to get dirty or raunchy, that wipe comes through, and with us we take the scene for another two or three minutes.
AG: Yeah we’re very patient. The majority of our shows are all five- to six-minute scenes.
MB: We’re lucky if we get to go back to our earlier scenes.
AZ: Do you guys follow a specific format?
MB: We don’t necesarrily have a format. We just start doing scenes and then if we feel like it we go back to an earlier scene.
AG: I feel like the one thing I want from this group is–Philadelphia is very fast. A majority, like my team Hey Rube, we play patient in the beginning but it’s still not long enough. I like to do slow improv, so the one thing I wanted from Mike and I was just to do like five- to six-minute scenes. So that’s our format; we just want to do long scenes. And that’s the only thing that I can say our format is, just being patient.
MB: Yeah, we’re very patient. We just take scenes and go right up to their logical end, even if there’s something dirty in a scene, it isn’t over. It’s like no, we’re going to explore that some more.
AZ: And can you talk about your Krav Maga-inspired inspired opening?
AG: One night I was at home and I was reading an interview with The Vines, and when they were a shitty band and they were just starting out, most of their shows would end with all the bandmates just getting in fistfights, and the audience loved it. And I was like man, I want to get in a fistfight! And so I just was like oh, I’ll do that with Mike, forgetting that he’s trained in MMA.
MB: Yeah, he messaged me at work one day and says “Hey Mike, do you own boxing gloves?” And I said “why yes I do, why?” “I wanna do something where we start off the show boxing each other. ” And I’m like, “OK, that’s fine,” and we worked out how it would work, where we do the clover leaf while we’re punching each other, and I’m like, “OK great, which show do you want to do this on, Tuesday night? Usually I can’t do Tuesday night because I have Israeli Krav Maga class, but that’s fine.” And then he Wikipediaed it really quickly and said “oh my god, you’re a killing machine!”
AG: It’s awful, I hate it. There’s nothing like getting to your first scene and you’re already out of breath and your face hurts.
AZ: So you guys are really boxing each other?
AG: Oh he hits me pretty fucking hard.
MB: I hit him hard enough. I don’t want him to be knocked out and then I have to do the rest of the show alone. But we’re not tapping each other. I’m looking to put a little mustard on each punch and let him feel it, and the crowd gets into it because apparently everybody loves watching Alex get punched.
AG: The first part of the clover leaf is just like warming up, the second one’s really
vicious, and then the third one I’m losing my breath, my face hurts, and most of the time
by the third one my helmet’s ripped off.
MB: Yes, I provide him with a helmet, because I’m used to getting punched in the face and he’s not. So by that third one he’s forgetting the words and I have to remind him which word we’re on.
AZ: So it sounds like even during that you’re still very supportive of each other: You’re helping him remember words, you’re offering him a helmet. What other things, once you get into the meat of your show with scenes, do you think make you guys a good pair?
AG: I like to throw like curve balls–and just for the record we do shows way better when we’re not fighting each other at the beginning, because I sort of…nothing’s like doing an improv scene where your whole left side hurts, and you’re just sort of like fuck you, Mike. I don’t want to be onstage with you anymore, I fucking do not feel like doing this anymore.
MB: But yeah, he likes throwing me curve balls. At our last Grape Room show we were doing a father son bonding scene and he’s like, “yeah, now give me fifty pushups!” and I proceeded to do fifty push-ups onstage, with everybody counting.
AG: And me shooting my hunting rifle in the air. A funny thing about that, it shows you that in improv it’s not all about comedy, it’s just doing the task at hand. You “yes, and”-ed my fifty push-ups, and it ended with the whole crowd fucking applauding the shit out of you for like thirty seconds. They fucking loved the shit out of you after that.
AZ: Is that a recurring thing for you guys, to set your partner up in a scene for something that’s going to be challenging, and maybe even impossible? Is that a conscious game, or does that just happen?
AG: It just happens.
MB: Yeah I don’t think we try, it’s just the way we were trained. I took [PHIT] 201 with Mike Marbach and the main thing I took out of that class was, as Mike would say, “go out on stage and fuck with people.” And that just means go out and have fun with your partner, have fun with your team.
AG: I also know that Mike isn’t going to bail on an idea. If I tell him to be King Tut, he’s gonna be the best King Tut that he can be, and that’s really good. It shows….definitely shows a certain kind of maturity. A lot of [beginner] improv students, you’ll tell them to do something, and they’re so self-conscious, that they’ll either be a really shitty King Tut or they’ll just be like, “I’m not King Tut, I’m an astronaut!” [It’s like saying] fuck you man, I hate your decision. And Mike always accepts it, no matter what.
AZ: Are there any challenges that you feel in performing, either just by the very nature of being in a duo, or for your duo specifically?
MB: The challenging thing about being in a duo is you’re in every scene; you’re always working. I think being in a group, if you’re on the side you can pick up patterns or little extra things more easily, but then when you’re in a duo you’re doing everything at once. But that’s what makes being in a duo fun. And I guess that’s why we have Duofest.
AZ: What are you guys looking forward to about this upcoming duofest?
AG: Free shit. T-shirts. Drink tickets at the bar.
MB: I wanna rock peoples’ faces. I want people coming out of our show going “yeah, fuck yeah, I like these guys.”
AG: Yeah, it’s nice [to be a part of it]. I tried to get into the first Duofest and I didn’t get in, and it’s nice getting into this one, and I appreciate all of the producers for picking us. But it’s just another show. It’s not like I’m more nervous to do this show than any other. Just time to play.
MB: Yeah. Just go out and have fun, just go out and play. That’s what Kristin Schier taught me in [PHIT] 101. So go out and play….go out and fuck with people…and now in the 301 class [with Greg Maughan], don’t throw chairs.
Full disclosure: The members of this duo were interviewed separately because Greg Maughan was busy prepping for Duofest and running our dearly beloved Philly Improv Theater, and Michael McFarland was busy with moving, starting a new job, getting married in the near future, and other grown-up things. I’ve Frankensteined their answers together here, and you can just use your mind thoughts to picture the two of ’em sittin’ ’round a table, gabbin’ ’bout ‘prov and maybe sharin’ some snacks.
Alison Zeidman: How did you two meet?
Greg Maughan: Mike and I met for the first time in a workshop taught by Matt Holmes in 2005, and afterwards we sat down to talk about an improv group Mike was trying to start. Flash forward a few months and things came together to form a group called Industrial.
AZ: And then how did you decide to form your duo?
Michael McFarland: I moved to New York from Philadelphia about six or seven years ago, and then Jonathan Pitss and I, who runs the Chicago Improv Festival, stayed at Greg’s house during some improv festival in Philadelphia. I think it was during Duofest. And I was like screaming at Greg and drunkenly demanding that he get me food, and Jonathan was like “hey, you guys should do a duo,” and about six months later we decided to do it.
AZ: How long have you been performing as your duo?
GM: Just over a year, although we have performed together for just about 7 years at this point in various groups.
AZ: Where did the name “Michael Loves Greg” come from?
MM: I guess I always threaten to have sex with Greg, and I don’t want it to be…I want him to think it came from a place of love and not just lust. And we also thought on another side of it, after that, that it’s fun to explore the concept of love. Like the name’s open for interpretation: Does Greg love me back? Or am I just obsessed with him? What kind of love do I have for him? Is it as a brother, is it as a friend, is it as a lover? Am I deranged and think I love him but I really just want to get with him? It could be a lot of different things. It’s just a fun concept, and we like to explore the word “love” through our shows.
AZ: Do you perform a specific format?
GM: Not really. We tend to ask the audience for something they love, then maybe interview the person we get the suggestion from a little bit… and then promptly forget everything and just launch into a show. If there’s any underlying format it’s probably that Mike pushes to places he knows I’ll be uncomfortable with and then I get to deal with them.
AZ: Greg, what do you think are Mike’s greatest strengths as a performer?
GM: Mike is just naturally funny–he’s the type of guy you can point at and say “be funny!” and he’ll actually say something funny. He’s also really relentless, he just keeps coming at you in a scene and building the stakes or increasing the tension. It’s really easy to play with him onstage, because if I’m not having a great scene he can always turn it around.
AZ: And Mike, what do you like about Greg as an improviser?
MM: Greg is constantly aware of what my state is and what I’m doing, and if I’m not doing it he’ll do it. If there’s something that needs to be done in the scene and I’m not doing it for some reason or not feeling up to it, he does it. And if I’m exra energetic he’ll lay back and let that extra energy come out of me and then respond to it, and justify it.
AZ: What do you think makes you two work well as a duo?
GM: Honestly, I think it’s just a lot of shared history and trust between us. You have to trust that your scene partner is going to make you look good, and then you have to know your partner so you can tee things up for them. We can do both those things. We’re also very different players. I’m more of a slow burn, and less obvious. Mike likes to put it all out there. It’s a nice ying and yang.
MM: I think it’s a very honest show. I think that we both try and really be as honest as we can in our improv. I use a lot of personal life experiences to guide what my characters do, and I think that Greg does that as well. I also think Greg’s [personality is] a little bit more reserved, just in general, and a little bit more clean-cut and kind of wholesome, and I’m very gregarious; I like to talk about everything, and be very even like, shocking on purpose. So I think onstage it’s really fun to see the contrast of those two personalities, where we’ll always find a common bond for our characters. It’s fun to see two different perspectives be in the same situation onstage.
AZ: What do you like and/or dislike about performing with a duo, as opposed to a team?
GM: Well, I think it’s the same answer for like and dislike: the challenge. When you’ve got a duo you are in every scene and you have to carry the show. It’s really exciting when it’s working, but it’s torture when it isn’t.
MM: Performing with a duo is really great because as a performer, I love stage time, and I love to be out there. And when you have six or eight people you have to share the stage with them, which is just what you do, but with two people you’re in every scene. I’m a big attention whore and it’s just a huge rush to be up there and have every scene involve you. It’s also easier to organize with one person.
AZ: Can you tell me a favorite moment you’ve had as a duo, onstage or off?
GM: Last summer Mike and I got pretty drunk at the Baltimore Improv Festival and he started begging me to take him to a strip club–actually a whole area of strip clubs just off the inner Harbor called “The Block.” He had just recently gotten engaged, and I have never set foot inside a strip club… so I didn’t want to go, and kept giving him drinks at the bar we were visiting until I knew the clubs were all closed. Then we got in a cab and went down there. It was a madhouse. People were everywhere milling around in the street, and there were probably a hundred cops in the three blocks just pushing everyone towards the bus stops, parking lots, etc.
MM: I think we actually just got sandwiches and went back to our hotel room.
AZ: And to close, what are you most looking forward to and/or least looking forward to about Duofest?
GM: Well I’m most looking forward to our show, of course! I’m also looking forward to seeing a lot of friends from all over the country and having the time to hang out with them. Festivals are kind of like weekend-long parties and that is always a lot of fun. But I am certainly not looking forward to the lack of sleep… that will be rough come Monday.
MM: Duofest is great because the audiences are so enthusiastic. And it’s really fun because most of the duos are very close friends, and there’s a really nice bond between all of the groups in general.
Half-Life is Steve Kleinedler and Nathan Edmondson, two seasoned improvisers playing two scotch-drinking secret agents. They don’t get drunk onstage. They don’t give each other notes. They did not meet in a bathhouse. But they do have a subtitle (full name: Half-Life: Requiem for the Cold War).
Alison Zeidman: How did you guys meet?
Nathan Edmondson: It was at a bathhouse.
Steve Kleinedler: No. At the the Philly Improv Festival. That was the first time I saw you onstage.
NE: The first time we hung out though, it was after that one Troika.
SK: So we’ll back up. Besides the bathhouse. Did not happen. I saw him perform at a festival, and about a year and a half later some of my troupe in Boston came out to do a one-off Troika night. It was one Philly person and one Boston person and one out-of-town person, and I was on a team with whoever and he was on a team with one of my teammates, and that’s where we met.
AZ: And when did you decide to form Half-Life?
NE: Well Steve moved from Boston to Philadelphia 13 months ago, and Greg had him shadow my [PHIT 201] class, which was kind of funny.
SK: Yeah. I’d been teaching in Boston for seven years and I was gonna teach here. So the first class i shadowed him just because it’s a different curriculum and everything.
NE: So we did that, and about halfway through we decided to do a rehearsal and then we did a show as—what was it, Kleinedmondson?
SK: Yes. Kleinedmondson(sinjin). It’s a reference to A Fish Called Wanda. Anyhow. We did that rehearsal where we were just dicking around after class, and we did a show, and we realized that a lot of our scene work had in common this sort of Twilight Zone element..like we’re being watched, or there’s an “others” quality to it.
NE: They were really serious. And some of the shows we did there would be some of that spy element, kind of. And then we actually had an espionage scene. It just happened and then Steve called me one day and said I know what we should be doing instead of this show that isn’t really working yet.
SK: I identified—and this is what I would do with any troupe that asked me to direct them. I see what they do and then I identify their strong points and base the show around them. Obviously our strong point was this espionage style thing. So we developed this format around that.
AZ: Can you describe your format?
NE: Steve’s smart, and I’m kind of stupid, and we’re both spies, in the Cold War era. It’s pretty much a monoscene.
SK: We get from the audience an event that happened during the Cold War. It can be a real political thing, or—this hasn’t happened yet, although we allow it to be like, “oh my grandfather got married,” or anything. We take that and we put ourselves in that situation, and go from there.
NE: Another thing that’s fun about the way we’ve been doing this is we always play the same two characters, so any backstory that develops, we try to hang onto it.
AZ: How do you keep track of that?
SK: You just do.
NE: Steve remembers everything.
SK: But it’s basic stuff.
NE: But it helps us because it gives us stuff to pull form.
SK: He has a wife named Sheila who he fools around on.
NE: Yeah and I have a kid. Although we’ve never decided if that was a boy or a girl.
SK: So yeah, every show builds on the other, and they’ve been really well received.
NE: Yeah, they’ve been really fun. And we drink whiskey during it. Scotch?
NE: We drink scotch.
AZ: Can you explain that decision?
NE: Well, I think Steve had the vision of us just being onstage in a spotlight. If we were to produce it on our own it’d be like a dark stage with us in a spotlight. Not a lot of movement. So we started the show with the idea that we’re just standing there, and I think we did a rehersal where we just had drinks in our hands?
SK: I think so.
NE: But it fit. It made sense to the era.
AZ: Are you drinking enough alchohol to impede your abilities onstage?
SK: It’s real alcohol, but over the course of a show, it’s maybe a shot.
NE: Maybe two shots.
SK: At most, but over twenty-five minutes. And we start completely sober.
AZ: So drinking isn’t a pre-show ritual. Are there any others?
NE: We go to a bathhouse. Nah, we don’t really do anything. We dress up. We wear ties.
SK: We wanted to go with the black and white look. The footage we’ve shot for the web is black and white, just because it evokes that era. And a shirt and tie…
NE: We’re just like company men, from the ’50s and ’60s. But no, we don’t really have any pre-show rituals.
SK: We don’t even warm up. We just hang out and connect. When you find the right scene partner and it just kind of clicks, the warm-up comes from us knowing each other, and our weekly banter whenever we see each other.
NE: And in shows where things didn’t feel like they were going well, I’ve noticed it’s because we aren’t looking at each other or checking in. As soon as we actually look at each other, and make eye contact, it’s like oh fuck, ok, it’s easy. And the show gets better.
AZ: Do you guys have any sense of what’s behind that connection? Or specific strengths that you each have that make the two of you a good fit?
SK: I think it’s idiosyncratic. I think it’s just the personalities.
NE: Yeah, I think we complement each other well. I ‘m not a total idiot, but Steve knows so much factual information, it’s mind-blowing, and I don’t remember that kind of stuff, so he’s kind of the brain of the group, and—
SK: He’s the sex symbol.
NE: [Laughs] Yes, I’m the sex symbol. Embarrassing. But yeah, it’s a good dynamic, because I personally always love the “Joey” character from any show, the dumb guy, so this is my opportunity to play that. Although I wouldn’t say that my character’s totally dumb.
AZ: It seems like you guys have given a lot of thought to this act conceptually, visually…have you thought about doing something more with it, doing a Fringe show, or something like that?
SK: Well we’re doing Duofest, and we’ve applied to Baltimore and Detroit. We’ll apply to some other things. We’ve done some web shorts.
NE: I would like to do more of those, too. We’ll probably get two or three videos out of our first footage.
SK: I live in a loft building, so we spent a day there.
NE: We shot like twenty-five minutes of footage, and we’ve just been mining it for little thirty-second skits.
AZ: You’ve both had the experience of being on a duo and also on a team. Can you talk about things that you prefer about being in a duo, and/or things that you dont like as much about being in a duo, if there are any?
SK: It sounds silly, but honestly it’s huge: Logistically, it is so much easier to arrange stuff when you only have to deal with one other person instead or five or six other people.
NE: From rehearsals, to who’s in the next scene.
SK: I’ve been in a fair number of troupes, and I love them dearly, but when there’s a lot of people you have to take all these schedules into account. On the flip side, I know I have a very narrow range. I’m primarily a teacher and a director. One reason I like Half-Life is the character I play is about the only character I can play. That’s not exactly true, but it’s close enough.
NE: Well it’s playing to your strength. And it works really well.
SK: So in that regard, something like this suits me better than a team that is doing montages. I think what’s key for any improviser is to find a group that plays to your strengths, and the fewer the number of people in the cast, the more you have to find a structure that plays to your strengths.
NE: Yeah. And just to go back a little bit, I don’t think we responded to [your earlier question] much, we did think about what the show was going to be like. There was a lot of thought put into it over a long period of time.
SK: Our first rehearsal was last summer, and then we goofed around for a couple months before we had a show.
NE: As soon as we had a concept that fit, it made everything so easy. And I think it’s good to put that work in for groups, like, “what are we doing? what are we trying to accomplish?” It’s just easier.
AZ: How much time do you guys spend discussing things and working out details for the show?
SK: For regular shows and festivals and stuff, it’s just taking into account what space we’re in, and making tweaks, but as we’ve done it the show has been tweaked here and there, and before the first show we did a couple rehearsals where we would just run twenty minute scenes and see how it felt, and we would just try different techniques. Originally we were going to have a certain number of flashbacks done in a certain style, and it’s kind of morphed into this thing where there’s probably one flashback in a twenty-minute scene.
NE: Every show we learn, and we talk about it right afterwards.
AZ: Can that be difficult, when you’re sort of directing your own show and maybe even critiquing each other’s performance?
SK: A lot of people in the community have heard me rail against improv troupes that don’t have a director or a coach, and as a general rule I think that’s absolutely [necessary]. Improv groups need a coach. This is a little different. You have a little more leeway when it’s a two-person show I think, because when you get more than two people a tiny bit of ego gets in the way, whereas when you’re paired up with someone you work well with that’s less of an issue. And I’ve done this long enoguh that I kind of have a sense about what we’re doing. I still encourage people to have coaches, but I’m just not following my own advice. And we don’t really give each other notes. We talk about what we like and what didn’t work and we’re usually in agreement.
NE: I think also, we’re very self-critical. So we’re giving ourselves notes constantly. A lot of the note-giving is me talking about my stuff, and then him giving response, gauging whether my interpretation of what happened is right or not.
SK: And vice versa. I’ve been doing this off and on for thirty years, and after about the ten-year point, things just kind of click in a way, and then after you start directing and teaching it clicks even more, and the more you direct and the more you teach, the easier your work becomes.
NE: And also at a certain point you realize if you get your hands too much in it, you’re just gonna screw it up. You just have to let it breathe and let it happen.
SK: And that’s what I do when I direct groups too, or scripted plays. I just come up with a format and let them loose. After the first table read I get them up ontage with a script and have them move around and I write down what they do, and a lot of that works its way into my blocking. So I guess I’m giving myself—oh no, I’m not going to say that, that sounds so pretentious.
NE: Giving yourself a blowjob?
SK: No, giving myself the trust that I give other actors.
NE: Oh OK. That is pretty pretentious.
AZ: So just to wrap up, what are you guys looking forward to about Duofest?
SK: I did Duofest two years ago [when I still lived in Boston], and it’s a lot of fun, and there’s a lot of really great groups, and it’s nice to be in Philly representing Philly.
NE: I’m looking forward to being interviewed by WitOut. And I’ve missed every Duofest, because I’ve been either out of town or had other commitments, so I’m looking forward to just seeing shows, and being a part of it. And I like that it’s specific. Are there other Duofests?
SK: No. There are so many improv festivals, but this is something—every city has a festival, but this is a very specific thing unique to Philly.
NE: And duos are an important part of the improv world, so I think people that do them appreciate it. I think it becomes this thing that happens to most improvisers if they stick with it, so it’s a different kind of show than a group of even three or four. It’s a whole other entity. It’s nothing really special, but it’s something.
In the year 2007, during a great time of growth for the Philadelphia improv scene, one man set out on a mission to team up in one-off shows with as many of the city’s players as possible. By 2008, subconsciously fueled by short form improv experience and a particular Andy Kaufman performance he’d obsessed over in his youth, that man decided to forge a more challenging show partnership: scenes with audience members encountering him–and improv–for the very first time. The name of that man is Matt Holmes, and the name of his “duo” is Matt&.
Alison Zeidman: For people who aren’t familiar what you do, can you explain what Matt& is?
Matt Holmes: It’s a show that I do with an audience member, and I try to look for somebody who is not a performer themselves. I usually ask if there is anybody there seeing improv for the very first time ever. And then I pull them up onstage.
AZ: Is it sometimes difficult to get them to go up there with you?
MH: The rest of the audience tends to overzealously cheer them on as soon as the concept is brought up, so there’s only been once or twice where the person has been really like oh, no, I don’t want to, or just flat out refused. Then I bring them up onstage and I tell them that the responsibility is all on me for making it all work, and they have free reign to do and say whatever they want, and to purposefully try to mess me up if they want to. Then that gives me the opportunity to show off my skills and make things that for any other improv group might be sort of a stumbling block or a challenge into something impressive.
AZ: Is there a specific format that you follow for these shows?
MH: By the very nature of how it works I sort of have to be flexible, and I kind of prefer to work that way. I’ve been in a bunch of different groups and projects before, and I’m always the one who wants to keep it less rigid. So with this show even if I tried to have an idea sketched out of [how I’ll do scenes], it’s probably not going to work out that way anyway. So sometimes it’s just scene after scene with whatever pops up into my head, and sometimes it’s more like a Harold where things will come back or there’ll be patterns, but I really have to not be too precious about format.
AZ: When you’re doing these shows, do you feel more or less in control than when you’re doing a show with an actual improv group? On the one hand it’s so loose and you’re with this person who’s never done a show before, and you can’t really follow a format, but on the other hand being the only experienced performer onstage means you can drive the scenes and drive the action.
MH: Yeah, that’s one of the many dichotomies that I think is present in my show, is…maybe more than any show I’ve done, it’s exhilirating and a challenge and I still get nervous and find it thrilling, but at the same time I’m more relaxed when I’m actually doing it and it’s working and things are just falling into place. So yeah, it’s kind of yes and no, I’m both in control and allowing myself to be not in control.
AZ: Are there specific things that you like or dislike about performing with an audience member versus being in a larger improv group? You started to get into that with how you prefer the looser format, but are there any other things where having half of your group being inexperienced gives you more freedom?
MH: Yeah, I think it really falls right into place with how I like to work. I’m kind of a stage hog. I like to be out a lot when I’m in a group, and in this show I’m in every scene. And I’m not always as good at supporting other peoples’ ideas and playing well with others in any other show, but in Matt& I have to. I have to take whatever this audience member brings and utilize it. And it works best that way.
AZ: Can you think of any other ways in which performing with Matt& has enhanced your improv skills in general? It sounds like it forces you to be more agreeable and be more supportive of your scene partner. Are there any other things where you’ve really noticed it improving your skills, and where you ‘ve been able to bring back some of those things to your group performances?
MH: I think it’s helped me be truly relaxed and flexible as a performer, and also be more confident and personable hosting and introducing a show, and talking with somebody not as a character beforehand, and then playing with them and helping them through what can be kind of an awkward situation for them.
AZ: So in general, you’re more comfortable being a character in a show setting than you are being yourself?
MH: Yeah. [Laughs.] I’m not nervous at all about being in some embarrassing situation. One time I had to kind of improvise a song, one time I had to improvise a poem as a gym teacher, you know, weird, awkward, embarrrasssing things. That doesn’t bother me, because it’s not me. It’s just some weird character, so I sort of get to lose myself and hide behind that. But hosting and talking to the crowd after and being myself, that’s more of a challenge for me. And I think probably for a lot of performers, in all art forms.
AZ: Is this a little bit uncomfortable for you now, speaking about yourself and your own performance?
MH: Well no, I’m getting better at it now, from having to do it at the begining of each Matt& show. I’ve had some shows where the audience member kind of demands that we stop playing as a character for a bit, and get back to the one-on-one interview part as ourselves. There was one show I did when Penn State had an improv festival, and I got an audience member, and it started off like all Matt& shows start off, with “who am I?” and “who are you?” and getting to know each other, and then we got into a scene and that was over, and I wanted to get into another scene and play another character, and she wanted to get back to interviewing each other. So It sort of became that pattern of I have to be myself again, now I get to do a scene, now we have to be ourselves again, now we get to do a scene. And that became this great challenge where at the end I kind of wove those together into her playing my therapist, and working in factors of my own life, and the whole audience got on board with why that was so interesting, because everything that was in the show led up to it.
AZ: When you do the interview with the audience member, is that how you usually generate your material for the scenes to come, or do you get a suggestion from the audience once you have your partner up there with you?
MH: I’ll always get a one-word sgugestion to inspire the show just because I like that aspect of improv. I like exploring the scene or disecting a word or whatever that word leads to, but sometimes elements from interviewing my partner will come back later or I’ll use them. A lot of times I don’t, but it’s always good for a laugh and interesting to the scene when I do.
AZ: Has an audience member ever taken you by surprise with their adaptability, or have they ever just displayed some sort of surprising inherent improv skill, even if they’re just getting up there for the first time?
MH: Yeah, surprise is probably a big, big part of my show. Me being surprised to have to play with somebody who’s really hesitant at first, and then the surprise when they start playing along and offering things. Surprise when somebody leaves the stage and I have to figure out what that means for the story, and how to work that. That’s happened a lot.
AZ: Do they come back after they leave?
MH: One time I brought them back, and one time I kind of worked it in like I was yelling up at them in the balcony of their window, kind of a Romeo and Juliet serenade thing, and then I ended the set after that scene instead of trying to convince her to come back onstage. But yeah in terms of being surprised at how good they are, that happens a lot more than you would think. I’ve had people have these great insights into a cultural reference that we’re bringing, where they’ll bring back stuff the way that a really good improviser will, or they’ll make these jokes that you’d swear they had written beforehand. There are a lot of great surprises. The one that stands out because it’s such a “joke,” is when I was at the Del Close Marathon, my first time performing Matt& there, and the show was going really well. I was really pleased with how well it was going, and then at a certain point my audience member partner, who was not a performer and hadn’t taken an improv class or anything like that, brought up the concept of if you were to rape a prostitute, would it be rape or would it be theft? And it got this huge laugh. Afterwards I went and Googled to see if that was from some movie or TV show, but I think that, you know, it somehow came up in the story, and I think she just said it off the cuff, and it was great.
Dutiful fans of Philly’s favorite pair of half-Italians prone to playful bickering and off-beat tangents braved Monday night’s drizzle for the premiere of The Grimacchio Variety Hour, and the dynamic duo (Jason Grimley and Ralph Andracchio) did not disappoint.
The lovely Sue & Cait (caitblack.com) opened the show on acoustic bass and ukulele, respectively, with Sue jangling the jingle bells around her ankle in time to to the music while Cait crooned silky, smokey vocals into the old timey microphone at center stage.
After two songs, Grimacchio strolled out from behind the curtain—dressed in suits for the occasion—to applaud the two ladies, compliment Cait’s gold shoes, and go off on a riff about a Buck Rogers television special which revealed the actor’s staggering weight gain and declining health, forever marring their memories of their childhood hero. Then, they acknowledged the audience and welcomed us all to the show, blushing (Ralph) and sweating (Jason) with gratitude that everyone came. To warm up the crowd, they improvised some banter around current news items suggested by the audience, speculating on how Barack Obama decided to come out in favor of gay marriage (“fuck it, let’s do this”) and relating the Devil’s Breath street drug sensation to the campy Wes Craven flick The Serpent and the Rainbow.
They cut themselves off long enough to bring storyteller Hillary Rea onstage (“you will love her, damnit!”) for a brief conversation about her current projects and an adorably confusing explanation of her multiple online aliases. Rea told a fun and wonderfully detailed story about her first frenemy, a frizzy redhead with an in-home elevator who slutted it up through an Our Changing Bodies video in the sixth grade and ruined Rea’s retro-themed seventh grade birthday party with a Nirvana mixtape and an illicit game of Spin the Bottle, which young Rea excused herself from by hiding in the bathroom for thirty minutes.
Rea was followed by a Grimacchio sketch interlude, featuring the fellas as hipster record store employees (complete with “douchebag hats”) ignoring their customer to challenge each other with obscure music trivia. Sue & Cait followed, returning to the spotlight to literally sing the praises of Theodore Roosevelt, accompanied by a goofy framed black-and-white portrait of the President.
After a brief telling of the origin of the Grimacchio name (Jason didn’t know how to pronounce “Andracchio,” and Ralph didn’t correct him), comedienne LaTice took the mic to talk about the lack of joy in marriage, race relations in the suburbs, reality TV, and Flo the Progressive girl’s insensitivity to racial stereotypes. There were a number of slyly hilarious jokes worth quoting, but I wouldn’t want to ruin the punchlines for you.
Maureen Costello and Corin Wells of Ebony and Ivory closed the show, joined by Grimacchio for an improv set inspired by an interview with an accountant sitting in the audience. Highlights included Grimley as a talking dead goldfish in Costello’s cocaine-induced hallucination set in a cubicle in the ’80s; Wells as a five-year-old demanding apple juice before getting to work saving the company’s finances with her prodigious knowledge of QuickBooks and TurboTax; and a final scene with a Grimacchio-led game of double-speak, where Andracchio opposite hired Grimley from the accounting office, leading Grimley to threaten that he would opposite sleep soundly that night, forcing Andracchio to opposite tell security not to come upstairs and opposite let Grimley leave of his own volition.
After the blackout, Grimacchio invited all of the night’s performers back onstage to receive another round of applause, Sue & Cait played one last sweet little tune, and everyone filed outside praising the evening’s entertainment. For future editions of The Grimacchio Variety Hour, be sure to check the PHIT schedule and look for updates at facebook.com/Grimacchio.
Alison Zeidman lives in South Philadelphia, has a superfluous second Facebook page for work, and spends her evenings running around with the new indie improv team Malone.