Philly Improv Theater Executive Director Greg Maughan announced publicly today that beginning in January, 2014 PHIT will call The Second Stage at The Adrienne Theater its new home. This means all PHIT shows, classes, rehearsals, and office space will be together in one location finally giving them a permanent place to call their own. The announcement comes almost three years after a Kickstarter campaign helped PHIT raise over $15,000 to find a permanent home for Philadelphia’s “exploding alternative comedy scene”. The move will increase PHIT’s presence, giving them a stage they can produce shows on every week of the year. More information will be available soon and we plan to sit down to talk with Greg about his plans for the future of the expanding comedy theater.
STOP THE PRESSES (or “stop the internet”?). Through some real hard-hitting journalistic mastery, we’ve gotten our hot little hands on the three video reels that ran during the 2013 WitOut Awards for Philadelphia Comedy…oh, and also, we have them because we’re the ones who made ’em. (We just get such a kick out of referrin’ to our own shit as “exclusive.”)
Thanks to all of the writers who helped with the show and contributed to the jokes in these reels (Aaron Hertzog, Alison Zeidman, Chip Chantry, Jim Grammond, Christian Alsis, Carolyn Busa, Ralph Andracchio, JP Boudwin, Jason Grimley, Greg Maughan and Joe Moore).
A List of All the Nominees Who Voted For Themsleves (Pro Tip: It’s Just Everyone)
“Awkward Moments” is a monthly column that asks comedians, “What do you do when…” In this installment we talk about references and improv.
Improvisers are often expected to keep a lot of stuff in their heads, all while being encouraged not to think. Some of this stuff has been put there by the process of learning improv, and “rules” that we’ve learned or had to unlearn. (Read a great piece about these so-called rules in Matt Holmes’ new column, “Discussing a Bit.”) The rest of this stuff is what all of us have in our heads all the time—the accumulated scraps of information, trivia, observations, etc. that comprise our knowledge of the world. And dipping our little improviser bucket into that well of references can lead to wonderfully specific and idiosyncratic choices in scenes, like making a movie that’s a literal blockbuster, or the development of the progressive metal concept album Operation: Mindcrime II. (Wikipedia -> Random Article is your friend.) But what do improvisers do when their reference well doesn’t match up with their scene partner’s?
Most improvisers will find themselves in this situation at some point. Your partner has just endowed you with a character trait, maybe even a name, and you hear titters from the crowd. Your Spidey sense is tingling (that’s from Spider-Man) and you realize that they’re in on a joke that’s left you in the dust. You realize it’s because your scene partner is making a reference, and the little editor inside your brain is screaming “Why didn’t you watch more Inside Edition?!” How does an improviser move forward when they feel left behind?
First off, it’s important to mention that it’s good to be informed. Everybody won’t understand everyone’s references all of the time (I think Lincoln said that while he was slaying the undead), but improvisers should cultivate a hunger for information and insight that they can bring to the stage, and that includes participating in an intertextual world (I learned that in college). Here’s what Alex Newman, member of PHIT house team Davenger and known referencephile, has to say about arming oneself with knowledge:
“If you are an improviser, I think it’s super important to be a diligent consumer of pop culture, even if you feel like it’s killing you inside. Read everything, browse Wikipedia, and watch an episode of Real Housewives of New Jersey (one is definitely enough). Even a basic working knowledge of pop culture will arm you with enough references to survive. That being said, if you don’t get a reference: fake it. Play it real, agree, commit and even if you get it wrong you’ve just created something that’s true within the scene. If you think Hunger Games is a competitive eating tournament then in the world of your scene, that’s what it is. The worst thing you can do is ignore it or try to make it not important.”
I think Alex enters most scenes as if going into battle.
Most of the performers I talked to agree that sticking with and exploring what you’ve created is essential. Aaron Hertzog, of Hey Rube fame and soon-to-be-famous L.A. comedian, describes how having “your own deal” is an asset when dealing with reference:
“Hold on to whatever idea you came into the scene with. Lets say you come into the scene as somebody who LOVES kitty cats, but your scene partner wants to make you Superman. They are dropping hints that you are Superman but you’re just not picking it up. Don’t worry about trying to find out the specific reference—just play the scene with your love of kitty cats! Eventually you (or maybe just the audience, but that’s ok) will get that you are Superman, and now, you’re a Superman that loves kitty cats—which has much more depth and comedic hook than just plain old Superman.”
Michael Tomasetti, of Mayor Karen and now of the great city of Los Angeles (really guys? L.A. is like Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s Season 5 Big Bad Glory and Philadelphia is her brain-sucking victim…wait I have to go cry about Tara now), also uses strong character choices in response to an unknown:
“I usually get away with it by playing someone foreign. I like to use accents and whenever someone drops a Dr. Who, Star Trek, or sports reference I usually play someone not from this country or an alien. Or if I can get away with it, I play something literally. One time Alan Kaufmann and I were in a scene and he mentioned me playing Super Mario 3. I played the game once or twice, but knew enough to go along with the scene. At one point in the scene he said something like, “Get the frog suit and wear it.” I stood up and reached under my chair, and mimed putting on a full length frog suit. Everyone started laughing hysterically, and I just figured it was because it was so bizarre. It was only after we got off stage that Alan was like, “the frog suit is what Mario wears in Super Mario 3.”
THIS JUST IN: MARIO IS A FRENCHMAN.
Greg Maughan, Executive Director at the Philly Improv Theater and all-around comedy fiend, has a couple alternatives when dealing with reference:
“I’ve handled this situation in two different ways. In the first, I play a character who would never get the reference and just breezes past it innocently. In the second, I address the problem head on, admit I don’t get it and make a lame joke at my own expense: ‘Wait, are we both talking about the same Young Jeezy? I was thinking of Teddy Roosevelt’s puppy.’”
Silly Greg. We all know TR’s dog was named Slick Pulla.
No matter what, remember that you know everything you need to know to have a successful scene. As long as we listen, play and communicate, reference doesn’t need to be scary. Kristen Schier, clown, comedian, and improv goddess who can be seen in The N Crowd and The Kristen & Amie/The Amie & Kristen Show, reminds improvisers to keep having fun:
“First off, I would keep doing what I have been doing trusting that [my scene partners] noticed something about what I was doing that made them go that direction in the first place. That having failed, within the context of the scene, I might try the following:
Let them know I have no idea what they are talking about
Have fun guessing what they might mean
Give them the title of an obscure person or pop culture reference myself
What I would NOT do is start to worry or change up my character… Its perfectly okay to show your ignorance or stupidity onstage.”
Referencing the obscure or the trendy can be immensely satisfying whether or not everyone on stage “gets it.” As an audience member, it’s really gratifying to watch performers who imbue their scenes with the specific—if you see a lot of improv, you see a lot of the same scenes over and over again. But when improvisers come together and gift each other with their idiosyncratic knowledge, unique things happen. Of course, reference initiators should do so in service of the scene, not for the sake of dropping some sweet Reddit-curated knowledge for their own fame and glory (save that for political debates around the Thanksgiving table!) And reference receivers should do their best to listen to what was offered and honestly join their scene partner in whatever they’re playing, rather than fight against it or judge themselves.
So tell us in the comments below: have you had an awkward moment of not getting the reference on stage? What do you do when something’s over your head? (Like the legendary HGTV series hosted by Eric Stromer???)
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.
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Here’s a behind-the-scenes look at the making of one our most popular new features, “Tweets of the Week,” curated by editor Aaron Hertzog:
Featuring Aaron Hertzog
Professionally Filmed by Alison Zeidman
Musical Score by Greg Maughan
And wait a minute, don’t you wish that could be YOU? Wait…yeah…hey wait, yeah, you do! Email email@example.com to pitch your own WitOut feature or column, or to start receiving weekly emails of assignment opportunities.
1. Don’t date someone in your improv group.
2. Don’t date someone in your improv group.
3. Don’t date someone in your improv group.
4. Don’t date someone in your improv group.
5. Don’t date someone in your improv group.
6. Don’t date someone in your improv group.
7. If you are considering dating someone in your improv group and you are both straight but of the opposite sex, consider talking yourself into having gender reassignment surgery. If that doesn’t work, convince the person you are interested in to undergo the sex change. This approach also works for homosexual improv group members who are both of the same gender at the beginning of the attraction.
8. Don’t date someone in your improv group.
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.
For the rest of the year, we are going to run lists from you, our readers (and some that we wrote ourselves) of our Top 5 of 2011. You’ll hear from many Philadelphia comedians, as well as some fans of comedy about their favorite sketches, bits, shows, and moments of the past year. If you’d like to write a list – go ahead, do it! and send it to us at firstname.lastname@example.org
Our first list comes from Executive Director of the Philly Improv Theater, Greg Maughan, and includes his favorite $5 passwords for PHIT shows from the past year.
5. “Everything You Like Is Stupid Dot Com”: I can’t say this password was really all that funny, but I do read Luke Giordano’s website as a result of having it’s domain merciless pounded into my brain every time I went to his show. (By the way Luke, I’ll be sending you an invoice for this product placement).
4. “Meatspin”:Alex Gross‘ passwords for The Gross Show have taught me more about obscure – and in the eyes of religious conservatives, deviant – sexual practices than anything else since Steve Babcock’s asides in my 8th Grade Health class. For the love of God, please don’t say I didn’t warn if you decide to Google this one and end up offended.
3. “I am the Dread Pirate Roberts, there will be no survivors.”: I think there were actually people who came to TV Party‘s show dedicated to Fairy Tales just for the privilege of getting to say this line and then give us $5.
2. “Boehner? I hardly know her!”: It was hard picking my favorite Chip Chantry pun-based password, but the political junkie in me won out on this one (even if it does require you to mispronounce the House Speaker’s last name). A close second was August’s “So IRENE’S Over, and I Says to Him…” the day after the hurricane hit Philly.
1. “Friendship”:Aaron Hertzog completely ignored my rule that the $5 password had to be different each show all year long, but he was so friendly about it I didn’t have the heart to tell him he needed to stop. Now I’ve told him so publicly though, so if I had money to bet I would say that his next show will have a different word… but the root will still be “friend”.
Confession that he didn’t like Kid Rock’s country music, or Rock music in general, or kids: “I always found children were more useful as a way to avoid being drafted than as a source of happiness and meaning in one’s life.”
Details of meeting with Hollywood director Bryan Singer after he stepped down as Secretary of Defense that served inspiration for the character Keyzer Soze in The Usual Suspects: “When the movie was released I was furious – I had made an explicit deal with Singer to name the villain based of myself ‘Haddam al-Sussein’ and make him middle-eastern, not eastern European.”
Admission that he found daughter Mary “hotter” after she came out as a lesbian, but didn’t think she was a “MILF” after the birth of his grandson Samuel: “Perhaps I would have felt differently if the birth hadn’t left a C-section scar, or Mary’s partner Heather hadn’t let herself go so badly.”
Pushed for war to overthrow Saddam Hussein because watching Wolf Blitzer report live from Iraq was wife Lynne’s only turn-on: “Watching Lynne become flushed any time she heard The Situation Room theme music always made my heart race, or at least it did when I still had a pulse.”
Vivid description of hunting trip in Bend Bend Ranch State Park with Texas Governor Rick Perry during autumn 2005 at which Cheney won a contest to see who could kill more migrant workers: “I was both surprised and deeply offended to learn that the blood of Mexicans is red, just like American blood.”
Moment when he realized “enhanced interrogation” wasn’t as effective as claimed after personally failing to waterboard David Chase into revealing whether Tony died when the final episode of The Sopranos cut to black:“Chase did eventually begin trying to bargain, promising he would write a Sopranos movie that made Tony’s fate clear, but by that point I had lost interest in anything he said that didn’t immediately address my question.”
First-hand account of meeting where Cheney, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and Alberto Gonzales agreed to replace Bush’s Presidential Daily Briefing with Marmaduke comics during height of the Iraqi insurgency:“Rummy was insistent that we include the ‘Dog Gone Funny’ sidebars from the Sunday strips as well, but Al wouldn’t have any of it. He claimed the President might recognize one of his own letters to Brad Anderson about Barney as the inspiration for the panels.”
Entire chapter dedicated to his time since leaving office filled with synopses of 24 episodes and a rank order list of former Vice President’s favorite crossbows available for purchase at the Jackson Hole, Wyoming Kmart: “I especially enjoy 24 because the creator Joel Surnow assassinated not one, but two African-American Democratic Presidents.”
Passage in which Cheney explains he feels more human since he had a pump installed in his heart that leaves him without a pulse: “While it’s true that being alive without a heartbeat is unusual, it’s also unusual to have a metal plate for a skull – and I don’t see anybody claiming Gabby Giffords is a machine.”
Greg Maughan is executive director and co-founder of Philly Improv Theater. PHIT’s two weeks at the Shubin Theatre begin on Monday.
How and why did you get into comedy?
I first started performing improv and sketch in High School – mostly because I wanted to do something to prove I wasn’t just a goody two-shoes to the rest of my classmates (I know what you’re saying: “Who would have ever thought Greg was considered a responsible, people-pleasing, brown nose?”).
How would you describe your style as a comedian? What influences and factors do you think contribute to that?
When I’m improvising I tend to try very hard to play as if whatever is being created is true, not zany. So even if the situation ends up being wild, I look for a way to have the character be realistic. But I also play in dark, twisting, seething ways – I notice that there’s a lot of anger underneath what I do on stage: characters who are trying very hard to stay in control while having having pretty black thoughts.
Do you have a favorite show or venue you like to perform at? What about it makes it fun or special for you?
I like performing at Philly Improv Theater (PHIT) because I started the theater, but I also really enjoy performing anywhere I don’t have to be in charge and can just focus on my performance.
Do you have a single favorite moment in Philly comedy or one that stands out?
I really like thinking about the shows that we’ve had at PHIT that sold out and the vibe and energy they had: A Comic vs. Audience Comedy show that got put on the front page of Philly.com as “Today in Phily”, the Bedtime Stories tribute to The Wire (where most of the performers hadn’t watched the show!), Adsit & Gausas last year, the big house team in in November. I’ve also really loved shows I just go to go see: Nobody Dies on Christmas this past December was a great show like that.
Do you have any sort of creative process that you use with your writing or your performance? Or a sort of method that you use to develop comedic material?
Since I do mostly improv I don’t sit down and plan what I’m going to do, but I do think that having a life outside of comedy is really important. Improvisers who do nothing but improv end up doing material that looks like a photocopy of photocopy – they’ve seen so many shows that they just base their stuff off of other bits they’ve seen. Walking around, going to new places, hanging out and overhearing other things people say: those are all little slivers of everyday life that I can use to start something when I get on stage.
What is it about improv and sketch that draws you to it?
The spontaneity is what drew me to improv, the idea that it’s rush to step out and not know what is going to happen (although I have a vague notion, obviously, that I can pull it off). A lot of the time when I’m performing on stage I’m actually incredibly nervous – sometimes all the skin on my face and hands will just go numb while I’m on stage. It doesn’t start until the moment we get the suggestion, and it goes away once the show gets moving, but it’s still there sometimes and I don’t know why.
When I was doing sketch, the draw was figuring exactly the right way to get a joke to hit – coming up with something funny and then working and working and working it until you had just the right words to convey the idea. I imagine it would be the same way if I started trying some stand-up. I encourage anyone and everyone to bother me to come with them to an open-mic. I just need a little shove, I swear.
Do you have any favorite performers in the Philly scene? Why are they your favorites?
I honestly really like Brendan Kennedy because he’s so smart off the top of his head, but not in a showy way – and he just doesn’t like BS. I also love how fearless The Feeko Brothers can be — especially as The Porno Brothers. For improv, I really love Grimacchio at the moment – both Ralph Andracchio and Jason Grimley play so well together. I’m sure I’ll have some new obsession in three months though, so many people are coming up so quickly… with the improv I tend to love whoever is new, because I’m excited for them.
Do you have any bad experiences doing comedy that you can share? A particularly bad bombing or even an entire show gone haywire?
It’s a long time ago, and it wasn’t exactly “bad” per se … but in high school I had to go to a meeting with the Principal and members of the school board over material we did in our show and it was a pretty big scandal. Apparently saying teachers were alcoholics, or sleeping with guys on the football, or had giant electric ride on vibrators was possible libel. I’m glad to say that in the last 10 years it has actually come out that everything we did on stage was accurate. Truth in Comedy: 1, Grosse Pointe South High School, 0.
What do you think the Philly comedy scene needs to continue to grow?
I think I will surprise exactly no one by saying a space. Especially for improv and sketch comedy there is a need for a real stage, a good-sized theater, where there can be performances every night of the year. For the broader community a home-base is a big deal. I’m doing everything I can, but I’m also learning it is just so much more complex than you could ever imagine until you set out to try and make it happen.
Do you have any personal goals for the future as you continue to perform comedy?
I would like to start directing sketch groups to help them add that final layer of polish and professionalism to their shows. Everything in town needs just a bit more sprucing up (including the place where we are performing), because it’s sad but true that people often start forming their opinions before they hear any jokes.