By: Alison Zeidman
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.
Milkshake: 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.
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.
What’s shakin’ pizza dawgs? Since we last spoke, I’ve been going crazy over Ricotta on pies – it’s underrated and awesome! Also, I got to talk to Angel Yau, my favorite funny-ist from New York City, about pizza. Talking Pizza with a New Yorker is always fun, because many of my favorite pizza places are in the 5 boroughs. My conversadventure with Angel encompassed all sorts of stops in the Pizzaverse.
Read this!!! :
Pizza Pal Joe Moore: So, how much do you like pizza?
Angel Yau: I like pizza like I like ice cream.
(Please read Joe’s ice cream blog to follow this analogy.)
PPJM: How often do you eat pizza?
AY: I eat pizza as often as I eat tacos…
(Gotcha! Probably once every 2 weeks.)
PPJM: What day is Pizza Day in your house?
AY: Definitely whenever I am lazy to cook, which is once or twice a week…
(But that doesn’t make sense with question 2… SHUT UP INNER ANGEL!)
PPJM: Any favorite toppings or do you prefer it plain?
AY: MEAT! Specifically sausage. The artificial looking, small poop kind, not the sliced ones.
I only prefer plain if I don’t have money and only if it’s a New York slice… otherwise MEAT MEAT MEAT. Sometimes if I do frozen pizza, I’d add my own pepperoni and mushrooms and extra cheese… defeats the purpose of a quick frozen pizza but it makes me feel like I made it ALL out of scratch.
PPJM: What is your favorite pop-culture pizza reference (TV, Film or music)?
AY: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles’ pizzas always look sooooooo delicious.
Also Give me pizza, by Mary Kate and Ashley Olsen. Also Combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell, the song is great because I heart me some Taco Bell. I really love the Spicy Chicken Crunch Wrap Supreme but they fucking discontinued that or something! WHY!!??!?! IT WAS MY FAVORITE!!!!
PPJM: Favorite pizza place in New York City? Favorite pizza place anywhere else?
AY: I grew up with Pizza Hut. My mom hates cheese so the supreme pizza at the hut is the choice because of the other toppings/bread to cheese ratio. Also their tiny neon orange buffalo wings ARE DELICIOUS. I also grew up with Mama Celeste frozen pizza (supreme of course). I also grew up in Howard Beach, Queens… which is primarily an Italian neighborhood. The go to after elementary school pizza there is La Villa. Also I just remember this from writing about pizza is Singas pizza… it’s a New York chain. I only at there a handful of times when I was little, whenever I want to break my parents’ heart, denying their home cooked food. I always get the chopped sausage and onion pizza. I especially like those two toppings because the sausage was chopped into tiny pieces and was back inside… the cheese was on top! What a delightful surprise! And the onions were sliced super thin like string. It’s not a New York slice, it’s a personal thin pie kind of thing! Oh there’s also a place in Greenpoint, Bk where I lived for a few years in my adult life called Paulie Gee’s… it’s one of the those Brick Oven, bacon jam, dimly lit pizza places. Is the question what pizzas you grew up with Angel? NO! It was what is your favorite in nyc!!! WHAT IS WRONG WITH YOU?!?!? NO ONE IS GOING TO LIKE TO YOU ANGEL YAU!
PPJM: Anything else you’d like to add?
AY: Also can we talk about Italian Ices at these pizza parlors?!?!? Rainbow and Vanilla & Chocolate Chip! COME ON!!!
Boom! Awesome! Angel will be onstage here in Philly in a SUPER RARE performance tonight at Camp Woods + at L’Etage. Don’t miss it! This is your best chance to catch one of Angel’s mind-bending multi-media sets without spending $8 to cross a bridge!
By: Becca Trabin
Twinprov is an improv duo whose show consists of forty-five minutes of improvised rapping and scene work.Twin brothers Clint and Buck Vrazel are in town from Oklahoma this weekend, performing tonight and teaching a workshop at Duofest tomorrow. I talked to Clint about how in the world he and his brother freestyle a forty-five minute improv show.
How did you come up with rapping as your format?
We like a lot of different things– we’ve done a Shakespeare show, relationship comedy, a musical, we even do a show that has no words, so rap is just one thing we do. But rap is just a thing that really took off. We did it through lots of trial and error.
We weren’t allowed to listen to rap music as children, because we’re from small-town Oklahoma, and that’s just the way it was. MTV was banned from the town. So we discovered hip-hop in eighth grade, and before that wed only heard Weird Al Yankovic. So our exposure to quick, intelligent music that rhymed was from that tradition of Monty Python and Weird All. And we were like, “Oh, you can make up your own words and it can be better than the original music.” So we’d make up songs.
I couldnt rap at all five years ago, and three years ago we couldnt keep any beats going. It was a lot of teaching ourselves and our friends. We thought, “We should be able to do this. We can do it for a few seconds, so we can do it for longer, right?” We did the wrong thing for a lot of years, cos we learned improv from watching Whose Line Is It Anyway?, until we finally got exposed to Chicago and the greater improv culture.
But we tried The Hoe Down and we would do Irish Drinking Songs and all these games, and it turns out that thats not how poetry or lyricism or shakespeare, thats not the best way to channel it. That’s not even how your brain works. My brother and I are very interested in patterns and psychology. I have a math degree, he has a psychology degree, and we love to teach. And so we discovered all these ways our brains do work. It was a lot of trial and error, a lot of research. And we can get people rapping now in about an hour and a half if theyre improvisors and about three hours if theyre not. So the exercises we came up with for other people became our own practice.
We didn’t know that we weren’t supposed to be able to do this. We didn’t know, you shouldn’t be able to do a forty-five minute improvised rap concert. We just loved it so much we just kept going. Now it’s like a language that we speak and teach.
You said you were exposed to Chicago. Was there a certain school or teacher who influenced you?
CV: It was 2005, we had a teacher who came down to Oklahoma from Toronto–he’s trained at Second City, he had a degree in Improv and English–you can study that, I guess, in Toronto. He came to Oklahoma for a literature program. He never thought he’d find improv in Oklahoma. He found us messing around in like a food court at the University of Oklahoma, and he said, “Oh, you guys are trying short-form. Here’s how to do it well and here’s how to make improv art.” He taught us long form and got us to go to the Chicago Improv Festival.
He got us to take a workshop, as part of a college thing, and I took a workshop from Andy Carey from the Beat Box, and that really inspired me, and I did a rap battle that really inspired me. Because I’m not mean at all but my first opponent was this little black girl who’s like 4’10”, and here I am, this nerdy, white-guilt oppressor guy, and I’m like, “What’s my suggestion?” And they’re like, “Your opponent is your suggestion.” And I can’t make fun of somebody. I didn’t get into improv and storytelling to strip all that away and make fun of poeple. And so I went down in flames but with my integrity intact, and I’ve since rapped circles around people who try to go negative. Definitely the Beat Box with Andy Carey was very inspirational.
How does freestyling feel different from just improvising regular scene work?
It’s not about thinking rhyme to rhyme. You can stump an improvisor by saying, “Say something funny.” There’s no improv exercise called the Say Something Funny Exercise. There’s a million exercises you can do, but there’s not one called Be Funny. In rapping there’s a million things that often you can do, but not like, “Rhyme.” Rhyming is like, “I have a wish, to eat a dish, that is my fish.” You can sell yourself out really quickly for a rhyme just like you can sell yourself out for a joke. The challenge and fun of rapping is you get to be very expressive and you actually have no time to think. In improv you can take pauses. With rapping that time is reduced so you get to paint more pictures with your words.
It’s great to move into that heightened realm– it makes it more magical and brings the ernergy up even further. As long as you don’t sell yourself out the rhyme can serve you and make something memorable.
Once we go out and we hit that first song, it feels pretty easy. We can’t do any wrong after that. The energy is so high. We’re still truthful, we have points of view, we have characters– you just can’t sell yourself out.
What’s it like having your twin brother as your partner?
It’s as much an advantage as a disadvantage. I trust him to always be with me. But if I’m really out there, it’s like, “Wait I’m the same as you, where did that come from?” I don’t recognize that.” We also push each other. When I look at him I see myself. I say, “Oh, I should be able to do that”. Even though we know we have intrinsic differences. We know I’m the Andre 3000, he’s the Big Boi. Our competitiveness really helps. As far as life experience and stuff, it’s hard to be more varied. It’s like, “Oh, we covered that. He took mine.” We’ve always stolen each others’ stories as twins.
Your show has picked up a lot of steam lately. Do you have any plans for expanding your show beyond a stage show?
We are working on our first album right now. We have, as you might imagine, hundreds of improvised songs now– many demos. And every time we go to a festival we get super charged with energy and we rap in the car all the way there and all the way back. We’ll come with a musician who’s got a little banjo or ukulele or we’ll have Pandora or something. We have so many car recordings that that’s basically our studio. So we’re working on our first album, or albums really, because we have enough for multiple stuff, and we’re looking to start releasing that.
Our stage show, we’re looking to expand. We’ve gone in front of bands and freestyled with them– you know, “You be The Roots and we’ll be the rappers.” We’ll play parties. Sometimes we come in as motivational white rapper speakers and tell kids to stay in school. (Laughs). So we would love to have an album and have some cool music videos and travel more with it.
By: Alison Zeidman
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.
AG: Yeah, Greg Maughan’s a wet blanket.
AZ: Is it OK if I print that?
AG: Add that I love him, too.
By: Alison Zeidman
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.
See Michael Loves Greg in Duofest at the Shubin Theatre on Friday, June 8th at 7 pm. Get advance tickets (or full weekend passes) online.
By: Alison Zeidman
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.
See Matt& perform in Duofest at the Shubin Theatre on Saturday, June 9th at 9 pm. Get advance tickets (or full weekend passes) online.
Word up Pizza Gang! I recently had the pleasure to sauce it up with Blake Wexler. When it comes to cool dudes, you will find few cooler than Blake, who is the host of one of my favorite podcasts, The Blake Wexler Show. Blake lives in Los Angeles, which is unfortunate because apparently the pizza there is unremarkable. The good news is that Blake is going to be around some great pizza when he’s in town performing with Todd Glass at Helium Comedy Club on March 21-24. Check it out!
Pizza Pal Joe Moore: How much do you like Pizza?
Blake Wexler: Good pizza is literally my favorite thing on Earth. If it wasn’t for pizza, I would weigh 150 pounds and be a top 5 regional backstroke swimmer- not sure which region. There’s a bar in LA where if you buy a beer, you get a free pizza. The other night after a few pizzas, the waitress there uttered the most depressing sentence I have ever heard in my entire life, “Mr. Wexler, I’m sorry but you’re at your pizza limit.”
PPJM: What is your favorite pizza topping?
BW: Extra sauce and hamburger… if it’s actual hamburger and not something gross.
PPJM: What is your favorite pizzeria in Philadelphia?
BW: Pica’s Pizza in Upper Darby. It’s perfect. They do an upside down pizza – sauce on the top, cheese on the bottom and all the toppings are extremely high quality and it’s not insanely priced. Whenever I come back to Philly, the first day I’m home I drive to Upper Darby and pick up some pies for the week. Vic and Deans on the Main Line is also good.
PPJM: You have been all over… You’ve lived in Philly, Boston and most recently LA and have spent some time in New York and Chicago. Where is the best pizza found?
BW: Food in LA blows. Boston doesn’t know what it’s doing when it comes to pizza. There’s so much shit pizza in New York it makes finding the amazing stuff a task. I can’t imagine there’s a better pizza than Pica’s in Upper Darby.
PPJM: When you were a kid, which day of the week was “Pizza Day” in your house?
BW: Usually Friday or Saturday. There was a 3 year period in my life as an elementary school-er where I got pizza hut literally every Saturday. My mom would order me, as per my request, a half cheese, half no cheese but w/extra sauce pizza. It got to the point where a year ago, I was back at home and ordered the same thing for nostalgia sake… it was the first time I had ordered pizza hut in like 4 years. The guy who took my order remembered me from when I was a child and we then talked for 15 minutes on the phone about how our lives had turned out. I’m doing better than he is.
PPJM: Anything else you’d like to add?
BW: Last time I was home, my mom, who is an incredible, gourmet-level cook, was ordering pizza from Bertucci’s. I had consumed a couple drinks and told her I wanted “The Ultimo”. She kept trying to order it, and the restaurant kept telling her they didn’t know what she was talking about. After she angrily hung up, I told my mother that I had made up the name of that pizza. Then I laughed so hard I had an actual asthma attack.
Wow! That was great! Now I really want an “Ultimo”… See you pizza pals at Helium!
For my second Coffee with Comedians, I chose to get to know Corin Wells. Oddly enough, and in spite of being in the same room as each other probably somewhere over 50 times, we had not exchanged more than “hellos” and congratulatory remarks after shows. We even went to see ” My Week With Marilyn” together, but since you have to be quiet in movie theaters and also since I got there right as the movie started, I did not get a chance to start a friendship beyond that of the facebook and twitter realm there, either. So, Corin agreed to sit down with me at the Broad Street Diner, and thus, a friendship beyond the world wide web was born!
Aubrie: You have been performing with Iron Lung for a year now in Philly! Was there a specific moment when you realized you wanted to pursue comedy? Was it always something you were interested in, or was there a distinct moment where you realized that this what you wanted to do?
Corin: I think it’s something I always wanted to do, I just didn’t know how I wanted to do it. Cause I love stand up so much but I don’t have the nads to do it, so when I came across improv I was like “Ahhhh, yeah. This is it.” And I tried it and I fell in love with it and I got addicted. Now improv is what I love.
Aubrie: That’s awesome! Did you do theater or anything before?
Corin: Yeah, I did. I did theater in school. After high school I kind of stopped doing acting and started focusing on dancing- because when I was younger I did a bit of everything only cause my mom made me do it. And I was like, “I wanna be a hip-hop dancer!” So I did that in college, and then I was like, “This is not lucrative!”
Aubrie: Maybe not lucrative, but it is awesome! If I didn’t think I’d fail immediately, I probably would’ve majored in hip-hop dancing! Where did you go to college?
Corin: Hampton University in Virginia.
Aubrie: And what initially drew you to improv? Did you find it in or after college?
Corin: After. I had finished taking regular acting classes at Mike Lemon Casting and I was like, “OK, I need to do something else and I want to try comedy.” And I had been looking at PHIT for awhile, but for some reason I was like- I think it was money reasons- that I was like, “I can’t take two classes at one time.” So right after I was done with those acting classes, I was like, “It’s time.” And I ended up taking my 1st class with Nick Gillette, which was great. And I’ve been hooked ever since.
Aubrie: What is the best comedy advice you’ve ever gotten?
Corin: There’s a lot, cause I hang out with Marbach and he’s full of comedy advice. I guess as far as improv goes, just make sure you’re having fun. That’s the best advice. Cause if you’re not having fun onstage, then why are you up there? There’s no point.
Aubrie: Any general life advice that has been helpful to you, non-comedy related?
Corin: Do what you love, and fuck the rest. Yeah, my mom has always told me that- not necessarily “fuck” the rest, but she’s like “if you’re not doing something that you love to do then really what’s the point.” She doesn’t necessarily get the comedy thing, but she supports it. She’s great.
Aubrie: Do you have any pre-show rituals?
Corin: Lately, I’ve been listening to Beyonce’s “Love on Top” because it’s such a hype song, it’s such a feel-good song. But I just try to get to get in a fund mind-set, like for Iron Lung, so when we start our ritual I’m ready to jump on board. And it’s always something different, something I can dance to. Sometimes it’s gangster rap. I don’t know, depending on my mood.
Aubrie: Sweet! Do you do silly dances, or choreographed dances?
Corin: For Beyonce I do real choreography.
Aubrie: Nice. Do you do them at home or at the venue before a show?
Corin: Anywhere. If I’m walking, if I’m driving, I’ll be dancing. I’ll do it while walking down the street…it’s great when people start dancing with you!
Aubrie: What was your favorite comedy moment to witness, Philly or otherwise? This is a tough one, cause I made it so broad, but it could be anything- a TV or film moment, or something you saw onstage or that your friends did…
Corin: I think the most recent one I can remember because it was a few weeks ago was Medic had this show and they were on a bus and AJ had to crawl outside the bus for some reason and ended up getting hit by this giant bus. And Luke kept running over him with a bunch of chairs. He just kept doing it- it was so funny! It was this really giant bus and that illusion was created, and it was so great. And Emily was like, “It’s a mix between Les Mis and Speed” and it cut back to AJ crawling outside of this bus and getting hit by it. Yeah, that was a great moment. I love Medic.
Aubrie: Me too!! They do a lot of cool physical stuff. Iron Lung also does a lot of cool physical stuff.
Corin: Yeah, I love those guys.
Aubrie: On that note, do you have a favorite stage moment that you were a part of? It can be anything-dance, theater, improv…
Corin: It’s probably gonna be improv.
Aubrie: Nice! I didn’t want to box you in.
Corin: It’s hard because there are a lot coming to my head. But there was one show where we ended up doing the whole block at PHIT and we didn’t know that we were going to, but Kevin, prior to the show spilled Malt Vinegar on his pants. So the whole first half became about Kevin smelling like shit. And he had the nerve to sit on my lap. I think that’s why I loved it so much, because we were all fucking with each other, and that’s when you have the most fun. There was also one show where we had Pinocchio running an underground railroad for puppets. That was great.
Aubrie: And what’s your favorite part about improv? Is there a specific thing about it that you really love?
Corin: I think just the concept of improv. I mean, when you strip all of the rules away, you are just a bunch of adults pretending on-stage- that’s all it is. And it’s like, “I do this. I’m playing around- I’m a kid again, just smarter.”
Aubrie: If you could create a comedy dream team of anyone in the world, who’d be on it? It could be just Philly people too, to make this super-difficult on-the-spot question easier.
Corin: Oh man, that’s tough. I’m gonna do Philly comedians and say my
fantasy improv draft is Matt Holmes(QB), Amie Roe(WR), Billy Bob Thompson(RB), Andrew Stanton(TE), Emily Davis(S), Jess Ross(OL), Dan Jaquette(DL), & Tara Demy(K).
Aubrie: I hope that team one day happens, and that they all play those positions- like a football/improv mash-up! And my final question is…drumroll…are you a dog or a cat person? I ended the last interview on this note, So I’m gonna stick with it.
Corin: I am a dog person, but I like cats. Which is a new development, cause my roommates brought home a stray, and I love her. I curse her out a lot, but I love her. We had miniature collies growing up. My parents have one named Teacup. I hate that name. My dad named her that, and I was like, “Man up, daddy!” He named her that because he wanted us to get a teacup yorkie, and we got a miniature collie. So he was like, I’m calling it Teacup anyway. My other dog’s name, we called her”Puppy.” We adopted her from a shelter and her name was “Mandy,” and my mom was like, “I don’t like that name.” So she named her Puppy.
You can currently catch Corin on stage with Iron Lung and as half of the duo Ebony & Ivory, and in May she will premiere with PHIT Houseteam (Codename) Strider.
Witout: How did the Comedy, Food, Sports show begin?
Patrick Dodd: Just under a year and half ago, I got married and my wife was pregnant soon after. I had only been in Philly for about two year as, so I wasn’t established enough locally to be able to just do feature spots or anything like that (I’ve been doing standup for about 5 years total). At the same time, I didn’t really have enough time to hit the open mics and make a name for myself. I was dying to do something creative, but my time was limited. Having a major passion for cooking, watching and playing sports and all things comedy; I wanted to figure out a way to marry the three. My original idea was just going to be rants and reviews about the three subjects and I’d throw a few original recipes of mine on the site here and there. I did a few “articles” and I knew, as fun as this is, I need to do something more unique. Jim Florentine was in town for a random Thursday show. I had opened for Jim in the past, so I contacted him to see if I could interview him about the three subjects. After that interview I realized that this might be the format. I ended up getting Nick DiPaolo, Dale Talde from Top Chef, Robert Kelly, and a bunch of others that just really brought their A-game for the interviews.
We had some really good traffic on the site and a lot people were telling me how much they loved the concept. Me and my buddy decided to form a “late night talk show” style version of the show. After a few months of throwing ideas around, we had what we were looking for. Once we found a venue, everything else kind of fell into place. The show really is just a live version of the blog with some Daily Show/Conan type tidbits sprinkled in.
Do you find it hard to find comedians that are sports fans, or maybe do you notice a specific type or “style” of comedian is more into sports? It is definitely hard to find comics that are into sports as much as I’d like them to be. There is a type, but I can’t really describe it completely. Nick DiPaolo, Joe Materese and Jim Florentine had all done sports related stuff on TV and/or radio, so they were pretty easy to pick. When I interviewed Dan Levy, he told me to skip the sports section but I kind of figured that before the call. That’s pretty much a roundabout way of saying, some guys are more “jockey” and others are a bit “asthma-y”.
What are your favorite sports (to watch or play) and teams? Are you a lifelong sports fan? Do you find your interest in one sport or another change with age or any other factors? My favorite sport to play is and will always be basketball. The NFL is definitely far and away number one for me to watch. I love watching college hoops and I try to watch the NBA when I can, but I don’t go too far out of my way to watch regular season games (although I catch the Sixers a decent amount). I have a bit of a love/hate relationship with baseball. I will pay attention to it from start to finish, but I always want to make fun of it at the same time. I’m definitely a lifelong sports fan. That was something I was born with, I think, and I can’t see that ever changing. I would say my interest in sports in general has changed slightly since I had a kid, because my time is so much more limited. I have to pick and choose the sports that I want to really pay attention to more than I did before. I still hate tennis though.
What do you think it is about sports (or sports fans) that can make talking sports turn to such heated arguments? It’s the “we” mentality. Everyone thinks they are part of the team and, to an extent, they are. Everyone, including myself, thinks they can analyze, coach and consult their favorite teams. Most people take sports so seriously. We’re doing a segment called “athletes tweeting stupid shit”, because most of these guys are such entitled retards. Physically they entertain, but when Dan Marino or Jamal Mashburn is your “go to” guy for analysis; you have to laugh a little. It honestly cracks me up more than anything when I see people yell and scream about shit. Desean Jackson would take a shit on your lawn and kick your puppy before he left town, if there was a $10,000 bonus for doing that in his new contract (whenever that gets done). So would Chase Utley for that matter.
When it comes to food, do you focus on more upscale dining, comfort foods, specialized places, or does it depend on your guests? I focus on whatever they like. I usually ask open ended questions and they just run it with it. Some of them talk about how much they like to cook, while others like to talk about their favorite spots and others just eat whatever Subway’s $5 footlong is. I would say it tends to lean towards specialized places and comfort foods more than anything. Comedians seem to talk about their favorite spot to get a specific food that seems to bring them back to a specific place. Maybe it’s the whole tortured soul thing that a lot of comics have.
What are your favorite foods? I LOVE Thai food! I haven’t had enough of it here in Philly, but that’s my own fault. French and Italian are always delicious, but I think Asian food always takes the crown for me. Gastropubs are becoming a bit cliché, but most places in Philly really do it properly and I’ll never turn down something like a bone marrow burger.
Do you talk about cooking, or more eating at restaurants? Generally, I talk more about cooking. I’m pretty much self taught, so when I come up with something or riff off of a classic, I’m always excited to talk about. I love talking about restaurants too, but I get let down a lot when I go out. I’m not a snob by any means, but it should at least taste fresh and be properly cooked.
There are a lot of shows on television now showing people travelling the world eating at all sorts of interesting places, are you looking for tales of great food finds, or stories of impressive eating feats? I’m definitely looking for great food finds more than anything. Joe Materese talked about this pizza joint in Conn for about ten minutes straight and I was just blown away. He live in New York and he can’t stop talking about a spot in Conn. It turns out that place is famous and Sinatra used to have his driver pick some up for it, but I would’ve never known that without Joe telling that story. Bobby Kelly had a good story about a place in New York that serves mutten chops and Rory Scovel talked about a high end vegan spot in LA. Comedians are perfect for that subject, because of all the travel they do.
What are some of your favorite spots in Philly to eat. Any best kept secrets? I unfortunately haven’t eaten out enough. Obviously The Royal Tavern is amazing. Kennett So. 2nd is right next door to where I live and they make some pretty amazing stuff too. Veracruzana at 9th and Washington is ridiculous! I could eat there every day. Lee How Fook in Chinatown has the best hot and sour soup I’ve ever had. Almost everything on their menu is good. The Amish place in the Reading Terminal Market has the best breakfast. Isgro’s is unreal for desserts. I did a tasting at Amada once and that was amazing from start to finish.
Why should people come to Comedy, Food, Sports? The easy answer is: It’s Free and it will be over before 9:30pm! Realistically though, almost everyone loves one or probably all three of the subjects. What better forum to discuss the three subjects than people in the industry that are knowledgeable and hilarious? If someone were to tell me that Bill Burr, Anthony Bourdain and Scott Van Pelt were going to do a show where they discuss comedy, food and sports; I would spend hundreds to go see that. So this is a smaller, more local version of that. There will be stand up, some bits, a BIG special guest, a year in review and a Q&A. On top of that, we are giving away a gift card to someone in the audience.
Worst case scenario, you hang out at an amazing bourbon joint that has great food and a really cool ambience and afterwards a blues band will play for the rest of the night. Best case scenario, we’re hilarious and entertaining and you’re outing last Saturday to Applebee’s was just topped as “best Saturday ever!”
Comedy, Food, Sports is this Saturday, January 28th at 7:30PM at The Twisted Tail (upstairs at The Juke Joint) 2nd and South St., Philadelphia