Great improv is like this kitten video: vulnerable, unpredictable, and funny as fuck.
Great improv is like this kitten video: vulnerable, unpredictable, and funny as fuck.
Big laughs; small moments; when you come in with a serious character but can’t help but smile when you look at your scene partner… There are so many reasons we heart improv.
When you both say the same first word during Mind Meld.
Doing organic openings in an alley while passersby stare in amazement.
When you keep your Noo Yawk accent, even though your scene partner’s is Bahston.
Struggling to find the opening in the curtain, so you just play the scene from behind it.
When the tech person makes you laugh.
Ruining a perfectly good scene because you wanted to use the God mic.
When “the quiet one” starts tearing it up on stage.
When you say or do something with your back to your scene partner, and afterward they say, “How did you know what I was doing?!”
When you finish putting the mimed coin in your pocket even though you’ve been swept, because it’s so real to you.
Playing the opposite sex, or a superhero, or a rhododendren with issues.
When you don’t remember what you said or did…you just know it felt awesome.
Leaving the stage still laughing and drenched in sweat.
Coming off stage to find the people in the green room clapping.
When you find out after a great set that your work friends came to see this one.
When your students come to your show.
Overhearing someone in the audience say “They wrote that in advance.”
When there’s three people in the audience and you fucking kill it.
Being surprised on the way out with “your cut of the door.”
When someone outside the community says, “I’ve seen you perform. You’re really funny.”
Performing at an out-of-town festival for the first time.
Getting past the border guards, then remembering the joint in your pocket.
Seeing DCM wristbands around NYC and feeling like you’re part of the club.
When your body forgets it was sick until after the show.
Making someone who never breaks corpse.
Thinking you blew the audition, then getting The Call.
Seeing your friends on the Main Stage.
Seeing your friends in commercials.
Seeing your friends in commercials like this, and never letting them forget.
When you hang with your team and don’t talk improv.
Having so much fun coaching, you feel bad taking money.
Watching TJ and Dave perform.
Discovering that the coolest, smartest, most talented improvisers are also the kindest, humblest, and most generous.
Getting to perform with your comedy heroes, and making them laugh.
However you celebrate the season, big love to our readers, contributors, and everyone in the community who inspires us. Wishing you all you wish for yourself, today and every day. xoxoxo sal & cam
Fuck your fear. Like Mick Napier says, “Kill the judge in your head and just take action.”
Camp Improv Utopia is an annual three-night retreat where improvisers from around the world come to learn in a magnificent and unique setting. We spoke to actor/improviser and founder, Nick Armstrong, about improv as nature intended.
P&C: For readers who don’t know, what is Camp Improv Utopia?
NA: It’s an adult summer camp basically, so you have to be 18 and over to go. It’s kind of like boy scout/girl scout camp meets improv.
You’re doing workshops with great teachers from all over, but then we really also emphasize that we want you to be part of nature. So you have free time to do archery and swim in the lake and kayak, and that’s the boy scout/girl scout part of the adventure. So it’s kind of a mix of that.
P&C: Why improv and camping?
NA: I was an Eagle Scout growing up in California, and it’s very beautiful…there’s a lot of mountains, and Yosemite, and things like that. And I was really passionate about improv – I teach, I’ve performed for years – and I grew up being a boy scout and I was like, “Improvisers are so cool, I think they’d enjoy something like this.”
And so me and my friends from the Improv Olympic, I kinda threw them this idea, and they were like, “Yeah, that’s cool, let’s try it.” So we found a summer camp. We asked “Can you rent a summer camp?” And yeah, you can rent a summer camp! They’d never really kind of heard of it back then when we started, but we found the perfect place, we rented it, and we hoped people would show up.
P&C: How many years have you been doing the camp?
NA: The first one was 2011. This’ll be our sixth camp. The idea started a long time ago; we just never pulled the trigger till 2011. (laughs)
P&C: I’m gonna backtrack a little. How did you get into improv?
NA: I went and saw a show in 2000, 2001 at iO West. iO was very new out here; we had only had The Groundlings, that was the big theatre out here. My friend [said], “My friend’s doing a show in LA,” and I was just out of college so I said “Let’s go see it.”
I’d never seen a Harold before. It was a group called The Youth Group, and it was amazing. I never knew what I wanted in improv, but I saw that and it was like, “Hey, I wanna do that. I don’t know what it is, but I wanna do that.” And it just clicked.
I took classes right away and then I eventually started teaching there, and then I started [at] The Groundlings, and now I teach at The Groundlings. And then I started the camp, and National Improv Network, and started touring because all these festivals started blowing up. When I started going to festivals in 2004 maybe, there was like, maybe five in the country. Now there’s like 110 listed on our site…
P&C: Holy crap! I didn’t know it was that many.
NA: Yeah 110, but I’m sure everyone’s not listed on our site, so I’m assuming there’s probably a little bit more than that. We’re starting to get worldwide.
P&C: Some people get into improv and then say, “OK this is fun, but what am I really gonna do?” (Cameron’s laughing.)
NA: It’s a career for me. I’m able to call improv a career, in acting, so it’s very nice to do that. I still perform two or three times a week, every week since I started. I love it. It’s not like, “Oh God, I’ve gotta do my show this week.” I’m on the longest-running Harold team in LA called King Ten, and they’ve been together for 13 years. So it’s a fun experiment, because how many times does that happen?
P&C: Ooh, I’m gonna have to interview you guys. Long-running teams are not that common.
NA: They get broken up…
P&C: People move on to other things…
NA: It’s interesting because you keep trying to do things new, trying to push the envelope of a Harold. We don’t even do a traditional Harold anymore, it’s something that’s evolved into something different. The people on that team are just masters, so it’s really fun.
P&C: That’s great. Getting back to Camp Improv Utopia, it’s a non-profit. Why was that important to you?
NA: I was just talking about this yesterday. It was really important to me that it be non-profit, just like a boy scout/girl scout organization, because my philosophy is the spirit of improv should be how you run your business.
I’m not saying “Don’t be a for-profit,” but for us it was nature, improv, giving back more than we’ve been given.
So the idea was to bring all these people and do a two-part thing: we’re going to educate them in improv and give them a slice of nature. But then the money we raise there goes back out into the improv world.
When it first started, it funded the National Improv Network…endeavours like that. We help the Detroit Creativity Project, which helps kids that don’t have access to arts; that’s one of our main people we sponsor.
And then we help people build their theatres in the States. If they’re non-profits we help them a lot more; we do help for-profits that are starting out too. So [if] they’re like, “We need a stage,” we have a budget for who we help.
Now that we have even more camps – we have two in California now and one in Pennsylvania – we can allot the money. The money from the Pennsylvania camp goes to that region of the country.
We give out scholarships, and if someone has a diversity program at their theatre, we’ve donated to that, to specifically go to diverse talent coming in to their theatre. We’ll see someone’s Indiegogo or Kickstarter [saying] “We’re trying to open the doors to our theatre,” and we’ll donate to those.
Sometimes people come to us and ask for help, and we do that as well. It’s just kind of a feel-good thing, but growing up that was always kind of my thing, just the motto of, “Give back more than you’ve been given.” And improv’s given me a ton, so this is kind of the best way to do it.
P&C: That’s amazing. I don’t know if you’ve read Matt Fotis’s book about the history of the Harold. It’s fantastic. I’m reading about the struggles of Charna and Mick and the early days of Second City to find a space, and that can be such a huge obstacle to getting something off the ground, so the fact that you’re doing this is amazing.
NA: Our thing is, the ships rise with the tide; we want everybody to be successful. We know improv because we live and breathe it all the time, but not a lot of people do, you know, still.
I was telling you about the festivals, there’s 110. There’s over 100 theatres listed now too. So we’ve gone from 10 improv theatres in the United States to over 100. There’s one pretty much in every state. Maybe not Wyoming…
NA: But like, every state has either one or two festivals, or two or three theatres now. In big cities like LA, of course Chicago, but also smaller cities like Cedar City, Utah, which is a population of maybe 20,000 people, and they all have great theatres and festivals happening.
P&C: I honestly had no idea it had spread that much. I know there’s Austin, Detroit, Boston…
NA: It’s kind of like The Secret of improv right now. The big markets everybody knows about, but nobody knows about these successful theatres that are happening in smaller markets. I just got invited to the Omaha Improv Festival which is in Nebraska, and it’s their third year doing it.
P&C: Your mission statement advocates improv as an art form. Are you a strong proponent of Del’s views?
NA: I believe in Del’s philosophy; I grew up in the iO philosophy. Craig Cackowski is kinda my mentor; I’ve grown with him, he’s now my friend, and he’s helped me with these camps too. And he definitely sees it that way and that definitely rubbed off on me. It’s an art form and it can be funny, it can be both, and that’s what we try to do, but I love when there’s serious moments when you make the audience not laugh, and you make them gasp, and that’s really magical.
When I first saw a show, I want to give that feeling to someone else, because my thing was like, this is funny, but there’s something magical about it [too] that I didn’t know when I was seeing it for the first time. I wouldn’t have maybe come back to that show because, “Oh, that was really funny,” y’know? But it was that extra “sauce,” whatever that was, that got me to come back, and that was the art form that was pulling me towards it. That’s really how I love it, and that’s why I’ve done for so many years, and that’s how I teach it, too.
P&C: Is there a common thread among the teachers you’ve chosen?
NA: We’re very careful about how we choose our teachers.
We choose teachers that are great in the community. Not only are great teachers and well established – that doesn’t necessarily mean they have to be a Second City teacher or an iO teacher or something like that – but it’s also someone who gives back to improv more.
We recognize someone like a Jill Bernard, who goes above and beyond the call of duty. We like to honour those folks and bring them in because they really mesh with that community well, and it really works.
So that’s kinda what we look for: Are they great teachers? Do they go above and beyond in improv? Are they helping, are they going to festivals, are they trying to build this community?
P&C: That’s awesome. I see there are three camps now…
NA: We haven’t opened the third one yet; that happens next year.
P&C: OK, two-part question: Do you have plans to expand to other parts of the country eventually? And do you have students who’ve come more than once?
NA: We’ve had people come all five years. And when we opened East they started coming to the East Camp, and some East Camp folks are now coming to the West Camp, so there’s a lot of cross-pollination. And kinda the idea behind it was, “How can we connect the East Coast improvisers with the West Coast improvisers and really get that community talking?”
That was kinda the goal, to circle the US, and do that, and that’s working! (laughs) Now these festivals over on the East Coast, there’s people from the West Coast coming to them and vice versa, and that cross-pollination is totally happening, and I’m so excited about that.
And then we came up with Yosemite I was like, wait, we have one of the most beautiful places in the world at our fingertips. Why don’t we do a summer camp by it? But we’re also doing a different curriculum with that one, so that one filled up really fast – and we only promoted that to our previous campers, we didn’t even put it out to the public.
But that mission of that camp is, you take one teacher the entire the weekend and you learn one form, like the J.T.S. Brown, the Deconstruction…
P&C: Oh, great idea!
NA: … and these are taught by people that created those forms. And then the idea is to hopefully take those back to your community, experiment with them more. Maybe do the form itself, but then maybe be inspired to make the next great form.
So…we’ll do another camp if it’s necessary, and right now we have the Yosemite one, and if we see an opportunity to do another we will, but it’s not, we don’t wanna be a burger chain.
NA: We wanna do it right, and it has to be associated with our mission statement, and it has to help a community.
P&C: You talked about the one-instructor, one-form curriculum at Yosemite. Can you tell us about the curriculum at the other camps?
NA: Our East and West kind of share a similar curriculum. There’s five teachers, and you can pick four, so there are more skill sets.
So if you wanna learn character, or you wanna learn slow play… I always try to tell the teacher, teach what you’re passionate about in improv. I don’t care what that workshop is, but I’m hiring you because I want you to bring what you think people should know in improv.
And for Yosemite we’ll just be teaching a form, so for instance Craig Cackowski will be teaching the J.T.S. Brown, which he was the original director of in Chicago. So that’s kind of how we separated it to be different, and that was kind of the purpose of that whole new camp.
Again, it’s not all education; we perform. We have little cabins, there’s like 10, 20 different cabins, and that becomes their troupe that weekend. So then they perform a show at the end of the weekend, too.
P&C: And I was reading you have axe throwing?
NA: We have axe throwing, archery…
P&C: Sounds dangerous!
NA: (laughs) They’re little axes. They’re, I would say, hatchets. We have professionals handling that, we don’t handle the axe throwing, we let the camp run those. No one’s been hurt in the six years we’ve run them!
P&C: Safety first. OK, who are some of the instructors you’ve had?
NA: Craig Cackowski, Dave Razowsky, Susan Messing, those are some of the bigger names we’ve had out.
P&C: Isaac Kessler…
NA: Isaac’s gonna be teaching. Rick Andrews out of New York. There’s so many… Paul Vaillancourt, who’s on a team called Beer Shark Mice, and he started the iO West. We have James Grace, the Artistic Director of iO teaching at our West Camp this year…
P&C: After six years, do you have any favourite memory that stands out for you?
NA: I always tell this story actually… Me and my buddy Johnny, who helped me start the camp, we rented the place, we put all our own money down on it and just said, “We’re gonna do this, so hopefully people come.”
So people signed up, and we were at the camp, and we got there Friday at like six in the morning, going, like, “We’ve gotta get there so early. What if someone comes?!” And we put out a table and we were ready to register. And my friends, now who are my board members, are all there, and we’re sitting there.
And seven o’clock comes…and eight o’clock comes…and nine o’clock comes, and ten… And we’re like, “Nobody’s coming.”
But now I think about it, it’s ludicrous, because no one’s gonna be there Friday morning at six! But we didn’t know, because we’d never done it before. And so at like, one o’clock a car rolls in, and it was a camp cook.
I remember 1:30, our first camper ever rolled in. He pops out his car, his name is Bob, he’s from Chicago and Arizona, and he goes, “Is, uh, this an improv camp?”
We just all started cheering and he probably thought we were crazy. And we’ve now made that a tradition that we always cheer when someone comes to camp.
There’s been so many memories after that, but that’s the one that sticks in my head just because it was so cool.
P&C: Last question: what do you hope people take away from their experience?
NA: That they have an experience. That it’s different than being at an improv theatre. It’s not all about improv out there. It’s about looking in yourself, it’s about being out in nature.
When I started the camp, I said I don’t want it to be like a festival. I want it to be an experience where people do get quality instruction that they can’t get in their communities, and that they really immerse themselves in nature. And just being out there without technology – because cell phones don’t work at our West Camp really, so that’s a good thing.
But also just meeting people. The fun thing after camp is you get a hundred new Facebook requests. We have our own private group pages; I see afterwards, “Hey, I’m going to Baltimore. Can I crash on someone’s couch?” And it’s like, “Yeah, come crash on my couch!” “Hey, also I just got us a show. We’re doing a show!”
And at festivals there’s enough campers that go to festivals that sometimes festivals have allotted us a Camp Show, a Camp Jam. And we’re doing it in Ireland, we’re doing a Camp Jam. So that stuff to me is the coolest part. It’s not just at camp, it’s what happens after camp, and that’s what you want, you want them to be, “Hey, you’re coming to California? Crash at my place.” “Hey, I got a show at iO, let’s do it.” And that’s how the National Improv Network grew out of it.
P&C: That’s fantastic, just spreading the joy of improv on a global scale. Thank you so much for talking to us.
Enrolment for Camp Improv Utopia East is now open. Click here to register.
Camp Improv Utopia: Community, Camaraderie in Nature
Featured Instructors for 2016 include:
West – Celeste Pechous, James Grace, Bill Binder, Eric Hunicutt, plus more to come!
East – Jaime Moyer, Elana Fishbein, Isaac Kessler, plus more to come!
Yosemite – Paul Vaillancourt, Craig Cackowski, Brian O’Connell, Karen Graci
“You don’t need that much. You don’t have to try so hard. If we look at the most successful scenes, they start off very simply. They’re not overly complicated. They’re not some sort of grand premise. It’s just taking the small things that we’re doing and making them into a fun scene.
It really boils down to paying attention to what you’re doing and what your scene partner is doing, and then investing in it. And then the scene is kind of given to you.
If you take that first 30 seconds of a scene, and really are patient, and you lay the information out and do small things, and make choices each time you either talk or do things, then the other information will come from that stuff. So then you’re not having to invent things; it’s just an expansion of what’s happening.
If you just really invest in those first few seconds of a scene, it’s all there for you. And you don’t have to overthink it. Just go back to being the monkey. Just go back to patting someone on the belly. Just go back to being the exhausted dad in an airplane. Because then you’re saying ‘yes’ to the things you’ve thrown out there, rather than trying to find what the scene’s about. The scene’s about that first moment.
It could be just someone just going ‘Phhhhht…’ That’s it. That’s all you need. That person is exasperated. That’s the scene.
We try to find the ‘best thing’ that the scene can be about, by discarding all these other things, and it’s like no, the scene is about a tired kid and her mom who wants her to go to church. Let’s invest in that and not try to invent anything else. Because things will just come out of your mouths, out of thin air, but they’re not. They’re actually coming from investment in the things you’ve created.”
Freshen up your improv wardrobe this Fall with our trio of new t-shirt designs. “Mitsakes are gifts” is also available as a pillow, laptop skin and mug.
Click here or below to browse the collection.
Paul and Christy are Second City alumni whose comedic skills cut like a knife. He’s one third of improvised sci-fi comedy podcast Illusionoid, and she’s the star of countless stage and screen productions. We asked them how they landed their favourite role, as man and wife.
P&C: How and when did you meet?
Paul: I’m not sure when Christy and I first met. But the first time I can remember us talking is when she was in Second City’s Touring Company and I was directing her for a corporate show. I am not above using my status for my own gain.
Christy: It was Second City (2000?), the first time I remember seeing Paul was after I got hired for the Touring Co. and snuck in to watch the Mainstage show. There was Paul Bates as Stephen Hawking and I thought to myself “Who’s that funny guy?” I don’t remember him directing me…I must have blocked that out of my memory for some reason. Bates, we need to talk about that!
P&C: When did you first know you liked the other person?
Paul: The moment I laid eyes on her, across the upstairs bar at 56 Blue Jays Way.
Christy: First of all, Paul’s answer made me melt. I actually knew I liked him that same moment I first saw him on stage. It’s a bit odd to think that a guy pretending to be Hawking is hot.
P&C: Were you ever (or are you now) on the same team? What’s it like performing together?
Paul: We’re on the same team when we discipline our child (corporal punishment) but I can’t recall being on a Theatresports team with Christy.
Christy: I love playing with Paul; it doesn’t happen as often as I’d like. Especially now that he snuck a baby into our lives. Now shows are a little bit more of “divide and conquer.” It’s hard enough doing a show for free, but to pay $15/hour to do a show is even harder.
P&C: What’s the best, worst, or funniest moment you’ve had on stage – either together, or with the other person watching?
Paul: The worst: Christy tried to pretend to hit me in the nuts. But instead hit me in the nuts very, very hard. To her dismay we still conceived. (Christy: I forgot about that. It was a pretty funny moment, for me.)
The best/funniest moments I’ve had with my wife is performing The Soaps, the improvised soap opera she produced. The best one we did is the one that took place in the War of 1812.
Christy: I think some of the best moments were when I filled in for Aurora on the Second City Mainstage show for a week. It was really that week that gave us more time together and made us realize there was more to the attraction than just crushes. To be able to play with someone on stage and having them make you laugh really ups the connection factor.
Honestly, Paul makes me laugh every time I watch him and perform with him. It reminds me of why I fell in love with in the first place (not a hilarious answer, but true). When Paul is in the audience watching, I get a little nervous, but I also know he always has my back. Which is the best.
P&C: Has improv helped your relationship?
Paul: We listen. We say yes. We support each other. Counselling has helped too.
Christy: The skills of Improv are definitely tools for a good relationship. Also knowing what the other person is going through when they have a bad show is a huge help. We come from different ‘schools’ of improv. I’m Keith Johnstone based, he’s….I actually haven’t figured that out yet. Let’s just say, I’ve taught him a lot.
P&C: What impact has improvisation had on your careers?
Paul: Second City gave me my start and continues to give me new and exciting opportunities. I am forever grateful.
Christy: Improv is such an important and overlooked skill in the acting world. My background in improv has booked me commercials, a gig on Broadway, a show in the West End, and has given me a confidence on stage when the wheels fall off during a ‘proper play’…so much so that I kind of live for the wheels to fall off. It’s also shown me that the best warm-up for a show is a drink or two. In a way, Improv is my career.
Recently a friend posted on Facebook. He was talking about Canada, but it could just as easily have been America, or Ireland, or Micronesia:
“How do we fix the Canadian entertainment system? How do we get funding to more people? How do we do this without stifling creativity? How do we get audiences to take note? Is there anything we can do? Anybody?”
Replies poured in:
All valid points. In fact, I’ve heard them from actors, writers, producers and directors for the past 25 years. And in all that time, not much has changed. If anything, in some ways it’s worse.
So what then? “Can’t win, don’t try?”
Heeeeeeeeell no. I’m saying “Can win, do try;” you just may need to change the way you do it. Here are some things I’ve learned in the last quarter century that can help.
Show, don’t tell.
You’ve written a screenplay. It’s box office gold. You just need someone to read it, and soon you’ll be rubbing shoulders with Seth Rogen.
In that case you should check out I Will Not Read Your Fucking Script by Josh Olson. It explains, in no uncertain terms, why you probably should spend some more time on it before unleashing it on innocent victims.
On the other hand, maybe your script really is brilliant. Maybe you’re the next Aronofsky, or Apatow, or (please God, not the later stuff) Adam Sandler.
You’ve still gotta put in some work – OK, probably a lot of work – to convince others of your genius.
The Office wouldn’t exist if Stephen Merchant hadn’t filmed Ricky Gervais for a corporate training video. They cleverly used it to pitch Ricky’s David Brent character to the BBC.
“If we’d just handed in a script, it would still be sitting there on someone’s desk,” says Gervais. “You’ve got to see the performance in context.”
While part of me weeps for the English language with every emoji, people think in pictures, and your 100-page script is a long slog for anyone to attempt. Make it easy for people. Film a teaser or demo to bring it to life.
New ideas are scary.
The BBC weren’t just sitting around waiting for the next When The Whistle Blows to walk through their door. Or maybe they were, and that’s the problem.
It’s a sad fact of life that it’s easier to like the familiar. Most innovation is only embraced after the fact.
Remember Dove Evolution?
It won two Cannes Grand Prix, logged millions of views, and spawned countless parodies. With an idea that brilliant, it was an obvious slam dunk from the start, right?
Not quite. While the ad agency knew they had something powerful, the clients weren’t convinced. Instead, they approved another, tamer ad:
The underlying message is similar, but the execution isn’t nearly as strong. It quickly disappeared from view.
But the agency didn’t give up. Writer and co-director Tim Piper pulled favours from suppliers and begged the client to piggyback Evolution on the other film’s shoot.
When other clients saw the millions of YouTube hits, not to mention free press from Ellen, Oprah, and countless news outlets, they wanted an Evolution, too. Ask any creative who worked in 2007: suddenly every brief was for a “viral video like Dove.” (Of course, very few clients had the balls to pursue brave ideas, so most of the work stayed in boardrooms. Like we said, new ideas are scary.)
If opportunity doesn’t knock, build a door. – Milton Berle
Canadians of a certain age will remember Speakers Corner. For a buck, anybody could enter the booth and talk to the camera about any subject. The best (and worst) clips were aired weekly on City TV.
Albert Howell and Andrew Currie hijacked the show with improvised mayhem. Calling themselves The Devil’s Advocates, they built a cult following that led to their own TV show.
Today there’s a much bigger Speakers Corner, called YouTube. And while jillions of videos vie for attention, you can still stand out from the crowd.
How about taking some of the worst fanfic ever written and filming it?
That’s what the creators of the My Immortal web series did, racking up tens of thousands of views and winning die-hard fans.
The real value of “free.”
There’s a difference between someone expecting you to work gratis, and doing stuff for free because you can’t get it made any other way (yet).
Create your own web series, short film, or stage play, and someone may like it enough to pay you. If not for that, then for something else.
The My Immortal crew shot the first two seasons on their own dime. Then, thanks to their loyal fan base, they were able to fund a new series through Kickstarter called No Boys Dorm.
Those crafty Devil’s Advocates made numerous appearances on Speakers Corner before being offered their own show, Improv Heaven & Hell. Albert Howell went on to write for Comedy Inc, This Hour Has 22 Minutes, and most recently, a little thing called The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon.
Evolution‘s Tim Piper has his own film and television studio, where he directs long-form content for clients.
And after scoring the lowest rating of any BBC program ever, The Office went on to win BAFTAs, a Golden Globe, and a Peabody, spawning a US version that lasted for nine seasons.
Of course, there are no guarantees. You may not find big investors for your one-man show about your sex life, or your hilarious podcast about periods. That’s OK. You’re probably just ahead of the curve. Keep believing in yourself, and eventually others will too.
“Our lives are our biggest projects.” – Ayse Birsel
Sometimes we think, “If I could just (direct an award-winning film/write a groundbreaking comedy/host a late-night talk show/get a date) I’d be happy!”
In that case Jonathon Dayton and Valerie Faris, who directed the Oscar®-winning Little Miss Sunshine, should be retired. Instead, they shoot commercials for State Farm and Sprint to help finance their passion projects.
Bob Odenkirk and David Cross changed the face of comedy. But they struggled for years after Mr Show ended, before finding new fame with Arrested Development, Breaking Bad, and coming soon to Netflix, With Bob & David.
And who could forget Conan O’Brien? After years of being groomed to take over The Tonight Show, he was put in an untenable position. Forced to choose between walking away or moving The Tonight Show till after midnight (essentially becoming The Tomorrow Show), Conan resigned.
It was a low point not just in Conan’s career, but in late-night history. But Team Coco followed him to TBS, where he and Andy Richter continue to make their own brand of funny.
To go back to my friend’s original post, “How do we fix the [your country here] entertainment system? Is there anything we can do? Anybody?”
The answer, as always, lies with you.
There is no finish line. There is no free lunch. But there is such a thing as artistic freedom when you take responsibility for it yourself.
You can rail against the system, or you can say fuck the system. Create your own content. Involve your friends. Learn the skills you need to make it happen. Most importantly, as Mick Napier would say, just do something. Anything. It doesn’t have to perfect.
Share your work, build your own tribe, and others will join you. Before you know it, you won’t care about fixing the system, because the system will be chasing you.
For further reading, we recommend:
Chris and Laura are staples of the comedy community. Chris shot and directed How To Spot An Improviser, and Laura is one half of hilarious sketch duo, Two Weird Ladies, among many other things. We got all real talk on their relationship.
P&C: How and when did you meet?
Chris: Laura claims it was at a party of a mutual friend. I have no recollection of this.
Laura: That’s because it was 2:30 am on New Year’s Day and Chris was drunk. Though it’s good to know I failed to make any sort of lasting impression.
The first time I noticed Chris was at a Vanguard improv show at The Supermarket. I thought he was really funny so I tucked his existence away in my mind. Then I tried to talk to him at the party he doesn’t remember. To be fair, the conversation was very boring.
Chris: One of my earliest memories of hanging out with Laura is the Del Close Marathon in New York the summer of 2010. At the end-of-festival dance party, we took a photo with one of our friends. We look like we’re having the time of our lives, and that we kidnapped him against his will. It’s one of my favourite photos and part of my earliest memories with Laura.
Laura: We hung out at DCM in 2010 and again in 2011, but the first time we really got to know each other was during the 2011 Toronto Improv Festival. We’d both gone to see shows alone, and although we knew lots of people at Comedy Bar, we were both pretty socially awkward and ended up just talking to each other all night.
A week later we were back at Comedy Bar for Halloween. I was dressed as Zombie Princess Di and Chris was dressed as some comic book character called Axe Cop that I’d never heard of in my life. Despite my tasteless costume and abundant zombie makeup, we got drunk and made out. Yadda, yadda, yadda – we’re getting married in November. I’ll really have to work on this story before we have kids. So they respect us and stuff.
Chris: They can respect Laura all they want. I’m planning on being the embarrassing dad.
P&C: When did you first know you liked the other person?
Chris: I stage-liked Laura when I saw the remount of her Second City Conservatory show, Citizen Vain. I thought she was hilarious.
I started to like-like her at the Del Close Marathon in 2011. (Notice a trend?) Four of us were discussing Seinfeld, and which characters we were most like. She was Elaine, and I was George. I was a little distraught, as only in Jason Alexander’s fan fiction would Elaine ever fall for George. Luckily over the course of the festival we got to get to know each other more.
I wouldn’t make a move until months later when I ran into her at Comedy Bar. After a long discussion I came up with the brilliant flirting line, “I don’t want to date comedians.” Somehow we got together. (Booze.)
Laura: I found Chris appealing from the moment I saw him on stage as part of his Vanguard show. Mostly because he was funny and I really liked the way he improvised. But also he was attractive and was dressed in a weird skater/slacker/I-do-improv-and-have-no-money style that I particularly liked.
But I felt we really hit it off at DCM. Finding out Chris loves Seinfeld and relates most to George Costanza was sadly a big plus for me, as I am somewhat of a female Larry David.
Chris was just as excited as I was to spend hours in FAO Schwartz looking at toys, and together we came up with the plot to a sequel to the movie Big, called Little, starring Colin Hanks. A love for Seinfeld, affinity for Lego, and abnormally detailed knowledge of a 1980s Tom Hanks classic. What was not to like?
P&C: Have you ever performed together?
Chris: We were never on the same improv team, but we did write and perform in a sketch revue together. We’re both Type A (okay, I’m more of an A minus) so we got stuff done. She is a crazy talented comedy writer, so she brought out the best in me.
Laura: We were both part of a short-run improv show where we improvised episodes of Degrassi Junior High. Man – we really need to bring that show back. It was so much fun. I played pregnant Spike and Chris played Mr. Raditch.
Other than that, we’ve done a few one-off shows together, co-wrote a news joke podcast, and worked together writing and acting in an anti-Ford municipal election sketch show.
It’s great working with someone who shares your crazy work ethic and obsession with detail (even if it’s maybe because they’re a little scared of how Type A you are). I remember I initially said I didn’t want to be that couple who does improv together. Now I actually want to start an improv duo with Chris called “That Couple Who.” I should remember to ask him about that…
Chris: Laura, remember to ask me about that.
P&C: What’s the best, worst, or funniest moment you’ve had improvising together?
Chris: In a workshop we were given the task of improvising as each other on a date. For some couples this could be an effective means to truncate a relationship. We certainly fell into the trap of pointing out each other’s flaws: she talked about superheroes and checked her phone a lot, while I took the entire scene to decide what to order. I also made note to correct the grammar of the menu.
While the people watching thought they were seeing a couple air their grievances, we were, in a way, retelling the night where I realized I loved her. I’d come back from the washroom at Fran’s Restaurant to find Laura correcting their menu with a green pen. They had a fascination with unnecessary apostrophes. It was at that moment I knew it was love. (I’m fairly certain she thought I would bail immediately.)
Laura: Not improv, but the worst for me was the one time Chris saw me do stand-up. I used to be a pretty decent stand-up, but I didn’t love it the way I love sketch and improv so I retired. A couple years later, after I started dating Chris, on a whim I did stand-up once, using new material I’d written the night before. Untested material, mostly about travelling to a crowd who either had never travelled or thought I wasn’t funny.
So the only time Chris saw me do stand-up I really fell flat. It haunts me. It’s like skipping Wayne’s World and Austin Powers and going straight to The Love Guru; you’re never going to believe that Mike Myers was once funny.
P&C: How has improv helped your relationship?
Chris: We’re in the final stages of planning our wedding. We have to keep reminding each other that we can’t just choose the funniest thing, that our wedding should also be sentimental.
Laura: If it weren’t for improv, we never would have met, never would have continued to meet and never would have yes-and-ed our Halloween drink consumption to get to the point where we were drunk enough to make a move.
Since then, I’ve realized how important it is to have someone who understands the desire to dedicate your time doing something you love for free. We both understand when the other person has stretches of time when they’re never home, we both understand the importance of going to each other’s shows and supporting each other, we both understand that there’s no “end goal” in doing improv – we both plan and hope to do it for as long as we are able.
People who aren’t passionate about an art form, playing a sport, etc, often don’t understand these things. Plus, our relationship has been fun.
P&C: What impact has improv had on your careers?
Chris: I was in a toxic seven-year relationship with a nation-wide book chain. In my interview with my current employer, my boss doubted my ability to take rejection well. I’d be doing sales if I got the job, and it’s not a job for everyone. I told him, “I auditioned for Second City Conservatory for five years until I got in, I think I can handle rejection.” He replied, “You’re hired.”
Laura: If we’re talking about my day job, not going to lie – improv has probably mostly hurt my career. While it has helped my people skills to a certain degree, it also means I say things without thinking and can be an unprofessional piece of trash who sometimes crosses the line without meaning to.
Recently before entering a meeting with a high-level exec, my boss had to pull me aside and warn me not to do anything dumb. Essentially all I can do is be myself and hope the people who matter like my sense of humour. And of course being involved in the arts makes it hard to sit at a desk being all non-creative and stuff. Improv is about creating, exploring new ideas and being innovative, but sometimes the corporate world is not open to change and just wants to go by the book, which I find challenging.
Outside of the office, improv has helped me immensely in auditions and other forms of comedy. Recently during my solo play, the power went out halfway through the show. Alone on stage in the dark, I’ve never been more grateful for my improv skills.
That said, making $40 on a play you spend hundreds of hours writing, producing and acting in hardly counts as a career. During the day I sit at a desk reading legal contracts and writing professionally-worded emails, then trying not to say anything that will get me fired when I’m in meetings with VPs. But I am slowly taking the steps I need to to become a writer for television, and once that dream comes true my improv skills will help me immensely.
(Chris wins for scariest costume as Stephen Harper. And did we mention the Comedy Bar Halloween show is right around the corner?)