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Whether you’re in New York, LA, Chicago, Toronto, Montreal or – let’s face it – any city with a comedy scene, it’s incredibly hard for theatre owners just to break even.

But lately there’ve been mutterings from comedians who say UCBeast (UCB’s stand-up club in New York), should pay performers.

Now, the stand-up culture is, and always has been, different from improv. But Chris Gethard makes some pretty good points about the payment-vs-non-payment thing on his tumblr.

This week, Matt Besser made a special episode of his Improv4Humans podcast called “Ask The UCB” where he and Ian Roberts set the record straight.

When you hear how much time, energy, and yes, money they’ve poured into all the different UCB stages (including, from which they’ve never profited), you’re guaranteed to have a new respect for everything they’ve done.

I guess the reason I never talk about it in interviews is it sounds tacky. And when I talk about it I don’t wanna…I don’t wanna come off bitter and like, ‘Poor me,’ like maybe we’re starting to sound by this; having to pay those taxes.

But I guess it is something people should know, that the UCB Four, in 15 years since the theatre’s been open, we have never taken any money.”

– Matt Besser, from Improv4Humans 

(Click the link above or on the image below to hear the whole episode)

Thanks UCB, for giving us a space to play.

Thanks UCB, for giving thousands a place to play.

Marty McFly’s trip back (and forwards) in time is one of the most loved films of the ’80s – or any era. For the past year, Toronto improviser/director/producer Quentin Matheson has been entertaining audiences with his ode to the franchise, Back To The Future: The Improv Show.

Cameron and I were the featured couple at their BCIF show last year, and it was one of the funnest times I’ve had on stage. (Hey, any chance to brag about dating the intern 10 years younger than me, I’ll take it.)

We asked Matheson about the geeky glory that is BTTF.


P&C: For newbies, what’s the premise of the show?

QM: Like the movie, we explore the idea of rewriting history with the intent of still hitting the happy ending.

We get a real love story from a couple I interview at the start of the show. The cast then recreates the story, but we give it the Back To The Future treatment. Namely, a time-traveller who screws things up!

P&C: What inspired you to develop it?

QM: I was fairly new to improv and wanted to get more involved in it when I went home to my folks’ for Christmas. Comedy Bar’s Festival of New Formats was in a couple of weeks, which piqued my interest.

Anyway, Christmas is the only time I watch cable and that year BTTF was running constantly. Watching it, I was reminded just how clever and satisfying that screenplay is. And it just struck me maybe that story structure could work on stage and for any love story. I forgot about it for a year until the next New Formats came around, and thought I’d try it.

P&C: How do you choose your couples; what are their qualifications, so to speak?

QM: I’m looking for stories we can build an epic action-adventure around. But really just a fun, interesting story. A loving couple that’s been together a good while and are clearly going the distance.

P&C: It’s a great mix of comedic truth (the couple’s story) and truth in comedy (the improvised portion). Are you ever surprised by what people reveal on stage?

QM: I didn’t expect the couples to be quite so earnest. I think the supportive crowd helps bring that out. You get some vulnerability which is awesome, because it raises the stakes.

P&C: Tell us about the secrecy around the show.

QM: People are always curious who the next couple is going to be, but I keep it secret. Even the cast doesn’t know. They hear the story at the same time as the audience.

P&C: You’ve assembled a fabulous team of improvisers. What are some of the challenges of the show’s format, or do they find it relatively easy to play out?

QM: I think re-enacting a story just told is straightforward enough for seasoned improvisers, but our big challenge is working out the twist: how the time-traveller changes the storyline, and how to get back to the happy ending. Fortunately the cast is up to the challenge.

P&C: How can interested couples get in touch with you?

QM: Please email me at

What Past Couples Have Said About The Show

How did you feel when you were asked to do the show?

“Flattered, exhilarated and excited.”

“So exciting. No one knew, but that year marked 20 years of being together. We’re not much for ceremony, but what a beautiful anniversary gift.”

How did it feel up there telling your story?

“It’s great to share. I guess most couples come up with their own original myth that they pull out when asked. Usually in the re-telling, you gauge your audience and cut it short when you sense you’re boring them. But it was wonderful to be encouraged to go on in detail in front of a captive audience.”

“People loved it. We felt like celebrities.”

What would you say to other couples who might want to do this?

“Feel the fear and do it anyway! It’s great fun, and an awesome chance to share your love story with others.”

The next BTTF: TIS is Saturday, February 16, 8:00 pm at Comedy Bar.


Love this idea:



   1. Get sickeningly good at improv.
2. Be refreshingly approachable and friendly.

Examples: John Murray, D’Arcy Carden, Charlie Todd, Lydia Hensler, Erik Tanouye, Chelsea Clarke.

Reblog and add names.

Yes, and: Kevin Mullaney, Molly Lloyd, Susan Messing, Christina Gausas, Mick Napier, Tara DeFrancisco, Dina Facklis, Jet Eveleth, Ari Voukydis, Don Fanelli, Terry Withers, Silvija Ozols, Rick Andrews, Dan Hodapp, Brandon Scott Jones, Christian Capozzoli, Kirk Damato, Leslie Meisel, Michael Kayne, Joe Bill…I can keep going…

Yes, and Betsy Stover, Neil Casey, Armando Diaz, Megan Grey, Keith Huang, Chris Grace, Ashley Ward, Kurt Braunohler, Keisha Zollar, Pam Murphy, Michael Martin, Mike Still, Amey Goerlich… keep going…

We say:
Yes, and TJ Jagodowski, David Pasquesi, David Razowsky, Greg Hess, Todd Stashwick, Mark Meer, Amy Shostak, Anand Rajaram, Rob Norman, Adam Cawley, Jason DeRosse, Alice Moran, Rob Baker, Alastair Forbes, Pat Smith, Dale Boyer, Alex Tindal, Carmine Lucarelli, Cameron Algie, Isaac Kessler, Kevin Whalen, Paloma Nunez, Devon Hyland, Conor Bradbury, Julian Frid, Seann Murray, Matt Folliott, Jan Caruana, Kurt Smeaton, Reid Janisse, Paul Bates, Nigel Downer, James Gangl, Marcel St Pierre, Nug Nahrgang, Sean Tabares, Caitlin Howden, Kayla Lorrette, Ashley Comeau, Connor Thompson…

So you have to write a bio for your festival submission/Facebook page/fringe show. Now what?

Most performer bios are straight, earnest write-ups with a laundry list of every show the person’s ever done.


Unless you work for Second City, where bios read like a playbill from Smallville High (“Jimmy Jones is thrilled to be in his third Mainstage revue…“), this is a chance to let your comedy skills shine.

A snappy, well-written profile will make you stand out, so spend a few minutes and make it fun. Below are three great examples. First up, a solo bio for the improvised show, Throne of Games:

Kevin Whalen “Petyr Baelish”

Kevin Whalen is delighted to reprise his role as “Lord Baelish” in Throne of Games. When not playing a self-centered, two-faced pimp, Kevin can be found eating nachos. During pre and post nacho eating, Kevin is probably teaching comedy at the The Second City Training Centre or perhaps performing sketch with The Second City Touring Company. If none of the above applies, you might find him improvising with the comedy troupe S&P or at home deciding which plaid shirt accurately reflects his mood today.


It starts off like a typical bio, then takes a left turn into funny. The self-deprecating tone is a refreshing change from the usual platitudes, and gives an insight into Kevin’s personality. Now let’s look at a team bio:

Standards & Practices

(Cameron Algie, Matt Folliott, Isaac Kessler and Kevin Whalen) BIG BANG. Four gods of improv explode onto the stage and create a new world. A world without rules, limitations or laughterlessness. Using their training from Annoyance, UCB, iO, ITC, Second City and Bad Dog, they organically follow the ideas using extreme characters, heart-wrenching emotional commitment, and wild physicality until there’s order to the chaos. And a new world is born: Awesomeland.

Photomontage © Tom Vest

(Standards & Practices sold separately)

In just a few sentences, Standards & Practices have painted a vivid picture of who they are. And hey, there’s Kevin Whalen again. (What can we say? Dude’s funny.) Note the use of active, playful language that accurately reflects their unique style of improv. For a team bio, you probably don’t need to go into a ton of detail. Just give the reader a taste of what you’re all about in a paragraph or so.

Achtung, baby: S&P’s chutzpah is balanced with brevity. Plus, they consistently deliver the goods. Unless you can do the same, don’t overpromise with a blurb that’s more hubris than humorous.

Now maybe you’re thinking, “That’s all great, but I need to present myself in a professional manner. What if some Big Talent Agent or other really important person reads it?”

As someone who writes copy for a living, I urge you to think of your bio as an ad for yourself. And we all know what happens to boring ads.

It doesn’t matter who you’re trying to impress. Which bio do you think they’ll remember: the one that lists every show you’ve done since you were seven, or the pithy paragraph that made them chuckle? You’re in the entertainment business. Take the opportunity to engage your audience before they set eyes on you.

Now let’s look at that rarest of things, a successful working comedian’s bio:

Anthony Atamanuik 

Anthony Atamanuik has been writing, performing, and producing comedy for over ten years. In 1997 he moved to Los Angeles after graduating with a BS in Film Theory from Emerson College. While living in LA Anthony worked for Jim Henson Interactive, Mr. Show, and sadly, Suzanne Somers. He moved to New York in 2000 and started training and performing at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre in 2002. Anthony has trained with Matt Walsh, Matt Besser, Owen Burke, Billy Merritt, Kevin Mullaney, Seth Morris and others. He performed with various Harold Teams including Creep, and performed with the acclaimed Instant Cinema. Anthony is currently performing with critically acclaimed and award-winning weekend team Death by Roo Roo on Saturday nights. He is also a regular performer in ASSSSCAT 3000 on Sunday night. Anthony also performs his one-man variety show, The Tony and Johnny Show, Tuesday nights at 9:30 pm, and every Wednesday he makes movie magic with Neil W. Casey in the Two Man Movie. He has played various roles in Adult Swim’s Fat Guy Stuck In Internet. He has also appeared on Late Night With Conan O’Brien, The Caroline Rhea Show, The Reggie Watts Live At Central Park Comedy Central Special, and in a very special DVD extra on Todd Barry’s Comedy Central special. For the last 7 seasons, Anthony can be seen on NBC’s 30 Rock, playing a very expressive staff writer who doesn’t speak.

Notice how all three examples have something in the opening and closing that elicits a smile. Even, in fact especially when there’s a lot of info, you want to reward the reader for wading through it.

A lot of bios are written in the third person. It’s more formal, but can come across as pretentious if you’re not careful. (Read some solopreneur websites and you’ll see what we mean.) Whether you write in the first or third person, just avoid coming across as, well, a douchebag. Even though his work is “acclaimed” and “award-winning,” Atamanuik sounds confident but humble.

Update: Since this post was written five years ago, Atamanuik has gone on to land his own series on Comedy Central, The President Show. His brilliant impersonation and improv skills aside, we like to think a kickass bio helped.

For more inspiration, check out Seth Godin’s post on why resumes are redundant in the digital age.

Better yet, buy his life-changing, career-building book, Linchpin.It’s what motivated us to start this blog, and Cameron to ditch a job in advertising for his true passion, helping people overcome anxiety through play. (You can read his story here.)

This warm-up is very physical and a lot of fun. It requires a good-sized floor space for maximum efficacy. It also requires an odd number of players.

Begin by walking around the room, imagining you are all ants, walking on the top of a giant graham cracker that’s floating in a glass of milk.

The object is to keep the cracker balanced at all times. In order to do this, players must try to fill the negative spaces between them evenly.

Start by walking slowly at first, then gradually get faster. The Director may coach people “There’s a space! Somebody fill it!” etc., to keep the cracker from tipping over.

When everyone is almost running across the surface of the graham cracker, the Director tells players to partner up.

One person will be left without a partner. The group is then told to move away from that person and look at them.

The Director asks the lone person how they feel. The answer may be “bad,” “lonely,” “left out,” “stupid,” or something along those lines.

The group then runs the exercise again. This time when the Director says “Grab a partner,” people will tend to do so faster, because they don’t want to be left alone.

The third time around, everything will be faster still, and people will practically claw each other to get a partner.

The Take-away:

• We begin to become more aware as the game progresses – there is no phoning it in.

• Despite silly circumstances or rules, we begin to play the game (scene) more seriously and with real emotional attachment, both to the balance of the cracker, and to not being left alone.

• Because we started to feel something real (tired, frustrated, giddy, joy, etc.) during this, we then have to trust we can do the same things on stage if we take the scene and let it affect us.

(Thanks to Greg Hess for his help with this post, and to 500 Clown for the exercise.)


This is a fun, fast, physical warm-up that’s good for building awareness and responsiveness.

Important Safety Tip: Always use a mimed knife.

To begin, everyone stands in a circle. One person throws a knife to someone else. As they throw it, they make a “Shhhhhht!” sound like a knife blade whizzing through the air.

The receiver claps their hands together to stop the knife from killing them, and to let us know they caught it. They then throw the knife to someone else in the circle.

You can practice your mime skills to make the knife as real as possible: unfold the blade from its switchblade handle before throwing, for instance.

The pace should be fairly fast. If you have a large group, you can add more knives.

Once the first knife has gone around the circle a few times, the Director/Coach taps someone on the shoulder and hands them a second knife. Once both knives have been thrown around the circle, add a third. Finally, you can add an armful of puppies to the mix. Be careful not to let the puppies get knifed.

The knives and puppies get passed around for a few minutes, then the Director stops everyone and asks who has each item by a show of hands.


This is an exercise in listening and, just as important, in communicating clearly.

Speed is not the point here. You want to make sure your message “lands,” not just that the email was sent, so to speak.

To begin, everyone stands in a circle. The Director/Coach mimes holding a ball, which they pass to someone else in the circle while making eye contact and saying “Red ball.”

The person receiving it repeats, “Red ball” as they take it. They give it to someone else, saying “Red ball” and making eye contact as they pass it. That person repeats “Red ball” as they receive it, and so on.

This continues until everyone in the circle has had the ball a couple of times. The Director then gives someone a mimed bowl, saying “Red bowl.” That person repeats “Red bowl,” and passes it on to someone else.

Once the red bowl and red ball have gone around the circle, the Director can add a bread bowl, a Red Bull (miming a can), a red shawl, and something else just to mix it up: a lemon meringue pie, a copy of Hustler, or the flaming skull of Del Close, for instance.

When all the items are in play, the Director stops everyone and asks who has each item by a show of hands.

Variation: This game can be played using only mimed balls of different colours (red, yellow, green, etc.). Instead of passing the ball, you can throw it around the circle.

red ball

Photo © Keith Huang

Photo © Keith Huang


Think of your favourite improv scene ever. (If that’s too hard, the best one you’ve seen recently.)

Whether it featured a couple of co-workers, conjoined twins, or the Ikea monkey and his Mom, I’ll bet dollars to donuts it wasn’t about a “special day.”

Many of us were taught every scene should be “Today is the day that…” Unfortunately, that can lead to forced or clichéd scenes.

“Today’s the day we’re finally going to get married!”

“Today’s the day I quit my job to become an astronaut!”

“Today’s the day I win the Nobel Peace Prize!”

Any of these scenarios could turn out to be great. And there’s nothing wrong with making a huge offer at the top of the scene. But there’s also nothing wrong with starting small and finding the “what” along the way.

And if the what turns out to be nothing more than discovering a woman has married an exact carbon copy of her shouty father (as happened in one of my favourite scenes), that’s just fine.

“Be so believable it hurts. Don’t just play the idea of the scene. Dive deep into the scene. The relationships are what’s important. Simple scenes are all you need; it doesn’t have to be ‘about’ something.” – Greg Hess

If you can get your hands on a copy, watch TJ and Dave’s show entitled Before The Party. The entire 50-minute set revolves around two guys getting ready for some kind of shindig.

We never actually find out what happens at the party. Who cares? It’s all about these two characters, from their music choices to their fear of failure with women.

The more you focus on what’s happening right now, the more we’ll lean in to learn more.

Jason Mantzoukas’s one-man Hermit show (described here) is another great example. While it did turn out to be an unusual day, he didn’t start by declaring that right off the top.

Instead, the scene built to a climax slowly and methodically. And how much more powerful was it because the audience discovered the “what” with him?

When you’re fully present and immersed in what’s happening on stage, you’ll create something people remember – because they experienced it too.