INTERVIEWED BY VICE STAFF,
PHOTOGRAPHED BY DOUGLAS THOMPSON
Improv comedy is the bravest, most immediate form of making up stories that there is. It’s not always the funniest, or the smartest, or the best, but it’s always the bravest. The dawgs who do this shit have big balls, yo.
Among improv people today, the gold standard is a group called Asssscat, who perform a weekly show at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre in New York City. Asssscat includes writers and performers from SNL, 30 Rock, Colbert, Human Giant, Conan O’Brien… alla’ that funny stuff.
The basic theory of good improv is, we think, about letting go, accepting looking stupid, and making mistakes then turning them into gold at the drop of a dime. Most people who are great at improv, like Asssscat, learned this stuff first- or second-hand from a man named Del Close, who is to improv comedy what George Washington is to America or Thomas Edison is to, oh, you know, quadruplex-telegraph repeaters.
Anyway, on a good night, watching Asssscat perform is like being in a car speeding downhill with no brakes—in a funny way. They pretty much know the secret that unlocks the enchanted world of laughter, so we decided to try and get them to tell us… AMY POEHLER Amy Poehler is a cast member on Saturday Night Live and one of the founding four people who made the Upright Citizens Brigade. She’s also been in a lot of movies and… Look, you know who Amy Poehler is. Vice: Were you good at improv from the very beginning? Amy Poehler: Oh God no. I was lucky to study with great teachers and perform with people who made me better, but I don’t think much of my “early stuff” would make my greatest-hits album. But you were fortunate to be able to see some of the best. What was the first improv show you saw? Well, the very first was a freshmen-orientation thing at Boston College. The group was My Mother’s Fleabag, and I eventually became a member and was officially hooked. In the early 90s there was great stuff like Lois Kaz with Miriam Tolan and Kevin Dorff. Was any particular group the one that made you say, “I want to do this”? Probably the biggest influence was the Improv Olympic group The Family, which was made up of Matt Besser, Adam McKay, Ian Roberts, Neal Flynn, Ali Farrahnakian, and Miles Stroth. Those are still probably the best improv shows I have ever seen. Did you ever tour around America in a troupe? I was in the Second City touring company with Tina Fey. We went to Waco, Texas, once. We went to the Branch Davidian compound and a David Koresh devotee preached to us in a burned-out bus. Do you have a favorite Del Close-ism? We like that thing about mistakes being a gift. He also just challenged you to play to the height of your intelligence. He told us to “treat your audiences like poets and geniuses.” He also encouraged risk. “Fall, and then figure out what to do on your way down.” It seems like you tap into this whole area of humor in women characters that other people overlook. Like the bitchy kid, the professional woman… It seems like a lot of people can’t capture what’s funny about those people. I don’t know. I guess man or woman, everyone can be a glorious idiot. What is the biggest obstacle to being a good performer? Stage fright? Trying to be funny? Sittin’ down when my pants are too tight. JOHN LUTZ John Lutz is a writer for Saturday Night Live and has a recurring role on 30 Rock. He’s also a performer in Asssscat, and we asked him if he’d talk to us because he was one of the funniest people up there the last time we went. Vice: We were so impressed by seeing Asssscat doing live improv. John Lutz: Thanks! Doing Asssscat is the most fun part of my week. As you can tell. People are just having fun up there. It’s great when people come for the first time and see it and it’s a good show… because sometimes it can be stinky. Yeah? There are off-nights? Usually not with Asssscat because there are so many fantastic performers in it. So when someone is having an off-night, it doesn’t really show. But I’ve been doing improv for 10 or 11 years now. I’ve gotten a lot of my stinkier shows out of the way. There can be times when there’s just silence. That’s almost just as fun—afterward, when you’re laughing about it. Do you remember the first time you saw improv? I do. It was a Second City show called Old Wine, New Bottles. It was the 35th anniversary of Second City in Chicago, I think. We stuck around afterward to see the improv set and it blew me away. It looked like so much fun. Scott Adsit, who’s on 30 Rock with me, was in that show. He was amazing. I was like, “That’s what I want to do.” What were you doing then? Writing? I was still in college at the time. I was in Indiana and my buddy was like, “You love comedy. Let’s go to Second City.” I had just recently almost flunked out of college and then changed my major to psychology, so… So you had your life saved by that. Yeah. It was about a year later that I moved to Chicago to improvise and learn how to write sketch comedy. Did you enroll in improv classes at Second City? I moved to Schomberg because there was supposed to be a Second City there too. Wait, what’s Schomberg? It’s a suburb of Chicago. I didn’t want to move to Chicago because I was scared of living in the big city. I’m a real pussy, actually. But, and I don’t know if it’s just me, isn’t Chicago particularly scary? It is until you move there, then you’re like, “Why was I so scared? You can take taxis everywhere and you can get drunk and not have to drive home.” Right. But first you did some time in Schomberg. Yeah. But the Second City there closed right when I moved in. So I decided to take classes in the city, but it was booked at the time so I went to Improv Olympics instead. That’s where people like Chris Farley, Tina Fey, and Rachel Dratch started. All those people did Improv Olympics and then went to Second City. Once you started doing the classes, did it click in for you pretty quickly? No, it was hard, but it was fun. The first time it works onstage, it’s awesome. Do you remember when that was? Yeah. The first show that my team, Valhalla, did was a really good show. I think it was because we were all pumped with adrenaline and didn’t know what we were doing. We just attacked it. It was an amazing rush. And then the show after that was a complete tanker. It’s a roller-coaster ride of emotions! But once you have a little taste of it, even if you stink at it and it just works a little bit, it’s like you’re addicted to it and you need to find it again. It seems like it can be sort of like chasing a high, or like that perfect moment. Do you tend to go high-status or low-status characters? I switch it up a lot, but I really tend to like playing low status. Will you define “low status” for me? Sure. It’s like, if you look at the Three Stooges, Moe would be the high-status dude and Curly would be the low-status guy. As low status, you set yourself up to get abused or yelled at or get tripped. You did a great thing when I saw you with Asssscat recently, where you were playing this dancing high school janitor thing. You were doing soft-shoe while miming holding a broom. I guess that was a low-status character? [laughs] That’s a total low-status character. That was fun because as I was dancing across the stage, Peter Guinn tripped me—not like a real trip, but enough to make me fall and hit the floor. My favorite characters are the ones who think they’re cool and then something bad happens because they’re acting cool, and it immediately takes them down a peg. Did you ever meet Del Close? Yeah, I took classes with him. Can you tell me something about him? He was awesome. He always said, “Why wouldn’t you want to say yes to things?” He was a big “yes, and” dude. So onstage it’s like, if you’re getting ready to go to an event, why not be excited to go? A lot of times when you’re a new improviser, you’re like, “I don’t want to go to that. No, no, no.” He would always say, “Why wouldn’t you want to go to that thing? Why wouldn’t you want to go to, say, the reception for that wedding? If you say no to it, then nothing happens.” That whole idea of “yes, and” seems to be essential to good improv. It is. Another thing I remember about him was once we were doing an improv, and this one girl was doing a bingo caller. She would say, like, “Z-24… Z-24.” And of course, it’s just B-I-N-G-O. So he stopped it immediately and was like, “Alright, if you’re gonna play a game, know the rules of that game.” He was big on being confident about it. Why be a bumbling doctor? Be a doctor that’s superconfident. That would lead to more possibilities. Right. You’re going to mess up eventually because you’re not a doctor. And that’s when it can get really funny. Who is your favorite improv performer? Stephnie Weir. She was on the main stage of Second City when I was still taking classes. She was on MADtv for five years, I believe. She does a show right now with her husband, Bob Dassie. It’s called WeirDass. She’s an amazing improviser and character actress. She always commits 100 percent. She’s hilarious. How is the New York improv scene different from the Chicago scene? I’ve noticed that things in Chicago play a little slower. That was a hard transition for me to make. The scenes accelerate faster here in New York. Two people will start a scene and before you know it, somebody will tag one of them out and take it to a different location. It gets faster and faster and faster. In Chicago, you would have a four-minute scene with just two people, or one scene for 45 minutes. It’s a different style in terms of the patience it takes. You can go two minutes without laughs, but then you’ll hit something and get really hard laughs. In New York, it’s a rapid-fire, not-gonna-let-you-breathe sort of pace. But it’s all the same principles—even though it took me like two years to feel comfortable doing their style of improv. I’d stand on the back line like, “What? Oh… I have an idea—oops. They did it. There it goes.” Do you think you access the same part of your brain when you’re writing as you do when you’re performing? When it’s really going well writing-wise, it feels like the same thing. It pretty much is improvising, because I talk out loud when I write. Whenever I write with somebody, it’s very much like we’re improvising a scene together, and then we write it down if we think it’s funny. When it’s not going well is when I’m not improvising and I’m thinking too hard. It seems to me like the hardest thing about learning improv would be accepting the fact that it’s OK to say stupid shit and make mistakes. Making mistakes is the best thing you can do. When I teach, I say that you need to make a bunch of mistakes in improv to get good at it. And also, sometimes the mistakes you make turn out to be the funniest things. JACK MCBRAYER Jack McBrayer is the best. He’s plays Kenneth the page on 30 Rock and has been in a lot of good movies where every time he pops up, you say to yourself, “Oh, THAT guy. I love that guy!” Vice: Do you worry about everything falling apart when you’re onstage? Jack McBrayer: No. I’ve been doing it so long and I’ve failed so many times that I just stopped being afraid of failing or messing up. And once you’ve got a lot of experience, is there even such a thing as messing up in improv? Yeah, you’re told that in your early classes—there’s no such thing as a wrong choice. You’re just guided more to be helpful to your other players. I liken improv to cartoons. Anything can happen. It can be surreal, or mundane, or abstract… it can be anything. You need to accept it and enjoy it. Were you already pretty experienced as an actor when you started doing improv? The only things I’d done before starting improv were plays in high school. I graduated college and moved to Chicago, and that’s where I followed the performances of Second City. So it was seeing live improv that inspired me to take classes. The people that I saw then included Tina Fey, Rachel Dratch, Scott Adsit… these are the people who inspired me to do all this and now I’m honored to do it with them. That’s kind of a cool thing for me. Did you do the Del Close method of learning improv? I was fortunate to have Del Close before he passed. But it took me a while to realize that you should just glean what you can from each of your teachers, because each one is going to have a slightly different take on it. It was good for me realize that it was OK to not subscribe to every single word that was thrown at me—that it was OK to make it my own. Do you like to play high- or low-status characters? Do you have a default sort of character you go to? Pretty much. [laughs] It’s not like it’s really even a conscious choice. Usually I go for a lower-status character, oftentimes a victim of emotional and sometimes physical abuse. Tell me what being a low-status character means to you. A low-status character has less power than other people in a scene. So it’s more of a foil? I guess… I don’t know all these fancy words! [laughs] Is it more of a support or a sidekick kind of a thing? Oh yes, yes. What I’ve found about a lot of low-status characters is they’re good for just about any scene because there are always other characters that need to have some level of control or power. No matter what you’re playing, whether it’s high school students or people in an office or a husband-and-wife kind of thing. But it’s not like the low status character is the only thing I do. I’m very, very gifted, sir. I’m very gifted. A true diamond in the rough. One thing I noticed that was special about you during an Asssscat performance I saw was that, while most of the other guys onstage were going for goofy, snide, or aggressive (all of which are great too), you were always kind of sweet. Yeah. Everyone was aggressive except for you. Right—that’s pretty much the story of my life! But one thing I do believe in is that you don’t have to be cool to be funny. I’m not such a big fan of prank shows or extreme things. I like for everybody to be in on the joke. If that means that I’m going to be the butt of it, that’s all fine and good. As long as I know it’s not coming from a truly angry place. [laughs] I don’t necessarily like cruelty-based humor. But since I’ve been lucky enough to enjoy the people I work with, it allows them to say anything to me and me to say anything to them. Is there ever antagonism between performers in improv? Every now and then you’ll be playing with someone who is truly competitive or aggressive, who just doesn’t share the same joy of it as you. Then it gets a little ugly. There have been a couple of times where I’ve been doing a scene with someone who really and truly thinks it’s a pissing contest. When that happens, I’ll just be like, “No, no thanks,” and walk out of the scene. I’ll just exit and leave them standing onstage. You’re not going to play that game! I’m like, “Thank you, no!” I was wondering if that ever happens. It’s so quick and intense that people must sometimes snipe at each other. I’m not saying it never happens, but it’s so infrequent. There are only a couple of people in the community who I’m wary of. Do you know where your material comes from when you’re doing improv? I mean, do you see something in your life and think that you might store it and bring it up in a scene, or is everything totally in the moment? Occasionally something happens where I’m like, “Oh, you are kidding me.” You might see a crazy person on the subway or have a weird encounter in a deli and be able to incorporate some of that into a scene. But for the most part, since it is with other players and they’re all going to bring different things to the table, you can’t really bank on a whole lot of stuff because in an instant it can completely change course. There’s only so much forethought you can put into it. I guess there needs to be a lot of trust between the players for it to go well. There’s such great chemistry between everyone in Asssscat. At this point in a bunch of our careers, this is more of a social thing for us. Yes, it also keeps us from getting rusty, but it’s kind of the equivalent of a bunch of us meeting up at a bar and drinking. We just happen to do it front of an audience. Are you guys always on when you’re just hanging out? Is it always bits, riffs, and laughs? Not always. But it makes it easier when you’re able to just do stupid jokes. It’s like being a kid, where you can laugh at stupid puns. You’re not trying to impress anybody. So it’s debilitating to us as humans that we’re comedians. I’m sure you’ve heard how a lot of people believe that comedians are comedians because they’re somehow damaged inside—that being funny comes from a dark, dark place. Everybody’s got baggage and demons and is damaged in some way. I think it’s just how you balance out bits versus deep communication. In Chicago, there was such a delineation between improvisers and stand-ups that it was almost like one was inferior to the other. Of course as improvisers, we thought stand-ups were inferior. It’s like the Jets and the Sharks. I know, right? But once I came to New York, I saw much more of a blend of comedians. That opened me up to seeing what comedians were made of and what kind of people comedians are. So I’ve definitely heard that all comedians are damaged, but you know what? So are all bankers and bakers. Does it ever bum you out when you’re part of a really good improv scene but there’s no record of it? It makes it so special when an improv bit kills and goes so well. It’s a very intimate, you-had-to-be-there moment for the players and the audience. That might be one reason why improv doesn’t translate to television very well. It’s a really intimate sort of art. So in that sense, it’s fine that it doesn’t get recorded. With that said, when I was working at Second City, that’s exactly how we would develop sketches. We’d improvise stuff in front of an audience and the stuff that worked, we would script. The stuff that didn’t, we would just chalk it up to another day in the coal mine.