Brandon Gardner Will Straighten Out Your Straight Man — And More

by Sophie Lucido Johnson

Brandon Gardner pretty much does it all. Since beginning his tenure at the Upright Citizens Brigade in New York in 2007, he’s become a well-known improviser, writer, performer, and teacher. He has written over 20 original sketch shows with the UCB Maude Teams; is on the UCB TourCo All-Stars touring team; and is a performer with The Curfew and Improv Nerds at the UCB Ny and UCB East theaters. He’s also a dynamic personality, and all-around nice guy.

Brandon has been teaching at the UCB New York since 2009, and now he’s bringing his instructional prowess to Improv Wins with two incredible workshops: A Good Straight Man Says No Once and From Seinfeld to Key and Peele. We had the opportunity to sit down and talk with Brandon about his dreams, fears, comedy, and what he’s bringing to Austin. Take a look.

TNM: Tell me about your workshops for Improv Wins.

Brandon Gardner: There’s two. One is called From Seinfeld to Key and Peele. It’s basically talking about a lot of written comedy, like TV comedy, and what makes the successful stuff work, and what we can borrow from that improvising. Teaching, I see a lot of people doing stuff in their improv where you know these people would recognize it as not working comedically in a sketch or on a TV show, but they do it in their improv anyway. So we can use these comedy techniques on TV to help make our work smarter and funnier.

Could you give an example?

Well the example I use a lot is, in improv people love to do something where if a character has an unusual funny thing about them, often times someone will do a scene with them where they’re basically trying to tell the character to stop doing that unusual funny thing, rather than secretly trying to set them up to do it and support it. The example I usually give is that on Seinfeld, there was this running thing where Kramer would come over to Jerry’s apartment and eat stuff from his kitchen, but there’s never an episode of Seinfeld where Jerry sits him down and tells him to stop doing that, or bans him from the apartment, because you just want to see it happen. You always see Jerry frustrated with it, but there’s never a scene where Jerry tells him to stop it, because that’s not fun. Maybe it’s because in real life, that’s a practical thing, where we probably should talk to people who are doing something that bothers us, but we do it all the time in improv, and it gets us away from what’s fun.

That’s a good tip. I’m gonna steal it! Are you teaching any other workshops?

The other workshop I’m doing is related to the last concept I was talking about. I’m doing a straight man workshop about how to be a good straight man without stopping the fun of the scene.

Yeah, that’s so important. I feel like that is something that we all kind of struggle with because we like to gravitate toward the absurd.

Yeah, sometimes the funniest thing you can do, and the most supportive thing you can do, is frame your partner’s unusual behavior, by acting realistically around it without yelling at or making it stop.

I feel like the best improvisers I’ve ever seen have been people who you watch and you don’t necessarily think, “Oh that was the funniest person!” in the moment. But when you go back and really look at the game, you realize that they were playing so smartly they didn’t draw too much attention to themselves.

Yeah, exactly.

Who do you admire in the comedy world?

Growing up I guess my influences were Steve Martin — I think because my parents liked him. And I liked Woody Allen; I loved his movies. And I have loved Saturday Night Live since I was little.

How long have you been involved in comedy? You’re in New York, right?

Yeah, I’m in New York at UCB, and I started taking classes there in 2005, and started performing there about a year and a half later. Then I started teaching in the beginning of 2009.

Did you always know this is what you wanted to do?

In college I thought I was going to be a lawyer.

Yuck.

Yeah, exactly. So, I started doing improv. I joined a college improv group and really loved that. And I actually took a workshop with some UCB people that were touring and sort of loved that style, so by the time I graduated college, I knew I was moving to New York to do UCB and see what I wanted to do with improv.

That’s really brave. I think that’s everybody’s dream, but it can be scary. Were you scared to try it?

I guess so. I think I just loved it so much… A lot of people were scared for me. I know my parents definitely were. But I was just so into I just couldn’t think of something else I could do, really. So when I signed up fro my first UCB class, I didn’t know where I was going to live when I moved. I figured it out a week before I went to New York, a friend of a friend said I could stay on their couch, and I sort of just did it. I think was braver then, when I just graduated college than I probably would be now.

So when you first got there, what were some challenges for you?

I think the first challenge — and teaching now, I get this a lot from people who maybe improvised in college or improvised somewhere else and then came to New York — was just to be OK with being bad for a while. Especially since you’re learning another style, and you may have come from a place where you were sort of a big fish in your pond and you may have gotten kind of cocky about it. I learned to be humble. You have to remind yourself that you have a lot to learn, and to just do what you can. The other challenge was that I had to do it all while waiting tables and doing that kind of thing.

Whatever you have to do to live the dream! So, what is your favorite improv scene or show that you’ve ever seen?

I can’t think of a specific show, or a specific performance, but my favorite thing to watch from when I was a student and still today when I get to see them perform, is a show called 2 Square, or sometimes it’s called 4-square because there are four of them. It’s a four-person group from Chicago, and usually I see it with only two of the performers at a time. When I first started watching it was with John Lutz and Dan Bakkedahl. The last time I saw it was John Lutz and Peter Grosz.

I’ll have to look it up.

Yeah.

So, um, who is your favorite Spice Girl?

The one I’d probably want to hang out with is Sporty.

She ended up being a lesbian.

I have a lot of lesbian friends, so that would work out. When I was 12, I liked Posh Spice, but I think that was just because I was a 12 year old boy.

Brandon Gardner will be at Improv Wins on January 25 and 26.

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UPDATE: Success!

Improv Wins (the book!) is being independently published through Kickstarter – that means pre-ordering the book right now helps fund the initial printing costs! We’ve got great rewards available including show dedications, festival passes and visits from the authors. Funding ends April 26th (right smack in the middle of Hell Yes Fest at Moontower!).