FAQ 247: Houston Harold Weekend Edition

TNM Houston is hosting a weekend dedicated to the enduring magic that can be the Harold and bringing in experts from all over the place to teach, learn, and play with the format.  One such expert, Matt Donnelly (Executive Monkeys- The Palms Resort Casino, The People’s Improv- NYC, Upright Citizens Brigade)  has agreed to blindly answer questions from TNM’s community of improvisers and as a result he will be remembered as a king in all of our hearts.  Houston Harold Weekend event details.

Why did you get into improv and what keeps you going?

I got into improv when I was 15 when there was a theatre sports style show, Improv Jam happening on the weekends in my hometown of Red Bank, NJ. I was hooked from the moment I saw it and I thought improv was something I could be good at.  I was wrong for year or two, before I got better.

What keeps me going in improv is that I don’t look at improv as an endeavor, I look at it as a discipline.  I am simply a better person for doing it.  It keeps me grounded, well rounded, and it allows me to meet fascinating people from all kinds of different backgrounds all over the world. I don’t think improv will make me rich or famous, rather, it’s my day to day life that is improved by being an improviser.


How did you get to a place of making a living off improv?

Improv has always been a supplemental source of income for me. Its never been 100% of my income.  Currently I make a living as a writer and improv made me a better writer for sure. However, writing is another art form that is filled with its own obstacles and growth points.  Improv taught me to trust my gut and how to get into other people’s voices and to write jokes for people besides myself.  Yet, there’s a catch in transitioning to writing from improv.  Improv gives you instant gratification and feedback but writing doesn’t do that at all.  There is a tremendous anxiety I get when I finish writing, because unlike improv, I have no idea when or how someone will actually receive my materiel. Its frightening.


What are some of your best resources for character inspiration?

My body is actually the best resource. I hope that doesn’t read as arrogant (See? Writing is frightening!).  But the best advice I ever got about characters was to make myself move differently and “yes and” your body.  Your sub conscious creativity is much more diverse, inspired, and talented the your conscious creativity.  Getting out of your own way and enjoying your movement and gestures; “yes and”ing those elements are as important if not more than the focus on dialogue which normally get so much of our attention.


If you could compile an improv ‘dream team’ (past or present) that you could see perform just once – who would it be and why?

This feels a bit like a trap question, I can’t possibly remember ALL the improvisers I like seeing or performing with, so the odds of offending by omission my friends or people I admire is high.  So I will choose famous people I have never seen improvise as my dream team:

Robert Downey Jr., Alec Baldwin, Audrey Meadows, Will Ferrell, Paul Rudd, Kristen Wiig, Tina Fey and Amy Poehler (oh wait, she taught me and I’ve seen her perform hundreds of times -who cares- she is the best I have ever seen improvise!)

Incidentally I was asked this question when I was 10 and didn’t know what improv was. The list was:

Optimus Prime, Snake Eyes, Sophia from The Golden Girls, Launchpad McQuack, Roseanne, ALF and Todd Bridges

What are some of the best traits you have observed in those you consider top improvisers?

Another tough one!  People who are naturally good at object work provide so much for a performance in a way the audience and their scene partners don’t even realize:  it’s so vital to engaging the audience’s imagination.

I also really love great opening lines.  They start in the middle so it feels like we have already been watching this for a while, there are physical staging elements, and the “who, where, and what” is there, so 5 things are accomplished in one theatrical burst.  Then the scene partner just has to simply agree and the audience explodes.  I love when I see those.

“Being Present” is the skill I admire the most.  Mic Napier once rocked my world in a workshop when he told me that my brain already knows to do the things I want to do improv-technique wise.  So, I didn’t have to “show” that I knew how to improvise. Its was a backhanded compliment that made me feel like a fraud of an improv artist. I was actually a lazy writer and not truly improvising.  I was 11 years in the game when this happened and I felt like I was starting all over again.  It was a painful time that turned into an extraordinary period of my most inspired work.  It provided a foundation that has allowed me to enjoy what I do, to this day.


More on Matt Donnelly:

Currently a writer for Penn & Teller’s new Discovery Channel show: Penn &Teller Tell A Lie, Matt was also recently voted BEST MALE COMEDIAN in Las Vegas in 2010 by BroadwayWorld.com.  Matt Donnelly hosted and performed in the Long Form Improv show “Executive Monkeys” at The Palms Resort Casino, and he currently hosts “SET” at The Onyx Theatre in Las Vegas.  Matt has also enjoyed a two-month run in Wayne Brady’s show, “Making **it Up,” at the Venetian.

Prior to moving to Las Vegas, Matt was an instructor at the People’s Improv Theatre in New York City for six years where he taught Level 3 – Intro to Performance Improvisation, as well as master classes in La Ronde, Deconstruction and Chapter Forms (ie: Armando/Mosaic).  He co-created the live improvised movie show “The Neutrino Video Projects,” which appeared at the HBO US Comedy Arts Festival before being franchised to 11 other cities around the world.  He also taught improv in the acting program at the New York Film Academy, and continues to teach annually with the Columbia University Business School Executive Education Program with Business Improvisations.  He has directed house teams at The PIT, UCB, and Magnet Theatre in New York.  Seminal improv groups Matt has performed in include Neutrino, Possible Side Effects, Threat and The Faculty.  In Las Vegas, Matt teaches Advanced Long Form at Improv Vegas, and frequently travels across the country to teach at comedy festivals.