The Weekly Format: Your City, Your Love

NAME: Your City, Your Love
When you think of great cities of the world, a host of magical places come to mind. An anthology film by notable directors called Paris, j’e taime captured the beautiful and ethereal nature of the City of Lights and premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 2006. This was followed by New York, I Love You and other films in the series are currently in development. Growing up in Texas, I’ve become fascinated with the growth of our cities that seem destined to enter that pantheon, my hometown of Houston and Austin, a wondrous city. When I travel, I attempt to listen to the heartbeat of the place I’m in and understand how the people affect the backdrop and vice versa. The only way to have the time of your life in a city is to find out what makes it unique.
Explore the idiosyncrasies of your city using an Invocation opening and improvise a Harold that captures the perfect essence of what makes it unique and beautiful, elevating your city to mythical proportions.
I picked the Harold structure because it is the form that I feel is closest to the epics of Greek, Roman and Shakespearean theatre. The Invocation is an opening that I find is easier to work with than basic organics as it goes with a unifying purpose while still possessing overtones of ancient ritual. If you work with the form and find that you get too epic, needing a more intimate portrayal of your city, attempt performing the show as a La Ronde to focus on specific character works and relationships. Whatever you decide, the basic idea is mythmaking so don’t be afraid to go as big as you can with your choices.

The Weekly Format: The Tree

NAME: The Tree, or the Modified Montage
In montage format, each scene provides the information for the scene following it.
NOTES: This form is ideal for the beginning improviser to get them in the mindset of connected shows with intricate pattern callback and mirrored gameplay. Good instructors say that every show should feel like a freeform Harold where an entire universe is created and called back whenever necessary. The connections should never be forced or done for the sake of doing them, but should grow organically out of the trunk of the tree that is an improv show. With this format, every scene is directly inspired by the scene before. Patterns and themes occur naturally in an automatic fashion as a result of each scene inspiring the next; its just the kind of practice that improvisers need to make that way of thinking permanent.

Let’s Get Intense

In a few short weeks, my improv game is headed for another level as I make the pilgrimage to Chicago for the iO Summer Intensive.

When I came to improv in 2010, I had no idea that it would grow to consume a large portion of my life. My original purpose was to dip my foot in, adding a little improv to my acting toolbox. Almost two years later, I find myself playing weekly shows in Houston, regularly traveling to perform in Austin and New Orleans, touring the country and expanding my success in every aspect of my performance career and personal life. Improv has taken me to places I could never have dreamed and, more importantly, I love it.

I decided recently that the only way to be happy with my life was to stay hungry.  I’ve been reading a lot of Kerouac recently and I was especially struck by what he described as the “mad ones,” those who are “mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars.” All of my best work and greatest moments of success have come from that madness to live, express and create. People are at their best when they have no choice but to excel.

To that end, my graduation from The New Movement’s improv conservatory last January came with the unique challenge of hunting down the next steps in my training and evolution. For many, the answer to that question lies in travel.

“I remember we’d talked about it, I’m glad you pulled the trigger,” said Eric Muller, a friend who graduated from iO in 2008. He started in Houston in 2005 and currently lives in Chicago, performing at iO with Thank You, Dr. Science! and the independent troupe Stripper’s Picnic. “It’s the best of the three, I think. Plus, you’ll be able to see so many shows for free.”

Chicago has three theaters that currently offer intensives: Second City, iO and the Annoyance Theatre. Each one offers its own brand and philosophy on the subject of improv. iO’s is by far the longest and most ambitious intensive, taking students through the first five levels of their curriculum in five weeks. The Annoyance offers a one-week intensive that focuses on the basics of scenic improvisation and is based around the teachings of Mick Napier and his book Improvise: Scene from the Inside Out. Second City offers what they call “immersions,” week-long classes in improv, writing and specialized areas of performance in addition to three day intensives.

“I was considering a move to Chicago back in 2004 and during my research I discovered that iO was bringing back their intensive program,” says Chris Trew, co-founder of The New Movement Theater in Austin, TX. “I thought it was a good way to get a jump start on my education as well as familiarize myself with the theater and the city.” From there, Trew went on to take the Annoyance intensive, a one day Second City intensive and a special Toronto intensive with teachers from Upright Citizen’s Brigade in New York. He said that he preferred the iO intensive to the others but credits them all for how comfortable he feels with improv today.

“They helped me figure out what kind of improv I like faster,” Trew said. “I got in an amazing amount of reps on stage. I clocked 100-plus hours of watching shows in a short amount of time. I really feel like I gained two years of improv experience in that five weeks, but that’s also because I did nothing but watch shows at iO, read improv books between class and shows and go home to write about improv. That’s all I did.”

Not to be left out of a good game, Upright Citizen’s Brigade in both New York and Los Angeles offers intensive alternatives to each of its class levels. These intensives are each one week long and actually include more class time than the regular levels, clocking in at 35 hours in a week’s training as opposed to 24 hours in the eight-week class structure.

“I was going to be in New York for the time of the intensive, anyway,” says Muller, who took the Level 2 intensive last year. “It was interesting hearing the UCB philosophy and how they approach ‘the game of the scene,’ but it’s not material that you won’t encounter elsewhere.”

He had a largely negative review of the intensive, mostly to do with his opinion that UCB’s Level 2 curriculum is poorly designed, encompassing too much for newer improvisers.

“I felt that the level tried to cover way too much for the allotted time,” Muller said. “I was fine, since I’ve been improvising for years, but people who were taking it as only their second improv class ever after Level 1 were clearly frustrated and confused. Considering we actually spent the full amount of time in class as we would have for a regular class, I probably consumed the curriculum just as it normally would have been. That having been said, we felt rushed even though we were going at what I assume is the regular pace.”

On the other end of the spectrum, my friend from Austin and fellow improviser James Patrick Robinson is headed to New York specifically for the philosophy that UCB offers.

“My main motivation is to go through UCB’s program,” Robinson said. “That it goes level by level as opposed to being a huge chunk of time like iO’s Summer Intensive allows me to be able to go at my own pace.” Robinson went through The New Movement curriculum in 2009 and performs in Austin regularly with sketch/improv troupe Spirit Desire.

“I’ve heard UCB gets pretty cutthroat the higher you get level-wise,” Robinson said. “Honestly, I’m looking forward to being picked apart, as masochistic as that may sound.”

Robinson says he hopes to broaden his improv knowledge and skills at UCB, gaining an understanding of the Harold and becoming able to perform it well. He’s also excited to play with people that he doesn’t know and who don’t know him and wants to focus on functioning more effectively as a straight man in scene work.

“I’m sure teaching-wise I’ll hear a lot of stuff that I’ve already heard going through TNM,” Robinson said, “but it’s a convenient way to either go through a program or get a crash course on a program in a consolidated amount of time.”

The main conservatories in Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles aren’t the only theaters that are getting into the intensive game. This summer, The New Movement is offering week-long “training camps” to coincide with its annual Megaphone Marathons, running three weeks in July in Houston, Austin, and New Orleans.

“The idea for Training Camp arose out of a simple question: If you were to design a boot camp for improvisers, what would it look like?” said CJ Hunt, organizer of the intensives. Hunt, along with his troupe Stupid Time Machine, started with The New Movement New Orleans in 2010. “The New Movement’s summer intensive will feel less like a course and more like a week-long improv workout designed to kick the shit out of you and re-program your basic stage habits. Simply put, Training Camp is improvisers training like athletes. ”

In designing their intensive, Hunt said The New Movement was inspired by Camp ImprovUtopia, a four-day intensive in California that is more like summer camp for improvisers.

“Their approach, having intensive students learn, eat, sleep, and have camp fires in the same remote location, seemed to push the boundaries of what an intensive can be,” Hunt said. “In my opinion, if you are going to offer an intensive, you should bring something new to the table If students want to learn from an improv luminary at a theater with a prestigious history, they already have some great options in Chicago. However, if students want to attack a skill that they are weak at and be forced to do this hundreds of times, they will come to Training Camp.”

Whatever the philosophy behind an intensive is, it is agreed upon that they are a great way to further an improviser’s training without the commitment that comes with relocation.

“It’s a really cool concept,” said Aaron Walther, a friend of mine who is taking the iO intensive with me this summer. “It’s a great tool for people who want to travel or can’t take classes because they’re not in the same city as the theater or can’t dedicate themselves to an eight-week session.”

Walther said the idea to take the intensive appealed to his specific learning sensibilities.

“I’m a big advocate Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 Hours to Mastery idea, at lease in principle,” Walther said. “You’re only going to get better at something by doing it a lot, and this gives me that opportunity. I don’t think any other intensive is this long.”

He also wants to focus on getting better at relationships in scenes, something that iO is famous for concentrating on. “While these scenes aren’t necessarily the funniest all the time,” Walther said, “they have the power to move me in a way that character based or more heady scenes just can’t.”

Intensive options exist in all shapes and sizes across the country. Whatever the young improviser’s goals are, they are catered to in one form or another. When making a decision on which intensive to take, it is wise to look at what you need in order to grow as a performer and assess the best way to fulfill that need. As I prepare to embark on this crazy journey across America, I’m struck by a quote I heard when I first came to improv: “Don’t let them make you buy the lie that what you’re doing is for the laughter.” When researching for this article, I discovered that the quote came from the only place that it really could have: Del Close.

Of course, as always, Del is right. Improv is never about the laughter, it’s about the performer. Choosing the best intensive is no different.

In a few short weeks, I am headed to Chicago. While I am there, I expect to be kicked around, broken down and built back up stronger than before and I expect to have the time of my life doing it. I’m surfing the couches of all my friends from theatre school, eating a Wiener Circle chardog, catching a few Cub’s games and redefining art a couple of times over. All the while, the mantra at the top of every page in my notebook will be, “Stay Hungry.”

There are mad ones about. Let’s get intense.

To follow Cris’ adventures through Chicago and the iO Summer Intensive, look up starting July 5th for daily thoughts and writings on his experience. He will also do a weekly recap right here on Improv Wins. Follow him on Twitter @sideshowcris

The Weekly Format: What’s on Your iPod?

NAME: What’s on Your iPod?
I’m not sure where this form originated, but I’ve heard of several versions and they all set my mind on fire. Music has been an essential part of the human experience since one enterprising caveman started hitting stuff with rocks and discovered rhythm (probably). To marry it with improv is a no-brainer.
THE BREAKDOWN: An iPod is brought to the stage and placed on a sound dock. One of the players hits the shuffle button on the iPod and the music that erupts from it is the inspiration for the set.
NOTES: Like I said, I’ve heard several versions of this format. A friend told me he saw it done once where they hit play on the iPod and it played through the whole set, the players attempting to edit at the end of each song. Another friend told me that she received free admission for bringing her iPod and the team requested one from the audience. For younger improvisers who aren’t as sure of their information pulling skills, it might be beneficial to hear the players speak about the song, giving their opinions about it or personal history with it. It seems like it would be an easy thing to put as an opening for a scenic format as well, such as the Harold.

The Weekly Format Special Edition: Stupid Time Machine

During the 2012 Dallas Comedy Festival, I had the chance to sit down with Stupid Time Machine, an improv and sketch troupe based out of The New Movement Theater in New Orleans. We jammed for a minute on their format, philosophy and how they’re dealing with the recent addition of TNM Austin native Vanessa Gonzales to the fold.

All right, I’m sitting here with Derek Dupuy, Mike Spara, CJ Hunt and Vanessa Gonzales who make up Stupid Time Machine. How’s it going guys?

MIKE SPARA: Yeeaaahh!


CJ HUNT: Hi, we’re Stupid Time Machine.


So talk to me, in your own words, what your format is. What’s the breakdown?

DD: We do a little banter at the top. Someone will tell a story with detail or something interesting that they have and we’ll grab inspiration from it. We try to do banter because we find that it’s really good to get the audience into the show, to relate to us and like us. There’s something nice about watching people who are about to have a lot of fun doing what they do. Once you see that, it kind of becomes watching these friends fuck around on stage but in the best way.

MS: They’re real life stories, too.

DD: I think that you can relate when you see our reactions based on hearing the stories because, generally speaking, we’ve never heard any of the stories before. They’re genuine reactions and it gets people into it. I would say scene-wise we don’t generally have a structure. It’s more of a montage. We’ll try to pull inspiration from the story or a scene that’s already been done and then it’s kind of on us to get fancy with it, to tie it up and collide things and have call-backs and all that other stuff.

CJH: I don’t know how this happened, but also I’d say the pace is almost part of the form too. We’ve been slowing down recently, but we play fast. I guess you just get set with a norm with your team, but it started to get articulated to us that we go so fast right from the top. So I’d say that’s part of it as well.

Were there other forms you attempted before settling on this form?

DD: We did a number of them. We were a Harold team at one time.

MS: We started off with Harold.

CJH: And we’ve come back to Harold a few times throughout our history. Sometimes, when we felt like our game was off and we needed an injection of something new, we would be like, “Let’s just start doing Harolds.” Sometimes it’s corresponded to us moving venues.

DD: We got away from most forms we would evolve because we’d get kind of bored with the form and feel like we needed something to freshen us up. I remember the current style evolved from somebody telling a story and everybody having a crack at it. It would be like, “That reminds me of when I was a kid…” and it would go down the line, but we changed that because we were getting a little sloppy with pulling inspiration from it. That’s the tempting thing when you play fast. If you’re really excitable, you’ll kind of drop the story and do scenes because you don’t have a hardcore structure.

CJH: There’s a confidence thing, too. When we first started out, we’d never really gone longer than 30 minutes because we’d been used to having an opener. Then, when we got a gig upstairs at the Avenue Pub [in New Orleans], we did this really cheesy form of a La Ronde called “Six Degrees of Separation” that I brought to the group from my college days. The beginning felt like a short-form intro. We would say, “LADIES AND GENTLEMEN! They say that in the world there are six degrees of separation between any two people! So I may not personally know Justin Timberlake but I may know somebody who knows somebody who knows Justin Timberlake and BOOM! That’s three degrees of separation. SO IN THIS GAME, we will start with one person – say, a maid – and we will show a scene with someone who knows that maid, maybe the son of the house, but then we will tap out with someone who knows the son and then someone who knows whoever knows the son and so on. You’ll get the picture.” I feel like the key to knowing your game is shitty is when you have this long intro and then have to say, “You’ll get the picture.”

DD: If we just said we were doing a La Ronde it would have been okay. But, to be fair, that was our first time outside of a theatre environment having to book our own shows, so we were trying to do this split show where we’ll give them this and then hit them with the long-form. The Dallas Comedy House was the first time where we saw anything like that. When they first opened, in this market where there wasn’t a lot of improv at the time, they’d run the Maestro and then start splicing scene work in. It got to the point to where, before the show’s even halfway over, you could feel the audience that didn’t know long-form all of a sudden wanting the long-form more than the short-form. Then, it would become long-form heavy on the back. So we were like “What’s the thing we can put at the top?” Once, [New Movement co-founder] Tami Nelson and [Dallas Comedy House co-founder] Clay Barton came to do a show and we told them we were going to do a Harold and Six Degrees of Separation. I remember [Six Degrees] being awful, just really bad. Then we did the most amazing, tear down the house Harold I’ve ever been a part of. It was crazy fucking good. That was when I remember thinking, “We’ve got to get rid of this thing.”

CJH: Whenever you’re in a new improv market, or when you’re off on your own, there’s a feeling like you have to almost apologize for long-form and lead people into it by the hand with some “accessible” short-form up top. That’s where ideas like doing Six Degrees as your thing come from. If there’s a lesson from this, though, it would be to just go for the long-form and not feel like you have to apologize.

MS: I think that there’s a certain level of badassness when you say at the very top that you’re just going to hop right into it and go for it. As much as we can laugh about the Six Degrees of Separation now, though, I wouldn’t be surprised if a lot of our speed came from how quickly those short-form La Ronde games started us off and then we went right into our long-form after that. Also, when we were doing those shows originally, we would have people roll a die to determine how much they were going to pay for the show and we would give them fake name tags that were paired off. Somebody had Batman and somebody else that was a stranger to them had Robin and there were all these different combinations. It was giving them an experience from the very top of the show.

When you pull information for the scenes, do you attempt to go in a premise based direction?

DD: We’re not hampered by the form too much, to be honest. It’s whatever we interpret that we want to pull. I think that when we’re at our best, it’s like a stew with all these ingredients. You’re going to get tap outs that advance the game, time-dash tap outs, relationship based scenes, pattern work, game based scenes and fast stuff. It’s really all over the place because we’re using our entire skill set. I don’t think it’s conscious, I think it just happens. We don’t put restrictions on ourselves to be too close or anything like that. It gets too cute when people do that often times. I think if you have an idea, just go initiate. You’re all smart people and quick on your feet, so figure it out. Putting rules on yourself in this probably wouldn’t work very well.

CJH: If the stuff that is more premise-based is going to show up, it’s going to show up towards the top and then spread out from there. Where the audience can draw the clearest lines is usually in the first two scenes before all the raw material gets put out there and then starts being used for the show. I would also say that we’re always looking at what else we can be doing with the form, how to bring some more narrative in there and stretch in some places. It’s like muscle groups. Our form is sort of defined by our strongest muscles like speed, game, free association and what we do with the devices. We’re talking now about trying to drill down more into the basics.

DD: Whenever you do a form and you get really good at it with these people that you play with all the time, in order to keep it fresh, you start doing things that are a little bit risky. If you’re funny, you pull it off. You start playing on the edge a lot more, throwing things out that you probably wouldn’t throw out in another show because there wouldn’t be that trust there. After a while, that sort of becomes your thing. You’re playing so fast and going so hard that you start realizing you’re forgetting some pretty basic things because you get away with playing this way all the time. I’d also say another thing I’ve learned in the last year, from playing in mixed-cast shows, is to be aggressive and don’t tiptoe. You’re doing a form and you’re playing with these people every week, go hard at it and start lobbing stuff up.

The thing that’s always struck me, from the first Stupid Time Machine show I saw, is that it feels like you would still be having these conversations and telling these jokes to each other if there was no audience.

DD: That is kind of what it’s like when we’re in a car. It’s just bits. I remember the first time we went to Austin, we were driving around and we would see billboards and riff on them as commercials. I remember Allen’s Boots and Einstein Bros. Bagels—

CJH: And Porn Barn!

Wait, what? That is not real, is it?

CJH: It was just a barn-looking store on the highway and we were like, “I bet they sell porn,” and then we were like,

<CJ, Mike and Derek singing> “Porn Barn, Porn Barn, come on down to the Porn Barn!”

DD: “Hi, do you like porn?”

CJH: “We’ve got bags and bags of porn in this barn!”

DD: And I remember we were going to Barton Springs and [New Movement co-founder] Chris Trew was with us and he told Tami later, “Stupid Time Machine just does commercials,” and we were like, “Doesn’t everyone do that?” It brings up an interesting thing, too. We formed this group because we were friends first. This was the dream team. We all played on different teams and thought that if we could ever play with who we wanted to play with, this would be the group. That changes everything when you’re playing together. It’s the reason we do the opening we do. It didn’t start like that, but we got so many people saying that they really like how much the opening relaxes them and makes them want to watch us play and almost root for us. They don’t have the pressure of hoping these “performers” don’t mess up, which would be awkward. They’re really pulling for these people because they like them from the start. We’re showing them our personality right off the bat.

CJH: And they get to know the dynamic, too. If Mike is telling a story in the opening set and Derek and I are just shitting on him, they’re like, “Oh, they’re doing the thing with Mike again!” That’s really solid for us.

Vanessa, you are brand new to Stupid Time Machine, having only performed with them for a couple of months. They live in New Orleans and you live in Austin. What are your views coming into the form and what have been some of your challenges playing with this tightly-knit group?

VG: When these guys asked me to be in their group, it was a no-brainer. I was flattered because everyone thinks that Stupid Time Machine is so awesome. I was a little intimidated because they are very close friends, they live in the same city and they’ve been together for a few years. I was close with them and I knew we had a rapport but I wanted it to have that same feel. Hanging out with them more, though, I knew this was going to be fun and it has been. The first couple of shows I was like, “Yeah, they play a lot faster than what I’m used to,” but I like it. I like adjusting and getting faster myself. I think it makes me better playing with different types of performers. With [my other troupe] Handbomb, we play very slow and do ten minute scenes, but I also love the gamey and fast pace that these guys bring. It’s fun to have that variety and to be able to play with different types of people.

CJH: We’ve been coming down to Austin recently just to kick it with Vanessa. That’s been really great for us. When you add someone who’s already your friend and an incredible performer, it not only makes you better but it also makes you refine a new voice a little bit.

DD: Vanessa was a slam dunk to join this group because it just fit. It was important that anybody who played with us would be able to fit the style that we do and that we genuinely liked playing with them. It wouldn’t work if we put someone up there that, in the opening, didn’t feel like they were a friend and they were in it. Vanessa clearly was. I remember, at Upright Citizen’s Brigade in New York, when Death By Roo Roo went on that sick Cage Match run and got their regular spot. For a long time, people thought that you couldn’t cast in Death By Roo Roo, that it was these guys and they have their own voice and that’s it and they’re awesome because it’s them. Then, when some of the guys moved to Los Angeles, Anthony King recast and added some people to the New York group and the LA group and it really worked. I think it worked because they were very conscious about it being a type of person in order for it to work. I think that’s the same with us. We fuck with each other a lot on stage, too, and you have to have that trust with someone and share that sense of humor. You’ve got to laugh at the same shit, you’ve got to think the same way.

VG: When we started hanging out, there was very instant clicking with all of them, joking and shitting on each other and being comfortable. I could crack a joke at them and they were okay with it. They make fun of me all the time, too. I feel very comfortable with these guys. Being that we’re also all teachers, we have this stuff we relate to.

Stupid Time Machine is a sketch troupe as well as an improv troupe. Is there a common thread between the way you write together and the way you improvise together?

MS: There’s a real strong attachment to comedy math that deeply informs our improv and our sketch. We’ll have the kernel of an idea and then we’ll heighten it. One of our favorite sketches, which is a marriage proposal that happens on an airplane, was born out of having a basic structure for a sketch that we just improvised where we thought that it could go and how it could heighten. The writing is very similar to how we improvise.

DD: And I’ll even say what the line was because I think it says a lot. It’s all about the group. We were all improvising and it became more of what the people in the different airplane seats say to this guy.

CJH: The initial game was this guy who was trying to propose to his girlfriend on a plane and everyone else was not being cooperative. [STM sketch writer] Joella Fink liked the idea that normally people that would help would be like, “Don’t sing that song to her, that’s a bad song!” We liked the idea, but it was missing something so we put it on its feet. We’re in the scene and the questions to him had been like, “Do you love her?” and things like that. Then Derek was like, “Does she eat your ass?”

DD: I was just fucking around because we like to make each other laugh and everybody just lost it. CJ was crying!

CJH: And as we’re all laughing, the other characters are like, “Yeah, does she? Does she eat it?” That became the game for the sketch, which shows two things. One, if you’re out there and you’re writing sketch and you’re not in improv class then you’re doing yourself a disservice. Almost everything we write uses the same principles of heightening and game. Everything that we use to craft a good improv scene is the process when we’re in the sketch room. Secondly, you’ll see some of the same dynamics come out too. One thing in the ass-eating plane proposal sketch is that we love doing one against the many. You have one sane person, which in this case is Mike trying to make a legitimate proposal to his girlfriend, versus a room of idiots. Or we’ll do one idiot in a room of sane people. It’s just interesting because even though you’re never consciously talking about these things, you’ll end up doing a group game on stage. You gravitate towards those things that you love. You’ll look at a night’s performance and wonder which scenes killed and chances are they’re tendencies that you’re also exploiting in your sketch. We’re constantly trying to nail our voice and I think something we love is taking turns as the outraged straight man. When we can get Mike in those situations, I’m just like, “YES! This is going to be gold!” It’s the same thing with Derek and the same thing with me. I think we all just love the position of, “Are you kidding me? What is happening in this office?!” It’s like throwing meat to sharks. Everyone knows that Mike is the straight man and we are all nuts. I think that we more often set one of us up to be a straight man more than we set someone up to be absurd.

In a scenario like that, it’s very tempting for someone to almost negate, calling out the show as being invalid. How do you avoid that pitfall?

DD: Stakes. There has to be stakes. There always has to be a reason for why the straight man stays. If you’re in a bank and taking shit, why not leave? Because you have to make the deposit. If you don’t make the deposit, rent doesn’t get paid, so you have to stay in the bank and be the voice of the audience who sees this. I had a situation like this the other day. I was at work and this guy pulls up. My boss says, “Oh great, if this fucking guy comes in here with the bananas thing again, I’m going to lose it.” I say, “What are you talking about? I don’t know what you’re saying right now.” And then the guy walks through the door and just goes, “Fucking bananas! It’s bananas out there!” I just lost my shit! This guy is a walking catch phrase! He walks around and no one even prompts him to say how he feels about the world today. He just comes in and shares that with people and I want to be like, “What the fuck?” You get to do that on stage, to either build to that or right away call it out. It’s also one of those things, too, where you see different groups and everybody as improvisers has a tendency to get real cutesy with things. We have to juggle all this shit. For the most part, as competitors and people who want to get better, we do. Sometimes it’s simple and sometimes groups have a style and a form that they’re just really good at. We can sit here and pick it apart and say how it should be this or that, and maybe it’s valid or freshens it up, but also sometimes it’s just being really good at working the simple stuff that doesn’t need work. I guess that also depends on what your measure of success is as a group.

CJH: I’d say another thing that goes well with the stakes is the emotional heat of it, which is why we frequently set Mike up as the straight man. If you take this ass-eating plane sketch that is now becoming our structuring metaphor for Stupid Time Machine, while the game of the scene is for more and more people on the plane to ask him if the woman loves him enough to eat his ass, in between that he’s talking about how in love with her he is and how she’s his other half.

VG: It sets up the absurdity and allows you guys to be more absurd too, acknowledging that as the straight person and being able to set your friends up.

CJH: You can hear the people in the audience being touched when he’s talking about how this woman is his sense of home, about how she is home embodied in another person. He’s playing to the height of his intelligence as the straight person. He’s not being like, “This is so crazy!” He is like, “I am so in love.” Then, you have silence and Derek is like, “Yeah, but does she lick your butthole?” Then the audience erupts because you’ve brought that up with all that emotional heat.

DD: It’s like pipes, right? You build the pressure up and there’s a valve and at some point you’ve got to let that out and release it or it’s going to explode and it’s going to be a mess. It’s self-calibration. You’re always looking at timing. You let the pressure out and the audience just explodes.

MS: Another part of that too is that you never have to feel like endowments are only the domain of the absurd character. Anybody can bring information to the scene or to a sketch and it’s just as much the responsibility of the straight person to paint the environment and the scene work as it is anyone else. When you have everybody contributing with every single line, it doesn’t feel like straight-up negation. It feels like everybody’s building together, even if as a character you can’t agree with the choices that the other character is making. We’re all painting together.

CJH: A fun thing too, from a numbers point of view and a skills point of view, is finding different ways to do that kind of dynamic. I think it was our opening show after having added Vanessa to the group where we had a straight/absurd scene in which I was a mouse person who had been living in this office. We have this setup where I’m the absurd and Derek and Mike are on the straight team. Vanessa was a sort of swing character and was like, “So wait, is he a man, or…?” She was this idiot in between the straight/absurd, which just felt like a new element. It’s fun finding what you’re great at and how you can complicate that.

I have one final question for you and then I’ll let you guys go. What is your “Improv Wins” moment, the moment that you knew you would improvise forever? What was the moment you decided to make Stupid Time Machine what it is?

MS: There was a particular time when we decided as a trio that we wanted to up our game, to collaborate and figure out how to take it to the next level, but it’s really been a series of moments. We saw in each other, playing in different teams, choices that people made. Then we first wrote a sketch show together, playing out the parts and figuring out how we could put it all together. There was the anticipation of making this thing that could’ve gone wrong in 50 different ways, but we made it work and had a sold out crowd. There was a line that reached out the door, a very long section of a block for our first sketch show. I think that was one of the really strong moments.

CJH: We didn’t come together to be an improv troupe. We were all improvisers who wanted to do some sketch. Had that first project not gone well, it would have put a different taste in our mouths. It was the most successful thing any of us had ever done in comedy. At the time, we were at this theater that had never had a line. To see a line stretching down the block of people to come to this thing that you wrote, that you don’t know if it’s good yet, that was a moment where we were like, “We can do this again and again and we can do improv as well.”

DD: For me, it was pre-Stupid Time Machine, actually. I was at an improv festival in New Orleans. I was in a Level 2 class and I was supposed to start a team but I hadn’t yet. I was nervous as shit. I’d go watch people do improv and be like, “Wow, they’re thinking so fast, I don’t know how I’m going to be able to do this.” I remember going outside in between shows and Chris and Tami were there. I hadn’t met them yet, but I knew who they were. Everybody else at that festival was dressed in dress shirts and slacks and looked nervous about their show or a little tight, but Chris and Tami were dressed comfortable. Not in a way that wasn’t presentable on stage, but they weren’t sweating getting really dressed up. They just looked like they were hanging out having the best time and I just couldn’t fathom that at that point. I was just like, “How are these people this loose when they are headlining tonight? They look like they’re having the best time.” So I went in and took my seat and they took the stage and the vibe in the room just flipped. It was so rock star and when they were on stage it was all eyes on them. I don’t know if that was technically the best show of the festival, but boy did it feel different. I specifically remember they were having so much fun on stage. Tami was wearing a coat and by the time it occurred to her to take her coat off because she was warmed up, the lights came down. They were having so much fun that 30 minutes went by before it occurred to her.  I was like, “That’s kind of cool, that she’s ballsy enough to do that.” I remember seeing that and going, “That’s what I want to do.”

I’ve always had a fascination with people who are able to show up and watch the show and someone says, “Hey, I know this is last minute, but we’re short a person. Could you jump in?” and they’re like, “Yeah, sure,” and they jump in and they’re awesome. When this group came together, we eventually sort of became to other people who were just getting into improv. I told Chris Trew the story I just told and he smiled. I asked him, “What?” and he said, “What you don’t realize is that’s what the Austin people think about Stupid Time Machine. They want to be in a troupe that has that much fun on stage.” So there was always that in me, wanting to be in a group that had the potential to tear the house down but had a lot of fun and looked like fun.

VG: When I first decided to do improv, I was doing sketch and I was asked to be the monologist at a Megaphone Show. I had no idea what it was. It was me and [New Movement member] Danu Uribe and we didn’t even have stories prepared. It was on Cinco de Mayo and they asked us questions about what it was like to grow up Mexican. We would say our stories and then we got off stage and they started doing scenes and I was like, “That’s awesome!” It blew me away. The week after I was like, “I want to do that. Sign me up for classes.”

Thank you guys for your time and for being so open and honest. And, as always, Improv Wins.


The Weekly Format: Book of the Month Club

NAME: Book of the Month Club
When I was a kid, I hated to read. It felt like an unnecessary chore that adults were putting on me to shut me up or keep me from playing outside when I was sick. That all changed the day I set foot in my grandfather’s library and he showed me 1,001 Nights. After that, I was hooked. When I was a kid, it was all about the Hardy Boys and Mythology. When I got older, I switched to comic books and graphic novels. When I hit adulthood, I swung back around to dense literature and philosophy. Every page shaped my perception of reality and was more than a little responsible for the things that interest me, improv included.
The audience gains free entry to the show by bringing a book of their choice and setting it down in front of the stage. When the show begins, the troupe approaches the pile of books and begins rifling through each one, flipping to random pages and reading passages. When they are satisfied with the information gathered, they perform a set based on the books.
NOTES: Not every book has to be used if there are a lot of books in the pile. It is also wise to have books on standby if no audience member brings one. Other fun style choices are to use certain books as props or revisit more of the books periodically for more information.

Dallas Comedy Festival 2012: Day Six

The final night of the 2012 Dallas Comedy Festival was a relaxed evening of performances that was a simple thesis of all that had been celebrated over the week of improv, sketch, and stand-up comedy presented at the Dallas Comedy House.

[pullquote_left] The Sunday atmosphere lent a sense of camaraderie to the audience, comprised mostly of people who performed and regularly attended the previous festival days. Many were tired but content, dropping all pretension to have a fun time on the stage.[/pullquote_left]

The evening got off to an early start with a live Q&A panel with the festival’s headliners, Los Angeles groups FrankenMatt and Dasariski. The five veterans espoused on playing philosophy, their goals in the workshops that they taught during the festival and personal reasons for doing improv.

The night then moved to improv with two short sets with FrankenMatt and Dasariski and then a jam of the two playing together. Sitting in the audience, I learned tricks that I can’t wait to try out in my own play.[pullquote_right] Once again, as with the Dasariski set on Saturday and the FrankenMatt sketch show on Friday, it played out like an improv clinic. Choices that younger improvisers wouldn’t dream of making were the norm on stage, effortlessly executing their artform to the highest of its fun and sense of play.  [/pullquote_right]

In all, it was a great end to an overall solid festival. Stay tuned to this website for a recap article and interviews with performers coming later this week. Follow @ImprovWins on Twitter for live updates from around the improv world and always remember that Improv Wins.

Dallas Comedy Festival 2012: Day Five

Saturday night’s lineup at the 2012 Dallas Comedy Festival packed a variety of sketch and improv troupes from Dallas, New Orleans, Phoenix and Chicago into the Dallas Comedy House for dynamic shows that kept the 75 seat theater in Deep Ellum buzzing with energy.

Due to technical difficulties, the planned screening of Bryan Hickey’s winning submission in the festival’s short film contest was canceled. He received special recognition before the final show and his film is currently available for viewing on the Dallas Comedy House YouTube page.

The night kicked off with Kyle Austin and Andrew Hamer’s two man show Kyle and Drew, a Dallas Comedy House mainstay. They came out playing with hula hoops to set the tone for a playful show that was high on physical comedy, with Austin precariously balanced on Hamer’s back to simulate skydiving at one point. As amazing as this was, however, their character choices were unremarkable and they did not seem to be pushing themselves to the height of their potential.

Phoenix based two man troupe Galapagos appeared next with a show that suffered from some improv pitfalls. It was a series of strangely strung together 80’s pop culture references that, while some were wonderfully inventive, failed to adequately ground the show.

[pullquote_right]The first timeslot closed with touring Chicago sketch show The Union. The husband and wife duo put together a playful and punchy experience centered on relationships. It was a tongue and cheek sitcom brought to life on stage.[/pullquote_right]

The night finally saw the festival debut of founder and organizer Amanda Austin, who was the latest victim in a flu epidemic that kept her absent all week. Her three woman group, Local Honey, opened the second timeslot of the evening with solid, balanced character pieces that were quite enjoyable to watch.

Apollo 12, the second group from Phoenix, received laughs from their amazing physicality but ultimately failed to captivate due to a lack of strong choices.

The second show was headed up by Stupid Time Machine from The New Movement New Orleans. Their set was consistent, relaxed and heavy on play, a showing that has come to be expected from the four person powerhouse of the NOLA comedy scene.

The third slot of the night opened with an energetic performance from Dallas Comedy House staple Victory Point. It was a bittersweet show for the group as it marked the final performance of Dallas Comedy House co-founder Clay Barton, who is moving to California. They made sure his send-off was an appropriately strong appearance, having fun like they have for years and keeping the packed house enthralled.

The final show of the evening was three man Chicago powerhouse Dasariski, who proceeded to run what sports fans would call a clinic in masterful improvisation. There were a few times in their hour long set that I thought there could be no way for them to continue raising the stakes, but they blasted through my perceptions to create avenues I couldn’t believe existed. I walked away from that show having learned something about this amazing craft and how to make myself better at it.[pullquote_left] After the show ended, the scene degenerated into a raucous flip cup tournament that proved to be some of the most fun I’ve had since joining the improv world. As an even more fitting end, the team with Clay Barton on it took home the trophy. [/pullquote_left]

Saturday night contained a few sour notes in the lineup, but maintained the overall level of fun and play that I’ve come to associate with this festival at this point. Tonight starts off with a panel discussion, followed by FrankenMatt and Dasariski playing in an all-star show. For more info, visit and follow @ImprovWins for updates from the floor.

Dallas Comedy Festival 2012: Day Four

Friday night was a great mix of improv and sketch from around the country as a packed and supportive house cheered the performers at the 2012 Dallas Comedy Festival.

The night kicked off with Opposites, a two man group from The New Movement Austin. They played a slow and patient set, routinely switching characters and creating scenes with heavy use of the straight/absurd dynamic.

Ape Rally followed with a fun set full of unexpected choices, leading to several flips and parodies of accepted social norms that garnered big laughs from the healthy crowd.

The first slot closed out with Villain: The Musical, a four person musical improv group from Oklahoma City that explored the journey of a man down the path of evil. They played tight and kept their universe cohesive, creating an epic story that earned them a standing ovation.

The second timeslot, due to an illness that caused billed opener Manick to cancel, was opened up by Atlantic/Pacific Billy. They played with all the exuberance of a younger troupe, having a lot of fun on stage and pushing themselves to make strong choices.

[pullquote_left] Shock T’s, a three person music show from Chicago, barely gave the audience time to breathe before attacking the stage with a hilarious set of songs. There show is what I imagine Dashboard Confessional would sound like with a sense of humor. They sold merch after the show and I left that night with some of their songs on a USB drive. I’m actually listening to it while I’m writing this. [/pullquote_left]

Pavlov’s Dogs headlined with a comfortable, professional set that is to be expected of a group with ten-plus years of experience playing together. They transitioned scenes and time dashed almost effortlessly for a seamless performance that kept me hooked.

The final slot of the night started with Dallas Comedy House Friday night regulars Roadside Couch. If I ever find myself in Dallas on a Friday, this is a must see for sure.

[pullquote_right] The night closed out with FrankenMatt, a Los Angeles based two man group consisting of Frank Caeti and Matt Craig, performing their sketch show American Imperil. The show was a send-up of American political hypocrisy and public ennui that had the audience whistling and cheering. The show was one of the tightest I’ve ever seen and I would watch it again in a heartbeat if given the chance.[/pullquote_right]

This festival shows no sign of slowing down as we move into Saturday night’s shows. For more info, visit and follow @ImprovWins on Twitter for live updates from the audience.

Dallas Comedy Festival 2012: Day Three

Thursday night kicked off the improv and sketch portion of the 2012 Dallas Comedy Festival with solid performances from teams that ran the full spectrum of improv styles and formats.

Every troupe was at the top of its game, performing to an energetic and supportive crowd that packed the Dallas Comedy House in Deep Ellum for all three shows. The night featured acts from Dallas/Ft. Worth, Oklahoma City, and Chicago.

I misremembered the start time of the shows and made it into the theater just in time to see all-female short form group Heroine Addiction take the stage. They executed their games with a nice pace that kept me interested and their wordplay was suitably clever. A few sour notes came from a lack of listening, but they covered admirably and had a great time on stage.

MiDolls, a self-described “Old Lady Improv Troupe” from Oklahoma City, took the stage next and passed out candy to the audience members. They based their show at a high school reunion and each character exemplified one of the seven deadly sins. They had some enjoyable moments and clever lines that kept the crowd rolling, but got a little bogged down by their respective sins which kept them from deepening their characters’ dimensions.

[pullquote_left] The closer of the first show was Franzia, a four person monoscene troupe based out of the Dallas Comedy House. Their show at a dentist’s office was stacked with great character choices and ended with a flip that left my mouth wide open.[/pullquote_left]

Due to an illness, the sketch show Call Waiting had to be canceled, so their slot was filled by three tremendous groups with unique styles that had me spitting up in my Deep Ellum Cherry Chocolate Double Brown Stout (which is a local craft beer you need to try).

Gangs of Recess performed an experimental Harold with the finesse of a team that knows each other well. Their organics and group games were some of the best I’ve seen and their connections were top rate. I particularly enjoyed a callback involving a pair of 33 year old brothers put in time out by an overbearing and omniscient father.

Samurai Drunk showcased an aggressive energy and played it to ultimate satisfaction. A situation involving a talking carrier pigeon relaying messages between rival tailgate parties was one of the night’s most inventive scenes.

Commerce Street closed out the second timeslot with a puppet improv show that had me in stitches. I have never seen puppet improv before and heard a great deal about it, but it blew away all my expectations. My favorite scene of the night came from a saucy French puppet wooing a coy man by comparing him to wheat bread.

[pullquote_right]Following the improv rule of heightening, the third show of the night pulled out all the stops and tore the roof off the Dallas Comedy House, proving again that improv wins. [/pullquote_right]

Li’l Mister Dallas kicked things off with a living room opening that set them up nicely to create a fun and connected show.

Oklahoma City’s Twinprov came next with a hip-hop show about physics that, as they promised, blew my mind. They freestyled at a breakneck pace and covered every small detail of the subject matter, leading to an act that was nearly impossible to follow up.

Luckily, they were being followed by The Outfit, a five person group from Chicago that exemplified a tight and punchy show. The Outfit has two members from Dallas who helped start the Dallas Comedy House, so it was partially a homecoming for them and they nailed it.

If Thursday night is any indicator, there is a lot to look forward to for the rest of the festival. Today starts with afternoon workshops (of which I will be taking one) before three more shows starting at 7pm. For more info, visit and follow @ImprovWins on Twitter for live updates from the audience.