Learn improv, be more Badass
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!
VANESSA GONZALES: Oww!
CJ HUNT: Hi, we’re Stupid Time Machine.
DEREK DUPUY: Wow.
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.