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Resolving Non-Conflict: An Interview with Sketch Comedy’s The Birthday Boys

Clockwise, from the top: Mike Hanford, Tim Kalpakis, Jeff Dutton, Dave Ferguson, Matt Kowalick, Chris VanArtsdalen; Center: Mike Mitchell

Clockwise, from the top: Mike Hanford, Tim Kalpakis, Jeff Dutton, Dave Ferguson, Matt Kowalick, Chris VanArtsdalen; Center: Mike Mitchell

When you enter the house shared by members of LA sketch comedy group The Birthday Boys, you quickly realize it is more headquarters than home. After all, most homes don’t act as part rehearsal space, film set, editing studio, conference room, prop storage, and wardrobe. The Birthday Boys live, work, and make goofball comedy together, all under one happy roof. They’re like The Seven Dwarves of comedy…but the normal-sized version.

Six of the group’s seven members – Jeff Dutton, Dave Ferguson, Mike Hanford, Tim Kalpakis, Mike Mitchell (Mitch), and Chris VanArtsdalen – were friends from New York’s Ithaca College when they decided to take the fateful Upright Citizen’s Brigade Improv 101 class that brought them University of Texas’ own Matt Kowalick. Soon thereafter, the septet began writing and performing sketches together at UCB’s Not Too Shabby, the weekly showcase for UCB performers to test new material. They quickly earned acclaim amongst the Theatre’s faithful for their silly-smart, joyously over-the-top, brand of absurd comedy.

The group works ridiculous hours, balancing the demands of a monthly stage show with those of full-time day jobs. Their show is impressive enough without the realization that they accomplish it using, essentially, only nights and weekends. That tireless work ethic paid off last fall when The Boys were given a monthly show at the UCB alongside another hilarious group, A Kiss from Daddy. At 8PM on the first Wednesday of every month each group delivers a brand new sketch show combining stage and video, culminating in a joint sketch featuring both groups. It is the night of comedy I look forward to most each month.

This is the second in my series of interviews featuring comedians with unique styles. My goal is to find the soul of what an artist or group does best, then mold the interview to best reflect that. In doing so, hopefully, I can offer a glimpse of the creative process. Whether it is onstage in a sketch or off-stage creating it, The Birthday Boys are masters of heightening small conflicts and dissolving the big ones. That is the theme for this interview.

I have divided this interview into “sketches,” interspersing video throughout. I put a name to the sketch and let these guys take it from there. Without further ado, in the words The Birthday Boys’ man-in-the-booth Scott Davis, “Ladies and gentlemen, it’s The Birthday Boys!”

THE BIRTHDAY BOYS IN “WHAT’S IN A NAME?”
TIM
Early on, before we had named ourselves, we were referred to at Not Too Shabby as Ithaca Pals. We cringed, then realized we had to pick a name.
MATT
It was a long, arduous process.
TIM
Every name was shit for, like, four months. I was mad at all of us.
MITCH
Probably the angriest we’ve ever been at each other was choosing the name of the group.
MATT
We had to cool off, take time away from each other.
JEFF
For awhile we were kicking around names that include EVERYONE. Like, for instance, The Humans.
TIM
We had Pangeans. Existers. Motorists.
MITCH
Ugh. That’s how bad it got.
TIM
Hey! Motorists is funny.
CHRIS
We got so desperate that we tried picking favorite letters, which resulted in SACPEM.
JEFF
We did the same thing with favorite words. That got us Space Space Brown Shit.
TIM
Mitch wanted the group to be called Beaver Fever.
MITCH
Hold on, though. It wasn’t supposed to be dirty. The symbol was going to be a beaver with a thermometer sticking out of its mouth.
JEFF
I drew the picture of the beaver with a thermometer in it’s mouth. But also, behind it, was the faint contour of a vagina.
MITCH
In retrospect, Beaver Fever would’ve been broken up by now.
MATT
We almost went with The Wheelies at one point. Like poppin’ wheelies.
DAVE
The Wacky Ding-Dongs was another.
MITCH
Suicide Cheese. Everyone loves an obscure baseball reference.
MIKE
My favorite rejected name was Fuck For Your Life.
JEFF
Mine was Fastest Ghosts Artists.
CHRIS
Because it was the hardest name to say.
MITCH
It was our attempt to play a trick on anyone who would try to be our fan.
DAVE
I liked Chin Music.
CHRIS
I don’t ever remember hearing that one.
MITCH
Me neither. That’s pretty good. Why didn’t I see that list?!
TIM
We aren’t reopening this debate.
JEFF
The Birthday Boys was the only one none of us hated after, like, 600 names.
MITCH
We’ve all embraced the name since we chose it.
DAVE
It evokes the right sensibility.
JEFF
Juvenile and celebratory.
MIKE
I like the plurality of The Birthday Boys. I’m a Birthday Boy and we’re all Birthday Boys. It kind of feels like a cool club.
DAVE
And the “The” gives us a sense of bullshit prestige.

DAVE AND TIM IN “INTRODUCTION TO THE BIRTHDAY BOYS”
TIM
Most of our sketches will start with a recognizable scenario, or a movie cliché or something, and then twist the premise. Something unexpected happens, followed by either no conflict or a completely retarded conflict. We take something silly and make it a big deal. Or we take something that should be a big deal and make it silly. Our sketches are almost always conceptual and almost never character-based.
DAVE
Not because we don’t care about characters, but because of how much we care about premises. We come at it from a writer’s mentality. We are so in love with the jokes and the concepts that if we stopped to worry too much about the characters we would lose sight of the premises.
TIM
We frequently make the choice to not have a stock straight man calling out what is absurd in a scene. It’s always more rewarding to find a way to have that absurd thing come out naturally, without just saying it. If you start with an absurd premise and treat it like it’s realistic, you can then heighten like a normal sketch.
DAVE
There are unusual ways to involve a straight man. We have a sketch where Chris plays our acting coach in attendance at the show and we spend the entire scene playing to him. He doesn’t have a line in the entire scene, he’s not even on stage, but he’s a sort of straight man. Or, we have a sketch where I play the straight man interviewing one of the guys who knows the secret formula for Coke, as a direct address to the audience. That can be a fun way to play straight unconventionally.
TIM
The absurd stuff tends to make us laugh the hardest, so that’s most of what we do.
DAVE
Our style is silly, sort of vaudevillian; the sketches are more action-based than dialogue-based. We like using rake bits. Or playing with theatre’s fourth wall. The stage allows you to talk directly to the viewers sometimes, and then also close the wall and do a scene. Or even have a scene where we do both. We can mix in video the same way. One of the things that has been so amazing is that there are people coming to more than one of our shows. That allows us to take more chances and assume a little more, be a little weirder right off the bat.
TIM
But ultimately, the jokes have to be really funny or your style doesn’t matter. As long as it’s all funny, the weirder the better as far as we are concerned.

THE BIRTHDAY BOYS IN “HAM HAT”

THE BIRTHDAY BOYS IN “BIRTH OF A SKETCH”
MIKE
The way it begins is, somebody will write a first draft of something that has never been discussed before, then email it to the group. You throw it out there and people like it or don’t like it, pitch on it. And then new drafts come out and it’s talked about later in a meeting.
JEFF
We all have day jobs, so email chains act as most of our pitch meetings.
MITCH
We also have sketches that come from the seven of us just hanging out, joking around together.
JEFF
Those are more rare, but some of the best times we have together. Eventually someone has to go off and write the script, though.
DAVE
A lot of the time dialogue and ideas will stay true to the original script. But other times the funniest ideas will come from new pitches, or a character choice, or even a funny mistake made during rehearsals.
TIM
Just because one of us wrote a sketch doesn’t necessarily mean that the best jokes are all his.
MITCH
We insert dialogue during rehearsals a lot. I guess I’m mostly guilty of that.
TIM
It’s very rare that we will write a character for a specific Birthday Boy.
DAVE
We mostly write to an archetype, and then somebody fits that archetype.
TIM
Mitch is really easy to write for. Mike can be, too. Most of us don’t have big character things that we do, so we don’t write a lot of those sketches. But we’ll do a character piece if it’s funny enough.
MIKE
We don’t have a list of do’s and don’ts for sketches.
CHRIS
Anytime politics or social commentary come up, they generally gets groans from the group.

MIKE
Because we don’t understand those things. We usually don’t write stuff that’s very sexual either. We did one sketch about a shrink-ray that only shrunk dicks.
TIM
You see a lot of comedy that relies on being dirty.
We’ll honestly do anything if we think it’s funny enough, but more often than not we would remove a word like cock or pussy if it didn’t need to be there. Just because it didn’t need to be there.
JEFF
One time, during a video shoot, Chris spoke the line, “This car is worth more than your tiny little cocks.” And Tim called cut and insisted we change the line to “tiny little dicks.”

MITCH
I think cocks is a much less harsh word that dicks.

JEFF
Dicks is staccato.

DAVE
Dicks is definitely a sillier word.

TIM
That was just because I can’t think of a cock being tiny. When I think of cocks I think of BIG COCKS.
MITCH
It’s always us sweating the small stuff.

THE BIRTHDAY BOYS IN “FROM PAGE TO STAGE”
CHRIS
Not always, but usually, the person who wrote the sketch will cast it.
MITCH
Once cast, each person will bring their own thing to the character.
JEFF
There’s a sketch where Tim wrote a line directly inspired by how Mitch says “shut up” in real life. Before Mitch showed up I was doing the part, knowing Mitch would eventually do it, so I’m reading it as “SHYAAADUUP!” And then Mitch shows up and reads it as “SHUT UP!” He could not for the life of him get it.
MITCH
I did eventually get it, but it took me forever.
TIM
We kept correcting him so many times that he got mad at us and said “SHYAAADUUP!”
JEFF
We were like, “Mitch, you’re doing it!” Mitch is the most meticulous about how a line is spoken. Very rarely is it “acting first” for the rest of us.
MATT
We rehearse at the house where everyone lives but Mitch and I. One wall acts as the audience. Tim likes to be stage right at all times.                                                                                                                                                                                                   CHRIS
That’s true, he does.
DAVE
We would rehearse everyday at UCB, except scheduling is too insane. So at best we might get to the theatre for one rehearsal session and one cue-to-cue tech rehearsal. The rest happens at our house.
MITCH
Staging is a group thing. Everyone pipes up about blocking. Occasionally we have someone outside the group direct a really visual sketch, and I’m always impressed at how much they can get out of us. Neil Campbell and Paul Rust (co-hosts of Not Too Shabby and members of A Kiss from Daddy) directed our first big UCB show, Hotdoggin’.               CHRIS
When we rehearse at the theatre we like to have Amanda Sitko or Drew Difonzo Marks help with the direction.
DAVE
We have gotten exponentially better at blocking, and that is just a testament to doing it more. It’s a given now that when you make a personal choice for a character, you should think about where you are and what’s happening.
JEFF
A lot of times we all read a sketch and picture the same thing. Occasionally we will argue over something none of us knows, like how a submarine should be set up.
DAVE
About 30% of the time all seven of us are on stage simultaneously, so we really have to share a vision for this to work. Our shows are inherently visual, but the visual premises are the ones that actually just kind of come together. If the premise is strong and everyone is on-board, we just go to our natural places.
JEFF
If we can’t reach a group agreement we have been lucky enough to have Amanda and Drew to defer to on staging issues.
DAVE
And they usually don’t know they are settling a dispute. They’ll just say, “Do it this way,” and a few of us get to whisper “I told you so.”
TIM
They have been a huge help to us with putting the final touches on blocking. The material is tested at Not Too Shabby. If we test it all.
MITCH
We don’t always need to. Sometimes we can just tell a sketch is ready. It’s easier to be confident when all seven of us are laughing at it.
JEFF
We only have nights and weekends to work together, so we can’t afford to waste time. The last Sunday before a show is when things get nuts.
DAVE
Chris will be holed up in the basement working on video. Jeff is somewhere making a giant prop. The rest of us are scattered throughout the house. We work hard all month, but that’s our crazy day.
TIM
It’s sometimes tense, but tensions never get too high.
MITCH
It can get frustrating, but it’s really not so bad. Sometimes I’ll leave that house thinking to myself, “Damn, Mike Hanford is such a fucking piece of shit.” (pause) That’s it.
MIKE
Cut to me sitting in a chair whistling.

THE BIRTHDAY BOYS IN “DISAGREE TO DISAGREE”
MITCH
We are seven people all trying to agree on one thing, of course we bicker sometimes. But we can work around it.
TIM
There was a sketch where everyone in the group wanted to do a joke one way and I wanted to do it another, so I conceded on the grounds that I got 10 Compromise Points. And since then we’ve joked about this Compromise Points System that doesn’t actually exist.
DAVE
Tim’s been racking them up.
TIM
I have 13.
DAVE
We don’t document or adhere to it…
JEFF
…But there’s an unspoken agreement.
CHRIS
I’m saving up all my Points and one show I’m going to play guitar. And I don’t know how to play guitar.
MITCH
Chris, you need 10 billion Compromise Points if you ever want to play guitar onstage. It’s like the prize at the arcade no one can win.
MIKE
We argue over the music between sketches more than anything. Most other stuff just gets discussed.
MITCH
I was just watching a documentary about this band I like. I won’t say the name, because some people think they’re kind of lame…
JEFF
Let the record show, it’s Dave Matthews Band.
MITCH
JEEEEFFFFFFF!
TIM
Nice cover, Mitch.
MITCH
Anyway, this band…
JEFF
…This “Matthews” band.
TIM
It was definitely some sort of “Matthews” band.
MITCH
They were talking about how poison seeped into their relationship because they weren’t open about what they were doing creatively. We are always very open about how we feel about stuff, so no one feels attacked by criticism. The small head-butting incidents often can result in something good.
JEFF
Comedy and clarity are what butt heads the most. Often times one idea is funnier and another idea is clearer. I will usually find myself siding with funnier at first. But it’s a lot easier to be talked into clarity.
MITCH
I’m a big fan of the joke being as clear as possible. But it’s also fun when we can make people say, “Huuuuuh?”
CHRIS
When we do disagree, we don’t put it to a vote. We just discuss it until someone gives up.
DAVE
It’s total-agreement driven. That’s what it means to be in a working seven-person group.
TIM
A vote would just tell us how many people feel this way and how many people feel that way.
MITCH
And the losers would cry.
JEFF
You can just tell when you’re fighting an uphill battle. The writing is on the wall eventually.
DAVE
The way to move your objection forward is to pitch another idea. The rest of the room will dictate whether or not the new idea is an improvement.
TIM
And sometimes one person will have an objection to something, make a good valid point, suggest something new, and then we’ll just do the first thing anyway. The winner didn’t really win the argument and the loser didn’t concede. But the idea goes in anyway.
MATT
There’s a lot of bullying that goes on here.
MITCH
We all know it’s about picking your battles.
JEFF
Everything falls under the Birthday Boy umbrella. If this was The Jeff Dutton Show it would bother me if the song I wanted wasn’t playing. But it’s not. We really have an uncanny amount of similar tastes for seven people. It’s easy to forgive the small percentage of stuff where we differ.
MATT
Except shaving cream vs. whipped cream.
CHRIS
We had a sketch where a bunch of us had to spray whipped cream down each other’s pants, and Jeff was insistent that using shaving cream was better.
MIKE
He just didn’t want his pants to smell.
CHRIS
I would’ve been fine with shaving cream.
MATT
Whipped cream sounds funnier.
DAVE
Eventually Jeff gave in. In the end, all our decisions are based on what will be funniest and clearest. It doesn’t matter who is right, only that the joke is right.
JEFF
I still think I was right.

THE BIRTHDAY BOYS IN…I’LL JUST LET THEM TELL YOU.

THE BIRTHDAY BOYS IN “THE BIG SHOW”
MITCH
Early on a lot of us had performance anxiety.
CHRIS
I still do.
MIKE
I do too.
JEFF
Wait, we’re talking about boners, right?
TIM
I have performance anxiety if I ever have to do anything different from what we ordinarily do.
DAVE
You guys are pussies.
MITCH
I think most of the nervousness now is just because we want to do well.
MIKE
When we first started, we didn’t really know how to act.
TIM
Riiiiiight. When we first started. That’s when we didn’t know how to act.
MITCH
I don’t know what these guys are talking about. I’ve been acting all my life. I was in plays as a kid up until high school. Then I was afraid of getting beaten up.
JEFF
As performers, we are always a little afraid of the audience turning on us.
TIM
We are just starting to realize that when an audience isn’t laughing, it doesn’t mean they hate us. One joke didn’t make them laugh, but they are still waiting for the next joke. When a joke just goes out there and hangs in silence, part of us still feels like, “Oh shit. They’re mad.”
JEFF
Like they immediately start gathering pitchforks.
CHRIS
When we watch the tape, there are always more laughs than it seemed from the stage.
DAVE
The beauty of doing comedy is that, as high as the stakes feel to us, they are actually really low. You might as well have fun with it. It’s easy to have fun if you are being silly. Not that we don’t take the shows seriously. We take being silly seriously.
CHRIS
We take the costumes seriously too.
DAVE
Sometimes it seems like we change clothes more during the show than the whole rest of the month. It’s a very sweaty backstage.
MITCH
When the audience sees that you’ve changed costumes it’s a symbol of a new character. You aren’t just coming out like, “It’s me, Mitch. Here I am again for this next sketch.”
JEFF
We’ll do anything to help the audience perceive we are acting.
CHRIS
We wear real camping equipment. I wear my expensive suit onstage.
TIM
I’m the opposite. I wear shitty sketch clothes to work.
DAVE
Tim looks like a sketch character all the time.
TIM
Never in my life have I worn a suit and not felt like I was playing dress-up.
MITCH
Suits are supposed to make you look and feel good.
TIM
I know. But I have a size 34 waste and 46 shoulders. That doesn’t work for humans.
MITCH
Dave does a lot of the direct address stuff because he’s the only one of us who can pass for a normal human being.
CHRIS
He introduces the group to the audience and then the freaks come out.
MIKE
“Is it time?!”

THE BIRTHDAY BOYS IN “PACK OF LEADERS”
MITCH
The reason we get along so well is because we understand that we all do this together. Everyone brings their strengths to the table and the end result is the hard work of all of us.
TIM
It’s worked so far for everyone to fall into the roles that they like best. We would run into problems if, say, I had really strong feelings about prop construction, because that’s Jeff’s thing. He likes big props, so we have big props. If too many people have too many strong opinions, that’s when they clash.
CHRIS
We don’t have one leader. And for the record, we have always requested normal-sized props. Jeff is overcompensating for something.
DAVE
We’re not laissez-faire in terms of not caring, we’re laissez-faire in terms of not caring where the idea comes from.
JEFF
Dave is the taskmaster of the group.
MITCH
But the group wouldn’t work if he didn’t do it. So we all appreciate him for it.
TIM
Dave’s a major dick.
DAVE
I’m actually totally fine with the major dick description.
MIKE
If we formed as Voltron, Dave would be the dick.
TIM
Two of us would be the balls. One, the asshole.
MIKE
Others would form the pubes.
MITCH
Awww man. Am I the taint?
MATT
We form just the genitalia of said Voltron.
MITCH
We form into a giant robot’s junk, then we save the day.

THE BIRTHDAY BOYS IN ONE LAST VIDEO.

Thanks, Birthday Boys. You guys saved the day.

You can find more videos from The Birthday Boys at UCB Comedy and Funny or Die.

My name is Ben and I interviewed them.

June 18, 2009 Posted by | Interviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

KEEP ON TRUCKIN': AN INTERVIEW WITH IMPROV GREATS CONVOY

Convoy (From L-R): Todd Fasen, Alex Fernie, and Alex Berg

Convoy (From L-R): Todd Fasen, Alex Fernie, and Alex Berg

Have you ever played that game where a group of people all sit in a circle and take turns, collectively, building a story? Imagine the best players in the world, times that by 50, stick them on-stage in front of a packed house, and that is LA-based improvisational comedy team Convoy.

Alex Berg, Todd Fasen, and Alex Fernie started performing shortform improv together in 2001 at New York’s Vassar College, as members of the literally-named Vassar Improv. By 2004 all three had re-located to Los Angeles and, shortly thereafter, began studying longform improvisation at Improv Olympic in Hollywood. Convoy formed from their friendship, shared comedic sensibility, and mutual frustration over the structures and limits of conventional longform improv.

The trio found their following at Cagematch, the weekly head-to-head improv competition at Upright Citizen’s Brigade Theatre, also in Hollywood. After winning a record 44 consecutive weeks, they were defeated shortly after accepting a weekly slot at the theatre. For a measly $5 you can see Convoy perform at the UCB every Thursday at 11 alongside another great troupe, The Last Day of School. They also perform at UCB many Mondays for Harold Night (the popular longform improv style created by Del Close), as part of UCBLA’s oldest active Harold team, Sentimental Lady. Make reservations for all their shows in advance as they ALWAYS sell out. To see the video of a full Convoy set, posted yesterday, click here.

This is the first of what I hope to be a long and awesome interview series featuring comedians with unique styles. My goal is to find the soul of what an artist or group does best, then mold the interview to best reflect that. In doing so, hopefully, I can offer a glimpse of the creative process. And also make you laugh. For Convoy, this quote acts as my template:

“What we try to do when we improvise is find worlds we can explore. We stumble upon a premise: This is what this world is. Then we explore that until it triggers another premise in our minds, and then we follow that. The whole point is, if we get the suggestion of strawberries, to never have a strawberry in the whole show, except maybe the first scene. And then just see how far we can get in twenty minutes; where can we be that is so far away from strawberries.”Alex Fernie of Convoy

I have divided this interview into Longform (the scenes connect and move forward) and Shortform (scenes end abruptly and action starts anew), to reflect the two main styles of contemporary improv. I will throw out a suggestion and let these guys do the rest. This isn’t going to be an ordinary interview. This is ImproView. Or Convoysation. I can’t decide between the two. Without further ado, let’s all join the CONVOY!

LONGFORM
SUGGESTION: IMPROV STYLE
ALEX FERNIE
We came up with the name Convoy randomly, because we were listening to the song ‘Convoy’, but then retroactively decided that it describes our form. We get our suggestion and then explicitly try to keep moving forward.
TODD FASEN
We start in a more grounded, real place and trust that an unusual thing is going to happen, and when it does, that it will be picked up on. If you are in a world where trees can talk, then what else is true about that world? Let’s see this tree going to work and having a very mundane day or something.
ALEX BERG
We have always liked the juxtaposition between the mundane and the ridiculous. For us, the more ridiculous something is the more funny it is to examine what is mundane about it. Obviously we know trees talking is ridiculous, but what are the mundane things that trees talk about? There’s a commercial on TV with a jackalope and a Minotaur getting coffee, and I love that commercial because they just talk about day-to-day bullshit. I don’t want to hear a jackalope and a minotaur talk about being a jackalope and a minotaur.
FERNIE
Because they wouldn’t. I don’t talk about being a skinny white guy with glasses.
BERG
I talk about being a skinny white guy with glasses all the time.
FERNIE
Yeah, but it’s funny for you to talk about…
BERG
…Because I don’t wear glasses…
FERNIE
…And you’re so fat.
FASEN
You’re both what Rivers Cuomo writes songs about.
BERG
Likewise, if you have a scene between two office workers, it’s more fun if they are trying to take over the world using their staplers or something.
FERNIE
A lot of times, and this can be a good thing, but it can also be our failing: We’d rather have interesting than funny. So we will just go down a road because we, as improvisers, are legitimately interested in this conversation. One of the things all three of us try not to do is just go for a joke. That kills more scenes than anything.
BERG
Going for a quick laugh is almost like not trusting the audience to be patient with you.
FERNIE
I really believe there is a big difference between doing a good show and a funny show. Ideally you want them to be the same show, but I think anyone can walk on stage and get laughs. That’s not a problem. If you trust that the laughs will come, they usually will. So we focus on some of the other stuff and let the laughs happen. When people are trying too hard, that’s when you see them not really connect. It’s like when you have a dog that you want to pet, and the dog’s like “Nope.” But the second you stop wanting to pet it, it’s going to come over.
FASEN
At the end of the day, your show needs to be funny or people aren’t going to want to see it. But if you’re just making jokes in your scenes then the show isn’t going to be funny. It just sort of comes to a halt. And for us, we don’t get a reset button after each scene, so we need to be able to move forward logically and adopt the attitude, “If this then what.”
FERNIE
We’ll nod to stuff that we’ve done and we’ll do callbacks, but I think we are greedy in terms of wanting to discover as much stuff as possible. We’re constantly trying to find out new things about these three characters. It’s not just, this guy loves hamburgers so he’s going to be spending twenty minutes talking about how much he loves hamburgers.
BERG
It worked for Wimpy from Popeye.
FASEN
And the Hamburgler.
FERNIE
That’s true. And we’re still laughing. When you go see a show, you want to see depth. If it’s only got one good idea…
BERG
…Especially if that idea happens to be a dick joke…
FERNIE
…I might laugh. I probably will laugh. But I’m not going to remember it next Tuesday.
BERG
Every time we have watched through the tape of a show that went less than good, it’s always been because one or all of us is playing with an agenda. And the shows that we all like the most are when the set is just a series of very honest reactions and responses to this first thing. I think that’s part of how you build the audience’s trust: By saying, we’re not just going to come in and invent some joke if it’s not appropriate to the scene.
FASEN
You don’t want to force a weird thing.
BERG
You don’t want to force anything, be it unusual or not.
FERNIE
No matter how many scenes with Optimus Prime talking to Goliath from Davey and Goliath we do, we always make sure there’s something there we can hang our hat on.
BERG
Sometimes you get these really rich suggestions and you don’t just want to go to the knee-jerk, obvious jokes. Like, what’s an example? Uhhh…
FERNIE
You’re really struggling.
BERG
I really am.
FASEN
One time we got Thermidor.
FERNIE
No, they suggested Jacobian.
BERG
Right, and then Thermidor was the only month I could remember off the French Revolutionary Calendar. So sometimes you get these rich suggestions and, in this case, there are so many different aspects of the French Revolution that are really interesting to explore, so…
FERNIE
…There are so many aspects of the French Revolution that are interesting to explore? Anyone who hasn’t seen us before, you just ensured they will NEVER come to a show.
FASEN
We’re LA’s #1 historical improv troupe. If you didn’t get a 4 on your AP European History test, don’t bother showing up.
BERG
Funny thing is, I got a 1. Didn’t study at all for that test. I went in going, “I either know this or I don’t,” and stayed out until 2am the night before.
FERNIE
Well, I guess that question was answered.
BERG
Yeah, I guess so.

SUGGESTION: CHARACTERS
FERNIE
People is people, and no matter what you’re doing, you still want there to be the core of a person there. We all have more things in common with, say, John Wayne Gacy, than we don’t. The big differences stand out, but he probably loved hamburgers and Sportscenter and all the things most people love.
BERG
I love clowns. Bibles. Murder.
FASEN
But not killing.
BERG
No, not killing. I like murder, I don’t like murdering.
FERNIE
No matter how crazy the scene, you still want there to be something recognizable and human there.
BERG
Sometimes you want great distance between yourself and this oaf you are creating on-stage, but a lot of times I have very sincerely brought up things that have been floating in my head. I was talking as the character, but it was this honest, idiotic, neurotic sort of thing in my own mind. Neurotic? Is neurotic a word?
FERNIE
Did you just ask if neurotic is a word?
BERG
It is, right?
FASEN
It’s a pretty well known word.
FERNIE
Very famous word.
BERG
I’m neurotic about whether neurotic is a word. Neuroticism, that’s the word I always think is real that isn’t.
FERNIE
Neuroticism sounds like worries that you’re turned on by.
FASEN
I’m okay with neuroticism becoming a word.
BERG
This is how neologisms happen. I think about philosophy of language a lot doing improv.
FERNIE
When we were in school we took a philosophy of language course with this Norwegian professor named Herman Cappelen. Exactly what you might expect a Norwegian philosophy professor to look like – that was Herman Cappelen.
BERG
And he talked like Kermit the Frog. Cappelen went through this whole thing about Paul Grice’s Four Conversational Maxims, these tacit rules that everyone who participates in a conversation agrees to. Since moving out here I have gone back and read the article and thought about it in terms of improv and it really applies. Language is a social agreement; words don’t have meaning until we agree they do. In order to create anything on stage you have to have that same level of social agreement, because nothing exists in a scene until you say it does. And then it’s ironclad.
FERNIE
There’s no “real world” connection. We are naming these things that aren’t really there, but 100 people in the room will decide that this world is real, and then…BOOM! It is real. And what makes everyone agree to it is pattern. Language and humor both work that way, and they are so inextricably linked; in terms of expectation: Expecting you to conjugate this way or hit the punchline here. Then, either by fulfilling or withholding that fulfillment, we get the response that we want.
BERG
There is something that is very satisfying about fulfilled pattern. All brains do is look for patterns everywhere. That’s why humans are good at finding metaphors and analogies.
FASEN
When this interview hits you are going to send Paul Grice book sales through the roof.
FERNIE
He’s going to skyrocket up Amazon.

SHORTFORM
SUGGESTION: DIFFERENT STAGES
BERG
It definitely affects it. I feel very at home at UCB now, but I don’t think that was always the case. I remember when we first started performing there being really thrown off by the lack of wings.
FASEN
We always play at UCB, so we’re just used to that stage. But even at UCB there can be concerns. Like, if it’s a smaller crowd so there aren’t people on the wings, you now have the whole stage to play with, so that’s going to bring its own change.
BERG
It comes down to responding to the performance space and trying to play organically to what that space needs.
FERNIE
We just went back and did a show at Vassar a couple weeks ago. It was in a huge, two-story room and there were no lights, besides ambient lights. There was a stage, but it’s a WEIRD space. You just get gobbled up and the sound gets gobbled up. You have to adjust the show.
FASEN
When we would do shows there in college we performed in these small classrooms, to the point where people were literally right in front of us. In some weird way it feels like we’ve come full-circle and now we have this crowd that knows us, that sees us kind of regularly, that’s packing in a stage. We were part of that in college and now we’ve managed to build a similar thing here.
FERNIE
There’s a bad side, too. We did a show recently that was ended by an audience member walking across the stage.
BERG
Yeah, we got edited by an audience member. Because of where they were sitting, Fernie and I saw movement out of the corner of our eyes and instinctively thought it was Todd. So we both did the improviser “freeze” to see who he was tagging out, but it was just somebody going to the bathroom.
FERNIE
I just kind of shrugged. “Engage? I don’t think I want to.” It was just ten seconds of us watching this person walk across the stage and then Todd ending the show.
FASEN
You guys were like deer in headlights.

SUGGESTION: INTERNAL CLOCKS
BERG
Mine is awful.
FERNIE
Berg’s is pretty bad.
FASEN
Mine has been much better since UCB started putting a clock up in the booth.
BERG
I would argue, by definition, that’s an external clock.
FASEN
Yes, but it helps my internal clock.

SUGGESTION: GAINING AN AUDIENCE
FERNIE
For the first year of our existence, more, it was just our friends coming.
BERG
We just liked to see who we could guilt into coming to see us.
FASEN
By the time we started performing at UCB our friends were all tired of us.
FERNIE
We’ve done shows for two people. NOT fun.
FASEN
But we did it. I remember one of our first shows, a Cagematch, there were three people in attendance. We won by one vote, two to one.
FERNIE
I still look out the curtain every week to make sure there’s a crowd.
BERG
Fifteen or sixteen weeks into the Cagematch, we started getting a following. Those first couple of weeks with really big crowds were so awesome. And then when it became where those big crowds were not such an aberrant thing, that was just as awesome.
FASEN
And now we have this sold-out show at such an amazing theatre as the Upright Citizen’s Brigade. It’s just such an honor that the theatre wants us performing on that stage, but the step above that is, people also want to see us performing on that stage.
FERNIE
It’s such a wonderful and crazy thing. In the end, you don’t do improv to get famous, and you don’t do improv to make money. We do it because we love it and we’d be doing it if no one was showing up. We we can say that because we have done it when no one has shown up.

SUGGESTION: THE END OF CAGEMATCH
BERG
We went first that night and knew as soon as we walked off the stage that we hadn’t done as strong a show as we could have, and I think within five minutes of their show it was obvious they had won. It was Kapeesh – Eric Appel and Ben Schwartz. Ben was only in from New York for one night and flew home the next day. Those dudes are so funny and they brought an unique brand of improv that a lot of people hadn’t seen before. I honestly think they deserved to win.
FERNIE
We knew we were going to start doing Thursdays the next month, so even if we had kept winning we were going to quit in two weeks. But it was sort of like getting shot the night before your retirement as a cop.
FASEN
I think had we not known we were going to get a regular slot maybe we would’ve been a little bit more disappointed. We had a shit show, they had a great show and the audience did what they were supposed to do. They voted for who had a better show that night. That’s how I want to go out.
BERG
It made all those victories take on that much more importance. We did a shit show and got voted off. All those other 44 weeks when we got voted through, that means people really liked us.
FERNIE
The only bummer was, for our “retirement” show, we were planning to promote it as Convoy against some Make-A-Wish kids whose only wish was to do an improv show. And then it was going to be Tom Lennon, Ben Garant, Kerry Kinney, and a bunch of other ‘The State’ people.
BERG
And they would all come out as these terribly-debilitated Make-A-Wish Foundation kids.
FASEN
With IV’s and stuff.
FERNIE
I think that would’ve been a blast.

SUGGESTION: PET-PEEVES
FERNIE
I will never hold it against someone when they say they don’t like improv. I’ve seen enough bad improv to understand. But what drives me nuts is improvisers that make people not like improv. They do these shows where it’s like, “Oh, it’s just improv, let’s have a few beers and get up there.” What’s the point? You should be making something worthwhile.
FASEN
You need to respect the stage. Respect the fact that you’ve been given this opportunity to perform. Whether it’s performing at the UCB or the Chuckle Hut in Duluth or your friend’s garage. Do the best you possibly can. If you want to dick around, go dick around in your living room. If you’re going to put it on a stage, make something that you’re proud of.
FERNIE
I don’t like improv that seems like people playing dress-up in the basement.
BERG
Or improv that seems like a bunch of friends going up to do inside jokes. I don’t think it’s fun to watch a couple of dude-friends get up on-stage and shit around like they would in their…
FASEN
“Shit around” is NOT a term.
FERNIE
Neither is “dude-friends.” You had two things in that sentence that weren’t terms. “Where’s Berg? Oh, he’s just shitting around with his best dude-friends.”
BERG
I’ve invented several terms in this interview.
FASEN
No one wants to see a shitty show, so don’t do a shitty show. Of course, everyone is going to have bad nights doing improv, but don’t give up before you even get on the stage.
BERG
And you’re never going to reach the point where you are the best improviser you could possibly be, so, at the very least, every time you go out there is another opportunity to sharpen the knife, so to speak.
FASEN
I’d rather go see a show where, maybe it’s not that funny or great, but it’s people on-stage trying and committing versus watching people who are maybe funnier, but you know can do better, and are instead just…”shitting around” the stage.

SUGGESTION: ANYTHING AT ALL
FERNIE
I think you should tell the readers about how much Berg is sweating right now. That’s a big stain, Berg.
BERG
Describe it as larger than a man’s hand, so the readers know.
FASEN
As a guy who sweats a lot, why did you go with the long-sleeve shirt today?
FERNIE
It seems like a faulty decision.
BERG
I don’t understand why you can’t just listen to what’s coming out of my mouth.
FERNIE
Because there are too many other things coming out of you.
BERG
There’s more than enough to go around. Who wants some?
FASEN
Get those sweat-bags away from me. It’s like a shower is pouring out of your armpits.

SUGGESTION: SOMETHING NEW
FERNIE
We’ve started doing “retractions” at the beginning of our set. Because we get specific about stuff like, say, the French Revolution, we consistently make errors during our shows.
BERG
It started about a month ago. We had this bit in a show where I went on a really long, super nerdy rant about Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing origin story…
FERNIE
…A rant so boring I walked out of the scene.
BERG
That’s right. A rant so boring it stopped the scene. A true-blue comic book nerd like Fernie said, “Nope,” and walked off. I can only imagine how the crowd felt. But I got a detail wrong, so the next week, sort of as a joke, we did a retraction at the top of the show. It’s become a fun thing to go back and find the stuff we missed.
FERNIE
Because they know. I say this all of the time: The audience will always be smarter than you. There are more of them than there are of you, so, collectively they are smarter. When you mess up, someone in the audience knows.
BERG
And part of why it’s fun is that we can say, “Whoever was here last week, it was planarian worms instead of nematodes.” Even if there’s only five or six people there who laugh at that retraction, it’s nice to feel like this isn’t just a room full of strangers, it’s a community of friends.
FASEN
We don’t just go straight into “Hey, we’re here! Let’s do stuff!” It’s a fun thing to do at the top of the show.
BERG
Or maybe it’s one of our group neuroticisms.
FERNIE
Stop it. Just stop it.

Thanks, dude-friends. You’ve been great.

My name is Ben and I interviewed them.

***RETRACTION*** – Neuroticism is a word.

April 15, 2009 Posted by | Interviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 11 Comments

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