Poop or Chocolate

Home of the elegant fart joke.

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.

Advertisements

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