Episode 8 – Delaying the Inevitable – Improv Insights

I talk shop today. I just performed in a show at the National Comedy Theater in San Diego (nationalcomedy.com). I talk about the joy it is to have men play men and women play women on stage. The cross-gender shtick is getting old.

I also talk about how getting to the point of the conflict and making strong active choices makes for better scene work on stage.

Tomorrow…something a little more serious.

Memories of National Comedy Theater – 15 Years of NCT

What do I remember from performing over 1,200 shows? Not much. I’m lucky to remember anything after the show is done. I think that if you’re making up a show on the spot, you’re constantly living in the moment and a little bit into the future. You don’t have time to remember the immediate past.

After 15 years, I remember one scene. It involved my favorite game, Blind Line, where 8 lines from movies, songs, pop culture are solicited from the audience, while the performers are outside. The players come in and perform a scene. Every-so-often a player picks up a line from the audience, reads it aloud and immediately justifies it into the scene.

One this particular night, I’m performing with fellow castmates, Zach Stone and David Armstrong. I start the scene with David and my first line is “Dude, your sister last night was amazing.” I’m establishing high school friends as the relationship.

I reach down to pick up a line and the dreadful “Luke, I am your father” is uttered from my lips. Yep, I just started an incest scene. David and I are frozen at this moment, which is where you never want to be in an improv scene. The audience is laughing at us because they want to see how the hell we’re going to get out of this mess. Seeing that David and I are stuck, Zach brilliantly wipes the scene and creates a therapy session with David’s character to talk about the horrible things going on with his family.

Seeing that David and I are stuck, Zach brilliantly wipes the scene and creates a therapy session with David’s character to talk about the horrible things going on with his family. Still feeling a little uncomfortable about the subject matter, we continue the scene with a great deal of apprehension. Zach’s therapist character is trying in vain to make light of the situation until Zach reaches for the line “Now, the Chamber of Secrets has been open.” The audience roars with laughter.

I take this moment to wipe the scene again, and I’m on stage with David portraying his character’s mother. I state the father is in jail and now this family can begin the healing process. Seeing that there’s one line left on the ground, I reach for it saying, I have one thing I need to say. It is at this moment that the audience starts to giggle and the other players, not in the scene, start snickering. Basically, they’re in on the joke, except me.

I reach down to pick up the line and say, “I have one thing to say…I kissed a girl and I liked it.” And Scene. The audience is in hysterics and the show is halted for what seemed like an eternity. Zach, David and I look at one another in confused amazement.

OK, you had to be there.

Other NCT Memories

  • My first official show was January 19, 2002, at 7:30.
  • When I started, I was one of three Asians in the cast. Today, I am the only Asian in the cast.
  • I performed one night wearing racquetball goggles because I had just had Lasik surgery on my eyes and could not risk getting poked in the eye.
  • For four months straight, I reffed/hosted one show a night while the Gary and Dorian were in Iraq performing as part of the USO. I was so pissed off at the end, I literally demanded that I not ref for an entire month.
  • Politics are the only subject, we as players can rationally talk about in the green room.
  • I caught the worst head cold of my life after playing the game Oxygen Deprivation and then immediately going outside in the cold to guess for 5 things.
  • Speaking of 5 things, I got 5-out-of-5 a total of who-the-hell-cares times.
  • Speaking again of 5 things, I was a part of Casey Gardner’s famous 30-out-of-5 streak and Renee Kohn’s 0-out-of-5 night.
  • I get browned bagged more now, then I did in the beginning.
  • I have a nut joke and a circumcision joke at part of my end game schtick.
  • This is debated, but I’m pretty sure it was me who came up with the “this isn’t Florida” joke.
  • I uttered the line “who thinks the blue team will explode in the second half, like a WMD in Iraq.” Man, did I take a beating for that.
  • My wife cleaned massive amounts of poo off the bathroom walls before half-time.
  • I threw up twice after games and farted once on stage.
  • I saw someone quit the show, during the show.
  • I totally suck at the Unrated show and HARD.

Why National Comedy Theater? – 15 Years of NCT

My journey to NCT started about 8 years into my improv career. While doing research on my Master’s Degree in 2001, I stumbled across the show Whose Line Is It Anyway? I discovered improv comedy and I eventually started taking classes with my first teacher, Pat Dade (who teaches now at Stella Adler in Hollywood). I moved on to South Coast Repertory learning from Greg Atkins and after spending hundreds of dollars on classes, I joined my first team, Just Us Improv in Orange County.

Soon after getting married, I realized I needed to up my game. I had to join a troupe that matched my personal philosophy of improv–good scene work being one. On vacation, my wife and I stumbled across NCT San Diego, which starred many members of the same improv show we saw in Santa Barbara. In 2001, NCT held auditions on a Sunday Morning and it was time. I auditioned. And to be completely honest, I knew I nailed it. Later that night, I got a call from owner Gary Kramer with the good news. He, in fact, knew my teacher Pat Dade from Washington DC.

Now, I was making two trips to San Diego every week for rehearsal and shows. I met my good friend Dorian Lenz, who runs NCT Phoenix. I also met my producing partner, Loren Kling. We are now working on the second season of 5 Important Things Podcast. I wish I could mention everyone but the list is huge and I’m going to forget someone.

Luckily for me, the owner and a few of the performers were commuting to San Diego from Los Angeles. I got to hitch a ride and got to know Gary and the operation better. I know it was these trips that help me get on stage as first in my class. In fact, I was not prepared to perform my first time in January 2002. It was surprised on me by Gary and gang while we were getting dinner at Phil’s BBQ.

I did it and fifteen years later, I still cherish being on stage with an ever changing cast. I don’t remember much about the show, other than I played a redneck at one point.

Why NCT? Sure the years have not passed without controversy. There was also the three years, that I tried and failed in reproducing the show in Orange County. But after fifteen years, I’m on a team where were all on the same page. We agree on how scenes are built and we have healthy discussions of what’s funny, what works and a leader, we respect to make the final decision. Having been in many troupes, this is the most important factor that has kept me in improv all these years.

Why NCT? Ultimately, it’s the one who pays the bills…the audience. There’s nothing more intoxicating that hearing 100 people laugh at you. There’s this debate in Improv Comedy. Who is improv for? Yourself or the Audience. To me, there’s only one answer…the audience. I have but one gift to give to the world and its laughter.

This Saturday, I will step on the same stage, I stepped on 15 years ago (sans the green carpet). I will perform the same show, I performed in 15 years ago. I will step on that stage with 15 years of experience and with all humility know that I’m still learning what it takes to make people laugh.

Tickets are running out. Purchase your tickets now.

Performing the Same Show over 1,200 Times – 15 Years of NCT

Improvisers are notorious for getting bored quickly. That’s why there are so many different variations of the same games. I guess it’s the closest thing to asking an actor what it’s like to perform the same role in the same show for 15 years.

The fact of the matter is, I love this show. Each night with I step on the stage, I know I’m on stage with a professional. I know when I throw an idea out, my partner will run with it and I know when someone throws out an idea, I can run wild with it.

Over the last 15 years, the cast at NCT has changed with the exception of Gary Kramer, the owner, and David George, the last remaining original player. Gary has managed to create the longest running live show in San Diego history. It regularly sells out and the improv classes continue to be popular. It’s an honor for me to have been a small part of this.

Regarding Dave George, I will always remember him beating me in the first NCT poker tournament. For the record, I lost because of a string bet he made, which reveal the strength of my hand and I am NOT bitter about it.

I’ve also made lifelong friends including Dorian Lenz and Loren Kling, who joined the team at the same audition as me. Dorian is now the owner of NCT in Phoenix and Loren is my producing partner. We created a staged game show and podcast together.

Anyways, the Main Stage show in San Diego is a cute little show that you, your friends and family will enjoy. Thanks to Gary’s leadership (and I know how thankless being a leader of an improv troupe can be), the show remains funny, appropriate for all ages and serves as the comedic benchmark for the now football-less city of San Diego.

Join me this Saturday, January 21 for two amazing shows at 7:30 and 9:45 p.m. Tickets will be hard to get later this week. Purchase NCT tickets here.

You Are Invited to an Improv Milestone – My NCT 15th Anniversary Show

This Saturday, January 21rd at 7:30 pm and 9:45 pm, I will be celebrating my 15th anniversary performing at the National Comedy Theater in San Diego and I would love to invite you to see this special show. While I don’t know the exact number of shows, I do know that I’ve been in well over 1,200 shows.

Granted, I took a three-year hiatus to try my luck running Secret City in Fullerton, but I will always cherish my time at NCT. It was the first time that I could perform improv comedy the way I wanted too. I never argued with the owner Gary Kramer or director Matt McDonald over how to perform improv, play games and produce the show. I was free to develop my talents as a comedian and I learned valuable lessons in teamwork.

Please make your way to San Diego this weekend. The 7:30 show is already 50% sold.

If you can make it to the shows, here is what will happen in these two special shows:

  1. I will be in both the 7:30 and 9:45 pm shows.
  2. I will perform with a team of the best improvisers that only San Diego could produce, including: Chris Daily, Gary Kramer, Gordy Fitzgerald, Greg Rojciewicz, Melissa Brody and Patrick Jeter.
  3. You will witness some of the best comedic scenes and sketches made up completely on the spot.
  4. You will head immediately to Urgent Care after the show because you laughed too hard.
  5. No mention whatsoever of this milestone will stated in the show at all. I get it. It’s not about me. Improv is about the team and the art created as a team.

Just Chiming In – Harassment in Improv Comedy

If you’re in the improv community, and you have a Facebook account, you know that the issue of sexual harassment has become the topic of choice for several weeks. After reading post after post of harassment issues on-and-off stage, I’ve found myself both angered and offended is all the right and wrong spots. I’ve refrained from responding until I’ve come to grips with the issues in a meaningful way. The time has come.

I am going to split the subject into two separate topics. The first is sexual harassment, bullying and physical assault on and off stage.

Sexual Harassment On and Off Stage

Actual instances of sexual harassment have reared it’s ugly head in the improv community recently. Male improv teachers are using their positions of authority to harass sexually female students. Male performers are groping female performers, claiming its part of their on-stage “character.” Female performers coerced into engaging in simulated acts of sex and rape. This a-hole then claims it’s vital to the scene and then follow-up by accusing the female performer of not being a team player.

I’m very capital punishment about this behavior. It has no place in improv, theater or life. Personally, I believe the laws in this country do not protect women enough, and the courts need to find a way to prosecute sexual harassment and other crimes by giving the benefit of the doubt towards women and children victims. Improv troupes and theaters must take this issue seriously and the claims of harassment even more seriously.

No literally means No. When engaged in any behavior with women, romantically, theatrically or otherwise, once the words “no” is uttered you stop PERIOD. If you’re on stage, and your partner rebuffs your advances, you stop PERIOD. The only body you own is yours. You have no artistic right to control your partner’s body, so stop. Violate this and you need to go to jail.

If you are a member of an improv troupe, get to know the words TRUST, SAFETY, and CONSENT. Your teammates need to trust that you will be appropriate to them. If the scene requires the female to close her eyes, she has to know, you will not violate her. Your teammates need to know they are safe in your hands. Zero tolerance. If caught, you are fired from the group. Really, you should go to jail! You want mercy? It’s up to the woman you victimized, if there’s any discussion of mercy.

Intimate contact between any two performers on stage, requires CONSENT. In over 20 years of performing improv, I’ve only kissed a female performer on two occasions. On both instances, I did not initiate the kiss and I did not intentionally “write” or steer the scene, just so I could kiss my fellow performer. You need to be as close to 100% certain you have consent before ever being physically intimate on stage.

Comedy is a Sacred Artform

The second issue is the one that will get me in the most trouble–the portrayal of women on stage and jokes at the expense of women. Specifically, it is the art of comedy and the art of storytelling on stage. During the Internet discussion, someone posted a series of “rules/suggestions” that improvisers should follow to ensure they are sensitive to women and women’s issues.

For over 20 years, I’ve considered my form of improv as art. I’m telling stories on stage. I’m portraying life and turning life on its head for comedy. Regarding theater and comedy, I am incredibly First Amendment about the issue. Comedy, at its best, is controversial. No topic is immune to comedy. We as a society need to protect this freedom. We can not establish rules governing what is funny and what is not.

Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles is one of my favorite movies about racism. It is considered one of the greatest satires about racism in America. Sadly this film could not be made today because of political correctness. What we, as a society, don’t understand is humor allows us to address controversial subjects, laugh at it and discuss the subject. If we’re ever going to grow as a society, we need to loosen up and laugh.

Am I saying that jokes or scenes about rape are funny? Fortunately, I’ve never been part of an improv troupe that performed a rape scene. I’ve also never been part of a team that took on a funny rape scene as a challenge. In my mind, I can not ever imagine rape ever being funny in a scene or as a joke.

I’ve been to countless improv shows, where white actors slant their eyes, drive bad and speak in horrible accents just to indicate they are playing an Asian. Am I offended? Yes. Do I wish to censor them? No. Was any of these instances funny? Admittedly, yes. Some of them at least. The groans from the audience, the exclamation of “that’s racist” and the lack of applause for the scene should be enough for those performers to censor themselves.

As a theatrical community, we can not use censorship to control the way people think and behave. If we censor certain topics, then we can not shed light on the evils of those topics. Let us not censor our community but at the same time we, as individual performers, should censor ourselves.

I fear the day when we begin posting rules about what is funny and not funny. Don’t say the b-word. Don’t take “churning butter” as a suggestion. Men can no longer portray women in scenes. Are these things funny? Most of the time, No…rarely ever. Would I censor you from telling these kinds of jokes? Absolutely not. But good luck not coming off as a sexist.

Who ultimately decides what is funny and what isn’t? I would like to think common sense and the audience is a good indicator. Common sense tells me rape jokes are not funny. Common sense tells me that taking the challenge to make it funny is not one I should attempt. Common sense tells me humping a female performer on stage is not funny and incredibly uncomfortable for her and the audience. If someone on your team challenges common sense and attempts a rape joke, is that someone you want on your team…emphasizing the word “team.”

Serving the Audience

When I step on stage, I am a servant of the audience. Why? They paid me money to give them a fun night of entertainment. As a business, my goal is to entertain the audience and in turn, they come back, and they bring friends. I’d like you to tell a rape joke, grope a female performer or slant your eyes, and see how much that affects attendance at future shows. I support your first amendment rights to do whatever you want on stage. I also support the audiences’ right never to return to your sexist show.

I’m fortunate to be performing in a wildly popular family-friendly improv show in San Diego. To my knowledge, we’ve rarely had to deal with this issue on stage. Common sense says it’s a bad idea. Practically speaking, we have some great women on the stage, and we don’t want to lose them. The modest 100-seat theater sells out almost every weekend, why would we want to jeopardize that just because we have the right to do it.

The more you know…

Creating Sketch from Improv – My Day with Kevin McDonald

I’m super late in posting this. Last summer I took a weekend trip to my friends, Dorian and Krissy Lenz, improv theater in Phoenix-National Comedy Theater. I visit about once a year. Last year, I had the privilege of visiting the weekend Kevin McDonald from the Kids in the Hall was leading a workshop.

We learned the tricks of the trade as many of the Kids in the Hall sketches started as improvisations, often bad improvisations. At the beginning of the workshop, we broke up into groups of four and quickly performed an improvisation.

I’ve learned that improvisers can be incredibly judgmental people. I am certainly on that list. Almost immediately upon entering the classroom, I began separating the good improvisers and the bad ones. I’m so horrible. Fortunately, humility got the best of me, and I let fate decide my team. My team consisted of myself, a main stage performer and two novices.

We banged out a good improv based on the suggestion of Hunchback. Once our basic improv was set in stone, we were given three opportunities to refine it as a sketch and perform it in front of Kevin and the other classmates.

One thing I learned is to stop telling people how I would do it. Sure, I’d make a suggestion but ultimately the individual performer has to be comfortable with his/her performance and I’m just meddling if I expect more.

That night, all of us performed the sketches, and our hunchback sketch was the last sketch of the night. Check out the video and if you’re ever in Phoenix and want to see some amazing comedy, check out National Comedy Theater in Mesa.

My First Book about Improv Comedy is available now on Amazon Kindle

 

Book Cover
 I did it. I finally published my first book – Yes, And: The Most Overlooked Concept in Improv. It’s available exclusively on Amazon and for the Kindle.

I’ve been a professional improvisor since 1994 and I currently perform with the National Comedy Theater in San Diego. When I first started, improv was just starting to become a popular art form.

I love improv comedy and I believe that anyone can do it. It’s my passion to share what I’ve learned about this art form and elevate the artform.

The concept of “Yes, And” is the foundational principle in improv. The problem is it is one of the most overlooked concepts in improv shows today.

My book takes an in depth look into “Yes, And.” I deconstruct the principle. Show you how we’ve misused it and neglected it. I also show you how to master the principle to improv your improv group and show.

“Yes, And” is the first in a series of books designed to help you produce a short-form improvisation show. Purchase your copy now at Amazon for the low price of $2.99.