Judd Apatow and Universal Pictures pick up a trio of comedy pitches from Aziz AnsariMar 3, 2015
Ansari, Woliner score with trio of comedy concepts
Judd Apatow and Universal Pictures have picked up a trio of comedy pitches from Aziz Ansari and Jason Woliner.
Ansari, who stars opposite Amy Poehler on NBC laffer Parks and Recreation, is attached to star in the disparate pics.
Ansari and Woliner, who previously worked together on the MTV cult skein Human Giant, will team to write at least one of the projects, which will be produced via Apatow's Universal-based shingle.
Thematically, the projects have nothing to do with one another. The first, tentatively titled Let's Do This, is a road movie about two guys who work for a motivational speaking company. The second, which is untitled, follows a disgraced cosmonaut (Ansari) who is forced to return to outer space to clear his name. The third, also untitled, sprang from Ansari's supporting role in the Apatow-helmed comedy Funny People. "We didn't expect all three to work," said Ansari. "We had a breakfast meeting with Judd and pitched them. We were like, 'Which one do you like?' He wanted all three."
Woliner is attached to direct the pics, whose loglines are being under wraps. "We are hesitant to say too much about our ideas," joked Ansari. "A few years ago, we announced our new idea about a film where the world ended in the year 2014. We have since had to stop developing this movie."
Ansari will be seen next year in director Nick Stoller's Get Him to the Greek, which Apatow is producing for Universal. His Comedy Central standup special Intimate Moments for a Sensual Evening, which Woliner helmed, will air on Jan. 17, with a CD and DVD set for release on Jan. 19.
Woliner is now directing the pilot Eagleheart, starring Chris Elliott, for Cartoon Network's Adult Swim. He recently directed an episode of NBC's Parks and Recreation and several segments for HBO's upcoming series Funny or Die Presents.
Aubrey Plaza interview with MovieWebMar 3, 2015
The rising comedic star talks about this new DVD, Parks and Recreation, Scott Pilgrim vs. The World and more
Around this time last year, I was reading up on Judd Apatow's new directorial effort, Funny People, since I was going to be visiting the set of the film. Among the huge names in the film was a newcomer named Aubrey Plaza, and, if the newcomers in Apatow's previous two films were any indication (See: Jonah Hill and Charlyne Yi), I figured this young comedienne was surely on a pretty damn good path. Of course, that was before we knew her as the hilariously deadpan April Ludgate on the wonderful NBC comedy Parks and Recreation and the actress also has the highly-anticipated Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World coming up as well. I recently had the chance to speak with Aubrey Plaza for the new Funny People DVD and Blu-ray release on November 24, and here's what she had to say.
I was wondering how you first heard about Judd's script and how the whole casting process went about for you? Who was already attached when you first heard about the film?
Aubrey Plaza: Well, I didn't know much. I didn't read the script, I didn't really know anything about it. I knew it was Judd's movie and that Seth (Rogen) and Adam (Sandler) were going to be in it. That's kind of all I knew. Allison Jones cast the movie and I had met her, just kind of generally, a couple of months before. She told me then that she was on this movie, but she wasn't going to tell me what it was until later. I knew something was going on, but I wasn't sure what it was. I was in New York at that point and she had me put myself on tape. I just did the scenes and improvised with my friends and sent it to L.A., just hoping that they would actually watch it. I heard a couple of months later that Judd did watch it and he really liked it, so I came out to L.A. to have a callback and I read with Seth, in front of Judd. That was terrifying but it went really well. I hadn't heard anything for a month after that and I knew I did well but I wasn't really sure what the hold-up was, what they were looking for. I found out that they had really wanted to cast a stand-up comedian. At the time I wasn't doing stand-up, so I kind of took it upon myself to start doing stand-up and taping myself and sending it to him. So that's kind of how I got the part. It was a three-step process, I guess, where the final step was, I think, the most important, sending bits of me actually doing jokes and having him actually see me on stage with a mic, in front of an audience, that it was possible that I could pull it off, to be this young, stand-up comedian.
You have an improv background, I believe. What was it like getting into stand-up mode, as opposed to your improv background?
Aubrey Plaza: It was really tough. Improv is so different, it's such a collaborative thing, you're working with other people, nothing is planned and it's kind of this community mentality, whereas stand-up, you're alone and it was really hard. Having to stand in front of an audience and have it be your job to make them laugh, you can't really look to anyone but yourself. It's what you wrote, what you said and how you said it, so it's kind of terrifying, but I liked it. When it goes well, it's the best feeling in the world. When it doesn't go well, it's the worst feeling, but once you get into the rhythm of it, I think it's really fun. Also it's a good exercise for writing, for me, using my brain in that different way.
I know the DVD and the Blu-ray that are coming out are both just packed with extras, with a lot of bonus stand-up material. Is there a lot of these unseen bits from your performances on here then?
Aubrey Plaza: Yeah, definitely. The first time I ever did stand-up was in Queens and it was the first time I had done it and I taped it and sent it to him. After I got the part, a couple of weeks later, he brought me out to L.A. and I immediately started doing shows with the rest of the cast, having never done it before. So I went from zero to performing with Adam Sandler in less than a month. It was really a crazy interaction to stand-up, but they had camera crews follow me to every show and tape every single show that I did. I went up multiple times a week and I did The Laugh Factory, all these open mic's and they sent camera crews everywhere. There's a ton of shows on the DVD, a lot of me bombing on stage, which I'm sure will be fun for me to watch (Laughs). So yeah, a lot of failure, but it will give you a good idea of how I got to where I am now.
This has to be just a dream movie for any comedic actor. What was a normal day on the set like with all these comedic heavyweights?
Aubrey Plaza: It was really surreal. Adam is one of my heroes and getting to work with Seth and Jonah (Hill) and Jason Schwartzman, every single person in the movie was amazing. It was really scary at first, but everyone was so welcoming. Judd, it's really important to Judd that everyone gets along and it's like a family atmosphere, so he really embraced me and everyone there did, so I felt comfortable immediately. Also coming from UCB (Upright Citizens Brigade) and coming from a comedy community like that, it actually was a really smooth transition. It felt like just hanging out backstage with my comedy buddies in New York. Seth and Jonah and those guys, they're just normal, funny guys, you know, but I guess they're also famous movie stars.
I'm also a huge fan of Parks and Recreation and it was quite an interesting episode this past week. Will we see maybe a bit more of April and Andy's relationship continuing for the rest of the season?
Aubrey Plaza: Yeah, definitely. I can't give away too much, but you'll definitely see more scenes with myself and Andy. I'm glad you like the show, thanks.
Oh yeah. The show has really been hitting its stride this season.
Aubrey Plaza: Yes, definitely. I'm glad people are watching it.
I'm curious if there's any kind of cliffhanger planned for the midseason break, and if you have any thoughts about how your character might be evolving throughout the rest of the season?
Aubrey Plaza: Honestly, I have no idea (Laughs). I don't read any of the scripts until a week or two before, so I have no idea what's going to happen. I do know that there will be more April and Andy, but other than that, I don't know. The scripts are crazy. Each week, the stuff they have us get into, there's always something that totally surprises me, so whatever it is, I'm sure it's going to be really great. But I don't know what it is (Laughs).
There has been a lot of buzz about Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World as well. Can you talk about the overall experience on that film?
Aubrey Plaza: That movie was crazy. It was a crazy experience, working with Edgar (Wright), who I was such a huge fan of, and Bill Pope was the DP, who did The Matrix and Team America: World Police. He was this genius guy and Edgar's a genius and Michael Cera is like a comedy genius guy. I don't know, it was really crazy. It was really different, coming off of Funny People, it was really strange. The styles were so different. Edgar is so precise and everything is faster and really specific. Working with him was really awesome because I was learning how to work in a different way. I was so used to Judd just turning the camera on and just letting it roll forever, so yeah, it was a learning experience, for sure, but it was so much fun. I've seen 20 minutes of it and its like nothing I've ever seen before. I think it's going to blow people's minds when it comes out next summer.
Yeah, I read about that. I believe it was Jason Reitman that said he saw 20 minutes of it and couldn't stop raving about it. I'm really excited for it.
Aubrey Plaza: Yeah. It's really special. It's such a crazy combination of visuals, the comic book visuals with the awkward comedy with the action sequences. It's got everything and there are really great actors like Michael Cera and Mark Webber and Alison Pill. All of those guys are just amazing actors too, so it's got every ingredient. And Edgar puts his own touch to it, so it's going to be good. I don't even know how I ended up in that movie. I don't remember how that happened, but I'm glad it did.
To wrap up, what would you like to say to maybe your fans from Parks and Recreation or people who might not have seen Funny People about why they should pick up this DVD?
Aubrey Plaza: They should pick up the DVD so they can see me fail miserably on stage, over and over again (Laughs). They filmed every single stand-up show that I did when I was just starting out and it's going to be very hard for me to watch that, but for other people, I think they'll enjoy watching me totally bomb in front of strangers. I would watch it if it was someone else.
(Laughs) Well that's all the time I have. Thanks so much, Aubrey, and I'm looking forward to the rest of the season of Parks and Recreation.
Aubrey Plaza: OK. Thanks a lot, man. Bye.
You can bring Aubrey Plaza and a ton of other Funny People home on DVD and Blu-ray on November 24.
UCB Training Center featured in Los Angeles MagazineMar 3, 2015
An eighth-grade wiseass, now grown up (if that's possible), goes to improv school at the Upright Citizens Brigade and discovers a sobering truth: being funny is not as easy as it looks
You're onstage, the lights are blinding, and you don't have a script. There's no director. You're not a trained actor, and the rest of the cast is just as shaky as you are. The stage is as vast as the deck of a battleship. Suddenly your jeans are too baggy in the seat and too tight across the legs. You cram your hands into your pockets while a rigor mortis grin stretches across your lips. Nobody forced you into this. Worse, the play, which doesn't even exist yet, is meant to be a comedy. At least with tragedy it is harder to distinguish a bored audience from an awed one. With comedy, failure is easy to see: Nobody is laughing. You look at the dim figures in the seats and realize that your friends and colleagues are out there, waiting to judge you. In the fraction of a second before you step forward, time stops. Like a fat raven landing on your shoulder, a fellow performer begins an interminable yawn. Unintentionally, his mouth gapes as if to swallow the theater and everyone in it. Who in his right mind would sign up for this?
Improv. From what I had seen, it looked like a bunch of wiseasses in hoodies having a goof. How hard could this be? Besides, I think of myself as adventuresome--an Oklahoma boy who lived in Russia, the Czech Republic, and India during my early twenties, then ended up in New York, where I freelanced script analyses for a film production company. In 2001, I came to Los Angeles to write for TV and the movies. I hardly conquered Hollywood, but I did create five-minute comedy sketches for shows at the old Second City Theater on Melrose. It came more or less naturally. I would settle comfortably in the back row waiting to take credit for the hilarity or blame the actors for the silence, and people usually laughed. This, however, was different. Here on the stage at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre in Los Angeles, the unscripted, unrehearsed kind of comedy called improv has to happen at the speed of thought; there is nothing to write, nothing to prepare--and the techniques do not come naturally. Still, what aspiring wit would not want to enroll in the UCB school? Attending classes for a year seemed to be a logical step in my lifelong quest to be funny. What's more, I might get noticed and become a successful comic.
The UCB Theatre on Franklin Avenue is packed seven nights a week with connoisseurs of early Judd Apatow and those who know how to pronounce "Galifianakis." This is where Will Ferrell tried out You're Welcome, America before going to Broadway, where Robin Williams has taken the stage on an occasional Monday night, where Aziz Ansari of NBC's Parks and Recreation once performed a duet with freak-folk singer Devendra Banhart. Then there's the Upright Citizens Brigade itself. After more than a decade, it still consists of the same four people: Amy Poehler, a Saturday Night Live superstar, now with her own show; Ian Roberts, who was Sparky Polastri in Bring It On; Matt Walsh, Dr. Valsh in The Hangover; and Matt Besser, a pot dealer in Reno 911! They are mentors to a rising generation of comedians, including the two most recent additions to SNL's cast and the two newest members of its writing staff. The theater has no house troupe. Anyone can call up and audition a show. In L.A.'s most famous comedy group, the Groundlings, hopefuls wait years to be chosen for a lifelong spot and are likely to be cut anywhere along the way--a system that closely reflects the arbitrariness of Hollywood. At UCB, however, which is first among the Groundlings' challengers, if you are talented, you could be picked for a show within months. The UCB Web site lists hundreds of performers. None of them get paid, including Poehler, Roberts, Walsh, and Besser, who earn money from their other gigs. Tickets top out at $8, and many shows are free to UCB students. The income is enough to keep the theater running. It's the only place in Hollywood that rivals Pink's hot dog stand for consistent lines down the sidewalk.
On my first day I gathered backstage with kids who had been mass-produced by the god of sitcom casting. They were not the beautiful people of Hollywood with glistening smiles, pneumatic breasts, and washboard abs but scruffy-haired smart alecks: the clowns like me who were always getting into trouble in eighth grade. UCB rents venues around town for its classes. Four levels of instruction, at eight weeks apiece, cost me about $1,400. We met for Level One at the Lyric-Hyperion Theater in Silver Lake. At 36, I was easily ten years older than most of my classmates--way past my expiration date.
In the UCB community it is difficult to discern authority; no one looks like they want to be taken seriously, so it wasn't easy to detect our instructor. He was a Berenstain Bear version of Adam Carolla with salt-and-pepper hair. He wore a T-shirt, jeans, and old gray sneakers. Johnny Meeks, who is 38, is part of a stalwart UCB improv team called Sentimental Lady. His soft voice and thoughtfulness stand in contrast to the stereotype of a comedian. He can play wacky, but above all he's a straight man, the most underappreciated role in comedy. To get acquainted, he had us toss around an invisible red ball, then make up nicknames for ourselves (Monkey Mike, Grainy Grazi, Cantankerous Chris, Bouncy Ben, Dreamy Deborah, Jazzy Jonesy, Loose Leslie). We were evenly split among men and women. Some of us were trying to become professional actors, others were trying to become better humor writers, and others were just lonely. We threw our nicknames back and forth like the ball. I heard a voice in my head saying "You're an adult, for God's sake. Where's your dignity, man?" I wasn't the only stiff-there were plenty of nervous smiles. The drama geeks, however, sprang off the balls of their feet to catch the nonexistent ball. "OK," said the voice in my head, "everything will be all right as long as I don't become one of those." When would we move on to the improv? All these preliminaries: This is why I quit playing piano when I was 13-the damned scales. "Two people go up onstage and have a conversation," Meeks instructed. "But every time you respond, respond with Yes, and... and don't start in Crazytown. You know: "Hey! Look at all those masturbating space chimps!" Remember, blue doesn't show up on blue." In other words, in an insane world, nobody can spot the funny stuff. I understood the part about the space chimps, but Yes, and... was vexing.
"Beautiful day today, Tom."
"Yes, Bob, and I'm glad I don't have to work today."
"Yes, you're not working today, and we should go to the zoo."
"Yes, let's go to the zoo, and I'll pack a picnic lunch."
Notice the utter lack of humor, not to mention the fact that Yes, and... goes against a whole life of conditioning. Modern survival depends on disagreement. If we stand around agreeing all day, we'll never get anywhere with our selfish agendas. Yes, and... was taking me nowhere.
Every five seconds Meeks stopped us. You said but. OK, start over. Yes, and... This made piano scales seem like The Goldberg Variations.
Nonetheless, Yes, and... had a purpose: It kept dialogue moving without abrupt changes in direction. As a technique, it reaches back to the University of Chicago in the 1950s, a refuge for freethinkers in education. Paul Sills, an aspiring director, and David Shepherd, a Fulbright scholar, started a theater in a side room of the Compass Tavern next to the campus. They had two overlapping visions: a cabaret modeled on the ideas of Bertolt Brecht, and a people's theater where factory workers could see plays that reflected their hardscrabble lives. Sills and Shepherd couldn't find suitable material, so they invented something loosely based on commedia dell'arte, Italy's medieval street theater. They and their actors wrote what they called scenario plays, with detailed outlines but improvised dialogue.
Sills and Shepherd founded the Compass Players, which would soon attract Mike Nichols, Elaine May, Barbara Harris, Shelley Berman, Jerry Stiller, Alan Arkin, and Severn Darden, who wore a cape and drove a vintage eggplant-colored Rolls-Royce. Compass began discarding outlines and improvising entire scenes based on audience suggestions. Sills was the son of Viola Spolin, who developed new acting techniques as a children's drama teacher during the Depression. While Compass was taking shape, Spolin taught workshops for the actors. Her exercises forced cerebral, inexperienced players to perform by tossing around invisible objects, pantomiming the creation of stage sets, and using exaggerated movements to develop characters. She peeled away their adult inhibitions and eased their fears of not knowing what would come next. She taught them that each of their scenes needed a specific "where"--a clear location--and a focus to drive the action forward. She would later codify her ideas, along with her children's games, in a book, Improvisation for the Theater. "Everyone can act," she said. "Everyone can improvise." What Compass did was original, and a sophisticated crowd came to see them. They were an eager audience-but tough. Failure was ignominious. When Compass players bombed, they ran down 55th Street and jumped into Lake Michigan.
Using a variation of Spolin's exercises, my fellow UCB fledglings and I strolled around the Lyric-Hyperion stage like the students in Dead Poets Society, exaggerating our steps little by little. Out of my walk a character developed. My spine stiffened. My stride grew in arrogance until I was an imperious Englishman, head held high. Another student had hunched over and began shuffling along. She grasped an invisible walker to support herself as she moved. We were directed to improvise a scene together. I thought of a specific location: Where would an Englishman be? Why, on his estate, of course. Focus to propel the scene forward: What would an Englishman be doing? Hunting; shooting his guns.
My partner moved in my direction.
What's the funniest thing I could come up with? Hello, old lady. Are you a witch? I handed her my imaginary shotgun and tried to teach her how to shoot.
An Englishman teaching an elderly stranger pushing a walker how to fire a shotgun? Gosh, yes, that makes perfect sense. Meeks stopped us. Gently he said: Stay out of Crazytown. Start in the real world.
Somewhere deep in my heart I still believed that I was hilarious, but the dream was dying.
Act naturally, Meeks said, and don't make jokes. I had spent my life making jokes because I was no good at sports, because it kept bullies from beating me up, and because it undermined my teachers and gained an ounce of respect from my fellow eighth graders. Now someone tells me not to make jokes? To quit trying to be funny?
Improv, however, is not about the eighth grade. It is about scenes and what is known as The Game. There's a paradox here. It is human nature to be competitive, to want to stand out and earn a pat on the back. If a scene works, however, it is because players have cooperated and found a game. The game requires an ensemble performance, so it works to your advantage if everyone succeeds.
The game is a slippery thing: You know it when you see it, but it is difficult to define. In a comedy scene something unusual happens. It could be a verbal flub, a behavioral tick, a bizarre statement--better if it happens without being forced. The unusual creates a break in the normal, and players grab it and develop it into a pattern of absurdity. It only works if all players cut loose their preconceptions, hold on to the game, and play it together with abandon, like preschoolers.
Selfishness is hard to overcome. I would play a scene that was a dud. Then another. Another. Imagine five scenes that don't work, then five more the next week, then five more. Two months, class after class. All this under the critical gaze of people I wanted to impress. I was swimming in a cement bikini. Other students had moments of brilliance. Bouncy Ben and Beautiful Brian. Grainy Grazi and Catlike Kevin. We slapped our knees and wiped tears. Even as I laughed, I understood what voodoo dolls are for.
Each class level climaxes with a graduation show onstage at the UCB Theatre. My hopes had been dashed that I would spring from the forehead of Zeus a fully formed improviser. Wouldn't it be easier to write scenes and forget improv? After all, Nichols and May went to Broadway with written material they had worked up at the Compass. They stopped improvising. There is, in fact, a school of thought that says improv should be only a step in the development of written sketches. That's the approach at Second City, cofounded in 1959 by Paul Sills after Compass dissolved. Second City became a Chicago institution, staging rehearsed revues. Starting in 1975, its chaotic, improv-inspired style of comedy was broadcast to millions on Saturday Night Live. Today Second City trains platoons of comedians in Chicago, Toronto, and Los Angeles. At UCB, though, rehearsed sketches are not the goal of improv. Here the process is the product.
Two weeks before our Level One show, several of us got together for practice. Meeks had warned us not to play scenes without a coach from the theater. We ignored him. What could go wrong? We met one night in a fellow student's backyard and lined up as we had been taught. Two of us stepped forward to perform a scene. The remaining back-line players were meant to jump in and send a scene over the top or to rescue it, if need be. But it wasn't clear which way the "stage" was facing, and the back-line players sat slumped on a bench. One felt sleepy and lay down. There was a lot of shouting. When improv goes awry, one of two things usually happens: Either the action wanders down a rabbit hole, or the performers start arguing. The more chaos, the more shouting, the more I wanted to lock myself in the bathroom.
Meeks had been right. Without a coach to make suggestions and to end disastrous scenes, they spiraled into misery. It was scant comfort to know that the Compass Players--and pretty much every improviser who followed-had suffered similarly. Sills grabbed people and shouted in their faces. Nichols carried a sequoia-size chip on his shoulder. Shelley Berman hogged scenes. As for our group, we had blown it, frustrated each other, and lost confidence. Fear nested in my stomach. No college exam, financial worry, or risk of romantic rejection had ever made me feel this way.
Show time: 6 p.m. on a Saturday. I was tempted to calm my nerves with a drink at Birds, UCB's neighborhood cantina a couple of doors down, but I was so rattled I couldn't face the noise. The theater holds around 100 people, and it was mostly full. There was a charge in the air. We couldn't blame bombing on a dead crowd.
Meeks divided us into teams: Distinctive Rhythms and the Brick Tulips. Asked for a suggestion, someone in the audience blurted "pineapples." Three performers from Distinctive Rhythms delivered short monologues about the word. From the monologues the team improvised scenes. One featured a Latin lover who spoke endlessly of his sexual prowess but stymied his partner by never getting to the point. Another depicted a duck hunt with a talking duck. Still another portrayed a field trip with a drunken bus driver. In almost every instance Distinctive Rhythms had trouble finding its footing.
Now Meeks introduced my team, the Brick Tulips. As if on cue, my lethargic colleague-the one who had napped during our practice-yawned magnificently. The guy was young, in his twenties; how could he be drowsy at a moment like this? What if we played a scene together and he dozed? Blessedly, I meshed especially well with another of my teammates. He was Grazi DiPaolo, a 25-year-old aspiring actor from the suburbs of Detroit who had endless reserves of charm. Our word from the audience: Pinky and the Brain. Not exactly a one-word suggestion, but with improv, you're always better off taking what you get. If you ask for a different suggestion, the crowd thinks you're cheating by picking and choosing. Grazi and I stepped forward together. It was more like a leap, because I wasn't thinking. That was good. UCB sweatshirts say
This is a cruel paradox. You spend months learning rules, then when you're onstage, you shouldn't be conscious of any of them. Everything blurred. I had no awareness of time, no awareness of myself. All at once we became two surgeons about to operate. A third player lay on the floor; he was the patient. "What's your take on the lesion in the frontal lobe?" "Oh man, that looks (a beat) serious. I don't know if I've seen anything like this. That "would have to do specifically with the medulla, connected to the psyche. This is Freudian." By now a few in the audience were laughing. So was the patient. "Yeah, doctor. If I may point out the fact that the patient is convulsing. You're a specialist, and I'm just a humble general practitioner, but the words that you're saying? The words that are coming out of your mouth?" "Exactly." "Those aren't doctor words." We'd found our game. More of the audience was laughing, and I swear that tiny flames lit over our heads-even the yawner's. In scene after scene he stepped forward and provided the "buttons"--closing lines that got big laughs.
As I made my way outside the theater, I could see the look on people's faces. It was better than compliments. After a bad show, you hear praise, but people cannot fake that look. On the sidewalk, I tried to talk to my friends, but I was so juiced on adrenaline, I sputtered nonsense. "Enjoy this show," Meeks told us. "It's the most fun you're going to have in a show in a long, long time.
During our next round of instruction, a single scene was no longer enough. We had to learn how to carry a game forward into second and third scenes. This performance is called the Harold. Someone playing a brain specialist offers a ridiculous diagnosis as he examines an ordinary patient. Then he stands on the back line during subsequent scenes trying desperately to find a way to play the same game with more at stake. He returns offering even greater inanity as he diagnoses the president of the United States.
In Harolds, we also had to learn how to edit scenes, which meant recognizing when to end each one so the next could begin. Not only did we have to write our scenes in our heads and act them, but now we also had to be our own directors.
Many performers developed the Harold over decades, but its invention is often credited to Del Close, an improv legend. Close was a Compass player. After flirting with a career in stand-up, he joined Second City. In 1966, Close participated in Ken Kesey's first L.A. Acid Test. He once purchased and likely consumed much of a 100-pound crate of peyote. Some blamed him for turning John Belushi on to the drugs that killed him. He was a misogynist, a speed freak, an alcoholic, a cokehead, a hater of children, a lover of cats, a Wiccan, and a slob.
Close tried suicide countless times, to the point of farce. When Second City fired him in the 1960s for being too incoherent, he moved to the Committee, an improv group in San Francisco. It was there during a bull session among players experimenting with an innovative, longer form of improv that someone offered a suggestion: Since George Harrison had named his haircut Arthur, why not call this new structure Harold? In the 1980s, after returning to Second City and leaving again, Close partnered with Charna Halpren at the Improv Olympic Theater in Chicago. He coached--more accurately, he badgered--young players as they blundered toward a three-act structure that kept the Harold from spinning into chaos.
Our teacher for this second level was Drew DiFonzo Marks, from the UCB improv team Last Day of School. Marks, who is 26, has spiky hair and the kind of Elijah Wood baby face that will make him appear 18 when he's 40. Marks has been performing improv since he was 12 at a summer camp in the Poconos. He was a nice guy out of class, but he was no den mother. In the UCB tradition of ratcheting up difficulty, Level One was a slumber party; this was boot camp. We met in a cinder-block room at a rehearsal studio that became a kiln on hot days. A tiny air conditioner over the door wheezed asthmatically.
Level Two turned my brain to oatmeal. It is hard enough to find the game for a single scene, but finding a second beat, and a third-impossible. Then there's the editing. Ideally, when everything goes well, a scene builds until the laughs hit a crescendo-and a player edits it to a close by running briskly across the stage, sweeping it away so another scene can begin. When a scene starts circling the drain, however, performers stare at each other in terror and mumble nonsense, negotiate, or discuss the furniture. Marks, the end of his pen in his mouth, would watch silently, his eyes blank, his mouth growing slack, the pen gradually drooping lower and lower. Three of my colleagues did a scene in which a sparrow and a mouse tried to sell a house-a hole under a tree--to a rabbit. As often happens, the back line became hypnotized and forgot to edit. When the woodland creatures fell into a detailed discussion of interest rates, mortgage fees, and credit worthiness, it was clearly time to bring matters to an end. Instead the pen drooped farther, and Marks let the scene collapse under its own weight.
The deeper we got into Level Two, the worse our Harolds became. I hadn't played a good scene in weeks. I was beyond depending on skill for success, because I had lost any skill I could ever claim. Approaching the graduation show for Level Two, I could only submit to magical thinking. Maybe, despite everything, a tiny flame would light over my head.
My group opened the show, so we had to warm up the crowd. In my first scene, my partner was Jake Goldman, a 25-year-old production assistant with black curly hair and writing chops beyond his age. He had been in the Level One show with Grazi and me, and we'd played well together. Onstage Jake always wore a red T-shirt with a giant gold lightning bolt--for luck. "You must have recognized me," he said. "I'm on the Wheaties box." His game: insecure sports celebrity meets a fan. Instantly the oatmeal in my mind turned into gulfweed. I was swimming in a Sargasso Sea. I was, as they say in improv, entirely inside my own head. Microseconds ticked past one year at a time. Finally I asked Jake a question. Then another. Another. I sucked every drop of energy out of the scene.
New scene: I was an immigration officer who pulled a Canadian off a flight. "We currently have an orange Canada alert," I said. That's it! I thought to myself. He'll be a rogue Royal Mountie. He's smuggling maple syrup. The scene never got beyond a fumble over invisible passports.
Two other performers played newlyweds on their honeymoon. The overeager groom wore breakaway clothes, stripper style, with a bondage suit underneath. He tried to tear off the bride's dress. "Hey, this is not a breakaway dress!" Huge laughs.
I wanted to kill them.
The Mind Meld
Over drinks one night at Birds--around the time people usually start hula-hooping or the proprietor sloshes booze on the bar top and lights it-I told Marks about my shock at how difficult it was to improvise. I was getting worse, I said, but for some reason I wanted to keep going. I also told him about my early fears of becoming a geeky drama guy. Actors, after all, have no shame. Even as a compulsive jokester, there are limits to how much I wanted to express myself. It was probably a hangover from my conservative Southern Baptist upbringing: Freaking out onstage was synonymous with losing my self-respect. "Yeah," Marks said, "if you want to keep doing this, then I hate to tell you, but you're one of those guys." I was being welcomed into a club I never thought I wanted to be in.
I had to give up and join, because improv is a mind meld--first in a scene, then in a Harold. Now, at Level Three, we would learn a final element of the Harold called a group game. All the members of a team would perform together, turning half a dozen minds into one. Group games come between the acts of a Harold, like song-and-dance numbers that distract, amuse, and keep the show from dragging.
One person, for example, steps forward to pitch a product. Then, in turn, other members of the team embellish the product, building and growing funnier, until the audience explodes into laughter. A group game is infinitely harder than a two-person scene. It is akin to meeting seven friends at a shopping mall and trying to decide what to do. Everyone stands around for half an hour, then finally arrives at a compromise nobody likes. Group games depend on achieving a consciousness in which one loses awareness of self and becomes mindful of only the thoughts and movements of the assembly. It takes listening. Matt Besser got his start in stand-up, and he told me it took a long time before it dawned on him that in improv he had to listen.
Members of the UCB team Sentimental Lady are among the most powerful mind melders in L.A. improv. One muffs a line in a scene, creating nonsense, and they leap into a group game using that very nonsense. Miraculously, everyone catches on to what is happening. They chant gibberish, dance like flappers, march in lockstep, stomp like giants. Together they improvise like a basketball team passing the ball, encouraging the audience to focus on a single player, then another, then another. Occasionally someone goes up for a three-point shot. Sometimes you see things that seem impossible: One performer has his back to another, yet he knows exactly what the other is doing.
Will McLaughlin, a veteran of the UCB Theatre in New York, was our instructor for Level Three. His knowledge is encyclopedic. He once competed on Jeopardy! "Read a book on Abraham Lincoln," he advises improvisers. "You will eventually play a scene about Abraham Lincoln." He is a round 40-year-old fellow with close-cropped hair-the big brother who slipped you beers when Mom and Dad weren't looking. When he saw a Harold in class that worked, he would pump his arms and shout, "Yes! Yes!" Maybe, I thought, we had caught a break and could relax-but his laugh was honest; he never faked it. Other performers won belly laughs; I don't think I rated a chuckle. If a scene was good, McLaughlin was exuberant but with an edge of sarcasm. His critiques were surgical. "Too jokey." "React like in real life." "You don't have to play the scene in the craaaaazy dojo." Improvisers, McLaughlin said, are fringe dwellers. Sometimes Freudian stuff comes bubbling up, dragging along horrible, deformed parts of a personality. Drew Marks liked to tell about a student who punched his scene partner in the stomach with all his strength. One day, Marks said, the student was asked to tell a true personal story. He described sitting at home with his roommate when they heard a sound. The student said he opened the cellar door and saw zombies. At this, his teacher stopped him. A real story, he prompted. Real life. "Yeah, yeah, I know," the guy said. "So we grabbed our shotguns and..." The teacher stopped him. Real. Story. "Yes, I know. So we grabbed our shotguns, and I wasted at least 20 zombies." Apart from what this revealed about the student, Marks said, it illustrated a larger problem: To crazy people madness is real, so they cannot improvise.
I took solace in knowing that I was sane. At least I thought I was. It became apparent during Level Three that I had my own kind of craziness. In one scene I played a boxer who is afraid of being punched. Worried that my partner would never find the game, I forged one myself and imposed it. I told him to punch me. When he delivered a stage blow, I faked and fell to the floor. No laughs. Someone in the front row gasped, "What?" It was impossible to recover. McLaughlin gave me one of my most important critiques: When I'm afraid that a scene isn't going to work, I try to create the game on my own-particularly bad in a group game. A silent audience is excruciating, but when a teacher describes one of your weaknesses in detail in front of your peers, it is crushing. This had the ringing truth of a life lesson: I'm a control freak. (Amy Poehler owns up to the same problem. "Improvising is a weird torture that control freaks go through," she says. "It's torture that you don't know what's going to happen.") I don't let others have their say, and I talk over them. I might affect a laid-back persona, but I have a blind spot. I'm domineering. In improv, elements of your personality are enlarged and put on display. Self-awareness can be terrible. I was happier before improv, when I had less of it.
The French call it esprit d'escalier, the wit of the staircase: A clever thought occurs to you too late. For every failed scene I play, I lie awake at night running it over and over, seeing how it should have been. Months too late I visualize a flawless game that I missed. Walking to the Coffee Bean in the morning, I don't see the trees or hear the birds. Maybe this descent into a fantasy world isn't healthy.
At our graduation show it was no surprise that the Muse went AWOL. Our group games failed. I couldn't even get a scene started. "Hey, Peter," I said. "Bad news. Paul and Mary couldn't be here." I was thinking of the "60s folk group Peter, Paul & Mary. My partner, still in her twenties, had no idea who they were. In the second beat, I said, "Hey, Jesus, the disciples couldn't make it." After the show, my partner said, "Religion is the other thing I don't know anything about." Two of my colleagues played a Rapunzel scene. The prince climbed her golden tresses, only to find her tower room piled with even more hair. Big laughs.
Could this get any worse?
If anyone has furthered Del Close's efforts to come up with a Unified Theory of Improvisation, it would be the Upright Citizens Brigade: Poehler, Roberts, Walsh, and Besser. They studied under Close in Chicago, then moved to New York in 1996, where the indie comedy scene was in full swing. The up-and-comers, Poehler remembers, included "the State, us, Janeane Garofalo, Sarah Silverman, Todd Barry, Jon Benjamin, Jon Glaser, getting up and doing stuff for a crowd of maybe 100." In 1998, the first season of their sketch show, The Upright Citizens Brigade, aired on Comedy Central. They performed improv in bars and theaters, and when other comedians wanted to learn their techniques, the UCB transformed a defunct strip joint in Chelsea into a comedy club. By 2001, Poehler was on Saturday Night Live, and in 2005, she and the other UCB players opened their theater in Los Angeles. Its atmosphere and the UCB brand of comedy offered an antidote to the bleakness of L.A.'s two-drink-minimum stand-up clubs. UCB improv also stood in contrast to the over-the-top style of the Groundlings, which relies more on silly costumes and wigs to cultivate made-for-SNL characters. It is significant that the UCB founders did not aspire to be theater impresarios. The improvisational tradition they carry on is set apart from cinema and from legitimate theater. Improv uses no costumes, sets, or props. Imagination does all the work. Players with courageous, childlike creativity can build whole worlds in the minds of their audiences. This became clear in Level Four, when our instructor, Danielle Schneider, handed me another epiphany.
Schneider is five feet five and whippet thin, with shoulder-length brown hair. She has no patience for horseplay. A screenwriter and actress, she has a starring role in Players, the Ian Roberts and Matt Walsh improvisational show, which premieres on Spike TV in March. She is married to Matt Besser and has been part of UCB since its early New York days. Her way of teaching was to pummel us with questions. "Guys, what went wrong? No, it's not a rhetorical question. I'm really asking, What went wrong? Tell me. What's going on?" For Schneider we played an exercise that raised the stakes yet again. We performed a scene, then immediately strung it out over two, three, four beats. Unlike in a Harold, the beats weren't separated by intervening scenes with other players. Now there was no time to think. Despite eight months and three levels of classes, my partner and I could not find a clear game.
"Hey, help me build this swing set for my kid."
"Look at the instructions for putting this thing together. It's so complicated, practically indecipherable. It's like a metaphor for your whole life."
Slightly funny, maybe, but how do you play that?
When you miss the game in the first beat, the following beats are doomed. "How did that feel?" Schneider asked as we stood stunned. "You're making it way too complicated." She turned to me. "I've noticed this in your scenes before. You're finding games that are way too cerebral." It sounded more like a diagnosis than a critique. Another of my biggest problems had been staring me in the face all along. I was trying to be the A student, trying to find something complex to master, and I was tripping myself up as well as my partners.
There is no such thing as a final show. You don't get a degree in improv and wander the earth making people laugh. Level Four, nonetheless, is the end of your undergraduate education; any classes beyond this are graduate school. After all the tutoring, if you haven't absorbed enough to put on a decent performance, then maybe it's time to consider a less humor-based pursuit.
In our Level Four show, my team, Sitar Hero, got the second spot. It was a relief; we didn't have to warm up the crowd. The first scene belonged to George Ouzounian and me. A cult figure on the Internet (The Best Page in the Universe) and a best-selling author (The Alphabet of Manliness), Ouzounian goes by the pen name Maddox. He is calm, relaxed, affable.
I was nervous. I had to remember: Nothing complicated. Nothing cerebral. I had to rivet into my mind the UCB motto: Don't think. With no grand plan, I became a Russian factory foreman.
"For many people here, stamping peas and putting labels on for 10, 12, 14, 16 hours a day is only like hobby. But for you, George, it is passion. It is something that you feel in your soul."
"I just do this for a paycheck," Ouzounian replied. "I'm just stamping bags of peas."
"It is not a hobby, nor a passion."
"George, your stamping tells me that your words are lies. It is like watching, I don't know, a Shaolin monk, for example. You know where I am going with this."
"A Shaolin monk, when he is fighting after many years of training, his swords move of their own accord. Your stamping arm is much like the sword arm of Shaolin monk."
"It's kind of like that. I wouldn't say it's much like that."
No uncomfortable grasping at straws. No panicky, vague conversation. The audience had started laughing.
Now a group game. I was the straight man. "Welcome to wilderness training. Good job, folks. You have successfully survived day one..." The game evolved into a discussion of how to subdue a bear.
George suggested kung fu.
"A passive art. We don't kill unless we have to."
Another player twirled a make-believe rope.
"I'm gonna lasso that bear."
"Well, that's sound. As long as you're standing far enough away, and it's a small enough bear, you actually could subdue a bear with a lasso."
"Then I'm gonna pull it to me."
"That's where your logic breaks down."
The player pointed to George, skilled at kung fu.
"Then he's gonna chop it."
"I'm gonna chop its snout."
At once, everybody on Sitar Hero got it. We might not have had the mind meld of Sentimental Lady, but we were all on the same page. One person volunteered to feed the bear by hand and act as bait, another offered to taunt it, another to poke it in the eye with his gun. Then George would chop its snout. Elegant and ridiculous.
Michael Mullen is a contributing writer for Los Angeles magazine.