New York’s Josh Fulton is this week’s guest blogger. He has studied improv for the last five years with many of the most highly regarded teachers in the US, and has performed on several house teams, including ‘The Baldwins’ at the People’s Improv Theater for the last year and a half. He has a blog featuring some great interviews with a lot of the central figures in American improv (Tough to navigate; this incomplete list helps).
How to Build a House
When I started doing improv, I was bored. I had been doing stand-up for the past few years and it had taken its toll on me. A few times every week, I dragged myself out of my dorm room to open mics. After they were done, I dragged myself back, each time feeling more exhausted than when I had left. I didn’t want to quit though, because I wanted to make it in comedy. And the only way I knew to make it in comedy was through stand-up. All of the great comedy performers I knew had come from stand-up. At least that’s what I thought at the time.
It was during this time when I was miserable, but afraid to leave that I kept noticing starred review after starred review for improv shows in Time Out NY. It seemed like improv shows were getting better reviews than stand-up shows. What was wrong with these people? Didn’t they know that improv was nothing but ‘World’s Worst’ and ‘Freeze Tag?’ It was cheap parlor tricks. Or that’s what I had heard in Boston, where I started doing stand-up a few years earlier. Well, one person there said that. At least, that’s what I think he said. That’s how I interpreted it anyway. In any case, improv was terrible, and I knew it.
Nevertheless, I went to a show, so I could dismiss it with righteous justice. I picked a show that was listed in Time Out as being the best and also happened to be free. Not only would I not have to spend any money, but I could also dismiss all the other improv in the city that was supposedly beneath it if I didn’t like it. It was a perfect fit.
The show was in ‘Under St. Marks’, a place where they still have shows. It was in the East Village, a dimly lit section of town where no trains go. Walking around, it felt like the kind of place where pale people who had lived there all their life lived would jump out from behind dumpsters and tell you to leave their neighborhood. It was creepy. I had expected to head to Saint Mark’s Church, which was famous and would surely stand out like a beacon of light and culture above all this squalor. Instead, Under Saint Marks meant that it was literally below Saint Marks Place, a street, at least formerly, associated with the punk movement in New York. So, I was going from a seedy place into the basement of a seedy place. It did not bode well.
Walking down those stairs into the basement, I felt like I was entering the underbelly of New York night life, the kind of place you hear about on E! True Hollywood Stories. My life was now in danger. This had better be worth it. When I turned the corner, however, I entered a light-flooded room filled with people, people who looked like me, but slightly cooler. I was in shock. A woman guided me to a spot in the front row, meaning I basically sat right on the stage. I didn’t know what these guys were trying to pull, but all of this popularity and professionalism wasn’t going to make me forget that they were hacks.
After a few moments, the group took the stage. It was Respecto Mantalban, a group that has become somewhat legendary in the New York improv scene. Their members have gone on to do SNL, Madtv, Human Giant, things like that. Of course, I didn’t have any idea of any of that or of their talent at the time. They chatted casually for a moment onstage. It was seemingly only small talk, but I do have to admit I thought it was funny and was impressed with their ease. Once the show began, I realized after a few scenes that they were actually using the casual talk as a source for the scenes. I became even more impressed.
I have to admit, however, I was not overwhelmed with that first show. There were three members of Respecto there and two sit-ins. Maybe it wasn’t a great show. Maybe I just didn’t get it. I did know one thing: I had never seen people behave like that onstage. They were crazy, angry, egotistical. I loved it. In stand-up, whenever somebody had tried to be ‘edgy,’ as far as I could remember, it had always involved making fun of someone else. Respecto was embodying these undesirable characters and strange ideas. They weren’t keeping themselves at a distance. Their subjects were parts of themselves. It was gutsier. I think somewhere in my mind I realized that I just had a life-changing experience. Even so, I still left without putting a dollar in their donation bucket. Sorry, Respecto, it takes more than one life-changing experience to get a dollar out of me, especially when a show is supposed to be free.
I went to see Respecto perform again in a ‘cage match’ at the old UCB theater on 23rd St. It was a competitive improv show between two teams where audience votes decides the winner, This time Respecto had seven members there, their full line-up at the time. The difference between the two shows was night and day. They still had the same energy and aggression, but this time things were more nuanced. They built a fully functioning world. The show was set in a city made of glass. When people tried to hug, they cut each other. There were also mole people. I forget the rest, but I do remember thinking that it needed to be turned into a movie.
This group of seven people, who only a few weeks ago I thought of as hacks, had done something I had always dreamed of: they had created a movie right on the spot, a hilarious and totally unique movie. The opposing team that night was ‘Petrol,’ a newer Harold team. When the votes were tallied and Respecto won, Petrol bowed to Respecto. I felt like it was an appropriate response. To this day, I’m still amazed I haven’t seen a movie about Glass Town. It may still be in the works.
I kept watching shows, mostly Respecto and ASSSSCAT, the weekly all-star improv show at the UCB theater, for well over a year before I finally took my first improv class. During that time, I had already become convinced that improv was something I wanted to do, if not for the rest of my life, then for a very long time. It seemed like only the most brilliant people did it, and I wanted to be one of those people. As if there wasn’t enough pressure already built up in my mind, the person I chose as my first improv teacher was improv sensei Rob Huebel from none other than Respecto Mantalban. To this day, I think he’s one of the funniest performers around. Needless to say, I wanted to do well.
The first two classes were very fun, slightly nerve-wracking, but fun. We were basically playing games, getting accustomed to improv. I felt like a superstar in those first few classes. I don’t know if there’s a way to be great at ‘Conducted Story,’ but if there is then I was great, or at least thought I was. Things changed, however, in the third and fourth classes. That’s when we started doing scenes. Needless to say, things were not like I had seen in ASSSSCAT and in Respecto. Things were surprisingly worse. I was horrified. How could we be so bad? What was wrong with this? Didn’t my improv scenes know I had done stand-up!?
During one scene, I felt that it was going so poorly that I left the stage and sat down. I don’t think Rob realized what I was doing at first. I think he thought I was doing some avant garde, meta thing that involved sitting down. When he realized I had simply left the scene, he was very upset. Ok, he tore me a new one. I remember him saying that improv was about commitment and that I needed to commit to the scene. But now that I think back on it he actually emphasized the importance of looking out for your partner more than anything else. He said the people in Respecto had done a million bad scenes together over the years, but the trust that they’d built up between each other was worth it enduring those bad scenes. It was like building a house. If one of the people building the house leaves in the middle of everything, that section falls. I had just knocked over a metaphorical house.
I suppose it’s the fundamental issue that all of us deal with in improv: selfishness vs. selflessness. When we are selfish, improv doesn’t work. When we are selfless, improv gets closer to art. It’s a lesson that never really ends, and a test that we are constantly faced with both in life and in art. I think even at that moment I knew I was facing a test not only in improv, but also in life. I resolved to endure, but I wasn’t sure if I could keep it up forever. I asked Rob how long it had taken him to get good at improv. At first he didn’t want to answer, because he still wasn’t sure if he was ‘good.’ I didn’t see how this could make sense, and figured he was just being overly modest. After a bit of prodding, he said it took him ‘about a year’ to get comfortable with improv. I resolved to give myself that year. If I could be really good at improv, it would start to show by then. Improv was worth the effort.
I didn’t need a year. I don’t mean that I got really good within a year. By the time a year came around, I was no longer concerned with being good or not, just with getting better. I also began to understand what I think Rob meant when he said he wasn’t sure he was ‘good’ at improv or not. I think good implies an air of finality in some cases. Like if you are good, at least in improv, you’ve reached your maximum potential. I think to reach your maximum potential at improv you have to be 100% honest all of the time. That is a difficult task to achieve, both as an improviser and as a person. But that’s what makes improv worth it. The lessons we learn in improv are lessons for life. Improv reinforces the importance of being honest and selfless. That’s why doing a good scene is so rewarding, because we know if just for a moment we’ve forced ourselves to be honest and selfless. We’ve forced ourselves to be better people. That is why a great improv show can be so inspiring, because we can look upon it and say, “This is a house that people have built together.”