Saturday, February 15, 2020

Weekend Post

A reader asked me recently to talk about my sordid days doing improv. I started in 1979. Disco was dying and I was looking for the next big thing. My partner, David and I sold a pilot to NBC about a Nichols & May type improv team. The concept was could a man and woman work together and just be friends (long before Sally faked her orgasm for Harry)? To research the arena I called Dee Marcus, director of the improv group OFF THE WALL (still in existence, still performing around town, and still hilarious) and asked if I could audit a class. She said only if I agreed to participate. I figured, what the hell? I couldn’t be much worse than the other beginners.

I arrived and was blown away by how unbelievably great everyone was. SNL quality people performing over a beauty school at Santa Monica Blvd. and Fairfax. These were the beginners? Shit! I was lucky to get through a scene without pissing on myself (although, I know I passed up a sure laugh) After a few trying weeks of this I learned Dee hadn't put me in the beginners class, she put me in the performance class. These were all the top professionals. (Thanks, Dee) The tip off came when Robin Williams showed up one night.

I stayed in the class for a couple of years, learned an enormous amount, and eventually became part of a comedy troop, THE SUNDAY FUNNIES. We played to crowds often fewer in number than the cast.

After many years of sabbatical I'm back, taking Andy Goldberg’s workshop. Of all the improv teachers he’s by far the best. As a comedy writer I recommend improv training. It teaches spontaneity, committing to a character, and creating scenes with beginnings, middles, and ends. The hardest part is going to a deli afterwards and watching your classmates eat fried kreplachs at 11 at night.

One story about Robin. Needless to say, doing scenes with him was an adventure. He is so fast and brilliant he just uses you like a prop. One night I got called up to do a two person scene with him. If you were lucky you sometimes could get in two words. The scene began, he went off in fifteen different directions. I didn't even know what the hell he was talking about. Finally, I heard a beat of silence. He must've been taking a breath. Now's my chance, I thought. I don't know why but the only thing I could think to say was "fuck you". Much to my surprise it got a laugh. He was off and running for two more minutes of inspired word jazz and then it was my turn again. Since it got a laugh the first time I said, "fuck you". It got an even bigger laugh. This became the scene. Robin riffing, me occasionally blurting out "fuck you". And every time I got the biggest laughs.

When the scene was over I worried that Robin would be pissed that I upstaged him. Instead, he took me aside and said, “that was great.” I consider it one of my greatest achievements in comedy.

And I guess he remembered it because every time I saw him the first thing he said to me was “Fuck you!”

11 comments :

CRL said...

Improv is the worst thing that ever happened to comedy.

No one trusts the joke anymore. They try it 30 different ways and pick one.

Mike Bloodworth said...

I've seen Ken improvise and I can attest to the fact that he is excellent. I've even had the opportunity to do some scenes with him. He's fun to work with, too.

About Robin Williams, while watching the infomercial for the TIME-LIFE Robin Williams Collection, I've wondered if it includes any of his performances with "Off the Wall." To be honest, I'm not enough of a fan to shell out the big bucks to buy the set. However, I would guess that his act was pretty much the same back then as it was in his heyday.

It has been over a year since I've been to one of Andy Goldberg's classes. Although, I would guess that it's pretty much the same as it was back in...
Personally, improv hasn't helped my writing. But then Ken is taller than I am.

Here's some improv for you.

Me
Hey Ken! What's my name?!

Ken
Fuck you!

Me
That's right. And don't you forget it!

...and scene
(It's an inside joke)
M.B.

Valentine Birthday said...

Hope you had an awesome birthday! Did you get any gifts or cards from celebrity friends?

Barry Traylor said...

"fuck you" thanks for my laugh of the day.

PolyWogg said...

Thanks for sharing the story...

And after that shameless butt-polishing, time for a Friday question...people were discussing book royalties the other day on a popular writing site, and one of the senior guys was talking about how bad royalty accounting and payments are --every six months, or whenever they feel like it.

How good is the accounting for TV residuals? How often do they account and pay out? How accurate do you feel they are? If someone has an agent, does the money flow through the agent or come in two separate cheques, one to talent and one to agent?

Enquiring minds in other businesses want to know.

Bonus Friday question:

Do you think there's a market for ebook versions of scripts? I've been ordering some plays recently, and most of them are only in paper form, unless you order direct from a playwrights website. One playwright's agent will send you scripts for free if you pretend you're a theatre group (or even if you don't).

P.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for sharing.
Impro is an art but can be very difficult.
Improv is life when life was destoryed or robbed.
Improv is playing with unknown.
Some need it in their life. It's the only thing that takes care of things.
Thanks,
Telly

Andrew said...

As much as I love Robin Williams, isn't part of being in an improv ensemble learning to work with the other actors? In your case it went well, but only because he took a breath. Shouldn't an improv actor learn to dial it down so that he or she can develop a chemistry with the rest of the ensemble?

Case in point: when Robin Williams was on Whose Line is it Anyway?, his intensity seemed to be counterproductive. His manic style didn't interact well with the rest of the regulars (IMHO).

Again, I love Williams and think he was a cosmic genius. I'm just wondering how someone could work well with him in an improv ensemble (other than the route you took, Ken).

Lemuel said...

A young Fred Willard can be seen with the improv Ace Trucking Company in the 1970 HARRAD EXPERIMENT.

Liggie said...

I once took an imoprov class for several months, to help with my writing. Since I have a speech defect of talking quite fast, even when calm, I created a character who was a professional coffee taster/tester, and I purposely spoke even faster than usual in situations like creating a video dating ad. The audience loved it.

The best improv bit I saw in a local show was when the audience could suggest a musical based on a recent news event. As this was in April 1994, we chose "Nixon dies". The host would freeze the actors periodically so the audience could choose the type of song. Watergate became a spooky campfire song ("I don't know, it's reeealllly scary!" "C'mon, please tell us!"), G. Gordon Liddy was a nightclub singer ("And I organized CREEP ... thank you, you're beautiful!"), and the ghost of Pat Nixon led an opera chorus about Nixon's love of bowling.

thevidiot said...

In the 80's I went to the Comedy Store one Monday night. Surprise! Billy Crystal was there. Good set. Bigger surprise! Richard Pryor stopped by to audition his "Live onon the Sunset Script" material. Oh, did I mention I was in the front row & alone?? Richard was merciless: "Nothing is certain except that this guy isn't gettin' any p*$$y!". Next surprise: Robin Williams dropped by. Richard sent me a frufru drink with an umbrella to thank me for being a sport. Robin saw that with my already ordered drunk & said: "I've heard of two-fisted drinkers but you take the cake!" Someone told himhim Richard sent it to me & he passed the umbrella drink around making the front row drink it like communion. Then he said: "I've been a real shit! I gave away your drink!! You may request 1 improvisation." I was working on Pittsburgh at the timetime, having just finished some "MisterRogers" shows so I requested "MisterRogers on his wedding night." Robin lit up... "Whoa! A great one! Cab you say penis?? I knew you c--Oh!! I Like the way you do that!!", etc. A great night!

TomR said...

Lately I've been missing Robin… thank you for posting this wonderful remembrance.
(Guess it wouldn't be polite to not end with a "fuck you," now, would it?)