Why I Suck at Improv (but at least the Wings were good)

I’m pretty sure I suck at improv.

It was kind of a toss-up if I’d be good anyway.

Sure, the movies I make and the character I sometimes play (loosely, emphasis on loosely based on myself) is kind of funny, kind of a loner, socially inappropriate and maladjusted, sometimes to comic effect.

But the very traits that make that character somewhat funny are sort of antithetical to what appear to be the core traits of improv.

“You just gotta go with it. Go with everything. Be positive” Keith told me.

That last one, be positive. I had a feeling that would be tough.

Keith was my improv guru or “maven”, a term I’ve liked since I was ten and read it (or had it read to me) in a Calvin Trillin audiobook, hearing it defined as “an expert, a guy, a go-to person”.

Keith makes a good improv maven for the same reasons he was a stand-out student at school. Short, balding, Jewish and whip-skinny, Keith projects an air of constant wacky “up”-ness, always adding a lilt or a drop in his voice in casual speech in order to sound like a commercial announcer talking about some illusory product with a funny name like “Whambow!” or “FunPens!”

This one-step-too-far enthusiasm was welcome to me, in somewhat of a same way that I dug Andy Roehm, because of how it contrasted with the usual dichotomy of guarded self-smugness or depressive self-seriousness that seemed to categorize some of my other peers at film school.

What also struck me, however, was something Keith had which nearly noone had that I knew: a serious work ethic. A junior in film school, Keith not only had a website, but it wasn’t one of those bull-shitty “I’m an artist” websites, but actually a vehicle for the prodigious amount of material he had actually made in his free-time. This website, a vehicle for his alter-ego “K-Skill”, had a bunch of videos, some comic/reality pieces, some sketches he had done and just some plain interview/doc stuff he had completed with friends or interesting people. What’s more, Keith had done most of these pieces on his own without the aid of a coordinated “production company” or really any friends to help him.

This was striking as I had seen more than a few people burn out because they never fit in in film school, or struggle once they broke off from their groups. Keith, it seems, had never really bothered, concerning himself with his work and gradually gaining friends and colleagues based on his self-assuredness and attitude. I fell into this category of admirers with others, because as I looked at the clips on his website, I didn’t like all of them, I thought some of them were dumb or didn’t work, but what struck me was even the ones I didn’t like that were obviously not great, Keith hadn’t gotten discouraged after them. He’d just kept making more, just kept trying to get better.

I’m not sure it would be so easy for me to wrestle with failure.

It was Keith who had taken the Upright Citizens Brigade classes and recommended them to me (along with others, like Malone and a funny writer I knew) and Keith with his attitude who seemed liked the perfect candidate for improv’s key mantra of “go with it”.

But anyway, I didn’t have Keith’s positivity and the make-up class I took at Upright Citizens Brigade felt both awkward and freeing to me. I wanted to be good at improv, wanted to go along. I felt like if I was good at improv, if I felt confident about it, I could make friends more easily and take more risks; that confidence breeds confidence. But improv can go counter to one’s comic instincts. We did an exercise called “Expert” where you had to get in the center of a circle of your peers and try to take questions from them on any subject and try to sound like an expert, whether you knew the answer or not. The point was not to be funny, immediately, but to try to hone the skill of “playing to the top of your intelligence” which then could be brought in to scenework.

While I did a good job as an expert (a decent non-drama liberal arts education comes with a minor in Bullshit), the questions I asked (“If 789, should we just all skip it now and go to 10?” “If I were a rich man, noddy noddy noddy, then would I be a real big star?”, “How do I get a girl to like me?”) prompted a moratorium on “joke questions” from me, which left me hanging my head in shame. Better was a stint in another exercise as a self-hating spy who after delicately cracking a safe finds out it is empty only to face an existensial crisis. However, I wrapped up the night with a piss-poor improv scene about typing on computers with a joke about “getting paid in cashews, a raise from peanuts” that fell distinctly flat upon the audience of peers.

Afterwards I was planning to ask the group out for a drink–more of Keith’s advice, a piece of it that I’d been hesitant to take–only to find out that everyone was hungry and everyone wanted a different cuisine. Still, I contemplated switching into this 6-9pm class, partially because the atmosphere seemed more critical (a good thing), partially because there were no confused ESL dudes (as in my normal class) and partially because the teacher was kind of hot and I was trying to figure out if she was close enough to my age and found me funny enough that she might consider joining for a drink as well.

But I should have known that a woman in the improv business, funny and independent, is use to desperate/pathetic man-children attempting come-ons along with their comedies and when I even just asked her about staying in her class she gave me a polite but distinct “Sorry” as I headed out the door, trying to think if I should chock this one up as a “girl” story or another day of funemployment.

***

On my way home, I needed some comfort food to get me over my sexual/comedic inadequacies of the evening and ended up over at Tebaya, a Japanese fried chicken joint that I’d been going to since the days of Neutral Ground.

Tebaya is best known (rightly so) for their chicken wings, double deep-fried until ultra-crispy, drained of all oil and pressed and then covered in a dry black-pepper/garlic miso-glaze. The result is topped with sesame seeds and is as scrumptious as it is addictive. I once brought a batch over to the Gaynor crew/Last Pictures in their office nearby. They protested that they’d already eaten lunch, but by the time I left all 27 wings were gone and devoured and I had only eaten a few.

A dinner combo there comes with a salad (an iceberg-lettuce affair with a single wedge of tomato and some potent soy-sesame dressing) and a 5-piece teba (their name for their wings) on the side. The lunch special is a better deal (3pc Teba, salad and a green tea for less money), but the dinner special was filling and my entree was a yummy Chicken Katsu sandwich (my standby, even though I knew not how it differed from the other 3 or 4 fried chicken sandwiches on the menu) which came topped by something strange-but-good called “soleslaw” which appeared to be delicious buttered-cabbage. The whole thing was filling even for me, the sandwich was a giant and digestion provided me some solace, or at least distraction, on the long walk home down Chelsea.

***

TEBAYA: Japanese Fried Chicken Wings

Chicken Katsu Sandwich Dinner Special (Comes w/ 5pc Teba and Salad)–$8.95

144 West 19th Street bet. 6th and 7th Aves.

1 to 18th St. FV to 23rd st.

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