I started by Improv 401 class at the UCB on Saturday, a circumstance complicated by several things:
1. I had missed the first class stupidly, due to improperly setting up/checking my Google Calendar and, in a class all about showing a “professional commitment” to improv, that’s pretty bad.
2. I had been awkwardly following/messaging my teacher on Twitter who told me “Thank for the Follow Friday” when I came to the first class, which I couldn’t tell if it was sarcastic or not.
3. That same 401 teacher later saw me do some awful improv at a practice session he audited, followed by my that session’s teacher throwing his notepad in anger on the ground because of me, followed by my 401 teacher leaving the room.
and of course, we wouldn’t be done without:
4. One of the girls in the class and I used to online-date, to mostly aborted effect, which neither one of us seems to want to acknowledge.
Add to all this the general reputation of the UCB 401 class, the sense that out of everyone maybe 2 people will pass the class, the nervousness of trying to be funny, trying to be right, trying to be on game, hoping to dodge the big bad notes and just be good enough to seem good enough to get through.
And then subtract from that this is all insane.
Somehow, from a year ago, when I looked on skeptically at the improv purveyors of New York City as the logical extension of the theater kids from my high school, whom I was neither attractive nor gay enough to join, I have become sucked in to this somewhat pyramid-like structure of learning improv, striving to improve, seeing every show I can, rising through the levels and seeking out gurus to gain some sort of spiritualistic enlightenment, some transformative moment, some moment where I become “good” at improv and thus am validated in life.
When my friend Teddy and I sat around on Saturday, awkwardly waiting for shows to begin, we discussed trying to perform somewhere, to which Teddy replied:
“I’m only looking to perform with serious improvisers.”
Serious improvisers? Isn’t that an oxymoron?
Maybe that was the moment it cracked for me.
Sure there are the famous people, the handful who get put on Saturday Night Live, or end up on their own show or in movies, commercials, whatever. But that’s only a handful and it’s mostly for other things like sketch writing, that are repeatable, film-able and highly able to be disseminated. But these are people who for large part had other things going on, had ambition to craft their own projects, to strike out and make something unique to them, or at least try.
What are the end results for the people in these improv classes that sell-out and promise what? Do they think they’ll be “serious improvisers” performing at shows at these theaters, with no chance of getting paid, with a small audience of students and fans? Do they think that Lorne Michaels will walk in to their class show, or Jon Stewart, and pluck them from an ensemble, like a grape? What is there to hope for, climbing through these systems?
I think there probably is no end result to improv training, no serious wisdom gained except “have as much fun as you can”.
Rather, my experience in life leads me to believe that these classes I’m taking are just another form of the same subculture creation I experienced in my days at Neutral Ground, playing Magic cards.
Nerds, societal outcasts of physical or mental quirks, people who hate their jobs or their lives or their company, escape to this world of improv, where the rules of “being a winner” change from “having a good job”, “a good car”, “a family” to “getting into that 5th or 6th level class”, “getting a compliment from a teacher”, or “doing that indie show in that bar basement”.
Like Magic, there are “pros”, people who make their living at least partially doing this, but also like Magic, they’re few and far between, with mostly associated incomes (acting for improvisers, online poker for Magic players) providing the real backbone of their earnings.
And like Neutral Ground, these places seem like voids for the vulnerable, areas that drift near where there’s that uncertainty in their lives, that need for a community, for a place that accepts them.
There’s something powerful in that, but also something damaging in the way that the “fun” of improv loses its fun in competition and too-set values.
In my experience, I have grown much from taking improv classes and indeed my life has probably improved, as has my acting.
In a way that does resemble something creepy like The Landmark Forum, improv has empowered me to “make strong choices”, “trust your instincts”, “don’t second guess yourself” and “commit emotionally”, but it also leaves me wondering and fearing that sense that at any moment I could be rejected, deemed unworthy and either expelled or relegated to some corner of this new society where I was undesirable and trapped.
It could happen in Neutral Ground, with the “scrubs” and losers no one would even draft with, and it could happen here as well, which is the fear pervading me as I walk into my 401 class, and hope not to be “not funny”.
Because the thing about the society replicated in these places at Neutral Ground and the UCB and others, is that it’s just that; replicated, or modeled on our own.
And just like our own society, there have to be winners and losers, those who proceed and go forward, those who transcend and become famous and worshipped and admired.
It was the irony, back in the day at Neutral Ground, that in the freaks creating their own place where they could set the rules, one tof the first ones would that there would be freaks among freaks, whom even they would shun again.
One last story:
The other day I walked in to see a friend from one of my classes at an upscale clothing store, her place of business.
I had recently had some bad days, lady-wise and it was nice for this young lady to invite me to come visit her.
She poured me some champagne, which she was there to proffer to customers as we talked about silly things, including (inevitably for me) the guys she was into.
“Those guys on Death by Roo Roo are so cute!” She said. “I wish I could sack one of them.”
Ah, how often I’m emasculated, let me count the ways.
“Well,” I tried to reply matter-of-factly. “Those guys are pretty good improvisers, but I bet they’re probably just schlubby awkward dudes in real life.”
“And you’re an attractive blonde.” I added hopefully.
“Aww, thanks!” She said giving me a hug. “But they’re so talented. I just can’t get past it. I don’t care what they look like.”
And in that moment, I realized the improv society I’d lived in reached that peak that Neutral Ground never did: that girls would fuck you based on how good you were at a non-athletic game.
Which made the moment I saw one instructor toss his notepad on my account and the other one leave the room, all the more crushing.
Just to harp on that improv thing for another second, the very same dudes (and very good improvisers) of Death By Roo Roo that my friend was so into, seeming to the exclusion of me, seemed pretty fired up when they saw me after a show, asking me about what would happen on Bethenny and what my food tips were.
One of them shook my hand with a gleam of wonderment in his eyes.
How different and strange our worlds must be that the very thing I can’t understand in myself makes me cool to them, while they seemingly have no grasp on how cool and daunting I, as a student of improv, might find them too.
A strange world we live in.
I got recognized too when I went to eat this sandwich, but not from the show. A case of mistaken identity.
“You came by the Ember Room. I remember you. The food to your satisfaction?” A nervous looking manager asked.
“Sure.” I told him gamely playing along. “Great.”
Maybe they’d throw in some free fries.
But they didn’t, though getting mistaken for a food critic was reward enough in itself.
The place I found the sandwich was a joint called “Social Eatz”, a hip Midtown East location known for its weird pop-Amero-Asian food, like their Kung Pao Chicken Sandwich (featured above).
I sat at their bar the first day they had their liquor license and the manager had been explaining to his staff, in the uncomfortable early I’d arrived during, about the particualar drinks of the restaurant.
The sandwich was delicious and arrived near instantaneously to the dissipation of their meeting, a fact for which I was grateful.
The chicken seemed to be grilled as kebabs and came off fresh and brown with a crispy green-y celery slaw. The “peanut” aspect of most “Kung Pao Chicken” dishes was represented in a mild peanut paste smothering the top of the sandwich providing a subtle umami bounce.
The fries were cold though, even though they came quick, and seem McDonalds like in their wanness and uninspired in the watery sauce that came with.
When I asked for Ketchup and they gave me Sriracha, I did something rude and just looked at her till she gave me Heinz.
I’m not proud of that moment, but sometimes, you just need to save a fry.
Kung Pao Chicken Sandwich- $9
53rd St bet 2nd and 3rd Aves.
EM6 to 53rd St-Lexington Avenue.
Uh yeah, one more thing guys. For those of you who wanted to see me on the show last week, sorry. I had a mix-up. It’s actually this upcoming week, I was just thrown by the “on-the-next-episode” segment they had me in just like everyone else, which ended up being two “on-the-next-episodes” put into one.
Anyway, bottom line is watch next Monday if you want. Could be fun.