Matt Besser Lecture Notes (in collaboration w/Will Hines)

May 21, 2012

This past Sunday, founding member and owner of the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre, Matt Besser, gave a talk at the Chelsea theater about what his concept of “UCB-style” improv is and what he’d like to see taught here in New York and what not. I have my thoughts on all this but that is not what this post is about.

Instead, here are (w/Will’s permission) the notes that I took at that lecture that were organized and clarified by the Associate Academic Supervisor of the UCB, Will Hines, and sent out to some staff and performers.

I hope you enjoy and maybe (hopefully!) discuss.

-Nick

***

Outline of 5/20/12 Besser Meeting, courtesy of Nicholas Feitel:

MINDSET
I’ve been talking a lot about mindset, what’s your mindset when you enter a scene and start improvising.
When I started I was standup, so I already had stage confidence.
Charna told me that I wouldn’t be good at improv because of stand up. She was right, at least at first.
Difference between standup/short-form, the game is already given.
In short-form game is explained to the audience, details fed into comedy machine
Short-form more selfish, who can do it “the best”, less group dynamic.
ImprovOlympic didn’t work when it was competition based
Long-form improvisers listen to others, the most important note an improviser can get. You listen to others.
My mindset used to be dueling stand-up, you say something funny and then I say something funny. Two separate thought bubbles.
I didn’t trust or give in to listening, I didn’t have trust that it was funnier to build off something someone else created with me as opposed to me being funny, trust in the group mind.
I was on stage with someone was good and I thought the other persons idea was better so I shared it. One shared thought bubble — group mind.
Stand up and longform are different muscles, different mindsets

IMPROV and SKETCH
At UCB, a great improvised scene is the same as a great sketch .
You don’t always do A+ scenes, just like we don’t do perfect Harold’s
Everyone else is doing improvised plays, narrative, with silly people and that it wouldn’t work written down. It stills works because the audience loves improv but we are trying to get away from that.

SEMANTICS and TERMS
We have two kinds of long-form: organic and premise-based. Equally as good.
Organic coming off a suggestion and we start improvising not off of an opening. We are “yes-and-ing”
We build a base reality (who, what, where) from yes-and-ing.
Base, what you’ll build a scene on, reality so we know what’s normal, and what the first unusual thing is.
Once we find that unusual thing, we don’t need a yes-and, we just need to say if this unusual thing is true, what else is true. That’s the difference between UCB and other schools, other schools have “yes-and”-itis.
Game doesn’t happen until a second person reacts.
If someone says I’m going to “kill myself with potato skins”, you then say “yes let me help you” then we have two unusual things because of yes-and, because then we have someone who is helping people kill their friends (unusual) and someone who wants to kill themselves with a potato-skin (unusual). It can’t go down the two paths.

I want you in the mindset of this: “if this one unusual thing is true, what else is true”. It’ll take you through that sketch of any show you like.

TOP OF INTELLIGENCE
Maybe yes-and-itis is caused by people who don’t play at the top of their intelligence, that fear leads you to play not at the top of your intelligence to say something funny
Del said two difference things that get lumped together
-Treat your audience like poets and geniuses, don’t “dumb down” the scene for your audience.
-commit to playing a doctor the best you can.
Your character isn’t necessarily as smart as you are, they’re not necessarily. If I’m an 8-year-old, I’m not as smart as who I am normally.
The intelligence is our intelligence of how people behave towards one another.
That’s not what a person would say (I’ll help you kill yourself), because no matter who you are, you’ll deal with the unusual thing. The top of intelligence choice is dealing with the unusual thing.
You have to get into the mindset of how would I respond in that scenario, most of you are not truly reacting as you would react.

OPENINGS/INITIATING OFF MONOLOGUES
A good monologue lasts about two minutes, we need to slow down and tell a little bit more.
The purpose of this initiation is to let them know where you are coming from, so it’s your take on what was funny from the opening.
We use the opening to come from a common place, I like to think of if as the pitch meeting from the sketch show.
What makes a memory a memory is that they are unusual things in your life.
I want to get pretentious words like “emotional” out of your vocabulary. Let’s use the words from our curriculum.
Could be the point of the story, the way someone told the story, some part that got laughs.
It would be idiotic not to use the parts of the opening that got laughs, we have to find our own way to flag to, but we want to find a way to flag 3, because it’s more efficient. 4-5 are too many to remember, 1-2 is not enough because other people may hopefully use them.
With my initiation line, in an opening there’s chaff (doesn’t bring us anything, words equal to suggestion word), premise (when I can really gel what I found funny in the opening and who,what, where), half-ideas (no premise but at least directing towards what we think is funny off the opening).
If you see immediately that you’re joking, or bringing in your own idea, let it go.
People talk about emotion or relationship, but really just commit to being real. Either that or commit to being peas in a pod which can be helpful and you could be a slight straight man (ala Cheech and Chong), the straight man is the one who gets to explore. You have to be your own unusual thing.
Our opening is the pitch meeting for the sketch show, I wouldn’t pitch something at SNL that I didn’t think was funny. We don’t like to imply that one person brings the whole game, but that funny thing from the monologue is the thing we should heighten and explore.
Why did a scene peter out after the beginning? Because we let the truth of the funny thing go.
Really explore why something is funny, ideas off a suggestion, otherwise why are you doing the opening, you’re not honoring the audience’s ideas and the group mind you just built if you go out there with nothing
You’ve got to give the initiator their real chance to say what they think is funny before laying on your own thing.

HEIGHTEN/EXPLORE
Like stair steps
NOT raising the stakes! Don’t say raise the stakes. For exploring, when we started in Chicago, we were told to raise the stakes in the second beats, it seems to take us to the same places (doctor’s office, white house), INSTEAD: what’s another great place to play this game?
Raising the stakes imply that second beat is better than the first, and that’s not necessarily true.
After Wiig’s Penelope/”the one-upper” they weren’t thinking how to raise the stakes the first time the character premiered for next week, they thought about where else to put her.
What’s another scenario that’s full of potential?
I need another place that has other details (not better, funnier, a lot of potential in this new place/situation).
Second beat may be better based on better handle on the game.
Find what’s funny and make it funnier- heighten
If you heighten without exploring, then we lose the reality, it’s over more quickly.
Explore= figure out why this crazy thing is happening / justify
Exploring allows our scenes to go longer.
The “sillier” something is the quicker the truth runs out.

PLAUSIBLE CRAZY PEOPLE
When I was doing Crossballs, the character debating the real person has to be a lawyer for their absurdity, explaining the premise.
Ex: a guy who kills ducks with a rocks because a guy who’s kill a duck with a gun is a pussy.
It takes longer to get through the scene arming ourselves with more specifics.
The earlier on in a scene, the more grounded and logical I have to be, have those slower builds, because if you heighten too much you play out the scene to end.
I try to give the initiator more respect, so you try to give the initiator more respect, if it’s premise based, you really try to find what the person’s idea is and clue-in on what they’re doing. Sometimes when things get messed up, the second unusual thing is more unusual than the first, so you have to drop the first thing and play the things the audience chooses
Don’t aim to find the flaw in someone’s logic, there are flaws in all logic, just keep heightening and exploring.
Make sure you stick to your guns even if someone questions or calls out your logic.
You’re allowed to be selectively oblivious about one unusual thing but if someone lays on a second unusual thing, it’s bad, but give up and play their thing.
Some people like to juggle two-three games, as the other player in the scene just try to focus on the one most unusual thing. Sometimes organically a new game can come up and you can play that if you heighten enough (not in a Harold).

AVOID THE TERMS EMOTION/RELATIONSHIP WHEN ANALYZING IMPROV
I hate hearing the word emotion, relationship, this is a sketch, not a movie or a film. Who is this person, what do they want from me is acting, we don’t need that, we need base reality, commitment to that, an unusual thing, ability to heighten explore.
Just try to react as yourself in situations and maybe really ask yourself how you’d actually react.


Neil Casey Advanced Study Notes Week Seven (w/special guest Will Hines)

April 20, 2012

Hey everybody.

Here are the notes for Week Seven of my Neil Casey Advanced Study Class, this week guested by Will Hines. These are also mostly referring to second beats and “the game” specifically.

As always, these are hastily scrawled, mostly inaccurate and incomplete. Use them for what you will.

For what it’s worth, it was a good and enjoyable class for me. Will has a style of noting that really tries to unveil your style of improv. The only thing he asks is agreement and most notes put the onus on him, going so far as to begin many notes and directions with: “help make me a better teacher…”

I also really enjoy his style of play and think of him as one of my favorite teachers.

That said, the notes:

***

I think there are two kinds of second beats where you just do the same thing again a little different like the second verse of a song and that can be fine
Sometimes formulaic., but good because it’s clear and simple
Another second beat can be if this is true then what else is, maybe seeing another part of the world, following the consequences of that world
There’s still time-dash and analogous but other options too.
One type of second beat should be the same way again with new specifics, it makes your long-form feel like it has depth to it
I try to find a moment that’s iconic when doing a “different specifics” second beat, the moment I would put in “the trailer” of that scene.
The way to tell if you did it is the audiences laughs or nods
An “if this, then” second beat,
We coach against going plotting, but plot is a good tool to use if you are taking game with you.
The reason we coach against plot is because too often the audience thinks what could happen, but we want the audience to see our choices make what “did” happen.
TiC- Improv is like driving with a windshield blacked out, only rear-view mirror.
Only something that reflects backwards is satisfying in a second beat.
I’ve heard gasps from the audience because when they make the connection, they love it.
Take the same urgency/energy/atmosphere of that high point in the first beat.
In European Vacation, Eric Idle keeps getting more and more injured, whenever he enters the seem, he’s friendly, it’ll still be a new landmark, but he still gets messed up
That’s the only type of second beat I really see.
Even if it’s different types of fucked up (physically, emotionally, et cetera) its still the same pattern
Another part of the world, playing a similar game or very informed by that game.
If you’re doing the same thing, it’s a challenge, but have better specifics, be funnier.
When you have a script, it’s hard to act like you’ve heard those lines for the first time, make them your own. So is improv, finding lines.
There is something forced and writerly about second beats, but people want it, so it’s good to give it to them.
I’ve never had a class where I talked about openings, second beats, et cetera and it’s like do it this way, it’s like do it and if the audience laughs, know it can work. That’s my lesson.
“Hey everyone get in here” group games can work as second beats but not so well in the group game slot, because we know that a second beat will be planned a bit in advance, so the audience will forgive you for that premise.
When in doubt from the back line, on an empty stage, just jump out there. The improv gods will reward you.
Make sure we are not pushing too hard towards our objectives/goals in a scene. We need to be able to dance back and forth for our scenes to work.
It is bad to ask for an edit in a scene but if somebody does you have to be on it.
In a second beat, make sure to start with your spin on the idea so the audience can get on board.
If you don’t know how to do it, but you can tell me what the central part of the first beat was, I think it’s not terrible to just say that in character to the other principal in the scene.
It’s ok to fight as long as you’re aware of what you’re saying to each other and yes-anding but don’t care about winning the fight, be aware about being sensitive to the dynamic.
Make sure to capture the irony of the first beat, if not the second beat of A Christmas Carol would just be that everything was fine in the town and that Scrooge was nice now
I’ve seem great reality and emotional commitment in this class and choices to drive the scene forward but make sure that you are paying attention in some part of you to the irony of the scene when you are in it.


Neil Casey Advanced Study Harold Notes Day Two (w/guest teacher Will Hines)

March 15, 2012

This was a challenging day for me and for most of the class I think.

I have my said my statements about Will Hines here on this blog frequently and made my opinion known: in short, I have a lot of respect for him as a performer and a teacher and he’s one of the bigger influences on my style of play.

But when Will came to sub for our intensive, I still put on myself that onus of “I’m performing in front of Will” (which was less serious in front of Neil, because I felt like/was such a better improviser when I took his class as opposed to when I took Will’s).

Also, we were doing a difficult thing for me: playing realistic scenes.

It seems like for me and for most of the class when you hear: play realistically at the top of the scene, don’t try to be funny, you forget you are an improviser and forget all of your skills there.

I felt like there was a lot of this in this class, a lot of the pain that comes of exercising like your trapezoidal muscles or getting your balance right.

Maybe that second analogy is right: as people, we can walk around unbalanced for most of our lives. Our legs still work and we walk pretty well. But later in life, as we mature, we find ourselves more and more unbalanced because of the lack of work we did in our youth, having problems all through our bodies or just hobbling.

As improvisers, we can improvise without playing truthfully necessarily at the top of the scene or without focussing on that muscle, because a lot of what we do as performers is based on ourselves, because we’re not smart enough to think of a lot of random stuff instantly for every situation. But by isolating that “truthful” muscle and making it stronger, we help make our scenes more real and powerful.

But that’s a hard day at the gym as everyone knows, working on balance, working small muscles. It tends to make you very sore and you fall a lot.

So that’s what I did in class, this class.

And then the next day, had a great practice using exactly the muscles I’d worked on here.

Thanks, Will.

Without further ado, the hastily scrawled, incomplete, inaccurate notes of my 501 class, subbed by Will Hines.

***

Your first mission as an improviser is to make realistic scenes, truthful

Don’t make problems where they don’t exist, like passing a fork or opening a refrigerator. Those wouldn’t be a problem in real life so not here either.

Ok to be boring at the top of scenes.

Basic scenework:

Truthful scenes that move forward are key.

Those things are hard because they can oppose each other

A confession is an active choice to make

A want is active, care about something, even if you don’t in real life

Doing something/object work is often helpful. It almost never hurts. Being active is almost always good.

Making the people on stage the center of the action.

Make a decision that the naturalistic conversation you were having actually was much more serious, justify/contextualizing a naturalistic scene five lines in

Not talking about future/past too much

With The Stepfathers, when I come out with an opening line, I’m just trying to be truthful, not funny, just make the audience believe it make sense and hopefully make it involve someone else.

Example, suggestion “Bakery”: “Yeah I’m glad you got me a cupcake, but I’m worried about how I’m going to look.”

Any first line can work but better hit percentage with truth.

Truthful scenes should be what we aim for, looking for more opportunities to make stuff active.

We need an opportunity in our scenes for people to care.

A problem many improvisers run into: You get a game, you play it, but that second game move can seem false or forced.

So to be the best improviser you can be, how can you find something active that is also truthful for that second move.

The move to make something more active will be the same as a second game move

So that way you’ll have something true when playing less real or grounded

Not every scene needs to be like a great play, but you need to have those moves in your satchel, a confession, making something theatrical and important.

We tell level 1 students not to ask questions. Questions are ok, but being surprised is a passive choice. It just makes the people restate their choice. Always better to remember, to contextualize.

Giving a shit, knowing about it, having an opinion, being affected those are all active choices.

You don’t always need to do that but you need to be sensitive about it, those forks in the roads when you come across them.

If you mess up a second-beat, acknowledge it, clean sweep, contain it and do a clean second beat. Don’t let every scene bleed into each other, maintain poise.

Kitchen rules of good improvisers from del close: good improviser accepts offers, makes active choices, good improviser justifies

Doesn’t have to be the whole point of the scene just an aside or one line.

If you do everything right and it doesn’t work, what do you do? Nothing. That’s why we have openings. If you accept every offer, make active choices and justify it will be funny most of the time.

Often the justification is the game, a little piece of dream logic that doesn’t necessarily make sense.

Be funnier, look for places for things to be funny, use your sense.

I have had a boring first beat in a Monkeydick show, but it was real and we ended up blowing it out to be huge. You don’t always want that, but trust your team to make it work.

You’re at the stage now where the rules contradict. Salt is delicious but too much is bad. Use your judgement as to your own ingredients. I can tell you what the ingredients are but we’ll all still have wrong amounts.

A team that knows each other may not use an opening because their months of knowing each other is their opening, knowing that they trust each other to discover the scene.

But even the Stepfathers might at some point. If we could ever agree on one.

***

P.S.- See Will Hines teach people improv on TV right here (pretty cool)!


Neil Casey 401 Notes Day Final

January 27, 2012

This is my final day of notes from my Neil Casey 401. As I’ve said before, these are hastily scrawled, filled w/typos and probably somewhat inaccurate. For those of you who don’t know, Neil is a very well-regarded performer at the UCB Theatre NYC who does not teach often anymore, it would seem.

This last class was actually subbed by Will Hines, as Neil booked a commercial (I may post the notes from my final show if applicable, which I have heard he will be at).

However, as I have mentioned several times before on this blog, I have very high-esteem for Will as a teacher who taught my first level 4 class at UCB. He is also an excellently regarded performer whose classes are filled up near instantly. His philosophy on improv (centered around agreement) is also very interesting to me. It is egalitarian and thus applicable to any style of improv, I believe.

On a personal note, I look up to Will and his style of play so while I was somewhat nervous in the class with him, I was happy he got to see how I’ve changed from Spring 2011, to whatever degree that might be.

Anyway, no one cares about that.

Here are the notes, enjoy!

***

Being around the community, constantly I see people go from doing improv baby talk to being my best friend, on teams, to being jaded and then gone. The turnover rate is very rapid here. Jaded is too negative, but whatever that process is where you are over it happens quickly. I would say a year and a half.

The main difference between a 201 grad show and a seasoned improv show is that when people step out their eyes are locked on each other. People are so worried about putting out their initiations that they don’t see the choices they’ve already made.

Especially when there is no opening, make sure that we are working our good scenework muscles, agreeing with each other, getting out the who/what/where, checking in.

You don’t always need to have characters who are saying yes, but you do have to have characters who move the scene forward. If someone says “have you ever been to Iceland?”maybe you haven’t but if you say no it’s a dead-end, but of you say “no, but I always wanted to” there is something there. No doesn’t have to mean a denial if it’s coupled with an offer.

Improvisers do tend to go through a phase of arms folded and saying no, also in your body language.

If somebody else is initiating, I form my emotion based on the initiation. Simple emotional choices can work too, but I think you have a higher-shot percentage if you do.

At the point you’re at, it’s more like art though. There’s not one right answer, but your training should be reacting.

I think of scenes like pyramids, on the bottom we are listening to each other and agreeing, above that we are playing realistically and intelligently, above that making them important and reacting emotionally and above that game.

A teacher I had named Kevin Mullaney used to tell me if you don’t find a game don’t try to play it; it’s real easy to go from playing it real to finding a game, more difficult the other way around.

You’ve got to let each other know that you’re finding the game in a way that’s not obvious. I find that players often try to invite each other to find things weird.

Don’t undervalue scene-work and agreeing and liking each other. Those are difficult things to have especially after an opening.

Make sure to have initiation etiquette. Let people introduce themselves, just like in a radio show. You wouldn’t tell people what they want to say if they called into your radio show.

I don’t like the phrase “calling out” but I do like speaking to the obvious truth. In improv we should be thinking out loud for the audience to watch. Not being coy, being explicit is helpful. Not helpful is “you’re doing/not doing this because you are stupid”. Surprise/a reaction could be good.

You know when you start watching a sketch in Saturday Night Live, every line that passes you’re looking for the funny thing until you see it. If you step out with a part of a funny idea we’re on board.

Starting with irony or a twist on reality is good, but never at the expense of reality. I’d rather have someone come out and say “I like painting”.

Some advice: a very common thing that happens is: “You did this, explain it.” and the human response is to explain it away, but it’s a gift and the quickest way to a good scene is saying yes and accepting the idea. I think 90-percent of the time it’s done well. It makes clear what the truth is, because everything is a lie, so lying about a lie is a difficult thing.

If you must argue, argue sympathetically, because if you keep saying you’re attacking the other player. Be able to articulate the other side of the argument all the time.

All accusations, criticism and insults are always gifts. Remember that.

There’s a way of “comedically yes and-ing” something just to firm it up, keeping your ears open for things and then restating what’s funny.

It’s always better to yes and with a philosophy than a plot.

Make sure to initiate with the simplest most direct thing possible.

If you listened and you don’t know where they’re coming from, react as you will and support. If you just answer confidently with something it will be just as good if not better than the scene they wanted.

I think what we are still learning is how to be clear on that first line, it’s why we learn how to say yes so we can roll with it. I wish I knew how to teach that perfectly but I still do it wrong half the time.

It’s so tempting to focus on the initiation because it’s the nut of the scene, but knowing the basics of improvisation is the best. If I have a show and one writer and a group of improvisers I only need one funny line. If I have a bunch of writers and no improvisers I need a hundred. It’s five percent of the scene.

Sympathetic arguing exercise: someone comes in with a crazy accusation and you don’t deflect it, accept it and give a reason and then the other person sympathetically argues and you respond in turn, both acknowledging the other’s POV. Make it your own choice when someone accuses you.

It’s a frequent thing that someone accuses you of something, calls you something weird if you deflect it or make it make too much sense the gift goes away. If someone goes and says you could work harder and you say yes I can and they react sympathetically you probably have a game. It’s very satisfying to see.

Thinking about heightening early gums up the work. Don’t even worry about heightening, just hits what funny a few times and see where it brings you.

When things are funny in the pattern game, think why you think it’s funny. That will help you in that scene, that little thought.

Saying a suggestion in a Harold is usually really lame. It’s like if Darth Vader were to say “I declare Star Wars”.


Neil Casey 401 Notes Day Five (Not Really)

January 18, 2012

Sorry to disappoint.

This class we had a sub who I don’t agree with and who teaches frequently so I didn’t take notes.

A moment first to say how incredibly stupid this is.

When one takes an improv class, they are paying to get a trained professional’s opinion. Notes should be like magic candy falling down from the sky, great gifts that when ingested make you better, stronger, quicken the pace of your learning and experience. Especially hard notes or major ones, since they can help protect you from major flaws that you might experience for the rest of your career. They are all gifts and to take them as otherwise is incredibly stupid, since the alternative is just to pay to not listen to something which, while that might resemble many of our college experiences, is not a productive use of time or money.

The self-seriousness that I’ve brought to Neil’s class is admirable and has gotten me comments from people I don’t know and people I respect alike for paying attention and sharing what I learned.

Now to argue the irrational other-half:

This is an art form where you are acting like a jackass in front of other people hoping you might find some validation or laughter. It is painful and often difficult, which can make taking notes hard, since failing hard in a scene is a big blow to the ego, even as I’ve gradually become a more adjusted person. It took me a month to realize the validity of the notes from a Curtis Gwinn workshop because of how I received them (even though they were right!), a couple weeks to grasp the truth of at least some of my second 401 notes and a couple months to grasp the notes from my first, if I even have fully yet. The ego is difficult to protect, especially for people struggling with insecurity, read: all comedians/performers.

So, when I found myself in a class with a teacher who had previously thrown his pad in disgust at a move I made on stage and then continued to note me hard in this class, I just felt like fuck it. I don’t like this guy. This isn’t fun. I’m not taking notes. I’m just going to play with as much confidence as I can, try to make moves and support things even if I don’t know how, just try to have a fun improv class for myself and, if possible lastly, listen to what he had to say.

So I am sorry, community, that I do not have notes to offer for this class, where Neil was not there. I am not perfect, nor a perfect improviser, or anywhere near such.

I am instead an epicly insecure person without a friend in a judgement situation where the goal is to look specific kinds of dumb.

Instead, I will steal another person’s hard work and share with you the extremely valuable notes that Will Hines wrote from an interview with Chris Gethard, who also rarely teaches class nowadays. It even has some parts about what I talk about here.

If anyone cares about what I think (and few people do in these posts), I will say only that I don’t agree about Chris’s comment regarding relationships, his last note. I believe that everything including games, location, what have you is present in the way these characters on stage feel about each other, their relationship. If we move to the unusual, it is from the usual. And there is no better way to ground ourselves, in the usual, in reality, than to think about the relationships that we have with other people. Those dynamics are among the truest things we have to build on. It’s one of the reasons why I love and prefer the Magnet so much, because it is much easier and richer for me to play game when dealing with real people and relationships, much easier to work with a person as opposed to a cardboard cut-out with a game-title on it.

But Chris is much better and more experienced than me. The divide is incredibly stark and wide.

And everything else he says I get 100% behind.

Again, all thanks goes to Will Hines, who is himself, certainly one of the best teachers I have ever had.

Here are the links:

Teaching Interviews: Chris Gethard, Part 1 of 2

Teaching Interviews: Chris Gethard, Part 2 of 2

As always, enjoy and thoughts are welcome.

I’ll leave the depressing girl stuff, for our regular programming.


Yes, And

May 25, 2011

Without a doubt, improv comedy has taken over my life.

I am now in a place where I am actively “doing improv” seven days a week, each day, for at least two hours a day.

Most of this is due to an intensive improv class I’m taking over at the Magnet, a place I’ve written about before, with a bunch of really great people who are very talented and enthusiastic and whose openness and offers of friendship feel all the more suspicious due to the sudden-ness of our bonds.

“We must always be open and suspicious”. Our second week teacher, the slightly-mulleted Russ Armstrong told us, pacing near the stage before a scene in which we were supposed to be natural. “Open, so that we are listening to what our partner says and suspicious, so we are able to find meaning.”

He was referring to the scene, but as I’ve said here before, I apply improv philosophy to my life and it’s hard not to, again, when you’re doing it seven days a week.

Is the girl who emails me, but who is constantly unavailable, trying to draw me in or repel me? Am I supposed to follow her, pursue her, or take a hint?

Is my boss firing me when he says my availability doesn’t work for him for the next couple weeks, or is he just trying to be honest?

As improvisers in a scene, we make a choice and we don’t second guess ourselves. We trust in our partners and know whatever we are inferring from them is what they are implying to us and that they agree to the truth of that when it’s stated.

But in life, on a film set, next to your parents, staring at the girl across the room from you in class; you fear that these people do not see the same truth you do, you fear being shunned or shut down.

There’s no teacher yelling scene in real-life, no “back-line” to edit.

You’re just stuck with the choice and the consequences, which accounts for some of, at least my, emotional paralysis.

But on the other hand, there’s that phrase that’s central to improv, that “Yes and…”, a central concept which denotes agreement in a scene, the idea that we support the other person in their reality.

“You are all funny people.” funny-teacher Will Hines told our Saturday class in his non-emotive constant-deadpan. “But in the beginning, we’re not looking for funny. We’re looking simply to agree with each other. We’re looking at each other and building a story together, agreeing on the details and the world.”

This may also seem improv-exclusive, but I’ve noticed in my life.

The dynamic is action-validation.

It’s seen for granted in a parents’ love or approval. In someone knowing what gift to get you for your birthday, in your parents letting you take a class or study something silly.

In a young lady letting you rub your head on her belly and laughing and wanting to kiss you afterwards.

Knowing that someone takes what you give them, what’s personal about you and values it, that you agree on a reality.

Such things exists not just in scenes but in all relationships and, by contrast, when I find myself most upset is when I feel that I don’t understand reality, that I’m crazy, that I’ve made a move so poorly informed or unreal that it reveals my total ignorance of what the accepted reality might be.

This shock could come when I didn’t get in to Stuyvesant after feeling like tough-shit, or when a girl’s soft objections fade as I stop before kissing her on a subway ride back from Brooklyn.

“All pain comes from denial of acceptance.” said another improv teacher, David Razowsky, who I try frequently to beat now in iPhone Scrabble.

When I look at my life, my pain or my character, my relationship with that “yes, and” that acceptance or denial of reality, those moments of breakthrough and happiness, it makes sense that I’ve found myself thrown into improv so frequently: It’s a medium where people are bound-obligated to accept me. Where at least, for a scene, they won’t turn me away.

But as you learn to be a stronger improviser, as I throw myself more under the wheels of it all, though this current pace won’t last, you learn to make stronger choices in life. To show some confidence. To try for the result you want and deal with the fallout later.

As Jonny-Jon-Jon told me, after a surprise appearance coming to see one of my shows: “You don’t take enough high-chance risks, man. Sure, it could be awful. But how will you know unless you try?”

I don’t know if I’ll find that confidence. It’s one things to have in a scene where to goal is to agree on a reality and another to find it in a life that’s experienced rejection.

But yesterday, after yet another date fell through, a woman on the street stopped me and said: “Hey, you’re Nick the Foodie.”

And I said “Yeah, what’s your name?”

“What are you doing here?” She asked me.

“Karaoke, just practicing.” I told her.

And then:

“Why, wanna come?”

“Now?” She asked perplexed.

“Yeah, now.” I replied.

“Sure.” She said and we walked.

And we spent the next few hours together, talking, discovering our reality.

And it was as easy as that.

***

Robert Martin Malone, pictured above, is often a character in this blog.

He was also a character in the first season of a web-series I wrote based on this blog called, fittingly, “Feitelogram Film Blog”.

In that series, he was, hearkening back to my days of watching the Power Rangers TV Show, a “Zordon“-like figure called “Virtual Rob” who would appear to me via G-Chat to hear me out for advice on my misadventures and to offer me virtual advice.

The joke was, back then, that even though Rob (or Rob-beardo, Ro-beardo, Beardo, what have you) was one of my better friends, I’d rarely see him due to his strange habits of dancing somewhere in Brooklyn or staying in to watch marathon episodes of Cheers or “edit”, a state which I always imagined to be more hanging around making beard-jokes with his roommates Blake (who was labeled a “Goob” by one of the commenters of my previous post) and occasional/part-time effeminate cartoon-villain Andrew Parrish.

But Rob has his own life and I’m happy to hang with him when he’s around to experience his beard-y foibles.

The other night, Rob staged a screening for a bunch of his friends (me included), of his latest feature film, made with fellow miscreant Zach Weintraub, which is called “Fresh Starts For Stale People”. The film, a gonzo road-movie/post-college coming-of-age tale strikes upon themes of discovering America, dealing with new-found fiscal responsibility, the perils/pleasures of moving to Los Angeles and the influences of late 80s action films on the human psyche.

While I can’t show the film (Rob is currently prepping it to try to apply to Fantastic Fest, which if I have ANY clout due to this weird pseudo-celebrity, I would like to extend in asking them to unequivocally accept this film), I can show the voyeuristically-taped talkback Rob had with us after the film.

Now, I must warn you, I haven’t SEEN this; I’ve just lived it.

But my quasi-roommate John Beamer told me it was, quote, “pretty fucked up” and I’ve also heard it’s “like 36 minutes”.

That said, if you are, for some strange reason, a “Feitel Fan” and want to check out my one-to-two comments, they’re there as well as the semi-coherent ramblings of some post-film students.

Why do I post this?

I don’t know.

I guess I just feel or felt after the last post, that for all the characterization of my friends that are on this blog, their exaggeration, their twisted or invented comments, their general pissed-off-ed-ness toward me, it might be nice to introduce some reality, some sense of what “The Real Schlub Life of New York City” looks like.

God that was an awful joke, even for me.

Anyway, here it is, with Rob and all of us, in our glory.

“Enjoy”?

***

I had my first non-class improv show the other night and it was actually pretty funny.

But it was almost upstaged by some home-made french-fries.

I had never been to “The Creek and The Cave” in Long Island City, though I had heard tale that it was a near legendary haven for both fledgling practitioners of New York City comedy and a pretty decent burrito joint.

My crew from my intensive class who I was performing with had tried (inadvertantly?) to ditch me on the 7 train, but I had found them only for I to ditch them to grab a bite at this place I heard was somewhat legendary, as good comedy and good food rarely go together.

True, there were a couple of places on MacDougal St in Greenwich Village. The Comedy Cellar, New York’s premier “street cred” venue, was founded by an Israeli who was looking for something to do with the basement of his Israeli restaurant, the Olive Vine Cafe.

C.B.’s, where my friend and much more successful/hard-working comedian Zac Amico works, is in the basement of a not-half-bad Italian joint and they even give artisinal pizza to the starving stand-ups at their open mikes, if you stay till the end.

But anyway, The Creek and the Cave was known not just for hosting indie teams’ improv shows, but also for having excellent and inexpensive food and I deinied myself my usual 8-8:30 dinner for a pop at that 9-o’clock mexican/improv fix.

I ended up forswearing the burrito because the sandwiches were cheaper and came with home-cut fries, which always appeal to me. As I tweeted recently, it’s also nice to have a side or a counter-point to a meal: chips with a spicy egg-sandwich, a side-salad with a Better Being Highline, some mac and cheese or roasted Brussel Sprouts with some BBQ Chicken.

Or just some nice big-ass fries.

The ‘Wich I found was under the 10-buck credit card limit and my only complaint was that, for a pulled chicken sandwich, it should have come covered in BBQ sauce rather than the useful but not entirely welcome mayo it was squirted with. I saw how it was necessary to flavor-up the tender, but on the bland-side pulled chicken, but it did violate one of cardinal tenets of “being careful, mixing mayo and cheese”.

What it lacked though in that one area, it made up for greatly in value and portion size. The home-made fries were huge, golden, fresh, cooked-to-order. They layered the plate, leaving no empty space underneath.

The sandwich came with fresh tomato and lettuce and some welcome REAL cheddar, which were protected from the mayo by the lettuce, smartly.

It was quick and scarfable, with or without beer, though I felt I might have done it more justice if I had given it more time.

But, alas, I had an improv show to do, where I had to masturbate using a fishing rod and play a part-time improvising scuba-instructor.

Even in eating, we must find balance.

***

THE CREEK AND THE CAVE

Pulled Chicken Sandwich w/Lettuce, Tomato, Mayo and Home-Cut Fries- $7.95 (w/o tax)

Vernon Avenue bet 50th and 51st Aves, L.I.C., NY.

7 to Vernon-Jackson Aves.


Be The Lion

May 10, 2011

I got a haircut recently but, I’d like to point out, not because people were badgering me, but because it was time.

Though there is still is that perception that now people are seeing me, I might as well try to look a little good.

But then there’s that expression on my face, one I have some version of often in photos.

There’s discomfort there for sure, but I think a more specific labeling would be to call it ambivalence.

Yes, I’ll see this online, maybe. The person taking the picture might be my friend or someone I don’t know. This will go out in to the world beyond my control. I won’t know how I look, no way to be sure. So I might as well look perplexed and uncertain. At least then, I can look back on those photos, others will too, and know at that moment, some amount of honesty.

But with honesty of course, as I’ve discovered in smaller and larger ways through this blog, comes feedback, a genuine reaction and comments that are more difficult to deflect or react to, because when you write your emotions, your bad breakups, your feelings of underwhelming and preening and finding, they’re real and so people are talking about something real about you, when they reply.

It used to be that this was a more minor concern. My quasi-roommate John, for instance, might see me pull a poor sentence construction (which happens often here) and somehow misconstrue what he said and I’ll have to either live with it or fix it. Back when I was in, as Jonny-Jon-Jon would call it, more of my “fuck it” stage, I would write angrily with names about the people who slighted me, call them out on the internet and whatever my group of friends were would read it like the bunch of Gossip Girls or whatever we all were (disclosure: I don’t watch that show).

But now, my Twitter followers have roughly doubled twice over the past two weeks, so much so that when I gained a thousand followers in the span of three hours last night, I thought Twitter was going through maintenance and it was a bug.

Apparently, it wasn’t, as the tweeting indicated. But the tweeters, my new “followers” had other things to say. A lot of compliments and nice things, but also now they were reading through my blogs like my life and trying to problem solve. Specifically, since I’ve posted a few blog posts on BravoTV.com about dating (not to mention it’s constant reference here), I’ve had people try to fix my love life.

Some people said nice, comforting things: that I was cute, or adorable, for me to take heart, or what have you.

A couple ladies reached out and tried to express interest, though they lived out of town and even I wasn’t ready for that kind of “internet dating”.

One woman this morning left a comment on my blog, several paragraphs long as a reply to my Bravo post, talking about how I felt like a puppy when a girl shows me kindness.

Paraphrasing:

“Girls don’t like dogs. They don’t like being followed around.” She said. “They want a LION who comes in commands the room. BE THE LION.”

The idea being that I should be confident and forceful in my pursuit of ladies, less hesitant.

But these are things I don’t know how to apply and I feel like most of the ladies who I become attracted to, mostly see me before I get all “FTN” (or “Flirty-Time Nicholas” as I once described my talking-to-girls alter-ego to my teenage students when I assistant-taught a filmmaking class). I’m myself to them and it seems like they accept that and if I think they’re cool and they seem like they accept me, I become that FTN/puppy, wanting to be sweet to them, wanting to be there. Showing that I’m interested and that there’s another side to me.

My stubborn high-school philosophy teaches me that to do otherwise would be self-denial and the backbone of how I’ve lived my life since high school is to never compromise who I am for anything, never try to be anything else, as it could only be deleterious to your self and what you have to offer. This sense that “you have everything you need” is something reinforced by improv and one of the reasons I feel so deeply into it. But in those moments of uncertainty that surround my own loneliness, I wonder what it would be like to change, to be the lion or, in other words: kind of a dick.

That is, moreso than I already am.

But the other bottom line is that now I’m really out there. The traffic on my blog, the twitter followers, some invites to some events, people wanting to interview me or even maybe fly me places.

People paying me to write (that’s pretty great).

But with all this writing, with all this attempts at honesty, comes exposure, which means meeting new people and new people finding you, but also people seeing you and making judgments, living your life, to some degree, online.

How do I react to a thousand more people listening to micro-blogs, a thousand more people saying nice things or a few saying they have crushes, or the ones who want to talk?

Still this whole thing is bigger than me, is too difficult to grasp, is hard to comprehend other than moment-to-moment.

As my father told me: “You’re entering another dimension”.

I can’t explain other than that I keep expecting the other shoe to drop, all these good comments to turn to bad. This too shall pass.

I try not to get used to it.

Except when I’m depressed.

And that’s when I text my playboy friend Dan Berk, after a young lady sends me a pretty picture of herself, while commenting on our 3000-mile distance.

And I say:

“Alright, fuck it, Dan. I’m famous, help me get laid.”

***

It was a whirlwind couple days for me.

I had two shows I performed in the last two days, a class show for my 401 Improv class and a “Sketch Revue” I helped write and acted in, which was also improv-related.

Andrew Parrish showed up to one of them, like a reformed “Batman: The Animated Series” villain, attempting to pay his debt to society.

At the 401 show, I did my best, playing one of a pair of pirates who eventually go to Ikea and pick up some “hoes” in the food court, but inevitably I felt crappy.

Even when my teacher Will Hines gave me two compliments, I couldn’t even hear him, only hearing the compliments he gave to others, thinking how much funnier they were and how I wished those compliments had been given to me.

That Will actually seemed to like what I did didn’t even settle in, until a few hours later, at which point I just decided to leave it and give up any notion of feeling good.

As I told my former teacher, Ashley Ward, when she wrote that nice comment to me from the last blog post, “What you said to me was right, but it doesn’t mean I’ll stop ragging. It just means they’ll be that other voice there, telling me to stop.”

But I did stop, eventually.

I took a great class with an improv teacher named Joe Bill, who seemed for all his guru-ness, to be a really sweet guy who, like any good improviser, noticed my nervousness and went out of his way to try to make me feel comfortable, which I’d be lying if I said I didn’t appreciate.

But the biggest treat was on Monday, after I performed the sketch show that I’ll be performing for the rest of the month, crazily, at the Magnet Theater for about 5 people (“You guys shouldn’t worry.” My funny classmate Clark told us all before the show. “It’s just Rich Dery out in the audience and he’s all full of sympathy chuckles.”), when our teacher Armando Diaz congratulated us on the show and offered to go out drinking with us afterwards.

I don’t want to get too much into it, because Armando, who I serially call “Teach” as I do the teachers I respect, strikes me as kind of a shy guy. But he’s been very kind to me, in my studies with him.

A revered coach and teacher, Armando founded the Magnet where I’ve taken so many classes. He taught Ed Helms, Rob Riggle, Paul Scheer and so many more. He invented many of the improv techniques and adapted others that all the New York improvisers use. He’s respected by everyone in the community here, he’s wrote for the UCB TV show and more.

But he’d also reply to my emails about being unsure about whether I could write sketches. He’d console me when I’d show up to class and my job was treating me–and making me feel like–crap. He let me into a level 2 class after I didn’t write anything funny in level 1, because he told me he “believed” in me. He even read and got back to me about my crappy sketches before I had a meeting with my agents, whose desk they might well be still sitting on.

At every step of the way, he’s been kind to me when he didn’t have to. He has all this experience and respect, but is happy and accessible and makes others feel so too. When he told us all that our show went great after the few laughs we got from few people, it went great to all of us, there was no arguing.

If Armando said it, it was true.

When we went out drinking, we took turns buying Armando beers and quizzing him on questions and he told us stories from back in the day and smiled and relaxed. It turned out he was a film school grad like me, once, who didn’t know what to do with his degree or his career.

When Noel, the way-too-cute Personal Trainer/PhD candidate in my class/show, told him that she loved the community he’d built at the Magnet, the way people all seemed to like and support each other. I told Armando:

“It’s like a film set. The crew and the actors look to the director. And if he’s happy and calm, so are they.”

And Armando, ex-film-schooler, agreed.

Later that night, I went to see the Mantzoukas Brothers show, pictured above, back at the same stage I’d performed on earlier.

As I sat in the front row, I found myself surrounded by the friends I’d made since I’d started classes there, the people who respected me and who I dug in turn. And there we were for that ridiculous show, with those funny improvisers on stage, all sitting together in a row, laughing till midnight.

“That’s what this stuff is supposed to be about.” Armando said, sipping a Stella at the Triple Crown. “Being friendly and supportive and laughing. I just hope that’s what happening.”

That night, at least, it was.

***

Now that I am a semi-professional food-blogger, I feel like my bench is pretty shallow for eats.

Yes, I know that I have a horde of people telling me to “be myself” and not change, but the truth is, ladies and germs: most of us eat the same thing or varieties on it, every day.

It’s a matter of convenience, taste and location.

Add to that that now I have some insane number of twitter followers I feel obligated to cater to and there’s not much left for me to write here that hasn’t been done.

But fuck it, I’ll talk about it anyway.

Even though my Improv 401 class at the UCB is a big source of stress for me, it did give me a good opportunity to go over to the Madison Square Eats event, where normally I’d have no excuse.

A big part of “food-questing”, as I call it, is finding an excuse to go somewhere, making the best of your errands and turning them into opportunities to visit places you wouldn’t normally. In this way, I saved (for myself) several family vacations.

The Madison Square Eats event takes place next to Shake Shack over by Madison Square Park and features my local Calexico Cart as well as stands by several of the neighborhood and outlying restaurants including Home on 8th, Illili and a rare Manhattan outing of Roberta’s Pizza.

As I perused the place in that Saturday 11-o’clock hour before class, I saw a tent from Eataly, Batali/Bastianich’s nearby clusterfuck which is usually impossible to even walk into, let alone eat at. Though most of the things on the menu were pork-related (as my ex-roommate John Weeke would tell me “In Italy, chicken is something someone would cook for you at their house.”), they offered some deep-fried chickpeas, tossed with tomato powder and garlic.

They arrived crispy and hollow, like potato chips, crunchy to the bite and plentiful in a cone, with that nice little bit of spice.

They provided good sustenance for the inevitable hard-decision-making that followed, looking for which real-meal to get among all the craziness.

When I finally decided, the chickpeas were gone, with minimal stomach damage to impede the coming sandwich.

I skipped out of the festival as the noon hour hit, stopping only to pick up a “dozen half-cookies” from Momofuku Milk Bar to bribe my 401 classmates.

And the same classmate who told me “this is best cookie I’ve ever had” told me “you were really funny” after our the show the next day.

Genius, man.

Cookies.

***

MADISON SQUARE EATS

From Eataly- Deep-Fried Chickpeas- $3

From Momofuku Milk Bar- “dozen half-cookies” or 6-Cookie Assortment- $11

Broadway bet. 24th and 25th Sts.

NR to 23rd St. F to 23rd St. 6 to 23rd St-Park Ave.