Thursday, October 1, 2009

That's Showbiz

Thursday night in Stately Brooklyn Baby Daddy Mansions. The crew is asleep, the apartment has heat, thank god. I just did a bunch of dishes and watched a little TV. I watched "Weekend Update," "Parks & Recreation" and "The Office."

Now, this might sound like a passive night on the couch, but TV will never be exactly the same for me as it was 10 years ago, before I did improv. Because it can be guaranteed that in almost every hip, edgy comedy show, and in many of the commercial breaks for such shows, I will see someone featured that I either knew, met or saw perform live many times in New York. All this is because from 2000 to 2003 or so I was fairly immersed in New York's improv comedy scene, specifically through the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater, The PIT and, later, The Magnet Theater.

The UCBT was first. I went to it in late 1999, having been a fan of the TV show. I called the theater and they told me there was something called "Harold Night" going on, which I learned, over the phone was a form of improv. I had no idea what that meant, as my only experience with improv was in college, and that was from watching it.

But I had nothing doing, it was a Thursday, and the show as cheap, maybe $7. I showed up to a shoebox theater that was at most half full. Then a bunch of teams got on stage and blew my mind. I can't remember all the performers I saw that night, but I do remember one named Rob, though I didn't know his name then, because he was so much larger and more commanding than the other people on stage. But I thought all of it was amazingly funny and, like magic, I just couldn't understand how these people could pull off these amazing connections. They seemed impossible.

After the show they announced that you could take classes for this stuff. Sign me up!

I went to Level 1 in early 2000 and right away felt I was terrible at this thing. The people in the class were nice enough, but the talent gap was wide. I enjoyed it, and thought our graduation show went really well, and I performed well, but I didn't go right into Level II, I just didn't feel any urgency about it.

But go into Level II I did. This level almost made me swear off improv altogether. Our instructor was a caustic man named Pat who scared the crap out of me, and the class was filled with talents. We even had an actual stage and film actor in our class, named Fred. He had credits I had heard of, and he seemed very confident on stage.

Others were confident on stage too, while I felt rusty. One was named Ed and even though he had no more experience than I had he immediately took charge, seemingly on sheer confidence. I remember the first scene I saw him do was as a hillbilly gay rapist, and he killed it. Even Pat loved it, and this was a guy, Pat, who once threw an empty coffee cup at me after a particularly craptacular scene. Ed, it should be said, was fairly soft-spoken and approachable off stage.

This might sound like revisionist history, but what made Ed stand out to me, even then, was that he had some kind of aura, an intensity. I knew he was in this, this comedy, all the way. He was in it for the career. At that point he had no career, but I could see that he was going to go for it hard, with all he had.

This was driven home to me one day when I asked what he did outside of class. He did some standup at the Boston Comedy Club, but his main paying gig was as a voiceover guy. In fact he did voiceovers for Burger King. I asked him to do the Burger King voice, and he did. It was instantly recognizable, warm, confident, The Whopper.

I asked him how the whole voice over thing worked, vaguely interested in it, as I was all things related to comedy. He said that if Burger King, for example, hired you for a gig they might call at any time to ask you to come back. There really was no set schedule. So you had to be around, in case they called. If you couldn't make it they gave the gig to someone else, pop, like that. This sunk in: this meant Ed never left the city?

He answered that, yeah, that was pretty much it, he never went anywhere, because he had to be there when the phone rang.

What about leaving town? Trips? Vacations? He looked at me, no, the work was more important. I was stunned. This was Burger King after all, not Shakespeare. But right then I knew that he and I saw this comedy thing very differently. He wasn't just having fun. He wasn't "trying things out" to see if he "liked it." He knew.

There were also other strong and noteworthy improvisers in the class like Dave Lombard and Kevin Hines, both of whom have my admiration to this day.

By contrast I felt at sea for the first half of the class, and wasn't sure, yet again, if I was "cut out" for this whole thing. But again the graduation show was good, and so I went onto Level III. This time something clicked. I loved my class, and felt I was finally starting to get what some of this was all about.

Gradually the UCBT became my life. When I wasn't taking classes, or practicing with my practice group, which became a team, I was seeing shows. And here's where things would impact my television life down the road.

Eight years ago if you went to the UCBT four nights a week, as I sometimes did, you would be almost guaranteed to see, for example, Paul Scheer on stage two to three of those nights. Then I would see that big burly guy as much. Rob Riggle, I learned was his name. There was a sketch team called Naked Babies, who were all astonishing, and always in other stuff. One guy on the team was named Rob Cordry, although they were all amazing. (My favorite was and is Brian Huskey.)

And then on the weekends there was ASSSSSSSCAT, the all-star show featuring the team the Upright Citizens Brigade itself: Amy Poehler, Matt Besser, Matt Walsh and Ian Roberts. Sitting in with them might be Tina Fey, or Rachel Dratch. Or others who wrote for SNL, Conan or what have you. These guys were like The Beatles to me.

This might seem hard to believe but just eight or nine years ago none of these people were really known yet. Tina Fey was almost unrecognizable without her glasses and in a gray sweatshirt. Amy Poehler wasn't yet on SNL. You could catch any of them for less than the cost of a movie, and I sure did.

And while the UCB itself was on its own level, at least to me, there was so much talent at that theater. If you wanted to play spot the future star there were a good 20 names you could have chosen that would have had as much of a chance of becoming showbiz stars as the ones that already have. (Of course many of the people from that era still will.)

I had brushes with many who now are making it. I had a show called "Storytime" and one of the people who signed my mailing list later ended up on "The Office" as their new secretary, replacing Pam. At another show at The Pit I volunteered from the audience and got to do a goofy little scene with Kristen Schaal, later of "Flight Of The Concords." Here there and everywhere I got to either meet, or see perform so many people that later became either stars or at least TV and movie presences. It's made watching the idiot box a bit more personal and a lot more surreal.

Believe me, I am not bragging, it wasn't about me. I just happened to be there, like one of those lucky stiffs who hung around CBGB's back in 1978. Maybe my band never really quite made it but I still am glad I made the scene. It was just that time.

The thing was, I could feel something was happening, I knew things were going to come from this scene. I would try to guess who would go on to do what, but I was mostly wrong. It's like a farmer trying to pick which seed will sprout, it's impossible. (Although I will say the first time I saw Jack McBreyer perform with the team Optimists International I knew, knew, knew he was headed for bigger things. He was just that amazing to watch, that fun, and made it seem so effortless.)

Now all this time later I see Ed, on my TV, every week. He's also on "The Office," and starred in the summer's breakout comedy hit "The Hangover." His last name's Helms of course, and he deserves every bit of his success.

Me? I did a lot of improv but decided that while I may have been more cut out for comedy than I originally thought -- I did end up getting better at it with practice, which is how these things work -- I knew I WASN'T cut out for a life in showbiz. It was too stressful, and I started to become bitter about all the breaks I wasn't getting. This, of course, was ludicrous, because improv owed me nothing. The only way to succeed is to simply become very, very good at it. And to do that you have to be at the theater every night, performing, getting better, having fun. Not because you are worried about the career you don't have, but because you simply love to perform that much. I loved it much less than that, although love it I did.

But from another perspective even if I didn't become an improv, or showbiz, star it gave me everything.

I met Randi through improv in late 2001, and the rest is history, my history. When we got married maybe we should have said "yes and" instead of "I do" on the bima.


Holly said...

That's a great story, Dave. How cool that you got to watch and perform with some of those people.

A few years ago, I took a single improv class in the city. I really enjoyed it, but I never wound up continuing with it, I think because I was at my old job at the time. (I never could make any kind of standing plans at that job.) I had forgotten about that until I read your post, and I recalled the "yes, and..." thing. Thanks for the reminder! Maybe someday I'll try it again. It was fun!

Randi Skaggs said...

I particularly liked the ending. ;-)

You're adorable.

David Serchuk said...

Hi Holly,
Thanks a lot, and yes, it was a blast. I heartily recommend it when you have some time. (And if you thought your old job made it hard to make plans ... )


Randi -- you too, I mean, yes and!