Connecting with the Masters

The past few days have been very improv-heavy, a few days ago. I feel, right now, that I’m advancing but also not going anywhere simultaneously. The Big City Improv Festival began last Friday. This festival is the biggest improv festival in the country and after two years of unsuccessfully applying, I finally got in. If at first you don’t succeed and all that.

BCIF has workshops. Sweet, glorious workshops. And despite the variety, I signed up for only one, because it was pretty expensive and I knew I was likely going to be out of town the following weekend. So, I took the one led by Scott Adsit. It was called “Keeping it Real.” He did not name it.

The structure of the workshop was pretty simple. Warm-up, duo scenes. After each scene, Baymax himself gave us notes. Except the notes he gave were the best, most effective notes I’ve received. To give you a comparison, the last class I took, the INSTRUCTOR, the person who gets PAID, to TEACH & GIVE NOTES on performance, had us perform a montage. Before we began, he threw away his notebook and pen told us SPECIFICALLY he would not be taking notes. Which to me says: “Do your thing, I’m going to check out for the next 20 minutes, see ya.” Scott Adsit, someone who has VERY little invested in a few improv nerds from Toronto, took extensive notes, and dropped them like bombs on those of us who listened. Some of the notes were simple, yet brilliant; “There is no should’ve, there’s only could’ve!” Some were EXTREMELY personal (I’m looking at you divorce attorney’s office scene,) but all were incredibly helpful. You know it’s been a good workshop when the thing culminates in a group hug, is all I’m saying.

I learned how I feel as though I am accepting offers, sometimes, but am not really acting on them. I justify in my mind that I have accepted the offer, but often delay actual action, which is what the scene actually needs. After tamyhe workshop, I reviewed one scene in particular of Exit Pursued by a Bear‘s, which we performed in Halifax, where bridesmaid Gill asked male store
clerk Brie to zip up her dress. I found a million ways to not zip up her dress, and justified the shit out of all of them, when all I really needed to do, was just zip up that mother flippin’ dress!

<—— REMINDER

I then watched the masters, Adsit & Lutz, in action on Sunday. They performed a mind-blowing set together in which not a single offer was dropped. They were both in such synch. After a weekend of thinking a LOT about improv, it was great to see it done so well. But it was also fun to see how pros dealt with mistakes (see: gifts) – like that moment Adsit mentioned something about his mother doing something, after previously stating that mother was in fact dead. He loved it. We loved it. Love your mistakes. Embrace the fuck-ups. It’s the only way!

Speaking of masters in action, I was fortunate enough to acquire a ticket to see Sir Paul McCartney‘s show last Saturday evening, (thank you Martha.) I saw the real-life, actual Beatle, Paul McCartney. It was this wonderful feeling of being at the same moment fully present, but also strongly connected to a time before your own. Just seeing all these people, mostly around Paul’s age, singing along to songs we’ve heard for years but, let me assure you, there is nothing in the world quite like singing Let it Be with almost 20,000 other people, one of whom is the ACTUAL MAN singer/songwriter of that very song! It’s incredible. I feel like the main descriptor I can use to quantify the night is: goosebumpy. He sang a song honouring John, mentioning things he wishes he’d said to him before he died, and we all sang Something together in George’s memory. It was super powerful stuff. The grade 5 in me, who watched The Beatles Anthology over and over again for months over that one March break my parents went on a cruise, came out and sucked on the gracious apple juice that was this concert and she liked it very much indeed.The grown up in me was blown away by how talented a singer/songwriter he is and how fantastic it must be to have a career span so long doing something so awesome that people everywhere adore.

So I’m inspired now. I’ve seen some pretty rockin’ stuff in the span of one short weekend. And we’re about to begin another one already. Let’s see what it brings.

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For those interested parties, this was Paul’s set list Saturday night at the ACC:

  1. Eight Days a Week
  2. Save Us
  3. Got to Get You Into my Life
  4. One After 909
  5. Temporary Secretary
  6. Let Me Roll It
  7. Paperback Writer
  8. My Valentine
  9. Nineteen Hundred and Eighty-Five
  10. The Long and Winding Road
  11. Maybe I’m Amazed
  12. I’ve Just Seen a Face
  13. FourFiveSeconds
  14. We Can Work It Out
  15. Another Day
  16. And I Love Her
  17. Blackbird
  18. Here Today
  19. New
  20. Queenie Eye
  21. Lady Madonna
  22. All Together Now
  23. Lovely Rita
  24. Eleanor Rigby
  25. Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!
  26. Something
  27. Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da
  28. Band on the Run
  29. Back in the U.S.S.R.
  30. Let it Be
  31. Live and Let Die (SO MANY PYROTECHNICS!) 
  32. Hey Jude
  33. Another Girl <— ENCORE
  34. Hi, Hi, Hi
  35. I Saw Her Standing There
  36. Yesterday <–— ENCORE 2
  37. Mull of Kintyre (with a full Pipe band!)
  38. Helter Skelter
  39. Golden Slumbers
  40. Carry That Weight
  41. The End

 

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Humour and Remembrance

I just wanted to write a little follow-up, albeit a late one, about the First World War themed improv show I held with co-producer Aaron Peever on Vimy Ridge Day, this past April 9th.

One of my huge concerns about the show was that people, especially the performers, would take it seriously. And, I know the reason I was concerned. I was met with a certain defensive suspicion whenever I mentioned the idea to people. I could tell the instinctive reaction was something along the lines of  a “how dare you make fun of people who sacrificed their lives for our freedom?”-mentality, which I think is certainly reflective of the way we’re expected to feel about most military action nowadays. Either you’re you support the troupes, or you hate Canada, right? And making jokes about the War sure doesn’t sound like supporting the troupes!

Here’s the thing. I hand-picked the improvisers to play in this show based on one fact: their knowledge of First World War history. Some of the cast weren’t even improvisers, but were excited by the opportunity to give their knowledge of history a new platform. In fact, most of the improvisers I asked leapt at the opportunity to play in this world, to combine their knowledge with their amazing abilities to create realistic relationships, characters and scenes specifically within the realm of that era. I mean, some of them were pretty stoked to history-nerd out! (Myself included.)

The platform was wonderful. I chose this cast because I knew they would not mock the War. They would create characters and scenes within the very real context of the War based entirely on their historical knowledge of the events in question and their respect and appreciation of its history. The characters they chose were real. The scenarios, likely, given the context. The result; pure unbridled silly awesomeness. NOT mockery.

We’re all so sensitive to political correctness now, I felt like I was walking on eggshells producing a show based on events that took place nearly ONE HUNDRED YEARS ago!  The more I thought about it, the more I came to wonder why people didn’t really get it. And here’s what I came up with.

1) People, in general, aren’t familiar with longform improvisation, or any improvisation for that matter that doesn’t follow the Whose Line Is it Anyway? model they’ve seen over the years on TV. This, to me, is tragic. Longform improv at its core is about playing real, honest characters and having them tell a story and transport you to a place and a time that, when done correctly, will have you in disbelief that it’s all made up on the spot, but also, in stitches. The scenes last much longer than what you’ve come to expect out of Whose Line, which allows for more time to create very realistic world right there on stage.

2) People have short memories. We’re certainly not the first people to make comedy about the First World War (or any war for that matter; look how many movies came out of Vietnam, and what about M*A*S*H, set in Korea? That show was on the air for over 10 years!)

But, specifically regarding  WW1, how about the greats? Here’s some Monty Python for your faces:

Hell, during the Great War itself, Canada had its own group of comedians who would entertain the troops with their vaudeville act, which went onto Broadway after the end of the War!

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The horrors these soldiers faced during the war are not something we want to mock. Quite the opposite. Why not use humour as a way to help people REMEMBER the war, rather than making people paranoid about even talking about it, lest they express some criticism that might make them seem unpatriotic?

If you still don’t catch my drift, come to Toronto on June 6th, and watch this amazing group of improvisers storm the beaches and pay homage, in our own special way, to the Canadians in WW2.

For King and Country – Vimy Ridge Day at SoCap

Tonight, I’m producing an improv show which brings together my love of improvisation as well as my passion for World War One history. For those of you who did not know me before moving to France, I was once (or twice, or four times) a Tour Guide at the Vimy National Canadian War Memorial, in France.

The whole experience had an extremely profound impact on my life and today, on the 98th Anniversary of the Four Canadian Divisions storming the ridge, all together in formation for the first time in our history, I and several of my hilarious colleagues, will be presenting:

WWIMprov

All funds raised will be going to the Vimy Foundation and Wounded Warriors Canada.

It’s a worthy cause, so…

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Watch Sunnyside, Damnit!

Do yourself (and me) a favour and watch Sunnyside. It premiered tonight, and it was super funny, super original and super Canadian.

It reminded me of that improv game Goon River, except, they weren’t speaking in monologues, but it IS about town filled with fun, quirky characters. Although nobody died… so… maybe not so much like Goon River…Oh no wait. Someone died.  Cool.  Totally like Goon River.

Anyway… I really liked it! And not only because I know the creators, writers and cast personally and am super proud of their hard work not only being produced, but finding a broadcast home amidst a dark period of TV history in which few networks are willing to take chances on new ideas in general, let alone great sketch comedy ideas.

The show is co-created by Gary Pearson (who, if you’re a reader of this blog, directed a sketch show I was in back at Humber called #cliché: based on the novel Push by Sapphire) so… it’s cool, we tight. I think I also reviewed one, if not both of his novels here as well. What I’m saying is, I’m a fan.

The cast and writers are ALL people I’ve seen CRUSH around Toronto’s live comedy scene. Stand-up, improv, sketch. You name it, they’re made me laugh doin’ it. I’m super excited for this show, and I’m super excited for all the talented people involved/responsible for it.

Now YOUR job, reader, is to go watch the darn thing and enjoy it. That way, they can keep making it, and maybe more opportunities will arise for the hardworking hilarious people trying to make a living making YOU laugh! It’s a win win!

Is this too ranty for a post about a silly sketch comedy show?  Meh. I don’t care.

Watch Sunnyside, damnit.

Don Ferguson’s Centennial Project

This post is several weeks in the making – this past January 30th, a Canadian comic icon, Don Ferguson, of the epically successful Royal  Canadian Air Farce came to speak to the students of the Humber School of Comedy.

Here’s what I got out of it:

When I got the music, I got a place to go!

The Air Farce got their start back in old days of r-a-dio…. radio.  Is that how you pronounce that?  Radio?  Ferguson and the late Roger Abbott met in Montreal, where they began performing sketch comedy together in front of live audiences.  They would perform in theatres before they got picked up to do radio, which was advantageous to them because they learned by the reception of the audience what went well, what didn’t go so well and ultimately what worked.

It was then that they understood how much the audience wanted topical, current material. *For those of you who don’t remember, Ferguson took the role of many a politician on Air Farce, including this one:*

(Oddly enough, a similar reaction to that which I had when leaving Ottawa.)

Here’s what you could do with a live audience and with radio vs. on TV with a laugh track:

  • You can hear the audience laughing;
  • You can be plugged in to what they think is funny & relevant;
  • You can go more places (it’s almost like animation the amount of places you can go! But CHEAPER!)
  • Radio gets into people’s head & taps into their imagination;
  • Did I mention how much cheaper it is than TV?  Because it’s cheaper.

Ferguson mentioned how comedy, and particularly Air Farce’s TV sketches, demands precision.  Something can be funny if written a certain way, but then if you re-word it, the message won’t come across quite as clearly.  THIS is something extremely relevant to all aspects of writing for comedy, and probably especially to stand-up.  I’m currently in the process of conducting some massive edits to my stand-up bits.  It’s true, sometimes it hurts to kill your babies, or at least to dismember them, but it ends up with more laughs, then bye bye toesies!

Don Ferguson’s method for making it as a comedian in Canada:

  1. Get a show

  2. Be a hit

  3. Remain a hit

It’s as easy as that!   The pressure, he said, isn’t off as soon as you get a show.

Get a Show

“You can’t let up for a MOMENT.  It’s like being a pro-athlete.”

Crossing the Border = Security

If any of us Humber kids are in the mindset that comedy will provide us with any kind of job security, Ferguson reminded us that his longest contract was one of five years.  That’s it.  Everything else was shorter than that, normally one or two-year contracts with Air Farce.  That might make some people nervous, but Ferguson believes security can breed complacency in a business like this one.  The anxiety, fear and nervousness is what a comedian needs to stay sharp.

How’s that for noble, eh?

Ferguson and Abbott were asked to work on the American sit-com TAXI, but they declined as they’d realized “what Air Farce was doing on Radio was more important to [Canadian] listeners than ANY sitcom would mean to US viewers.”

Writing for Andy Kaufman would have been pretty... fun?

___

At this point, we skipped into a Q&A with Ferguson in which he gave us tips, tricks, encouragement and advice.  Because I pay so much for tuition, I’m going to keep this segment of our Prime Time with Don Ferguson private.  If you want more details, be sure to check this book out; a work that will serve to remind us how relevant; how important Air Farce really was for Canadians ever since their days back in R-A-D-I-O.

... no big deal. (!!!)

(Next on the schedule… Brie needs to dye her hair again!)