Secret Origin

Before I was in the Chainsaw Boys I wasn’t. This is my way of saying that I was not a founding member. It was however, filled with my friends and I went to see them perform a number of times in the early part of their run.

That summer, it was sometime in the 1990’s, they were doing a ten week run at a space on the lower east side called the candle factory, or perhaps it was the candle room. In any event, it was aptly named, as it was comprised of exposed wooden planks and floorboard and one matchstick away from a horrific blaze. Additionally there was no AC or back entrance. This space is now a very chic restaurant with no fire hazards. Or so I would guess, I can’t afford to eat there.

I was asked if I would do the lights for them one week, which I did. The next week, one of their members, Karen Bergreen, who is now a noted stand-up, could not perform so they asked if I would sub, which I did.

Over the ten week run, I did five shows. A fellow improviser, Todd Stashwick asked me if I was in the Chainsaw Boys to which I replied, “I don’t know, you’d have to ask them.”

At the end of the summer, Mike Bencivenga was asked if he could put together a show for a venue downtown. He asked the Chainsaw Boys and another group to do to short sets, which we did.

While at drinks afterwards, they asked Mike, his then girlfriend Karen, Bethany Pagliolo and myself to join. Consider this the secret origin of the Chainsaw Boys. I guess it’s not really a secret, you can tell whomever you like.

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Posted in Yes and so this happened

The laughter of strangers

Getting people to come see you do improv is a perfect example of the law of diminishing returns. At first, your friends and family are happy, even excited to see you make stuff up on stage. But you will find that their enthusiasm will weaken and disappear with time. You can say to them truthfully that each show is different, but unless they love improv unconditionally, or love you the same way, don’t expect people to consistently come to each show.

This is aggravating and disappointing at first, but you will grow to accept and understand it after a while. Especially if you go to other improv shows. Trust me, you will get it.

Sometimes, you get to perform in front of strangers who know nothing about you and aren’t there out of any obligations. I’m going to share with you one of those rare times.

I was doing a midweek show at a café near Columbia University which was usually sparsely attended. It was no reflection on the performers, all of whom were excellent. Please see my comments above. Our show was in the smaller space on the lower level and that night, the larger space was hosting a banquet for fifty Scottish architecture students who were returning to Edinburgh the next day.

Our director, one Tom Soter, asked their professor if they would like us to do a short show for them after the one we were scheduled to do. He agreed. If he didn’t, this would be a very different sort of story.

So, we came upstairs and did a forty-five minute show. It might seem exhausting to do two shows back to back but a larger and enthusiastic crowd does wonders for your energy level.

We do a variety of short forms, which go over very well and we end with a soap opera. For those of you too young to know what a soap opera is, it’s a Telenovela in English.

Now to humblebrag a bit, I was known for doing an excellent Scottish accent, at least by American standards. So I’m put in the first scene but I don’t do the accent, which makes Tom wonder WTF I’m doing. But I do mention my twin who was brought up in Scotland.

In the next scene, I break out the accent and the place goes nuts! I don’t remember any of the plot, but every time I spoke like a Scotsman, I got huge laughs.

Afterwards, I shook a lot of hands, and one of the students asked me how I learned to speak like that. I told him I watched a lot of TV. His reply was, “Yeah, a lot of crap TV.” That sounds like an insult when written out but his tone wasn’t dismissive. I’m not sure if he was making a comment on the state of Scottish media or TV in general, but he liked the show.
So here’s to crap TV!

Posted in Yes and so this happened

Two worlds collide

This week I’m mashing up my love of improv and haiku. Please enjoy.

In life we say no
On stage, a different story
Yes and all night long

A one word story
Go to the store, see mother
Happens every time

Musical improv
Reverse-engineer your joke
Singing is gravy

Was this a good show
Wow, you are so very brave
Bad show, time to drink

What will you say next
Just pay attention and watch
It is all right there

Posted in Yes and so this happened

Will you accompany me?

Music is a vital part of improv. Not just the singing part, though that’s a very popular element. I’m speaking about, well I suppose it can be called the soundtrack of the show.

The Chainsaw Boys at one point had a four-piece band play with us. Piano, trumpet, guitar and several bags worth of percussion instruments. They supported us in each scene and added that element that brought the show to a higher level.

We were so fortunate to be working with this particular group, who supported us, followed our leads and accented our foolishness with musical spice. They were and are the best.

Now, I have not always been so lucky in improv accompaniment. Earlier in my career, (Is it a career if you can’t make money at it?) I worked with a pianist whom I will not name but let’s just call her Barb.

Barb was an excellent piano player, she clearly made sophisticated musical choices and did them with style and aplomb. What she could not do, was follow me as I sang. As I’ve said before, singing is not the strongest tool on my work belt. However, when there’s a musical form, you have to sing, or at least try to talk sing, which is my default.

After one particularly terrible show, music-wise, Barb told me that I was not following her. And to be honest, I wasn’t and I really couldn’t. All I know about key changes is you do that when you get a new lock. A musical accompanist, if they are even remotely talented, are bullet proof.

If they don’t change the key, or the rhythm or the tempo to accommodate the singer, the singer is the one hung out to dry. The audience is thinking, “Boy that guy was terrible! But the piano player was very good!”

The thing is, the music needs to say yes and as well. Ironically, if it’s done properly, you won’t notice it. So thank you to all those musicians who make the funny people look good, we hear you.

Except Barb. You can shut up.

Posted in Yes and so this happened

In the dead of night

Here’s a little story about when the Chainsaw Boys were down in Austin for the Big Stinkin’ Improv Fest. While it is not specifically about performing, but all the players are improvisers.

This happened, on the first or second night after we arrived. We were all staying at a motel just outside of town, and after a night of enjoying the hospitality of Austin, Mike Bencivenga, whom I was sharing a room with, had come back and sacked out

Sometime after midnight, there’s a knocking at the door. It’s fellow Chainsaw Miriam Sirota. She’s been locked out of her room because of some mixup with her credit card. She asks us if we have any cash.

Now when you are awakened in the dead of the night by a good friend who needs cash, you can do one of two things. Stare at them and ask “wha….?” Or say “Hold on,” and take the money out of your wallet, hand it to your friend and them promptly go back to sleep.

I chose the second option. Now Miriam was fortunate that it was early in our stay so I still had plenty of cash on hand. If not we would’ve knocked on a few more doors and rallied the rest of the Chainsaws.

The next day Miriam told me that was when she knew I was a great person to travel with. A compliment I carry to this day. I like to think that even in the grogginess of being woke up, I can still say Yes And.

Posted in Yes and so this happened

You never forget your first

The first improv show I did was after one class. If that implies I am some sort of prodigy that is far from the truth. Like everyone else, I had to work at the craft of it before I was any good. I do know that referring to the craft of improv is pretentious but I don’t care.

So how did I go from zero experience to doing a show? Completely randomly. I was directing a sketch show and one of the actresses in it was in an improv soap opera. Being a supportive person, I went to see it.

The program was a newspaper, with articles about what happened in the previous shows, including a political cartoon about the town’s mayor who was hated, but kept being reelected.

Weirdly, the image of mayor looked remarkably like me. The producer asked me if I would appear in the season finale as the Mayor. I said yes but I didn’t think it would actually happen.

One week before the last show, I got a phone call asking me to come to an improv class. The next night was the show. Not a lot of prep time but feeling brave or perhaps foolish, I agreed. I can’t remember anything about the class but I do remember the show.

I made a prepared speech and periodically used paper slips, which is when the audience writes random lines of dialogue for the cast to use during the show. I got some laughs and it was far less traumatic than I thought I might be.

After that, I was hooked. I’ve spoken before about falling in love with improv, but this was my metaphorical first kiss. And you never forget your first.

Posted in Yes and so this happened

What makes me what?

I have written before about Noel Katz, our music director, who was with us for as long as the Chainsaw Boys were active. However, occasionally, he was unable to play for us. When that happened, we were honored to have the wonderful Doug Nervik.

Doug was an incredibly talented improviser and accompanist, and a genuinely decent human being. Sadly, we have since lost Doug and the world is poorer for that. While I could write pages and pages about him, today I will share one story that still resonates with the Chainsaw Boys.

We were rehearsing with Doug, specifically going over our musical forms, all of which were unique to us. I’ve mention the Gospel, our show closer before and we always asked for a something that the audience learned. But when we practice, the accompanist provided the suggestion.

Doug gave us, “Peanuts Make Me Fart.”

Because we are all mature, sophisticated, New Yorkers, so of course we all laughed loud and long. I cannot remember what we did with that bon mot but that phrase has lasted longer than most things we did on stage. If one of us says that to another, it never fails to elicit a smile.

I understand that is an inside joke and it might fall into the “you had to be there” category. If so, think of this as a peek behind the curtain, something that we still think of, even years later.

So thank you Doug, you are still missed.

Posted in Yes and so this happened