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February 7, 2011

We Now Present: Our Sketch Comedy MVPs!
by WomenInComedy - 0

Interviewed for WICF by former ImprovBoston Head Writer David Mogolov.


What happens when you put three writers together and ask them to talk? Listen in, as ImprovBoston's very first Head Writer, the estimable Sara Faith Alterman, and ImprovBoston's current Head Writer, the audacious Laura Clark, talk comedy, holiday shows, and those inevitable annoying questions with IB's former Head Writer, David Mogolov.

WICF:
How did you first get involved with ImprovBoston?

SFA: I met Artistic Director Will Luera in a writing class at Second City in Chicago, in 2003. At the time, I was living in Myrtle Beach, SC. And by "living," I mean "wasting my life/money/liver/magical early-20s metabolism." I'd been obsessed with sketch comedy for a long time, but had never tried writing it, mostly because there weren't many opportunities to do it in Myrtle Beach. Plus, I was too busy bartending at Applebee’s to think much about life goals. ANYway, I decided to do a "boot camp" Level I class at Second City, and was thrilled to discover that I was pretty good at writing comedy. And that there were people who thought I was funny; specifically, this laid back but hilarious dude from Boston, named Will. We bonded one night after he watched me get shitfaced and make out with another classmate, and then when I moved back to Boston a year later, he asked if I wanted to write a show for IB. It went well, and Will mentioned that he'd been thinking about bringing on a Head Writer, and would I want to do it? I don't think he even finished asking me the question before I said yes.

Laura: I dropped out of UMass to go to Chicago and "try to do comedy," but I was so preoccupied with surviving my first year in the real world that I wasn't doing any comedy.

He'd been thinking about bringing on a Head Writer, and would I want to do it? I don't think he even finished asking me the question before I said yes. –Sara Faith Alterman


One night I made a post on LiveJournal (remember LiveJournal?) in which I briefly mentioned, over and over, that I was desperately lonely and without any creative outlet. Misch Whitaker, a friend from UMass and current IA Mainstager, left a comment on my post that said, "ImprovBoston is just starting to do sketch comedy. Move here, and be with your friends, and do sketch comedy in Boston. Also, my friend and I need a third roommate."

So I moved, and the week I got here I got a job doing tech and box office at the old IB in Inman Square. That helped me meet a lot of people. I took the sketch classes too, which is how I met my writing partner and formed The Dowry.

WICF: What's your ritual response to the question, "Wait, you're the head writer at an improv theater? Isn't that the easiest job ever?"

Laura: Honestly, if I weren't a representative of IB, it would be the old "3-second dead-eyed stare, followed by walking away." That's what people get when they see me picking up dog poop and say, "Shows you who's really in charge!" Such rude things to say, disguised as small talk. Just say nothing, douchers.

However, I am a representative of IB, so I usually respond by letting people know that ImprovBoston is actually a comedy theater, that we offer sketch and stand-up and have a film team. Then I talk about upcoming sketch department events for as long as they'll let me.

SFA: Oh. My. God. I hated that question so much. You have to understand that not only am I an incredibly sensitive person, but there was a lot of resistance, at the time, to the idea of writing material by any method other than just kind of improvising dialogue until it resembled a script. I wanted to take a more "academic" approach to the process based on my education at Second City (I kept studying at their NYC training center once I moved back to Boston), and Will had me work individually with each of the house casts to develop sketch shows. The shows all turned out great, but the process was painful. In hindsight, I think I was just being overly sensitive and shy about the whole thing, but I felt like such an outsider. I don't have an improv background, and at that point didn't even have much of a writing background, so I was really insecure about my ability to head up a writing program. Did I digress? I did. Sorry. My ritual response to that question was to awkwardly laugh in forced agreement, then to go home and cry while my mom made me macaroni and cheese.

Boston is a city where improv is really treated like an art in its own right, not just a tool for actors and writers. –Laura Clark


WICF: Who's the funniest person in America right this minute? This question is so that readers can disregard everything you say later if they disagree with you.

Laura: Just one? That's impossible! There are so many kinds of humor, it would be absurd to — oh wait, wait, never mind, it is Louis CK.

SFA: I love you David, but that's an impossible question to answer. There are so many people doing innovative things with comedy right now that I can't possibly pinpoint one over anyone else. Plus, I don't feel like there are any comedians (or any type of artist) who "can do no wrong" and be 100% funny 100% percent of the time. That being said, I will tell you who has made my comedy bits tingle lately: The Gregory Brothers (the dudes and lady behind "Autotune the News"), Kristen Schaal, Jenny Slate ("Bestie by Bestie" makes me PEE. MY. PANTS.), MC Mr. Napkins (aka Zach Sherwin), and Reggie Watts.

WICF: Writing comedy alone vs. writing comedy collaboratively. Discuss! OK. Let's narrow the discussion: Laura, you also write and perform stand up. Sara, you're a journalist and novelist. Clearly, you both know how to write in isolation, which is the standard model. How does it compare to writing sketch comedy, which is inherently a group process?

SFA: They're both so fucking difficult. Writing alone is lonely but satisfying, because you're not arguing with anyone but yourself about which jokes are working, and which are crap. But of course, the beauty of collaboration is the opportunity to work with others to build a joke to its absolute apex.

SFA, and Friend.
I find collaborative writing to be kind of a necessary evil. Whether I'm working with an editor on a book or an article, or working with fellow writers to craft a scene, it can be an incredibly fragile process. I'd like to think that I've gotten beyond the point of being melodramatically wounded if somebody doesn't like my ideas, but it still sucks to be told that your flashes of brilliance are actually kind of lame. And it super sucks to try and convince someone else that their idea for a line or a scene isn't as funny as they think it is.

With the right people, however, collaborative writing can be near-orgasmic. I say "the right people" and I mean, of course the right people for your respective creative style. I, for example, tend to work really, really well with people who are able to just spit out a million general ideas without having to stop and dissect each one as it comes out of their mouth. It's my favorite way to collaborate — to just riff and riff until everyone's out of breath, and THEN go back to sort of sift out the gristle, leaving only the best ideas on the table. But, some people are annoyed by that style. To work with someone who's so free with their ideas is liberating for me, because I will write and rewrite and rewrite the same sentence 30 times until the cadence of it is perfect. I like to balance out that linguistic neurosis with a collaborator who just spews ideas.

Laura: I'm a pretty big fan of writing in isolation, in that it gives me unlimited time to write one line, say it out loud (or under my breath if I'm in public, but still with my mouth noticeably moving), stare at it, rephrase it, replace the nouns with wackier nouns, decide those nouns make me sound like I'm forcing wackiness, and ultimately go with the line I wrote in the first place.

With The Dowry, a lot of our sketches are the result of group brainstorms, but we usually go off and write sketches by ourselves, then bring them to the table for a group edit. I think this gets the best results for us — it would be really hard for all six of us to sit down and write a sketch together, but like Sara said, bouncing ideas around in a group heightens the material to a level that it just wouldn't reach if it all came out of one person with one brain of ideas.

I'm also starting to notice, as I get more comfortable with stand up, that the audience can really be sort of a "writing partner." If they laugh harder at a joke than I expected, I'll keep riffing on that joke until the laughter stops. I used to write out every word of every bit, and rephrase it a million times, even the set-ups. Now I'm spending more and more of my stage time really trying to respond to the audience, and I've come up with a lot of jokes onstage, which has always seemed very daunting to a near non-improviser such as myself.

I'd also like to make sure we keep seeing great sketch comedy represented in the Mainstage theater, and raise awareness of SketchHaüs, which is every Friday at 9 p.m. in the [ImprivBoston] Studio. –Laura Clark


WICF: What's the most difficult comedy writing experience you've been involved in? Feel free to use pseudonyms and composite characters in your answer.

Laura: I've found myself in a number of variations on this situation: I'm involved in a comedy show. I know it could be better. No one else involved takes me seriously enough to care what I have to say, and/or they take themselves too seriously to be open to input. This has been especially frustrating when I've been a performer in a sketch that is a flat-out embarrassment to perform. But those have also been some of my proudest moments as a performer — doing offensive[ly unfunny] shit with as much enthusiasm and pride as I would an amazing scene.

SFA: I had an absolutely evil experience working on a sketch show a few years ago. My co-writers and I could not agree on a single thing, and one of them would fight the rest of us on literally every single word. The enraged passion this person experienced over semantics was just mind-blowing. No exaggeration — we suggested that the word "darn" be changed to "damn" and it unleashed a vengeful beast forged from lava and brimstone and paper cuts incurred from the pages of rejected scenes. Sadly, our friendship suffered for it.

WICF: If you could redo something from your tenure as IB's head writer, what would it be?

Laura: David, I'm still within my tenure! If I answer this, I'm gonna have to do it!

I would really like to find a consistent time and place each month to hold writing workshops with members of the IB writing community. I've held three writing workshops at the theatre in the 13 months since I've been head writer, which is a few less than my initial goal of 13.

I'd also like to make sure we keep seeing great sketch comedy represented in the Mainstage theater, and raise awareness of SketchHaüs, which is every Friday at 9 p.m. in the Studio.

SFA: I should have taken some improv classes, so that I could get into the heads of the artists I was working with. I used to get so frustrated by people who couldn't stick to a script — I felt like it was an injustice to all of the work the writers had put in, to use a script just as kind of a suggestion for what to say. It wasn't until I started studying improv — years AFTER I left ImprovBoston — that I began to understand that creative methodology. Oops.

I'd like to think that I've gotten beyond the point of being melodramatically wounded if somebody doesn't like my ideas … –Sara Faith Alterman


WICF: What exactly is Will Luera up to?

Laura: Well I know he just got a job in Burlington — so that, plus also hopefully he is returning to his old ways of not noticing when I let e-mail communications lag for weeks at a time. Gllllll. [Tugs collar uncomfortably.]

SFA: Oh, probably catching up on e-mails from 2009.

WICF: All three of us have taken on the beast that is the ImprovBoston “Holiday Spectacular.” Tell me in excruciating detail how that went down, and Laura, tell me how yours ended up so much better than any that had ever come before it.

SFA: I LOVE THE “HOLIDAY SPECTACULAR.” The 2004 production was my very first show with IB, and it was that experience that really made me fall in love with the theater. I did it for ... let me think ... four years? Something like that. Actually, it was also my last show at IB, so my stint as Head Writer kind of came full circle.

This is a great example of a show that used to be kind of slapped together, half-written and half-improvised, and over time transformed into a really polished signature IB production. Yes, it was stressful and crazy, but the Holiday Spectacular sort of became, for me, an emblem of the holiday season. I have no idea how it's done now, but the last “Holiday Spectacular” I did was a three-act play, each act telling a different holiday story in an unusual way. Don Schuerman wrote "The Night Before Christmas" in the gloriously filthy style of David Mamet; Paul Dome wrote the typical Christmas pageant "No Room at the Inn" story as a live portrayal of a Charlie Chaplin-style silent film (David Marino directed the hell out of it, it was amazing); and then I wrote and directed the Hanukkah Story as a film noir. I look back on that show and I think, hell yes. That shit was really good.

Laura: In June, Don Schuerman offered the show to The Dowry. We agreed to open it to the cast and students of the Sketch Department, since we knew we would need a larger cast, and I saw this show as an opportunity to show prospective writers and students (as well as the ImprovBoston community at large) how talented and hilarious the sketch community is at IB.

I had already been thinking that it was time for a tribute to Love Actually, the greatest holiday romance of our time, and The Dowry (which, I should mention, is 66% female) was totally on board for it — not only because it's the best and most charming and romanci-est and foot-sweeping-est and Alan Rickman, but also because having a hook like that was a big help in getting press for the show when it was time to start marketing. I'm a really big fan of the connected storylines in that movie, and we decided to go for the same thing in our show (working title: “Christ Definitely.”)

We planned to have the show written by the end of July, and then revise it over August and start rehearsing in September. What really happened was, we finished the first draft of the script on Labor Day, and continued revising it through opening night.

Laura Clark!
I sent an e-mail in June soliciting performers, and we ended up with a cast of 10, including members of The Ruckus and The Daft Agenda, as well as students from the writing program. We also got Brendan Mulhern, who's done tech for almost every Dowry show, to sign on as our tech, and we wrote him into the show as well (with Josh Poirier, who came on later to help with our somewhat major tech requirements). Melissa Carubia from MOSAIC sent me a great holiday song she had written, and she ended up scoring and recording the accompaniment for all the amazing songs in our show.

We started rehearsing in the middle of September, and met once a week through the beginning of December. Tech week was a beast, but by opening night we were really solid.

I attribute the show's success to a few things: We started six months before opening night. We had a very clear hook with the Love Actually tie-in, and that helped us get a lot of press. We had the poster and promo videos ready early, so that people were aware of the show well before they were thinking about buying tickets. And Melissa's music really made “Love Seasonally” a true Spectacular, and kept the energy up.

But what made the show itself so good, is that we had a team of 13 extremely talented people, all of whom were completely dedicated to making this show a success. There was truly no drama within the cast — we left every rehearsal laughing and excited about how good this show was going to be. Because all of us had the goal of supporting each other and making the show great, rather than simply getting our individual glory, everyone's input was extremely valuable and the result was a show created by 13 minds.

WICF: Sara: how's the comedy scene different in San Francisco? Laura: what do people not know about Boston's?

SFA: To be honest with you, I have no idea. I walked away from comedy writing when I left IB, though I'm really eager to get back into it now that I've had some time to miss it. It seems like San Francisco has a lot more going on, in terms of the number of troupes and comedy theaters, but there isn't really a central hub for these groups, like there is in Boston. IB has long been, thanks in large part to Will, sort of a galvanizing tool for local improv comedians and improv/sketch troupes. It's a terrific performance and educational resource for people of all levels of experience. To my knowledge, San Francisco is more of a free-for-all, without one organization or theater taking the reigns to provide a cooperative space. Maybe that should be my next business venture.

Laura: Boston has been seen for a long time as a great city for stand up, but most people probably don't know that it's becoming a great improv city. ImprovBoston and Improv Asylum have been in the area for decades, but with IB hosting the relatively new Harold Night, Boston Improv Festival, and Women in Comedy Festival, Boston is attracting great improv groups and teachers and improvisers from around the country are just starting to realize that Boston is a city where improv is really treated like an art in its own right, not just a tool for actors and writers.

I've also seen a lot of great, fresh new sketch comedy groups pop up recently — I think Boston has a way to go before it's a city where sketch really flourishes, but it IS a city where great sketch comedy is being made.

WICF: What sketches do you never, ever, ever want to see, ever again? For me, it's any scene in a therapist's office.

Laura: Someone's coming out to his parents ... BUT NOT BECAUSE HE'S GAY! BECAUSE HE'S SOMETHING ELSE! BUT IT'S TREATED THE SAME AND HIS DAD BLAMES HIS MOM BUT REALLY HE WAS JUST BORN THAT WAY!! I can overlook it from a college sketch group, because it shows a [presumably new] writer getting a handle on sketch formatting. Past college, it's just lazy, and almost always offensive.

SFA: Any scene that involves a woman talking or behaving like an over-the-top whore, in a misguided attempt to be "edgy" or "in your face." Put your vag away and say something interesting, for Christ's sake.



About Sara Faith Alterman:
A Boston native and current San Francisco resident/enthusiast, Sara Faith Alterman is the author of My 15 Minutes and Tears of a Class Clown, and contributing writer to the New York Times bestseller Not Quite What I Was Planning: Six-Word Memoirs by Writers Famous and Obscure. She writes regularly for Bridesmaiding and The Bold Italic, and performs in (and co-produces the Boston chapter of) the acclaimed stage show Mortified.

SFA has worked as a staff writer for The Boston Phoenix, a contributing writer for Stuff magazine, an on-air personality at WFNX radio, and was the inaugural Head Writer at ImprovBoston. She sings in the a cappella group The Clef Divers and is obsessed with dumplings, ponies, clever cocktails, and her two amazing rescue dogs, Murphy and Noodle.


About Laura Clark:
Laura Clark is a stand-up and sketch comedian. She is Director of the Comedy Writing Program at ImprovBoston, where she recently produced the holiday comedy, Love Seasonally, with her sketch group The Dowry. She debuted her one-woman show, UnBadass, in January, and hopes to travel with it, perhaps as far as Worcester. Her work with The Dowry can be seen at www.dowrycomedy.com and her stand up can be seen at www.youtube.com/LauraClarkComedy.



David Mogolov has been writing and performing comedic monologues in Boston since 2002. He was the Head Writer guy at ImprovBoston in 2008 and 2009, where he remains a member of the sketch comedy group The Ruckus. His newest one-person show, There Is No Good News, is playing in New York from February 24-March 6. Read all about it at www.mogolov.com.
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