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May 15, 2013

Geeking Out with...Brian Stack
by Pamela Victor - 0


By Pam Victor

[“Geeking Out with…” is a series of interviews with well-known, highly experienced improvisers. It’s a chance to talk about stuff that might interest hardcore, improv dorkwads like Pam. The series can be found in full frontal geek out version on My Nephew is a Poodle and in pithier version on the Women in Comedy Festival blog. For behind-the-scenes action, ‘like’ the “Geeking Out with…” Facebook page.]


* * *
As is my unfortunate habit, my introduction to Brian Stack of Conan involved me making an ass of myself. I first contacted Brian while researching Rachel Dratch’s early career in preparation for our live interview. In the ‘90s back in Chicago, Brian and Rachel were in a couple troupes together, Gambrinus: King of Beer and Jazz Freddy. During my research, I asked Brian to comment on a juicy quote I read and for some reason attributed to Armando Diaz. I wrote to Brian, “Armando [described] Gambrinus as, ‘less like a legitimate improv group and more like a drunken, undisciplined softball team…. Jazz Freddy was the complete antithesis of Gambrinus in terms of discipline and focus.’ Though he went on to say they had great t-shirts.”

Brian Stack’s response was polite and generous: “I think that quote might have actually been from an interview I did years ago. Maybe I'm wrong, but it seems very familiar. If it was Armando who said that, I certainly agree with every word.”

He was correct. Horrified that I had misquoted Brian Stack to Brian Stack, I apologized. True to his reputation as being the “nicest guy ever,” he was understanding and, yes, very nice.
Stack, the man and the beer 

In addition to being very nice, Brian Stack is enormously talented. During the 1990s heyday of the Chicago improv scene, Brian played on some of the most renown, respected groups at the time, such as Blue Velveeta, Jazz Freddy, and the original cast of The Armando Diaz Theatrical Experience and Hootenanny, which also included such other greats as Armando Diaz himself, Matt Besser, Jimmy Carrane, Kevin Dorff, Rachel Dratch, Tina Fey, Neil Flynn, Noah Gregoropoulos, David Koechner, Adam McKay, Amy Poehler, Ian Roberts, and so many more. (For a complete list of the wildly impressive original and second cast plus some guest monologist highlights, check out this interview.) From this illustrious beginning, Brian went on to work at Second City, both on tour and on the Chicago stage.


Through the bonds formed in Chicago, Brian Stack was hired to fill in for an injured writer on Late Night with Conan O’Brien in 1997. They liked him so much, they kept him on…and apparently those bonds still stay strong, as Brian has worked with Conan O’Brien ever since. Brian Stack worked as an actor, writer, and editor when O’Brien transitioned to The Tonight Show in 2009. And he continues to work now on Conan on TBS. Over the years, Brian Stack has become known for his many popular, recurrent characters, such as The Interrupter, Kitty McBagpipes, Frankenstein, James Sinclair St. Wallins, Brian LaFontaine, and Joe Galliano (John’s brother,) among many others. For this work, Brian has won five Writers Guild Awards for Writing in a Comedy/Variety Series and has been a member of the writing team nominated every year since 1998 for an Emmy (Outstanding Writing for a Variety, Music or Comedy Program,) which they finally snagged in 2007.

Most importantly, Brian Stack is a dedicated husband to comedian Miriam Tolan and father to two lovely girls, Nora and Colette. And a super nice guy.

* * *
PAM VICTOR: My first question usually is about the first moment you fell in love with improvisation. I understand it was love at first sight an intro. class during your senior year at Indiana University?

BRIAN STACK: The brilliantly hilarious Mick Napier lived on my dorm floor at IU and had a great improv group that also included Faith Soloway and Joe Bill. But I never had the guts to audition for it, despite Mick's encouragement.  I used to see them perform though, and it looked like so much fun.  I took a beginners' acting class my senior year just for the hell of it, and one day they had us do an improvised scene as an exercise. I'd never had that much fun before in my life, and I was hooked from then on.

 PAM: What was it about that first scene that struck you?

BRIAN: I think it was the thrill of not knowing what was coming next, and just discovering what was happening as we went along.  All the same things that make me still love improv all these years later, as corny as that sounds.

PAM: Not corny at all. It's so fantastic that you were there for that kismet incubator of comedy people who convened together at Indiana University in the ‘80s. Name some of the people who lived in Mick Napier’s dorm and were at IU at the same time as you. There were Mick Napier, Joe Bill, Faith Soloway...do you remember the others?

BRIAN: I didn't actually meet Joe Bill until years later in Chicago, but I did meet Faith very briefly at a college party, and I remember Mark Sutton being at a lot of parties since he was a friend of Mick's. Everyone called Mark "Howard" back then. I don't remember seeing Mark do improv himself in those days, but he's obviously turned out to be a great improviser.

PAM: Yeah, they roped Mark into Dubbletaque (their troupe) after a while. I think Faith's sister Jill was around too, maybe? Of course, you could have no idea that nearly each and every one of these people would play a pivotal role in improvisation, but what were your impressions of them at the time?

BRIAN: I briefly met Jill Soloway later on when I was going to grad school at UW-Madison.  I had been performing at the Ark Theater, and the late, great Chris Farley was in my very first improv group there. Chris had moved down to Chicago in '87, but he came back to visit Madison in '88, and Jill and James Grace came along with him.  That was the first time I met James, too.  He might've still been a teenager at the time.

PAM:  I hear such wonderful things about Chris Farley as an improviser and all-around nice person to work with. I assume he was dynamic even from the beginning?

BRIAN: It was obvious to everyone who saw Chris perform, even in those days, that he was very special. He had incredible stage presence, and he was one of the funniest people on Earth. I just wish more people could've seen him on-stage in Madison or later on in Chicago at iO or Second City.  I've never seen anyone who could completely wipe out a roomful of people with laughter the way he could at his best.

PAM: I understand you really dove into your studies of improvisation during graduate school in Madison at The Ark. What brought you to Chicago after graduate school?

BRIAN: I'm actually from the Chicago area, so I was basically just heading back home after grad school. I've always admired my friends who moved to Chicago to do improv.  I like to think I would've had the guts to do that myself if I hadn't been from Chicago, but I was lucky enough to be living there already.

PAM: Which teachers and performers most influenced you in your early days?

BRIAN: In the early days, the people that had the biggest impact on me were Mick Napier, Del Close, my fellow Ark performers like Chris, and great performers like Dave Pasquesi and Joel Murray who I saw at ImprovOlympic before I'd ever started performing myself.  Mick had told me about ImprovOlympic, and I took a class with Charna Halpern during the summer between college and grad school.  Just being around those people made a huge impact on me, and I feel very lucky that I got to work with them later on.  They're still very inspiring too, obviously.

PAM: Absolutely. That's a who's who list of the greats. I just saw a couple TJ & Dave shows last weekend that blew my socks off all over again. What were you seeing in Mr. Pasquesi back then that made an impression on you?

BRIAN: I think it was his combination of intelligence and playfulness. He seemed like a cool Philosophy professor who did comedy to help him process all the ideas that were bouncing around in his head. He's also always had a kind of Bob Dylan quality that said to the audience, "This is where I'm going right now.  You're welcome to come along, and I hope you do, but I'm going there regardless."

PAM: Ha. Yeah, that's perfect. 

You studying both at Second City and iO?

BRIAN: Yes. It was always my dream to work at Second City, so even taking classes there was very thrilling, especially at first when I had my Level 1 class in the Mainstage space.  I don't think that happens a lot nowadays. 

iO was where I first met many of my lifelong friends and fellow improv performers though.  It's impossible to overstate how much I owe to that place on a personal and professional level.

PAM: It really does seem like your time at iO proved to be the basis for your professional life.

BRIAN:  Absolutely. I've ended up working with so many iO people later on, and not just at Conan.

PAM:  Like who? Where? I know you work with Brian McCann and Kevin Dorff at Conan

The Late Night writing staff in the late '90s
BRIAN:  Well, at Conan I've worked with Andy Richter, Jon Glaser, as well as Brian and Kevin. Outside of our show, I've worked with countless others in various ways here and there, including the brilliant Tina Fey and Amy Poehler.  My association with the UCB folks like Amy, Adam McKay, Horatio Sanz, Ian Roberts, Matt Walsh, and Matt Besser can all originally be traced to the iO-Chicago days, too.

PAM:  Wowwee-kazowee. What a lucky man you are. Can you name some of the fantastic teams you were on in Chicago?

BRIAN:  I do feel incredibly lucky to have been around Chicago during the late 80's and early to mid 90's.  It was pretty insane when I look back on the people I was lucky enough to watch and work with back then. 

I really loved my old iO team which also included Matt Walsh's brother Pat, and
iO team Bouquet of Flesh:
Brian Stack, Beth Cahill, Jenna Jolovitz, Pat Walsh,
Dennis Sheehan, Pete Rodriguez, and E.J. Peters
Betty Cahill among others.  I'm also very proud to have been part of the group Jazz Freddy which included my wife Miriam Tolan, Dave Koechner, Pete Gardner, Rachel Dratch, Pat Finn, Carlos Jacott, Kevin Dorff, Noah Gregoropoulos, Jimmy Carrane, and others.  That group led directly to several of us working at Second City, and I loved working with all those people so much.

[Readers, stay tuned for Geeking Out with…Jazz Freddy, which was inspired by my time with Brian Stack and our discussion of this influential group.]

PAM: You’ve described the early ‘90s in Chicago as a kind of golden age in improvisation comedy. I’d love to hear about that experience for you.

BRIAN: It was a very inspiring time. There were lots of great groups around like The Family, Ed, and Film Dome, and everyone came out to see each other's shows. 

Jazz Freddy back in '92 at Live Bait Theatre:
Cast included (but not pictured in this order):
Chris Reed, Dave Koechner, Pat Finn,
Miriam Tolan, Pete Gardner, Stephanie Howard,
Susan McLaughlin, Rachel Dratch, Carlos Jacott,
Noah Gregoropoulos, Kevin Dorff,
Jimmy Carrane, and Brian Stack.
I remember the crowd being full of improvisers on the opening night of Jazz Freddy, and I'll always be grateful for that kind of support.  And over at Second City in those days, you'd see amazing people like Farley, Pasquesi, Stephen Colbert, Steve Carell, Amy Sedaris, Jane Lynch, and other greats.  I can't believe that at the time they were just the local entertainment.

 PAM: That's amazing. And really incredible when you think that you went to college with Mick, Joe, Mark, and Faith. You are like the Forrest Gump of improv.

BRIAN:  I do often feel like ol' Forrest in many ways.  I should probably be sitting at a Chicago bus stop rambling on and on to strangers.

Backstage at ASSSCAT in NY
Lennon Parham, Jack McBrayer, Amy Poehler,
Horatio Sanz, Miriam Tolan, Alan Zweibel,
John Lutz and Rachel Dratch. 
PAM: And you were in Blue Velveeta! Was that post-Susan Messing era?

BRIAN:  When I sat in with them at iO, Susan was still in the group, but later on at Comedy Underground I worked with Jay Leggett, Mitch Rouse, Brian Blondell, Kevin Dorff, Andy Richter, Jimmy Carrane, Brendan Sullivan, and Dave Koechner.  At the Improv, it was usually just me, Jay, Brian, Mitch, and Kevin. 

I didn't work at the Improv very long, though.  I didn't really enjoy working in a stand-up club, so I went over and joined Dave, Kevin, Rachel Dratch, Noah Gregoropoulos, Andy, Jimmy and others in a fun, drunken joke of a group called Gambrinus: King of Beer.  It was named after a legendary Czech king who supposedly beat Attila the Hun in a drinking contest.  It was basically the antithesis of Jazz Freddy in many ways in terms of the discipline and all, but it was a lot of fun.

PAM: You described that group to me as “a drunken joke of a group.” When we were chatting earlier, you remarked about the transition between Gambrinus and Jazz Freddy, “It's funny that Gambrinus came right before Jazz Freddy. It was kind of like going out on a three-night bender with friends just before you go to college with those same friends. A very fun college, though.” [Dear readers, I must note that it was very satisfying to quote with accuracy Brian Stack to Brian Stack at that moment.]

BRIAN:  That's right, yes.  In many ways, it was the perfect thing to do just before Jazz Freddy since it was such an undisciplined mess.  When Pete Gardner brought his Gambrinus/iO friends together with his Ed friends to form Jazz Freddy, we all felt ready to get more serious about the work, while still not taking ourselves seriously.

PAM: The more I read about the transition from one to another, it seems like it was necessary to move through Gambrinus to get to Jazz Freddy. Do you see it that way?

BRIAN: I do, yes.  I think doing something as playful but unfocused as Gambrinus made us appreciate how rewarding it was to do Jazz Freddy right after that.

PAM: These groups seemed to have a formed outside of iO. Is that right? Was that common in the early ‘90s, to form freelance teams?

BRIAN: In many ways, I feel like I've never left iO since I've worked with so many iO people even after I stopped doing Harolds.  Back then, though, it was pretty typical for groups to splinter off and try things on their own, especially since iO didn't get a permanent home until '95 or so.  It was great to go back there at that time to do shows like The Armando Diaz Experience.  It's so great that the Armando Show is still going after 18 years, both in Chicago and LA.

PAM: Tell me about what made Jazz Freddy so unique.

BRIAN: I'm not sure how truly unique the show was, but it was incredibly rewarding.  We were basically just trying to do the best scene work we could do.  Luckily, we had such a great mix of people in the group.  The chemistry was special because were all pretty different from one another.

PAM:  Were there other groups doing slow, reality-based scenes in Chicago or was Jazz Freddy the first?

BRIAN:  I saw a lot of really slow, patient work at iO before then actually, and as I mentioned before, the group Ed helped pave the way for patient improv work being done in a theatre. But it's been very nice to hear from people I admire, like Craig Cackowski or the guys in The Family, that Jazz Freddy inspired them to try new things on their own.

PAM: You left Jazz Freddy when you were offered a spot on the Second City touring company, GreenCo. True to form, your castmates during those times were pretty stellar, such as Pat Finn, Suzy Nakamura, Adam McKay, Neil Flynn, plus, for a time Rachel Dratch, Jon Glaser, and Amy Poehler…and then there was that woman named Miriam Tolan who would become extremely significant in your personal life. What a team! It sounds like you had a blast together. Can you recall some highlights?

BRIAN: As much as I loved doing the resident company shows at Second City later on, many of my fondest Second City memories come from my Touring Company days. I'll always be grateful that I got to tour with all those hilarious people. 

There are too many wonderful memories to name here, but one that stands out is the time that Steve Carell came down to visit his girlfriend (now wife) Nancy Walls when we were doing a month of shows in Dallas. Steve wasn't famous yet, so no one in the audience recognized him when he pretended to be an audience member giving a suggestion in the improv set.  Adam McKay ended up calling him up onstage and "forcing" him to improvise.  Steve's such a brilliant actor, that you'd have sworn he was just a nervous guy being dragged out of his comfort zone.  Adam even tackled Steve at one point when he tried to leave the stage.  I was literally crying with laughter in the wings.

PAM:  That's a great story!

BRIAN: Glad you liked it, thanks!

PAM:  Was Adam McKay a big influence on you as a writer?

BRIAN: Definitely. In addition to being one of the funniest people I've ever met, Adam also approaches writing and generating ideas with so much enthusiasm that it's very contagious. He's obviously brought the same sense of playful anarchy to movies like Anchorman, and it's no mystery to me why so many brilliant comedians want to work with him.

PAM: Most interviews I've heard or read about you refer to what a genuinely nice guy you are. At least in the improv world, there are a lot of genuinely nice people, so you must be off the charts nice.

BRIAN: I really appreciate that people think I'm nice, but I'm always a little surprised when people comment on that.  I know so many nice people in comedy. I remember Steve Carell talking about this very same thing on Fresh Air.

PAM:  That's why I mention it. There must be something especially special about your brand of niceness. Does it bug you that you're typecast that way?

BRIAN:  Well, thanks. I do appreciate that.  Maybe my red hair and freckles make me seem even less threatening.  It doesn't bug me to be seen that way, but I'm grateful that I've often gotten to play characters that are nothing like me at all.  It's more fun to mix it up.

PAM:  I recently came upon a very adorable Second City sketch video of you and your wife. The "role playing" one. Do you remember it?

BRIAN:  I do remember that, yes.  Miriam was very funny in that scene.  She's always cracked me up.

PAM: You were pretty funny in it too, Brian.

BRIAN: Thanks a lot.

PAM: I would love if you would tell the story of how you proposed to Miriam backstage at Second City, if you would be so kind.

Backstage at ASSSSCAT (NY):
Brian Stack, Jack McBrayer,
Miriam Tolan, John Lutz
BRIAN: Miriam and I were both still in the Second City Touring Company, but Miriam was understudying in the Second City mainstage show on New Year's Eve, and I went backstage to see her at intermission. I had been planning on proposing to her one of those days, but I just impulsively blurted out a proposal right then and there in a dimly lit backstage stairwell filled with garbage bags. 

Luckily, she said yes, but I could've obviously picked a better spot.  In some ways, though, it was very fitting since we'd originally met in Second City classes a few years before.  Because of my proposal, Miriam was a little late for her call in the second act, and Scott Adsit jokingly asked her, "What did he do, ask you to marry him or something?"  Yes, he did.

PAM:  Awww! Yay! Was it hard to score the girl back then? There was a heck of a lot of competition.

BRIAN: I'm still pretty surprised she gave me the time of day.  Maybe our mutual 100% Irish heritage helped tip the scales in my favor.  She stuck with her own kind.

PAM:  That's so sweet. I love to watch couples do comedy together. I'm such a sap.

BRIAN:  It's amazing how many improv couples we've known over the years.  I'm often reminded of that when we see all our old Chicago and NY friends at backyard barbecues here in LA.

PAM: I’ve heard that for some people, LA is re-creation of their Chicago lives – complete with the same, longtime friends and co-workers – except with palm trees.

Amy Poehler and Tina Fey
from back in their iO days
I don’t know why, but it amazes me how improvisers tend to bring in other improvisers they’ve worked with before as they move into screen comedy. Tina Fey is a great example of this trend, having brought in folks she worked with at Second City and iO, like Amy Poehler, Scott Adsit, John Lutz, Jack McBrayer, Rachel Dratch, and many more. I suppose it’s because people like to work with people they like. Your career certainly has had the same Chicago-centric pattern. I am wondering if there is something specific to improvisation and the collective creation of comedy on the fly that has something to do with it, do you think? Maybe a bit of bunker mentality that develops and bonds some people for life?

BRIAN:  I think you're absolutely right about that.  There's an incredible bond that forms between people that have been in the improv trenches together, and an incredible level of trust that forms.  It doesn't surprise me at all that people like Tina or others like Amy Poehler work that way. I see the same kind of thing with UCB people on shows like Childrens Hospital. People obviously tend to reach back and recommend the people that they know are really funny, and very fun to work with.

PAM: Oh, yeah. That UCB generation of Paul Scheer, Jason Mantzoukas, Rob Huebel definitely pull up their own as they move up.

BRIAN:  They sure do. And I think back to Stephen Colbert recommending Carell for The Daily Show, or Adam McKay hiring Tina at SNL.  As Amy Poehler once told an aspiring improviser who asked for advice, "Don't expect to own anything or make any money for years, but if you're talented and you don't give up, sooner or later one of your friends will give you a job."

PAM: Ha! That’s great. It's also a good reminder to be a NICE person no matter what level you're working at.

Mr. Stack and Ms. Poehler
in her Conan dressing room in 2012
BRIAN:  That's very true. It's great to see how some of the nicest people are often the most successful, too.  I was lucky enough to do a little part on Parks and Rec recently, and it was so obvious to see how much everyone on that set genuinely loves Amy, and with very good reason.  She's as warm and generous as she is hilarious, and that's true of so many of my favorite performers.

PAM:  Amy's adorable. So fun to watch. Sounds like a dream gig.

(Awkard segue alert:) You’ve been at working with a lot of the same people from your iO and Second City days for a couple decades now, primarily at the various incarnations of Conan O’Brien’s shows. Let’s talk about how improvisation itself, as well as the skills it hones, helps you develop material on Conan.

BRIAN: Our show has always had a strong improvisational feel.  Conan and Andy both come from improvisational backgrounds themselves, and some of our favorite moments on the show are when things don't go according to plan. In many ways, our show has always felt like an extension of the Chicago improv community, and not just because of all my old improv friends like Kevin Dorff, Jon Glaser, and Brian McCann have worked on the show.

PAM:  Do improvisers work collaboratively differently than other comedic writers?

BRIAN:  That's a good question. I've been lucky enough to have a great collaborative writing relationship with writers from non-improvisational backgrounds too, but there's a certain comfort level that comes when you're doing a live bit and the other people involved are experienced improvisers. 

PAM: It seems like there is a lot of room at your show for play and experimentation. And failure. Those are certainly improv-specific skills.

BRIAN: Definitely.

PAM: Many characters have been developed by "accident" it seems.

BRIAN:  That's true. For example, once before a writers' meeting, I pretended to shoot Brian McCann in the leg.  He sang a happy little song on the spot about having "bullet-proof legs," so I shot him in the chest and he fell off his chair, dead. Apparently, only his legs were bulletproof. Neither of us would've thought of that insane concept at our computers, but it went on the show the next night.

PAM:  As Susan Messing says, "A mistake is your greatest comic gift." Actually, I'm probably paraphrasing. She may have said, "A mistake is your greatest gift, you beautiful bitches."

Let’s talk about the working environment and process at Conan and how it compares to other shows that create sketch. From the way you describe it, Conan seems like a less intensely competitive environment than what I’ve heard about SNL. Is that just your experience or do you think it's a little less competitive at Conan because there is only one central, on-screen talent?

BRIAN:  Since SNL just does the one show per week, there's obviously a lot more competition when it comes to which sketches get on the show. If we really like something, and we have too many things in one show, we can usually just toss the unused stuff in a later show. I know SNL can sometimes do that too, but not as often as they might want to.

PAM:  I don’t know if you agree, but I often tell young improvisers working on “making it” in screen comedy to work on their writing as much as possible by taking classes and then just plain sitting down to write sketches and getting them on stage or online. But may be just talking out my ass since I've never been on national TV. That's just what I observe. What is your advice to improvisers who hope to move into TV?

BRIAN:  I think your advice is right on the money. I would also advise young performers that if they do what they love right now as an end in itself, and it's much more likely to become a means to an end. As corny as it sounds, it really shows when people have genuine joy in their work, and those are the people that other people want to work with in other ways later on, maybe even on TV or in film.

PAM:  I know that you loved The Interrupter character. Did you know there was a Facebook page to bring him back? Is that even a possibility now on the new show?

BRIAN: I did not know about the Facebook page, but I'm flattered that anyone took the trouble to do that. I don't think we'd have the legal option to bring him back since our Late Night characters are technically "owned" by NBC, but maybe it's for the best. I always loved doing those old characters, but I'm glad they never felt overused or stale.

PAM:  Is there a character that you’re particularly enjoying writing for and doing these days?

BRIAN:  Among other things, I really enjoy working with Todd Levin on the crappy knock-off songs that I sing as the awful lounge singer in "Basic Cable Name That Tune."  It's fun to toss in little ad libs at Conan during the live taping, like, "I am God's worst mistake," just to see how he reacts.  I'm thankful that he actually encourages that kind of unscripted riffing around.

PAM: Sounds like you all are having an awful lot of fun over there.
That's always nice to see.

BRIAN: It's always been a great place to work, and I don't take that for granted at all.  Some days are better than others, but I'm very grateful to have gotten to work with so many great people over the years.
Brian as Frankenstein and Tom Hanks
at Late Night

[All photographs (except for the Gambrinus) in this piece come from the collection of Brian Stack...because he's a really nice guy who sent a whole slew of fantastic photos to me. Thanks, Brian!]







* * *
Read Geeking Out with...Susan Messing  
in which Susan says,
"I am not for the faint of heart, 
but if you can handle the messenger 
you'll definitely get the message."


Catch up on past improv geek-a-thons:
Geeking Out with…Dave Pasquesi  of TJ and Dave
...David Razowsky of iO West
…with Joe Bill of BASSPROV
...Charna Halpern, co-founder of iO Theatre
...Jimmy Carrane of The Improv Nerd podcast
and many more!

And "like" the "Geeking Out with..." FACEBOOK PAGE please.


Pam Victor is the founding member of The Ha-Ha’s, and she produces The Happier Valley Comedy Show in western Massachusetts. Pam directs, produces and performs in the comic soap opera web series "Silent H, Deadly H". Pam also writes mostly humorous, mostly true essays and reviews of books, movies, and tea on her blog, "My Nephew is a Poodle." If you want to stay abreast of all the geek out action, like the “Geeking Out with…” Facebook page! And get it all at www.pamvictor.com. 


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