The field was the National Mall. The game was co-ed flag football. The teams were college alumni of all ages.
I was 23 years old and 185 lbs of fast-twitch muscle. The offensive lineman set to block me was a woman about 10 years and 50 lbs my senior. It was a no-contact league, so my strategy for that play was the same as every other play that day: run around this woman as fast as I could without touching her, then try and pull a piece fabric off the quarterback’s belt without touching the rest of their body. That day I had been reduced to a flag football Sisyphus, repeating an endless loop of sports mediocrity.
As a child, I loved comedy. My favorite show was Saturday Night Live. During weekend sleepovers the goal was to stay awake long enough to watch the entire show. My most formative years belonged to Mike Myers. Wayne’s World was very important in my household. For one, my Dad’s name is Wayne, so there was an obvious novelty factor. For two, my family appreciated good comedy. It wasn’t until I started performing comedy that I could reflect and see how important that was. If my parents were serious bankers instead of grown up hippies, I would have a different perspective on life.
Through college, my interest in comedy and performing was there but sports took precedence. I took a theater class as a freshman in high school and loved it, but I played football and wrestled instead of performing in plays. In college, I took a theater class my freshman year and loved it, but I played rugby instead of getting active in performing.
Previously, I had only experienced D.C. as a series of prim and proper federal buildings. When I showed up to the comedy show at the DC Arts Center on 18th Street in Adams Morgan, I was blown away by the energy pulsing through the neighborhood.
The show was organized by Washington Improv Theater and included an odd, playful ensemble named Jackie. A scene that stuck with me included one member pretending to be a mermaid as he swung his legs from side to side like a flipper. It was unexpected and hilarious.
To be honest, I didn’t believe the show was improvised. After the show, I went up to one of the performers and expressed how much I liked the performance. I implored her, “You can tell me, you wrote that before tonight, right?” Like a skeptic trying to find out a magician’s secret, there had to be a sleight of hand I was missing.
She responded, “Nope, that was all made up on the spot. We’ve never played those characters before or will again.” Gauntlet thrown. There was only one way to find out the truth, I signed up for an Improv class.
The training program at Washington Improv Theater was held in an old castle-like building on the corner of 13th and V Streets. The neighborhood felt raw and authentic, still years away from its future gentrification. As I approached the building, a clique of students and teachers hung outside the front door joking around.
What was that feeling in my stomach? Nerves? Here I was, stepping into a world I knew nothing about. Would I be any good? Would the cool kids hanging outside like me? Should I turn around and go home? There had to be a pick up sports match somewhere I could jump into. I took a deep breath, steeled my resolve and entered the unknown.
I had traveled to a gritty part of the city and somehow the inside of the building was even grittier. During the day, the castle was a charter elementary school that eschewed traditional subjects like reading, writing, and arithmetic for a focus on avant-garde children’s art.
I found my classroom. A group of adults milled about seemingly just as nervous as I was. They had diverse backgrounds. An architect, a filmmaker, a stand up comedian, a recent college graduate toiling away in an entry level job. We started with games, like one that separated the classroom into four corners. A student would make a declaration like, “I have a sister” then run to a corner of the room. If you also had a sister you would join them in the corner. I was falling into the comfort zone until I ran to a corner and said, “Every time I take the Metro into the city I feel like an adult.”
Did I say too much? Will anyone relate to my 23 year-old plight of straddling the line between child and adult? Within a beat, someone else made a statement and took focus away to a different corner. I realized in that moment that when you are in a space to create from the unknown, you will find out things about yourself (potentially unflattering) you didn’t know were there. Not only would I be learning the rules of comedy, I would be learning who I really was.
In the final exercise of the class, we had four chairs set up like seats in a car. As students came in and out of the car they changed to different characters. In the brief exercise, I jumped into five or so characters losing myself in the moment and getting laughs as I did.
I couldn’t put my finger on why, but I knew I wanted to be doing improv as often as I could.
My classes helped lay out the rules for becoming a great improviser, as most famously conceived by Charna Halpern and Del Close, the mother and father of modern improv. They literally wrote the book on improv, called Truth in Comedy. The good news is that these are the rules of becoming a great person in everyday life.
Respect choices made by others.
There are no bad ideas.
There are no mistakes. Everything is justified.
It’s OK to fail.
Treat others as if they are poets, geniuses and artists and they will be.
The best way to look good is to make your fellow players look good.
Is this a self-help book or a comedy book? For me it was both.
In improv, agreement is the one rule that can never be broken. We listen to our scene partners and reply honestly while adding more details to the scene. I started to understand how performers could create a dynamic character like a mermaid on the spot. Each detail builds on the next one.
The book explains:
“Each new initiation furthers the last one and the scene progresses. Acceptance of each other’s ideas brings the players together and engenders a ‘group mind.’ Denying the reality that is created on stage ends the progression of the scene and destroys any chance of achieving a group consciousness.”
I finished my first class and immediately signed up for my next. I was picking up the concepts quickly and applying them successfully in scenes. I was a natural. I signed up for two classes the next semester and volunteered to videotape shows on other nights. In the hip-hop community, if you want to become a DJ you have to “carry the records” for another DJ and learn from him while performing the menial task. Setting up the camera and recording those shows was my “carrying records.” You can only learn so much in a class. To really get a feel for the craft you have to watch it performed.
In my class I was learning from Mark Chalfant, who had found improv in DC when it was just 14 people rehearsing and putting on shows in a church basement. He is responsible for creating Washington Improv Theater into the organization it is today, which has touched thousands of lives. Each class I learned a new angle into a scene or a new skill to heighten a scene. It helped that a few of the fellow students had done improv in college together.
There was an unspoken level of trust. An unconditional approval that whatever you try, we got your back. It’s a feeling that people spend their entire life trying to find in their family, in a partner, in a job and I found it in a derelict school that probably taught their students the Earth is flat.
At the end of each class, there would be a student showcase to show your friends and family how talented you are. Most showcases are like watching a middle school musical production. Is the audience enjoying it? Not really. But they are happy their loved one is having fun. This showcase happened to fall on Father’s Day weekend so my whole family had dinner at Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse before the show.
Our show started as it normally would. We made offers and heightened. We heard laughs. We were in a groove. By all accounts it was going well. When our time was running out, we got to the final scene of the show. My scene partner delivered a line like he had done one hundred times before. Then time stopped. Literally, time stopped for me and I saw the future.
My brain took a mental inventory.
I’m on stage right now.
My mother, father, sister, and her boyfriend are in the audience.
My girlfriend, Christina is in New York doing an internship.
Then I saw the future.
I’m going to say these words.
My scene partner is going to say these words.
I’m going to respond with these words.
The audience is going to laugh.
The light technician will give us a blackout ending the show.
It’s impossible to know how a scene partner will respond to a line. Yet in that never-ending moment I saw three steps ahead. I had a direct experience with the group consciousness.
I don’t remember the exact words that came out of my mouth, but the exchange between my scene partner and me happened exactly as I saw it in my vision. The audience laughed and the lights went black. Holy shit. I tapped into some creative energy I didn’t understand. And it was awesome.
A friend would later tell me that when you find and do something that speaks to your true infinite self, it doesn’t take time away from your life, it gives you time. That moment cemented my belief that I was meant to be performing improv on stage.
In the summer of 2007, I was a teaching assistant for Mark Chalfant in the same class that I had been a student in a few semesters earlier. An announcement came out that two of the junior teams that performed at the theater would be having auditions.
I knew there was more to getting a job than being a good fit for it. It’s not about what you know, but who you know. I dropped hints to Mark that I was excited about auditioning. I hung out at the regular bars after shows so people knew I was part of the “scene.” I introduced myself to some of the performers in the group I wanted to pick me. I mentioned how I had been videotaping their shows and complimented them on specific aspects I liked. Was my approach meticulously calculated? Yes. The last 2 years of my life had lead up to this moment and I wasn’t going to leave it up to chance.
For as much as I campaigned for a spot on a team, it still all came down to the audition. I was paired with a few performers I knew and a few I had never met. My goal was to follow Charna and Del’s instructions: make everyone else look good.
I supported the ideas of my scene partners, like the one where a performer was my boss and wanted me to read her the new Harry Potter book as she exercised. I agreed and started making up what I thought a new Harry Potter book would be about. I helped other scenes find their footing, like when a scene on an airplane had hit a lull and I came in over the intercom as the captain. The performer jumped on the game of the intercom and finished the scene with a new energy. At the end of our run of scenes I made a callback to a joke another performer made earlier in the show a move that showed I was listening to others and could build off their work.
After the audition I hunted down the emails of the performers in the group I wanted to perform with and sent them a Thank You email and said I looked forward to performing with them in the future. This was a business move where you thank them for the job before you even have the job. I told you I was not leaving anything to chance.
A few days later I was walking through a department store and I got a call on my cell phone. It was Mark Chalfant, calling to ask me if I wanted to join the group JINX. “I definitely would,” I said, grinning ear to ear. I’d be joining the current members of JINX—Jordan and Amanda Hirsch, Sean Murphy, and Joe Uchno—in addition to Michelle Swaney (the performer from my audition that played my Harry Potter boss), Honora Talbott (the performer from my audition that played the airplane intercom game), and a stand up comedian named Aparna Nancherla.
Each week I would be ecstatic to get to our rehearsals. We started by telling a story about something going on in our life. It was the highlight of my week to tell a story to my new friends and get to learn more about them. My enthusiasm cup runneth over which left a few people in the group wondering, “Who is this guy?”
The second best part of my week would be going out for drinks at Solly’s, a bar on U Street, after rehearsal. The service was bad, and they were always out of the beer you wanted, but it was the perfect place to get to know each other. The more we rehearsed, the closer we got. The closer we got, the better we connected on stage. We learned what we each brought to the table.
Amanda knew the perfect time to end a scene and start a new one. (Her background was as a writer.)
Honora and Sean could bring emotional depth to a character. (Their backgrounds were as scripted actors.)
Michelle would say something dirty you would never expect to come out of her petite frame. (Her background was being a foul mouthed New Yorker.)
Aparna would say something unique you could have never have thought of yourself. (Her background was whimsical.)
Jordan would say something inappropriate to raise the volume to 11. (His background was being a musician.)
Joe would listen and find something funny in all of us that we didn’t know was there. (His background was engineering.)
We complemented each other well and our comedic voices grew together.
We had hilarious shows and had shows so bad that we all considered quitting. But each show we learned something new. After about a year we started to do consistently strong shows. This was the same time we were accepted into the apprentice program at the Chicago Improv Festival. We would be learning from the teacher, Jeff Griggs and performing a show in a Chicago theater.
As I mentioned, Del Close co-wrote the book on improv. Well, Jeff Griggs wrote the book on Del Close. Griggs was Del’s life and comedy caretaker in his final years and put it on paper in the book Guru: My Days with Del Close. We would learn from the guy who learned from THE guy. It was kismet.
Over the weekend, Griggs drilled us on the basics with a new vigor. We spent 48 hours together as a group staying in the same Chicago brownstone. We ate deep dish pizza together, walked around Lake Michigan together, and watched other experienced improv teams perform together. Our group mind was deep and when it was our time to perform we had an inspired show full of connections we could not have written if you gave us months. In the Fertile Crescent of modern comedy, we made our mark. We were now connected to the long line of comedy greats that came before us.
Honora moved to Los Angeles to pursue acting. Jordan and Amanda moved to New York. Sean and Michelle had children. Aparna left for NYC to do stand up.
But I never stopped. The more I performed, the more I felt a kindred spirit in the performers who got their break. People I had seen on stage were showing up on TV. What was once an abstract concept was now an attainable goal, making a living by being funny.
As I saw my friends moving to New York and LA, I was getting itchy to try my luck in the big leagues. By the end 2011, I had done just about everything one could do for improv in D.C. There was no more ladder to climb. Christina and I flew to LA for a vacation with two of my fellow JINX alums. We stayed near Venice Beach, and it felt like every corner we turned there was another sign telling us we should move there.
Mike Myers wrote the forward to Del Close’s, Truth in Comedy. He explained that in improv, “The end is in the beginning.” If you don’t know where you are going, look to where you started.
There was no more improv glory for me in D.C. It was time to try something new. So we packed our bags and moved to Los Angeles.