Tuesday, July 2, 2013

The Comic Strip Improv Group (Improvising with Robin Williams) by Michael Golding

From 1983 to 1985 I conducted workshops and directed shows for the Comic Strip Improv Group.  Since 1976, the Comic Strip, now known as Comic Strip Live, has been one of the top comedy showcase clubs in New York, where stars such as Jerry Seinfeld, Eddie Murphy, Chris Rock and Adam Sandler honed their skills.

The group was originally started by Steve Shaffer, but overseeing a pool of sixty comics while pursuing his own stand-up career quickly proved to be overwhelming.  Gabe Abelson, a mutual friend and comedian who I had worked with before on several off-Broadway revues, brought me in to take over the group.  The immediate challenge was to change the standup comedian’s mindset of being on one’s own, to relying on others as part of an improv ensemble.  This was accomplished through weekly three hour workshops during which I assaulted the comedians with a barrage of techniques from Viola Spolin, David Shepherd, Keith Johnstone and a few formats of my own design.  I was impressed by how the comedians threw themselves into the workshops, including the seasoned acts, who were interested in broadening their repertoire.

Still, there were a few in the group who were uncomfortable with acting, who abhorred some of the “touchy-feely” exercises, and who preferred to participate in formats that relied on their verbal skills.  These formats included: (1) Expert, in which the audience provided a topic for a comedian to do a monologue on, followed by follow-up questions from the audience;  (2) Man In The Street, which involved a comedian playing a tv news reporter, interviewing various characters on the street concerning a topic given by the audience; (3) Round Table Discussion, in which four comedians were cast by the audience as famous characters from history or literature, with another moderating the discussion of a controversial topic which was also selected from audience suggestions and (4) Commercial, in which the audience provided a name, purpose and tag line for an object that a comedian would then improvise a commercial for.  Sometimes I chose two comedians for Commercial, forcing them to collaborate and, dare I say, act.

Author at the Comic Strip.

For the comedians who had theatrical backgrounds, I threw them into formats that explored emotions, status, and imaginary objects.  Slow Motion Commentary became a personal favorite for those who excelled at pantomime.  In this game, the audience would suggest a common household activity that a comedian would execute in slow-motion, as two other comedians off-stage provided the commentary akin to a sports event.
Three nights during the week, I chose six comedians from the core group to perform in half hour sets of various games.  We were decades ahead of Whose Line Is It Anyway?  Andy Ashe, the club pianist who was a classically trained musician, provided the atmosphere for some of the games.  Since the performing skills of the group were diverse, I always tried to match players who could compliment each other.  There is a big difference between a comedian and a comic performer.  The former goes for the one liner.  The latter will always try to get a laugh from the humor of the situation and character. 

Comic Strip Live audience.

Once a year, through improvisation we developed a full length show.  Each show bore the stamp of one of the personalities from the group.  “The Mickey Davis, Jr. Telethon” was the brainchild of Ron Zimmerman.  A deeply bent parody of the Muscular Dystrophy telethons, the goal was to wipe out death in your lifetime.  Incidentally, Ron created “Ledge,” one of the darkest improv formats around at the time. There were three players in the format – a person who was on a ledge of a building contemplating suicide for a reason which was provided by the audience.  One comedian played the devil encouraging the person on the ledge to jump. Another comedian played the angel trying to change the person’s mind.  Ron frequently played the devil, Barry Neikrug the angel, and soon the byplay between the two became the highlight of the evening.  It was like watching two Jazz musicians jamming.

Bill Masters & Ron Zimmerman; The Mickey Davis, Jr. Telethon

“A Day In New York” was Steve Shaffer’s baby, which was a series of sketches and songs based around life in the big apple.  “The Laff Maker” was mine, a rags to riches story of a comedian’s ascent, and inevitable downfall. 

"The Laff Maker" was the first time I developed a show around a personality, Hiram Kasten, and it was his energy that successfully propelled the production.  Hiram, unbeknownst to many, had a strong theatrical background, and his performance blew the minds of many in the comedy community who were unaware of the depth of his talent. 
Stu Trivax, Rob Ross & Cathy Ladman; A Day In New York
Steve Hytner & Hiram Kasten; The Laff Maker.

At the time, no other comedy club was doing what we were doing.  Many of the performers in my company at the Comic Strip have gone on to work professionally in film, theatre and television, including Susie Essman (Curb Your Enthusiasm), Steve Hytner (Seinfeld, Hung), Janette Barber (Rosie O’ Donnell Show), Bill Masters (Grace Under Fire), Dom Irrera (Aristocrats) Gabe Abelson (David Letterman, Jay Leno and the Tom Green Show), Wayne Federman (Late Night with Jimmy Fallon), the late Dennis Wolfberg (Quantum Leap), Allen Enlow (Sopranos), Joe Bolster (Academy Awards) and Cathy Ladman (Roseanne).  Chicago City Limits frequently invited members of my group to be guest stars, performing a stand-up set, followed by improvising with the company in a series of games.

Allen Enlow & Joe Bolster; The Laff Maker.

Wayne Federman; The Laff Maker

Cathy Ladman, Susie Essman & Wayne Federman; A Day In New York

Johnny Solomon; The Laff Maker

Steve Shaffer; A Day in New York
Gabe Abelson & Patty Rosborough; The Laff Maker

Barry Neikrug ; the Laff Maker

Joe Vega, Rob Ross & Steve Shaffer; A Day in New York

Allen Enlow & Marian Allen; The Laff Maker
Steve Hytner, Hiram Kasten & Nancy Redman;The Laff Maker.

We had frequent guest stars of our own:  Eddie Murphy, Carol Leifer, Rick Overton, Sam Kinison and Chris Rock.  But it was Robin Williams who had the strongest affect on the group – both good and bad.

Robin was in Manhattan shooting “Moscow on the Hudson.”  By day, he worked on location.  At night, he hit every comedy club and improv company in town.  He was everywhere.  We were all thrilled when he first started playing with us, but that dissipated quickly as certain elements became painfully apparent.  From the moment he set foot on stage, the audience didn’t care about the rest of us.  If you were in a scene with Robin, he was leading.  A few of my players who had the improv chops to keep up, would sometimes mistakenly think they were in a teamwork situation, until Robin would whisper “Just follow me.”  That’s when it became apparent that Robin wasn’t doing true improv.  He just took his vast repertoire of characters and one liners and threw them into every situation, whether the scene warranted it or not.

Robin Williams & Jeannie McBride
Dennis Wolfberg playing Expert as Robin Williams watches.

I mustered up the courage to talk to Robin about some of these things and surprisingly, he was gracious and accommodating.  He agreed to only appear in the last third of the set, and I started pushing him towards verbal based formats where he just had to rely on himself.

There were nights when he would come just to watch and sit in the dark on the side of the room so the audience wouldn’t notice him.  He often made a point of talking to some of the members of the group after the show, expressing how he liked what they did on stage.  For many, having someone of Robin’s caliber complement their work, was a magnificent ego boost.  I had some wonderful conversations with Robin about the work I’d done with David Shepherd and Paul Sills.   Paul found himself in a similar situation to mine when Robin was a guest star in “Sills & Company,” an off-Broadway show consisting of Spolin games performed by original Compass and Second City cast members.  Paul had to quickly put the brakes on Robin doing whatever he wanted to on stage, and forced him to learn the games.  Paul once said to me that Robin was a “brilliant hog.”

Wayne Federman improvising with Robin Williams
Dom Irrera & Robin Williams improvising.

One night while I was introducing the improv set, there was an audible gasp from the audience followed by thunderous applause.  I knew immediately it wasn’t for me.  Robin simply walked on stage, slid his arms between mine and proceeded to unbutton my shirt as I continued to talk.  As his hands reached down towards my fly, I pulled myself away and bellowed “Ladies and gentlemen, you’re in for a treat.  Robin is going to play a game by himself called “Silent Wrestling,” which is a situation beyond words.  Let’s have a suggestion for why Robin can’t talk!”  Silent Wrestling was originally an event from David Shepherd’s Improv Olympics.  It is an extremely difficult game which forces the player to focus primarily on activity and space without any recourse to verbalizing.

Silent Wrestling Event rules
As Robin glared at me, I took the suggestion “Man comes home drunk in the middle of the night.”  I beckoned Andy Ashe to come on stage and accompany Robin on the piano.  I then reminded Robin once again “Remember, you cannot talk!  You can make non-verbal sounds, but you can’t talk.” 

Robin is no slouch when it comes to pantomime. He was brilliant at trying to put the key in the door, stumbling into the living room banging into various pieces of furniture, and almost urinating in one of the potted plants.  His work was exquisitely detailed and vibrant.  Rather than relying on non-verbal sounds, he made up his own non-verbal sound effects which immediately got laughs from the audience, particularly when he kept stepping on his cat.  

Then, he cheated.  Periodically, he would turn his head and do the offstage voice of his wife, who was wondering what was going on downstairs.  Soon, he had his children do the same, eventually getting into a dialogue with their mother.   As we kept glaring at each other from across the stage, my expression said “You prick.”  His said “What?  My character isn’t talking.”   The scene ended with Robin curling up in the cat’s litter box.  I had to admit, it was a brilliant one man performance.  As Robin bounced off the stage, breathing hard and sweating profusely, he grabbed me and whispered “That was hard!”

We talked about the format for a bit, as well as other events from the Improv Olympics.  Robin’s improv background doesn’t follow the path of discovering the discipline through group activity.  Growing up as a single child with hardly any friends, Robin entertained himself in the attic by making up characters interacting with each other.  So, he’s really a one man improv ensemble, relying on nobody else but himself, which is sort of antithetical to improv.

The last time I saw Robin, I gave him one of the old format books from the Improv Olympics. Robin thanked me, anointed me as the "Improv Sensei," and disappeared into the city, hitting at least several more clubs, cabaret and theatres before the night was out.

Robin plays Expert, as Rob Ross, Dennis Wolfberg, Lisa Mende, Abby Stein & Ron Zimmerman wait - and wait.

By the end of my tenure at the Comic Strip, I was burned out and it was time to move on, although the club has always remained my second home.  There is a common misconception that comedians are aloof and self-centered, but I found the comedians I worked with to be warm, loving, inclusive, and always looking out for each other.  I was an outsider, yet from the start, they embraced me and instantly made me feel welcomed.  Aside from the workshops and shows I ran, my fondest memories come from hanging at the bar watching the Tonight Show or Letterman as one of the members of my troupe were having their first national tv exposure.  Not a day goes by when I’m watching tv, that some member of my company doesn’t pop up on screen.  Smiling, I close my eyes and I’m back in that dim, dark, musky environment reeking of cigarettes and beer. The Comic Strip still intoxicates and excites me.

Michael Golding is a writer, director and improv teacher.  He can be contacted for workshops, festivals and private consultations at migaluch@yahoo.com. Michael participated in the evolution of the Improv Olympics & Canadian Improv Games. Artistic director of the Comic Strip Improv Group in New York & created the Insight Theatre Company for Planned Parenthood, Ottawa.  He is a faculty member at El Camino College in Los Angeles, working with at-risk teens and traditional students. His screenplay credits include "Celebrity Pet" for the Disney Channel and the documentary "David Shepherd: A Lifetime of Improvisational Theatre."  His book, Listen Harder, a collection of essays, curriculum and memorabilia on improvisation and educational theatre, is available on Amazon, Barnes & Noble and CreateSpace. Michael holds a BFA degree in Drama from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts & an MA degree in Educational Theatre from NYU’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education & Human Development.


1 comment:

  1. Dear He Who Wears The Sash: wonderful piece.......and, as always, thanks for the kind words on our show and my involvement. Comedic Acting is ALL I ever wanted to do. Having a wonderful director like you, was a great thing.