basilwhite (basilwhite) wrote,

Improv Comedy interview, Washington Post, September 2000

What is your name?
Basil White.

What city do you live in?
Fairfax, Virginia.

What's the name of your troupe? How long have you been with them?

ComedySportz ( I've been in the troupe since July of 1997.

Can you briefly describe your troupe's history?

We've played in several locations in the Northern Virginia are since the early 1990's.

How would you say your troupe differs from others in the area...

--In terms of style?

ComedySportz is a competitive event, which adds a lot of intensity to the shows.

--In terms of social climate?

It's a family-friendly show, but without the low-balling dreck that people tend to associate with clean entertainment.

If you've done improv in other cities, how does DC compare to them?

DC audiences are the best on the planet. They're not jaded, and they're well-read. They know what's going
on. That's a powerful combination of factors for a comedy audience.

What drew you to improv over, say, scripted theater or standup comedy?

Competitive improv is a game. It's a contest. It's visceral. Scripted theater is a job. I've taken paying acting gigs since ComedySportz, but the only
acting I did before that was my role as a confederate drummer boy in a third-grade Catholic school play. I
also perform standup comedy and host the DC/Baltimore Standup Showcase (, but I consider
improv and standup to be entirely different skills.

Do you see yourself primarily as a comedian or an actor? A Vaudevillian or an artist?

I'm a comedian, because I create comedy. I'm not an actor. Even when I'm acting for a tv spot or a video
production, I pretend that I'm actually playing ComedySportz, because that's the only theatrical context I have. To me, acting is pretending to be something you're not. In improv, I say and do what I would really say and do if I were actually a doctor or basset hound or whatever the audience offers. I don't know if that's acting or not. You'd have to ask an actor.

Does your troupe lean more towards the presentational or the progressive end of the improv spectrum?

We present some very basic, stock improv games as well as some highly experimental stuff, based on our read
of the audience that night. We get a lot of repeat business, so if the audience is full of loyal fans, we'll make it a point to show them something that they've never seen before.

If you could recommend one book about improv to a student of the form, which book would it be?

The Living Playbook

Do you take an active role in finding/recruiting new talent for your troupe? What do you look for?

We teach public workshops and pick new talent out of the workshop graduates. We look for people who accept ideas from other players and commit to what they're doing on stage.
To what level of public recognition/respect does your troupe aspire?

We will accept nothing less than total world domination.

Can improv work on television? Can you cite an example of where it has (or hasn't) worked?

Improv has, and does, work on television. My favorite examples are the rants on World Wrestling Federation and Monday Night Football.

Do you subscribe to Del Close's "Don't try to be funny" dictum? How literally do you take it?

If you're committed to the structure of the show and the suggestions you receive, the funny will always emerge. Committing to the characters, problems and suggestions of a scene is always funnier than the wacky guy with the rainbow wig, every time.

Do you ever do scenes (or, for that matter, shows) where you explicitly try to be serious from start to finish?

We're only deliberately serious when the act of being serious is part of the structure of the game, such as "Eat It" when players have to take a bite of food and leave it in their mouth for the duration of the scene for every time. they make the audience laugh. Usually,
we don't try to be deliberately serious, or deliberately funny, or deliberately anything. "Deliberate" is an uncommon adjective in ComedySportz.

Have you tried long form? Is that a direction you'd prefer to try more or less?

We've performed long form improv in the past, and may do so again in the future. We have a long form holiday show that we might perform a few times this winter.

Is improv a stepping stone to something else for you? What other types of theater do you regularly perform?

I host the DC/Baltimore Standup Showcase (, which is a whole heck of a lot of fun. Very few standup comics pursue improv, but I think many of them would benefit from what improv teaches about reacting to the crowd.

What's the best single experience you've had with improv?

In improv, the thing you're most afraid to do ends up becoming the thing that you must do. Once we played a game where the referee gathers items from the audience while the players aren't looking and shows the items one at a time to the players who try to make sight gags with the items. One night, the item was a dog biscuit. In that moment, I knew that eating that dog
biscuit was the last thing I wanted to do, the most inspired thing I could do, and the funniest thing I could do. That's why we try to use every offer we get that doesn't violate community standards. If you're going to solicit ideas from people, you're being
exploitative if you don't take the offers you're given, whether they're in the form of an occupation, a book title, or horsemeat and cornstarch pressed into
the shape of a bone.

Do you see much steamrolling" (Strong performers targeting weaker ones in a scene)? Do you ever do this? Have you ever been on the receiving end of it?

We reward team players and put the steamrollers back on track. Steamrollers don't last very long in
ComedySportz. We had a few older players try to throw their weight around when I and the rest of my workshop graduates began playing, but after four years of Catholic boarding school, there was no way I was going
to be intimidated by a bunch of kids from drama class.

Do you see much "logrolling" (mediocre performers
reaffirming one another's genius)?

If logrolling has occured in ComedySportz, I haven't seen it. The structure of our show would make that
sort of behavior seem ludicrous and bizarre.

Do people come into improv with expectations they maybe shouldn't have?

Some people come to workshops expecting to be taught how to be funny, as if there's a set of tasks that you
can master which will yield humor. But funny requires an openness to ideas and the development of a different way of thinking, which is difficult for some
people to accept. Some people will do anything to be funny as long as they don't have to change their way of thinking or do anything embarrassing.

What are good and bad traits in a player? In a director?

Good players commit to suggestions and the action and ideas occuring on stage, and exploit the offers and
suggestions from the audience and other players. Bad players are unresponsive or dismissive of ideas and
offers from other players and the audience. A good director knows what kind of direction each player needs and can give direction in a way that each player can understand. A bad director is Ed Wood, jr.

Are there ever any real surprises in audience suggestions?

Before the show, we explain that audience members will get a "brown bag foul" for making lewd, crude or
socially unacceptable suggestions. Despite this clear warning, occasionally the first suggestion of the show
will involve prostitution or devil worship. I'm convinced that there's a segment of the population who
go to ComedySportz matches just so they can wear a paper grocery bag on their head.

Is a show better when it looks really slick and seamless, or rough and thrown-together?

Our show has a dress code and a structure that keeps the show professional without impeding our creativity. Audiences are precious, and we respect them.

Can you sum up your philosophy of improv in (roughly) ten words or less?

Improv is portraying what you would love if you were different. Whoops, that's eleven words.

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