On Wednesday, December 18th, I (Amanda Ariel Peggy Xeller!) got to interview Magnet’s own Russ Armstrong about growth in improv, understanding the makings of a good team, and how to be a good teacher, director, and improviser. Below is the transcribed interview.
Where are you from originally?
I’m from Michigan. I’m from Ann Arbor, Michigan.
How did you get involved in improv?
I started improvising in high school. I was watching Whose Line Is It Anyway? with my friends and started an improv group to play short form games. The Pioneer Comedy Troupe from Pioneer High School. It was my junior year of high school. We thought we were the coolest people in the world and we didn’t know we were actually the lamest people in the world.
You went to Northwestern yes? Did you do improv in college? What was the improv there called.
I did. Yep. It was the Mee-ow Show. It was billed as 1/3 improv, 1/3 sketch, 1/3 rock ‘n’ roll. Lots of short form stuff. It was great, super fun. It was a blast.
And you studied in Chicago as well? At iO and Second City? How does the training there compare to the training you learned in NYC?
It’s all the same stuff just different approaches to it. I think Chicago tends to nurture you finding your voice a little bit more. They give you a little more time, marinates in a way that Chicago does with everything, with theater and music and food. Because the spotlight isn’t on it as much, there’s less pressure to produce immediately. New York tends to have a little more pressure because it is New York. And it’s more expensive. I think they are both awesome attributes. It’s good to have that pressure. I love that about New York.
Why did you come to NYC?
I was in Chicago. I lived 5 blocks from Wrigley Field, 5 blocks from iO – it was great. And my girlfriend, now fiancé, she was out here and I wanted to be in the same city. So I came out here. I came to see about a girl. This is me chasing her around. This is just me chasing women – ask me why I’m going to L.A. – to chase women not jobs.
What attracted you to the Magnet?
There were more Chicago people here so this is where I knew more people. My first class in New York was at UCB. It was great.
Who was your first teacher here?
Joe Wengert was my first teacher.
Who was your first teacher at the Magnet?
Who has been your most influential instructor?
I feel like everyone has to cheat and say multiple names.
Do you know Animal Farm by George Orwell? The character Benjamin? He’s the donkey who’s seen it all. I like Armando because he’s been through so much so he doesn’t get down about things. He has this long vision. I really liked Anthony King because we butted heads and I had to swallow a lot of pride with him. He had a lot of great stuff to say. I liked Joe Bill because he’s got the most style and presence as just a fucking improv dude. I really liked Rachael Mason, too, she was a favorite of mine. Bill Arnett, Noah Gregoropoulos, and T.J. – they were all great.
I also want to throw Rick Andrews and Christian Capozzoli in there. Those two guys I respect immensely. Even though they haven’t been my teachers. You spend, what? Two months with a teacher? I’ve been in so many rehearsals with Rick and directed by Christian so much that I’ve gotten quantitatively more from them than anybody.
Two of my best friends are big improv teachers who have directed me as well. Jordan Klepper and Laura Grey. They are both incredible teachers and in my mind have great dual awareness. When teaching improv and directing you have to cater to the ego and what is actually going on. My favorite directors are theater directors. They find a way to make you feel good about it and make you think that it’s your choice; you’ll take all the gas out of the tank if you make someone feel terrible about their choice. And then they can’t do the work. And it’s showtime and despite the fact that you may be correct, everyone loses because they’re the ones onstage unable to execute because you ruined their head. Everyone looks bad. Directors don’t have to beat you down to build you back up.
It’s hard for me to pick of favorite so I’m going to say Bill Arnett because he had a great blog but killed it too soon.
Here’s Bill Arnett’s blog! http://billarnett.com/wordpress/
I would also add Will Hines. For me, he picked up where Bill left off blog-wise. Never had Will as a teacher, but I love and really respect his voice on that blog. Come to think of it, I’m not sure if he’s an actual living human or just a blog… Let me know if anyone sees him in the flesh.
Here’s Will Hines’ blog! http://improvnonsense.tumblr.com
Do you have an improv mantra?
Do something funny. Do something you think is funny.
Who inspires you and motivates you? Who are your favorite improvisers?
I had a UCB class with this guy Jibri Nuriddin. We tried to do a couple of indie things together but never were able to schedule it. He was amazing. Also, Rick, obviously. Laura Grey, Terry Withers, George Basil. Everybody.
What quality should every improviser possess?
Generosity. Agility. Promptness in e-mail responses. Prioritization. A job that at least gives them enough money to not have other people pay for their dues. A telephone. Awareness and some balls to do something about it. And a little bit of taste of something you are interested in in some way. But mostly being an honest student of human behavior.
What made you want to start teaching?
I’m just a nerd. I’m a tinkerer. I like to figure stuff out. I like this so much and was spending so much time with it in my life – you can’t like anything and then not try to figure it out and dig deeper than the surface. It gets really exciting to nerd out and be a scientist to see what works and what doesn’t work. You try to figure out alchemy ways to help other people see something the way you see it. You’re trying to expand the language and have fun with them and push deeper into whatever the thing is. It’s cool, it’s scary, it’s like finding a machete and hacking through the jungle.
What was the first class that you taught?
It was Level 2 at the Magnet. Me and Armando co-taught, which means that he’s there for a little bit then he drops off. He tells you with 3 or 4 words what you’re doing wrong and then everything makes sense. It was great, my first three classes at the Magnet were monsters – they were all filled with heavy hitters.
How does your strengths as an improviser influence your teaching and your exercises?
Every teacher teaches towards their style. You’re not going to teach towards something that you don’t like or you don’t do well. Students will say I use a lot of extraneous metaphors…maybe they’re somewhat helpful. The way I’ve been teaching and directing stuff has changed with my own tastes over the past couple years. As you grow and change as everybody does, you become interested in different stuff and become a different director. You become a different teacher.
What is something you first work on with new improvisers?
Getting on the same page. Not interrupting each other. Listening to each other. Finding a way to join one thing.
What struggles do you see improvisers encounter in your classes? How do you help the improvisers navigate through them?
I taught mostly Level 2 – that’s where everything hits the wall. That’s where it goes from “play time” to “now you have to build a thing.” Level 2 is where people are starting to focus on what they are actually doing and not just saying everything is right. You start to be discerning with your own work, start developing a nose for your own bull while also not letting it slow you down, ideas which are sort of antithetical. I have to keep people confident enough without having them remain in the Eden of Everything Is Right.
What do you find trip people up in improv?
It’s different for every person because everyone comes from a different place. I think ego is the ultimate thing that trips everyone up, myself included. I foolishly, but very smartly, took notes extensively, and still do to this day, every time I take a class because I know that my brain is a natural rebel. Most of the time, if you tell it to do something, it will reject it immediately. Even if you are in a class to learn and you’re like “I’m so open-minded” it’s really hard to have someone tell you something and then just do it well immediately. I mean it’s not impossible, but it takes a lot of work and a lot of trust in that person. It has to become your choice to do it. If you’ve only known me for three hours you’re not necessarily going to be willing to immediately let go of your own notions and do what I say. And you shouldn’t necessarily give that trust unless we’re getting eaten by saber tooth tigers. But it’s that letting go and trusting people, trusting directors, trusting teammates, trusting yourself.
When you are watching a student or a scene in class, what are you looking for in what they are doing well? And how do you respond to enable growth in their improv?
It’s craft plus fuel. And a good exercise. I spend a lot of time crafting exercises to get down to their empirical core so people can just get in and do it and execute it. If someone can let go of them self and just do that thing – that’s so exciting. You’ve seen someone give up everything and just try to execute what is in front of them. It levels the playing field and gets everyone communicating on the same page. Someone bringing something new, someone bringing a little of them self, bringing a little soul to it – that’s what you want to see. If it’s all soul and no craft then it’s tough to build a team out of that. If it’s all craft and no soul, no one wants to watch that. It doesn’t feel real. Playing to both at the same time – that’s the sweet spot.
Talk about the importance of show work vs. class work and how your role changes from director to teacher.
You have to look at it as: You’ve been broke before. I’ve been broke before. People have finite amounts of money and they’re spending it on your show. Magnet’s raising ticket prices. You can’t charge that much! It’s an unscripted show, you’re in a lobby that’s not the sexiest place on earth or you’re standing outside in the cold, charging for beer… if you are taking someone’s money, you are under the obligation to give them a show. You are not changing your tactics or the integrity of the work. You are still doing the improv. You are still doing all those beautiful soulful things that you do. But you need to be aware to the fact that there’s an audience there and they want to laugh. And I think that makes the work better. It’s cool to play for three people in the Triple Crown Basement. But it’s important to be able to do that work in front of an audience.
Regarding the distinction between director and teacher, I’d paraphrase Mick Napier’s Second City blog where he says, “When I teach, I expect insecurity and when I direct I assume competence.” That when we’re in class, we expect you to be a little unsure but when we’re onstage, we don’t want to see you apologize for not being perfect — we want to see your power. My role is different as a teacher than it is as a director. As a director I assume you know how to do something. I’m assuming I don’t have to boost your ego. I’m assuming we can do the work.
Here’s Mick’s Second City blog! http://www.annoyanceproductions.com/mainstage.html
What was the first team you were on at the theater?
Oswald. Oswald was my first Megawatt Team. With Kevin Cragg Emily Shapiro, Noel Dinneen, Matt Shafeek, Frank Bonomo. It was great.
Why did it end?
It just got cut up in the shuffle. Too strong.
What were some other early shows and teams you were a part of and what made them special?
Statues of Liberty, which is now Trike. I played a lot with 4Track and toured with them a lot. That was really important. Christian, George, Matt, and Frank, they were really generous in bringing me and some other guys out with them to tour. Christian, he’s crazy. I’ve learned a ton from watching him. He’s just great. He’s a do-er. I was lucky to be at the Magnet really early on where we could pitch a lot of random one off shows and start little things here and there.
And the sketch teams! That was huge! That was probably my favorite thing. With Ripe, we used to do a show a week, a brand new show every week, in the Training Center every Saturday night. There’d be like 5 people in the audience, tops. My girlfriend, Teddy Shiver’s mom and a Level 1 student who was cold and didn’t want to go home. But that show snowballed into now what is the Magnet Sketch Teams. It’s really cool to see that stuff happen and see people with it from the beginning now killing it.
What makes a great team?
Shared taste. That’s why groups of friends are better improvisers than teams that a theater has thrown together. Everybody likes the same thing and thinks the same thing’s funny. There’s going to be immediate trust, immediate listening, immediate on-boardness. It doesn’t matter how good you are. If 8 people think 8 totally different things are funny and aren’t willing to let down their arms and support one idea, then you’re always going to be in this tumultuous sea in search of a captain. Shared taste – it’s everything.
Every TV show, every movie, every great improv team you’ve ever seen, the common denominator is always that more than one person thought the same thing was funny and they all could get on board with that. If you have 8 brilliant, generous people who all think something different is funny, that team isn’t going to get better than mediocre.
“Find your tribe.” – Amy Poehler.
Who haven’t you played with that you would love to improvise with?
You! Oh we did that, we did a scene. I feel like, everyone. This new generation of Magnet folks that is so great. Same with other theaters. Everyone! Diplomatic answer for the win!
What are some proud accomplishments you have had as an improviser, or creator, or teacher or or or?
How has improv changed you as a person?
A ton. It’s made me an infinitely better listener… though many people would probably argue that point. I hate improv as therapy but I think improv as Life 201 is great. I don’t think it should be a place where you just unload your troubles, but it teaches you how to listen to each other and work together. When I work with comedians who are not improv people, it can be…funny — the inability to communicate, to support, the sole focus on “my idea.” These are things that I still fail at all the time, of course. But good Lord, if it weren’t for improv, I’d be a lot worse.
How do you come up with material for sketch?
A million different ways. Funny stuff you see, funny stuff you hear. Connecting two words. Stuff that makes you react in any way and then finding a way to twist it. Sketch is so much more craft based. All you need to get started with it, as most good improv, is anything that puts a twinkle in your eye, that makes your butthole pucker a little bit, anything that does that. Then that’s when craft comes into play.
As you build your craft as a writer, you require less of a “perfect” idea to get to the end of a sketch. When you just start out and you have no craft — you can’t isolate games, can’t refine them down, can’t turn them, can’t recognize beats, can’t edit, can’t hear the music — when you have no craft, you really need to have a complete vision come to you in the night and show you the way. But that’s a really inconsistent way to create. So you build your craft.
Thomas Lennon and Ben Garant have a great metaphor about a comedy writer being like a guy who tiles bathrooms. You’re not a magical unicorn waiting for inspiration, you’re the guy who tiles and grouts bathrooms. Finish a ton of bathrooms and you’ll get really good at finishing bathrooms. The better your craft, the less fuel you need. The more experience I have the less inspiration I need. Full disclosure: I am far, far from there, but that’s the trajectory I’ve started to notice in my own work.
You just closed a sketch show called Guilty Bystanders. Can you tell us a little about this show?
Me and my buddy Jordan Klepper, who I spend every waking minute with now, we wanted to write a sketch show and we made the deliberate choice to write about whatever we were feeling and then find a way to package it into a show as opposed to finding a package and then writing that package. It was great.
I was a huge fan of Jordan in Chicago for years. Then I moved here, I was good friends with his wife, and I snatched them both up and made them both work with me. Our first time hanging out together we spent 7 hours in a bar. We just had very similar tastes and from there it was just hitting the keys. We were writing the same thing and knew what it sounded like. I think it was successful because of that. And Jordan, he’s got big shoulders, he doesn’t really he’s got very narrow, feminine shoulders, but writing on that guy’s back is great. He’s incredibly smart and supportive and makes your work better.
You also direct sketch at The Magnet, first Dispacho and now Ca$h. Any others?
The Ripe groups and the stuff before that, below ground Magnet Sketch Teams, Colorado Dad.
Do you draw on your abilities as an improviser to aid your direction?
Sketch is different. It’s a different animal. They look similar on stage though: 3 minute funny thing with people and it’s sort of bare bonesy. The way you get to it is different.
The biggest way they are similar is getting everybody facing the same direction depending on the taste, on a single game. And in that sense you are teaching people to find a game or joke, one driving joke, and getting everybody to jump on board. Sketch erodes all the bull away and suddenly you are forced to face it and say, “I think this thing is cool but it’s getting in the way of the sketch.” It makes you ask if things are serving the piece and if your ego is getting in the way. Sketch is like improv if improv had no supportive mothers or fathers. In sketch, it’s more apparent when something isn’t funny because no one is applauding the effort in sketch. It’s antithetical to improv in that sense. Sounds uplifting, right? Sign up for Sketch 1 with Armando today!
What makes a good sketch director?
I’ll tell you when I find out!
Keeping spirits high, having fun. I have learned so much directing sketch. I’m still new. I’ve only been doing it for maybe 2 years. I don’t know…being there on time. It’s SO much time! E-mailing notes, communicating with people. It’s sort of being a dad: 90% of it is showing up. If you are there if you are communicating. I think having a clear vision about what your taste is and being able to communicate it so people don’t feel lost so they understand the notes. Though I truly don’t know. I still feel very new to it.
What do you foresee your next step in this comedy business to be?
Jesus I don’t know. I’ve been really lucky lately. I would love to start being able to get my friends jobs but I don’t think I’m quite there yet. I’m writing right now for some MTV shows and another show. It’s been very busy, which is amazing and wonderful, but I don’t get to do my own stuff anymore. It’s tough achieving that balance of writing jokes for something else and finding that energy to write your own stuff. That’s something I’m learning.
What are some things you want to accomplish with your career and your art?
Keep on working with awesome people and keep doing fun things. Re: Art; I just wrote a sketch about a poodle doing cocaine, so I’m pretty far from art.
I’d like to become a better video editor. You laugh but that! Man! You know what the most important discoveries are? Soap, clean water. Super basic stuff like that. Being an editor is unsexy and basic, but man, it evolves everything. You know what people should be doing? Learning how to be a sick editor. It’s a game changer. I want to be a better editor.
What life lessons do you enjoy watching people bring to their improv?
I think love teaches you a lot about improv. Or being in a relationship. And vice versa. Faith, trust, opening up. Opening up in a relationship, trusting someone, it’s a lot of the same muscles that you’ll use onstage with your teammates. It’s a different arena but falling in love and giving someone a little control over your heart — whether it’s getting crushed onstage when no one laughs, or getting crushed in the real world when they tell you it’s over — you’re giving the keys to someone else and saying, “no matter what happens next, I got you.”
The other day, Jordan made a great observation that students who are married tend to resist less when asked to act like a flamingo or lose an argument in a scene. They’re practiced in the art of working with another person, the art of compromising. Love makes not being in control look sexy, it lures you in. It’s a valuable lesson. Live a life man! I’m realizing this all sounds very Chicago… So to balance, I’d also like to close with, “Say where the hell you are!” It’s so boring when I don’t know where you are, just say where you are! Gimme some context, bro! Find one thing that’s funny and play with it. And fall in love. And say where you are. And fall in love.
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