Got Your Back

My first true encounter with The Skinny Improv was in a standup comedy competition called The Deadpan Comedy Festival, which took place in October of 2007. In 2006 my high school’s broadcast journalism class ran a story about the local improv theatre’s comedy contest. I only learned that this competition existed once it had already passed and I was watching the finished news story. I had performed standup exactly one time before—around eight months prior, at a speech and debate tournament in Joplin, Missouri, which allowed bastardized speech/debate events, such as “Group Improv” or “Original Standup Comedy,” which were not sanctioned by the National Forensic League and were therefore uncommonly found at tournaments—and I already had the itch. I decided I would be competing next year, and patiently waited for the following fall.

In the meantime I performed standup at every opportunity I had available: the Joplin Speech and Debate tournament the following year and my high school’s talent show. Exactly two opportunities. In October of 2007 I was a baby-faced college freshman with a terrible bowl cut and almost no confidence. In order to enter the Deadpan Comedy Festival, one had to audition—a process which turned out to be completely unnecessary because not enough people tried out for anyone to be turned away. I auditioned alongside the only other friend I had who shared an interest in performing standup (we lost touch years ago, and as far as I know he now lives somewhere in California and peevishly trolls people on Twitter), and we both advanced to the actual competition.

The downtown sector of Springfield, Missouri, was still discovering (and I suppose still is discovering) what kind of downtown it wanted to be: artsy? Douche-y? Historical? New and shiny? Classy? Dive-y? The Skinny Improv Comedy Theatre was built into a large former clothing store a stone’s throw from the town square, and so it was located right in the heart of the tonally enigmatic, identity crisis of an area that was Downtown Springfield. A week after the “audition,” I stepped into the high-ceilinged lobby of The Skinny Improv with a Hollister dress shirt that was too big for my body and arms, and minutes upon minutes of memorized one-liners in my head. I saw black and white photos of the current “Main Stage” cast on the wall of the lobby, across from the concessions bar, which, according to its menu, sold bottled soda, candy bars, and a $500 egg roll. 

I checked in with the ticket taker and she directed me to the greenroom, which was down a long hallway, the walls of which were lined with promotional art for improv and sketch shows, children’s plays, and Shakespearian festivals—all produced at or by this theatre. In the greenroom I met the other competitors. Outside of my one friend, I had never met any of them before, and I recognized some of their faces from the wall in the lobby. I had no idea that a handful of the people in that room would become some of my best friends years later.

(I’m very embarrassed to post these videos. You don’t have to watch them.)

 

Seven or eight of us performed our bits and told our jokes during the first round, and three of us advanced to the final round, including myself. During the final round, the comics were allowed to perform a longer set than in the first round, but the jokes had to be different. I wish I could recall any of the jokes of my fellow competitors, but I was so nervous that I didn’t let myself listen to any of the other sets. This competition was technically my fourth time ever performing standup, and I had always been anxious about the crowd’s reaction, so I used that tense, skittish energy and let it transform my on-stage personality into a visibly-nervous, neurotic joke-slinger who used shaky gaps of silence to command attention. (I arrogantly thought I had it all figured out; I would continue to perform as this exaggeratedly nervous version of myself until I did my first bar show, and my soft-spoken nature caused me to be ignored off of the stage by the garrulous and semi-drunken audience. Then I never performed as that caricature of myself again.) To my own surprise I won first place, taking home one hundred dollars and a frying pan made to look like a trophy. I shook hands with my opponents and became their friends on Facebook. Right before leaving I met the Skinny Improv’s owner, founder, and mastermind: Jeff Jenkins. He was a bona fide celebrity in Southwest Missouri, and I was hoping he’d enjoyed my set. Maybe he’ll ask me to join the improv cast, I thought. Maybe I’ll get to host next year’s Deadpan Comedy Festival. I introduced myself to Mr. Jenkins, and shook his hand. With a stone face he said, “Good job,” and continued talking to someone nearby.

I only stepped foot into the Skinny Improv one other time between that day in October 2007 and August 2009—it was to perform five minutes of standup on The Mystery Hour, a live late night talk show created by and starring Jeff Houghton, a Skinny Improv Main Stage performer who would later become a mentor and close friend of mine. In that 22-month gap I was focused on my college classes and figuring out what my major would be, finding opportunities to do standup, and playing music with a rock band called Emergency Poncho, which would soon be taking an indefinite hiatus that continues to this day. I had no interest in performing improv.

Then in August 2009 I saw that The Skinny Improv was holding open auditions to join a team called Improv Sports, a short-form competitive improv show, designed to be like Comedy Sportz shows (if my memory serves me correctly, the show was originally called Improv Sportz, actually—with a “z” instead of an “s”—but the Skinny changed its show’s name to avoid being sued). I auditioned with the five Main Stage players alongside the other wannabe improvisers, and most of us made it in.

I told myself and everyone else I was only studying and performing improv in order to improve my standup. And this was true for a while, but then I fell for improv. Hard.

Old "Sports" Cast Photo

Old “Sports” Cast Photo

I immediately went from performing comedy once every two months at best to twice a weekend at the very least. Every Friday and Saturday at 10pm my ragtag crew of in-training improvisers would hit the stage and try to earn points from the audience by making them laugh at our gimmicky improvised games. We had a lot of heart, and we were really very terrible at improvisation. Just God-awful. But I don’t think we had any idea how bad we were, and if we did we must not have cared. We had each other, and we had stage time, and that was all that mattered. 

I wound up learning that the reason this new team had been assembled so rapidly and permissively was because The Skinny (as we now all called it) was low on funds and cast members. Though we were new, this place—this strange little comedy theatre stuck between an adorable gelato shoppe and a skeezy dance club called ICON—was our new home, and the collective new blood did all we could to bring in audiences.

I spent the next four years performing comedy at The Skinny with a regularity that seemed too good to be true. We all seemed to be living out our dreams—even with minimal training, the massive amounts of undeserved stage time made every improviser a local wunderkind. I remember the first time I was allowed to fill in on the Main Stage show, when I had been exclusively performing in the gamey Improv Sports show up until then, and I was so nervous and excited and proud. And I think it was one of the worst shows I ever did. I remember being so nervous in a scene, wanting to impress the other Main Stagers so badly that I forgot to speak at more than one point. Jeff Jenkins said, “[In improv] you’re only as good as your next show.” I couldn’t wait for that next show.

I actually hurt Jeff Houghton's back a lot immediately after this.

I actually hurt Jeff Houghton’s back a lot immediately after this.

I was eventually promoted to Main Stage, and it was a bittersweet moment—the only reason there was now room for me on the cast was because two of my close friends were moving away. One was Leah Gunn, who was my first improv coach on Improv Sports, and the person who originally suggested I audition in the first place. She was small and beautiful and mighty, and so funny, and now she lives happily in LA with her husband Matthew. The other was Dan Clair, who was my first improv teacher, and quickly became one of my best friends. He introduced me to the movie Hot Rod and to Schlafly Pumpkin Ale (my favorite beer), and one time he got beat up by some homophobes for giving me a hug after a show (and Dan isn’t even gay). Dan now lives in Chicago, and is my roommate.

IMG_2586

Dave Smith, Dan Clair, me, and James Massey–days before Dan moved to Chicago.

That furtherance inspired a feeling that is indescribable. I was suddenly a member of both groups: the friends I started my improv career alongside, and my veteran heroes. For the next three years I felt like I encompassed the entire spectrum of roles at the Skinny Improv—from leader, to everyman, to show producer, to writer. Over time I earned the trust and close friendship of the man I had shaken hands with years go, Jeff Jenkins. And he taught me so much of what I know about comedy, improv, loyalty, and production. What I’ve learned from him, and the opportunities he allowed me (and my friends) I consider to be truly invaluable. The Skinny let me run a standup open mic, write a sketch show (and concurrently discover that I have no idea how to direct a sketch show), make fun of Nicolas Cage movies in front of an audience, and do every other weird thing I could think of in front of an audience, too. 

"Tyler Climbs Dan In Order To Try To Retrieve A Copy Of 'Back To The Future part III,' The Novel"

“Tyler Climbs Dan In Order To Try To Retrieve A Copy Of ‘Back To The Future part III,’ The Novel”

The Skinny’s location changed three times while I was a member, and its stage, regardless of its location, was where I built my confidence and learned how to perform—but it was people who made that place important to me. The Skinny Improv was a community. It was this weird club of people who had probably never been allowed to join a club before. We were composed of introverts conquering introversion, classroomless class clowns, artsy dorks with quickdraw puns, and hopeful youngsters who weren’t blessed with being born in a bigger city. We had each others’ backs, we were each others’ soul mates, and some of us were incestuous—within the group, of course.

Mutanto

The Skinny put people in my life who changed me in such a way that I’m scared to think of what my life would be like if I had never met them. Dave Smith became my first best friend in comedy. Brice Johnson made me wish I could be more naturally funny, and has the best musical comedy I’ve ever seen live. James Massey has probably made me laugh harder than anyone I didn’t attend high school with. Nick Saverino helped me never lose focus of standup (which is primarily what I do now, now that I live in Chicago). Lynn Hughes became my roommate and one of my most trusted friends. George Hoffman is a wellspring of encouragement, and I think he can sense when one needs it the most. Sarah Jenkins invented a show with me, and is one of the sweetest, most considerate people I’ve ever known. Jeff Houghton became a mentor and moral/comedy compass for me, let me write for his talk show (which existed because of The Skinny), and helped inspire me to move away from my hometown to pursue my dreams because he did the same thing. Scott Kirchner made me go to Australia so that we could convince ourselves to move to Chicago. Jeff Jenkins always gave me chance after chance after chance.

The list goes on—there are dozens more people I could name and tell stories about, but we’re already close to 2,000 words in this essay, so I need to cut myself off here soon. And if you’re reading this, there’s a good chance you don’t know most or all of those people, and that’s a shame. But I hope you have people like them in your own life.

UseYourWords2014

The current cast of Use Your Words, a show about books, which I started with Sarah Jenkins in the spring of 2011. At Washington University in St. Louis.

As I write this, the final—the final—Skinny Improv show is taking place in Springfield, Missouri, and I’m heartbroken to be stranded in Chicago. I’m in my home at my desk, only wearing briefs and house shoes, drinking a pumpkin beer from a bottle (which is not as good as any pumpkin beer I’ve had from Missouri), and trying to figure out how to incorporate the word ameliorate into this essay, which is a fun word I just learned. But I wish I was with my team. I wish I could pat them or hug them and say “Got your back!” and then make some junk up one last time on that stage that somehow stayed alive and fresh for twelve hilarious years.

The Skinny’s founder is leaving Springfield, because he deserves a break, and we could all use a change sometimes. He helped create and curate a comedy scene in a place where there wasn’t one—and while The Skinny enters a state of repose in Springfield’s artistic history, there is still standup and improv to be found, performed and produced by hungry weirdos who still need you to give them your attention, to judge them, to laugh at them. And these weirdos exist, and will continue to exist, more than likely, because of The Skinny Improv.

Cast photo, 2012 or 2013

Cast photo, 2012

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One thought on “Got Your Back

  1. Warm tribute to your friends and colleagues and nice memoir of your improv life in good ole downtown Springfield. Thanks Ty, you have done a nice job of ameliorating my vision of your life with The Skinny. Love you

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