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J: Two questions: How does improv inform sketch comedy or writing sketches? How has what you know about improv changed since performing with Chicago City Limits and as youíve continued as a teacher?
CK: To some extent improv and sketch are almost the same thing. Improv is sketch written instantaneously. The differences may be obvious. In improv, you contract with the audience that youíre writing the sketch right now in front of you, while in a written sketch show your understanding with the audience is that you sat at home or worked in a rehearsal studio and spent a great deal of time to come up with the perfect execution of a comedy premise. What improv loses is the perfection -- like being able to rewrite a joke a little better, or cut out an extraneous 30 seconds, or if it was only a grapefruit instead of an orange it would have been that much funnier. With sketch you can do that. With improv the audience will enjoy being part of the process more, and enjoy watching the writers at work on multiple levels because the writers are writing it and performing it at the same time. In sketch, the writers have already written it and youíre seeing it after. In improv youíre seeing it both before, now and after. Thereís an original thought. Iíve never said that before. Some of the things youíve heard today are things Iíve been repeating for too long.

J: And youíve honed them to perfectly execute them.
CK: Which leads into your other question about whatís changed since I started in improv. A lot has changed. For starters, when I started taking classes at CCL, even though Iím sure there were other groups, there were pretty much only two groups of note in New York: CCL and First Amendment. There were things going on in different cities -- L.A. and of course Chicago, and other cities.

After taking classes at CCL for awhile some of us formed our own group called the New York Improv Squad. Of course, people have always formed their own groups and groups have branched off, but that was not a common thing back then. Now with places like The PIT, Upright Citizens Brigade and the Magnet Theater, itís unimaginable that someone would be impressed that someone branched off and started their own group, because thatís what everyone does -- forms Harold teams, gets coaches, starts working and does shows. Those places are flourishing communities of students doing their own shows. At CCL, we were in class for a long time just waiting for someone to leave so we could audition or get into the touring company or the main company.

Iím thrilled with how huge the improv community is in New York now. Thereís so much going on. Another huge change is I remember a time when improv was going on and there were some successful people from Chicago in improv going onto Saturday Night Live and the movie world, and as writers into other areas of the performing arts. But in the mid-80s even the early 90s, to a lot of the industry, if it wasnít ĎWhatís improv?í it was ĎI donít get it.í -- I donít mean audiences, but the casting directors and agents. They wanted actors who had gone to prestigious acting schools like Julliard, Carnegie Mellon and NYU. Now pretty much any casting director or agent worth their salt wants improvisers, people who can think on their feet. So many more movies are done that way, where someone gives them a scenario and they go with it. There was a time when almost everyone was terrified of improv and wanted their script. Now thereís so many more improvisers and people who are facile with it, and so many more people in the business recognize that well-trained improvisers will do such a better job in a sketch group, a series or a sitcom. They will be more comfortable essentially Ďyes-andíing a script or director or scenario and going with it.

Iím often really proud when I see improvisers that I know in movies or TV shows. I sometimes imagine that I see underpinnings of their improv skills in their work. I know why theyíre so funny or they made that character choice -- because theyíre trained in improv, and thatís what makes them so good. Itís like feeling like youíre part of the Shaolin Temple and ĎThat is why your skills are so strong, grasshopper, you have been trained well.í

Whatís interesting about the improv community feeding the Web -- or even a general societal trend, is that improv is empowering people by saying comedy is not something that only immensely gifted comedy performers can do. Intelligent people with a good sense of drama can do a comedy scene. That wonít make someone a star performer or a brilliant improviser, it just means that they can improvise. Often people say they could never improvise. I say if you didnít have a script for our conversation, you still had a conversation with me. People often put improv in this very separate category and donít realize theyíre always improvising.

Now it feels very improvisational to me even if itís written sketches on YouTube. Everyone is trying to create. Thereís something interesting about that. I once heard Dick Gregory say -- ironically this was a show he was doing -- ĎYou donít need to come to a show. Let your friends make you laugh. Why do you segment everything into going to see professionals do it?í But there are many examples of that in the culture. You can go see a professional sing or you can go to karaoke. Sometimes thereís a great pleasure in doing something yourself.

The skills that a good improviser learns will enable someone to do a better sketch on YouTube in formal terms. Iím not sure that knowing the rules of improv is necessary when someone just gets on the Web and lip-syncs a song like a lunatic, and itís funny hearing it, but I can still break that down in comedy rules, that whatís funny about that is the guyís commitment to it, heís committing 100 percent to singing the song and heís playing it at a 10 level. Itís his passion for it, that heís so into it, thatís one of the things that makes it funny.

J: How has being a father changed your comedy and performance?
CK: For starters, when my son was born, one of my friends said to me sardonically, ĎCarl, I hope youíre not going to become one of those comedians who now that you have a kid, only does material about their kid.í I said, ĎPlease, no.í And in my head I thought, ĎIím going to be cutting edge.í Sure enough, I have a 13-month old now and Iím thinking about writing songs connected to raising an infant and raising a toddler, and I think ĎOh no, itís happening!í No matter what, it happens. Other than that I donít think itís really changed my comedy. Itís changed my ability to explore the world in one way, but of course Iím exploring something very different.

Iíve been creating more characters lately because Iíve been doing written monologues, and really enjoy creating characters for that show and that format. Itís interesting that it took me this long to write characters because I was always a huge fan of Eric Bogosian and was in the original Talk Radio at the Public Theater, although I joined the cast mid-run just as Eric was leaving the show and being replaced by Larry Pine. But in improv my characters were always just in the situation. I didnít have a lot of pre-prepared characters, although after a certain amount of time of performing, there would probably be one I would do again -- but rarely. It was a point of pride for me to try to repeat as little as possible. I didnít like having set characters. I probably had archetypes.

J: How did you move from improv to doing characters?
CK: Iíve always enjoyed doing every aspect of comedy. It was just sometimes where life took me. I did improv for 11 years straight with CCLís main company. After such a long amount of improvising with only a limited number of those shows being videotaped, I felt frustrated by the impermanence of it. As much as I adored that when I went to work every night, I had no idea what the show was going to be, the flip side is not having anything permanent. Out of that I thought I wanted to start writing more. I happened on a works-in-progress group called Initial Stages and started writing solo pieces for that, then got involved in the Manhattan Monologue Slam. Those were character monologues. In Initial Stages, I was often doing personal pieces and monologues, which were a hybrid of stand-up, but not exactly that because I wasnít going for punch lines, but for concepts.

If I were to go back and do everything all over, the perfect balance for me would always be doing ensemble work in improv and simultaneously doing solo work. Sometimes solo work is lonely and I like the companionship of having an ensemble with other people to work with and the inspiration of other people to work with. But sometimes having other people to work with means you donít get to be the final arbiter of what goes. You donít get to control it enough, and thatís why I like the solo stuff, because thatís exclusively mine. So I love having both and doing both if I can.

  
   

     

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