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The Jester Interview: Jason Mantzoukas

Two of the best improv comedy duos out there right now share a member -- Jason Mantzoukas. With Jessica St. Clair, Mantzoukas has performed a sketch show ďWe Used To Go OutĒ over the past year, and the improvised show ďFirst Date,Ē and with Ed Herbstman as the ďMantzoukas Brothers.Ē Mantzoukas is a member of ďMother,Ē one of the earliest house teams of the Upright Citizens Brigade theater after its founders moved from Chicago to New York. Mother performs every Saturday night at 9 p.m. at the UCB Theatre. Mantzoukas also performs in UCBís Sunday night all-star Assscat shows and with the Magnet Theaterís improv groups. Jester spoke with Mantzoukas about his experiences in improv and comedy performance.

Jester: Was Mother the first thing you were involved with or were there other things?
Jason Mantzoukas: I went through the class structure in UCB in 1998. Now you go through the classes and thereís auditions to make Harold teams, but at that time, it was very small, so you would go through the classes and it was just four classes -- levels one, two, three and four -- and at the end of three you were eligible to be on a team, and there were only five teams. The teachers would just make a new team. Mother was formed out of level three by Armando Diaz, who now runs the Magnet Theater, but at the time was the head of the UCB school program. He created Mother and early on in 1999 we started doing Harold night and weíve literally been going since then.

J: Non-stop?
JM: Yes, which is horrifying.

J: Have there been any breaks?
JM: No, pretty much every week. At first, the Harold nights were only twice a month. [They later became weekly]. We did Harold night for a couple years, and then we started doing the Saturday night show. The theme of it has been different but itís always been Saturday night, every week for about six years.

J: What were your abilities before you started taking classes at UCB and how you came out of the classes into performing there?
JM: I did improv in college. I went to Middlebury College, a small liberal arts school in Vermont, and there was an improv group that started the year before I got there, and I saw them. They did short-form games like you see on ďWhose Line Is It Anyway?Ē I joined that group and did short-form, and one of the guys in that group lived in Westchester, N.Y. and over the summer he interned at Chicago City Limits [the improv group in New York City]. Someone gave him ďTruth In Comedy,Ē [the improv manual by Charna Halpern, Del Close and Kim Johnson]. He came back to Middlebury and gave us the outline of the Harold and urged us to do long-form improv instead of all the games. Based on never having seen it, but just reading about it in the book, we formed a Harold team where a bunch of us splintered off from the normal group.

The short-form group we were in, it was a school in the middle of nowhere, so we would do shows for 500 people. They were really big shows and everyone would go. But the long-form show we did in the coffeehouse on campus. We couldnít have misunderstood the Harold more. Itís supposed to take 25 to 30 minutes. But we were real serious and one Harold took us an hour to do. We would do a pattern game opening for like 15 minutes. It must have been torture to watch. I cannot imagine how horrible it was to watch. That was my introduction to improv, and we did sketches. That was what I was really into.

After college, I did a music project and lived abroad for a couple years. I got a grant out of school to do an ethnomusicology study, traveling to North Africa and the Middle East, studying a lot of music. Then I came back and moved to New York right as the UCB had just been here a little while and started taking classes straight away. I wanted to do comedy and was still really into the idea of improv and sketch comedy. If you asked me at the time, as a 23 or 24 year old kid moving to the city what I would be doing, I would have said, ĎIíll be on Saturday Night Live.í I had a friend from college who was into comedy who was writing at MTV and then for David Letterman, so it seemed like comedy stuff was possible in New York. Thatís really how I started taking classes. I probably would have taken classes at Chicago City Limits if someone hadnít recommended UCBís Assscat, when it was upstairs at KGB Bar, before they moved into Solo Arts [the groupís first theater before its present home] on 22nd Street.

J: With the work you also do in film and TV, did you imagine you would have a career beyond just the idea of being on SNL?
JM: When I started, I had no idea. Ö Thereís a great Showtime documentary now, ĎWhen Stand Up Stood Outí about the Boston comedy scene. Iím from Boston and when I was a kid those were the comedians who were popular in Boston. I love the documentary. Steven Wright was my favorite comedian. He would say that he knew his dream was to do that, to be on TV but had no idea how one did that. The steps in between made no sense. You couldnít imagine them.

Similarly, I moved to New York and knew I wanted to do comedy or make movies. I had rudimentary ideas of what that was; I knew to take improv classes or go see comedy in the theaters -- improv or sketch, and knew the concept of SNL and started to learn how to get there. Then I got a job at a film production company and understood I should become a P.A. (production assistant) because thatís the bottom rung. But it took me years of figuring out how people cobble together a career. Thatís one of the super-frustrating things about a career in this industry -- there is no path, there is no way to do it. Everyone starts out at the beginning of the forest, is given a machete and told the end is somewhere out there, figure it out. You have to chop your way through the whole things. Thatís crazy.

I talk to people all the time who ask how to get a movie deal. Itís utterly random. You can do certain things so if things align, youíre ready to move forward, but thereís no way to say ĎI did it this way, you can too.í So many other industries are routine-based -- hereís how to ascend in this career, here are the mile markers, etc. All the successful people in this scene have all become successful in completely different ways.

J: Has the growth of the UCB and the other theaters, and their class offerings helped create a path, where producers go looking for the best students from these theaters?
JM: I donít think for me, because Iím too old to have benefited from that, but for someone starting out right now, absolutely. The way the scene is structured -- itís not like itís a conscious structure -- when I came up there were no other people. The PIT only opened up a few years ago. That was the second theater. Now we have the Magnet. But for me there was only UCB. Thatís all you did. When I started there werenít practice groups or other venues to put a team up. It didnít exist that much.

UCB was both our workout stage and showcase stage. Now UCB is much more a showcase stage. You donít see that many shows that are half ideas not very well put together. That used to be part of UCB, like on Monday or Tuesday nights it would be a little dicey, it was people figuring stuff out. Now there are enough venues for people to workshop things and groups to get better. As a teacher [at UCB], Iím always trying to get practice groups going. Part of getting better at improv is just doing it. You get better less by knowing better how to do technique and more by increasing your ability to feel comfortable and not panic onstage with not knowing what youíre going to do. Good improvisers are people who best deal with their panic than are clever, funny or witty people.

Thatís what makes improv fail onstage -- when people canít be confident on stage or feel comfortable on stage. Improv is the only world in which thereís a contract between the audience and the group that we all know youíre making this up so weíll be forgiving to a degree, but if you show any weakness, if youíre at all nervous or hesitant, the audience shuts you off completely. ĎI donít feel comfortable because I know the personís failing.í And they clam up.

Thatís why people who just own the stage will get laughs at something thatís not even that funny. The audience is reacting with relief that itís going well. ĎThank god this person knows what theyíre doing. This is great.í Thatís something you learn by standing in front of an audience and doing it. The school structure doesnít allow for performances as much anymore. There used to be a lot more performances. The number of people taking classes and the lack of performance opportunities has spawned all these other rooms around town that improv groups go up at, and thatís great.

For us, we just did stuff at UCB. The people coming through the schools now -- and Magnet and UCB are slightly different points of view, although similar. If youíre outside looking in, thatís irrelevant, but from within, itís different in a way that both are great and valid courses for people to take. The UCB is definitely Harold-centric. Everything from UCBís point of view is Harold first and everything else later. Armando has Harold in there, but his focus is less on the Harold and more on the scene or the pieces that make up whatever you do. The Megawatt showcase [a regular improv show at the Magnet Theater] shows all different forms rather than just the Harold.




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