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The Jester Interview: Nate Starkey

Veteran People’s Improv Theater improviser and sketch comedy performer Nate Starkey is consistently inventive as a member of improv group Big Black Car, in his duo improv show with Chris Grace (see review, 7/5/08), and in sketch shows at the theater (see review of “As Sparks Fly Upward,” 8/3/08). Performing at The PIT since its inception in 2002, Starkey’s previous performing experiences were with ComedySportz in Denver, Theater Sports and Comedy Warehouse in Orlando, and for Disney’s MGM Studios theme park in Orlando. Jester spoke with Starkey about his performing experiences and his newest improv partnership, “Shackled,” with fellow PIT performer Dion Flynn, where the duo perform improv in character as convicts shackled together at the ankles. Starkey and Flynn perform “Shackled” for the third time on Friday, April 17 at The PIT.

Jester: What kind of shows did you do with Comedy Sports? Were they short-form or long-form?
Nate Starkey: They were short form. ComedySportz is a national chain, that ripped off the idea from Theater Sports. My ComedySportz troupe was like the black sheep. It wasn’t part of the chain although originally it was, but they broke free of that, mostly because they didn’t want to have to pay royalties to them anymore. So they changed the ‘s’ in Sports to a ‘z.’ They were like, ‘come get us, we don’t care, we’re just going to perform theater.’ So it was like in the style of ‘Who’s Line Is It Anyway?’ where you get points and two teams would compete against each other in short-form games.

J: How and when did you discover long-form?
NS: At ComedySportz, a lot of us wanted to do things other than the short-form games -- this was in the early 1990s. So we started a late night theater group within the ComedySportz umbrella, called Impulse Theatre, where we started experimenting with some longer forms and none of us had really any exposure to the Chicago-style long-form stuff. We had heard of the ‘Harold,’ didn’t really know what it was. We just knew it was a long form, but thought it was just doing one long improv.

Then I went to Orlando and did TheatreSports there and Comedy Warehouse there -- they were still all short-form. I didn’t really get into the long form until I moved here to New York. The first real long form show I saw was at I.O. [Improv Olympic] in Chicago while there visiting. I had a little bit of an aversion to it at first. It was pretty foreign to me, and the first couple shows I saw I didn’t think were very good. It’s probably the luck of the draw. Any given night you will see good or bad. But the more I checked out, the more I really enjoyed it. So when I moved to New York, I saw stuff at UCB -- again, some was good, some was bad. Then I took some classes at the UCB and Second City in New York. Then I found a home at The PIT when it started, and was in one of the first shows at the PIT. I knew Ali Farahnakian [founder of The PIT] already from UCB.

J: How did you get into performing long-form -- through taking classes or something else?
NS: The Harold structure that UCB teaches, I thought to be … I never really got into it too much. I had seen Assscat a lot and really dug it and thought it was really funny, but it was very short-form-like in feel to me.

J: They break out of the Harold format a lot in that show.
NS: It’s almost like it’s a series of games. It really is very game-oriented, and they’re great at finding the game. The first long-form that was different than what I had seen before and got me excited about it was seeing Centralia, for the first time. I had some of them as instructors as instructors at Second City and really enjoyed their instruction, so when I saw Centralia, I thought it was so theatrical and cool that it was sort of excited me.

I had a sketch group called High Fife, which was myself, Matt Oberg, Ashley Ward [Starkey’s wife], Eric Wippo and Jack Finnegan. I asked Centralia to do a workshop with us because I really wanted to try to learn how to do the long-form in the way that they do. So that got me excited about doing that. I had been looking for a group that I could be in that I thought was doing stuff as good as what they do. With Fancy Dragon, the PIT group, some shows would have some of those elements that are more theatrical, fun and experimental. What I do with Chris Grace is in that vein of more theatrical.

Also, to talk about influences that I really enjoy and aspire to -- Four Square, what they do is really great. Chris Grace and I are influenced a lot by their work. John Lutz is my favorite performer [from Four Square]. Then also, TJ & Dave … this is probably the same list that everyone has.

J: When you say theatrical, how is that different from the Harold style?
NS: The Harold when it’s done really well can be really theatrical as well. But as far as … every minute you’re on stage and performing. There’s no downtime or back-line time. There’s no sitting there thinking about what you’re going to do next. It’s a lot of … the writer comes into play as opposed to just the performer, the actor. What Chris Grace and I do, we don’t think about what we’re going to do, we just jump in and jump off the cliff and hope we land O.K.

To me that’s a little more theatrical and more thinking about using the stage and levels. What Dion and I do is very theatrical also because we have a prop first of all with our chain, and we wear … we’re dressed as escaped convicts. There’s an opening and it’s a little more thought out. Centralia is that way also. They wear costumes and have an opening. It’s theatrical that way, using the word ‘theatrical’ to describe developments. TJ & Dave are theatrical too, in that they’re such great actors that it seems like you’re watching theater instead watching people who are very funny tell jokes in this format like the Harold.

J: When I ask performers -- improv and sketch performers -- who their influences are, they often go right to well-known stand-ups or others. Who do you like in comedy, in that realm?
NS: Steve Martin, Chevy Chase, Martin Short and many SNL people. … Also The Three Stooges, The Marx Brothers. I did a show at Disney MGM Studios where it was street theater. Me and two other guys would dress as public workmen a la 1948 and we would drive out on set and the set was like the classic Hollywood Boulevard of the 1940s. We would go out and drive out in a 47 Chevy that had the original engine and we would drive on set in it, and get out and start working on something like fixing a lamppost or something, and go into a very slapsticky type of Three Stooges mixed with Marx Brothers, and do an improv and develop routines through that, that we would then refine and do a half-hour set of stuff that’s semi-scripted and we would feel free to break out of -- very interactive. I would study Three Stooges, Marx Brothers and Rowan Atkinson with ‘Black Adder’ -- that series was influential to me. I’d study that dynamic that you could have with three people. I would be the boss character and have the two stooges. One stooge would be really dumb -- actually we’re all dumb, but one guy would be the dumbest.

J: One’s in charge, in other words.
NS: Yeah. All those sort of dynamics, done well. Influences like famous people and have to go to those places.

J: Did they give you fairly free rein in what you did there, being Disney?
NS: Yeah, amazingly free rein. It wouldn’t be until like we’d step over a line that they would come and tell us we can’t do something anymore. But it was a great job. Like any job it had good days and bad days. If the park wasn’t too crowded and the weather wasn’t too hot, and we were all in a good mood, it was a great job because we had that free rein. Sometimes they let us take sets down so we could develop things. It was much more free rein than any other place you could probably find in Disney.

J: Were there other characters you did in the Disney park?
NS: I did other characters too. I played a Hollywood detective. There were certain bits I would do as a Hollywood detective with a starlet character or a producer character, or a Goldwyn-Mayer kind of character. We would launch into bits but as far as great ensemble work, the Truck Boys, we were called, the Hollywood public workmen were the most fun to do. The fun stuff to do in any of the characters -- the detective character -- there’s a New York street at MGM Studios, so I’d be a New York City policeman. The really fun stuff about that was interacting with people and discovering things with people who aren’t actors, and learning how to get them to play with you, to the point where you would get a crowd watching you interact with someone who’s just a guest. That stuff was a lot of fun to me as well. It was sort of intimidating to just go out there with nothing. You had to entertain people. What you learn really quick is that it’s easy to draw a crowd but it’s really tough to keep them.

J: How much of a challenge was it or how did you go about picking out a guest?
NS: It’s eye contact. You can tell when you look at someone if they’re wanting to play. With any improv, it’s all about the eye contact -- ‘Are you with me? Do you have an idea that’s different than mine? I’ll let you take the lead,’ or whatever. I definitely learned my lessons, as the detective, going up to a family and trying to arrest some kid’s dad as the detective and the kid bursting into tears, and having to backtrack and fix it somehow, and also you could see with some people in their eyes that they were a wild card, that they want to play a little more than you’re willing to play -- they want to wrestle with you or something. You learn how not to be too open to them, you give them a little window and then they’re trying to pick you up or something. It’s just not fun play.

J: Does some of that experience even prove useful to you now?
NS: Sure. I dig that interacting with the audience. It’s the same thing working with another performer, when you get people who are green or haven’t been doing it a lot but are very enthusiastic. In teaching you make sure to say, before you start ‘raping’ someone on stage, make sure you know them well enough that it’s OK to go there.

Continued 

   

     

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