The Jester Interview:
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.
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
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
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.