Pavlov's Dogs: A Very Official, Very Important Interview

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Over the last two decades, there are only two guarantees in Dallas; the Cowboys will miss out on the Super Bowl and Pavlov’s Dogs will put up a great comedy show. For the uninitiated, Pavlov’s Dogs (Or PDogs for short) is an improv comedy team that has played together for over twenty years. Their performances leverage their comfort with each other and tremendous group mind in a way that newer teams simply can’t match.

On the last Friday and Saturday of each month, they put up their End Of The Month Show at the Dallas Comedy House. Each installment serves as both a celebration of the month that was and of the comedic skill of this group. I (digitally) sat down with PDogs to ask them a few questions about the history of the comedy scene in Dallas, their advice for new performers and something called a "Butt Sketch Artist."

I’ll start with an easy question; which one of you is the funniest?

  • Maggie Rieth Austin (MRA)- I started watching PDOGS as a lowly DCH student before I joined the group, so I think I can objectively answer this: me.
  • Emily Alexander (EA)- Dale is (I’m contractually obligated to say this.).
  • Dale Alexander (DA)- Long answer: We all are. I've always thought the mark of a strong group is their ability to be so in-tune with their role in the scene or form that they know when it's their time to be the funny one, or to do everything they can to throttle back and prop up the right person to be the "funniest." Short answer: Tito.
  • Chad Haught (CH)- This question is up there with when someone introduces you to someone and tells them you do improv and they ask you to do something funny. I always try and cut them off before they ask that question like this, "This is Chad, he does improv" [Chad, quickly] "Yeah, I'm hilarious." That usually keeps them from asking the question. But the answer is Todd.
  • Todd Upchurch (TU)- See Dale's answer, but if I was pressed for a sincere answer...see the last part of Chad’s answer.

Your troupe has been improvising in Dallas longer than anyone. What was the scene like back when you arrived?

  • TU- Can I insert a gif of snake eating its own tail?
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  • CH- It certainly was not a community. You had to find your own space to perform and if you went to a place where another one of the 3-4 groups were, it got real territorial, real fast. We tried to have a jam of sorts but even then egos seemed to get in the way. It wasn't until Amanda/Kyle came along that genuinely nice people were doing improv and wanted to build a community.
  • DA- The scene was AdLibs. Any time you mentioned you did improv to someone, the first question was "Oh, like AdLibs?" The fun part was that our style of improv was very "alt" for the time, being in the late 90's in Dallas, TX. A real underground vibe where you were scrounging around for a rehearsal space and doing shows that made you want to go home and shower afterward.

In your years of performing before you found DCH, what was the most difficult space that you had to do a show in?

  • CH- I recall performing at a space in downtown called The Stonestreet Theater. It was a cool place when you got inside but it was literally called that because it was off of a stone walkway that wasn't a road called "Stone Street" so no one knew about the place. It's hard enough to get people to your shows, it's even harder when no one can find it.
  • EA- One time we performed in a hallway of a community college student center... ‘cause nothing’s funnier than watching improv as a passerby on the way to the cafeteria.
  • DA- Allen High School. They paid us a sizable amount of money to perform during their post prom event at the school. We show up and it is basically performing on a 2nd floor foyer next to a Butt Sketch Artist, until 3am...yeah.
  • TU- Dale forgot to mention we were also competing with a band playing in the middle the gymnasium that was directly next to us with no walls in sight….the acoustics were, to say the least…atrocious.

Oftentimes teams made up of improv vets don’t find the time to rehearse, but I know that you still get together on a consistent basis. What value do you get out of rehearsing after all these years?

  • EA- Camaraderie, first and foremost. And no matter how long you’ve been performing, there’s always something new to learn. You CAN teach an old dog new tricks!
  • CH- Just goofing around and doing scenes is really fun, but every once in a while if you're trying new things, you'll do something that makes you excited like you found something new. We throw a lot of stuff against the wall and the rate at which something sticks is probably 20% and that might be high.
  • DA- In college we met for at least 10 hrs a week, and then hung out for another 10. But I can't stress enough the power and importance of being together outside of training sessions. That builds group mind more than any warm-up or exercise, IMO.
  • TU- Rehearsals provide a path for us to maintain creative pursuits and more importantly, personal relationships. Improv has given me the closest relationships in my life (including my wife), why wouldn’t I want to maximize my exposure to that?
  • MRA- I usually get to eat fresh baked cookies when we rehearse, so, in my opinion, we should be meeting every night.
Pavlov's Dogs at the 2010 Dallas Comedy Festival

Pavlov's Dogs at the 2010 Dallas Comedy Festival

When you watch an improv show, are you able to enjoy it? Or do you spend most of your time observing it with a critical eye?

  • TU- I’ve been watching good and bad improv for over 20 years.  I will never get tired of seeing how people play with and deal with adversity in a scene.
  • CH- I watch with more of a critical eye when it's a new group because I want to see from the moment you take the stage and get the suggestion then start your first scene that you've put work into what you're presenting us.
  • MRA- I love watching Improv!
  • DA- I work in the creative industry, and my appreciation for people's work comes from the analysis of ways to make it better. The thought process isn't, "welp, you blew that initiation!" It is more of wishing someone nailed the edit, because the scene was in fact strong but deserved a proper ending so the audience would appreciate what they just saw, instead of glancing at their watch.
  • EA- If a group has a strong start and I’m truly entertained, I can silence my inner critic and become just an audience member.

DCH features many performers that are still in their first year or two of development. What advice would you have for those people?

  • CH- See LOTS of shows. see new groups, see veteran groups. Then talk to people that watch the show to see what thought of it. Be honest. When i ask students what they thought of a show I saw and know it was bad, I appreciate it when they're honest because they've started dissecting this stuff and applying it to themselves.
  • DA- Recognize where you excel and where you are lacking when it comes to scene work with your team. Know that you might destined to be the consummate "straight man" or the "world builder" for the group, and be cool with that. There is no punchline without a set up, that perfect set up could be you.
  • TU- First, always be a student, seek and accept feedback. It’s hard for everyone, find a way to become comfortable with it.  Second, acknowledge that “your" time on stage belongs to your audience more than it belongs to you.  Respect that they have given their time, attention, and money to watch you.  
  • EA- Every audience deserves a great show. Your job as a performer is not just to ‘make art’ with other improvisers, but to entertain the people who’ve come to see you. If you forget that, you might as well be doing improv at home in front of a mirror.
  • MRA- Come see the PDOGS End of the Month show.

David Allison is writer and performer at the Dallas Comedy House, who can currently be seen with Ballast Point, David & Terry and The Rift, as well as directing the sketch team Walker Dog and the improv team Watermelon. Previous credits include Jason: A Campy Musical, Freddy: A Devilish Musical, That 90s Show, Return Of The 90s, Sensation: The Next Great Play and more!