Darcy Armstrong

Pumping Up the Improv Jam

The Jam It’s Tuesday night and there are eight improvisers on stage at the Dallas Comedy House (DCH) pretending to throw up because someone brought a bad casserole to the housewarming party. Each person who walks on stage is introducing some new gross bodily function and it’s kind of a peak Jam moment - funny, weird, and everyone’s in on the joke.

I’ve been going to the improv Jam since my Level 1 class when Danielle Seright invited me. Of course, it took me several weeks to actually get the courage to go with her, then I spent a few months interning Tuesday nights. Now I co-host the Jam with Jason Hensel and Patrick Hennessy, so I’ve seen it from all sides.

I love the Jam. I love its weirdness. I feel like it gives you a chance to really test yourself, to see if you can play with beginners and also get experience playing with people who have been doing it a lot longer than you have. My student card got picked to do a set with Primary Colours when I was in Level 3, and I was so nervous I introduced them incorrectly and then didn’t go out in a single scene. We can’t be heroes all the time, which is maybe the point of the Jam.

If you’re unfamiliar, Jason, Patrick, and I give a few announcements, explain the rules, and lead a quick warm-up before breaking everyone up into groups for the night. Anyone and everyone can participate, but we usually have some people just there to soak up some free laughs. We start at 8 p.m., but people wander in and out throughout the night. Some people participate in one round, and some help us close it out.

I think the Jam is important at all levels, so I asked three improvisers with different Jam experiences to answer some questions.  

***

What's your name?

KS: Kaspars (occasionally using covers as Kevin, Karl & John).

JH: Jason Russell Hackett

TH: My given name is Tia Marie Hedge, but I go by a few nicknames: Sweet T, Tuba, Tina, T, SBT. All are accepted and still accepting new ones.

What's your improv experience?

KS: Just graduated Level 3 here at DCH. Never tried improv before!

JH: I started taking classes while they were still being offered in Denton in January 2013. Prior to that, my comedy experience was limited to some mediocre stand-up sets and some now embarrassing blogs that could probably be easily located through a Google search if one was so inclined.

TH: My improv journey did not begin until April 2016 when I signed up for classes at DCH. I actually had no idea what improv was until late 2015, in October, when an old friend introduced me to it. Prior to that, I have not had any other sort of theater or comedic experiences. I'm a baby in the scene.

When did you start coming to the Jam?

KS: May 2016

JH: I started coming to the Jam while I was still in Level 1 because I was super gung-ho about improv and wanted to get on stage as soon as possible. My first attempts were… not good. But those humbling experiences were so vital because it made the moments when I made the right moves and was rewarded with laughter a clear indication that the classes were working, and that I was one step closer to becoming like the performers that intimidated me every time they graced the stage.

The JamTH: I started watching Jams back in October when I got introduced to improv. I didn't start going up at Jams though until the week after I started my Level 1 class because I was terrified to be on stage. But after my first Jam, I fell in love with it. I immediately started going every week.

What does the Jam mean to you?

KS: Hmm, I keep coming and staying late, always late for work the next day. It’s fun. It’s challenging! Always different people and perspectives. I think I enjoy doing improv. Also, I’m from abroad, which makes it a great way to meet new people and hear local references. Jokes are tough to get at times. Not a Jam goes by that I learn something new and weird.

JH: The Jam is one of the most important components of the improv educational experience. Classes are where you learn the techniques needed to be a good improviser, but the Jam is the laboratory where you get to experiment with those techniques in front of a live audience. For a brand new improviser, I think it's essential to go at least once before your first showcase because it's the perfect way to get past the nerves of simply being on stage without wasting the precious few minutes of your showcase doing so. For the more experienced improviser, I think it's just as important. The Jam is somewhere you can help the new improvisers by leading through example. Having those experts interspersed through the rounds gives the newer improvisers an anchor and can be as instructive as actual class time. Additionally, there have been times when I've been down on myself as an improviser, and the Jam has been key to shaking those feelings away. I can go there, play with people I've never even met before, focus on the basics of improv that I've been neglecting, and try out new techniques I haven't had the courage to try elsewhere. Anyway, that's a very long-winded way of saying it's important for everyone.

TH: The Jam to me is a great way to expand your play styles and knowledge of improv. It forces you to learn how to play with a variety of different players, seasoned and beginners. It's a great place to practice things you want to work on getting better at or to go to have a fun time. Other than improv stuff, Jams were the way I connected with most of my friends that I have now.

Favorite Jam memory?

The JamKS: I remember “find the killer” game a while ago, where the group marked the dead person laying on the floor using “numbered cubes with antenna (?!)” from the tables and conducted a murder investigation! Awesome!

JH: I have two. The first is from when I just started, and I ended up hanging out until the last rounds of the night, where the only people left were myself and the experienced people who intimidated me. Also, we were all drunk. I remember this one scene where everyone was on stage and the scene was this orgy photoshoot, and I was standing behind Ashley Bright, who was bent over a chair, for what felt like an eternity, saying nothing but watching the scene grow around me. I could feel the scene coming (heh) to its natural conclusion, and decided to ask the question I'd been keeping in my pocket the whole time… “Hey, can I pull out?” I made those intimidating improvisers laugh, and I think I've been chasing that feeling ever since. The second has been watching my girlfriend, Veronica, begin her own improv journey and to see her at the Jam, full of nerves and excitement, creating her own friendships with her fellow Level 1s. Although this has also had the effect of making me feel old as hell, improv-wise.

TH: Besides the numerous amount of absurd and hilarious scenes I was able to be a part of, my favorite Jam memory was a certain Tuesday night after class. I was in Level 2 at the time with a new class I had just joined that term. We were all basically forced by our teacher, Sarah Adams, to go to the Jam together. Also, I've never seen any of my new classmates at a Jam before. So it was a little exciting for me to see them do their first Jam. My favorite part of that night was seeing all of them laughing and smiling on stage and having the time of their lives up there. They didn't care who was watching. They were just playing with their friends!

Advice for anyone nervous to Jam?

KS: I did hear “Just get out there!” many times, and while it’s very true and one should have it under your sleeve at all times, I found that having just a slightest tip can make a huge difference especially for folks like me who are not natural "go-getters"... and usually brain drains to alarming levels (probably blood runs down all the way to butt!) once getting anywhere near the stage. So, once I saw this YouTube video… (long laugh). So here it goes: “Just get out there.. AND try (when appropriate) matching (doing the same as) your counterpart (preferably twice as hard).” The few times I tried, it reduced some of the fear and got me into silly and fun scenes (at least for me), with some initial idea and an illusion that you know something. And, of course, extra trouble if others pick up on the fact that you are “up for shit!” (long evil laugh). Obviously, Jams are a ton of fun, and the hosts are always there for you!*

JH: I'm sure everyone is going to say “just do it” in some form or another, and I agree. But that's easy to say and hard to do. I would say, go to the Jam at first just to watch. You don't even have to get up there, just observe what's going on. But, since you've come all that way, you may as well get up and do the warm-up and get assigned a number. If you want to bail after that, no pressure. But since you have a number, you may as well get up on stage and at least watch from the sides. Just feel what it's like to be on stage in front of a crowd, and realize that it's not as scary as you thought. And since you're up there on the sides, you may as well at least try to walk out at the beginning of one of the scenes, even if you don't have anything to say. You can pretend to be an inanimate object, and just stay in the background. But since you're out there in the scene, you may as well give it your all and use the skills you've learned in class to make the scene as good as you can. And then get off stage, walk straight to the bar, and buy yourself a drink. You've earned it.

TH: My advice for anyone who is nervous about going to a Jam: Don't be. I was, and I regret that. It held me back from growing as an improviser. Most people are scared about screwing up or saying something stupid on stage. Well, THAT'S WHAT THE JAM IS FOR! It's where you get to screw up and learn from it. You get to be the silliest or weirdest you can be, and the people standing on stage with you are going to be just as silly or weird as you. (And they might possibly turn into your best friend.) The Jams are a place to have fun, and that's exactly what it is, fun! I smell butts. I fart 24/7 (This is was Shahyan's answers. Also accurate.).

***

So there you have it. You’re fully prepared to spend the night at the DCH Jam, or just watch, or maybe you aren’t prepared at all and that’s kind of the point.

*Kaspars, please, you’re embarrassing me.

The Jam

Darcy Armstrong is a graduate of the Dallas Comedy House Improv program and a Sketch Writing student. She writes for feminist comedy website superglooze.com, walks her dog frequently, drinks chardonnay at the DCH bar, and performs with Glistlefoot.

(Photos: Jason Hensel and Darcy Armstrong)

Jason: A Campy Musical

Jason A Campy Musical(Fade in. A cool October evening in Deep Ellum, at the Dallas Comedy House's Training Center. A nervous young woman clutches her phone and a notepad, shifting in a rickety wheelie chair. Three men sit opposite her, equally nervous and shifty-eyed. Every creak of the building is exaggerated in the silence before the Jason: A Campy Musical interview.) Me: Could you guys talk a little bit so I can see where to put the mic?

Jason: Yes. Colten's man-spreading.

Colten: I have stopped man-spreading because now I'm self-conscious about it.

Daniel: Um, you're still man-spreading a bit.

Colten: Really?

Me: OK, there we go. You might just need to talk a little bit louder...

Colten: (Very quietly) I can do that.

Me: So, with me, I have Jason Hackett, Colten Winburn, and Daniel Matthews.

(David Allison could not be there, so I've inserted his responses where appropriate.)

Daniel: Just to clarify, Colten is spelled with an “E-N,” not an “O-N.” It's a common mistake.

Jason: And his middle name is “Man-Spread.” Just let the record indicate that the man lives up to the name.

Me: If possible, I'll draw a picture. (It was possible. See below. I felt bad that only Colten had a nickname so I took the liberty of giving one to everybody.)

Jason Musical

Me: First of all, congratulations. Opening night was awesome, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. Would you guys like to start off talking about the show's inception, how you started getting everything together?

(Everyone looks at Daniel.)

Daniel: Uh...oh boy. Well, I got the idea last September, and it did not start out as me saying, “I want to write a musical.” It started out because there was nothing good on the radio during a drive, so I turned it off and started trying to make up lyrics to a song.

Me: Like you do.

Daniel: Haha, yeah, like you do. Colten and I work on improvising songs together from time to time, and we had been doing that, so I just started making up words. And, I got the line, “You can't make a horse drink when you lead him to water / You can't hand me a knife and expect me to slaughter.” And I really liked that line and thought, “What the hell kind of a song would that fit into?” And so, it was kind of just like, yeah, Jason Voorhees, if he didn't want to kill for some reason. And then, I talked with Colten, and we made it into a full song, got with David, learned our parts, separated the music out, and did a Block Party last October.

Jason: Which I hosted.

(Block Party, by the way, is a great little running program at the Dallas Comedy House (DCH), which is now hosted by Sallie Bowen. If you have 10 minutes worth of a show idea, submit to Block Party. It might even be picked for a longer running show. Anything goes!)

Daniel: We liked it so much that we did an encore performance of it on Halloween.

Colten: Was that after my thing?

Daniel: Yes, actually, it was part of Colten's Stage Fright sketch show last Halloween. And then, Amanda Austin said, “If you can make that into a full show, you can do it next year.” And it was just like, “Oh yeah. We're gonna do a musical...This is a very storied history. This is going on Twitter, right?

Me: Yes. I'll upload it piece by piece.

Daniel: Then David and I started working in earnest – I want to say in April or May. We started by watching the first three movies in the series, because honestly, I had never seen any one of them all the way through.

Me: Really?

Daniel: Really. I don't have a particular affinity for the franchise or the character. It all started because of, “Yeah, he might sing that line about the horse.” I also watched Jason Takes Manhattan because it had a ridiculous title.

Me: Doesn't he go to space at some point?

Daniel: Yes. That's Jason X. It's the 10th movie in the franchise and takes place 200 years in the future when a group of scientists decide to re-animate DNA, and it turns out to be Jason Voorhees.

(Colten laughs.)

Me: My brain hurts. So does my heart...Once you started writing seriously, was there a process to determine who would be suited for this musical? Did you just think of people you knew around DCH?

Daniel: The casting choices didn't come until much later in the process. We had the script almost finalized, and – well. The script was in a good place.

Jason: I mean, is it finalized yet?

Daniel: No. It's a living document. We had it in a good place, though, and Colten and I diddled out a few songs.

Colten: Most of the songs were diddled out.

Daniel: It's an industry term. Rogers and Hammerstein were proficient diddlers. But anyway – we didn't really have anyone in mind other than David and myself. We were going to play the main characters because we deserved it.

Me: Haha, fair enough.

Daniel: We just sat down and hammered out who we wanted to see. Who we knew around the club that might fit into each type of role. And David introduced the idea where – it was very important to him to include some of the performers who might not have as much experience. He didn't just want all the old dogs on stage, which I think is a wonderful choice because that's – we got Houston Hardaway, Darcy Armstrong, Emily Gee, those graduates – we wanted people who would be very excited to be in the show.

(There's a sudden jingling at the door. A face gazes in, stained with blood and wild-eyed – oh. Wait. It's just Wes Davis and the Saturday night intern crew, coming in clutch to clean the Training Center. Thanks ya'll! Don't worry, Daniel was nice and let them in.)

Jason: Around this time, they brought me into the process. Before this point, I wasn't involved at all. Hey Daniel, do you want to talk about bringing me into the process?

Daniel: I've talked enough. Let's hear your perspective.

Jason: Well – they asked me. That was my perspective. They asked if I wanted to direct it. I've never directed anything before. I was also unsure whether they knew that I very publicly dislike musicals, and of course, they were aware, and that did not seem to be an issue for them. So I was like, “I've never directed anything, I'll definitely give this a shot.” They brought me into the process. We started figuring out who to bring in for various roles. We auditioned people – that was the first time I'd ever been on that side of an audition table, so all in all it's been very interesting.

Me: Do you still dislike musicals?

Jason: Yes. I like this one. But you will not find me watching any musicals.

Jason Musical

Me: People don't usually think of horror and comedy together, so how did you work to combine the two?

Daniel: Oh yes they do. Scary Movie?

Jason: Yeah! I'd say they have a history. For me at least, I think there's a lot of similarity in the reactions people have. Laughter and fear are pretty closely tied in that they are uncontrollable experiences. I'll laugh if I've been startled.

Colten: (gazing off into the distance) All comedy is derived from fear.

(The lights flicker. Wes Davis drops his mop.)

Jason: Not to dismiss your initial premise.

Me: Oh no, I asked that question so you would say that. I already agree -

Daniel: Is this just a game to you?

Jason: Are you the Jigsaw in this...Saw...interview? I don't know where that bit was going.

Daniel: Well yeah. If you look at being scared and laughing, they both have this element of surprise to them, where laughter comes from the unexpected, and so does being startled. Both have a build up of tension and a release, a catharsis. But then, in terms of doing comedy from horror, it works so well because horror takes itself so seriously. If you've ever tried to parody something that's already funny, you can't because [the humor] is already there. But with horror, when everything is played so dramatically -

Me: Oh it's very pompous.

Daniel: Very pompous – but there's no intentional humor in the standard horror film. If you go back and watch the Friday the 13th  movies, they're pretty funny now because they're...campy, badum-ts. Joke. See title of show. But they're absurd just because they're bad.

Me: This is a very prop-heavy show. Were there any memorable workarounds, things you had to MacGyver to work right?

Colten: That's more David.

Jason: Yeah, David took charge of making all of those. When I read the script, particularly the [redacted] that gets pulled apart...well. I don't want to reveal anything. Oooh, wait, can this be redacted?

Me: The whole thing? Sure.

Daniel: Also, redact the part where I say [redacted].

Jason: I read that, and I thought, “Well, we'll have to get a whole [redacted],” but the next time we came in, “Oh...David did it.” I was very impressed.

David's response after the fact: "I just find props so fun to build. One of my favorite writing drills is, 'What can't we do on stage?' and then talking through how we can pull it off. Prop construction was really satisfying, and I'm very proud of how they turned out."

Me: Colten. You're very quiet. This next question's just for you...

Colten: Yay!

Jason: I'll take this one.

Daniel: Let me just say...

(All laugh.)

Me: When Daniel and David came to you with song ideas – what was the process there?

Colten: Daniel covered the lyric side. He'd come to me with song lyrics, sometimes melodies, usually both – and a lot of times, I'd say, “What do you want that melody to be?” And he'd sing it, and I'd try to pick it out, put chords to it, flesh it out...We'd brainstorm, once over Skype. Like, “'Flee' is a good word. How can we work it in?”...So yeah, very collaboratively with Daniel.

Daniel: One of the things that – I'm gonna compliment you right now, Colten -

Colten: Um, redacted.

Daniel: One of the things that Colten is so good at...If I didn't know the melody but knew the feeling I needed, I could explain that [feeling] to him in these weird terms... "I want it to be sad in a folksy way, like if Peter, Paul, and Mary wrote a dirge.” And Colten goes, “Hm...How's this?” and played exactly what I needed. That happened so many times...three seconds. And it was perfect.

Colten: Aw. Thanks!

Me: Dang! That was beautiful. Do y'all have a favorite memory from practicing?

Colten: I don't know...first time seeing Houston do his hosting song was really memorable.

Jason: Oh yeah! From the moment he came in, it was amazing.

Daniel: He did a great job of understanding that character and putting his on spin on it.

Jason: Mine would be my only contribution to the script, which would be Darcy's guitar solos. When I actually saw it in action, I was like, “Yeah. I made the right choice. I'm glad I added that.” That was the only thing I added out of whole cloth.

Me: I especially liked it because it gave a whole corniness to the whole thing...like a 90s sitcom.

Jason: Now that you say that, I want to add [redacted]...oh. Um, redact that.

Me: The whole thing?

Daniel: Yes. Let's just start over.

Colten: Second to that would be me playing "Ghostbusters" before the show. And then they asked me to play it again and again...

David's response after the fact: "Damn it, I was gonna say the first time Houston did the song! Um, maybe the time that the water pole fell out during a really emotional scene. The loud "THUD" juxtaposed against a tender moment in the middle of a stressed rehearsal was just so funny."

Me: Awesome. If there is a train going from Kansas City to Dallas at 60 miles per hour, who really killed Jason Voorhees?

Jason:...Those seem...unrelated.

Daniel: I want to hear what Colten says.

Jason: Yeah.

Colten: Hm...that throws everything off that I knew about Jason.

Daniel: Yeah, it only works if you're leaving from Dallas to Kansas.

Me: OK, then let's say that. What's your theory?

(Jason giggles.)

Jason: Is it a train or the band train?

Daniel: Oooh! How fast is it and/or they traveling?

All: Sixty miles an hour.

Colten: That's pretty slow for a train.

Daniel: I don't know... I mean, technically, the lake killed him.

Colten: But he's not dead.

Daniel: Yeah, so...nothing's killed him, though the lake did it temporarily...water.

Colten: The lake.

Me: Water or the lake?

Colten: The train.

Jason: Train water.

Me: That works. I'll accept that.

Daniel: That bit didn't go well. Redact it.

Colten: Just include my part about the band Train.

Me: Will do. Also, I think that's it...

Daniel: That's it?

Me: Unless you'd like to answer my other standard sketch question.

Jason: What is it?

Me: If this group was a vegetable, what would it be?

Colten: A pumpkin.

Daniel: 'Cause it's spooky.

(Jason laughs.)

Me: OooOOoohh! SpOOooky!

Colten: It's well carved.

Me: Is that a machete joke?

Colten: Um...yeah. Halloween, machete, it's anything you want it to be.

Daniel: It's a really gourd cast.

Me: Oh, [redacted] you.

Daniel: That can stay in.

Jason: Uh...pumpkins. They're not vegetables, are they?

Me: Oh, no. They're fruit. They have seeds.

Daniel: What's the most pumpkin-y fruit?

Colten: An eggplant!

(Why does everyone always want to be an eggplant? I'll never understand.)

Me: Oh, the FCC was already an eggplant. I apologize.

Colten: A carved eggplant?

Me: Doesn't count.

Jason: Um...Spaghetti squash.

Daniel: 'Cause it looks like brains?

Jason: Yeah, yeah!

Daniel: We're confident in our answer.

All: Spaghetti squash.

David's response after the fact: "That works for me because I love spaghetti squash and I love this show!"

(Fade out. A machete speared through a rubber chicken fades in. The credits roll:

Jason: A Campy Musical involves the talents of David Allison, Darcy Armstrong, Joseph Delgado, Emily Gee, Jason Hackett, Houston Hardaway, Daniel Matthews, Tyler Simpson, and the musical talents of Colten Winburn. The show is teched by Doug Caravella. If you'd like to see the show, it's running every Friday for the rest of October at the world famous Dallas Comedy House. Get your tickets while they're hot!)

A final comment from David: "[The cast and crew] were all a dream to work with. Seriously. Educated performers that have a detailed eye and are willing to speak up. And their work ethics!" 

(I'm sure they were, David. I'm sure they were.)

Jason Musical

Emily Baudot is a DCH graduate and sketch student. When she isn’t at the theater, she’s drinking at one of the bars down the street and trying to justify ordering dessert for dinner.  Or, she’s on her computer pretending she’s a banished orc maiden, whichever one sounds healthier to you. If her crippling addiction to sugar and caffeine doesn’t kill her, she can be seen on stage with the soon to be world famous Wild Strawberry and the already-Internet famous Wiki-Tikki-Tabby (just kidding, they do go online a lot though). She’s also a Pisces because that means something.

(Poster: Houston Hardaway. Drawings: Emily Baudot. Photo: Jason Hensel)