Tommy Lee Brown

When the Going Gets Tough

Head in Hands During a recent practice, one of my troupe mates expressed struggling with improv lately. Rehearsals had felt difficult and discouraging, and this person didn’t know what to make of the experience. The first thought that came to my mind was, “It’s a cycle.” I had felt crappy about my play just a week before. I’ll probably feel crappy about it again soon. We all know the feeling when things just aren’t clicking. It’s improv puberty; it happens to everyone.

I've been performing improv for almost four years now. That's a little while. I've been able to buy a drink at a bar (legally) for less time. In my near-presidential-term stint of making pretend, I've experienced plenty of ups and downs. We will always have both.

One of the toughest parts about practicing and performing improv is getting better. When you start, you’re overjoyed just to be able to express the thoughts in your brain. You feel an unmistakable exhilaration the first time you nail a great group game. Because you have done so little improv, every scene is a new scene. The work you’re doing might be good, but it is certainly good enough.

However, somewhere along the road, you get better. Your scenes become more consistent and you develop a small cache of improv memories. From this point forward you are cursed with the knowledge that you have done well before, and you feel a great sense of shame when you don't automatically replicate previous success.

Then you start to notice at shows how certain performers (many of whom have been improvising and teaching for years, mind you) always seem to stick the landing in scenes and why can't I be like them and just do good scenes like I used to and when did this get so frustrating and hard!?

A few things to remember:

  1. If you’re self-critical, it probably means that you care about the work you’re doing.
  2. You’re not the only, or necessarily, the best judge of your own work.
  3. Long-term consistency can consist of short-term inconsistencies. (LeBron James is shooting 30.9 percent from 3 this season. He’s a career 34 percent shooter from that range.)

It’s only because you’ve gotten better that you notice the flaws. A performer’s relationship with improv will always be cyclical. You will always go through phases of struggle and phases of euphoria. For me, it can even change week-by-week.

It’s a commonly held belief that you should regularly mix up your workout routine in order to maximize the time you spend exercising. If you do the same thing every day, your body adjusts and you no longer benefit from the activity.

The same is true when it comes to improv, comedy, and performance in general. If you spend all of your time practicing, you need to perform. If you spend all of your time performing you need to take a workshop or read a book. If you always improvise, you need to write. If you always do comedy you need to try drama. Change-ups give you a new perspective and offer an alternative when the fastball isn’t working.

In college, when I tired of our free-range improv environment, I’d focus on stand-up. When stand-up got sad, I’d work on sketches. When sketches felt difficult, I’d try to write a Regular Show spec script (I’ve got a pretty solid premise if it hasn’t been done yet. I haven’t watched Regular Show in like two years). With this system, when I felt deflated in one area, it didn’t prevent me from working in another.

It’s important to remember that this improv thing will never be automatic. Every time you complete the cycle of doubt and self-loathing (*cue graphic) you come out stronger and more consistent. When you watch a performer who always seems to have good scenes, it’s probably a product of many frustrating cycles. Even the established performers at Dallas Comedy House experience ups and downs:

“When I find myself in a period of regression or stagnation, I try to shake things up by playing with new people, new formats, and new characters. I watch more improv and go to more Jams.” — Tommy Lee Brown

“It’s easy to overanalyze. I used to do it a lot. A LOT. But I really try to dust it off as quickly as I can now. We’re adults playing make-believe, so it’s silly to beat myself up. And on the same note, when I walk off stage feeling too baller and cocky, I remind myself of the same thing. Learn from the good. Learn from the bad. Keep walking.” — Ashley Bright

“When I struggle, it feels like I'm forcing myself into the show instead of trusting the process and letting the show come to me. When that happens, I'm always more confident, creative, and generally having more fun.” — Ben Pfeiffer

“I think we make [improv] hard. We catch a glimpse of its splendor here or there and start chasing it. We think we can comprehend it or ‘do it this way’ so we can feel that thing we felt again. That's when it gets hard for me. When I think I can outsmart improv and make moves that aren't already there.” — Kyle Austin

The bottom line: Choosing to continue strengthens your skill set and ultimately gives you confidence for the cycles to come.

“The biggest thing I've realized about these peaks and valleys is that they pass. Focus on yourself, not just your improv but your life outside of it. Read more, take a walk, travel. Get out of your head and into your life because that's the real inspiration for everything we do on stage.” — Sarah Wyatt

Danny Neely is currently a Level 5 student at DCH. He works part time at a bakery and another part of  the time as a freelance writer. You can see him perform as a member of Big Turtle, Clover, Coiffelganger, Empty Inside, and Warm Milk.

(Image: Alex Proimos/Creative Commons)

Troupe Talk: Wheel of Formats

Wheel of Formats Spin the wheel to watch their show. Around and around it’ll go. But where it lands, nobody knows. From Close Quarters to Dinner for Six to Make ‘Em Ups, it’s safe to say that the Dallas Comedy House (DCH) troupe Wheel of Formats (Tommy Lee Brown, Jerrell Curry, Raymond Fischer, Tab Parker, Nick Scott, and Christie Wallace) is as plentiful in improv forms as it is in steadfast support for one another’s ideas, inviting audiences to laugh at a wide range of unexpected topics. In between preparing for Dallas Comedy Festival 2016 and generating all those hilarious scenes—whether they involve discussions of terrorism, frustrated high school principals, or Jerrell’s butthole—Wheel of Formats is just your everyday group of chaos-crafting improvisers who are out to play and have some good ol’ fashioned fun with each other.

Wheel of Formats congrats on being selected to perform at Dallas Comedy Festival 2016, that’s awesome! Okay, let’s start with the basics. How did you all get together and what do you dig most about improv?

Nick: The wheel brought us all together. It called to us. IT BECAME US. The part of improv I like most is immense fame and fortune that has accompanied it.

Jerrell: Thank you! I’m super excited about it. I actually found the wheel under my bed and when I spun it, I was transported to a living room in an undisclosed location and said, “Welp, here I am.” And, the part of improv I dig the most is all of the sweet, sweet kissing scenes I’m in.

Christie: We're actually all failed Wheel of Fortune contestants. We met in a support group and decided the best way to heal was through laughter. We're all still really hurting. What I dig most about improv is being in scenes about Jerrell’s butthole.

Raymond: My ally is the Wheel, and a powerful ally it is. Its energy surrounds us and binds us. Dig most about improv? It’s the one area of life where people don’t take themselves too seriously. Wait, what?

For those who might not be familiar with you, briefly describe your performance style. What might someone expect to see at Wheel of Formats show?

Nick: One time we did a Dinner for Six where one character was a perpetrator of 9/11. I feel like that about sums it up.

Jerrell: And about once or twice a show, I run into a scene screaming about my butthole. It's top notch.

Christie: Whether it's terrorists or buttholes, we're always having fun. And aren't those really the same thing anyways?

Raymond: Huh; it says here that “successful improv usually starts and ends with an angry father or exasperated high school principal character.” So, I don’t know about the rest of these jerks, but it looks like I’m nailing it.

Wheel of Formats

Of all the formats on your wheel, which is your favorite to perform and why? Which is most challenging and why?

Nick: Make ‘Em Ups is my favorite to perform. We let the audience give the name of a format that has never been performed and then come up with the rules. I think we’ve been the most beaten by The Bruise (you’re welcome).

Jerrell: I really like our Make ‘Em Up shows, for sure. Definitely my favorite of the bunch because they tend to be the craziest shows we have (except for the 9/11 Dinner for Six). And I’ll agree with The Bruise as being the most challenging, because I honestly can't remember what format that is.

Christie: Make ‘Em Ups is always super fun and has led to some of our most fun, playful, shows. Like the time we kept lighting our horses on fire and eating their meat. I'm also a big fan of Close Quarters. The Bruise always leaves a mark (you're also welcome).

Raymond: I agree that Make ‘Em Ups have led to some great shows, but I selfishly like Dinner for Six and The Harold. I’d have to agree with everyone so far: The Bruise is pretty challenging.

Many people consider the wheel to be one of man’s greatest inventions. What is something genius that man hasn’t surprisingly invented yet, but you think totally needs to/should be?

Nick: I’d like to be able to plug my brain into a computer. If not that, then cookies that make you lose weight rather than gain it.

Jerrell: It’s 2016 and there still isn't a Sandra Bullock box set. Honor your heroes when they're alive, people.

Christie: Why am I still having to drive myself everywhere? I mean I get that there's Uber, but I want to just be able to teleport myself places. So, I guess teleportation is my answer.

Raymond: It’s 2016, and I am still having to...

Wheel of Formats

You can only choose one: Wheel of Karma, Wheel of Fortune, a wheel of cheese. Which do you pick and why?

Nick: F**K: Wheel of Karma, MARRY: Wheel of Fortune, KILL: a wheel of cheese. Wait, what was the question?

Jerrell: F**K: Bradley Cooper while spinning on the Wheel of Karma, MARRY: Idris Elba inside of a wheel of cheese, which we will then f**k in, KILL: Will.I.Am on an episode of Wheel of Fortune for producing Britney Spears’ 8th album, Britney Jean.

Christie: F**K: David Beckham while playing soccer on the Wheel of Karma, MARRY: Tommy Lee Brown sitting naked in the middle of a wheel of cheese, KILL: Obvs Wheel of Fortune, since that show made a fool out of all of us

Raymond: Well, Fortuna’s Wheel is not chosen; it’s spun, and resistance is futile. (Note: If you have not read A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole, you’re doing it wrong. One of the two funniest books ever written.) Also, a mini wheel of cheese was on a burger at former mall staple restaurant Bennigan’s (the Wheelhouse), yet wasn’t the best item on the menu (the Turkey O’Toole). What was the question?

Wheel of FormatsWho else are you most excited to see perform at Dallas Comedy Festival 2016?

Nick: CUPCAKE. Just some incredibly talented performers.

Jerrell: Whoever the headliners are. They're always really solid, so that’ll be fun. And, PRIMARY COLOURS. I've heard they’re like, really really good. Oh, and Cupcake.

Christie: Yeah, I've heard Cupcake is amazing. Also, Franzia and Local Honey. PC is always fun. And the headliners…..which I think is Cupcake.

Raymond: The Late 90s from Chicago are fantastic and not to be missed. They’ve been coached by one of the greatest improv minds and performers (Craig Uhlir) and are currently coached by an extremely talented and innovative performer (Alex Honnet). Highly rec. And also, there are some friendly faces in Damn, Gina and Clearance Shelf that many of us at DCH will enjoy watching. Oh, also: Obligatory Cupcake reference.

*Unfortunately Tommy Lee Brown could not be available for this interview, but the troupe members of Wheel of Formats would like it to be known that Tommy, above all else, loves tacos. Also, Tab joined after this interview took place. She also loves tacos. But not as much as Tommy.

Be sure to catch Wheel of Formats perform at Dallas Comedy Festival 2016!

Lauren Levine is currently a Level 3 student at DCH. When she is not trying to come up with witty things for this blog, she is a freelance writer and editor, an amateur photographer, a Zumba-enthusiast, a dog lover, and an 80s movie nerd. In addition, she enjoys all things Muppet-related, the smell after a rainstorm, and people with soft hands.

Tommy’s Taco Thursday: We Went to There—Tacolandia

Tacolandia Team Tacolandia the reality – the people were great, the weather was great, the music was a dominating force. I wonder if playing dance music extremely loud aids in digestion, because Team Tacolandia put down at least 15 tacos each, but surely no more than 20. It was amazing. VIPs entered an hour early and enjoyed zero lines (except for the alcohol line – which was just a trap to distract you from tacos). We spent an hour engulfing taco after taco. I’d say the highlights of the day for me was a carrot habanero sauce offered by Iron Cactus and a corn tortilla with cheese crisped on top (before layering on the meat and sauce) from Come Taco.

Alas, in a sea of tacos with cabbage slaw, grilled pineapple, grilled mango, and other gourmet accoutrements, I found two tacos worth noting. Let’s start with the best of the fancy tacos. The Taco Diner tent wins the prize for the best energy. The crew was bumping and grinding with the taco hunters. There were Dos Eques “rosaries” being tossed around and an inter-diner taco competition between a brisket taco that was pretty simple and chewy. This poor brisket taco got CRUSHED by the chicken and waffle taco. We’re talking warm corn tortilla with lightly breaded fried chicken breast pieces and a sweet maple cream sauce. So delicious! Highly recommend. I’m not sure if these mommasitas are on the Taco Diner menu, but if they are, get up on 'em.

Tacolandia VIPHere comes the champ. Most tents had little warmers and crock pots. Some tents had sterno canisters and chaffing dishes. For the most part, the workers would layout little black Styrofoam and carefully build tasty taco towers atop. Not at la tienda de La Banqueta! La Banqueta had a flattop grill. On the left side of the grill, piled high was about 10 pounds of chicken and on the right was about the same of beef. In the center were tortillas. As you approached the tent, the server would bare hand a couple of tortillas and use the tortilla to grab a handful of your choice of meat. These tacos were so hot, so fresh, and they had minced cilantro, onion, and some lime wedges for you. They had creamy, green salsa verde and a red salsa on ice. Boom! La Banqueta: Simple tacos done to perfection. And they had my heart and soul at Tacolandia. Also, their business card looks like an early Snoop Dogg album. Double bonus, turns out, La Banqueta is just a few minutes from my house. (And just like that, my property value doubled.)

Just as they let the general public into Tacolandia, I and my team were stuffed and ready to leave. Lines were forming, and it became clear that going VIP was a great idea. We were riding Ubers into the sunset before the little people had reached the front of their first line. I heard horror stories of people only getting to eat five or six tacos because of the lines. We ruled the day! We ruled Tacolandia!

Tommy Lee Brown teaches and performs at Dallas Comedy House. He is your man on the street, determined to eat. He is the belly of the city. No taco is too small or too commercial. He will eat it all, and tell you all about it. Direct taco related questions to taconightandday@gmail.com.

Tommy’s Taco Thursday: Tacolandia—A Vision

Tacolandia So I book an Uber to get me downtown to Tacolandia. It arrives. It’s a red-and-white checkered paper tray. You would recognize it from a concession stand or from ordering tacos at an East Dallas Taco shack. I hop in the back, and my driver is a smothered burrito. The drive is messy, but he gets me safely downtown. Downtown Dallas is transformed into a Taco Mecca. I step out of the paper taco tray and onto streets made of crispy taco shell. The trees and shrubs are gigantic cilantro bundles and heads of fresh lettuce. There’s a fountain spraying taco sauce 20 feet in the air.

I look around in wonderment, taking in all the sights. The clouds above are smooth, pillowy scoops of sour cream floating in a sea of blue corn chip crumbs. To my amazement and delight, they begin to drizzle warm queso down upon Tacolandia. Everyone has their heads tilted back and their tongues pointed to the sky.

The park benches are giant wedges of lime, and the buildings are giant taco salad shells towering into the sky. The gardens are peppered with chopped habanero, jalapeno, and cilantro. The air smells of crisping tortillas and cumin. There are tomato cannons shooting tomatoes in a 21-tomato salute to tacos.

The Flaming Lips are playing a stage made of ground beef, and all of their instruments are taco related. There’s a mean flauta solo popping as the avocados in the mosh pit begin making stage-side guacamole. Heads of garlic are spraying garlic salt into the crowd.

Then everything goes red.

When I wake up, I’m in jail. Apparently I went mad. I destroyed downtown. I consumed the crowds. I left a devastating crater of salsa stained carnage in my wake. I lie back on my cot and smile. I have no regrets.

#tacos #tacolandia #Dallas #Tommystacothursdays #VIP

Tommy Lee Brown teaches and performs at Dallas Comedy House. He is your man on the street, determined to eat. He is the belly of the city. No taco is too small or too commercial. He will eat it all, and tell you all about it. Direct taco related questions to taconightandday@gmail.com.

Tommy's Taco Thursday: TACOS!! TACOS!! TACOS!!

tacos I'm notoriously open-minded when it comes to tacos. I'll give pretty much anything masquerading as a taco the benefit of the doubt. But let's put some thought into it. It’s annoying when a restaurant throws together some random ingredients they already have on the menu and advertise “Tacos!!”

I had lunch at a Philly cheesesteak restaurant today. There was a sign proclaiming “Tacos!!” Contrary to popular belief I didn’t immediately rush the register screaming “I’ll have the tacos!!” In situations like this – namely, when you are at a non-chain restaurant – I encourage you to remain calm and remember a few things.

First scan the rest of the menu. Look for pictures of said tacos. Look for any other offerings that hint that this place knows what they are doing. Look for chips and salsa, enchiladas, taco salad, basically anything you can make with Taco ingredients. This place had nothing of the sort. They offered cheesesteaks, hamburgers, wings, fries, gyros, and tacos… This is not a good taco sign.

(Side note: if a place offers gyros, be sure they have a vertical rotisserie broiler. Otherwise you are eating a cheesesteak pita with tomatoes.)

Second, ask about the tacos. When asked about the tacos, the waitress informed me that they were, “Corn tortillas with cheesesteak meat.” I won’t say they are terrible, I haven’t tried them, but I did want to rip down the “Tacos!!” sign at that point.

Finally, when in doubt, order the food item the restaurant was named after. My cheesesteak was probably better than anything else this place offered.

Supporting the indie restaurants is a great thing; just remember they are under a lot of pressure to compete with the big boys. So sometimes they make questionable decisions, like offering “Tacos!!” and “Gyros!!” made from “cheesesteak meat.”

Don’t be Taco Blind. Taco with Pride and Taco in stride.

#notataco #tacos #2020tacovision #tacoawareness #tommystacothursdays

Tommy Lee Brown teaches and performs at Dallas Comedy House. He is your man on the street, determined to eat. He is the belly of the city. No taco is too small or too commercial. He will eat it all, and tell you all about it. Direct taco related questions to taconightandday@gmail.com.

(Image: JD Hancock/Creative Commons)

Troupe Talk: Franzia

Franzia Today is a big day. It’s a day when stereotypes break free from their mold. It’s a day when something usually thought of as nothing more than a cheap mind number for boozy lushes gets to step up as something bigger. Today is a day when we can raise our glasses, fill it with a generous helping of our favorite boxed wine, and know that that wine has a bigger purpose. Because today is the day that Troupe Talk talks to Franzia, one of DCH’s very own funny foursomes (individual people that make up a group of four...not boxed wine induced foursomes...at least not most of the time).

Tell us all the reasons you are like a fine, box of Franzia wine.

With us, you get a lot of bang for your buck.

Franzia, the box of wine, is tag lined as the “the world’s most popular wine.” What would Franzia, the improv troupe, be tag lined with?

“So so good, so so cheap.”

What makes Franzia unique or different from other improv troupes?

We rely on feeling rather than format. When it “feels like it’s time,” we start the call back crescendo.

Tell us about your most memorable Franzia scene or show.

In the Chicago Improv Festival, we had an amazing show. We had a funeral scene for a horse that was very effective. According to Tommy, the horse had helped him quit smoking. After the show, some Chi-folk said, “If that’s what you guys are doing in Dallas, keep it up.” We felt proud.

Raise your pantomimed improv glass of Franzia and make a toast to each other.

Singing loudly, “Nobody does it beetterrrr, makes me feel sad for the reeeest. Nobody does it haaalf as good as you….baby, you’re the beeeeeessttt.”

Franzia performs at the Dallas Comedy House on October 3 and October 24.

Tori Oman is a Dallas Comedy House graduate.