students

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.  

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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.).

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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)

Why I Go Watch Student Showcases

Student Showcase I have gotten to know quite a few professional improvisers over the years, and a lot of them teach improv classes at Dallas Comedy House (DCH).  These “teacher friends” invite me to their showcases*

*A showcase is a one-hour show at DCH that takes place when students finish a seven-week class and get to perform what they learned.

These are awesome. Fun. Kickass. It is filled with students on stage who have been told by their co-workers, “You so funny, you should be on stage.” They say whatever, whenever, and however they want. Granted, they have gone through seven weeks of training and their teachers have taught them better, but screw it, they are on stage and ready to rock.

Some of my favorite improv moments of all time have occurred at these showcases. A few examples:

  • A performer walked on stage with four people and uttered the opening line, “I am a bear from Alaska.” I have never stopped laughing at this.
  • Students trying out their southern accents. I can never get enough of improvisers showing their sweet Georgia twang. Or Alabama. Or maybe that is East Texas.  
  • Students that get so taken up in the moment they refuse to leave the stage after an edit. This is my ark of the covenant. You know not to look directly at them, but you are so mesmerized by its power.

The other aspect I enjoy is the feeling of “I saw them first.” You catch a Level 1 showcase and see some amazing talent, then a few months later they are performing on a Friday night.  

Bonus! Upcoming student showcases for term 3B:

Ghost Watcher is a regular, DCH audience member.

(Image: Kate Alleman/Facebook)

The DCH Diaries: The Jam

The Jam I had been in class only two weeks and Sarah, our teacher, was already urging us to check out the Jam, an opportunity for anyone, DCH student, veteran or novice, even passers-by wandering into the theater, to jump on the stage and try improv for free.

I thought, “OK, I’ll bite, but I won’t get on stage. No way, not yet. Showcase is soon enough.” I went early for the 8 p.m. show (back when the Jam was on Wednesday preceded by the Big Shots show), and by the time the lights went down, the chairs were only half filled. Still, the audience was boisterous. As I laughed through the show, I had a vague impression of people filling in behind me, and I could hear voices coming from the bar area. By the time the show ended, the theater was full.

Then, the real magic happened. The call for the Jam prompted virtually all those folks—more than 50 people—onto the stage. I think I was the only person left in the audience.

A crowded warm-up, then a count off. When the host yelled “Group 3,” most people jumped and headed for chairs. After 15 minutes of fun, another group enthusiastically tackled the stage.

This happened twice more. By then I was exhausted and I had not left my seat. I knew, however, that I could not spend the next Jam in the audience.

The following Wednesday, several classmates came too as did Sarah and Molly, our instructors. With trepidation, Marianne, Emily, and I counted off just like the DCH regulars. My friends took the stage with the first group, and I was proud and ecstatic when they stepped out of the wings.

When my group was called, I found myself surrounded by teachers, veteran troupe members, and people for whom being on stage seemed as natural as standing in line at Starbucks. My back, however, stayed glued to the sidewall. I could think up no initiation that seemed worthy or find an opening into any scene. The lump in my throat was cutting off the oxygen to my brain.

When the tech killed the stage lights, I felt a wee bit defeated. But at least one nut was cracked—I had made it to the stage.

The Jam

During the break, a friend of Emily’s, a DCH veteran, gently called me out on my shy Jam debut. “Don’t overthink,” he said. “Trust yourself and your group and just get out there.” I had heard those words in class, and I knew he was right. I could not leave the theater that night until I had swallowed that lump in my throat.

The next round, someone mentioned a mother in heaven. Something snapped, I practically ran out on stage, tapped out his partner, and became an indignant mother in heaven complaining about the poor customer service I was getting. (“That guy Peter over at the gate told me to wait here. I’ve been waiting 467 years for someone to tell me where I need to be. I thought this was Heaven, not Purgatory.”)

People laughed. And I will never forget my first time.

The particulars on the Jam:

—Tuesdays at 8 p.m. —Come early, come late. Format is fluid. We’re usually playing until 11 p.m. or later, so just jump in when you get there. —Free - really (but it’s also nice if you buy a drink and some tasty snacks, too). —Try improv, experiment with format and new initiations, work on weaknesses or solidify strengths. —Become more comfortable on stage; use it as a “dress rehearsal” for showcases. —Make friends and experience the culture and community of the Dallas Comedy House. —And, don’t forget to stop in at Open Mic in the Pavlov’s Dogs Theater to enjoy some really fun stand-up.

Up next: Level 1 Showcase.

Carron Armstrong is currently in Level 3 and has been obsessed with improv and DCH ever since she discovered that someone can actually take classes to learn this stuff. She is currently negotiating to purchase the naming rights for the brand new stairs added to ease access to the stages of DCH’s Main Street theaters (Thank you, Amanda and Kyle). During the day, she’s a lawyer.

Congratulations, Graduates!

It's graduation time here at the Dallas Comedy House, and we want to congratulate the students who completed all five levels. They worked hard to get here, so if you see these people, give them a high-five, a hearty handshake, a slap on the back, or a chest bump. Or maybe just buy them drinks. Congratulations, everyone! And remember, our new term starts this Sunday. Registration is still open.

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This term's graduates: Sunny Allison, J. Daniel Beluska, Carolyn Breznik, Destiny Corley, Jonathan Cronson, Vinnie Corrales, Trigg Edwards, Amanda Hernandez, Sophia Kwong, Clint Myers, Julie Schneider, Natalie Starnes, Claire Tiffey, Andrea Baum, Lauren Davis, Jessica Dorrell, Sebastian Goebev, Jason Hackett, Lucio Romero, Dan Sturdivant, Gregory White, Clarissa Cardenas, Kyle Cook, Brittany Crew, Kaari Gerber, Morgan Goetz, Jonathan Hyatt, Darragh McArdle, and Gretchen Young.

What We're Loving: Long Descriptions, Short Descriptions, Pre-Teen Interests, Teen Interests, Our Lying Brains

Each Friday, DCH performers, teachers, and students offer their recommendations for what to watch, read, see, hear, or experience. This week David Allison shares his inspirations, Jonda Robinson rules middle school, Sarah Wyatt is mesmerized, Amanda Hahn reignites her passion, and Ryan Callahan plows ahead.  P1-AT967_RADIO_F_20100224175520Terry Catlett and myself have been hard at work for a while trying to figure out what sort of written show we wanted to bring to the DCH stage. This week, we’ll finally be putting up the fruit of that labor with the show David and Terry: Portrait of a Crime. It’s a radio play, complete with live sound effects provided by Colten Winburn and Daniel Matthews. In honor of that upcoming show, I wanted to share a couple of clips that inspired the production.

The first idea for the show came about when I randomly heard WC Fields’ “The Day I Drank a Glass of Water” and played it for Terry. It’s super dumb and terrible, but you can check out the ten minute piece here. Favorite part would be the long, drawn out description when he finally goes to take a drink. The sheer absurdity of how they over explain it really spoke to us. After listening to this, and similar radio plays, we realized the sort of show that we wanted to do.

Our primary inspiration for the style of humor would be everything The Smothers Brothers did. If you’re not familiar with them, The Smothers Brothers were a comic singing duo that hosted a variety show in the 1960s. They created these happy, upbeat, clean, folk songs that still hold up today (Especially if you liked my piece on A Mighty Wind.). I love the dynamic between the straight and absurd players, something that is especially evident in “Boil That Cabbage Down.” Check it out here.

So if either of those billion year old clips, or my normal shows with Terry, are to your liking, we’d love to have you join us on 8/31 at 8:30 as we debut the radio play! - David Allison

Middle SchoolIt’s been a big week for students, parents, and teachers around these parts, as school started back this past Monday. Because of this, the thing I’m loving this week is hanging out with middle school kids. No, it’s not a creepy thing--I’m a “highly qualified” teacher by Texas standards, so it’s not only something I enjoy, but it’s something I get paid to do.

The first week is filled with lots of emotion. Crying, complaining, wondering if you’ll make any friends--and it’s pretty rough on the students, too. I teach both 6th grade and 8th grade, so I get to see both sides of the spectrum, all the way from the eleven-year-old on the verge of tears because she can’t get her locker open to the smooth 8th grader who has gotten as good at this middle school game as he did at [insert title of popular video game all the kids are playing these days]  over the summer. I’m only three days in, and I’ve already had had one sixth grader ask me if she could read Milton’s Paradise Lost, another tell me that when he grows up he wants to be “a problem, so people throw money at me,” and a group of 8th graders who have declared an “anti-spork” movement in our classroom, proclaiming the superiority of the spoon and hoping to get #antispork2014 trending.

If you get ever get the chance to hang out, work with, or mentor some middle school students, go for it. It will open up the door for some memorable conversations, you’ll get to make a (hopefully) positive impact, and you’ll also be reminded that even on your worst day, you can be thankful for the fact that you never have to be that awkward thirteen-year-old version of yourself again. - Jonda Robinson

nicki-anaconda-previewOh. If I could sum up Nicki Minaj’s music video for her latest single, “Anaconda”, in one word, it would be “Oh”. It’s a non-stop barrage of ass, sex, glistening skin, and Sir Mix-a-lot doing more work than Miss Minaj. And I kind of love it.

I thought I’d check it out while I was writing, foolishly thinking that it would just be background chatter. I was mesmerized from the first image. Oh. “What is this?? No! Why can’t I turn away??” It’s so much writhing, so much skin, so much Nicki. I mean, there’s no way everyone on set didn’t see her sorganz (my new slang for sex organs, try it out) well enough for a police sketch artist to use in court.

There’s such a build up in this video to her actually dancing but she never really does. Her back up dancers kill some moves while she pats their asses and twerks a little on a chair. Oh. There’s a section of the video that consists of cuts between her suggestively eating a banana and spraying herself with whipped cream and lots and lots of butt.

I’m not feeling it. But I could hear the sound of thousands of young boys closing their bedroom doors while I was watching it. And if that wasn’t enough, the bridge (???) is a scene of Nicki giving Drake a lap dance so good it seems to be a religious experience. I think we sometimes forget that he started as an actor because that lap dance looked weak as hell to me. This whole thing probably sounds like I hated the video. I did. I love that I hate it. I hate that I love it. I love it. Oh. - Sarah Wyatt

pomerantzThe new school year started up again this week. That doesn’t make much of a difference for grad students since our schooling is year round, but this marks the beginning of my third year in grad school, with about two or three more to go. This summer, for the first time since I started doing research almost 5 years ago, I started getting bored with what I do. I cared a little less about my ongoing studies and results. I spent less time playing with my data (usually a favorite hobby of mine). I stopped reading the RSS feeds of science journals I follow. I just wanted to lay in the sunshine all day and do comedy all night. I needed a kick in the pants. You guys. I got it. I got my kick in the form of this video by Dr. James Pomerantz.

Even if you’re not interested in neuroscience, I highly recommend watching it. Dr. Pomerantz was the PI of the lab I volunteered in after college, and he always demonstrated an amazing ability to explain such a vast array of different topics so simply, clearly, and interestingly. In this 8 minute long video taken at colloquia at Rice University, he does just that. He describes how we perceive, and essentially recreate, the world around us. As Dr. Pomerantz puts it, “when our neurons and the external world disagree with one another, the neurons win every time as for as our experience is concerned. We are all prisoners of our neural architecture.”

That applies to everything we experience. If you have vertigo and your neurons are firing in a way that says the world is spinning, then to you, the world is spinning. If you’re depressed, it doesn’t matter how many people tell you cheer up and that they love you. You’re going to be depressed until your body corrects itself or you seek help. Knowing why our brains don’t always mirror reality can help inform solutions. It can change lives. In the meantime, it’s just really, really cool to learn about. To all of you who are going back to school too: let’s learn the crap out of this weird little world we live in, shall we? Bring it on, year three. - Amanda Hahn

urlOver the past few weeks I have been working my way through the novels, stories, and other writings of Raymond Chandler. Okay, I haven’t read any of the stories yet, or the other writings, but I have finished the first two novels, The Big Sleep and Farewell, My Lovely.

Both of these novels, in fact all of Chandler’s novels, star world-weary, hard-boiled, heavy-drinking, quip-ready private detective Phillip Marlowe. Chandler writes in the first person, allowing the reader to see the people and places of pre-war Los Angeles through Marlowe’s point of view, alternately sardonic and empathetic.

It is this point of view that makes the books great. The plots are nothing special; they’re often needlessly complicated. The mysteries are either incredibly obvious or impossible to sort out. It is the words, the tone, those descriptions – "She was thinking. I could see, even on that short acquaintance, that thinking was always going to be a bother to her.” “Neither of the two people in the room paid any attention to the way I came in, although only one of them was dead.” – which will keep you turning the pages.

I enjoyed Farewell, My Lovely more than The Big Sleep, likely due with my familiarity with the plot of the latter thanks to the Humphrey Bogart film version. Farewell, My Lovely also benefits from a virtuoso chapter in which Marlowe wakes up in a locked room, having been drugged, and struggles to regain his senses. It’s a terrifying flirtation with madness, made all the more effective by how grounded the character is the rest of the time.

My adventure through the Chandler bibliography shall continue. There are only dozens of stories and four more novels to go. After that, I can rest easy. Until I move on to the complete works of Ross MacDonald. - Ryan Callahan