By Pam Victor
[“Geeking Out with…” is a series of interviews with well-known, highly experienced improvisers. It’s a chance to talk about stuff that might interest only hardcore, improv dorkwads like me. You can find the complete “Geeking Out with…” series here and at the Women in Comedy Festival blog.]
In my first interview with Joe Bill, we covered Joe’s improv backstory. As we jump into this second of three geek out sessions, we’re talking about Annoyance Theatre, which Joe co-founded in 1989. Under the steady gaze of Mick Napier, Annoyance Theatre produces improv, sketch, musicals, and full-length plays, which over the years have featured a ton of famous people you know and love. (Joe and I will drop some names in just a bit, so hold your horses.) Joe participated in the original Metraform (Annoyance before it was Annoyance) show Splatter Theatre in 1987 as well as the break-out Annoyance Theatre show Coed Prison Sluts which ran for 11 years, making it the longest running musical in Chicago. At Annoyance, Joe directed and performed in over 50 productions including the illustrious group The Screw Puppies, which is touted as being “Annoyance at its subversive best.” In this geek out session, we also touch upon BASSPROV, a legendary improv show Joe performs with the equally legendary Mark Sutton, with whom he’s been improvising for over 25 years. BASSPROV has appeared at an insane number of improv festivals and rarely fails to astound with its complex simplicity, profound insight, and good ol’ boy genius. BASSPROV is about two guys fishing on a boat, but it’s really about an examination of human behavior, scientific theory and whatever else the audience throws out as a suggestion. In a great interview on the Improvised NY podcast at the Del Close Marathon last year, Joe said of their BASSPROV characters, Donny Weaver and Earl Hinkle, “They’d go crazy if they couldn’t fish together.” I can’t help but to suspect he’s talking about Mark and himself too.
JOE: Annoyance really isn't about improvisation. Neither is Second City.
PAM: What are they about?
JOE: They are about using improv as a tool to create scripted material. The process is just different, though I think Mick has infused the Second City training center with some Annoyance philosophy. iO isn't entirely about improv either, but it's about comedic improv, for sure...now that the old man is gone.
AND, I did LOVE our Annoyance group Screw Puppies, and we were probably the most successful group to come out of Annoyance, and played well in the ‘90s among groups from all over that went on to become pretty huge.
PAM: Wait. I thought that Annoyance was developed - as a theater and as a philosophy - out of a desire to move away from Second City and iO?
JOE: To move away from the RULES. We were in reaction to the rules, mostly. The cornerstone of our philosophy was, “The best way to take care of your scene partner is to take care of yourself first." It's THAT philosophy that still resonates hard to this day and is the cornerstone of Annoyance. A close second is, "Stick to your shit" or "Hold onto your deal". BOTH of those are the ones that fly in the face of the teachings of every other theater.
Like Mick says, The two most important words in improv are "Fuck it." I think that's more or less towards the rules.
PAM: It's weird. Some of the best things in my life have come after I said, “Fuck it.”
JOE: Yep, I'll bet. Me too. Those are two great words to move you from inertia and into action.
PAM: What rules, specifically, were you saying 'Fuck it' to?
|Joe and Mick Napier|
JOE: Any rule that begins with the word "don't" is basically bullshit once you get beyond the first year or two of being a sponge, on your way to becoming a beginning improviser. Know what I mean?
JOE: There's a shitload of improv rules that begin with "don't"...do I need to list 'em?
PAM: No, dear.
[Reader, if you’re interested in one of the many lists of the rules to which the Annoyance founders were flipping the bird, check ‘em out here.]
JOE: Good. And I mean, EVERY one of 'em quickly becomes unhelpful. Mick says as much, in the beginning of his book. [Improvise: Scene from the Inside Out.] The summary of the rules kind of goes, “HEY! Don't do these 25 things, and for sure DON'T GO NEGATIVE. That is, remove HALF of your emotional capacity. Ok, now feel the freedom to get on stage and create anything!” It's bullshit.
PAM: I want to hear more about another core belief of the Annoyance philosophy, “The best way to take care of your scene partner is to take care of yourself first."
JOE: OK, well FIRST, I believe in college that kind of surfaced because we tended to have midnight rehearsals and people were tired and cranky, and Mick hated people bringing their personal bullshit into rehearsal with them. I felt the exact same way, and so did the other leader of the group, a guy named Dave MacNerland. It's like, "It's fucking late, take care of your shit before you get here and come in ready to play/work/focus or whatever.”
JOE: Then the next part was kind of like, “Fucking BRING IT. Bring anything but play strong, and don't be wishy washy. Fucking DO something, and give me something to react to...or we BOTH do something simultaneously, put our brains behind the action, then figure out what the fuck we have here and play the shit out of it.”
Also, embrace your inner anarchy. It was a great place to go through THAT phase of life. That little piece of philosophy is really the thing that set us apart from all the other places. It flies in the face of the teachings of every other theater, and it's also one of the most misunderstood statements about what we meant.
PAM: So what does it mean?
JOE: "Embrace your inner anarchy" is more about my observing the consequences of our philosophy, almost from a therapy point of view. Annoyance in the 90's had a huge undercurrent of anarchy on many levels running through it, but we never described ourselves as anarchists. (Others did.) We were just busy DOING, not spouting, and I'd say we were more wrapped up in ourselves than the impressions that others had of us.
"Embrace your inner anarchy" is my way of saying that we were encouraged, or even ridiculed into, getting over ourselves as individuals. And we pushed towards funneling our individual, sick-fuck-up-ness into our group process of creating, so that we could produce many shows that were the sums of all of our individual anarchy, with each director serving as the sculptor who kind of was shaping a pile of individual anarchy into their vision. Mick Napier was sort of the Master that showed us all how that was done. And everyone in the shows, by and large, felt a degree of ownership of the end product, and by extension, ownership of the Annoyance Theatre's image of anarchy because we all were allowed to contribute to it, and quickly learned to respect the process and philosophy that he articulated.
PAM: Who do you consider to be the founders of Annoyance Theatre?
JOE: About 20 of us? I can name some of the founders that were more involved for longer, but I don't think a specific list exists; though, if it does, it'll probably come out at the 25th anniversary show this coming August. Should I name who I can remember? Or is that answer good enough? (This is why people like interviewing Mark [Sutton] and me together. Mark is AMAZING with details and history.)
Mick was always the Artistic Director and most responsible for articulating our point of view - and yes, I am one of the founders. The Annoyance proper was founded out of our previous group Metraform. The people from our group at Indiana University that are among the founders were Mick, myself, Mark [Sutton], Faith Soloway, Eric Waddell and David MacNerland (who would go away to corporate-land fairly soon after we opened). Then I think some other notables are Susan Messing, David Razowsky, Tom Booker, Ed Furman...fuck this is hard...lemme think…Ellen Stoneking, Bob Fisher, Gary Rudoren, Melanie Hutsell, Tony Stavish, Martin DeMaat…
PAM: Perfect. And I will drool appropriately on you next time we see each other because I'm pretty sure Jane Lynch is on that list too. (By the way, I found a “noted notables” list online. Amy Sedaris, Stephen Colbert, Jason Sudeikis, Matt Besser, for example, are on the list.)
JOE: Actually, Jane was NOT a founder! I think there's a little shit with her an Annoyance still because a couple of people blew up the drama when Real Live Brady Bunch moved to New York, effectively tearing our theater in half.
PAM: No, I didn't mean those people were founders. I meant they worked there.
JOE: Yep, but none of those are founders. I think Tim Meadows might be though - he was in Metraform - and David Pasquesi.
Oh, yeah...TONS of big shots worked there...Jeff Garlin too...Andy Richter...it goes on and on...
PAM: Jane Lynch spoke glowingly about her time there in her new autobiography.
JOE: REALLY? Well, that's good to know. I've still got a Facebook friend request in to her from about a year ago.
PAM: Ok, if she didn't accept your FB friend request, then she's no friend of mine! Fuck Jane Lynch. There. I said it.
Annoyance Theatre alumnae
(I wasn't really serious when
I said I wouldn't do her.
Of course I would.
She's totally hot.)
JOE: No, I always LOVED Jane Lynch. You know, me and the lesbians.
PAM: Ok, good. I wasn't seriously going to fuck her.
PAM: I don’t know the story of how BASSPROV came to be. Can you tell that one now?
JOE: Mark is the one that's great with history. I can't remember if I shit yesterday or not. But BASSPROV was really, Annoyance life after Annoyance for me, and I think for Mark too. I love the show dearly and, yes, I'm very proud of it and my improv relationship with Mark. Winning the Nichols & May Improv Award for Comedy Duo of the Year at CIF [Chicago Improv Festival] was maybe the only award in improv that meant a little something to me. No, it doesn't mean much, but a LITTLE something and that's nice.
PAM: Your relationship with Mark Sutton seems to be so deep. How do you foster a partnership like yours?
|Donny & Earl|
Mark & Joe
JOE: The secret with me and Mark is just years, and we’ve been lucky enough to have survived some really amazing and some really difficult life things together...AND we're just really naturally great together on stage. We complement each other, and we know each other's minds extremely well. We have similar backgrounds, a love for growing up in Indiana, and we had the balls to try our show out as soon as Annoyance closed. It's just something that I think we'll always do to some degree until one or both of us croaks.
I met Mark in 1983 - so 28 years ago - and we were the Telecom majors in our college group. That's where it started. We were also "the sports guys" in the college group, and even at Annoyance. We balanced out our gays, and vice versa...
PAM: Tell me about Earl Hinkle, your BASSPROV character. Where did he come from? How much of Joe is in there?
JOE: Earl is two-thirds me. I just like the name Earl as an Indiana name, and the arena where the championship game in Hoosiers is played is Hinkle Fieldhouse at Butler University in Indianapolis. I grew up about a mile and a half from there. Mark and I definitely espouse a couple of Indiana-isms to shape our characters. That said, it's kind of Indiana from the 70's through 90's at the latest. I’m not sure how authentically Hoosier we really are, and in fact we've NEVER done a show in Indiana!
PAM: I don't know what the real terminology is, but I think of the structure you and Mark do as "conversational improv." Is that what you call it?
JOE: I think when we started out it was "Scenic," then "Real Time," then "Serial something or other"...then a few more. And I think the kids call it “2 Prov” these days...or a mono scene...or..."Conversational Improv"...I dunno .
I've never heard that term before! Seriously.
Dave Razowsky has told people, maybe Mark was one of them, that BASSPROV isn't improv! I mean, it's just BASSPROV. Of all of the styles that it's been called, I think I'm partial to Real Time because it came first...but shit changes so much, and structures are a dime a dozen, just like labels, and I don't pay much attention.
PAM: When you and Mark started BASSPROV, was anybody else doing a show like that? One that mainly consisted of improvised conversation?
JOE: Well, not really. Mark and I were the first to do a two person, one scene show, where the characters, not the scenarios, were recurring each week. Jimmy Carrane and Steph Weir, I think, started the two person prov (modern day).
PAM: Your structure fascinates me for many reasons. For one, it seems so simple, a couple guys talking; but on the other hand, it seems like there is an almost unteachable art to it. (Or is it teachable?) Do you think what I call “conversational improv” is simply funny guys talking or is there a way to break it down for me?
JOE: Well, we've kind of discovered a couple of different formats/approaches that BASSPROV usually breaks down to, sometimes with some variants, but I think Mark and I might describe it slightly differently. I suppose, to your point, it COULD be described as a conversational/scenic Harold. And yes, the basic idea is teachable, but it's also VERY much a product of Mark and I being who we are and where we are from. At its best, you can definitely identify points where our actual lives and BASSPROV lives come together.
PAM: So there is a structure to it, more or less?
JOE: OK, structure. No, nothing is "set,” BUT we know patterns that have presented themselves in our history. It kind of goes back to our days on a team called Georgia Pacific at iO where you literally invent a new kind of Harold each night, based on the suggestion. We're VERY influenced by our suggestions, and allow for the innovative and original to hit us first…usually.
We're very dedicated to always being in the mind of creation, and avoiding the mind of recreation. That is, if material or bits return to us in a show, we always play it new. If nothing innovative or out there presents itself in the first minute, we've usually begun by one of us starting in the middle of a story, and it's usually tied to the lighter of the two suggestions.
A basic structure pattern that we've extracted and reinvested in over the years is to spend some time at top, like 10-15 minutes depending on the length of the show, to explore the lighter, more base, more white trash, blue collar suggestion initially, and then find out way into the weightier suggestion through parallel or metaphor or any other literary device for that matter, somewhere around the one-third to halfway point.
PAM: I could probably grill you for a good, long time about BASSPROV, but for the sake of time let's move into a conversation about Joe Bill’s Giant Brain's Guide to Improv Philosophy. (That's what I call it in my mind)…
Tune in next time for the final installment of
to dip into Joe’s ginormous cranium.
This next part is when the geek really hits the fan, baby.
Catch up on other improv geek-a-thons:
...Mark Sutton of BASSPROV
…Jimmy Carrane of the Improv Nerd podcast
…Susan Messing of Messing with a Friend
and many more!
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Pam Victor is the founding member of The Ha-Ha’s, and she produces The Happier Valley Comedy Show in western Massachusetts. Pam directs, produces and performs in the comic soap opera web series "Silent H, Deadly H". Pam also writes mostly humorous, mostly true essays and reviews of books, movies, and tea on her blog, "My Nephew is a Poodle." If you want to stay abreast of all the geek out action, like the “Geeking Out with…” Facebook page!