Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Geeking Out with...Mark Sutton (Part Two)

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 hardcore, improv dorkwads like Pam. The series can be found in full frontal geek out version here.]

To be totally honest, I was nervous to interview Mark Sutton of BASSPROV. On stage, he seems like a sandpaper gruff guy. A straight shooter with wicked bullshit meter. And though that may be true, once we started talking I also found him to have a gooey marshmallow center. And it’s this dichotomy that makes Mark Sutton so damn delightful. He’s a dedicated family man who performed in Co-Ed Prison Sluts. A guy who’s into baseball and brioche. A Springsteen devotee who also can quote – be still my heart  - Michael Franti. As his longtime comedy partner, Joe Bill, assured me, “Mark is a teddy bear in presidential posture.” Joe should know. He’s got that same gruff-gooey groove going on.

This personality sleight-of-hand is one key ingredient in the BASSPROV magic. On the surface, the show is about Donny Weaver and Earl Hinkle, two seemingly ordinary, blue-collar, Indiana good ol’ boys fishing on a boat. But Mark and Joe play them smart and emotionally deep, and – not to give anything away but - the fishing is a red herring. BASSPROV performs the same “complex simplicity” that make TJ and Dave so impossibly compelling. As such, Mark Sutton’s work has given me a deeper understanding of what it means to “play to the top of your character’s intelligence.” In a recent set, as I watched Mark’s character opine cleverly about art history, I remember thinking, “Hey, that guy wouldn’t know all that stuff.” But ten minutes later (and again in this interview), I bitchslapped myself at my prejudice. Very consciously and thoughtfully, Mark and Joe expand their BASSPROV characters multi-dimensionally while toying with our assumptions about class and intelligence.

Mark and Joe. TJ and Dave. These performers don’t just make me want to be a better improviser, they make me want to be a smarter individual. Their work challenges us to have rich, full and varied lives off stage – as Del advised – and filter that experience and knowledge through our characters on stage. Smart comedy can be hiding anywhere, people. And if you’re lucky enough to be in the audience, you’ll find it on a small fishing boat bobbing lazily along on a remote Indiana lake.

PAM VICTOR: Over the weekend, I has the opportunity to be reminded of your improv history while I was in the bathroom...


PAM:  ...I noticed on the paper towel dispenser, it said "Georgia Pacific." [Mark was in Georgia Pacific, the talent-packed Harold troupe at iO Theatre in Chicago.]

MARK: Classic.

PAM:  Is that where the name came from?

MARK:I think so. I was not in the original group, but came in later. So they already had the name.

PAM:  How old was the group when you came in?

MARK: I think a few years. I remember in Kansas City the first time they did The Bat, and that was in the mid-late 90's. I played with them in 1999 until whenever Charna [Halpern] took them off the schedule.  Around 2001, I think.

Georgian Pacific
Chris Day, Mark Sutton,  TJ Jagodowski,
Joe Bill, Kris Hammond, Pat Shay, Bumper Carroll,
 Lisa Lewis and Jack McBrayer.
PAM:  Was that your first iO team?

MARK: Yes. I just started guesting with them.  Joe Bill had directed them. And then he started playing, so I jumped in and played.

PAM:  Actually, just a few weeks ago, Joe was regaling me with stories of your Georgia Pacific days. It seems like a drool-worthy group. You and Joe. TJ Jagodowski and Jack McBrayer [Kenneth the Page from “30 Rock.”] And then a couple other guys whose names I'm not recalling...

MARK: Pat Shay, who's awesome.  Kris Hammond - in real life a professor of artificial intelligence at Northwestern.  Chris Day and Lisa Lewis. Oh, and Bumper Carroll.

 PAM:  Oh yes. That's right. Fantastic. Though it didn’t make it in the written version, when I interviewed TJ, he told me that after Dave Pasquesi, McBrayer is the one of the partners he connects with most on stage. So I was particularly excited about imagining you two power couples – you and Joe Bill, TJ Jagodowski and Jack McBrayer - playing together on stage. Very hot.

MARK: Yeah. TJ and Jack sometimes sat in on [acclaimed Annoyance show] Screw Puppies, and I started really enjoying playing with them.  Then I had Jack in my touring company at Second City in 1999, so we bonded more then.

PAM:  I'm a huge McBrayer fan, improv-wise. I recently met him on the "30 Rock" set. He was as kind and hard-working as everyone says.

Jack McBrayer

MARK: He's just such a great performer and a genuine guy.  Georgia Pacific has not been a group for over 11 years and, to this day, every person in that group gets a call from Jack McBrayer on their birthday.

PAM:  Awww. Yeah, he seems like the real deal. That's always nice to see.

How was that experience, for you, of playing at iO after giving birth to Annoyance?

MARK: I was nervous at first.  I sort of had a reputation around IO - somewhat deserved - so that every time I would even come into the building, people would look at me and say, "What are you doing here?" in, “I thought you hated this place.”  Then suddenly I was playing there.  On top of that, it's a different expectation, and you're playing with people who are considered IO stars. It was strange at first.

PAM:  What was your reputation? That you hated iO?

MARK: I think it was a good one, but IO was, and still is, often very insular.  So there were tons of younger people there watching the shows who I'm sure had no idea who I was since I wasn't ever an IO guy, and they seldom ventured outside of that bubble.

And yes, I think there was a thought that I hated IO, but that goes waaay back to the "rivalry days" of Chicago improv.

PAM:  Improvisers moving to Chicago or visiting to do an intensive often ask me at which of the three big theaters they should study. What do you advise for someone just starting out studying improv in Chicago?

MARK: That's always a tough one because each place is so different and teaching comes at you in different ways.  I think the first thing you need to do - and this is often very hard - is do a really solid self-evaluation as a performer.  Not just where you think you are, but what you want.  If you are a very new improviser, you may want to go to Second City, and really get a solid foundation in the basics, then move on.  If you want to perform long form, go to IO.  If you want to work on yourself as an individual and increase your confidence, range, and character stuff...come to Annoyance.

PAM:  You think Second City provides more of a solid foundation of improvisation than iO?

MARK: Well, from a basic perspective, probably.  Although I have to say that I've had virtually no exposure to the IO program.  But I've taught in the basic levels of Second City, and if you come to Chicago knowing little or nothing about improv, you should go there.  Also if you want to eventually work there, you should go there because you are not only learning skills but the philosophy of the work they do.  However, the wild card in all of this is the teacher.  You can have a great or shitty experience anywhere depending on your teacher and how they speak to you. So, as with any art form, you have to find teachers that you connect with and work with them.

PAM:  I absolutely LOVED my experience at the iO Summer Intensive. And now my next big fantasy/goal is to do the Annoyance intensive this summer. I wish it were longer than a week - such amazing teachers!

MARK: Nice.

PAM:  Ok, I have waaaay too many questions still left over, and as much as I'd LOVE to go through more history with you, I feel like I should jump into some philosophy/theory.

MARK: Cool.

PAM:  How can improvisers best get out of their own way?

MARK: Talk less...listen more.  If you are really focused on your partner and listening to them it takes you away from yourself, and you can just react.

PAM: Perhaps this next question is related. What mistakes do you see many improvisers making with regards to playing the emotional connections of a scene?

MARK: Well, first of all I think you have to go on the assumption that most improvisers are pretty shitty at emotional connection.  Why?  Because we don't want to be truly vulnerable.  Why?  Because then we can't get out of it with a joke or ironic statement for observation.  If you want to connect emotionally, you have to go all in, and that's tough for improvisers.  They find it very constricting, I think. So they sort of go there...but then you don't buy it.

PAM:  You don't buy it because it doesn't come from a grounded place?

MARK: Right. And you - the audience - can tell they are not really engaged, so you are waiting for the joke. Then neither the joke nor the connection has the right payoff.

PAM:  You're saying the comedy - or joke - of the scene is the Achilles heel of most improvisers?

MARK:  I would say it's even simpler than that.  I think it's expectation. (I'm really big on this right now.) Too many improvisers go into scenes with too much expectation.  It's the whole "get out of your head" thing.  I think improvisers get in their heads because they project results on to their you have expectation about something that is not totally in your control. And when those expectations are not met in the scene, it throws you off.

 PAM:  Agh. This is too delicious. I'm on overload of threads I want to follow here. Let's start with your feelings on expectations, which is something that I wanted to ask you anyway. I heard that you said in a workshop that you don’t like when people say, “Let’s have a great show” or “Let’s make this the best show ever.” Can you explain what it is you don’t like about that mindset, and how you think improvisers should best approach a show? Is this the expectation thing you were referring to?

MARK: Yes, it speaks directly to the expectation thing.  Everybody wants the show to be great...that's a given.  But how to you "try" to do a great show?  That's a ridiculous position to put yourself in before walking onstage.  All you can do is what you are going to do, and then it will be great - or not - depending on what happens.  

It's also a totally personal evaluation.  So, for instance, if you are in a six person group, you have six different ideas of what "great' is. So now you are all - without really knowing it - pulling in six different directions.  But...if you simply agree to commit and serve the show no matter what happens and what presents itself, then you're all pulling in the same direction.

PAM:  Please tell me more about how an improviser should set her mind before a show. I mean, literally, what words can we tell our team as a mantra before we go on stage?

MARK: I've been performing since 1984, and as best as I recall, I've never said, "Let's go do a great show."  I look at people backstage and simply say, “Let's do a show.”  Or, “Let's have fun”.....or sometimes, in the Annoyance mindset,  “Don't fuck it up.”  That's a way of saying, " Whatever is about to happen is supposed to happen."  That's just how it is, and you give yourself over to that and ride the wave.

PAM:  It's about being PRESENT on a molecular and psychic level.

MARK: I think so...what else can you do?  

Many people know that three of my biggest passions outside of improv are baseball, cooking and survival.  I love survival shows and the outdoors.  In all of those things, you have to be present, focused.  You have to be in contact with the food, the earth, all that shit.  It makes you present. You can't take things for granted.  If you are serving dinner for 38 people like I did the other night, you can't take for granted the food tastes good. You have to taste it, be with it, respond to it all the time.

PAM: I see what you mean. There are many ways to approach getting into the Moment. It's all so fucking Zen when it comes do to it. Do you see that, or is it too woo-woo for you? (I'm a hippy.)

MARK: No, I think it's totally like that.  You have to quiet your mind and be present...then deal with what's actually happening and not what you want to have happen. Like survival.  You must assess, adapt, and react to the situation as it is.  And you can't have just see and respond.  Play the scene that's happening, not the one you want to have happen.

PAM:  Now I understand better what you mean about "getting out of your own way." I am left wondering how to encourage improvisers to achieve this level of commitment and mindfulness. I'm speaking in purely practical matters here.

MARK: I think you encourage improvisers to trust each other and be okay with it not always being okay. It's fine to be searching a bit during a show, that's discovery.  It's fine if the audience doesn't always get it, that's surprise.  All those things are fine and what makes improv great.

PAM:  I'd like to come back to the idea of vulnerability. Actually I have a really hard time with that term because I find it very nebulous. It's hard to teach "vulnerable," which is why I think there must be another term or approach. But still I'm wondering how best can an improviser get to a real place of vulnerability?

MARK: Yeah, it's a tough word because it sounds like you're asking performers to be pussies.

PAM:  Hahaha!

MARK: But I think it's different.  I think it's about not worrying how you look.  Losing the cool, detached element that so many performers, especially guys, feel like they need to have to be "comedians."  Why do TJ and Dave relate to so well?  Because they are not afraid to take the shell off and be hurt – affected - by the other.  Why is Louis CK so great in his show?  Because he's vulnerable...he's real and the funny comes from that genuine quality.

PAM:  But here's the problem, Mark. How do you TEACH vulnerable?

MARK: Here's how I do it.  I put performers in places they don't want to go, and I make them react truthfully.  I constantly call them out on what is happening and how they are reacting to it, pushing for consistent emotional response and not selling out moments. “Why did you say that?  Your scene partner just said this to are you going to respond to that, etc.”  You keep making people go to that place until the muscle gets built.

PAM:  Yes, yes. I love it so much. And this leads to our next issue: Fear. I have been thinking a lot lately about the place of fear in improvisation. I’ve been struck by the interesting fact that fear is the crux of the problem nearly every time – if not literally every time – an improviser is lead astray in a scene. It’s fascinating to watch new improvisers in particular twist themselves into knots in order to avoid making an actual declaration or action. And I feel like fear is behind all of those machinations.  On a psychological level, why do you think fear has such a monumental, dark force in improvisation?

MARK: Because more people want to be right than happy.  “I can't just make a choice...I must make the right choice, for the scene, for the improv rule, for the form...blah blah.” Now you're improvising out of obligation and not inspiration, and that's probably going to suck.  Why? Because you are not coming from a place of joy.  "I want to do this...but what if it messes things up?"  How can it mess it up if whatever happens is supposed to happen?

PAM:  It can mess up if it sucks! If the audience isn't entertained. And that is terrifying.

MARK: But that's going on the assumption that every scene will be great...and that's a false assumption.

PAM:  Ah. You must continue that train of thought, if you please.

MARK: At Annoyance, we used to use the term, " You have to stop caring."

PAM:  You're saying we have to avoid letting sucky improv scenes throw us off our game? Just let go.

MARK: Absolutely.  I used to tell my students that the one thing a great scene and a shitty scene have in common is that when they are over, they are over and you can't get them back.  So stop worrying. Have the most fun you can in the moment and move on. Some scenes are going to be can't measure yourself against anything but the next scene.  

Here is where baseball comes in.  You strike out...big deal.  The next time you come up it's totally different.  You can be burdened by the worry of the last strikeout, or you can treat this at bat for what it is, totally fresh, and see what happens.  We worry too much.

PAM:  Jeepers, Mr. Sutton. "Stop caring" is such a huge, fucking, hard thing for improvisers because deep down most of us need the audience's laughter/approval in order to fuel the beating of our hearts.

MARK: Here's the irony: If you care too much about form, your choices, the audience, some bullshit rule…it takes you out of your pure creative space.  So now, the thing that makes you unique and desirable as a performer - you're creative fire and inspiration - is being compromised. So in your fervent desire to care, you've taken away from yourself the only thing that the audience truly cares about, your playfulness.

PAM:  It seems like fear and joy almost need to work together. I imagine there isn’t much fear for you when you’re performing these days. But we know how important "following the fear" - or being most emotionally real and vulnerable - is in improv. All these years in, how do you personally put yourself in a state of joyful fear before and during a show?

MARK: Well, I think the fear is always there to some degree.  But in time you come to embrace it.  It just means that you care, and that's good.  But you don't care to the point that you let the fear get in your way.  How do I do that?  By reminding myself to be proactive.  I remind myself that whatever happens will happen because of choices that I make from inspiration and not choices that I don't make because of fear of failure.

Now even if the scene or the show is not that great, it is so proactively, and I can walk away feeling okay.  I never walk away saying, "If I'd only done this or that, it may have been different."  I was proactive, and I made choices. I'm good with that.

PAM:  Moving on to another Del Close concept, I'm wondering what this quote means to you: "If we treat each other as if we are geniuses, poets, and artists, we have a better chance of becoming that on-stage."

MARK: I suppose it's about respect.  Respect each other for your abilities and points of view.  Respect the process.  Respect the audience.  One of my big things about improvisers is how lazy they often are.  Either overtly or covertly.  This goes to things like showing up on time, how you get ready for a show, how you dress, etc.  That's all about different levels of respect.

PAM:  I know you’ve told it too many times to count, but just for posterity sake, can you please tell me the story of how BASSPROV came to be?

MARK: It was during Screw Puppies.  The format was improv that looked like sketch, meaning that all scenes were blacked out from the booth.  Joe and I came out one night and found ourselves in two chairs and just started fishing.  We liked the characters and occasionally brought them back, always saying they should have their own show.  Then in 2001, leading up to Chicago Improv Festival, I called [Chicago Improv Festival Production’s Executive Director] Jonathan Pitts and told him we were workshopping a show and wanted a slot to try it out.  He gave us a 4am slot in Improv All Night.  I immediately called Joe and told him we had a slot and now must come up with a show. So we sort of forced our own hand to create it.  We did it at 4am to a sold out house and went from there.

PAM:  In an interview with the Austin Improv Forum, you said about your BASSPROV characters, “The key to these guys and to the show is that just when you think you've got them figured out...they surprise you.”

MARK: Yeah, I enjoyed playing with audience expectation about these guys.  Because we, as a society see so much in black and white and people just aren't like that.  I think Donny and Earl prove that out.

PAM:  Personally, I think that magic and surprise element comes from your high level of reference, and how you and Joe funnel your own intelligence through these seemingly blue-collar characters.

MARK: Certainly...because blue collar doesn't mean stupid.

PAM:  Touché.

It's remarkable that you and Joe have maintained such a strong connection on stage for going on three decades now.

MARK: It's sort of crazy.  We don't see each other as much as in the days of Annoyance, but the connection is still there.

It's the same with Mick and me.

PAM:  There must have been times when he bugged the shit out of you. (And visa versa.) But you guys stuck it out. It seems like your extremely high respect for each other is part of the glue that sticks you together. I see that in TJ and David too.

MARK: Oh yeah. We are completely different personalities.  I used to joke that traveling with him is like traveling with an old lady.  We have to go to this place, and he has to have his food a certain way, and stuff like that.  I'm sure he hates my regimented nature.

PAM:  In some ways you seem like two sides of the same coin perhaps. Maybe I'm wrong on that...

MARK: Ha...probably from a more detached perspective, yes.

PAM:  Do you ever get surprised by something Joe says on stage? Or do you feel like a well-oiled machine at this point?
Mark and Joe
Donny and Earl

MARK: Oh yeah.  There is the famous Mad Cow story from the Miami Festival some years ago.  Joe decided that, instead of talking about Mad Cow, he was going to have it. He just kept getting more and more manic, and couldn't stay on topic, etc.  For about two-thirds of the show I did not know what the hell was going on.  And people in the audience who knew us told me after that they could see Mark getting pissed and not Donny. I was ready to kill him.  Then I finally got it and the audience went nuts.

Then there was Seattle in ‘08 when the normally conservative Donny revealed his Obama t-Shirt.  Joe freaked on that one.

PAM:  Because I most enjoy it when done slowly, mindfully and fully present, can you tell me about the pace of BASSPROV and why it helps to make such delectable improv?

MARK: The best note we were ever given about the show was by a brilliant guy named Don Hall.  We did the show in his WNEP Theater in the beginning, and one night he came backstage and - in his own Don Hall way – said, "Can I make a suggestion? Shut the fuck up and fish."  We were talking too much.  We weren't relaxed.  We had to relax, fish, drink beer, take better care of the mood, and then the words take care of themselves.

PAM:  Fantastic. Do you still get off on performing BASSPROV? What about the show continues to draw you back in?

MARK: I just love it.  I love the characters, the interplay.  I love showing these guys to the audience, surprising them.  And, there's always new stuff to talk about.

PAM:  Awww. I love that you still love it. Sorry to go all girly on you just then, but it slipped out.


PAM:  Now that Joe is back from getting married in South Africa, when are you next performing?

MARK: Not until next year [2013].  The shows are fewer now.  I travel so much for Second City, and I have two little kids who need daddy to be home.  We pick our spots more.  One big goal next year is to actually do this show that's set in Indiana, about two guys from Indiana.  We've never done that.

PAM:  One more BASSPROV question. I'm reticent to ask it because I may be about to sound prudish or a buzz-kill here just by asking the question, but can you explain the significance or reasoning for drinking beer during your set?

MARK: You drink beer when you fish.  That's really it.

PAM:  Have you ever done the show without beer?

MARK: Yes. We did a morning show for students at CIF one year, and we drank coffee.

PAM:  Hahaha. How did that go?

MARK: It was fine.  We don't "need" the just makes it more fun. (That's sounds like the alcoholic handbook right?)

PAM:  I should move on... You are one of the relatively few improvisers I know who is able to make a living off improv. Is your main, money-making gig Second City BizCo?

MARK: Yeah, doing corporate workshops, event hosting, large shows.  Then also teaching at Annoyance and some freelance stuff.

PAM:  The freelance is "Power Improv"?

MARK: Some of it. And I'm doing a series of events now for the National Association of Orthopedic Surgeons on distracted driving. My friend does PR for them and hooked me up.  And last year I hosted the Chamber of Commerce Awards in Scranton PA.  You know...glamorous stuff like that.

PAM:  Wha-? Where do orthopedic surgeons, distracted driving, and improvisation meet?

MARK: They co-sponsor an initiative to show kids the danger of distracted driving. They work with police and the auto industry in getting that message out to teens. We do the events like a talk show with some sketches, etc.

PAM:  Cool. My improv friends and I constantly struggle with how improviser can make a living through improv. Suggestions?

MARK: I think it's really perseverance and marketing.  You have to come up with a program and sell the program.  Be specific because business doesn't buy vague.

PAM:  Quite frankly, it makes me sad that my guiding passion has almost no opportunities to make a sustainable living. It's a given that you can't make real money performing, right?

MARK: That's why they are avocations...right.  It's a calling.

PAM:  What kind of "program" can an improviser come up with to sell?

MARK: You have to come up with a program that speaks to business.  For instance at Second City we teach Communication Skills, Presentation Skills...etc., and sell that to the business angle. But it's all based on improv.

PAM:  What sorts of businesses buy these programs?

MARK: For Second City, it's across the board.  Small, big....huge.  Having that name behind it helps.

I'm also writing .... we'll see how that turns out.

PAM:  You're working on a book about improv?

MARK: No. It's a humor book, but not improv.

PAM:  I’m looking forward to reading it. Ok, Mr. Sutton. We've come to the end of our show here.

MARK: Aaawww.

PAM:  Thank you so very, very much for geeking out with me. You definitely were the most slippery of fish that took months to finally land, but entirely worth the wait.

MARK: Finally...right?  And I want to leave you with one more thing.  This was really the inspiration for all my current teaching about commitment and emotional connection.'s from a Starbuck's coffee cup:  "The irony of commitment is that it's deeply liberating - in work, in play in love.  The act frees you from the tyranny of your internal critic, from the fear that likes to dress itself up and parade around as rational hesitation. To commit is to remove your head as the barrier to your life." - Anne Morris

PAM:  That's great…and so true. I find tea bags to be very inspirational.
Photo credit:
Quotes Temple

Catch up on past improv geek-a-thons:
…with Joe Bill of BASSPROV
…Susan Messing of Messing with a Friend
and many more!

If you like groovy stuff, you might enjoy
The Zen of Improv series
which contemplates improvisation and 
mind-expanding ideas like non-judgment, joy, and curiosity. 

Pam Victor is an improv comedian, author, teacher, consultant, and nice person. She is the founder and Head of Happiness of Happier Valley Comedy, the epicenter of improv in Western Mass, where Pam teaches The Zen of Improv to the best students in the world as well as bringing the power of improvisation to the workplace in her "Through Laughter" program.  TJ Jagodowski,  David Pasquesi, and Pam are the co-authors of "Improvisation at the Speed of Life: The TJ and Dave Book."   She lives online at

Unless you're a meanie, Pam would probably like you.

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