Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Geeking Out with...Scott Adsit

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 on My Nephew is a Poodle and in pithier version on the Women in Comedy Festival blog. For behind-the-scenes action, ‘like’ the “Geeking Out with…” Facebook page.]

Like a total dorkwad, I hugged Scott Adsit the second time I met him. I guess I was a little nervous and, as already mentioned, a dorkwad. The previous night, the ever-lovely Susan Messing briefly introduced me to Mr. Adsit after their very fun, very sexy performance together in “Messing with a Friend”…so I guess through some malfunction in my brain, I concluded Scott Adsit and I had become dear, old friends after that fifteen-second interaction outside the bathrooms at Annoyance Theatre. So the next day, shortly before I was to interview him and John Lutz for the live “talk show” version of “Geeking Out with…” at the Chicago Improv Festival, something possessed me to greet Scott Adsit with a hug. He was gracious about it. (So far, no restraining order.) And John Lutz helped tremendously to ease the awkwardness during our introduction by coming up behind Scott and saying, “I want to get in on this hugging action too!”

John Lutz, Scott Adsit, and a lucky lady
Chicago Improv Festival 2013
[Copyright John H. Abbott, Photographer for CIF]
I may be socially inept, but at least I got to hug Scott Adsit and John Lutz - so suck it, ladies and gay men!

Even better, I had the tremendous pleasure of having a stimulating and entertaining conversation with them both in front of a packed house at the Playground Theatre, and then watching their improvisational prowess later that night at a special midnight show only for performers of the Chicago Improv Festival. I watch a lot of improv, but I have to say “John and Scott” seriously blew me away. If you ever have a chance to see them, do whatever you have to take it. Their skill, talent, and chemistry are stellar. Plus, if the show doesn’t make you a better improviser, it will make you want to be one.

Coming up in Chicago, Scott Adsit performed on the Second City stages at Northwest, e.t.c., and on Mainstage for four years where he was a guiding force in enormously popular revues such as “Pinata Full of Bees” and “Paradigm Lost,” for which he won a Joseph Jefferson Award in 1997. (Scott also was nominated in 1994 for “Whitewater for Chocolate” and in 1996 for “Citizen Gates.”) As far as his screen work goes, he appeared on several episodes of “Mr. Show,” the movie “The Informant!” and Scott is the executive producer and gives voice to the character Clay Puppington in the Adult Swim series “Morel Orel.” Scott directed, produced, wrote, and voiced many of the lead roles Mary Shelley's Frankenhole” on Adult Swim as well. Though chances are, you know Scott Adsit best as Pete Hornberger in NBC’s “30 Rock.”

However, if you prefer the noisy stimulation of an arcade over the coziness of your couch in front of the tube, you may know Scott from the pinball game Medieval Madness, where you can hear his voice as well as those of his former Second City castmates Kevin Dorff and Tina Fey. Or if you’re not a pinball fan, perhaps you are a DWI repeat offender, and you may have seen his 1996, long-running work “Reflections From The Heart Of A Child.” In any case, you probably have seen Scott Adsit’s work in some form or another. Though for our purposes, we’ll focus primarily on his time on stage without a script, which – outside of an awkward though well-intentioned embrace – is the sweetest place of all.
* * *

PAM VICTOR: I usually start with the same question because I’m a hopeless romantic: Tell me about the moment you looked into improv’s eyes and knew she was the girl for you.

SCOTT ADSIT:‎ I was on a tiny, orange-carpeted stage in a junior high drama classroom. It was my first improv scene ever. My teacher was an actress and former Playmate, who decided the best approach to acting was a solid base of improv. So she put a girl and me in a movie theater on this orange stage, a boxy riser to be precise. I had a feel for the surroundings and scooted past imagined knees and cup holders to sit in my chair. As I sat and adjusted, I accidently put my hand in some sticky, wet gum under my seat and reacted. (Or, I should say my CHARACTER found gum.) It got a laugh, and the teacher used it as a good example of creating your space and having an emotion attached to it. She was very good.

PAM: So you're an improviser because of a stripper?

SCOTT:‎ Improv will never get you laid. Let's not mislead the youthful readers.

PAM: LOL. No sex. No money. And yet...we still do it. Why? Why do you still do it?

Scott and Susan Messing
in Messing with a Friend (2013)
SCOTT:‎ Because it takes no preparation, nor money.

PAM: Neither does sex. Ideally.

SCOTT:‎ No, I was being cynical. I do it because of all the typical reasons. It's a release of emotions. It's therapeutic. It's a place where the actors are in complete control of everything. Plus, I know a lot of great improvisers with whom I get to play, and they're funny.

PAM: Tell me about your improv training. You pretty much exclusively trained at Second City-Chicago, right?

SCOTT:‎ I will say that I count the junior high class as my first training. (Props to Mrs. Little.) Then I was fortunate enough to go to a high school, Glenbrook North, that had a great theater program and amazing teachers. Being in a suburb of Chicago, my teacher, Pat Murphy, taught improv in the regular drama classes.

Even more amazingly, he had an improv group that would perform at school functions. We were the school's Second City. We made fun of high school life and the pressures there, but we also were allowed to make fun of and criticize the school's administration and point out inconsistencies and flaws in the way the school was run. We were taught to think politically with comedy. We had rules set by the deans and principal that were not debatable: No religion, no drug satire, no racial commentary. But we did all of it. Murphy let us break the rules, and he was called on the carpet after every show. Wonderful guy.
Scott Adsit (center)
In the 1983 Glenbrook North musical Cat Among the Pigeons
PAM: Oh wait. Didn't that high school group have a funny name?

SCOTT:‎ It's still the best improv group name I've encountered, The Immediate Conception.

PAM: Oh, yeah. That was it. And after your stint at college, you hit Second City?

SCOTT:‎ I was at Columbia College in the South Loop of Chicago where I met my biggest influence. Marty de Maat was a guru in every sense of the word. He taught improv as a life plan. I was studying with him when I started also taking classes at Second City, where he also taught. From those classes, I got an audition for Second City.

PAM: Scott, you played with some of the most powerful Mainstage casts ever. Can you tell us the names of your castmates and director so I can swoon appropriately?

SCOTT: I did three different stages at Second City. The first was The Northwest, which is no longer out there at Rolling Meadows. They closed it a few shows after our show closed. The cast was me, the late Jim Zulevic, John Hildreth, Aaron Rhodes, Aliza Murrieta, and Nia Vardalos. And then Nia and I moved to e.t.c. with another great cast.

And then I went to Mainstage. There was a terrific cast there that all evacuated after we did a retrospective of old material for the 35th birthday, which really didn’t go over that well. I don’t think it was the performers’ fault. It wasn’t the material’s fault. It just wasn’t a good match. We had agreed that we would only choose scenes for this retrospective that had not toured that much in The Best of Second City. We looked for obscure scenes…and we found them. We trusted them to be great, but we found out pretty soon after we opened that they weren’t being toured for a reason. They were either too old-fashioned, or they were so defined by the original performers, their personalities, and rhythms that it didn’t really work with anybody else. They were great scenes at the time, but it just wasn’t a great a match.
Scott Adsit
Chicago Improv Festival 2013
[Copyright John H. Abbott, Photographer for CIF]

After that, I was on Mainstage with Scott Allman, Jenna Jolovitz, Jon Glaser, Rachel Dratch, and Adam McKay. Rachel came right out of touring, and a bunch of folks had come from iO. For years and years, there had been this rift between iO and Second City where they refused to cross-pollinate. Then one year there was a détente. I don’t even know why it happened. But Second City hired a bunch of great iO people, and we were lucky enough to have them.

PAM: That may have had to do with a fact Second City hired that year from Jazz Freddy, a group with a lot of iO players that performed outside of iO. I heard that Second City went in and hired almost the whole cast, right?

SCOTT: I think so. The first show I did with any of them was at e.t.c. [in 1994] called Lois Kaz, named after someone who worked in the office at the theater. It was great show directed by Noah Gregoropoulos that had Brian Stack, Miriam Tolan, Nancy Walls, Kevin Dorff, Adam McKay, Jon Glaser, Frances Callier, Theresa Mulligan, Dave Koechner, Dee Ryan – just giants. That was really cool show. It got a lot of acclaim and everything, but it only had a short run. It was the first time I did longform.

PAM: It sounds like you basically received your long-form training on the stage at Second City, aside from your time with Martin de Maat.

SCOTT: He taught teamwork. He didn’t really teach longform. I learned longform on my feet with the best long-form players in the world in Lois Kaz.

PAM: Wow. That doesn’t suck.

SCOTT: Yeah. It was great, really amazing. And it opened my eyes a lot.

Then the cast on Mainstage for Pinata Full of Bees was me, Glaser, McKay, Jenna, Rachel, and Allman.

[On the Chicago Improv Network board Craig Cackowski said of this show, “This changed everything at SC. It was a sketch show with the feel of a Harold. There were callbacks, connections, scenes were chopped up, it had a theme, and it was exhilaratingly edgy.” If you want to get a taste for yourself, check out Scott with Adam McKay in the Gump sketch in Pinata Full of Bees.]

Scott Adsit and Tina Fey at Second City
Then Tina [Fey] replace Glaser.

PAM: That was Paradigm Lost?

SCOTT: No, that was Citizen Gates. Then Paradigm Lost.

PAM: Directed by Mick Napier?

SCOTT: Citizen Gates and Paradigm Lost were both directed by Mick.

PAM: In the PBS documentary Second to None, you said about your time at Second City: “I’m probably the happiest I’ll ever be in my life…I’m an actor. I write my own material. And perform by the seat of my pants.” How do you look back on that time? Do you still feel the same way?

SCOTT (laughing): Yeah, I still think it’s the best job I’ll ever have because we were in charge, we were playing to a sold-out crowd every night, and we were performing our own material. There’s no better job than that. It wasn’t backbreaking work, but it was intense work. It gave my life a structure, which it probably needed. Second City gave me a good place to be doing something I really loved doing.

Was it the happiest I’ll ever be? No. I said that, and I really meant it because I was so happy at the time. And I remember when we screened that special at e.t.c. a few months later, that line got the biggest laugh of the night. But I really meant it. I really thought it would be all downhill from there.

And some ways it has been. And other ways it’s been so much better. But it was all because of Second City. All the happiness in my professional life I owe to Second City. And all my happiness and success at Second City I own to Martin de Maat and Pat Murphy…and it just keep going back, you know?

PAM: Absolutely. Before you started doing sketch and improv, did you think that’s what you wanted to do? Or you were just meandering about your life?

SCOTT: I knew I wanted to be an actor. I went to Columbia to study film. Before that, I had gone to my father’s university, DePauw, in Greencastle. That was where my sister and grandfather went also, so I was kind of a legacy student. But I didn’t enjoy it. I spent a semester there, and then I quit the place and went to Columbia to study film.

DePauw was too familiar, and the personalities were the kind of people who annoyed me. I didn’t have a good time there. I spent that a lot of that semester pretending to be a Russian exchange student. About 80% of the people who knew me there thought I had a thick, Russian accent and was from some town I made up. I had this persona. I let a small group of friends - who I really did like - in on the secret that I wasn’t actually this guy. But the first couple weeks there, before I met a lot of people, I was frustrated. And that’s when I had met one or two cool people who were exchange students. I saw them being patronized and made fun of, and so one day I just started being one of them.

PAM: What was your Russian name?

SCOTT: It was Yuri. And I extended my last name in a very distinct, Russian way. I think it was Adsitinkov. And Yuri made a lot of friends because he was a much less cynical guy than me. He could tolerate Republicans a lot more than I could – because it was a very right-wing school. So Yuri had a lot of friends, and they would like to talk about politics.

PAM (laughing): Did Yuri have a girlfriend?

SCOTT: No, believe it or not. By the time I left a few months later, the word eventually had gotten out, and only a few people thought I was Russian. Those people who were the last ones to catch on were very upset. And they were also kind of sad because they lost a friend. Me, I didn’t really like them very much. But Yuri enjoyed talking to them and found them fascinating.

I sound like a terrible person!

PAM: I think it’s hilarious. [But then again, in a story I later told to Scott, I have my own history with personality deception. When I was a teenager, my mom used to have me do fake sign language and read people’s palms - not in a gypsy/carnival way…just for fun. (Or “fun.”)]

I wonder if we’re going to discover that Scott Adsit isn’t a real person?

SCOTT: You think Yuri is the original?

PAM: There’s a TV or movie concept in here somewhere: “Scott Adsit IS Yuri Adsitinkov.”

Scott Adsit?
SCOTT: “Or is he?”

PAM: It’s like the butterfly’s dream.

SCOTT [quoting from the end of the imagined show]:  “The end???”

PAM: Hahaha!

It sounds like Second City was where you began to own your real identity.

SCOTT: Columbia was good for that too. I felt more like my own self there. And I got a lot of work, if you want to call it that, within the school’s show system. I made a lot of lifelong friends whom I still talk to and work with.

And that lead to Second City. I walked into the Second City training center on my first day on the Mainstage, and it still smelled the same way it does now. Kind of moldy carpet and beer and something else…there is something else in there that I can’t identify the smell of. It could be the people who worked there and have worked there for 40 years. But there is something else in there that felt like home to me. And it felt like home when I walked in.

PAM: Mmmm...I love that feeling. After Second City, what was your first professional gig?

SCOTT: I did local commercials during Second City, but not anything of note. And I did the Chicago-based shows that everyone tends to do, like The Untouchable and Early Edition.

The reason I left Second City was that a college friend named Dino Stamatopoulos was writing a TV series for Barry Levinson in Hollywood, and he wanted me to be on the writing staff to develop this show. So I left Second City for a job. And I left a really good Second City cast too. Stephnie Weir had joined by then and Rachel Hamilton. And Rich Talarico took my place. It was hard to leave.

PAM: I bet it was!

SCOTT: But I went to California and wrote with Dino and a couple other guys. And it didn’t go. There is a much longer story attached to “It didn’t go,” but I’ll leave it at that. (By the way, the "couple other guys" we're Stephen Colbert and Michael Stoyanov.)

PAM: You stayed out there and kept writing?

SCOTT: Yeah. I decided I would make a go of it in California.

It’s weird to go to California because as an actor I felt like I was being put into a slot, like a slot in an enormous hotel mail slot wall or a honeycomb in a huge beehive. I got parked with a bunch of other people just like me. Everyone is there to do the same job you want to do. It’s hard to distinguish yourself. It took me a while.

I started doing commercials, and I got good at doing commercials with time and work. After a while, I had too many commercials, and people started to introduce me to other people in show business as “Scott Adsit, commercial actor.” It’s a great profession be in, but it wasn’t my goal. So I moved on. I took a chance on not working at all. Luckily, the universe took care of me. I started getting work outside of commercials.

PAM: What was your first big break?

SCOTT: My first big break was in 1998 for Mr. Show. I did the last season of that show as an actor. And that lead to Tenacious D. After that, my first movie was called Town & Country directed by a really great guy named Peter Chelsom, a British director who made beautiful movies like Hear My Song, Funny Bones, and The Mighty – great indie films that are just brilliant. He was directing Gary Shandling, Goldie Hawn, Diane Keaton, and Warren Beatty. For various reasons involving the principals, I think, that movie was in front of the camera for a year, and there were enormous delays every day. It was kind of a cursed set.

I got there on the last week. They had meant to use my scene as a framing device for the whole thing, and they kept coming back to me driving a cab with Warren and Gary in the backseat, flashing back throughout the movie. About a month after we wrapped, I got a call asking to come back in on a certain date, but I had to say no because I was doing a festival. They said they lost ten reels of film off the back of the truck, so they said they had to do re-shoots.

PAM: Woah.

SCOTT: So Peter Chelsom, who is such a great guy, was saddled with this snake that wouldn’t sit still, this movie, and it turned out not very good. Nobody liked it. I don’t think Peter liked it. It was just a really bad situation. Everything went wrong. And that was my first movie!

Whatever survived of my work is a bunch of off-screen dialogue and my eyes in the rearview mirror. In the original script, what we shot, I was quoting Yeats and philosophizing and helping Gary Shandling come out to Warren Beatty. That was a big part of the turning point of the movie. So the turning point was gone – those scenes that my character was in were gone. That was a long answer to your question. I wouldn’t call it a break. But my eyes got a lot of work.

Then I started doing more and more movies and TV shows, and things starting taking off. I was able to pay my rent without having to work anywhere else, and I could call myself an actor.

PAM: That’s a good feeling, I bet.

SCOTT: Yeah.

PAM: Were you still improvising during that time?

SCOTT: I did the Armando show at iO-West when I could. I did short runs of two-person shows with a string of different partners over the years.

PAM: In my observations, you are a very smart player, Scott. What does “play to the top of your intelligence” mean to you in practical terms?

SCOTT: It’s hard to remember to do it! It’s such a comfortable, easy way to get a laugh to play someone lagging behind in what’s going on. So I have to constantly remind myself to react honestly and let my character be a little bit smarter than me. It doesn’t always happen, but I try.

Sometimes I get a little man in my head whispering, “Different choice. Different choice” as I’m about to speak. I think Del talked about avoiding the cliché of going with your first instinct. Del said that your first instinct is the audience’s first instinct as well. He said to go for our second or third instinct. That’s what I do a lot of the time when I get in my head a little bit, or when I’m trying to steer my character towards something.

Sometimes it’s like I’m commanding my ship. It’s like there is this commander in the wheelhouse, making these subtle changes to shift the boat ever so slightly. That is a piece of your brain that you allow to steer while you’re reacting honestly and being emotional and trying to be in the moment. So sometimes I go up into the wheelhouse, sit up there with the guy and get into my head. And sometimes being in my head helps!

PAM: Really? How’s that?

SCOTT: If I notice that we’re doing something that is obviously too familiar or that the audience is ahead of, then I have to shake it up. And I can’t do that unless I’m outside the scene in some fashion. If I’m just acting as the character, then the character probably will never change his mind, allow himself to be stupid, or act dishonestly. You have to get into your head to avoid just going for the laugh, which undermines what’s going on. I have to make a smarter choice.

PAM: Let’s talk about your improv duo with John Lutz, which is aptly named John and Scott. First of all, prepare yourself to be complimented. I know some improviser get all weird about compliments, but I can’t hold this one in, so steel yourself or fasten your seatbelt or whatever you need to do to suck it up and take it…

SCOTT: I’m going to unzip…

PAM: Hahaha! I was going to say, “Grab your nuts,” but I censored myself. Maybe I shouldn’t have…proceed as you desire.

Anyway, I had the enormous pleasure of watching John and Scott at the Chicago Improv Festival this past spring at a midnight “secret” show especially for festival performers. It was in a beautiful theatre at Stage 773. And by the time the lights went down at the end of the show, it had taken a place in my Top Five Favorite Improv Shows of All Time.


PAM:  Yeah, you’re up there. Your patience, the seamlessness of the transitions, the intense level of listening, and the way you used the stage space all made me grateful to be a teeny, tiny part of this art form. So thank you for creating something so beautiful
John and Scott
At the secret show
CIF 2013
to watch.

SCOTT: You’re welcome. Thank you for saying that. It’s very nice to hear.

PAM: It was fun to watch, especially since it was an audience of performers. Did you have a good time?

SCOTT: Yeah, I think an audience of performers can recognize a subtle move, which is cool. We enjoyed that one. We probably walked offstage saying, “That was an eight.” So I hope you see a ten one day.

PAM: I do too! Have you ever hit ten?

SCOTT: Naw….(laughing)…well, actually I think we have. We’ve done shows with nice scenework, and then it all tied up together at the end with great reveals about connections and things like that. And also a show at the “ten” level speaks to something deeper than, “That was delightful.” It speaks to something honest, deep, philosophical, and emotional.

PAM (sighing expectantly): Ok, you’re going to have to let me know when you’re going to do that show.

SCOTT: All right. But we don’t like to do the tens very often, to make them special.

PAM: LOL! Good plan.

So tell me how you and John came to be as a troupe?

SCOTT: We just enjoyed looking at each other onstage. We’re at a point now when we can anticipate each other’s moves or recognize them before the audience does, so we can get up and under and “Yes, and…” things very quickly, even before it’s been established. We’ve got a silent communication where a transition will be just a tiny shift of weight, or not even that, just an altered rhythm of speaking. It’s real subtle, but we’re able to assess that, for instance, based on the fact that we’re in the same positions that we were in three scenes ago, we’re back to that scene.

PAM: And that just came about naturally between you two? Just kismet chemistry?

SCOTT: Yeah, I think so. John and I don’t really talk about the show at all. Before we go out, we’ll say things like, “Let’s edit the first scene before we think we need to” - because our first scenes tend to go way too long - and then we’ll agree to edit it before we want to and then we can come back to it if we want. But we don’t talk about the show at all beyond that.

PAM: Do you rehearse?

SCOTT: No, no, no. We’ve never rehearsed. I haven’t rehearsed improv since I left Second City…oh wait, there was a show in L.A. that I rehearsed…

PAM: And Stolen House - you rehearse that, right? [Stolen House is an improvised show still in the rehearsal stages that Scott performs in with…wait for it…David Pasquesi, TJ Jagodowski, John Lutz, Bob Dassie, and Stephnie Weir. If you’re like me, just the cast list is enough to set off frissons of deep pleasure.]

SCOTT: That’s true too. We’ve rehearsed for two weekends to try to figure out what the form will be. And it wasn’t until the last run-through on the second weekend that we said, “Oh, maybe we’ve got something here.”

PAM: Nice! Excellent.

SCOTT: Yeah. Before that, we weren’t sure. We wanted to do something more than just us getting together and having a good time. We wanted it to be something a little more special than that.

The cast of Stolen House:
TJ Jagodowski, David Pasquesi, Bob Dassie,
John Lutz, Stephnie Weir, Scott Adsit
[Photo used with permission from Stephen Ruddy]
Those people I’m working with are just the best of the best. It’s an event for those people those to be together, so we want to make it something better than just “a little montage show.”

PAM: And Stephnie Weir was somebody you were influenced by early on, is that correct? I believe it was her show with Jimmy Carrane, Naked, that touched you back then?

SCOTT: She and Jimmy were a revelation to me. I had never seen improv that slow, honest, heartfelt, and respectful. They were…acting. And they did a one act. They didn’t take a suggestion. There were no jokes. But it was the best improv show I had seen. I saw the show once, and it was a turning point. I saw what improv could be, and it could be art. For real.

Afterwards, I walked up to Stephnie – she didn’t even know me at that point – and I told her it was the greatest show I’d ever seen. And she didn’t really know how to take that. Because I think it was what comes naturally to her. She’s so drop-dead brilliant that it’s intimidating to be on the stage with her…until you lock eyes, and then you’re in the safest place in the world.

PAM: Is that what Stolen House is aiming for? Something more theatrical?

SCOTT: Yeah, we’re not looking to do anything like Arthur Miller. We simply are trying to entertain. We’re not looking for anything deeper than that - if it comes up, it comes up. We are out to delight. By the same token, I like doing improv that explores a variety of emotions. And with this group, that’s going to happen anyway. You’re not going to have Stephnie Weir on stage without having a character who is both comic and tragic and haunted and brilliant and funny and deep.

PAM: Are you ready to book a run for the show? Are you going to do the Barrow Street Theatre (in NYC)?

SCOTT: We might do Barrow Street first, and then Stephen Ruddy [the director] is lining up some other places. We’re aiming for January, 2014.

PAM: Nice! I definitely want to come down for that show. It’s very exciting.

SCOTT: It is for me too.

PAM: I bet! You guys are really all so amazing. You’re definitely playing with the best of the best.

SCOTT: I feel very lucky. I feel like I’ve really got to be on my best game.

PAM: Does that feel like a lot of pressure not to suck?

SCOTT: It does, but it’s like what I said about playing with Stephnie. It’s intimidating to think you might be the sore thumb. But I think all great improvisers are out to protect everybody else on stage and make sure they look good. So it’s almost like you’re in the cradle…being loved…

PAM [going all gooey inside with warm fuzzies]: Awwww! Is there a structure with the show? Or is it freeform?

SCOTT: Well, we still have a few things to work out. We think it’s going to be a two-act. We’re not sure how we’re going to do the intermission, and I’m sure we’ll experiment as the run goes. Right now, we know it’s going to be an improvised play, but one that doesn’t necessarily conform to the rules of a play. It can fold out in many different directions. All the tools we have in a longform, we can use in this play. Everything is at our disposal, like flashbacks, tangents in some foreign universe...anything can happen. But it will still seem like a real play.

PAM: Do you stick to one primary character that you play? Or you would play multiple characters?

SCOTT: We debated both sides of that, and I don’t think we came up with a concrete decision yet.

PAM: I would imagine you’ll probably do whatever the moment calls for.

SCOTT: I think in the last one we did that felt successful we stuck to our characters. We’ve got down like five rules so far; I don’t think that’s one of them yet. But it might end up being one.

There is still a lot we’re working out. That’s what’s exciting about it. We have an idea what it will be and what it will look like, but we really don’t know.

PAM: When you go into a show like that, or a John and Scott show for a big audience, what’s your mindset? What are you reminding yourself of before you walk onstage?

SCOTT: I walk in thinking that it’s all about John, making it “The John Lutz Show,” and just feeding his brilliance. I also want to come away not beating myself up. I don’t want to pick myself apart on the walk home. I try not to get myself worked up before the show, so I can trust myself onstage.
It takes a great talent 
to improvise and nap at the same time.
John and Scott at CIF in 2013

PAM: It seems the level of paying attention that you do in your work is so finely tuned, especially in that show with John that I saw recently. The transitions were so minute, almost imperceptible to us. How do you advise improvisers to learn how to listen better in order to work with that much fluidity?

SCOTT: You have to be interested and not plan anything ahead. You can’t try to steer the entire show, the scene, or anybody else. You can only steer yourself. So you have to be ready to drop anything you’re thinking and go with great joy into whatever else comes up. It’s all “Yes, and…” It’s all about taking something you saw and making it better. You’ve got to be interested, looking, and willing to take anything, treat it as though it’s brilliant, and make it better.

PAM:  I understand this approach as being a very momentary experience of improvisation. I mean, staying in the moment and focusing on the action and emotion at hand seem paramount. Do you also have an objective observer’s eye, where you’re thinking globally about the structure of the show and playing patterns?

SCOTT: I think in Stolen House, we’ll have to be offstage thinking, “Where can I take this?” or “How can I help this scene?” or “What I can do to gift a gift – if I can use that term - to that character that Bob is doing?” “How can I serve that character and get him to the next place?” That’s thinking globally to me.

PAM: Are you doing a narrative in that Stolen House?

SCOTT: I think so, generally. We may not have a linear timeline, but there will be narrative.

PAM: I always find it difficult to do shows like that without playing to the narrative - getting stuck in the plot rather than discovering the plot.

SCOTT: And that’s something we’ve talked about. Like I was just saying, that’s another instance when you have to be willing to drop whatever idea you have and go with your partner’s idea because it is always going to be better than your idea. I think that’s how you stay out of plot, by just being in the moment. With enough skill and potential, the plot grows on its own. And then you start making connections.

Plot is always a problem, as you know. It’s still a problem for me. John and I did a show recently, which we thought was a little plot-y. And we tried to get out of it, but we were stuck. We were interested in the plot, and we realized that we were more interested in plot than in the interactions. But by then it was too late. There are ways to get out of that situation, but we didn’t quite get out of it in that show.

PAM: The most recent show I saw you in, Gravid Water at the Del Close Marathon, takes this idea of plot to a whole, new dimension. I am super curious about the structure, which pairs scripted actors with improvisers. I’ve played tons of the short-form game Playbook, but it seems like there are more skills involved here. How do you improvise with a script-following actor?

SCOTT: You just treat them like they’re improvising, with the same listening skills and the willingness to go with whatever new thought they’ve brought up. You find a way to drop what you were thinking and go with the new concept brought up by every line. Because quite often, it doesn’t quite match up with what you just said. So there is a bit of getting in your head about trying to justify what’s going on. But on the good nights, it all kind of clicks on it’s own.

I think it’s a pretty foolproof show because there are many ways to play it. Some people play it just making fun of the form – sort of winking at the audience, saying, “We all know that I’m making it up, and she [the scripted actor] is not.” Other people play it just as straight as possible, as any scene in a play would be performed. And then some people have a persona that they play, which comes off as ironic and hysterical to play against. There are many ways to go that all work.

PAM: I’m psyched to try it out. It’s Stephen Ruddy’s thing, right?

SCOTT: Yeah. And he’s in charge of Stolen House as well. That’s his concept that he’s producing.

PAM: That’s great.

I know you need to go soon, and I am going to wrap it up. Readers are probably going to be sorely disappointed that I didn’t ask any 30 Rock questions. So be it…

SCOTT: “It was a great time, and we all loved each other.” How’s that?

PAM: “Tina Fey is brilliant”…yadda yadda yadda…

SCOTT: Yep. All true.

PAM: It is true, that’s clear. On another subject, is it true that you’re John Hodgman’s slave or something of that nature?

SCOTT (laughing): I am his indentured servant, his butler and chauffeur…and, yeah, essentially his slave. Whenever he has a Deranged Millionaire show and we’re in town together, I play the “Deranged Slave” character who works for John Hodgman. Also, I kind of co-wrote and read the introduction to his audio book. I get to play the Bailiff on his Judge John Hodgman podcast. Do you know that one?

PAM: I know it, but I haven’t listened to it yet. I’ve seen him around town here. I think he has a weekend or summer home around where I live. But he won’t remember me, although I was wearing a green, silk ball gown and long, white gloves the last time we saw each other…

SCOTT: Was that appropriate for the venue?

PAM: Well, kind of. It was for a movie trivia contest that we were a part of. My troupe was dressed up in Oscar-type garb, though not everyone was.

SCOTT: Did you win?

PAM: We did not win, but we got awfully close. It was a fundraiser though, so everybody’s a winner.

You have two movies coming out this year, is that true?

SCOTT: I’m shooting one starting next week with Bill Murray. I play Melissa McCarthy’s husband in that.

PAM: Holy shit. I love her. What is the name of that movie?

SCOTT: Right now it’s called St. Vincent de Van Nuys. And I shot a movie called Uncle Nick with Brian Posehn.

PAM: And Growing Up and Other Lies?

SCOTT: Oh yeah. That’s coming out soon. And I did this other movie with Justin Long called A Case of You, which should be coming out soon.

PAM: So you’re busy!

SCOTT: I’m very busy! I’ve got another project I’m not even allowed to talk about because it’s a big, big thing.

PAM: You’re still not allowed to talk about it? The last interview I read you did, you weren’t talking about it yet.

SCOTT: That’s right. But I started that project now. It’s underway. It’s official. And I’m in. I’m very happy about it. It’s very exciting for me. I’ll tell you about it eventually. But it hasn’t finished casting yet, so they haven’t announced anything yet.

PAM: All right. I’m looking forward to hearing about it.

I’m sure your Morel Orel and Frankenhole fans are wondering if there are any new developments on that front.

SCOTT: Dino has some ideas for kind of a sideways sequel, which would take place with the same characters and same location, but an alternate idea. But I don’t know if that will happen. Dino has a lot of projects with TV cartoons, stop-motion, and some features with Starburn Industries, which is his production house in L.A. Actually, he has a new one – which I can’t say too much about because it’s not finalized – and I would have a lead voice. It would be a great one for me because it’s based on something he wrote when we were in college, and now he’s adapted it for stop-motion.

PAM: It’s so cool that so many of the people that you came up with in Chicago are enjoying success with you at this time.

SCOTT: I get asked sometimes in interviews what are the difference between New York and Chicago improv scenes, and it’s just like Chicago has moved here. It’s like two fronts of Chicago improv. Everything theater out here in New York is run by Chicago people.

PAM: Yes, that’s true. It’s an exciting time to be in improvisation. It must be funny to you that people are moving to Chicago to be in improvisation in order to become famous on TV.

SCOTT: Second City has changed a lot since I was there. Now it’s more corporate – it’s a monolith now, and it takes over the entire Piper’s Alley. When I was there, it was in the early days when it was a grungy, small, family theater with a small staff…but it’s still mecca.

 * * *

Read Geeking Out with...Dave Pasquesi

in which Dave says,
"Improvisation is itself an exercise in faith. 
In faith of Improvisation. 
That if I do the next tiny thing, all will be fine."
Catch up on past improv geek-a-thons:
Geeking Out with…TJ Jagodowski  of TJ and Dave
...David Razowsky of iO West
…with Joe Bill of BASSPROV
...Charna Halpern, co-founder of iO Theatre
...Susan Messing of Messing with a Friend
and many more!

And "like" the "Geeking Out with..." FACEBOOK PAGE please.

Pam Victor is the founding member of The Ha-Ha’s, and she produces The Happier Valley Comedy Show in western Massachusetts. Pam directed, produced and performed 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! And get it all at www.pamvictor.com. 

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