Thursday, June 5, 2014

Geeking Out with…Peter S. Kim about The Second City’s Bob Curry Fellowship

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. Check out all the interviews here.]

Peter S. Kim
Peter S. Kim is many things. He is a comedian. He is an improviser and an actor and a comedy writer and a stand-up (comedian and guy). He is smart. He is ambitious. He is hard-working and hard-partying. He is a New Yorker and a San Franciscan and now a Chicagoan. He is gay. He is a kind human. He is a man of Korean descent. Peter S. Kim is very talented. And earlier this year, Peter was one of the comedic actors awarded a spot in the first program of Second City’s Bob Curry Fellowship.

Named for Second City’s first African-American Mainstage performer who took the stage in 1966, the Bob Curry Fellowship is one of the many ways Second City (Chicago) strives to make improvisation and sketch comedy accessible to minorities and underserved populations through their Outreach & Diversity program. (They also specifically cultivate multicultural talent, put on Diversity Week, offer scholarships, and provide targeted performance opportunity on its stages with shows like Urban Twist and R.E.A.C.H., the Risky, Eclectic, Artists Comedy Hour.)  Peter S. Kim was among the 150 applicants and 86 auditioners vying for one of the sixteen spots in their newest program, a tuition-free, eight-week series of classes that provides training for actors of color in improvisation, sketch writing, and acting as well as opportunities for mentorship – in effect, priming these select comedians for a place on the stages at Second City and, if all goes well, eventually on a television screen near you.

Personally, I couldn’t be happier for these sixteen actors as well as the hundreds who hopefully will follow in their footsteps. I have written before about the need for diversity in improvisation ... and I'm afraid I might be writing about it again in the future. As much as I adore funny, 20-year-old white guys – I really do! (and I mean that in a non-creepy way) - I think this art form I love so much will benefit multi-dimensionally by a greater variety of faces and voices and perspectives and life experiences. Peter S. Kim is one of those unique voices. And I’m personally delighted in his success because Peter and I are friends who first met at iO’s summer intensive in Chicago in 2012. So, obviously, I am completely biased … but I think if you see Peter perform – at iO with Big Judy or at Second City with Urban Twist or with the crazy-talented indie team Stranger or at an open mic night – you’ll easily see what I mean. And why I wanted to geek out with him about his experiences in the Bob Curry Fellowship.


PAM VICTOR: Congratulations on your Bob Curry Fellowship showcase show! It sounds like it was very successful. I’d love to hear all about the show.

PETER KIM: Thank you! It was an unbelievable night. The E.T.C. [Stage at Second City] was packed with friends, family, industry people, and the crowd was electric. It was really nice to be able to perform for a crowd that supportive. There were sixteen fellows, split into two groups and two acts. We showcased
scenes from the Second City archives, original sketches and improvisation. Matt Hovde, our director is a master craftsman and truly made us look like geniuses.

The 2014 Bob Curry Fellows and their teachers
[Photo credit  Anjelica Diaz, courtesy of Second City]
PAM:  That's amazing. It seems like it was a perfect culmination of a very successful program. And it sounds like you felt very supported by your teammates too.

PETER: Very much so. The cast was a dream to work alongside. Honestly, for the first time since I moved to Chicago, I felt like I was with a family and a home.

PAM: That's surprising for me to hear because you've been (and still are) involved in some pretty remarkable groups.

PETER: I have been with a lot of great ensembles, but I’m usually the token Asian guy or token gay guy on an all white, straight improv team. It was nice to be around other minorities. The Bob Curry program was pretty gay ... four out of six guys were gay.

PAM: Looks like they’re overdue for some lesbian action at Second City.

PETER: Haha!

PAM: I'm interested in hearing about how being the "token" has felt to you.

PETER: Being the token Asian wasn't ever something I thought about until I moved to Chicago. I grew up in New York City and lived in San Francisco for five years, and both cities and comedy communities are pretty well integrated. Chicago is the most segregated town I’ve lived in.

While I have no problem being the token Asian or gay guy, it was refreshing being around people like me in the program. Being able to talk like me. It really helped me fine-tune my comedic voice.

PAM:  Is it because you have a different frame of reference than your typical white, 20-year-old dude?

PETER:  I think that's some of it yeah ... I mean we all have the same human experience, but I started comedy when I was 27, so I've always felt like I was "catching up."

PAM:  Ha. You're talking to the lady who started comedy at 35. But, yeah, I hear you.

PETER: Haha! I don’t think its ever too late, at least I hope so! You bring life onto the stage, real shit.
Stephanie Anderson and Peter S. Kim
in their two-person solo show
Pas de Deux: A Comedy Solo Duet

PAM:  You've done some pretty fucking amazing catching up, Peter. You seem to approach your comedy training like you would a serious, full-time job - I really admire that. You’re 150% committed to getting all the training, hearing all the different views you can, and taking every performance opportunity.

PETER: Thank you. I do take my comedy seriously; I quit a 100K+ job in Silicon Valley for this, so I try to put as much of my energy into it as I would any other "career."

It's hard to motivate yourself to write, get up at open mics, rehearse, and do shows day in and day out when you don't have a boss. And I (like most comedians) default to lazy, so I have to set small goals for myself and meet them.

PAM:  Tell me about your training in comedy so far. You’ve done iO, Annoyance, Second City Conservatory ...

PETER: I studied with the Upright Citizen’s Brigade in New York. Then I moved to San Francisco and started my own theatre company - I wanted UCB to exist
Pam and Peter
(iO summer intensive 2012)
in San Francisco because I loved it so much. I then moved to Chicago to do the iO summer intensive, where I met you, and fell in love with the city.

I took classes at Annoyance at the same time, which I LOVED! Then I took conservatory at Second City. I kinda packed everything in because I thought I would only be here temporarily.

PAM: Oh, and you then went through all the rest of the levels at iO Theatre too.

PETER: Yup. And I took some writing classes at Second City and did some music conservatory classes too, but it all became too much so I had to scale back a bit. I plan to finish the music and writing programs sometime in the future. I love taking classes and getting notes. I just wish I had enough money to take them.

PAM: You’ve clearly been in a lot of classes and theaters. Have your race or sexual orientation ever been an issue in your comedy career?

PETER: No, not that I can tell. If anything, it's helped for diversity. Chicago's thirsty for diversity.

PAM: That's why I'm interested in really digging into why the Bob Curry Fellowship experience was so significant for you. Forgive me like sounding like a dumb-dumb … I mean, I know what it feels like to be the "only" something on a team (only mom, only one over 40, only woman, etc.) But I don't think of you as an Asian performer ...

Damn. It's hard for me to get to the crux of my question without sounding like an ignorant racist. It's hard to talk about race without sounding racist sometimes! (Maybe I should just ask you about whether you’re a top or a bottom.)

PETER: I’m a bottom.

PAM: Me too!

PETER: But that's exactly it. I never thought of myself as an Asian performer, so I quietly assimilated into being a white performer who just looks Asian. But the Bob Curry program let me be me, a Gay Asian man who has Gay Asian man things to say.

I didn't need to "blend in" and be a raceless, faceless character named "Jeremy" in a scene. I was able to fully play me and use my voice, and that was really empowering and liberating as a comedic performer.

PAM: I bet.

PETER: It was like I was doing stand-up onstage. Because when I do stand-up, it's all about me and how I’m different and weird.

PAM: How did they achieve that Second City? Was that something that was focused on in particular? Or did that evolve naturally?

PETER: The Bob Curry program really encouraged us to highlight our differences instead of hiding them. Dionna [Griffin-Irons], the director of Outreach and Diversity would always tell us, "Only you can tell your story, so tell it here."

PAM:  Do you think that objective needs to be a part of all improv theater educational curricula?

PETER: For comedy, yes. We write what we know, so it's important to get in touch with and scrutinize what we truly know and what our spin on the world is.

The Bob Curry Program was led by Matt Hovde, the Artistic Director of the Second City Training Center and resident stage director. Each week he gave us different skills and tools that would help prepare us to be hired by Second City and other professional theaters, like improv, hosting, working archive materials, classic acting techniques, satire workshops … you name it. It was the most practical training I've ever had.

PAM: Can you go into a little more detail about the curriculum and the exercises and theories you found most useful? I'm especially interested in the material covered that is unique to that program.

PETER:  We met two days a week for eight weeks. Matt Hovde was at the helm of the curriculum, which was completely original and tailor-made to us. We reviewed improv, specifically working on sets you would do at the end of a TourCo or resident stage show (the third act [of a Second City show]). We worked on hosting and playing classic short form games that Second City companies play. We had workshops on watching and writing satire the Second City way. There were Q & A sessions with producers, directors, and actors from the Mainstage. Each department from Second City (BizCo, BoatCo, theatricals, etc.) came in and gave us more clarity about the different jobs at Second City, what they expect and need. Even Andrew Alexander [co-owner/CEO and Executive Producer of Second City] spent some time with us and talked about how important the Diversity Program is to Second City's future. We also had Second City alum Aaron Freeman come in and take off all his clothes onstage and talk to us about his experiences being a minority onstage in the 80's.

PAM:  Wait. What? Can you connect those dots for me?

PETER: Haha! Yeah, apparently Bob Curry used to take off his clothes onstage all the time. I guess Aaron Freeman was trying to make a point. It was shocking at first, but I think we all got used to the nudity.

PAM:  Wow. Ok ... I was trying to get tips for other theaters that might want to offer their own diversity programs. But that might be one tip too many.
Aaron Freeman
(presumably fully clothed)

PETER:  Hahaha! Yeah. He actually gave us one huge piece of advice: MAKE FRIENDS - do good work and be nice to everyone. Because Second City is all about the amazing people and the network that will always stay your family.

PAM:  Was there a mentoring element in the Bob Curry program?

PETER: For sure! Hovde, Beth Kligerman (Director of Talent and Talent Development) and Dionna Griffin-Irons (Director of Outreach and Diversity) made it clear that their doors were always open and that we could sit and chat with them whenever. We also spent a good amount of time reviewing archival scenes and staging them since it’s such a huge part of the TourCo and BoatCo shows.

PAM: Plus with all those personal contacts with each department, you became known to the directors, and that's always good going into your next audition.

PETER: For sure! I mean it was an unprecedented amount of exposure. It really felt like they were all our cheerleaders.

PAM:  That's really incredible access and skills-building. It sounds like all those skills were very practical and extremely specific to succeeding at Second City. Is that correct?

PETER:  Correct. It was a professional training program. Also, they had a three-on-one interview with each one of us before the program started to talk about our strengths and some growth opportunities. And this Friday [a week after the final showcase show], we'll have a postmortem interview to discuss how the program and show went and continued contact and mentoring moving forward.

PAM: I suppose many of those skills translate to other theaters, but it's interesting that their program is so specific. I guess that's what they know best. And they're cultivating you particular individuals to succeed at Second City. Damn, Peter. Did you realize what a huge opportunity this was when you auditioned?

PETER: I knew it was a big deal but wasn't sure what it would be exactly. I was overwhelmed at how big a deal it became, especially when they announced the partnership with NBC at the showcase.

PAM: I was going to ask about that. Tell me how that figures into the structure of the program.

PETER:  NBC Universal is a strategic partner with the Diversity and Outreach program. They're supporting the program financially and cultivating talent.

PAM:  Jay-sus.

PETER: I know it sounds corny, but I feel so incredibly blessed to have been given this opportunity.

PAM:  You are blessed. And you deserve it too.

PETER:  I'm really impressed by Second City and their execution of Diversity and Outreach. I've seen it at other theaters, but it's usually a free class here and there. Second City's program takes diversity seriously and equips minority talent with every tool and opportunity possible to help even the playing field, which is tough because, institutionally, comedy has been straight, white, and 20's forever.

A lot of white people came up to me during the fellowship and mentioned, "Damn I'm so jealous. I wish there was a Bob Curry Fellowship for white people" which pisses me off ‘cuz that shows they just don’t get it.

PAM:  Expound please. Are you saying that every class is a Bob Curry Fellowship for white people?

PETER: The entire world is a Bob Curry Fellowship for white people.

Jerry Seinfeld recently got into some controversy about not having minority comics on his web series, and he mentioned that he doesn’t care about color, that if you're funny, that all that matters. What white people don’t understand is that the stages, screen, and media show a disproportionate amount of white people. Sure, money is a real issue why minorities might not take $300 improv classes, but we also don't ever consider comedy as even an option because we don’t see people like us represented. Look at every stage at UCB, Groundlings, Second City, iO, and every comedy sitcom on TV. 90% are white, 90% of show runners, directors, and producers are white.

PAM: White men.

PETER: That's the institutional privilege that my white contemporaries don't ever understand because ever since they can remember, this is just what the world looks like.

People say, "It should just be meritocracy, we're all on the same playing field," but it's just not true. And I get angry when rich, white kids who's parents paid their way through theatre school get sour about a fellowship that's been 20+ years in the making.

PAM:  What I hear you saying is that getting this leg-up on the competition in programs like the Bob Curry one equalizes the playing field a little bit so at least you're starting on the same level. Is that correct?

PETER: Kinda, yeah. It's NOT a level playing field, but at least it helps. At least we're making noise and decision makers are taking notice.

That’s the thing about institutionalized racism - it's not an active hate or prejudice, so most white people claim ignorance. We're so quick to forget that even into the 60's and 70's school were segregated. That's not that long ago.

Sorry, I got kinda heated there.

PAM:  I understand. This subject is important to talk about, and I love you and your passion. That gas is needed to keep your tank running for the long haul. I guess that feeling, shared between all of you, is another important outcome of the program.

PETER: Even in the Bob Curry program, it was fourteen Black people, me, and a Hispanic guy. So even within a program tailored to minorities, I felt like a minority.

PAM: Do you think Asian performers face specific challenges right now?

PETER: I don’t actively think about it a lot, but when I think about the lack of Asians in comedy, Second City, SNL, it makes me really angry.

PAM:  For good reason. It sure would be nice to see an Asian face on SNL, wouldn’t it? (Particularly yours!)

PETER:  At the start of the program, one of the directors told us to go research archive scenes where people who look like us are writing in their voice. And I was like, “Um ... there's NEVER been an Asian man on a resident stage.” The only Asian man in sketch I can recall is Bobby Lee from MadTV, and he came up through stand-up.

 PAM:  Huh. That's crazy. With this whole dust-up about getting more African-American women into the ranks (and about time!), I've been thinking a lot about that issue of the lack of Asian comedians represented. It's time for that too.

 PETER:  You know what's interesting, Pam?

 PAM:  No. What's interesting, Peter?

PETER:  When I first started improv, I desperately tried to downplay my race and sexual orientation. I wanted to blend in with my straight, white, male counterparts and be as good as them, even better because I clearly looked different. What the Bob Curry Fellowship made me realize is that I need to use my ethnicity and orientation as my unique voice.

PAM:  That IS interesting, Peter. I'd love to hear more.

PETER:  I guess in life, I also stopped identifying as an Asian man, and I just tried to get by as an American man. But that's such a huge part of me that I wasn't acknowledging, almost so that others wouldn't recognize it as well. That’s what I mean about this fellowship being empowering.

PAM:  I think these thoughts, realizations, and discussions must be a result of the program. Just being in the same room as each other, sharing the same frustrations, comparing notes and experiences. You become part of a community, which is a powerful thing. And instrumental for long overdue change.

PETER:  Absolutely. It gave me permission to say yes to myself and stop hiding my voice and start blaring it out loud. I'm sick and tired of assimilation. I’m DONE.

PAM:  Bravo, brother.

I'm smiling over here.

PETER:  The public and my peers can take me as I am or be left in the dust.

PAM:  What do you think that will look like onstage? How has your performing changed already?

PETER:  I’m not sure if it changes much externally. It’s not like I’m gonna all of a sudden start playing Asian archetypes. Not that there are that many besides shy quiet, nerd. But internally, it's giving me the power to play whatever the fuck I want, how I want it.

When I started five years ago, I was always so afraid that people would make me the dry cleaner guy or Chinese delivery guy, but what I’m realizing is that those guys actually exist. My dad is a dry cleaner for fuck's sake! And I can play a dry cleaner and be a complex, layered character. I don’t have to be afraid of playing a stereotype ‘cuz it's actually my job to play that "stereotype," then break it, and show people that we're more than just that. It’s like when Black people are named "Tyrone" onstage and expected to be a thug. These guys do exist, but that thug can also be in an existential crisis or struggle with weight issues.

I wanna stop being afraid of white people's expectations and do exactly what I want and what I find hilarious.

PAM: That's pretty much my whole, selfish interest in having more minorities of every stripe onstage. I want to have more than just “Jeremys” up there. I think that kind of dimensionality will benefit us ALL as well as bring the art form up to a whole new level.

 PETER:  Agree.

PAM:  I've been playing with mostly white characters for a dozen years now. I'd love to share a scene with an interesting character of color who has a whole other tool belt of cultural touchpoints to explore. So much new material!

I think, personally, it would be scary in the best way. That fear we're supposed to follow because it's new to us. I want you to succeed, PK, because I’m a selfish bitch.

 PETER:  Haha! Thank you. I'll take that!

PAM:  And because I love improvisation.

PETER:  I started playing with an all Asian improv team – Stir-Friday Night - and it’s been really great to explore the possibilities of what we can say onstage.

 PAM:  That name made me laugh out loud. Did this team form during the Bob Curry program?
Stir-Friday Night

PETER: No, it’s been around since 1995 with alums like Dani Pudi, Steve Yeun from Walking Dead, Mary Sohn…

PAM:  Oh, cool. I've seen African-American and Latino teams, but never an all-Asian team. I need to see a show.

PETER: We do shows around the city and at festivals.

PAM:  I will look for Stir-Friday Night, for sure. I need to see that, and I'd love to write about it afterwards. 

I would imagine that just by bonding as a group with that team and the Bob Curry fellows, there may hopefully be a tendency to bring each other up as opportunities arise in the future. There is supposedly an Amy Poehler quote that Brian Stack (from Conan) has used when giving career advice in comedy, "Don't expect to own anything or make any money for years, but if you're talented and you don't give up, sooner or later one of your friends will give you a job."

PETER:  For sure. We had a showcase last week with no white people and it was the best show I've ever been part of. I’d hire any of the Bob Curry Fellows in a heartbeat. They're all a super talented, ambitious, hard-working group of comedians. I mean, what more can you ask for?

PAM:  Exactly. Do you think it’s necessary for every improv theater to have a diversity program right now?

PETER:  YES. It's imperative. It starts at the ground floor. There needs to be more actors, playwrights, directors, etc.

PAM:  This might be an unfairly difficult question, but in your opinion what are the top elements each theater's diversity program should have? Would it look like the Bob Curry Fellowship but applied to that particular theater?

PETER:  I think every theater can take a page out of the Bob Curry Fellowship.
Above all else, they should foster a sense of community and home where diverse voices can flourish. Classes, shows, mentoring, all of it … but what they need is directors and producers that actually get it. It's not enough to have a program because you’re supposed to have it.

Peter S. Kim
Stand-up comedian.
Stand-up guy.
Andrew Alexander noticed after the L.A. riots that his resident stages didn’t have the right people to effectively talk about what was going on in our world, thus he initiated the Diversity program. The L.A. riots were in 1992! Twenty-two years later, we have the Bob Curry program. It's a slow process, but as long as the leadership at theaters are dedicated to changing the paradigm, it can be done.

PAM:  There are so many different facets of diversity we need in comedy (and everywhere else): skin color, gender, age, sexual orientation, religion... I've never played with a transgendered person – that would be cool. I'd love to play with more people my age at comedy theaters. More moms. All different types of people! It must be overwhelming for theater management to get their hands around the issue.

PETER: Absolutely. It's a huge undertaking, but the first step is to notice that there needs to be a change and start implementing it step by step.

PAM:  One of the reasons I wanted to talk to you, Peter, was to get your view of one possible blueprint that one theater is doing successfully. So I'm grateful to you for helping get the word out there where people can start to take notice.

 PETER:  I’m glad I can speak to it, and I do think this issue is being dealt with in a smart, effective way at Second City.

PAM:  You’re also part of the Second City’s show Urban Twist. I guess a multi-cultural house team is another possibility for a theater that's interested in building diversity into their infrastructure. How is this fellowship different than your experience with that show?

PETER: Urban Twist is a process that mimics a TourCo process at Second City. I've been lucky to work with an amazing director, Anthony LeBlanc, who encouraged us to bring our unique voices and updates to classic Second City scenes. It's a great way to get your reps in the building with a ten-week show run.

There's not as much training per se; you're thrown into the rehearsal, improv, and writing process starting day one. It's a really great way to get exposure to decision makers at Second City. It complements very nicely with the Bob Curry Fellowship.

PAM:  What’s up next for the fellows of the fellowship? Are you auditioning this summer for the show at UP Comedy Club at Second City?

PETER:  That's a great question! We have our postmortem interviews this Friday, which is the first time we'll get to talk to the program heads since the culminating showcase, so the sixteen of us will find out more about what's next then. Some of us have already been hired as understudies for the Mainstage and are currently working on theatrical shows at UP and other places. I plan to audition for the UP show and hopefully considered for more gigs in and out of the building.
* * *
(Brian Byrne, Peter S. Kim, Stephanie Anderson,
Brian Holden, T.C. Matherne III. Not pictured: Alex Bellisle.)

If you’d like to see Peter S. Kim perform, you can catch him with Big Judy at iO, with Duckling at Playground, with his independent team Stranger at Lincoln Lofts, Urban Twist at Second City, as well as open mic nights around Chicago. Peter also will be appearing in the play Half Price Cosmos, directed by Antoine McKay, which goes up at the Athenaeum Theatre in Chicago on July 26 – August 24, 2014. In cyberspace, Peter can be found on Twitter and Tumblr

Currently, Peter is writing a web-series based on his experiences as a hopeless romantic looking for love on Grindr.

And a personal note …

Congratulations to Second City 
for a stellar debut of the groundbreaking Bob Curry Fellowship program! 
And special congratulations to all the 2014 Bob Curry fellows:

Damian White
Patrick Rowland
Shantira Jackson
Saliha Muttalib
Ali Barthwell
Dewayne Perkins
Lauren Malara
Torian Miller
Niccole Thurman
Samantha Bailey
Travis Turner
Lisa Beasley
Kimberly Michelle Vaughn
Rashawn Nadine Scott
Chucho Perez
and, of course, 
Peter S. Kim
The 2014 Bob Curry Fellows and their teachers
[Photo credit  Anjelica Diaz, courtesy of Second City]

 * * *
Catch up on past improv geek-a-thons:
Geeking Out with…TJ Jagodowski  of TJ and Dave
...Scott Adsit of 30 Rock
...David Razowsky of iO West
...Charna Halpern, co-founder of iO Theatre

and many more!

Read Geeking Out with...Susan Messing 
in which she says, 
"And maybe, just maybe, because no one has told me I'm WRONG in a very long time, they think I'm RIGHT; when in fact, I'm just making sure to have more fun than anyone in the whole wide world. And that shit's contagious, and then I'm so grateful they get my gig and we're all happy."

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, journalist, teacher, and nice person. TJ Jagodowski,  David Pasquesi, and Pam are the co-authors of "Improvisation at the Speed of Life: The TJ and Dave Book."  Currently, 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. 

All her stuff is at

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