The Sunday Interview has been dormant for a couple of weeks, but we’re back with a bang. Say “hello” to Mr. Chuy Zarate, another veteran of the Austin improv scene. The man is a workhorse. He’s in long-standing troupes Your Dad’s Friends, ZARZAMORA!, and ChuTopp; he’s a regular Maestro winner and member of the weekly Big Bash show at The Hideout Theatre; and he’s an instructor at Merlin Works and member of their house troupe, The Known Wizards. Plus, the guy is pure funny onstage. But make no mistake, he’s no pushover. This guy has plenty of opinions about improv and theater. And we’re lucky enough to hear some of them. Ladies and gentlemen, I present…
Years doing improv:
Where’d the name “Chuy” come from?
My middle name is Jesus (pronounced “Hey Zeus”) which is “Jesus” in English. Jesus is Jesse, and Jesse in Spanish is “Chuy.” I would love to tell you that it comes from some proud Mexican indigenous heritage, but I think some guy just started calling his kid that one day and it stuck for the rest of us.
You’re old-school Austin improv. You’ve been around since the salad days. What’re some of the substantive differences between the improv community in Austin today and back then?
The scene was a lot more competitive and almost adversarial in the late 1990s and early 2000s. The different performance venues did not cross-pollinate at all. If you were a Monk [of Austin original troupe Monk’s Night Out] you played The Velveeta Room. Comedysportz was at Crossroads Mall. “We Could Be Heroes” stayed at The Hideout.
People are much more supportive now, which leads to a nicer environment. Back then it was a little warlike.
I also think that back then the goal was to leave Austin for fame and fortune in LA, NY, or Chicago. Now, it seems that more people pursue improv as a hobby or want to do great improv that stays in Austin.
Is the improv itself noticeably different?
With this many people doing improv in one place you can’t help the fact that there is going to be market saturation. There is a lot of the same kind of improv happening everywhere. That’s why I always appreciate when someone brings something fresh and new to the table.
I think that the improv going on today is less audience-oriented than it was back in the day. We had to please the audience or they would stop coming and we would lose our gig. There seems to be a built in audience of improvisers that will keep coming back for the purpose of learning through watching others fail or succeed. There is less urgency to satisfy the audience in this situation. I know that this is probably not a very popular opinion, but the truth hurts. Not that we were perfect back then. But there is a lot of bad improv happening today.
You know who you are…
Something tells me that you’ve always been a ham. What was young Chuy like? Class clown? The “funny guy” in your group of friends?
My mother is a retired theatre teacher, so I have been around this stuff my entire life. It was almost required in my household to be goofy or come up with new accents and characters. This was also a bit of an escape for me mentally, having grown up somewhat poor in a rough area of San Antonio with a single mom.
I know, I know … now you want to see the life story in a TV movie format. “Escape: The Chuy Zarate Story. How one man went from the mean streets of SA to the suburbs of Austin” (Hint: He married well.)
Who’s an underrated improviser and why don’t they get more acclaim?
You can throw anything at her and she will help you spin it into gold. Being in three troupes with her is an honor. She should be in every show ever. Too many people think that one-liners make for good improv. NOT TRUE! What Topping does is build strong scenes with strong character choices and the funny just happens magically.
You know, improv.
What’s the hardest you’ve ever laughed?
I laughed from the very first frame of Tropic Thunder to the very last credit. It’s not one of my favorite movies or anything, but it is a master class in rapid fire joke telling in film.
You’re most definitely a family man. What’s it like, balancing improv commitments with family time?
I am very lucky that my wife (Sooper Laydee) doesn’t ask much of me in this regard. She is the only reason that I am able to devote as much time as I do to my art. Coincidentally, she is one helluvan improviser and was around back in the day in such troupes as “Ray Prewitt’s 4th Grade Class” and “Inflatable Egos.”
I truly lub her.
You went to Finland for improv. What will you remember most about that experience?
That was a tough trip for me. The day before I was to fly out, a very close friend of mine passed away. I almost cancelled.
Some may remember that my troupe started an indigogo campaign for me to afford to go in the first place. I didn’t want to ignore that gesture. The fundraising goal was met, and my heart was never more filled with appreciation and love. I said to myself that Keith (who was a musician) would have told me to stop being a baby and do the fucking show. So I silently dedicated my performances to him. I ended up doing some of the best improv of my life that weekend.
As far as Finland, it just looked like San Marcos with extremely beautiful people.
Tell us about your troupes—especially Your Dad’s Friends and iZARZAMORA!
YDF started when I came back to Austin from San Antonio about five years ago. David Lampe and I were drinking (of course) and we started talking about how many people from the old days were still in town but not performing anymore (jobs, kids, confidence). We decided to get the band back together and here we are. My goal for YDF is for it to eventually be the largest troupe in the country. We have amassed around 20 members as of today. We concentrate on audience participation and leaving them satisfied.
iZarzamora! started because Lampe and I wanted to start a duo. Then one night we were drinking (of course) with Jordan Maxwell and decided to invite him on board. He has since left, but our membership consists of Lampe, Kevin Miller, Topping Haggerty, Brad Hawkins, Patrick Daniel, and myself. We specialize in pseudo-historical improv.
I am also in a duo with Topping called ChuTopp that specializes in strong relationship mono scene-ish stuff.
Also, I’m a member of the rotating cast of The Big Bash at The Hideout and play with The Known Wizards.
Ask me to sit in with your troupe anytime. If I’m free, I’ll be there. I love playing with new people.
Can funny be taught?
Funny comes out of reality. So if you can teach somebody to act in a realistic manner or be true to their character, then yes. But no, not everyone is inherently funny.
You teach improv at Merlin Works. What’s the most difficult lesson to impart to a new improviser?
I love the Merlin Works rule of “No Apologies.” If you fuck up in a scene, own it. Don’t break what you’ve established because you then disenchant the audience. If your going to make a mistake, make it big.
Do you ever get nervous about performing? Why or why not?
Not really. A little bit of nerves are good for any performer. It gives you the bit of adrenaline you need to succeed. I have played in damn-near every situation imaginable, so it’s hard to throw my confidence. I sound like a braggart asshole. Yeesh!
If you’re writing an improv manual, what would the titles of the first three chapters be?
Chapter One: Forget Everything You Have Learned
Chapter Two: Forget Everything You Know
Chapter Three: Stop Being Selfish. Please The Audience Before Yourself (in bed)
Anything you want to plug?
Go see The Big Bash on Friday nights at The Hideout. It harkens back to the style of improv that made Austin famous for improv.
Every last Thursday of the month Your Dad’s Friends headlines The Free Fringe (10 pm, Thursday, The Hideout). We usually come up with our format on the spot, so you never know what your in for.
I would plug iZarazomora!, but we don’t get booked that often in Austin for some reason. We can get booked in fucking Finland, but can’t get a Sunday night at Coldtowne! (Teehee!)
Check out my podcast at www.tatsypodcasts.com. It’s called “Totally Hungover with Mattie and The Fatties.”
What’s something that most people don’t know?
I would give it all up to be a talk radio host.