It’s the second week of Sunday Interviews, and it’s time to hear from one of the fastest funs in the West …
Number of years doing improv:
Got Your Back Podcast (on Facebook)
Cody Dearing, your last name is interesting. What does it mean, where’s it from?
I actually have no idea. The Internet says it’s English or Irish.
My parents never really talked about our family history. I eventually found out from my mom’s brother (“Uncle Rusty” to me) that the two of them were raised in Gun Barrel City, southeast of Dallas. Also, I believe my grandfather traveled around selling farm equipment, and lived in Mexico, California, and Louisiana before settling down near Arlington, Texas.
I’m sorry I don’t have a better story about my last name.
“Cody” is actually my middle name. My first name is Christopher. I have a twin brother named Chase whose first name is Braden. The story goes that my parents thought my brother would have “trouble” with his first name. So they decided to call him by his middle name, and they did the same with me. For consistency.
When we were born, my mother named us Zeke and Zack My name was almost Zeke.
Or, well. Fuck it. For a time my name was Zeke.
What’s the newest funniest thing you’ve seen?
The Red Hat Supper Club was at Golden Corral the other day filming a video for a show, and I saw a grown man who was entirely unaware that he was walking with a full wad of cotton candy, cone and all, attached to his foot. That was pretty amazing.
More along the lines of consumable media: There’s a YouTube user named NYComedy who posts videos from the weekly Cagematches at UCB-NY. There’s a group called Fuck That Shit which includes a few familiar faces from the Chris Gethard show. Their shows are fun and refreshing to watch. Moments like this bicycle shop thing make me very happy:
What’s the very first thing you want to teach on Day 1 of Level One Improv?
I always want to get right to the scene work.
My “signature exercise” at this point is something I learned as Burning the Leaves from Adal Rifai in Chicago, whom I believe got it from Jake Schneider of The Reckoning. I now teach that exercise as Crossing the Streams.
The analogy that goes with the exercise is this: We’re all Ghostbusters that have our proton packs on, but instead of having five different lasers pointed at five different things, I encourage people to “cross the streams” and make “one giant super laser” that they point at one thing at a time altogether.
Are you more interested in teaching new improvisers or coaching experienced improvisers? Or is it all the same
I don’t know that I have a preference. I enjoy doing both for different reasons, and it is rewarding to work to try to better myself at either.
I enjoy working with new people because the growth is more apparent. Like the first radical moments of a chemical reaction.
I think it is more challenging for me personally to work with experienced people because I put pressure on myself not to bullshit anyone or waste anyone’s time. I want to push people within reason, and I really appreciated the teachers I had that didn’t bullshit me. Because I wasn’t paying to take a class to hear how good I was; I wanted to know what I could improve on.
I really care about giving people an experience that they feel is beneficial and worth their money/time/whatever else they’re giving up to be there.
So, I think in that situation I put more pressure on myself, but when I feel I succeed at it the risk/reward swing might seem a little greater.
Sketch! What’s the deal with sketch comedy? Why’s it so hard to be consistently good at sketch comedy?
I love playing with Skutch. Carlos LaRotta and Nathan Sowell make it very easy to—Ahhhhh, psyche your brain—Sketch?
I love sketch comedy. Written comedy. Plays.
Did you know I also wrote poetry, Andrew?
But I digress.
I think that like improv many different things have to come together for a sketch to go as planned. A lot of work goes into writing, re-writing, and then putting something up on its feet to further hone the funny parts. Then it must be well acted, not just your part but everyone’s. I suppose the more you try to control the more there is to go wrong.
Speaking about Austin’s sketch scene specifically, I feel like there are a number of groups that are consistently great. I’m a huge fan of the ultra-professional Stag. There are a few newer sketch groups at ColdTowne like Wink Planet and Off The Wall who are consistently funny. Nice Astronaut’s Back in Townsville show was great.
Those groups are great because they work hard at what they put on stage, and it’s evident in the quality of their final product.
What is ColdTowne’s mission statement?
We [ColdTowne] want to provide high quality comedy entertainment seven nights a week.
The theater’s mission could most simply be explained as wanting to help performers put on the shows they want to put on, and to help teach people how to do that in a professional way.
What excites me most is working with people to put up shows that they are passionate about. We have places for so many types of shows; stand-up, full length plays, sketch, experimental late night shows, jams, children’s shows, teen improv night, etc.
I think that the unifying thing is that we want all of our shows to be as high of a quality as possible in terms of performance as well as presentation. I come from a theater background (I even went to Nationals in high school to compete in Duet Pantomime), and I’m all about the things you talk about here on the blog with regard to classic theater training like projecting and blocking.
(On blocking specifically: I prefer people not worry about cheating out much, because it feels unnatural to me, and I would rather people just be aware that we don’t want to see your back for the whole show. But otherwise, try to be normal. TJ Jagadowski used to turn his back all the time, and then got to reveal his face again dramatically. I loved it.
But again I digress.
I’m very much in favor of including classic theater and acting sensibilities with our training, and my personal goal is to be the theater in town that best prepares its graduates to go from classes to performing professionally. I’m constantly working to improve the training center, and I’m really proud of the work that our students/performers do in improv, sketch, and beyond.
What’s next for the theater?
Improve and expand. Improv the curriculum and expand the class offerings—to best prepare our students for improvising onstage and onscreen.
I believe that we’re the first of the schools in town to offer a video sketch course. Our first session of classes just finished. We have partnered with Arts+Labor who are kind enough to give us access to their amazing equipment and facilities. I’m now working with feedback from the students and teachers to try to improve that class, to make it an experience that would benefit any of the myriad performers who don’t want to wait to be asked to be in a video. Help them take charge of their own creativity.
Here’s something else. Improv reminds me of punk rock. I explained this recently on the Byron Brown episode of the improv podcast I co-host (Got Your Back). Back in the late 1970s, these people started their own bands because the music they wanted to hear didn’t exist, and they took the power back from the studio systems and started their own record labels, and booked their own shows and set up their own touring networks.
It’s similar to the world we live in now: if you want to make a movie, the equipment to do that has never been more affordable. We also have the Internet. You can start your own channel on Youtube for free if you want to, and if it’s good, people will watch it.
So, when I think about what we’re training people to do, it’s not just how to improvise or write sketches. On a larger scale we’re empowering people to create and put on their own thing from the ground up, no matter what it is.
What’s next for improv as an art form?
I think people will continue to look for ways to innovate—to combine improv onstage with new elements. Or to bring improv into other offstage things. I also think “improv” is becoming more and more popular as people realize the training that many of their favorite performers have from places like UCB and iO.
I’m not sure what effect that will have. Hopefully it will mean more audiences who understand that (with all due respect) improv isn’t just Whose Line is it, Anyway? Hopefully it means more people interested in improv, and more people doing it, and sure maybe more people poking fun at various aspects of it. (I myself own no pearl-snap plaid shirts or Converse All-Stars. I do have a beard, but mostly out of lack of wanting to shave than wanting to have a beard.)
Ultimately, I think more people will have their lives enriched by improv.
In Austin specifically, I’m seeing more improv shows in a package—with some kind of hook or theme or twist that helps set them apart. While I like/appreciate/perform in shows marketed like that myself, and I completely understand that you need to do something to bring people in.
I’m looking forward though to a return of the bad ass group whose hook is the quality of show they put on.
The group I’m focused on in that way right now is Skutch, and I would very much like to invite people to give us a chance and come check us out. Our next show is (tomorrow) Monday, May 19th, at ColdTowne. And I can promise that after giving this mass invite outside of the plug section of this interview, I’m sure to be at least a little weird and in my head at the show.
Can you tell the story of the most memorable improv experience you’ve had?
I’ve had so many. Good and bad. Anytime something super fucking cool happens, I’m out of town. Maria Bamford sat in with Look Cookie one night when I was away.
The five-week iO intensive I went to in Chicago in 2008 was probably the most overall memorable experience. So much about it was mind blowing.
There was this night where Stephanie Cook, Michael Williams, and myself got out of a show at IO and started walking around looking for a place to drink. We walked for over an hour in a big square and wound up just past where we started near IO at a poplar improv hangout bar called Mullens. We went in to have a drink and TJ Jagadowski was there. (I’m always talking about TJ like some weird creep. I learned a lot from him though.) We got all nervous, saying things like “We should go talk to him” and “Let’s just go talk to him” and “He would probably be cool if we just went to say what’s up.”
Eventually, Michael went over to say hello and came back letting us know that TJ was going to go smoke and then come back and talk with us. This probably lead to even more awkward improv nerd tension building up, and when TJ came back in and sat down with us we were SUPER FUCKING WEIRD. We were nerding out and asking questions. Michael was just giggling, and TJ would ask what was up, and Mike would say “Nothing,” but then just giggle more.
Anyhow, after our 4th or 5th intense improv question he said “You know, there came a point when I realized that I’m never going to ‘learn improv.’ I’m never going to get to the bottom of it, and dust my hands off and say ‘Well, I’m done. Now I know how to improvise.’ Because you can always get better. And that’s part of what’s amazing about it, is that it is bottomless”.
Hearing that instantly made me relax, and I think I’ll always remember it.
You move FAST onstage. You find and play the game quick. How do you do that? Can that speed be taught, or is it just talent? Don’t be falsely humble in your answer.
Awww, shucks, me? Thank you very much.
I like to think that anyone could do it if they practice.
I think maybe for myself it’s a culmination of things. It’s definitely something I’ve worked on. The note “you’ve got to learn to play slow before you can play fast” comes to mind. I’ve definitely thought a lot about game of the scene, and looked at it from a lot of different angles, and I feel like I have a decent handle on what “game” is and how to play it.
Reading the UCB Manual recently was enlightening, and I would recommend it to any improviser.
Personally, I’ve always enjoyed breaking things down or taking a step back from them to see how they work.
I’m also a huge comedy nerd, and I’ve watched tons and tons of movies, tv, sketch, online videos. When I was a teenager the first time I used a laptop was one summer when my mom brought hers home from work. I sat down with all of my favorite movies like Baseketball, Biodome, The Breakfast Club. I watched them and took notes about what was funny, or what I liked about them and why. I’m fairly certain I have that weird master document still on a floppy disk in my storage closet because I’ve got some hoarder tendencies.
Anyhow, I think the practice of identifying “game” in movies and TV maybe leads to faster recognition of it.
I also do my best not to be judgmental of what the focus of a given moment/scene/show is, because I find that only slows things down. If it is happening there is nothing I can do but support it. So I try not to waste any time judging.
When you write your improv memoirs, who would you dedicate the book to? What would be one of the chapter titles? What picture would be on the cover?
I would likely dedicate a book like that to all of the teachers and performers I learned from studying with and watching.
One of the chapters would be called “Understanding Improv By Talking About Sandwiches,” because I have an exercise I find very helpful where everyone just sits around and talks about their sandwich preferences.
The cover would probably in some way be a reference to another book. Maybe something silly from my childhood like Goosebumps.
Anything you want to plug?
I’ve plugged so much already!
Skutch, the group I’m working hard to do high quality shows with.
I co-host a podcast with ColdTowne student/performer KC Harvey-Taylor called Got Your Back where we interview a variety of Austin comedians from varying disciplines about their craft, then we play a joke writing card game of my creation. We have new episodes on the 1st and 3rd Monday of every month, and would very much appreciate if you would rate and review us on iTunes. The show’s goal is to promote the DIY comedy spirit, and to empower people to make their own art.
Lastly, I’ll be spending the next several months working on a show to go up on Saturdays in October at ColdTowne called The Organ Trail. Named after a video game of the same name (available on PC and most mobile platforms), it is a zombie version of the Oregon Trail. I received permission from the game’s developers to use the name, and I’m going to do my best to recreate the experience of playing the Organ Trail onstage with the audience as the players. The audience can win or lose, and each week the story is determined by the choices the audience makes and the consequences of those choices. And since it is in October, you can bet on plenty of fake blood flying around our tiny theater.
What is something most people don’t know?
I was elected prom king at my high school senior year.