The Sunday Interview: Mike D’Alonzo

For the second time in as many weeks, we have an ex-Austinite as the subject of The Sunday Interview. This week it’s Mr. Mike D’Alonzo, a founding member of Austin supertroupe The Knuckleball Now. Mike’s in Los Angeles now, but his improv heart still longs for the creative chutzpah of Austin. Ladies and gentlemen, behold…

The Basics

That's Mike on the left.

That’s Mike on the left.

Name: Mike D’Alonzo

Age: 42

City: Los Angeles, CA

Number of Years Doing Improv: 20

Primary Web Presence: tv.esquire.com

People

Who’s your improv hero?
David Razowsky. He’s the Phil Jackson of improv, just a font of zen-like information that expands the simplest concept into the building of whole worlds and concepts. He’s also supernaturally dedicated to the craft of comedy as a whole, which is something that I identify with wholeheartedly. If there’s a big book of comedy somewhere in the stars, and those who have contributed to the betterment of the craft have entries, then David’s is long and storied. He’s a natural teacher, in that he’s naturally curious about the world around him and spends his non-teaching time learning. Improv is his light, and he’s used those gifts to light the world. No shit.

If David is the Martin Luther Zen of improv to me, then Jeremy Lamb has to be the Che Guevara. In a lot of ways, Jeremy is my improv hero, too, because he is willing to do anything to do and make more comedy, go anywhere to find inspiration, work with anyone, learn any style. And you would think that someone with that fervor would be aggressive onstage, but it’s exactly the opposite. He plays point guard during the show, either scoring big if there are holes, or dishing assists to others and almost completely disappearing into the background if someone else is having a big night.

Who’s your improv nemesis?
Me, of course. What improviser would dare say otherwise? Actually, I don’t feel like I have a nemesis. I feel like there are actors who I look at and feel inspired by in different ways. Some are positive, others not so much. If you’re not working to get better, and you get wrapped up in the trappings of being onstage more than the idea of giving back to the craft and to your fellows, it is my inclination to try and blow you off the stage, which, I recognize, isn’t the most attractive trait.

You can play an improv scene with anyone. Who do you pick?
I can’t imagine any experience that would be more fun than playing with The Knuckleball Now when they’re in the middle of a killer run of peak-and-pop frenzy. I know it’s weird to say that I’d like to perform with my troupe, but I miss those guys so much almost every day of my life, and it was definitely a situation where I didn’t know what I had until it was gone. The most fun improv you can do is with people you love. I truly believe that. As for playing with my heroes, I’d much rather be in the audience, so I can truly appreciate them.

Who first encouraged you to try improv?
Coming from a background as a sketch performer in college, I can remember a litany of people who encouraged me not to try improv, but, I think, the first person who was really encouraging to me and made me feel like I would be good at it was Sean Hill, who was great to me all around. Between Sean and David Lampe, I could see where I wanted to be and what I wanted to do, and really helped me turn my life around in a great many ways.

Who’s the funniest famous person?
Wow. This is harder than I thought. I need to name a few. David Cross, Michael Palin, Ricky Gervais, Will Ferrell.

Who’s the funniest non-famous person?
Bill Stern and Edi Patterson are the funniest people I’ve ever met.

The Art

Your most memorable improv experience in 30 words or less:
The first time I saw The Doubtful Guests at Chicago Improv Festival. My mind was completely blown. I stayed for the second show.

That's Mike on the right.

That’s Mike on the right.

The hardest I’ve ever laughed at an improv performance was:
Either the first time I saw Beer Shark Mice in Chicago or the first time I saw Dasariski. They have such a natural chemistry, and Bob Dassie is just hilarious. Every time he opens his mouth, I want to laugh.

Your biggest onstage improv pet peeve?
Laziness! There’s nothing I hate more than a show in which the most important thing to the performers is their own enjoyment. If you’re asking people to get up out of their homes in their free time to come and pay money to see you, you HAVE to make it about them. Without the audience, there’s no show. Dress like you’re onstage, perform like you’re onstage. Do your best to remember character names. Edit quickly. Don’t do in-jokes to the exclusion of your audience.

I’m a bit of a Second City aficionado (although I’m not affiliated with them), and one of the things that I like the most about them, aside from their tradition and history, is the idea of playing to the top of your intelligence. They make it a point not to dumb down the show for their audience, expecting people to have to think and chase them down the rabbit hole to get to the funny. They work the long con sometimes, which means you get a gut-laugh five minutes from now as opposed to a couple titters every 30 seconds.

Your biggest offstage improv pet peeve?
People being too nice to each other when it comes to notes or quality control. If I have a bad night, and I don’t see it, I expect you to give me honest notes. If I’m onstage with you, odds are pretty good that I like you, and I feel a kinship and brotherhood with you, so our friendship and my self-esteem aren’t tied to the idea that I had a bad night. But, if you want to prevent me from doing it again and making you, the troupe, the room, the theatre, and the art look bad, then please, for my own good, tell me I was total shit. I’ll get better, and I’ll know I can trust you to give me real input and feedback. We, as artists, need to get a thicker skin sometimes.

Your most hated warm-up game is:
There is a game called Dukes of Hazard, which I played last summer at ImprovUtopia, which is a three-day summer improv camp that I’d paid for a year before and was really, REALLY looking forward to going to. Anyway, on the first day, they had a dawn warm-up, where all of the people at the camp got up super early to greet the sun and warm up together, which is not usually my cup of tea, but I was feeling very “yes-and-y” about the whole thing, so I figured I’d drag my ass out of bed to go do it.

The morning was dewy, and the warmup took place on the side of a hill, which not only had wet, slippery grass, but gopher holes that were hidden from view. Now, the game involved a point at which everyone was supposed to run and change places, and, in a circle of about 100 folks, got pretty hairy. The first time we ran to change places, I ran, slipped on some of the grass, got my foot caught in a gopher hole, broke my ankle, and spent the rest of the time at camp limping around in a brace, unable to participate in almost any of the activities.

So, yeah. I fucking hate that warmup.

The best way to get into character is:
I always think of it as an exercise in how fast you can catch. Assuming endowments are coming, I always choose one that lights something in my head and build from there. I try my hardest to internalize it and think of how you’d actually physicalize if you were that person. For example, if you actually had a limp, you wouldn’t go out of your way to limp. You’d go out of your way NOT to limp, so I try and play that. Sometimes it might come off as too subtle, and I’ve always tried to work on that, but my most fervent hope is that someone in the audience is watching that character and thinking, “Did that guy used to have a limp?”

Also, I try and remember that the limp isn’t all there is. Let’s say I’m a Nobel Prize winner with a limp. The most important thing that there is about me, by far, is the Nobel Prize, not the limp. The limp, at that point, is almost unimportant, you know? And the hard part, but the fun part, is to try and discover that recipe. The ratio of Nobel Prize winner to limp, I suppose.

The second best way to edit a scene is:
By grabbing the offstage microphone and making an offer to the people onstage that will allow them to change or wipe completely. I don’t know about “the best” in a way that’s productive, necessarily, but man, is it fun.

The best way to connect with the other person in the scene is:
Be there with them. Touch them. Look at them. Listen to them. Be honest. Observe them. Try and understand them.

The third best way to make a scene funny is:
I’m going to have to go with clever wordplay, placed just behind the well-timed “fuck” and the inclusion of a blow dart in any scene you happen to be in. Also, one of the best ways to make a scene funny is to lob softballs at your partners onstage. Set them up well, and they’ll return the favor. I’m not always the best at doing this, but it’s something I try and work on as much as I possibly can.

The Business of Improv

That's Mike in the middle.

That’s Mike in the middle.

About how many improv courses have you taken?
Oh, man. I would say somewhere in the neighborhood of 30, if you count all of the seminars and classes I’ve taken over time.

What festivals have you performed in outside of Austin?
Out of Bounds West (!), Seattle Improv Festival, Dallas Improv Festival, Chicago Improv Festival.

Have you personally spent more than $1,000 on improv related expenses in your lifetime?
Easily.

More than $5,000?
For sure. After all, I did produce four festivals, and a lot of that stuff comes out of your pocket. Venue rental, making video and audio stuff to go along with the shows, yeah. I’d say I’ve probably spent something along the lines of $10K.

The Funniest Troupe Name You’ve Ever Heard (That Actually Exists):
Klaün

The Future

Your 2013 improv goal:
To get onstage more and to knock off some of the rust in my performance, so that I can get back to doing excellent quality shows on a more consistent basis.

Your lifetime improv goal:
To leave a mark.

Your goal at your next show:
Not to have the end of the show descend into chaos, and to bring a nice, solid longform story in for a satisfying landing. Of course, if I’m really honest, my goal is to make you cry. I can make you laugh kind of at will, but I have a real deep admiration for someone who can make you cry. That’s even more vulnerably transformative.

What is the one thing you’d like people to think when they think back on your as an improviser?
“He was much smarter than I thought he would be. And, he, in no way, reminded me of Chris Farley.”

The Hypothetical

You’re invited to a private cocktail party. When you arrive, it’s just you, Del Close, Keith Johnstone, Wayne Brady, Amy Poehler, and Hall of Fame Quarterback Joe Montana in attendance. The party is nice. You drink a couple of glasses of wine while you chat with the distinguished guests.

At the end of the night, Amy announces that, after conferring with the other improvisers in the room (aka, everyone except Joe Montana), they would like not only to form a troupe with you, but they’d like to use their collective resources to promote it on a worldwide tour, which would happen every year. With these heavyweights at your disposal, you stand to earn more than $500,000 per year for simply doing improv shows with four fantastic improv minds. You’d perform at the most extravagant theaters in the world—the Sydney Opera House, the Tokyo Technodrome, that place in China that looks like a bird nest (the “Bird Nest,” I believe it is), and Radio City Music Hall—along with a bevvy of famous, smaller venues like CBGBs. In other words, they want to make you rich doing what you love to do.

“The only stipulation,” Amy says, “is that you must gouge out one of Joe Montana’s eyeballs in the next thirty minutes using only this wooden spoon.” And then Amy Poehler pulls out a wooden spoon.

Montana will be strapped down. There’s no chance of him fighting back. You’re perfectly safe. All you have to do is gouge out one of Joe Montana’s eyeballs and you can live a dream life forever. He’s even signed a document swearing not to sue or seek criminal charges. You’ll get off scott free.

Amy turns to you, the wooden spoon in her hand, and asks, “So?”

What do you say to her?

I look her in the eye, and ask, “Do you mind if I talk to Joe for a moment on my own?” She dismissively waves her hand, as if to indicate that she’s giving me permission, but she doesn’t love the idea. After I whisper a question into Joe’s ear, I ask for the spoon.

In a blur of movement, Joe Montana is up from his chair, having been untied while I whispered in his ear. I lob the spoon at him, and he throws a perfect strike (having been in possession of the universe’s best arm for a good half-a-century now) right into the middle of Poehler’s head, killing her instantly. She drops Del Close’s skull, which shatters on the ground, causing Wayne Brady to become apoplectic. He drops to his knees and reaches for the pieces of the skull, only to get the dagger I always carry in my left sock garter plunged deep into his right hand, pinning him to the floor, screaming.

I flip Keith my Loose Moose Dollar Coin, which shows him that we’re on the same team, and he winks as Joe and I leave the room and climb into his Lamborghini to flee the scene.

Later, at the press conference for my solo tour that Joe is personally sponsoring, for which I will be paid the modest but completely livable sum of $250,000 a year, Joe Montana leans into the microphone with tears in his eyes and says, “If it weren’t for Mike, I’d have lost and eye and you’d have to suffer through another season of Parks and Recreation. He is, literally, my hero.”

As the spontaneous applause bursts out into the room, I am asked the following question from Wolf Blitzer, CNN.

“We heard you were offered $500,000 to take Joe’s eye out and do the tour. What made you settle for less?”

Without hesitating one single moment, I answer:

“I can earn the other $250K on my own. Plus, I don’t need those guys to play with. I have a whole bunch of friends in Austin that I can take with me who will make you laugh harder than they can. Plus, I’ve always liked Joe Montana.”

And, scene.

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