You have seen Tom Booker, even if you don’t know it. Booker has been a working TV and commercial actor for more than two decades (including one of my very favorite episodes of Curb Your Enthusiasm). A few years back, Tom migrated to Austin to open The Institution Theater with his buddy, Asaf Ronen. Nowadays, Tom is a teacher, producer, director, writer, and, after some persistent pestering by yours truly, a subject of a Sunday Interview.
Nobody in the Austin improv community has a resume as legit as Tom’s. Here’s what this hard-working Hollywood goat roper has to say…
Tom, I know you have a rich and storied history in entertainment and improv. Is there a moment in your career that kind of encapsulates your career as a whole—a moment that just sort of “says it all”?
I was working on a show called “Cut To The Chase” for TBS. While taping one of the shows, I was dressed as Ozzy Osborne and standing in a water fountain while making out with my friend Mary Pat Farrell, who was dressed as Sharon Osborne, and then Erik Estrada drives up on a motorcycle and dressed in his CHiPs uniform and we get into a water gun fight.
That moment seems to encapsulate my “acting career.”
What’s the hardest you’ve ever laughed?
When I was about six or seven my family went to the rodeo and saw a very strange interaction between a little person and a Longhorn bull. It’s kind of hard to explain in print, but I will gladly tell you the story in person sometime. Trust me, it’s a great story.
Drop some names! Who are a few famous people you’ve worked alongside?
Chris Farly, Mike Myers, Jon Favreau, Christine Taylor, Phil Lamar, Eve Plumb, Janeane Garofalo, Ricki Lake, Kathy Griffin, Will Farrell, Amy Poehlar, Matt Walsh, Adam McKay, Matt Besser, David Koechner, Wyatt Cynac, Neil Flynn, Joel Murray, Brian Doyle-Murray, Luke Wilson, Josh Malina, Illeana Douglass, Erik Estrada, Phillip Michael Thomas, Phil Hartman, Dan Castellaneta, Leslie Nielsen, Matt Dillon, John Goodman, Pauly Shore, Patton Oswald, Nicole Sullivan, Neil Patrick Harris, Sean Hayes, Laura Hall, Melanie Hudsell, Jeff Garland, Steve Carrell, Tina Fey, Steven Colbert, Kate Flanery, Rachel Dratch, Nia Vardalos, Ian Gomez, Jane Lynch, Andy Richter, Michael Hitchcock, Teri Garr, Michael McKean, Martin Short, Kevin Nealon, Julie Brown, Mink Stole, Pat Paulsen, Bill Hader, Noel Welles and others.
Who’s someone who should’ve been more famous but weren’t, for whatever reason?
There’s a guy named Joe Liss. He was a Chicago Second City guy. He lives in Los Angeles now. He’s still working as an actor and pops up from time to time. He is one of those guys that just make anything that he does funny. I love Joel Liss!
What is the very first thing you tell a student in Level 1 improv?
I tell them, “Don’t suck.” That’s my way of telling them to “follow the fun.” I want to encourage every student to follow their intuition. And you follow your intuition by doing what you think is fun. And if you trust and follow your intuition, you will create things that only you can create.
You teach a much sought after workshop on auditioning for commercials. Give us a sneak peek: Who should undertake to become a commercial actor?
Anyone can be a commercial actor. But most people just want to act in commercials “for the money.” I encourage my students to enjoy the process of auditioning for commercials and to really find the fun in the auditioning process. And if you do that, the money will come. And if the money doesn’t come, you won’t care because you will be enjoying what you’re doing.
What is most creatively fulfilling these days? What kind of work are you most interested in doing?
Right now I am most interested in helping people put together their creative projects. I’m trying to take on more of a mentoring role and I’m having a lot of fun doing it.
You and Asaf Ronen are inextricably linked in some people’s minds—-especially in Austin. What makes your professional partnership work?
I think that there are two things that make my working relationship with Asaf work: 1) The fact that we seem to be complete opposites in every way. 2) We have the utmost respect for each other as teachers, as performers, as creators and a people.
You own two actual goats. Why?
My girlfriend’s grandfather had a bunch of goats on his ranch and she has a lot of wonderful memories involving her grandfather and goats. Apparently because of this, it has always been her dream to own goats. And it’s my job to make her dreams come true. So we got a couple of Nigerian pygmy goats to live in our backyard. We love them and we’re having so much fun with them.
What’s the best work you’ve done in a commercial?
I think that I did my best work in the commercials that I did for NBA On TNT. And I got to work with Kevin Garnett, Allan Iverson, Vince Carter, Christ Weber and Marv Albert. It was all improvised and it was so much fun!
An improviser comes to you and says, “I’m interested in opening an improv theater.” What do you (a) ask that person, and (b) tell that person?
I would ask them the following questions:
– Why do you want to open an improv theater?
– What is the ultimate goal you would like to accomplish with your theater?
– What do you see your theater looking like?
I would tell them this:
– Make a plan. Decide where you want to end up and make a plan listing the steps that you need to take to get from where you are to where you want to go.
– There are going to be a million people telling you that you are doing it wrong. Don’t listen to them. Just do what you do.
– You will make mistakes. That’s just means that you’re doing something.
– Have fun!
Favorite improv troupe name of all time:
Blue Velveeta. (The movie “Blue Velvet” has recently come out.)
Who’s the best improv teacher out there, and what makes this person a great instructor?
The best teacher that I’ve ever seen work is Asaf Ronen. I used to think that I was the best improv teacher in the world until I saw Asaf Ronen teach. Asaf has a passion for improv that I’ve never really seen in anyone else.
What film could you watch a bunch of times in a row?
Russ Meyer, Beyond The Valley Of The Dolls
Anything you want to plug?
Come see the shows at The Institution Theater!
What’s one thing most people don’t know?
I ran a marathon in 2008. That seems to surprise a lot of people when I tell them that.