Alex Berg is an LA-based comedian, actor, writer, and producer. Before coming to LA, he studied psychology at Vassar College. You may have seen him on Terriers, The Goldbergs, and Reno! 911. He is a team member of UCB mainstays Convoy or Sentimental Lady and a regular audience member of the Saturday Night Sentimental Lady show called Guilty Pleasures.
Listen to Episode #95 here:
Man In Cargo Pants
Our guest is Alex Berg. Alex is an LA-based comedian, actor, writer and producer. Before coming to LA, he studied Psychology at Vassar College. You may have seen him on Terriers, The Goldbergs and Reno 911!, among other shows. He’s a team member of UCB Mainstay Convoy, which I have yet to see but people rave about and on Sentimental Lady. Welcome, Alex.
Thanks for having me.
This episode is a long time coming.
We’ve known each other for some years.
You should have been among the first ten episodes, not the last ten episodes. I’m happy you’re here.
Better late than never.
If you weren’t working as a comedian, actor, writer or producer, what would you be doing with your life?
Before I had the plan to come out to LA, I was in college. During my first years of college, I was a Physics major and was completely on the professorial track mentally. I don’t know realistically whether or not I was, but in my head I was like, “I’m going to stare at the stars and think about how big spaces for the rest of my life.” After that, it was CogSci and it’s the same thing with doing a research project.
I suppose I would be doing that. In my senior year, a friend of mine who I had done comedy in college and who graduated a year ahead of me moved out to LA and he came back to visit for a week or something at one point. He was like, “You should move out to LA,” and I was like, “No. I’m going to go to grad school.” He was like, “You hate writing papers.” I was like, “Yes.” He was like, “That’s all you’re going to do the rest of your life.” In hindsight, it seems so dumb to need someone to point that out to you but he did. He convinced me to move out here. I got out here three months after graduation.
This is why arranged marriages work surprisingly well. Sometimes other people know you better.
You get that thing of like, “That’s a great point. I do hate doing this.”
I’m not sure that arranged marriages work well, but they work better than you would expect them to.
I have a good friend who used to be a matchmaker. That was her job. She would meet with people in the upper echelon online dating thing where people thought profiles. She’d go meet with them in person and all the people she met with she would pair them up. Her thing was always having to convince people to go on the date she’d set up for them. She’s like, “This person is great for you.” They look at them on paper and be like, “I don’t know. They said they liked Dave Matthews Band, which is one of their ride or die.” She’s like, “Trust me.”
You came to LA because it was LA not because of comedy?
It was because of comedy. My friend, Matt, convinced me to move out here. He was out here at the time, there’s a theater in Hollywood called Improvolympic, which then became iO West, which they shut down.
The remnants of it are a few blocks from here on Hollywood Boulevard.
Not far at all. He was doing shows there and taking classes and he was like, “You should come out. We’ll set up a sketch show.” We started writing and stuff. I felt at the time that my choices were either Los Angeles or New York for doing comedy entertainment stuff. I grew up near New York. I have a deep-seated hatred of it. It stinks, loud and crowded. Truthfully, LA, I also hated the first couple of years I lived out here.
We were joking about this. LA is a great city. If you don’t have a commute, you have a salary and you have good friends.
It’s an easy city to be bad at. I will say New York for as much as I don’t care for it personally. I do think it presents itself to you. You can wander three blocks in New York and all of a sudden find a bar or a restaurant you like or find a bookstore you didn’t know about. They happen. In LA, you’re in your car. Unless someone gives you the wink and nod, you don’t know those things exist. Once you find them, you get this constellation of cool spots and you can ignore everything you don’t like.
You didn’t get off the bus and there wasn’t an agent there ready to sign you. It was a tough, few years.
The first three years I was here, I was 22. My friend who had convinced me to move out here passed away six months later. That was a shock none of us planned on that. You have this conception in your mind of what it is to move to LA, which is, “I’m going to be at this comedy club. I’ll get discovered and I’ll go out in auditions.” The reality of it is far more quotidian. You’re going like, “How can I make rent the next three months? If I eat oatmeal two meals a day, that means I can get all my grocery shopping for the week done for $12 and still have money for beer.” It’s tough.
Here’s my question. We’re going to get back to what you would have done. Do you look back on those days in some wistful way? You paid your dues in a sense. How do you look back on those early days?
LA does harden you a little bit. As a quick example, I’m taking an animated 30 minutes out to pitch, which is great and I’m excited about it. I’m not the same kind of excited I used to get before I had been burned for literally a decade-plus by constant rejection.
There’s a particular form of rejection here, which is you’re in the meeting and everybody loves it. Rarely is someone crap on the idea in the meeting. I would actually prefer they do.
I had that happen once I actually no longer prefer that.
It had to happen to me once too. It was in a conference call. I hang up the phone and I’m like, “NatGeo is not interested,” versus, “We love this. We’ll be in touch,” and you never hear from them.
I’ve been burned so many times. It goes well in the room, your reps talk to you and they’re like, “Everybody loved it. This thing is going to go in two months.” You start daydreaming and you start going like, “My life’s about to change,” and it doesn’t. The key, at least for me for sanity has been you have to learn to let go of that hope as dismal as that sounds. You have to go like, “I presented myself well in the room. I’m happy with that I made a good impression on those people whether or not this project goes, I’m happy with that hour of my life and I move on.”
You miss a little bit of the excitement.
That’s the same thing everybody truly misses about being a teen. On paper, being a teen sucks for most people.
What I always say about being young is the highs are higher and the lows are lower. This is not a complaint. This comes from a place of privilege. I remember my first international trip. I remember going to places for the first time and doing this thing for the first time and how exciting it is.
The world was so fresh at one point.
At some point, I remember that I had crossed the threshold of some in some way where I was on a plane. This is for the Humor Code because we were going from Uganda to Tanzania. I remember thinking, “I wonder if I need a visa.” I had become so cavalier.
Your focus shifts. You go from focusing on the adventure to focusing on whether or not you packed up shoelaces.
The answer is yes but you can buy it at the airport. That you miss a little bit.
I miss not knowing how bad the burn can be. It does make you a little bit more hesitant there and rightfully so to stick your hand on the stove.
You could go back to them. It’s the world of entertainment. If you hadn’t done this, are you a professor? Are you stuck as a postdoc somewhere or did you do something else?
There’s a difference if I hadn’t done this and if I had stopped doing this.
I don’t think anybody ever answers the question this way.
There are different forks in the road.
I know but I don’t think anybody’s ever gone, “If I wasn’t doing this now.”
If I hadn’t come out here, I probably would have spent a long time as a frustrated graduate student pushing for a PhD doing something involving AI, consciousness, and robotics. That stuff still fascinates me. I still read about that stuff whenever I can. I’ve been obsessed with octopuses. Maybe I would have transferred to Marine Bio at some point. I would have tried hard to monetize my curiosity. Whereas maybe the mayor of Hollywood.
The metaphorical Hollywood Mayor.
The Big Cheese of Hollywood Boulevard, he’s got a top hat and a monocle. He’s carrying around award trophies. If he came down the street and was like, “You’ve got to go.” I would probably move to the East Coast and open up a used bookstore and sit and read all day. I would live a quiet life where I could drink tea and read books.
You would be bookish?
I’d be bookish either way.
It hasn’t happened yet.
I keep seeing him walking around but I dodge him. I don’t answer his calls.
This is not a critique. I asked you if you came here for comedy or if you came here and discovered comedy because I could have seen the other. I could have seen the thing like you’re a smart guy. You might be a little quirky but you weren’t the class clown or the funny guy.
I was the class clown.
Were you a class clown at a private school or are you a class clown in public school?
I was a public-school class clown. Early on, I remember getting bad grades in fifth-grade spelling because I would do doodles on my thing. I was always a good student. I was good enough that I could mess around. That rubbed some of my teachers the wrong way. I was always a goofball. I started going to a performing arts camp and upstate New York when I was eleven. I started doing improv and sketch. I always had the bug but never thought it was a thing you could actually do. I did a production of Our Town, classic Thornton Wilder play rite of passage for anybody whoever reads a page of any script. You have to do Our Town when you’re in high school. The director of it was Christian Long, whose older brother was Justin Long, who at the time had been in Galaxy Quest and was maybe doing something else. I remember being at a cast party and he was there and he talks about how it’s super fun, but you’ve got to want it bad. I remember having that conversation with him and he wasn’t negative at all. He’s a nice guy and super positive. He went, “I don’t think I want it that bad.”
There’s a little bit of that. In my marketing management course, I teach a Lady Gaga case. It’s a crowd-pleaser for people who like Lady Gaga.
It’s a chart-topper for the marketing management people.
One of the things that we do at the beginning of almost all of these cases, we do what we call a Three C’s analysis. We did an analysis of the company, competitors and customers. It’s a fairly standard model of thinking about marketing problems. In this case, the company is Lady Gaga. We talked about what Lady Gaga is good at what she’s not good at. One of the things that stand out is how bad she wanted it, how hard she was willing to work and how she was willing to forego profits in order to build something better and better. In a world where there’s survivor bias in the world of whether it be music, tech world, entertainment generally and certainly comedy.
History is written by the victors.
That has to be a constant where if you don’t want it badly, you probably can’t do enough of the things that are going to even give you a chance to get lucky enough.
As many of us do, I have a mother who’s super supportive and encouraging. Even a third or fourth-degree friend of hers has a kid who’s getting out of college and moving to LA. I get an email from a stranger who’s like, “My mom got your email from this mom who got it from your mom. Can we meet up and talk about what you’ve got to do to have a career?”
I think of you setting a coffee date and you cancel it. In the fourth one, you show up and say, “Did they follow through?” You got a shot kid. You’ll make it.
The last one of these, the kid was nice. He was 22 also named Alex is evidently everyone from the east coast is required to be. I was explaining to him, not in a disparaging way, but it’s a lottery. Anytime someone tells you, it’s a meritocracy, they are lying and blinded by their own privilege and luck. The reality of it is being good at what you do buys you a bunch of lottery tickets. Being nice and easy to work with buys you a bunch of lottery tickets. Having a day job and being able to be in LA for another year buys you a bunch of lottery tickets. For me, I’m trying to buy as many tickets as I can. If one of them goes great, but if not, at least in the meantime, I have a life that I like. I’m not relying on the lottery from my day-to-day income. I don’t have that insanity and self-worth trapped in there anymore.
As I like to say, “It’s fun to hold onto a lottery ticket.”
It’s great, the enthusiasm, excitement and promises.
Especially when you’re starting out. It’s still nice to have that lottery ticket in your wallet.
I went full-time at a place in my job, which is the first full-time job I’ve had since 2008. It was years of never having that stability. One of the conversations they had was, “If we go full-time here, we’re going to want you to commit.” I was like, “I’m always still going to be doing stuff on the side, though.” They’re like, “We’d like you not to do that.” I was like, “I’m not going to stop doing that.” If that’s a deal-breaker, then so be it, but I’m going to keep doing. That’s a conversation you can imagine having when you’re at eighteen. When you’re eighteen you’re like, “I love the Apple Store. I’ll work here forever.”
I get that idea. On my other show, I do an episode with some entrepreneurs. We talked about, “Do you go all in or do you do you do your entrepreneurial venture as a side hustle?” One of the things that they seem to agree on is until the market is speaking to you, you’re probably best off keeping it as a side hustle. You’re going to avoid ruin most of the side hustles don’t ever go anywhere. You want to pay close attention to when the world’s saying, “We want this thing.” When the world is saying, “We want this thing,” you go all in. This is a town that allows that. Do you know Claire Downs?
I don’t believe I do.
She’s more on the writing side of things. She’s a sketch writer and she’s done a bunch of stuff, but she hasn’t had her big break yet. She’s in my book, Shtick to Business, because Claire doesn’t have a full-time job but she needs to pay her bills so she takes these crappy temp jobs. She said this on the show so I’m not airing secrets. It’s all in the book. She is ruthless about pursuing her comedy. She’s not going to let the temp job get in the way of her comedy. She does her work but she does it right away and gets it done. She milks the day and she has all these tricks that she has to allow her to be at the temp job and to get to do her comedy. She tells people, “I’m vitamin D deficient. I need to get some sunlight.” She’d go outside and take calls or work at an outdoor cafe. Her best one is she has what she calls her Go Bag. She has a backpack with her laptop, notes and all this stuff. She puts that in another backpack. She gets to work she does her work and she leaves the one backpack on the back of the chair. She has coffee and wrappers for snacks and everything.
It looks like the desk is fully populated.
She takes her other bag and goes off somewhere to work on her comedy.If you don’t really want it badly, you can’t do enough of the things that will give you a chance to get lucky enough. Click To Tweet
I used to do that when I was at TV Guide networks. First of all, TV Guide used to have a network. They used to make original programming. Those were the days. When I say my early twenties, I was full of hope, these are the organizations that hadn’t yet felt the true sting of the burn. Our offices were at Hollywood & Highland Mall, which for people who don’t live in LA, is one of the worst designed malls I’ve ever been to in my life. You are not missing out on anything. It is a nightmare. TV Guide’s offices were split. There are post departments like all the editors and the edit bays and stuff. We’re at Hollywood & Highland Mall on the fourth floor. I had an office for a while in a windowless basement.
That’s where you should put the editors.
You would think but it made the whole thing was insane. We had another office across the street at Franklin and Highlands. It was a block away. This was before everyone had cell phones, but you weren’t expected to be on them 24/7. Blackberries had become a thing.
I remember those days, somewhat fondly.
I would tell everyone at Highland & Franklin office and I’d be like, “I’ve got to go over to the edit bays for X, Y, and Z. Tell everyone at the edit bay that I’ll be at Highland & Franklin. I will go sit and work on sketches or write my blog.
I wish we had done this sooner because you probably would be in the book.
The idea was always, how can I do enough work that TV Guide finds me indispensable? How can I also do it in such a way where I’m not losing time to doing the stuff I came out here to do?
In my book, one of the things I make a case for is how comedians are rule-breakers. They often break the rules in order to make comedy and make things funny. They also will break rules in order to make comedy and to physically produce comedy because the world of comedy is so cutthroat and difficult. If you always play nice and play by the rules, you might not get far. The world can crowd out your comedy so on. For example, Eric Marlon Bishop, a young stand-up comedian going to open mics. He recognizes that it’s 90% men and the bookers want to not have a whole bunch of men all wearing cargo pants.
The few women who sign up for the open mic might get moved up on the list a little bit to have some form of diversity, difference, palate cleanser, a different perspective, etc. He gets to the open mic. He doesn’t sign up as Eric Marlon Bishop. He signs up names that could sound female but could pass as male. One of them was Stacy Green. One of the other ones was Jamie Foxx. The rest, as they say, is history. Is it any surprise that Jamie Foxx is Jamie Foxx? He’s looking for every angle he can to make it work. When you start looking in the world of comedy and the world of entrepreneurship, I’m not saying people are committing fraud. They’re not breaking laws, but they’re bending them.
I used to do commercial auditioning for years, which I would argue more of a grind and less rewarding than any day job I’ve ever had. It is brutal. I’m not trying to disparage anybody who does commercials. When you don’t book anything for five years, it is a brutal grind. There was a guy who we all knew. None of us knew him personally, we all knew the legend of this guy, whose name was Johnny 3 Nutz. That was not his given name. He had changed his name to Johnny 3 Nutz because he was like, “Everyone will remember the name Johnny 3 Nutz.” We all do. He would book stuff and you’d see him in commercials and you’re like, “That’s Johnny 3 Nutz.”
Is it a coincidence that you’ve got Lady Gaga, Prince, Madonna, P!nk?
It’s evocative and simple.
That might have to do with the type of person who would be willing to take on one of those names is also the type of person who might be s supremely talented. I don’t know what Sting’s real name is but it’s boring. Maybe he’s not the lead singer for The Police.
That’s branding. Everybody knows Nikes. Nike isn’t like Nike Athletic Shoe Company. There was a documentary called Helvetica. I saw years ago and it about the font. One of the examples they gave was how Nabisco used to be the national biscuit company. They rebranded in the ‘70s to be Nabisco. Something that’s a mouthful is rarely memorable. You want that quick thing.
Maybe you shouldn’t be Alex Berg.
I’ll go by Berg. Here are the benefits of being named Alex Berg. There’s a successful producer named Alec Berg, who did Seinfeld. There’s a whole episode of Seinfeld where they say he has a John Houseman name, “Mr. Berg.” “Alec Berg.” It came out when I was in seventh grade. It blew my mind. He’s producing Barry on HBO.
People rave about that.
It’s one of the best shows. It’s so good and incredible.
Can I ask why it’s so good? I haven’t seen it but I certainly know that Bill Hader is a funny guy.
For me, it strikes a personal note.
The premise is it’s an assassin who wants to get into acting.
Bill Hader plays an assassin from the Midwest who has a job in LA and to get close to the target he has to sign up for an acting class where the guy is. He falls in love with acting, but he can’t get out.
It’s a classic trope.
It feels like Hitchcock.
You want to get out but you can’t get out.
I love Elmore Leonard. I had pitched a 30-minute comedy to AMC years ago with some friends that were Elmore Leonard, but instead of 25% comedy and 75% crime, it was the reverse. If Breaking Bad was told from the point of view of Badger and Skinny Pete, that’s what Barry does so well. It’s a fun crime story but they’ve shifted all the heavy criminals are not the focus. Even when you meet them, they’re weird, unique and bizarre characters.
They’re not these threatening Soprano type guys.
There’s a whole thing where the leader of this Colombian cartel is super into self-help books and personal motivation. He’s positive. It’s fantastic but it’s produced by Alec Berg and Variety keeps misspelling his name in the article as Alex Berg. I was at a bar and I put my card down. This bartender looked at my card and he goes, “Are you Alex Berg?” I was like, “Yes.” He goes, “I love your work.” I was like, “Thanks.” Assuming he’d seen me at UCB or something. I was there drinking all night or whatever and got my tab back and it was $10 and the guy shot me finger guns. I couldn’t figure out what happened. I was like, “He thinks I was the other one,” which was hilarious.
Enjoy it for as long as it lasts.
I’ll take it.
Your world is super fascinating to me. I find that I’m better off studying it and observing it than I am trying to do it. Shtick to Business is built as what can we learn from the masters of comedy. These people have this incredibly difficult job that they make look easy. Some people think it’s a feature and some people think it’s a bug but there’s a lot of stand up in the book. I have one chapter that’s a big healthy dose of improv. Personally, it’s one of my favorite forms of comedy. If I’m going to go watch a show, I prefer improv.
Same and 100% agree but also 90% of improv shows I watch I find intolerable. It’s my favorite and half the time I watch them I’m like, “I don’t know what I’m doing with my life.”
I love it and I of course only watch a handful of shows and because I’m here, I’m watching among the best, including Sentimental Lady. When you started looking at improv you quickly can move beyond this Yes, and principle, which is frankly, tired.
The way we talk about at least when I was still teaching is Yes, and is a great foot in the door. It’s hardly the whole conversation. The spirit of it is there and it’s such a great bumper sticker phrase but there’s a lot more to it than that.
As you get better, you don’t need as much Yes, and.
You need it but you get to bend the rules a little bit. When you start out, it feels cut and dried. It means everything you say you have to say, Yes, and to. The example we would give when teaching is if a character in an improv scene says, “I’m going to stab you in the eye with a pencil if you don’t get out of my way.” You’d say, “Yes, you’re going to stab me in the eye with a pencil and I’m going to get out of your way.” It doesn’t mean, “I get stabbed now.” You still have to filter all that stuff through how do people behave and react. It’s not as simple as, “We’ll take the express train to zany town,” or something like that.
I’d also like to point out that there’s something in improv called editing. There are times where someone goes, “We’re done.” There’s no more yessing. That’s someone usually coming off the backline and jogging through a scene is the way edits usually happen.
There are different forms of them but that’s the main one.
What are the other ones?
That’s a wipe edit, where someone physically runs across the stage.
It’s usually after a big laugh line.
That’s the thing. A wipe edit needs a big laugh line because you need something to fill the void of someone physically running across the stage and the reset of two new people coming out to start a scene. The other edits are the main two would be a tag. Instead of ending the scene, you tag one or more characters. That’s a form of editing.
For the person who doesn’t know this well, let’s say two people are having a scene and they’re at dinner and someone says something. Someone comes off the line and they tap one of the people. It’s like a jump ahead or jumps back.
Two people are at dinner and they’re on a date. One of them is like, “My dad’s from Ohio.” “What does he do?” “He was the president of the Pro Football Hall of Fame.” “They have a president?” “They have a rigorous electoral system.” We tagged to go see the dad campaigning. There are organic edits, which are subtler than a wipe edit. They’re great tools for when the audience isn’t worked up and overflowing with the response that you’re going to have a little bit of silence where you walk through and break what we call the plane of the scene. The line of eye contact the characters are making, you walk through that and start talking and the next scene starts before the audience has a chance to figure out what’s going on.
In different forms, there are internal edits, which are more or less invisible to an audience but improvisers can pick up on. Even at that dinner table scene, you can have a conversational edit, where you go, “We’re not getting any traction with this thing. I’m going to make a quick left turn in the conversation. That’s fundamentally an edit. You’re keeping the new characters but you’re starting a completely new scene with those characters. Out of those things, the wipe edit is obviously the most visible to an audience and the easiest to spot. There are a lot of other types that use depending on the situation and depending on what your goals are with the edit.
I have to say I’m a big fan of a tag edit.
I love it. That’s conveyed. That’s all we do is tags. We stopped doing wipes in 2006. That’s old.
I love that because what happens is, I wouldn’t call myself a veteran audience member.
You’ve been coming improv shows regularly for nearly a decade. Give yourself that due.
What I haven’t done is I haven’t had all the accompanying training. I’ve only had 101 and 201. I don’t have the Herold memorized. I’m not following all the rules but whenever there’s a tag edit I get excited because I know someone’s got an idea that has a chance to be fun.
With a wipe edit, you are completely resetting.
It’s like rebooting your computer.
That scene is done and what you’re doing is you’re giving the audience a chance to release a lot of tension that’s built up over the course of the scene like a well-executed wipe edit. I don’t know if you’ve seen the Twitter feed, Perfectly Edited Screams. It always comes half a beat before the audience is expecting it. The edit itself is a surprise and the way we want to joke to be a little bit of a surprise. That gives them this big chance for release and they’re coming into the next scene having gotten rid of that tension.
With a tag edit, you’re not giving them that chance. If you’re doing it properly, it builds it. It keeps that momentum going. It means that you might not get that big, satisfying wipe edit laugh but you also won’t get the wipe edit pity clap, which we’ve all seen 1,000 times. Somebody runs across the stage because the scene has to end at some point, maybe you missed the best point to end it. Maybe it’s a scene because luck of the draw, doesn’t have a point like that and the audience gives you that, “Yes. I acknowledge this is over and that’s a bad view.”
You fortunately or unfortunately weren’t part of this, I went to some Sentimental Lady shows and I always text you how it went afterwards. I was like, “They didn’t need you. They killed it.” I went and it was spectacular. It was four people.
They all said that the show was super fun. They all had such a good time during that show.
It was incredibly fun and it would end I brought five people. I was like, “This is great.” A couple of weeks earlier, not so good. While it’s all happening, what’s your internal dialogue? Afterwards, what’s the dialogue when both of those things are happening? This group’s average is high.
For people reading, Sentimental Ladies have been together since May of 2006, so we’re going on for years now.
There are deviations.
There are off nights. I had one with Sentimental Lady that was such a bummer.
While it’s happening, what’s going on in your head? What I have often think of is it’s hard to think about all this other stuff because being in the improve scene is already difficult. Is anything happening at the time or is it all afterward you go?
During the good shows, at least for me, there is no internal monologue. The good shows for me are the ones where you’re playing so reflexively and the audience is reacting to your reactions. You get into this flow state genuinely where you’re doing it.
You get off and you’re high fiving backstage?
We’re not high five. My groups are all pretty subdued people offstage. We had a fun show one time and it’s late and we’re all old. We walk backstage and we’re like, “That was fun.” “It was fun.” “I like this part.” “That was good.” “What was that thing you mentioned?” “It was this.” “Cool.” That’s the tone of it.
The audience is talking a lot more about it than you guys.
It used to be the case when we were young and still figuring it out that we would take meticulous notes afterward. One of my groups would tape their shows every week. We would watch it down a couple of days later and spend 30 or 40 minutes picking apart 25 minutes show. We’re talking about, “Here’s what I liked about this.” “Here’s what I was trying to do here.” “Here’s why it didn’t quite work.” When you have a coach, which Sentimental Lady did for its first five or six years, a coach does that with the team. All my teams have evolved past the point of coaches. For the good shows, we complement each other. My advice for students who don’t have coaches on the team is, “If you have a compliment, it’s for somebody else. If you have a criticism, it’s for you, it never goes the other way. You don’t pat yourself on the back and you don’t give someone else a hard time because you’re all equals.”
Improv is so collaborative. If you did something good, it’s likely because someone set you up.
You’re responding to someone else. Nothing happens in a vacuum. It’s gracious personally if there was a problem with the show to try to find what was your contribution to it? You were reacting to someone else but you fundamentally thought that reaction was a good idea at the moment. How can you call yourself out in a way to give everybody else on your team the full benefit of the doubt? Normally, they’ll go, “No. I had misread this thing.” It tends to spark a productive conversation. Bad shows, you know it quickly. A good show can become a bad show in one line. There’s an example I give where Sentimental Lady had been at a comedy festival in New York called DCM, Del Close Marathon years ago.The world of comedy is so cutthroat that if you always play nice and play by the rules, you might not get very far right. Click To Tweet
Is this a 24-hour marathon?
More than that. It’s 72. We had a good slot, good theater, good house and we’re doing a good show. We’re doing a mono-scene, which is difficult. You get one suggestion and you have one scene all those same characters and scenarios for 30 minutes. It’s going well. I had made a choice, early on in the scene to be a jerk. He’s smoking his cigar and cutting everybody off, that thing. I’m cutting people off as a character but allowing myself to be the butt of jokes as a team member. This was a team. We’re all close. We have different boundaries with one another than you might expect. Our team was put together in 2006, it has one woman because the theater was not nearly as gender diverse then as it is.
A lot of the younger teams are super diverse.
We need more of it.
I went to the Benetton show.
Benetton’s great. They’re fantastic.
It’s a lot looser because they’re less experienced people.
It’s the thing that these people have always been around. Until you get people with that perspective in a higher position, you might not have somebody who can appreciate their point of view and respond to their comedy. It’s moving in a positive direction but it hadn’t yet when the show and question happened. We’re having a good show.
I’m already cringing.
It’s about to go bad. I regret it so much. This happened over a decade ago, and we still talk about it as a memorably bad moment, when an entire audience turned on me. There was a moment where we had said something and everybody had responded. My character was an alpha. My friend, Suzi Barrett, who’s on the team, was going to say something. I personally think Suzi is a brilliant improviser. She’s so stupidly good, it makes me upset. I still learned things from playing with her, which is a high compliment. Everybody’s talking at once and I shout over everybody else. My intention as a performer being, “Suzi is going to have something funny to say.”
Certainly, she’s not going to cut through on her own because she’s too polite of a player. I’ll tee Suzi up, but my character is a jerk. He says, “Let’s hear what the slit has to say,” which Suzi knows, I don’t mean but for that entire room full of people who have seen this team from LA come out and a bunch of men. It was a record scratch and nothing I said got any response for the last ten minutes of the show. It was so brutal and the entire time I was like, “You crossed a line and they all called you on it. They’re right to call you on it, so now you know not to cross it again.”
I’m sure you’ve played this over in your mind. Is there any coming back from that?
There is but it takes a little bit of luck. For you as a performer to come back at that point, what you have to do is convince the audience beyond a shadow of a doubt that you are fully aware of how in the wrong that character is. The problem is, in that particular scene, you are that character so you can’t convince them.
You can’t come out of someone else and criticize that character or do something else.
You can. An example of it is I was doing another mono-scene with my group, Convoy. There are three of us and somehow, we were on a boat, vaguely old-timey sea captains in a modern-day setting. Someone had asked whether or not we rollerbladed or roller-skated and someone said, they rollerbladed and someone if I rollerbladed. My response was to use a bit of slang that I heard when I was in middle school and haven’t examined or thought about it since. The term is fruitbooter for rollerblader, which is obviously derogatory.
If you haven’t thought about it since you were twelve, you go, “This is a fun rhyming term.” You don’t think about that was a time when homosexuality was not nearly as accepted. I said it on stage and got called out on it immediately by the rest of my team. That was ten minutes into the show and literally the next twenty minutes of the show where my character going as me, but through my character, “The thing is I had heard that term a long time ago and not examined it. Obviously, it’s problematic. I wouldn’t say it anymore. If you don’t examine something for 25 years and you say it, you should be allowed that moment of grace. I apologize.”
Did that work?
Yes, but part of why it worked is because the other two guys on my team were merciless. The set up the three of us was on the ship and if you had a problem with the other one, you had to report to HR for the third. Instead of going, “In our report, we have here that the next thing you said was toot, toot my boots in the fruit.” He’s like, “That was part of the rhyme. That’s why I thought it was a fun rhyming thing.” It’s difficult once an audience turns on you. I know this from being an audience member to convince them that it was a character choice and not a personal choice. That’s a fair thing and an audience should feel that way. Why give a crap white man in cargo shorts the benefit of the doubt when he uses the word, slit, that he’s not only saying it?
He doesn’t say it all the time and it rolls off the tongue.
If that’s the case, why encourage that behavior, even if it is a character choice? I as an audience member wouldn’t encourage that because I don’t want to see it for the rest of the show. During a bad show, you know it. Your internal monologue the whole time is, “Oh no,” and because you’re having that internal monologue, it’s difficult to bring it back to a good show. Your internal monologue and instead of reflexing. I play video games. You never get a high score when you’re thinking, “I’m going to get the high score.” You do when you’re playing. It’s a similar thing.
Your cargo shorts have come up a couple of times. Do you have a signature outfit? Is it always the same t‑shirt?
My t‑shirts have settled into either a dark blue or a dark green Hanes.
Thank you for unbranded and a pair of cargo shorts.
It’s always a pair of camel cargo shorts.
I buy them his pants and cut them into shorts.
Also some sneakers or something?
I would call them brown dad shoes. It’s a pair of brown New Balance and they’re as nondescript as can be.
No one dresses up for improv. It’s usually people in a polo shirt, t‑shirt, a pair of khakis and jeans.
It varies by theater. At UCB, the vibe has always been like, “Be you on stage.” The audience wants you. Whereas when I was at iO West, this came from the Chicago theater scene, there was a little more of like, “No. This is theater. It’s a performance, put on slacks and a button-down. They came to see you. Don’t look like a schlub.” Whereas in UCB is like, “You’re a schlub. You can’t un-schlub.” For me, King of the Schlubs, it’s an OCD thing. It’s not even a performance choice. I have OCD and when I was 21, I put on a pair of cargo camo shorts and it clicked in a way that I cannot explain to anybody other than saying it’s love at first sight. When I was 21, I wore them every day. They feel like second skin. When I’m not wearing them, I feel uncomfortable.
How many do you have?
It gets washed more regularly than you would think but not as regularly as you would hope. I get one pair that lasts about a year and I go get another one. It’s ritualistic.
It’s a way to your burn rate down. I couldn’t tell you what the other members that they wear the same thing all the time. Part of it because I know you and got to know you early that I notice the cargo shorts. Do people comment on your cargo shorts?
Yes. With the shirts, if I’m wearing anything other than a solid color, I feel like my shirt is screaming at me. If you were wearing a shirt with a graphic on the front or anything else, it wouldn’t bother me. It wouldn’t bother you. If I was wearing that same shirt that didn’t bother me on you, I would spend the whole day feeling like my chest was screaming at me.
I may be able to help you a little bit with this. There’s this research on what’s called the Spotlight Effect.
Imagine you had a horrifying stain on your shirt. Everybody notices it and everybody sees it also. These researchers thought, “You’re probably overly concerned about this.” We feel like we have a spotlight on us. The people notice these things and make us self-conscious.
You make an error in conversation. You think about it incessantly and nobody else even notices it and they don’t even remember it.
In order to test this idea, they ran this experiment and they actually used a t‑shirt. It was a Barry Manilow shirt. What happens is you get a group of five or six people or whatever it is. They’re sitting around a table and they’re having some conversation about something. Before the experiment, they essentially randomly assigned one of the people who was sitting around the table to wear a Barry Manilow t‑shirt.
As you might imagine, if you’re undergraduate, this is a horrifying thing. This is a nightmare. They don’t tell anybody that this has happened. They have this conversation and at the end of the conversation, everybody fills out surveys. One of the questions in the survey is, “Did anybody have any unusual shirt on? Did you see a Barry Manilow shirt? Did you see these other kinds of things?” You can measure whether people noticed this person’s Barry Manilow shirt. If you ask the person how many people noticed the Barry Manilow shirt, what they basically say is, “Everybody noticed that. All they were doing was staring at the Barry Manilow shirt.” What you end up finding out is when you ask people, “Was someone wearing a Barry Manilow shirt? Yes or no?” One person might have noticed it.
Even then, they’re going, “That one person had a shirt.”
What’s happening is all everybody’s thinking about is themselves.
Everyone’s dealing with all this in here.
It makes us a little bit too self-conscious because we care about ourselves but everybody cares about themselves since we don’t have to be as self-conscious. It’s that paradoxical element to it.
The next time you see me, I’ll be wearing a three-piece suit with a top hat, “I’m going to be the mayor of Hollywood. It’s going to be my new role.”
I wouldn’t make that sartorial choice. One thing I do like about it as someone who runs hot. I like that it’s cool and comfortable.
I’m always sweaty. I was on the East Coast in Lawrence, Massachusetts, visiting my daughter. When I left LA, it was probably 55 to 60 degrees here. The day I got to Massachusetts, it was nine degrees. I was wearing the exact same thing. All I changed was I put on a beanie for a hat. There were more people in shorts on the East Coast in that weather than there were in LA. LA was better bundled up than Massachusetts. It was wild.
I want to wrap up with a couple of questions or comments and get your reaction to this. In this chapter where I lean heavily on improv, I talk about how important it is for people to collaborate in order to make something. You can have genius ideas as an individual but if you want to execute it, you need other people. In that way, the rules of improv are useful. They help you get along and make things. I had Will Hines on the show.
I’m a big fan of Will, but I can’t say it publicly so screw that guy. He’s brilliant. He understands improv probably 10,000 times. He’s forgotten more about it than I will ever know.
He’s something else. He’s on The Smokes, which is a Monday night show.
For years, he was the Head of UCB’s training facility. He was the Head of Curriculum.
I was talking to him about how much I like this idea that we’re all a supporting actor. We’re part of improv. We’ve alluded to it. If you’re going to criticize someone else, you need to criticize yourself because no one acts alone or at least fully alone. I was talking about my love of gifting, and he’s like, “Gifting is not that important.” I was like, “What is?” He says, “Listening.” If you’ve lived life, you know how hard it is to listen.
It’s because it’s that spotlight effect. You’re going, “I have something brilliant to add. I can’t wait to talk.” It does take a while to not be waiting for your turn to speak.
What’s happening in an improv scene, in particular, the stuff is unfolding. If you’re paying attention to what you’re going to say, you missed.
You’re missing all the details.
Which is what you should be responding to.
Will would say, “Someone won’t need to give you a gift if you’re paying attention to them.” The implication of what they’re saying should be self-evident if you’re paying close attention.
You’re an improviser and you’ve done teaching. If someone wants to become a better listener, how do they do it besides setting an intention to listen?
You have to actively do it. That’s the thing. People think listening is a passive thing. You sit and listen. There’s an exercise I would do an improv class, which is one of the more insufferable actor warm-up exercises that anyone will ever do. It’s truly helpful for listening. It’s where you get the whole group of people in the classroom. Sixteen people are how many are there that day to stand together with their heads down and count to twenty as a group. In this exercise, what normally happens is, normally everybody in the group tops at eight or nine and they get frustrated. What they’ll start doing is they’ll start spring loading stuff. You’ll get people who are like, I’m the eleventh guy.” As soon as someone says ten, I’m going to say eleven right away. When you call that out that that exercise is obviously a specific microcosm.
To make sure it’s clear and people understand what it is. The goal is if I say one, someone else’s two. If two people say four the same time you go back to one. Sometimes it clicks and you get right to twenty and everybody’s celebrating. Sometimes it gets painful. You think, “We might be here all day.”
I was the instructor who would hang them out until they did it. I would absolutely be like, “No.” If they got it too quickly, I would be like, “Spell Brontosaurus.” The idea with the exercise is you’re counting to twenty as a group. You got these people who are so fixated on the goal of getting to twenty that they try to game the system a little bit. They go like, “I’m not going to say anything except eleven and as soon as I say, eleven, I’m done.” What you need to do in those situations is point out, “When you’re doing that spring loading a response, you’re not actually listening.” When you point that out, what you find is the exercise relaxes.
Once you tell them the goal is not to get to twenty, the goal is to say the next number without stepping on anybody’s toes, all of a sudden, people can count to 50 or 60 without even thinking about it. I presume not everybody has a group of sixteen people who are willing to sit around and listen to an instructor misquote Alan Watts at them. I do think that there’s this feeling in a conversation a lot of the time, where you’re trying to get to a goal. The most efficient use of your time is going to be to get to those goals as fast as possible. It’s completely false. You can’t be where you’re not, you’re here and you’re now. That’s the only thing you can say with any certainty.
The more that you can focus on the moment and even if you do have a brilliant idea, ignore it. This is something you have to do on stage where it’s like, “That idea is great but if it’s not the right moment for it, it doesn’t matter.” There has to be a goodness of fit between the idea and the moment in which it happens. The good improvisers are the ones who will shut their trap until the right idea pops up at the right moment. In general listening, something I try is if my thought was that brilliant and it’s that relevant, the conversation will circle back around to it. It will be valid one minute or five minutes. If it wasn’t, it’ll be irrelevant. Why hang on to it? It was something for me as an improviser that was difficult to learn but has been useful overall. Particularly, if you’re ever in a heated disagreement or something like that, the ability to go, “This idiot is wrong but if I’m correct, they’ll be wrong in the same way in five minutes.” I could stick it to them.
I’m working on it.
This show, I’m not going to say I’m shuttering it, but I’m winding it down and I’m trying to focus on some other things. Obviously, all the episodes are going to stay up. If I have some opportunity, I’m going to continue to do it. My goal was always to do 100. It might have been to 50 and to do another 50.
You did a stretch goal.If you’re going to criticize someone else, you need to criticize yourself because no one acts alone. Click To Tweet
Part of the reason I chose to do this was to learn a new skill, which was, I’m good at being interviewed. I’ve had lots of experience. How could I become a better facilitator, listeners and so on? I’ve gotten better but I still have a long way to go as we do with anything. The one thing I do well is I’m good at remembering and bringing things back. We haven’t covered that because as an audience, it’s annoying if you leave something hanging. They’re like, “I want to know about that thing.”
I dated a woman once who phrased it well. She said, “I don’t like open parentheses.” I was like, “I’m stealing that.”
The other thing, speaking of Will Hines and Billy Merritt, Billy was another genius. I’ve had a lot of UCB people on. The fact that you’re here so late is mildly embarrassing. Billy had this taxonomy. He and Will wrote this book, Pirate, Robot, Ninja. I encourage people to read those episodes because we talk deeply about Pirate, Robot, Ninja. It also shows up to Shtick to Business. You can correct me if I get this wrong. Essentially, the idea is that they’re these two general styles of improvisers. You’re either one or the other at the beginning of your career, so to speak. You’re either this swashbuckling, swinging in, a tornado of person who walks out first and is big.
Giant characters, big physicality and a big voice.
That’s the pirate obviously or you’re a robot, which is much more analytical. It does a little bit of more of backup work and so on.
The connective tissue, an important role.
As Billy says, “You can’t have a team of pirates. You can’t have a team of robots. You need both.” The robots are a little more cerebral and they’re guiding so on so forth. The ultimate goal, whether you’re a pirate a robot, is to become a ninja. I can be a pirate when I need to be and I can be a robot when I need to be. I will serve the scene. I’ll serve the team as needed.
A team of ninjas is the ultimate goal for every team, 100%.
First of all, what was your reaction to that idea? What are you?
The idea, in general, is super useful and Billy would agree with me on this. I don’t want to put words in his mouth. It’s one of those ideas because it breaks things down so cleanly into those three categories. It runs the risk of oversimplifying things for students. I’m a big fan of Adam Curtis’ documentaries and his whole thing is like, “The world is super complex. We make simple models of it but we forget that the model is not the world. The map is not the territory.” It’s a great map. Pirate, Robot, Ninja is a fantastic map. I do think there are gradients in between there and Billy would absolutely agree.
It’s not categorized.
I don’t think that’s it but I do think that in the same way that Yes, and is a blunt force rule. It’s not a scalpel for every moment. It is a great way to sort things into buckets to start making more sense of it. The reason we make simple models is you can’t jump straight into the more complex models. You’ve got to have those toe holds and once you have that framework, it lets you build more complex things off of it and it’s a fantastic framework.
With that said, what are you?
I was a pirate in my younger days with robot tendencies. I’d like to think that I’m not a ninja yet. A ninja is rare. I can think of one true ninja. Maybe two in my opinion. One of the ninjas is on The Smokes. His name is Brian Gallivan. I’ve never seen somebody so comfortable with sitting on the backline, almost to the risk of not getting to perform in the show at all but will come forward with one line that will button the scene so perfectly that it’s the move talking about the rest of the night.
I would think that’s ninja-like.
I was thinking about a ninja as a robot role.
The core bias you have to overcome when you’re doing improv is the scene probably doesn’t need you. It’s a lot of fun. You’re looking for a way to get in on it because it looks like fun with your friends. Fundamentally, half the time doesn’t need you. That’s not to say that’s not any mark on the royal you but nine times out of ten, the reason you want to step off the backline is not for the scenes’ sake, it’s for your sake.
Ninjas are good at playing selflessly and going, “If the scene doesn’t need me, I’m going to hang out on the backline that way, I’m ready to jump in if something unexpected comes up.” When you come off the backline, you’re making a tradeoff. You’re establishing yourself as a part of the world and un-establishing that to reestablish something new if this he needs it. It’s much more difficult and much harder to pull off and much more difficult for an audience to stomach. Whereas, if you’re not part of that world and all of a sudden, something’s called for and you’re able and ready to be there, that’s great but you run the risk of not getting to be part of that fun scene or show. I don’t think I’m a ninja yet. I still have too much fun with the swashbuckling moments. When a scene is going well, it’s too reflective for me. After many years of teaching to go like, “It needs these three things and I can provide them in this way.”
I’m going to mildly disagree with you. Since I’ve watched you do a lot of improv, I feel like you do pick your spots a lot, especially with that strong team. You have a more ninja quality than you might think. If apply this model to life, it’s useful. Sometimes someone else is the star of the show or this meeting. It’s their thing. Sometimes you’re the one who has to go, “Can you tell me more about that?” Business doesn’t always reward that. Business rewards the person who’s taking all the credit. You want to solve problems.
Improv has the same type of ninja blindness. For years I sat on the committee at UCB that would run auditions for the house teams and pick improvisers. A discussion we would have actively have is, “This person made a big flashy move and this person didn’t. This person might be doing the better improv specifically because they did not do something.” It’s the thing that we would have to tell students. Your temptation when you go into an audition is going to make sure that you’re memorable. You need to trust that the people watching you know improv good enough to catch the moments that aren’t flashy. Certainly, in the early days, you’d have these teams of all pirates because it would be four people running auditions. You look at 200 people and catch a couple of pirates and put them all on the team and those teams would fail. You would have to go like, “You need people who are capable of building the foundation so that somebody can jump off the edge.”
I love that idea. Will and I talked about improv being a lot like basketball, not baseball, where you can have all pirates in baseball because it’s the sum of everybody’s performance. It’s why All-Star games or rookie games aren’t always that great because everybody’s trying to shoot the ball. In the world of basketball, you need some people to rebound, move the ball, pass, defend and do all these kinds of things. I like the idea that you have to be aware that the best improviser might not be doing something. That’s fascinating. That’s good. Last question. Alex, what are you reading watching or listening to that’s outstanding and good? Not run in the mill good but people should know about.
I’ll tell you why I laughed because what I’m reading that I’m enjoying but I can’t recommend to anybody else because it’s a robot book. I’m reading the World Atlas of Jellyfish, a 1,000-page manifesto compiling all the scyphozoans of the world with photos and different breakdowns. I’m genuinely loving it. I saw this book on a science website as being not a “This book came out,” but, “These researchers worked on this book about jellyfish.” I was like, “A book about jellyfish. I’ll look it up.” It’s this hard hardcover and weighs 1,000 pounds. It’s so fascinating but I wouldn’t recommend that for a general read.
That’s good, but I want to know what you think is good and that meets the criterion?
What am I watching?
Except for Barry.
Barry is fantastic. I watched this and I was late to the party on this, but it’s one of the best seasons of comedy I’ve ever seen is American Vandal on Netflix. It’s brilliant. It’s basically a true-crime documentary. Set at a high school where the crime is somebody spray-painted a male private part on a car. They take it so seriously that you get invested in the mystery of who did it with all the red herrings and false leads. They hew to all the tropes of that genre.
Is this a series?
There are two seasons of it. I’ve only seen the first season.
The first season is the male private part on a car and the second season is different.
I don’t know if there’s a third season but the second season somebody puts laxatives in the cafeteria food and everybody gets diarrhea. It was a different high school and they were so impressed with the documentary about the spray-painted male part, that they hired the same students to come to solve the crime. He works with the tropes, but also the acting is phenomenal. It feels you’re watching high school kids. It feels true to that.
Can I ask a question because I’m not into these true crime movies, so you don’t need to be?
You need to have seen one at some point in your life. It’s done it as the best reference where if you get the reference of what they’re referring to trope wise, it adds to it. If you don’t get it, it goes over your head.
I see what you mean. It’s like the children’s cartoons that have adult jokes in them.
I remember watching Bugs Bunny when I was a kid going, “What is meatless Tuesday?” As I’m getting older, I’m like, “He’s making a joke about rationing red meat during World War II.”
Alex, I can’t even say persistence because it’s not you were asking me to be on here. Thank you for your patience.
This was great fun. Thanks for having me.
- Alex Berg
- iO West
- Will Hines – Previous Episode
- Billy Merritt – Previous Episode
- Pirate, Robot, Ninja
- World Atlas of Jellyfish
About Alex Berg
Alex Berg is an LA-based comedian, actor, writer, and producer. Before coming to LA, he studied psychology at Vassar College. You may have seen him on Terriers, The Goldbergs, and Reno! 911. He is a team member of UCB mainstays Convoy or Sentimental Lady. I am a regular audience member of the Saturday Night Sentimental Lady show called Guilty Pleasures.
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