Billy has been a performer, teacher, and director with the UCB Theatre since it first opened in New York. He is a founding member of improv groups The Swarm, and The Stepfathers in New York, and The Smokes in Los Angeles. His TV credits include Reno 911, Law and Order, Workaholics, Happy Endings, Weeds, Parks and Rec., and Brooklyn Nine-Nine. Billy was the host of “Uncorked”, a food, wine and travel show.
Listen to Episode #46 here:
Talking Pirates And Robots with Billy Merritt
My guest is Billy Merritt. Billy has been a performer, teacher and director with the UCB Theater since it first opened in New York. He’s a founding member of improv groups, The Swarm and The Stepfathers in New York and The Smokes in Los Angeles. His TV credits include Reno 911, Law and Order, Workaholics, Happy Endings, Weeds, Parks and Rec, and Brooklyn Nine-Nine. Billy was the host of Uncorked with Billy Merritt, a food, wine and travel show. Welcome, Billy.
Thank you for having me.
If you weren’t working in comedy, what would you be doing?
I feel I’d be owning a sports bar in Florida about now. I was a restaurant manager. I started later on in life. I would say my late twenties, I started taking acting lessons in comedy and doing stuff like that. Before then, I was a franchise manager where we opened up restaurants from city to city. I grew up in Florida, so I figured the Florida sports bar scene is where I would be out.
Do you feel wistful about that alternative life?
I came back from a two-week vacation. I will say this, “I am ready and prepared to retire and go back to Florida and I know how to do it.” When I hit my 70s and 80s, I’m going to be a great early bird diner. That’s my life now. I love that stuff.
Are you an early riser now?
Yeah, I’m doing all the old man stuff now. I’m making the pre-old man stuff when you start noticing you’re doing the old man stuff and you start telling people that you’re doing it.
I’ve got a few of those little things. Managing a restaurant is hard. Comedy is hard.
It’s multitasking all the time. You have to be thinking two things at the same time. You have to put on a smiley face no matter what’s going on.
It sounds a lot like improv.
It is very much like improv. That’s why I bled into that. It’s probably why I veered towards improv as opposed to stand up. When I had the choice and I was doing both, I found improv to be more of a team effort. I enjoy working with teams a little bit more.
What’s fascinating is where you decide to live can have these unintended consequences. You were working in New York. If you want to get trained in the improv, when you did this, there are three places in the world you could get it.
I started theater down in Florida and that’s where I met my improv wife, Michael Delaney, who I’ve known for 25, almost 30 years when we got together. We were friends in theater school who both love Second City in SCTV and Weed. We created our own improv group for the first time. It got to the point where we’re actors, but we preferred improv. We were told by our teacher, “You’ve got to get out of West Palm Beach. There’s so much you can do there.” We had a big discussion, “Are we going to go to Chicago and study improv or are we going to go to New York and study acting and improve?”
New York was where we wanted to go. Chicago is where we knew we should go because that’s where the improv schools are that are famous. We got in at a school in New York, which made us make the decision. It was called the National Improv Theater. This was in the mid-‘90s. We moved from West Palm. Our whole group we played down south. I would say four of us moved up to New York. I want to say all in the same van, but not really. We got involved with this theater who accepted us with open arms are a little weird. We figured that’s New York. They gave us jobs right away, selling classes for ESL. We think this is the greatest thing in the world. They started teaching us and because we were working, we’re getting classes for free. Everything was going well. I’d say about three months in we found out they were Scientologists. Nothing wrong with that. They’re very well organized. They taught a good class but we found after a year it was like, “This isn’t for us. We had to need to move on.”
This is the first Scientology story I’ve heard about New York City.
Here in LA, it’s pretty strong.
I know it right across the street from UCB Franklin in that big house building.
Celebrity Centre, that’s what they call them. My experience to that is not bitterness but, “Now I get it. I know what you guys are about. It’s not what I’m about.” We all moved on and run our own for a while until UCB moved into town. I would think that’s what ‘96, ‘97. We were thirsting for a style of improv called long form improvisation. We were wanting to do this form called the Herald. We couldn’t find anybody to teach it in New York or the people that we did, didn’t know what they were teaching. The UCB moved here and they blew up. They were like a bomb. Everybody started taking their workshops.
I have a bias. I’m a UCB guy.Framing the game is what the unusual part of the scene is about. This is what the comedy is going to be built on. Click To Tweet
I can see you’ve got the UCB sweatshirt and a hat.
I’ve only taken 101 and 201 as an intensive here. I’ve dabbled a tiny bit with like one-offs, droppings in various places, but you guys do it well. From the handbook to the approach to the classes to the focus on comedy, which I think is fun, which I didn’t know that there were differences among the different styles of teaching in terms of to the degree that comedy is at the forefront.
I would even say within the UCB there are different styles. We all agree on game. I see the game of the scene is what connects us all. I always tell my students when I first learned, I learned through the UCB for Amy, Matt, Matt, and Ian. I took multiple workshops with each of them until they turned into classes. What I was amazed at is they come from different approaches. Their comedy is totally different.
UCB was founded by four people. Can you tell us a little bit about the origins story?
Matt Besser, Ian Roberts, Amy Poehler who is with Matt Walsh, the forgettable one. They started in Chicago. That was actually a much bigger group. Horatio Sanz and Adam McKay, I believe was also in UCB when they were in Chicago. They met at IO. They became a sketch group. They weren’t an improv group. They were sketch group. They were all parts of different improv groups. They came to New York. Their goal was to get a sketch show on Comedy Central. From what I understood in order for them to pay rent, they’ve started doing workshops. They had no idea how thirsty New York was. It blew up to the point where it’s like, “Let’s keep doing that.” It turned into this monster.
People kept coming because it’s such a logical approach to how to find what’s funny in a scene. What I discovered by watching them is here we have four different people with completely different approaches to comedy, yet they all agree on one thing and that is the game of the scene, what’s funny of that scene. They build out of it. I tend to say more in class now it’s more organic or more premise-based. Take a word and go would be an organic version of improv? Whereas premise-based would maybe hear a monologue and develop ideas from that monologue and honor that in your scenes.
This is terrible to say. I can’t say that I shine as an improviser. Those monologues, that’s where I feel most comfortable.
Telling monologues or getting ideas off of monologues.
It’s only because I’m a professor. This is something I do all the time. I can keep it short. I feel very comfortable doing monologues. Everything else, I’m still.
Have you done storytelling?
Only around the dinner table with friends.
I started doing storytelling shows. I have not been involved with The Moth, but that’s on the list of things to do. I find them challenging and a lot more fun than stand-up and rewarding once you’ve told that story on stage. I did it because my monologues aren’t good. Monologues are very fast or I don’t know when to stop talking. I had to get better at it.
I was commenting on how I’m over watching standup as a scientist who studies comedy. I’m too analytical. I can turn off with improv enough. I know the rules now. I know what the Harold a long form game or a long form scene is supposed to do but I can sit back and enjoy it.
Not worry about the process.
That said, you guys make it look easy.
You have these four kinds of people with different approaches. They start to formalize this UCB method for lack of a better term. This turns into a theater and then also a school in New York and the school here in Los Angeles, which you instruct at.
I teach here and perform. The other reason why they wanted to open up that theater is because at that time I tell the kids this all the time, in my day if you wanted to do a show you had to rent a cabaret space or you had to do a bringer show, which means you couldn’t try stuff out. You couldn’t allow yourself to be vulnerable enough to fail on stage unless you’re doing stand-up open mics or something like that. As far as sketch show or improv, there was no such thing in the ‘90s that I know of.
A safe place to experiment.
That’s what their theater was when it first opened. I think that’s what’s said, “This is my home.” That’s a home theater and that’s what drew a lot of people. They’re redoing that now with the Inner Sanctum. They’re bringing that back.
Is this over at Sunset?
The Sunset is the complex classrooms, writers’ rooms, conference rooms and offices, and downstairs is the main theater. There’s a coffee shop on the side that opens up into a big open cavernous. It’s not a great space but a good space. The idea there is I tell my students, it’s like, “You’re paying for this class, but you’re also paying for the chance to get onstage. Every night of the week, there’s either an improv jam, a storytelling jam, open mic, open sketch, a chance to get up there.
It makes sense. I have to tell you, doing 101 and 201 is intensive. I’m a professor.
What is that like? That’s a lot of information back-to-back.
I have to tell you that I’d loved it. Rarely have I slept that well.
What does that mean?
One is three hours for four days a week. You’re on your feet. You’re moving. You’re using your brain. You’re active. You’re also laughing a lot. You’re smiling. You’re laughing. There’s this camaraderie that you develop pretty quickly with that group. It’s play. Improv is play. It’s a game. You used the word game. Whether it be playing sports or making up games and life as a kid. As adults, we improvise a lot, but we don’t improvise in a fun way as much as we could benefit from. I loved it. It stretched me. I laugh a decent amount already. I like being the old guy in the room. It’s a pretty young group for those daytime like these are often twenty-something. A lot of wannabe actors/actors. There’s energy. These are people who are chasing their dreams. They’re ambitious. They’re creative. They’re interesting. I loved it. I think it’s great.
I do teach those 101 intensives and coming from New York, I was so full of myself because I’m a fantastic teacher. I would only teach advanced study. It’s like there’s no advanced as or what have you got? I’ll teach it. Now I think every teacher must teach 101 and 201.
Why is that?
Because it makes you get back to your roots, number one. Number two, people in 101 in LA are talented. Not that New York are not talented, but there are actors and comedians that are good at what they do. They want to learn a certain style. I feel the classes are elevated here. I’ve never had a bad 101 class. That’s not true but let’s say for the most part.
There were people in the class. I was like, “That dude has it. That woman has it.”
Was there an Australian in the class?
I don’t think there was an Aussie, no.
There’s always one Aussie in an intensive.
I think I may take the 201 over because I’m coming here for a sabbatical next year. I’m going to do the full slate of UCB. I’m going to take a sketch writing class. I’m going to try to do 301 and 401. I think I’ll retake 201.
Why is that?
It will have been a couple of years since I’ve done it. In 201, you teach game. I want you for the audience to talk a little bit about game. To me, I feel like that is like shooting in basketball. If you want to become an elite basketball player, it’s very difficult to do it if you can’t shoot. You can do it, but it’s very hard. I feel like if you want to become an elite improviser, it helps to get game. To me doing it a second time, I don’t feel like it’s a step back in any way.
It’s also unfair. It took me two years to feel comfortable enough with game to not think about it and play it. We’re asking people in two weeks or in an eight-week course to get game or they feel that they must know it by then. It’s like, “No, you’ve got the idea of what the game of the scene is, but it’s going to take a while for it to get into your system.”
Talk about what game is.
This is something I always ask every class, “What do you guys think game is?” They’re all right.Some of us are more impulsive with our creativity. Click To Tweet
I believe game is the unusual thing with the justification.
That’s a biggie. That’s something that I push. No matter what level, I’ll say this in every single class because you’ve got to hear it over and over again, and that is a good scene, has a base reality. Somewhere in America, this is happening right now. That’s how you know this is truthful. Look at what’s going on in America. You have a tremendous amount of freedom in your base reality. It doesn’t have to be boring. It has to be real so that the unusual can appear out of that. That has to be called out so everybody, you, your scene partner, everybody on your team and the audience all know that this is what’s the unusual thing.
You say it has to be called out. What do you mean by that?
Another term is framing the game. We were using that example in the book is this is what the unusual part of the scene is about. This is what our comedy is going to be built on.
The 101 teaches people how to do base reality. The 201 teaches you how to identify the unusual thing and justify it. When you say identify, does it mean act where you’re going?
It’s different every single scene. That’s a good question because I say it in that order, but it’s not in that order. Basically, it’s base reality. Call out the unusual. Justify if that, then what else? Edit. Is every scene like that? No, never is a scene like that. You got to say it in some order. What I’ll have my class do is come to me with your favorite sketches online, your YouTube sketches. Watch it not once but ten times so you’re not laughing and you’re seeing the technique. Explain to me where the unusual is. What’s the base reality there? How did the unusual appear? When did it happen? How did it justify? How do they repeat or write jokes off of that?
Maybe it will be helpful to have an example. I was watching Sentimental Lady. This is one of the House teams at UCB here in Los Angeles. It was Bangarang. Bangarang is going to be interesting because we’re going to talk about your taxonomy. I think they have an overrepresentation one type of improviser.
I was their first coach when they were at Harold. I’m responsible.
They are tremendously entertaining. There was this one scene. It was a grandma and it was a grandson. It was her favorite grandson. She kept asking him to do these very ridiculous things like shave her in inappropriate areas and the whole thing. Having a grandma make these unusual requests is your unusual thing.
You don’t have to go, “There’s a smell. This is weird.” The audience sees that this is weird.
The justification was, “You’re my favorite grandchild.” The grandchild couldn’t say no because this is his favorite grandparent. They had this bond. His behavior was justified in this way and then the rest of the Bangarang members recognized this. For instance at one point, he was reluctantly doing the shaving. Someone brought candles and put them out and lit them. Someone put on like Marvin Gaye. What would that be called?
The heightening, scenic layering, back wall support or we use the term blow out the world. Once you got the game, you’re thinking off the back wall, “That’s the unusual. If that then what else?” The candles, Marvin Gaye, now that is turning it into clearly a bangarang of a sexy grandma.
I was tickled by this. It was hilarious. It obviously doesn’t translate to me describing it in a podcast, but it gives that element.
The core of that, what you did in that scene is in every comedy scene you ever see.
If you’re on YouTube, you watch this thing ten times, you asked your students to do what?
Analyze it. Any video sketch, the base reality is set immediately with an establishing shot. We don’t have that formality. We have to literally verbalize and show it. We do have to take a little step back before we get into that scene. The idea is what’s the base reality? How did the unusual come to play? How do they call out the unusual? I always use the example of Kids in the Hall was the sketch group that I watched as I was coming up through the system learning. There’s a great sketch called Citizen Kane. The establishing shot is two friends at a coffee shop. The reality-base is set as the camera opens up, who they are, where they are, somewhere in North America. This is happening right now.
The justification was before the unusual by going, “I saw a great movie by Orson Welles yesterday. I can’t remember.” You never know how something sticks on your tongue. That’s the justification. Give me a few clues and maybe I’ll know what it is while he was in it himself. It’s his big movie, Citizen Kane, no. The rest of the sketch is established. The justification is that’s that annoying little tick that’s so universal. What was wonderful about it is game goes on forever because it kept going. I don’t want to giveaway Citizen Kane, but if you haven’t seen it now that’s too bad for you.
Rosebud is the name of the sled. That’s Citizen Kane. It heightens to the point where the straight man loses it and finally goes, “It’s Citizen Kane.” He grabs a fork and stabs him in the hand. The weird move was done by the straight man, not the crazy man. That feels like that’s the big payoff, heightened to the point of absurdity. There was a big laugh and then the guy felt bad and says, “I’m going to have to get up.” What are those things called with the lights on the top? An ambulance, no. It goes on. I saw that several years ago. I said, “That’s the game of the scene.” The justification made it about that, and that is how we all do those stupid things.
The same exact game with a different justification later that night on The Daily Show when Stephen Colbert was still on. Jon Stewart throws doors, senior correspondent in front of the Pyramids of Egypt. Stephen Colbert goes, “Hi, Jon. I’m here at the famous triangle buildings of Cairo.” “I think those are the pyramids.” “No, Jon. They’re not.” That’s ignorance or arrogance. That’s a different justification. Justification is theme. Justification will get you like in the Harold first beat to second beat. You can do analogous second beats.
I’m fascinated by the model. I’ve spent ten years studying what makes things funny. For me, my biggest puzzle was why is improv funny? I was in 101 or 201. I can’t remember which one it was. It might have been 201. I figured it out.
The thing that’s funny is game, the justified unusual thing. In my world, it’s a benign violation. It’s something that’s wrong yet okay. It’s something that is threatening yet safe. It’s something that doesn’t make sense yet make sense. It’s simultaneously conflict and comfort. To me, what I didn’t realize was benign violation and a justified unusual thing are the same thing. There was a difference. What we’re looking for is a thing that’s wrong yet okay. It’s wrong to have your grandma ask you to do these sensitive things, but it’s okay because you love each other so much. You trust each other so much. It’s wrong to call the pyramids a triangle building, but it’s okay if you’re so filled with hubris and you’re a bit of a dummy.
That’s the beginning. That’s the truth. From there, you can heighten to the absurdity. It can go anywhere. I feel that’s what justification does. Do you think empathy is a connection there?
To me, I think of these kinds of levers that magnify or distance from that. People regularly talk about comedy is tragedy plus time. To me though, comedy is tragedy plus the right amount of time. What time does is it removes the threat. When you were experiencing tragedy at the moment, it’s hard to laugh about it. The passage of time allows it to become more benign. Too much time turns it completely benign. There are certainly bad things that happen in the world that you can’t make jokes about anymore. They’re so distant that they don’t have the punch anymore. To me, empathy is a different version of that either closeness or distance. Empathy can either heighten the excitement and arousal and fun or too much can actually make it uncomfortable like cringe-worthy.
I noticed that moving.
Highly empathic people struggle with Larry David and George Costanza. It’s too much.
The first TV show paid work I ever did was a show called Boiling Points on MTV. Three seasons, I shot as a prank show. It’s about getting people so angry and the premises, if they don’t get angry at a certain amount of time, we give them a $100. We want them to get angry. This is the opposite of what I want to do ever in my life.
You want to make people laugh?
I don’t want this to happen. I would say the first year I shot that show, it was ulcers. I was nervous about it. I didn’t want to do this, but it’s my first job as a TV job. I’ve got to take it. By the second year, I was okay with it. By the third year, it’s like, “Who do you want me to fuck up? I don’t care anymore.”
You were an actor. You were one of the people getting people.
It’s a show that I did that I would never watch is what I’m saying. I had a big conflict with who am I. Why am I doing this? That was an empathy thing to me. I made the realization why use empathy in class to talk about connecting with the audience while you’re onstage. In other words, short form, you play short form games like party quirks and you improvise at the audience. You’re throwing jokes at the audience. You see them. There is ironic detachment and you have a nod and a wink to the audience. A long form improv, the reason why I fell in love with it is there’s a fourth wall. It’s representational theater. It’s real enough that the audience goes, “Yeah, I know that. I know that grandma.” You got them on board, then you hit them with a comedy. The empathy connection is that justification of how you would do that to your grandma. Once the audience is on board, then you bring out the Marvin Gaye and the sexy candles in there. It’s too late for the audience. They’re like, “No. I’ll laugh at that, but I don’t approve of it.”
Some of this will sound familiar to the audience because I had an improviser and an instructor named Jeremy Sender on. He talked a little bit about the differences between iO and The Groundlings. To recap, base reality, the justification, the unusual thing, if this is true then what else is true?
Calling out the game and then justifying the game. If that, then what else?
He brought up your name. One of the things that you have done is talked about the different styles or types of improvisers that exists. Within a scene, people play different roles. You’ve already alluded to this idea of the straight person and the crazy person. Crazy straight is a common one. Talk a little bit about this taxonomy. What do you call it?
Are you talking about Pirate Robot?
Pirate Robot Ninja, yes.
It’s evolved over time. It’s interesting that you call it. We’ve wrapped the book. We finished writing the book. When I first started teaching, I’ve discovered that certain people take improv differently. Some people feel the Improv, some people have to think about it. It goes back to the left side of the brain, the right side of the brain theory of some of us are more analytical with our creativity. Some of us are more impulsive with our creativity. I’m clearly much more impulsive. “Let’s get out there and do it. If we fuck up, we learn and we get better.”
I’m on the more analytical side.
A lot of people feel that at first. You’ll find out. Some of us have to take it in analytically like, “What’s this move?” The idea behind it is you can’t teach improv one way. It’s got to be taught differently for different people or you have to realize it’s two things at the same time. I always use with the stomach and the head.
Rub your belly, pat your head.You have to be thinking with both sides of your brain. In order to do that, you have to know where you're coming from in the first place. Click To Tweet
You have to be thinking with both sides of your brain but in order to do that, you have to know where you’re coming from in the first place. Accept that you’re analytical, accept that you’re impulsive. Using those words are big words for comedy folk. We tend to like other words like pirate and robots. They are a lot more fun. The audience is clasp and pays attention then. The idea is to shore up your strengths, be good at what you’re good at. Don’t try to work on the other side without shoring that up.
Once you’re comfortable in your world, like for me, once I’m comfortable knowing that I’m a pirate, I can get out there. I have no fear. I bathed in the blood of the game. I’m not worried about that. I don’t think I feel now I can focus on my thinking. That’s why I said before, it took me two years to get a game. In the book, we’re talking about what was the biggest note you got to say that you’re a pirate? We’re working on a swarm show. We’re doing a thing called amano scene, which is one 30-minute scene with entrances and exits. It took place in a nursing home. I came in thinking it’d be great if I were a tornado and twirl around and threw everybody to the ground. You laughed and I laughed but the director, Kevin Mullaney said, “Did you have to be a tornado in a nursing home?” It’s like, “I see what you’re saying.” That’s way overboard pirate. It’s funny but it doesn’t help anybody.
The pirate is emotional, impulsive and fast.
They’re grounded. They know where they are. They’re fearless. They get out there first, they provide the win for the sales, and they provide the energy. If you’re all pirate, it’s a terrible show. It’s a whole bunch of tornadoes on screen.
That becomes crazy.
The other side is the robot side and a lot of us tend to be more analytical, especially if you gravitate towards UCB style. Once you get into 201, it’s all robot anyways because you’re thinking. The robot analyzes things and decides this is what needs to be done. A robot sees the pattern and creates the pattern, makes the connections, adds all the color for the scene and makes it work. The straight men, if you will, the voice of reason, the justifier.
Jeremy brought this up to me. I hadn’t heard about it before that. I read some of your writing. I started watching.
I got high when I wrote whatever I wrote.
It was good. I started watching like these old ASSSSCAT videos and trying to pick out who was playing the pirate, who’s playing the robot and so on. You had talked about backline support. Is that a robotic thing to do?
It could be either/or like my tornado move was a backline move. Backline meaning I came off the back wall and iO will be coming off the sides the same thing. The type of support work you do clearly the robot does a better job of it. The robot frames the game. Let’s us know what is unusual. The robot moves it forward.
There’s this idea of painting scenes so someone is like clouds coming in or something like that. Is that a robotic thing to do?
It can be. If you think to do it and you fill out that world, the trick is and this is where it gets all confusing because this theory has evolved, is you’re not a pirate, a robot or a ninja. You find out where you are either the pirate or robots. Are you more impulsive? Are you more analytical? Own it, work on your other side until you find balance, and then become the ninja, the ultimate improviser. After ten years of this, you better be a ninja. You’re going to have pirate tendencies but you know when a scene needs a straight man. You know when a scene needs to go crazy. A ninja comes in, steers the scene where it needs to go and then leaves when it doesn’t. They don’t need to be there anymore. That’s the idea.
Let me make sure I understand this. The pirate is the impulsive, fearless, risk-taking role. The robot is the more analytical, a little colder, calculated, what needs to be fixed or fitted here. If you’re one or the other, you first develop that strength and then you work on shoring up the weakness. If you’re able to be successful, you become a ninja and you’re able to step into those roles as necessary.
That’s your goal.
To me, this connects to some of the things that I like about improv, not as a form of comedy, but as a model for living. First of all, most of our lives is improvisational. What you and I are doing right now, with the exception of some questions I’ve written down, is largely improvisational. One of the things I liked about improv is the notion of gifting. The notion of which I think is related is this idea that we’re all supporting actors. I feel like the ninja seems will clearly be best at those things. A pirate can gift. A robot can gift maybe in different ways. Maybe you should describe what the background to what gifting is and this idea of this. I don’t know how much UCB is into this. We are all supporting actors. I don’t know if that’s more of a Chicago thing.
We’re not as weird about it as they are.
It starts with 101. The first thing you learn, the first tenant of any improv is yes-and. Agree with the reality that you created, yes-and add information. That’s the first thing you learn in 101, the first day of class. You learn that sometimes no means yes-and this and that. On the third class in 101, you learn about gifting. Gifting means giving your scene partners something to yes, and. You never started seeing with, “Hey, what’s up?” because that’s you saying, “I have nothing but I choose to speak first.” That’s all that is. What could the gift be? It could be an attitude or emotion, “You look angry. Is everything okay?” That’s a good setup for them to yes-and that or something to build forward.
Once you’ve given a gift like Christmas, it’s good to give a gift back. You start the cycle of giving and now you’re building the rungs of the scene and it gets bigger. Gifts happen all the time. “There are no mistakes. There’s only gift.” Have you ever heard that? Everything that’s added into a scene is a gift. There comes a point in time and I think that’s what a ninja can see. There are never any mistakes. We’re all human. If somebody makes moving on, that’s a mistake. That’s the first thing you’re going to naturally want to do, but then you want to instinctively go but that works. That’s going to work. I think Will Hines, who’s the robot version of this book, does a great job of taking any mistake and turn it into a gift. He does a great job with that.
How does this idea of like we’re all supporting actors? The idea is that if I’m trying to support you and you’re trying to support me, were both elevated? How does that gel with this pirate idea? I think at first blush it can look like the pirates, like, “Look at me, the star of the show.”
It’s such a robot thing to say, Peter. That’s the negative portion of it. That’s one of the things writing this book with Will. I’ve heard his example, what he feels a pirate is, and it’s much more complimentary than I thought. The good and bad of a pirate is yes, you can take over a scene. You can get too big. You can miss things. You can throw mistakes left and right. Also a pirate, they want to be liked. It’s a very democratic mentality of it’s like, “Come on, everybody, come on.” They never leave a man behind thing. That’s the good side of the pirate. That’s the bad side of the pirate like the good side of the robot is we always build on that. The bad side is not moving anything forward and only sticky to the pattern and not adjusting to where the scene wants to go.
That’s something I learned through Will’s like, “Yeah. There’s good and bad on both sides of those.” That’s what I mean about shoring up your pirate like I was a tornado a lot in the scene so I need to learn when to be a tornado and when not to be when to use my power for good in that sense. That’s what I mean by shoring up your side. Shore up that side then once you feel comfortable in that world, then look at the other and see how can I start doing elements of that? For me, my robot work came all off the back wall. That’s how I learned to do that a little bit at a time until I felt totally comfortable with it. I have no idea what I’m doing. I’m onstage going where I need to go.
I hate using sports metaphors. There are a lot of them that are connected to this. You think about the Harold. The Harold has rules in the same way the basketball has rules. They have players in the same way that they both have players. They’re interacting and so on. You were talking about with reps with experience. You don’t have to think as much. It’s the same thing. When you first started doing anything, you have to think about it. At some point, it becomes automatic. What you’re describing is probably you’re at this place where you step out there and you don’t have to think about what you’re doing or reading and reacting.
I used to say this all the time. It was a disservice to my students, “How do I get good at it? As good as you, Billy?” It’s like first of all, that’s not going to happen. Second of all, put in your 10,000 hours. I would say that all the time and it felt like a bailout. I don’t want to tell you to put in 10,000 hours because I remember Amy Poehler was our first director on The Swarm. She said, “How many Harold’s have you done?” We said about 100, 200. It’s like, “You’ve got 500 more to go.” She was right. You want to get to that point then.
I had this interaction with a student. I got invited to fly out and do this amazing thing in Dubai. The student was like, “That must be nice.” I said, “You know what it is? Do you want to know how to do that?” She said, “Yeah.” I said, “Put in twenty hard years.” I was trying to be cheeky, but I came off as a jerk. It’s hard to get around that. If you want to become elite at anything, you have to put in years of practice.
This is the story that I remember it as. We were doing some improv festival panel discussion. Ian Roberts is there. Ian Roberts is the adult ultimate robot cyborg pirate man, incredible teacher, actor, and writer. This came up. I call it Ian Roberts five days of improv. I say this at the end of every one of my classes, “Instead of me telling you 10,000 hours, this is how you do it. Five days a week you do improv. One day you take a class at the school of your choice that you wished to learn their style. Day two, you keep seeing those shows because after a while, people quit seeing shows. You need to keep studying and keep watching all the different kinds of shows. Three, get a practice group outside of class. Start practicing with people, start putting in scene after scene after scene so you can do a thousand scenes and not think about it. Day four is get involved in the Indie jam, whatever you want to call that. A lot of that stuff is not great, but it gets you your chops. You’re not worried about when you’re onstage, you become natural at it.
Five, don’t do anything, stay home and study, read, study. I was telling my class, I’ve been on this for a few years. I’ve been on an English comedy kick because I was embarrassed that I knew nothing about a little bit of Fry and Laurie. I started watching everything on them onto YouTube and then that led to, this led to all these great English shows. It’s like study, study, study because no matter what comedy you come up with, it’s probably been done before. You’re doing a different version of that. After that, that’s five days a week and the other two days go to Europe and explore. Get away from it so you have something to draw back. That’s me talking to all those kids that were in high school groups that are in college groups that are now at UCB. I’m saying, “Get outside of improv because you don’t want to just do improv or improvisers doing improv. You want to do improv that has empathy connections to real people. Make sure that you’re a real person.”
You have to be paying attention to what’s going in the world and living and experiencing. I think you’re doing a great service to your students by saying that because the better someone is at improv, sports science, whatever it might be, they make it look so easy. It doesn’t reveal what goes on behind the scenes.
If you want to talk about pirate and robot, robots need this. Robots need that written down, so they know, do this, this day. As a pirate, I didn’t know that. I said yes to everything. I threw myself out there and I probably hurt myself quite a bit doing that, but that’s how I learned to go up through that system.
You finished a book about this. That’s exciting. First book?
Yeah, it’s Will’s second or third. It’s my theory but he said, “You should write a book about it.” It’s like, “I’ve tried. I get into writing and I lose.” He says, “I will write it with you.” It’s been an amazing experience to have a robot to help a pirate because it took us three.
I assume you talk about that in the book.
It turned into almost like an adventure series. We talked analytically upfront and say what the theory is. We say, “Let’s do it like a pirate would,” wearing a Dojo in the mountains of Tibet. We’d make it more fantasy realm. Comedy involved in there. Each one is like we talk about the four pillars of improv, which we created: earth, wind, fire and water. Water is editing. What is fire? I’ll have to read the book.
I’m looking forward to it. Did you feel like you had a major insight or breakthrough either personally or professionally or theoretically while doing the book?
Yeah, big times. For me, I learned how to write a book which is good. The discipline that it takes and how it’s okay. This is again, Will did a great job as like we went back and forth for three months. I spewed everything I knew and all the stories and stuff like that until it centered into what the book wanted to be. He tenderly pushed it into that point. That taught me one thing. His point of view of what he thinks a pirate is.
What did it teach you exactly about that process of you throwing everything out and him corralling?
That’s okay. For me, it was always, “I’m all over the place here. I can’t do this.” I would stop. He’s like, “No, that’s okay. Keep rolling down into a drain, throw it all out there because you don’t know where it’s going to be,” which is hilarious that I would not know that as an improviser to not write the book improvisational until we found where it wanted to go. That’s something I learned. The other thing is his point of view, what he thinks a pirate is in his point of view of a robot. It’s like comedy is subjective. We all have different points of view about it.
We played together on the Smokes all the time. I love playing with him. I don’t want to say anything was wrong. I was like, “I never thought of it that way. That does make sense.” One thing that he brought up as pirates is very grounded. They always know who they are and where they are in the scenes because they feel it. This is something that Ian Roberts talk flash memory. If a scene feels like something in your real-life you use that to keep you in that scene and to come up with other ideas. It’s a very pirate move that’s feeling the scene as opposed to thinking the scene.
I want to talk about some other things. I want to ask one other thing that I like a lot about if you could tell I loved UCB. I may describe it wrong, performing at the top of your intelligence. Is that the right way to say this?
Yeah, that’s the right way to say it.Do what a good person would do in a scene. Try to play that character to the top of that character's intelligence. Click To Tweet
I love that concept. Can you talk about how you talk about it? How you teach it?
It is to simplify it because honestly when I first heard it, I was like, “I’m smart.” It’s not about you. That’s not what it’s about, Billy. Calm down.” It’s like, “No, it’s about know what your character knows and don’t know more and don’t know less.” An example would be if you’re a seven-year-old girl, know what a seven-year-old girl knows and act it accordingly. Don’t know what a 30 or 40-year-old improviser knows. Know what she knows and play it honestly so that you can react honestly not as an improviser. On the other side is you don’t have a medical degree so you can’t be a doctor, but you know if you’re playing a bad doctor not to go, “I’m a bad doctor. What’s this? A syringe?” Throwing it across the room. You play it to the top of that bad doctor’s intelligence.
Do they know they’re a bad doctor? Do they ever admit it? No. This is how old I am. I use references from MASH. You got it. Everybody else in the audience and the class blank stares. Major Frank Burns is an excellent example of a bad doctor. He’s a bad doctor but he never admits it. It’s like if you can get yourself lost in your character and know what your character knows, then you will react honestly as that character. It’s easier to hear the unusual that way as a character, not an improviser. The difference is talking to each other in a scene as opposed to talking at a scene.
I’m always looking for these rules of improv again are rules for life. That notion of the top of your intelligence is critical for living life. It’s a sense of knowing your limits and recognizing other people’s limits. It can do more. For example, I think that idea can make you a more compassionate person. Like talking about ignorance in that way.
Best worst note I got a long time ago, I don’t remember who gave me the best worst. It’s like, “If you want to be a good improviser, be a good person.” I went, “I don’t know. I guess so.” He was like, “I see what you’re saying in the scene. Do what a good person would do in a scene. Try to play that character to the top of that character’s intelligence. Don’t ironically detach. Stay with it.”
As you said, lean in. I want to talk about a couple of other things. You do voiceover work. You’re on a show, Cartoon Network’s Steven Universe. I think you’re the first person I’ve talked to who does the voiceover. I’m curious about that as a guy who thinks he has a good voice.
It’s not because there are so many good voices out there. You do have a lovely voice. It’s about character. I guess that’s, in my world, there are many different portions or people who do a movie in a world, those kinds of voices. There are people who play big characters or people who play themselves. There are anime characters. People who talk like anime characters. You’ve got to find your world in there. When I do commercials and stuff, my voiceovers tend to be people like that voice sounds familiar. Is that somebody famous but it’s not. I’ve gotten that several times.
Who would someone mistake you for?
I get John Goodman. I’ve done several Candy for Family Guy. I played John Candy a couple times. Those are the obvious choices. He played Puddy in Seinfeld. I know John Warburton. I actually was up for a series of commercials for Carl’s Jr. I did it. I recorded all the commercials. They wanted me to come back to do ADR, which is like to reloop some stuff. When I went in, I heard his voice, so they used me for scratch which is like, “Let’s get a voice in here to fill out the words and do all the acting and use your improv to get the attitude behind it.” He came in and voiced over me. We heard me as an example, then read it his way. He couldn’t do it for some money reasons. He had me come back in and redo the whole thing. It’s like, “I see how it is.”
Do you like doing voiceover work?
Yeah, it’s so much easier. I get to sit. I can take my shirt off.
You can do multiple takes.
You usually don’t, oddly enough. I do more takes on camera that I do in voiceover. I don’t do as much of them as I used to. I think you go through like LA’s peak and valleys. I’m starting to get to the peaks again, starting to get a little more work so it comes and goes. I was a voice of Jamerson Radio for a while, which is interviewing people on air, which is as myself. I would like to be better with my character work. I don’t think I’m as good as I think I am. When I see myself, I went, “I got to do better.”
I have a lot of questions about this. I’ll try to keep it brief. First of all, there’s a surprising number of big names who ended up doing voiceover work.
That’s happened within the last ten years.
Is that because of the brand and the draw or is it simply that it’s that Gene Hackman and whoever, George Clooney, whatever these people recognize the voices, they have an affinity because George Clooney is in it, it must be good. Is that the thinking?
There’s that spokesperson type of thing where if you get a famous name attached to it, that’s a big deal.
Even for movies, there are a bunch of cartoon movies that they hire very big-name characters for it.
It’s annoying there’s a voiceover audio. It’s also a double edge sword because those movies aren’t popular. They wouldn’t be as popular as they were if they didn’t have those big names. That’s the selling point of these movies. Talk about scratch, I did scratch for Small Foot that came out.
What is scratch again?
Scratch means you go in, you see the video and you do the voices, and you act them out. They’ll get improv people to do it, to act out characters of where I think they’re coming from. Improvise a little bit off of it. How do you read this character? They would then transfer that over to, “That’s great. Now we’ll let Danny DeVito.”
He listens to this stuff, gets a feel for it. That’s not the only place that happens. There’s this wonderful book called The Song Machine. This guy, John Seabrook, I believe there’s a New Yorker article that gives you a glimpse into this and tells a story about this woman who helps create many of Rihanna’s songs. She goes into the booth. They have a beat. They have a little nugget of an idea and then she starts riffing. There’s a Rihanna song where she’s like, “Na na na.” This woman came up with that on the fly.
That’s exactly what we need to.
They structure a song. They write it and then they give it to Rihanna. She makes it a Rihanna song because it’s Rihanna. It’s not the only place you see that.
That’s the way it is. You also know voiceovers for movies changed. A lot of this happened. There was a big strike about ten, fifteen years ago, a commercial strike. At that time, there used to be a lot of voiceover artists for movies that would do the literal, “In a world where this,” now you don’t see that anymore. It’s mainly shots of the movie with a few little things because of that strike years ago. It’s like, “We can’t hire video. We have to show the movie.” It’s like, “This is better,” because now we don’t have to pay for a VO. This was much more interesting.
I know there is some research on these like how trailers become a little mini story. You transport people in a minute into this other world. You don’t need someone to say in another world because you’re looking at a screen and it’s clearly another world. That’s the whole idea.
The reason why I knew that is because I know a guy who used to write movie trailers. His world changed.
The voiceover work, when you say doing characters that you want to get better at it.
You can always want to get better at certain things.
You already talked about how to get better as an improviser. You take a class. You watch shows. You get a practice group. You do indie jams. You stay home and study. If you want to get better as a voiceover actor doing characters?
I’ll watch cartoons. Turn off the volume. That’s one way.
You’re making people envious. They’re hating their jobs right now. They’re like, “This guy’s job is turning off.”
I’ve got to watch cartoons. Do you think this is fun for me? It’s hard work. I’ve got to do it. You find where you’re good at in your voiceover. I’m more of ADR, like a vocal mirroring certain people or something like that. I don’t have good original character content so that’s something that I want to work on. When I see a character, I was like, “How can I change that character up a little bit?” There are so many cartoons.
You watch and you fill in the words and you create a character.
The other thing is to drive and talk to yourself. Start playing with voices. It’s weird because in improv, I don’t do that. I’m a big fan of don’t create a character and hide behind your character, be you with the parts of your character and you are the character. There are times when you need to project some big facade but not all the time. Whereas for this, you need to project that big facade. It’s a different approach. Groundlings does a good job of creating good character facades. I think that’s their talent.
I’m going to talk to Matt Walsh in a future podcast. Is there anything I should know? Anything I should ask? Can you give me some insight, fun thing to bring up that might surprise him?
He’s a fantastic teacher. I’ve had classes with him a long time ago. I was AD on some of the shows that he put up onstage. His first show that he put up at UCB was about a mall. That will be hard to call him out on that.
I’m going to ask him about pirate, robot, ninja.
I don’t know if he was the one, but one of the UCB four was in San Francisco at a festival. I heard this through second people that somebody says, “The UCB theory on Pirate, Robot, Ninja,” because I don’t think that we don’t teach that. “I’m pretty sure you do.” At first I went, “I’m in trouble.” It’s like, “No, I’m not. I’m going to keep doing that.”
The thing is these are people teaching improvisation and so they can’t get too mad at you.Don't create a character and hide behind your character. Be you with the parts of your character. You are the character. Click To Tweet
No. It’s not UCB. I make a point to teach UCB and always say, “This is my point of view of teaching,” and all teachers have to have some philosophy.
I have the same thing I teach. I teach this core MBA marketing management course. Every business school in the world teaches this course. We all teach the same things.
How do you reach out to them?
What language to use? How do I frame these things, but the content is still?
I mentioned this when I first came up with this back in New York, I’d mentioned Michael Delaney and I said, “It’s a pirate and robot.” It’s like, “That’s stupid.” I said, “No, it’s not. It’s smart. I’m going to do what’s called machine in monster.” “You can’t do that. This is my philosophy.”
I’m glad you wrote a book then. One last question. I’m sure you have an answer to this. What are you reading, watching or listening to that stands out? It’s not good, but it’s great.
I am fascinated with, I’ve discovered over the last year, classical music lectures. Over Christmas vacation, I went to watch the Goldberg variations on a real harpsichord.
I don’t understand classical music lectures?
On Audible, they have a lecture series and I’m in the process of listening into the 30 greatest symphonies and the story behind each one and how it was put together. The same lecturer also did one. He’s the same lecturer who does all the musical lectures on Audible.com if you go there. He did the history of music and it takes forever. It’s a great thing to listen to. I always listened to it before I go to sleep. What I discovered is structure and symphonies and songs, it’s very similar to improv long form structure. In other words, everything is communal. Everything is the same. I was listening to him talk about in his previous lecture about fugues. Fugues starts out with an intro and then it breaks off into three elements. It comes back and then it breaks off. I yelled out loud. I’m the first person to think this out. I’m very excited about how structure, they’re communal in different art forms. The whole idea of being creative of the pirate, robot thing is not just improv. It’s in everything. There are painters who were more pirate and painters who are more robotic or something along those lines. On top of that, Hardcore History. That’s called Hardcore History.
This is a podcast. I have not listened to it but is this story is like the guy is not a historian. He’s a smart guy.
He’s read every book on it. He’s a great storyteller. Each podcast is four hours long and he’ll have a seven or eight-part series on World War One. It goes into depth. It opened me up to all these other. There’s another guy, Michael Duncan, who does a podcast on revolutions throughout history. He started with the English Revolution or the Civil War with Oliver Cromwell. I wrapped up listening to the French Revolution. That makes everything make more sense now as to how crazy that was and how long it took and how nightmare-ish it was.
Billy, you certainly are walking your talk. It sounds like you are going to Europe. If you’re listening to lectures on symphonies and learning about.
That’s because I’ve reached the point of my age where my earlier part of me, my earlier life, I would think I’m boring, but now I love this stuff. Del Close, the Godfather of improv said, “Wit is not something you have. It’s something you earn and you earn it every day.” If you’re onstage and somebody references something that you don’t know, you’re right. I’m going to go home and Wikipedia that. I will not get caught off stage again.
Billy, thanks so much for doing this.
Thanks for having me. This was fun.
- UCB Theater
- Inner Sanctum
- Jeremy Sender – previous episode
- The Song Machine
- Hardcore History
- Michael Duncan
About Billy Merritt
Billy has been a performer, teacher, and director with the UCB Theatre since it first opened in New York. He is a founding member of improv groups The Swarm, and The Stepfathers in New York, and The Smokes in Los Angeles. His TV credits include Reno 911, Law and Order, Workaholics, Happy Endings, Weeds, Parks and Rec., and Brooklyn Nine-Nine. Billy was the host of “Uncorked”, a food, wine and travel show.