The First Thought – Part I: Humble Beginnings

“A journey of one thousand miles begins with a single step.”

Lao Tzu, The Tao Te Ching

“The journey of a hundred thousand miles begins in an airport that smells like feet.”

My friend Mike one time.

Hi, you. My name is Nathan. I have been invited to write a series of posts about my firsthand experience as a student of improvisation at Denver’s Voodoo Comedy Playhouse for you, the average human[note] I assume.[/note].

I moved to Colorado two years ago. A week after I moved I discovered the comedy scene here and dove in full force. You see, I’m a comedy nerd. I’m the sort of person who watched the Netflix making of documentary about W/ Bob and David, the Netflix series. When I was a kid, a week after I found out Weird Al was a thing, I was listening to Limewired episodes of Dr. Demento. When I found out about the alt-comedy scene that came out in the ‘90s from the Largo in California I sought out the comedians’ albums with the sort of reverent fervor other people have for rock stars. I say all this to impress upon you, dear reader, how much I care about humor. So around this same time in my life I was introduced to improv for the first time.

Now, I had some experience of improvisation from avidly watching any and all Comedy Central Presents I could get my mitts on. And I’m not talking about the semi-improvisatory delivery of an Eddie Izzard or a Paul F. Tompkins. I mean the times you could see a joke made up on the spot, that was one part reaction to the audience, one part the audience’s reaction, and one part the comedian’s sensibilities[note] A great example is Patton Oswalt’s takedown of a heckler on Track 18 of Werewolves and Lollipops[/note]. Other times comedians worked improv into their act to absolutely mind blowing results[note]For an example I would point you to the masterful Sean Cullen’s improvised song Food of Choice. Do yourself a favor and check out a few of his performances of that bit. They’re on YouTube and they’re hilarious and always improvised.[/note]. Around this point in my life I also started participating in a LARPing[note]Live Action Role Play-ing. You know, those folks with foam swords and cardboard shields that you make fun of but secretly wish you could be a part of.[/note] summer camp that focused on improvisational theater. But that is a story for another blog.

Skipping forward in time to last year, I started taking improv classes at the Voodoo Comedy Playhouse to improve my stand up. I kept doing it because they are educational, worthwhile, and fun[note]Also I’ve met a lot of good friends through classes.[/note]. And when I say worthwhile, I do mean it. Getting better at improv has made me more quick-witted and empathic. The keys for good improv are trust in your fellow performers, making strong choices, and capital L Listening. In improv you learn to listen fully to someone: Listening so much that you understand both what they’re saying and what character or joke they’re trying to set up by saying it. That form of Listening is the skill I’ve learned from classes that I’ve found myself using the most in life outside improv. At work or in conversations with friends, that sort of playful empathy can really help you out.

But enough about that. Back to me. What can you expect from my next few posts? Well, in this blog I plan to document my feelings about the different forms of humor, my own experiences as a student of the improv and sketch classes, discuss notable shows I see or perform in, and talk about Denver’s comedy scene in general. Here are some ideas I’ve had for articles: a tortured sports metaphor comparing stand up, writing, and improv; my thoughts on the Voodoo as a performance space and how different shows capitalize on it; a take on how improv is an inherently community-building activity; comparing my LARP camp improv experience to the Voodoo classes; and probably more footnotes where I talk about comedians I like. I hope you stay tuned.

Listen to me ramble, though. I want to wrap this introductory post up. I’ll finish with this thought: One of the pleasures of performing for other people is the act of creation. In some performances, like stand up or music, you create something and practice, practice, practice it until you are ready to perform it spectacularly for others. In others, like writing, you are creating something with your full attention, completely engrossed in the act of creating, but the performance and consumption of your work is far removed from your creation of it. Improv is the most visceral experience of creation I’ve ever had. Not only are you creating something new but so is everyone else on stage with you and, in their way, so is the audience. Improv is created, performed, and consumed all in the same moment. And it’s a hell of a lot of fun. Come play sometime.

1 Comment

  1. Reply Matthew Harris

    Great post Nate, and spot on. It has been a special blast improving with you. Looking forward to more blogs. I like all the suggestions for future blogs. How about interviews with the light people- their perspective of a show night at Voodoo… anyways mile on….

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