Category Archives: Interviews

Fake It Til We Make It: An Oral History of Sea Tea Improv Pt. 1 (Extended Edition)

An Oral History of Sea Tea Improv

Part One (extended edition)

By Briana Haynie

They met in improv class, each joining for a different reason. A few were new to town and wanted to meet people, some had read about their favorite comedians, and others had an itch to perform. Either way, seven unlikely individuals discovered a friendship and a passion for improv while taking classes at Hartford Stage under the tutelage of Matt Neufeld. They were hooked and when the classes ended they didn’t want to stop; so they kept going on their own. Since their formation on April 1st, 2009, Sea Tea Improv has grown into a company of 21 improvisers and boasts a monthly short form show at Hartford’s own City Steam Brewery, a monthly long form show at The Studio at Billings Forge, and countless corporate and private gigs to their schedule. They have helped cultivate a thriving improv community in a city that only five years ago barely knew what improv was. In these next few issues of The Annual, Sea Tea will tell you, in their own words, their story. Starting with the founders: Julia Pistell, Greg Ludovici, Joe Leonardo, Kate Sidley, Dan Russell, Summar Elguindy and Vladimir John Perez.

 From Left to right: Matt Neufeld, Joe Leonardo, Kate Sidley, Julia Pistell, Summar Elguindy, Vladimir John Perez, Greg Ludovici, Dan Russel. Photo credit: Laura Dee Photography
From Left to right: Matt Neufeld, Joe Leonardo, Kate Sidley, Julia Pistell, Summar Elguindy, Vladimir John Perez, Greg Ludovici, Dan Russel.
Photo credit: Laura Dee Photography

GREG LUDOVICI: Julia and I met way back in 2001; I was directing an AIDS benefit musical theatre organization. Julia auditioned and so we’ve been performing together for years.

JULIA PISTELL: We were dating and we were running this little tiny benefit theatre organization together which is still going strong.

DAN RUSSELL: [Vlad and I] met taking an improv class at Play On Acting Studio and that class was taught by Matt Neufeld who ended up being our teacher when we all got together at Hartford Stage. I wanted to perform in some way. I wanted to do comedy in some way; I thought I wanted to do Stand-Up but it felt like it wasn’t for me, and this seemed like a thing to try.

VLADIMIR JOHN PEREZ: I just knew I had to get into acting of some kind— every person’s IMDB that I was always stalking kept saying “Improv this and that” and it was like, I guess I’ve got to do this.

JULIA: Summar and Kate were apprentices at Hartford Stage, both in the education department, and they got to take free classes.

KATE SIDLEY: I grew up around comedy because my dad was a stand-up comic, so I felt like I had a pre-disposition to be interested in comedy, but I didn’t know how I would ever apply it. I never had any interest in doing stand-up, so I thought, if that’s not what I want to do I guess I won’t do comedy.  I sort of saw– oh, maybe there are ways I can do comedy and this seems to be one of those ways.

SUMMAR ELGUINDY: I didn’t really get into improv for improv’s sake until I took the classes at the Hartford Stage. I guess what drew me to it was how it was an outlet and it was an opportunity to work that muscle in your brain that doesn’t get to be worked often.

GREG: The day Julia moved in was the first day of Flying Blind II and I had to convince her to come with me to try this out.

JULIA: I was like, well I’ve got nothing to do so I guess okay…

JUILA: Joe came in later.

VLAD: Joe was specifically there because he was doing Stand-Up and not really into it and someone said “hey, why don’t you try improv?”

JOE LEONARDO: I went to one of their class share shows. To me, it was a show; this is professional, the audience is engaged, they’re laughing, they wanted to be there as opposed to a lot of the open mics where you’re talking and the audience is like, “oh, there’s a show happening.” So it was a completely different experience in that respect.

GREG: We all came to these classes looking for something different to get out of it, but through that we ended up making these great friends. I remember having this conversation sitting at City Steam, it’s like; you guys are friends that I probably would have never had in life if we weren’t doing this together.

KATE: I think that we were all searching for something. I was from another state and also the job in Hartford was the first job I had after coming back from the Peace Corps so I hadn’t even been in the U.S for over two years so, I was looking for new people.

SUMMAR: Kate and I were taking a lot of these classes because we didn’t know anybody in Hartford. It was kind of our opportunity to meet other people like Dan and Vlad and Greg and eventually Julia and Joe that we didn’t know existed before this improv class. And then we enjoyed it and kept going and it was therapeutic in a way because even if we had a really stressful day we knew Sunday night we had Improv.

JULIA: We were all very motivated. It wasn’t like any of us were looking to do something quick and leave. Half of us were lonely and half of us were really ambitious. We were all very equally aggressively committed together, even before Sea Tea as a company existed.

KATE: I guess the first person I met and became friends with was obviously Summar and then Greg. Dan and Vlad, I thought were really funny but they kind of already knew each other so I felt like they were the cool guys that I liked but they were already the comedy friends, so I was a little intimidated by that.

JULIA: Summar and Kate told me way later that Greg was the only nice potentially single guy and when he mentioned that he had a girlfriend they were mad. They weren’t like, specifically we have a crush on this guy, they were just like, oh come on.

JULIA: It is also very notable that Joe had a ridiculous goatee at this time.

DAN: He was Evil Joe.

JULIA: He looked totally different. It was a really serious, thin, little goatee and he looked 10 years older than he does now because of this goatee.

KATE: I did tell Joe this: he joined us after we started to really gel as a group so I was very protective and nervous of a new person being introduced and I knew he was a Stand-Up and I had a preconceived notion of what a Stand-Up was like. The first time I ever met him he had this ratty flannel button down and he had a goatee going and I was just like, “who is this guy? Some dirty Stand-Up comic, going to try to get involved with our group and be funny. We have something good going here.” So yeah, I told Joe I was not a fan when I first met him. My instinctive reaction was one of I don’t know about this stranger.

SUMMAR: I couldn’t remember who was Vlad and who was Dan. I messed up their names a thousand times and to this day if you pay close attention I will sometimes call Dan Vlad and Vlad Dan, I don’t know why, it’s the beard thing. Even though they are a hundred percent different they are the same person in my brain.

JOE: I remember thinking Dan was basically a carbon copy of Seth Rogen at the time.

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Colin Mochrie

He was valedictorian at his high school, because he is flawless.  He is an improvisational comedian, and his brilliance has illuminated The Second City and the British and American incarnations of Whose Line Is It Anyway. Everything this man touches turns to gold. Though for most of our readers, he needs no introduction. This man is…

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David Luna: What is your earliest memory?

Colin Mochrie: I was playing with a girl named Mary Brown in Scotland. I think she was my first crush. I was probably around 3. She never calls.

DL: Growing up, who or what made you laugh the most?

CM: My family wasn’t very funny. They’re Scottish, and their humor tends to be quite morbid. I guess my grandfather. He had a good sense of humor. He was a joke teller. He loved telling stories, so it would probably be him. But everyone else was pretty dark.

DL: As you might know, Alexander Graham Bell was another Canadian born in Scotland. Are there any non-comedian historical figures that you revere with great passion, a figure that might inspire you?

CM: I’ve often been fascinated with people like Columbus or Magellan, these people who head out not knowing exactly where to, with some vague sort of goal in mind, but ending up somewhere totally different, sailing a world that they think is flat and could fall off the edge. It’s almost like improvising, except we’re never in any kind of mortal danger.

DL: Do you have a thirst for adventure, or are you a bit more sessile?

CM: I enjoy adventure in the grand sense of the word (going out, doing something I’ve never done before, going places I’ve never been). But, you know, climbing mountains or jumping out of planes, ehhh, no, not really.

DL: Will there be anything new that we might not expect with the return of Whose Line Is It Anyway?

CM: I don’t really know much about it except Ryan, Wayne, and I are doing it for sure, an improviser named Heather Campbell is doing it, and Aisha Tyler is hosting. So it’s nice that there’s actually women involved this time, so it will take some of the pressure off me.

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Tom Cotter

He found himself in the comedy world. Working difficult gigs on land and sea, he was strident and kept doing what he does best. Just last year, he auditioned for America’s Got Talent and made it to the finals as the runner-up. But seeing a dog act walk away with the grand prize hasn’t stopped him.

He’s sharp, and he’s a human. He’s…

Cotter Portrait

David Luna: What was your earliest memory in life?

Tom Cotter: Well, it’s very boring. I remember visiting my dad’s office during the day when I was a little kid. I could describe it to my mother years later, and she was shocked because he moved out of that office when I was about two years old. She thinks I saw pictures of it, and that’s how I could describe it, but I remember walking into the rooms and stuff. So, a two-year-old memory, that’s the first one I remember.

DL: That’s pretty far back. Do you have a good memory, would you say?

TC: Pretty good. I’ve impaired it as best I could in college with a bong, but I think it’s relatively sharp.

DL: Is comedy a prime focus in your life, or do you have other passions?

TC: Well, I have three spawn. My wife and I are breeders. When you have kids—of course I think it sounds trite—but they’re not just my main focus, they are my muse, and they’re on my mind. Because of America’s Got Talent I’m doing a lot more gigs now, better paying gigs, and some of them are difficult, but I’m doing them for the three college educations on the horizon.

DL: Does doing comedy in Vegas prepare you for a wider variety of audiences?

TC: I think Middle America comes to Vegas. I used to work on cruise ships a lot, and that was always a wide swath. It was little kids all the way up to their great-grandparents and everyone in between. So as a comedian it’s daunting because you have to be able to amuse a four-year-old and a 104-year-old, all while being squeaky clean because it’s a family show.

In Vegas I think you can be a little edgier, but our show at the Palazzo is still a family show. My style is innuendo and double entendre, so it goes over a lot of kids’ heads, but I still have to be cognizant of the fact there are little kids there, and when they’re in the front row staring up at me, it’s abundantly clear to me.

DL: What has been your greatest struggle working as a comic?

TC: I’ve been at this for a long time, and it wasn’t until twenty-six years into it that America’s Got Talent hit, which was where I kind of broke through the ceiling finally. I was flying below the radar before that for a long time. I had done some TV, and I was still working a lot, but I was working out on cruise ships where the boat people see you, but the industry doesn’t see you. The agents, managers, TV executives, they don’t see you. You’re in Siberia when you’re on a cruise ship.

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Amazing Atheist

AmazingAtheistPortrait
Artwork by Buddy Purucker

In 2006 a man from Louisiana joined Youtube. Over the years he has garnered over one hundred million views and a following of thousands for his distinctive and often thought-provoking social commentary. He’s expressed his views on everything from sex to politics, from religious conflicts to the Transformers film franchise. Most recently, this man spoke about the rise of atheism in America as a guest on CNN. Born Terroja Lee Kincaid, the Internet knows this man as,

 AmazingAtheistPortrait

David Luna: What was your first YouTube video about, and what brought you to upload it?

TJ Kincaid: It was really kind of an introduction video, and it was a discussion of how first videos are always awful, and they are. They’re just horribly awkward things, for the most part. No one really knew what to do on YouTube at that time. There’s kind of an expected formula now, but at that time it was kind of like in its very early, punk rock type of stages. No one really quite knew what to do to be entertaining or how to get an audience to pay attention. So it was really a lot of people out there that were just turning on a camera and talking into it, and for most people, it didn’t work. For me, for some reason, it did. The response was pretty immediate. By today’s standards it wouldn’t have been anything major, but at the time it was pretty successful for a first video, but it didn’t really have much of a subject—it was really just very introductory, probably most notable in the fact that I walked into a shadow and said, “I look like a nigger right now.” I said it for shock value purposes, but I kind of wish that I hadn’t because it kind of followed me for a while after that. I took it down because I didn’t want to be associated with that particular joke. It was a very poor video. I really don’t have any sort of affection for it. I don’t look back on it like, “Ah, my first video,” I look back on it like, “Ugghhh, my first video.”

DL: Do you ever feel like you’re not credited as being a pioneer of sorts? You’ve been around for a while and there are other “YouTube personalities” who are much less notable than you, but they have their own Wikipedia pages.

TJ: Well, it’s kind of the price you pay for being the black sheep. There was a time when I was definitely at a crossroads where it was like, “Okay, I can play the game as I’m expected to, or I can kind of still keep doing my own thing, but still use their format to do it in.” And I chose the latter. As long as I’ve been around, I’ve had an audience. I’ve always had a respectably sized audience watching my videos on YouTube, and I’ve seen so many people explode onto the scene, and then I’ve seen the same people fall into obscurity. And yet I’ve had a consistent audience, and I think the reason I’ve had a consistent audience is because I’ve been consistently honest. I still just make the videos I want to see, but I try to put them in a format that I think would be entertaining for others.

DL: The people who are most honest in their work are too often discredited just for being “real.”

TJ: You can’t really complain about it, though. It’s the risk you take when you do that sort of thing. Part of what I do is going to be stepping on toes. I’m not impressed with people in general who have to sit around bitching about how they don’t get the recognition they deserve or anything like that. I get plenty of recognition. I’m fine. My audience likes me. I don’t need a fucking Wikipedia page. I don’t need to be the top “YouTuber.” It would be nice. I wouldn’t turn it down. It would be absolutely lovely.  But I’d rather be Bill Hicks than Dane Cook.

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John Safran

Artwork: David Luna

In 1997 he competed against seven others in the Australian documentary series “Race Around the World”. He lost, but that didn’t stop him. Over the next decade he went on to launch many successful documentary series on the ABC (Australian Broadcasting Corporation) and SBS television. His programs explored the various aspects of religion and spirituality, and the differing views about interfaith and interracial love. In his travels he has met priests, gurus, voodooists, Klan members, and Freemasons. He’s endured beatings from zen Buddhist teachers, was given an exorcism by the Christian preacher Bob Larson, and has had nails driven through his hands when he subjected himself to a devotional crucifixion in the Philippines. A man this intense could only be JOHN SAFRAN (PART 1)

David Luna: In your adolescence, did you do anything comparable to the wild acts we see in your shows, like drinking peyote in the desert, or placing a voodoo curse on your ex girlfriend?

John SafranAbsolutely not. The kind of weird thing was, before I went on the show “Race Around the World” (which was the first time I was on TV), I was always really quiet. I find pranks so wince-inducing. I hate doing them. I hate being in them. I only do it because, I think that in the past there’s been times where I have this creative spirit in me where I feel like that’s me, who I am, what I want to do, so I sort of go through it because of the end product. But I hate doing it.

I was quite quiet. I was always poking around trying to look at different things to be creative with, like putting a band together or trying to learn how to draw comic strips or trying to devise a board game in grade six. I was just one of those kids, always trying to do creative stuff. Yeah, I was never really loud.

DL: Where do you imagine you would be if there were no Race Around the World?

JS: Well, I was working as a copywriter in an ad agency, and I’d been there like for four years, and I just know I would have stayed there. I sort of got into a groove there. And I reckon I’d be really fat by now. Really fat.

DL: What accomplishment from one of your shows, or anything else you’ve done, are you most proud of?

JS: I guess it’s the stuff in the very beginning of my career where I go, “Oh!” That was the thing where I found my feet and my voice and stuff, so there was that. Or probably when I got exorcised. A week will not go by when someone doesn’t engage with me on some substantial level, and so it’s flattering to me in a good way. Like yesterday, the guy serving me coffee was going “yeah, I grew up in this Christian cult, so when I saw that it kind of made me question things about this and that,” so it seems like I’ve sort of engaged with the world in some kind of positive way. You look like you’re trying to be transgressive, which you are, and you screw up and actually hurt people’s feelings, I’m not denying that. But generally, like, I’m not a sociopath, I’m usually way happier if people are happy with what I do, like if they laugh at it or say, “Oh, that made me think.” You can’t please everyone on the one hand, but if I’ve done something and I really get a “vibe” that everyone was so offended by it, it might not have been the right thing to do. Oh, well.

DL: Do you have a least proud, or most embarrassing moment?

JS: [Laughs] I guess on my last show, “Race Relations,” I intentionally did this thing where it was all about making it as cringe-worthy as possible. It was more disorienting than most of my shows. I’m sort of putting myself in these situations where it’s really ambiguous as to whether I’m being a jerk, or am I being brave. And I just got a lot of blowback from that where I just thought, “Maybe in my next show I won’t do that slightly more performance-arty thing again.”

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Nick Pupo

Artwork: David Luna
Artwork: David Luna

There is a man in Orlando, Florida. He’s often bitter, yet sincere, and he’s a true stand up comic. This is the life of Nick Pupo. 

David Luna: You’re a real comedian.

Nick Pupo: Sort of.

DL: Well, this is what you do, and this is what you want more than anything, isn’t it?

NP: Yeah, absolutely. It’s just that it’s a goddamn struggle

DL: How long have you been doing comedy?

NP: It’s been over two years now.

DL: Born and raised in Orlando?

NP: I think it was Altima, but I don’t really know. I forget everything that my parents tell me.

DL: Tell me about your first experience doing stand up.

NP: The first time I ever did stand up was at a place that I still go to every Sunday, Austin’s Coffee, and I was eighteen — I know this doesn’t make sense yet, because you’re like, “wait, you’re 23.” This is what happened. I went up, and I thought I was great. I had a great time. I brought out all my friends. The material I did I’m sure was shitty, but for a first time I guess it worked. So I thought I’d come back the next week and write an entire new five minutes, which really is ballsy, but actually idiotic. If your first time you have a good five minutes, or a decent five minutes, or what worked, whatever worked, come back next week and do it again. Do it again. Maybe work on it a little bit, tweak whatever needs to be fixed, but don’t write an entire new five minutes, you moron.

So that’s what I did. And I came back, and I drank a lot. Before I went onstage I drank a bunch of wine in the parking lot, because I was nervous, and I thought maybe I’d be funnier if I was drunk. And I went up, and I totally bombed. And I totally embarrassed myself. And at eighteen years old I decided, “I think I’m not gonna do that again. I don’t think I’m coming back.” So I didn’t for another two years, and when I was 20 I went back to the same place, did it again, had all my friends there so I had a good “set,” and it wasn’t until I ventured downtown, to other open mics around the city, that I discovered I had a lot of work to do and this is not gonna be easy, at all.

But that’s the thing is — I don’t know. There are so many times early on, early as in like, six months, or a year, or a year and a half, that you think like “Oh, I’ve got it! [snaps fingers] I finally get it! I get how comedy works!” I’ve been doing it now long enough to know that I have no idea what I’m doing, and it’s gonna take a while. But, you know, I’ve had my good nights. I’ve had plenty of good nights. But even the good ones, it’s just — it never seems like it’s enough.

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