I recently spoke with Alexander Zalben, founding member of the sketch comedy troupe Elephant Larry and a producer of Sketchfest NYC, for the comedy segment of the recent Back Stage “Guide to New York Acting Markets” spotlight. (Read the full story at BackStage.com) As a sketch comedy performer, writer, producer, and teacher, Zalben is an expert in all things sketch, so I asked him to share his knowledge and experience about moving to New York to start a sketch comedy career.
Zalben shares a piece of advice that was offered to him when he first moved to New York City. “If it is going to happen – what ever ‘it’ means to you – it’s either going to take one year or it’s going to take 10 years,” he says. He clarifies that this doesn’t mean it will take exactly 365 days or exactly 10 years to achieve your goal, but “it means either you’re going to hit immediately, or you’re going to have to really work at it and develop friendships, get to know people, and develop your own style of comedy, and that’s going to take literally a decade. Obviously, there are exceptions. And the third option is that what ever your goal is, you don’t make it. But if you are going to make it, I’ve seen it proven time and time again that either you hit immediately or it takes you years and years of work.”
Read my Q&A with Zalben to learn more about how to start your sketch comedy career in New York City, whether it takes a year or a decade:
Do you find that comedians and sketch groups coming to New York from outside of New York have to experience a kind of learning curve to perform for a New York City audience?
Alex Zalben: Absolutely. I’ve always felt like sketch comedy, in particular, is treated very differently in different cities. And this is no slight to any particular city, but Los Angeles, for example, is focused more on showcases, and the actor-driven “Hey, I want to get cast in a part so I’m going to put up a showcase with my sketch characters.”
Chicago and New York are almost diametric opposites, in a way. In Chicago, they’re really supportive of developing work. For the most part, if something’s a little rough and they’re really trying something new, Chicago loves it in sketch comedy, whereas in New York it has to be developed work. You know, you only want to put up stuff when it’s really polished, really well-done, really good. Industry people in particular are very fond of things that look and feel casual, like they’re very personal, things that you’re putting on stage where you’re like, “Oh, it’s just me up here. What? I’m just talking to you, the audience. It’s so nice of you to show up!” But at the same time it’s obvious you’ve spent months and months rehearsing and polishing to get that effect.
So how can performers who are new to New York develop a polished, finished piece to put on stage? Where is a good venue to work out material before you really try to get industry attention?
It’s a tough, interesting question actually. It’s one of those many, many catch-22s that are omnipresent in the performing and entertainment industry. You can’t say, “I’m going to work in my living room until I’m ready to knock everybody’s socks off with my amazing performance,” but at the same time you can’t be like, “I’m going to go out there to perform runner-up material all of the time,” because you’re going to screw yourself either way.
I feel like what it takes is really putting yourself out there, getting on stage as much as you possibly can – whether that means as part of a sketch comedy group or as a stand-up or however. I always think taking classes is a great way to do that. I mean, certainly with so many classes at The PIT and at UCB and other places, that’s an amazing place to go and completely fail. I teach sketch classes through The PIT, and that’s what I always tell my students on the first day: “Listen, I’m not hiring any of you for any jobs. I’m not scouting you guys, or anything like that. So take these next six weeks and be totally confident in the fact that you’re not trying to impress anybody. You’re just going to go out there and write the worst stuff you possibly can now, and you can get it out of your system so when you get out of this class and you’re doing a show, that’s the time you really have to show your amazing stuff on stage.” And even beyond the classes, there are a lot more nights for people to work out their stuff [on stage]. Read the rest of this entry »
Standup comedian Kumail Nanjiani relocated to New York City from Chicago in 2007 to jump-start his career. Fast-forward just two years, and Nanjiani has been named a comedian to watch by Variety, The Hollywood Reporter, and New York magazine, writes for and performs on the Comedy Central series “Michael & Michael Have Issues,” has appeared on “The Late Show With David Letterman,” “The Colbert Report,” and Comedy Central’s “Hot List,” and is touring his standup act. This year he’s also developing a sitcom pilot for NBC.
And he did it with a little help from his friends. Nanjiani knew other Chicago transplants in New York, such as comedian Pete Holmes, and he’d opened for Zach Galifianakis on tour before moving to the city. As soon as he landed in New York, Nanjiani started performing regularly at open-mike nights, where he met and built relationships with more-established comics like Eugene Mirman and Michael Showalter.
“It was sort of lucky, where I had known the right people coming here, and then once I did shows, I always had the right people seeing me,” Nanjiani says. His rapid success is the exception rather than the rule, of course, but his career suggests the many opportunities available for comic performers in New York, whether their goal is standup, improvisation, or sketch comedy. Read the rest of this entry »
I spoke with the boys of NYC-based sketch comedy group Elephant Larry (Alexander Zalben, Geoff Haggerty, Stefan Lawrence, Chris Principe, and Jeff Solomon) before the premiere of their brand new sketch comedy show, “Elephant Larry Presents Con Air.” The themed show is a set of all-new sketches inspired by and set in the world of the 1997 blockbuster film Con Air, which asked the question: “What would happen if you took the world’s worst convicts and put them on one airplane? Wouldn’t that be awesome?”
What would be even more awesome is adding some sketch comedy to the action. Sure, the movie had Nicholas Cage, John Malkovich, Steve Buscemi, John Cusack, and more of the biggest stars of the ’90s. But “Elephant Larry Presents Con Air” has… Elephant Larry. The sketch group has been performing together since 2002, and was selected as one of Back Stage’s “Top 10 Comedy Best Bets” in 2004. There are no elephants involved, nor is anyone in the group named Larry.
Read the full Q&A for more about Elephant Larry, Con Air, and learning to be funny. “Elephant Larry Presents Con Air” debuts April 11 at 8 p.m. at The PIT in NYC.
How has being a part of Elephant Larry and the sketch community led to more creative opportunities?
Stefan Lawrence: Sketch comedy isn’t exactly a cash cow. This is definitely a way for us to do exactly what we wanna do. So I don’t think we’ve ever even considered doing it any other way, because it’s a way for us to have total control over the kind of stuff that we like. Read the rest of this entry »
Why comedy groups are descending on Gotham in June.
The competitive nature of acting in New York “puts this shield around you where you’re just ready to go out there and fight all the time,” says Jason Kalter, who is half of the sketch comedy duo Rue Brutalia. “But with comedy, if you see someone that’s funny and you like their stuff, you think, ‘I wish I could go there.’ Your first impulse is, ‘I gotta do something with them. I wanna make noise with them.’ “
Rue Brutalia is one of almost 30 sketch groups that will converge on New York’s Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre to make lots of noise at the fourth annual SketchFest NYC, running June 12-14. Read the rest of this entry »
Nothing sketchy about these comics: National troupes strut their stuff
Fans of comedy groups like Monty Python, Kids in the Hall, Human Giant and the Whitest Kids U Know can rejoice this weekend, because starting Thursday, June 7, 21 different sketch comedy groups from around North America have converged on the East 13th Street Theatre for the third annual SketchFest NYC, promising three nights of the funniest sketch comedy from the U.S. and Canada.
“The goal was always to show New Yorkers not just the best sketch comedy in New York,” said SketchFest NYC producer Alex Zalben, “but the best sketch comedy in the nation.” Read the rest of this entry »