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 »
Barry Shapiro has been a casting director with Herman & Lipson Casting for nearly 30 years, casting over 7,500 commercials for top clients such as L’Oreal, American Express, Verizon, Nintendo, Advil, and many more. He also casts for film, TV, and theater, and regularly teaches commercial technique classes and workshops in New York City and across the country. In the 2009 Back Stage Readers Choice poll, Shapiro was named “Favorite Commercial Workshop” and tied with Beth Melsky for “Favorite Commercial Casting Director.”
Why is it so important for actors to know improv, especially when auditioning for commercials?
Barry Shapiro: I’ve been casting commercials since the early ’80s, and when I started basically 90 percent of the commercials were 30-second scripts, right to the camera, and they were very firm on the exact wording that they had in the script. Over the years, things have changed a little bit.
Now there are a lot of commercials where there’s improv involved, whether it be a non-speaking commercial where they’re just doing stuff physically while there’s a voiceover announcer, or whether it’s a situation where they have a script but they want the actors to play with it a little bit. There are a lot of factors.
The big thing in commercials is “eating shots” – which is all really improvised – where you’re sitting in a restaurant eating and talking. It seems like it would be an easy thing to do, but it is one of the more difficult things to do. Just eating, without being self-conscious about being filmed while eating. It seems easy, but probably one of the most difficult things for actors to be good at is that reaction to food, and that’s why a lot of the same people book those jobs over and over again. They do it in a very natural way. And it’s a hard thing to teach, because certain people just eat weirdly, and it’s very hard to get them not to do that.
When you say “eat weirdly,” do you mean when an actor is just eating a meal in real life, or that they act weird because they’re self conscious about being on-camera?
I’m sure everybody’s been across from somebody in a restaurant and you watch them eat, and they just have a weird look on their face when they’re tasting the food. You see that in kids a lot too, because they don’t hide anything. And especially when you do an eating shot on a commercial shoot, you’re eating that food hour after hour, with a spit bucket and everything, so you’ve really got to imagine – even if you like the food, you really have to imagine even more that it tastes good. 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 »