In the interest of full disclosure: I’m a lifelong Spider-Man fan, but the recent movie trilogy satisified — and then also nullified — my thirst for live-action webslinging adventures. I’m taking a wait-and-see approach to the upcoming 3D film “reboot” of the Spider-Man film franchise, now starring Andrew Garfield as hero Peter Parker. And I had no intention of seeing Julie Taymor and Bono’s Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark on Broadway, expecting only to be incensed at the myriad ways the bloated blockbuster production would surely skew the Spider-Man story I knew and loved to make it all but unrecognizable to comic book geeks like myself.
Which is why I was initally both intrigued and dismissive when improv performer and playwright Justin Moran announced on February 11 that he would create and direct The Spidey Project, a “guerilla theater” musical based on the Spider-Man comic books — to be completed in less than 30 days, with a budget of $0, and scheduled to open on March 14, one night before the $65 million Broadway musical’s delayed March 15 opening (which has now been pushed to June 14, following the dismissal of Turn Off the Dark director Julie Taymor).
“Over the last few years, we’ve seen more money poured into one show than any other in Broadway history,” Moran said of Turn Off the Dark, “and it still shows no signs of opening. Wouldn’t it have been amazing if instead of this one show, a dozen smaller new musicals open this season? Think of how crazy the Tonys would be. Think of the creative innovation as each show tried to do more with less. Think of the amount of actors that would be working again.”
Moran was inspired to action by the negative reviews Spider-Man received after February 7, the show’s previous (but also delayed) opening night. Yet rather than criticize someone else’s work, he decided to take on the project himself. “Our goal isn’t to tear down Julie Taymor or parody her production,” Moran told the New York Times in February. “Our goal is to do what she should have done in the first place, and that’s just make a really good musical.” Miraculously, the creators did something their Broadway rivals couldn’t: they opened the show on time and on budget.
I was in the audience for the second of two one-night only performances of The Spidey Project: With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility at The PIT last night; a 10 p.m. performance was added after tickets for the 8 p.m. show sold out instantly. My curiosity and love of all things Spidey meant that I had to see it, if only to confirm that Moran had undertaken an impossible challenge which would only vindicate Taymor as a visionary director. As I followed Moran & Co.’s progress on his “The Spidey Project” blog, I figured the stunt might make for an entertaining event on a Monday night. But I didn’t actually expect the show to be so good.
Moran used the power of the internet (specifically Facebook and YouTube), though, to recruit a talented cast and crew of volunteers from the improv and musical theater communities, who together displayed their ingenuity and sincerity in bringing a one-hour Spider-Man musical comedy to the New York City stage. Read the rest of this entry »
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 »