Alex Zalben

Alex Zalben

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].

Doesn’t The People’s Improv Theater (The PIT) offer free shows every Wednesday?

Wednesdays is all free for improv, but they actually have a new thing on Monday nights at 11 p.m. They have a “writers’ room” type of thing called “The Sketch Lab,” where you can go in and drop off your sketches, and they have people there who are willing to act in your sketches for you so you can see them up on stage. It’s pretty amazing. [Note: The PIT also hosts various free improv practice and performance nights every weeknight, offering any aspiring improv performers experience in front of an audience. See the full schedule at The PIT website.]

[The Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre] does something similar called “Liquid Courage” on Friday or Saturday nights, but for that, you have to already have your actors and writers ready. You don’t have to be an actor or writer yourself, but you have to have the whole package there and be ready to go on stage that night.

What advice do you have for comics who are new to the city, but think they’ve already got the right set of skills and experience to get up on a New York stage? Maybe they’ve taken classes, or they’ve formed their own sketch group, but now they come to New York and they’re a bit rudderless and don’t know anybody. How can a newcomer become a part of the New York comedy scene?

Be humble and make friends. I have seen so many people come from other cities and be like, “Man, I am the man in my city! I am going to rock this place! Nobody has ever seen anyone like me in New York before.” Except they probably have. So I think what you have to do is be prepared to start from rock bottom.

I remember Jack McBrayer’s first weekend in New York, he had come in with a show from Chicago and was at Ars Nova. I was having a conversation with him where he was asking me,” I’m really wondering about breaking into stuff here in New York.” And I said, “Well, a great way of doing that is taking classes,” and then like the next week he was on television [as NBC page Kenneth on 30 Rock]. (laughs) Not everyone is Jack McBrayer.

Hannibal Buress, who’s writing for Saturday Night Live now and is an awesome stand-up, took the sketch writing class at The PIT, which I taught the first week of. He’s a really funny dude. He did awesome in Chicago, and then he came to New York and was clearly doing really well with stand-up. His ideas were really, really funny and he just needed to figure out how to get them into the right sketch structure. And he is now a writer on Saturday Night Live.

Do you find that open mics offer more limited opportunities for sketch comedy than they do for stand up?

You put a sketch group between two stand-ups and it just doesn’t work. It barely ever works, because audiences get in a frame of mind and they can’t really switch into, “Okay, so we’re watching sketch comedy now.” But I really think you’ve got to do it anyway, because every once and a while you do get those laughs, and more than anything I always felt like there was a certain buffer there. When we would go and we would perform between two stand-ups, it allowed us to try out the material, because nobody was there to see sketch, so nobody was judging us for sketch. We still made friends through stand-up, but we were able to perform and try out the material and really find our voice on stage in the least safe place possible.

In that situation, you know you’ve really earned every laugh, so you can tell what’s actually working in your set.

Yeah, absolutely.

As sketch performers work their way up the ladder a little bit and are able to find bookings, what venues in New York would you say are the best for sketch comedy?

This sounds dismal, and I don’t mean it to, but there really are no other options that you want to consider other than UCB and The PIT. And we’ve done plenty of stuff at Comix. I do love Comix, and I think they’re a great venue.

If you want to do a run of sketches – which really is what you should be doing if you want to do sketch comedy – then UCB or The PIT are what you should be aiming for. It’s not just because industry’s gonna check you out there. Their stages are just laid out better for sketch comedy performances. They both have back stage areas, they both have the technical capabilities, and they both have big enough stages to support a sketch comedy show, which just naturally needs to be bigger because there’s more people than, say, a stand-up show.

Can you share some of the challenges or realities of trying to book your own show? Say you’ve got a half hour of sketch material, but you have nowhere to put it on. How can newcomers go about trying to get their material seen on stage in New York?

For the first couple of years, before we really started working with The PIT and to a certain extent UCB, we rented our own venues. We rented places like The Red Room, or pretty much any other venue we could get a hand on. The challenge there obviously is that you’re laying out a lot of money up front. That’s the biggest problem.

But the way of getting over that is promoting the crap out of it. We hated it, but we spent hours and hours and hours walking all over the city, dropping off postcards at every single bar in New York, putting up stickers everywhere (Don’t tell the cops that), putting up posters everywhere (Again, don’t tell the cops that). But we did every single one of those things because we knew that if we don’t fill those seats, we’re not gonna make our money back. And the great thing about that is we overfilled our seats, and for years we ended up completely over-packing and selling out our shows because we so overcompensated with the promotion. Especially for a young group, that’s the best thing you can do. You want a full audience. My general rule of thumb is, hopefully 100 percent of your audience loves everything you’re doing, but chances are they probably won’t. But if you have a hundred seats a hundred seats at a venue and you have a hundred people there, if 50 percent of the audience likes it, then that’s still 50 people who are laughing hysterically at something, and that sounds huge. If you have a hundred seats in the audience and there are only ten people there, and 50 percent of them laugh, that’s five people, which sounds terrible. So you want to be packing your audience as much as possible, which is the eternal problem. But it’s something you have to be doing, and it will help you in the long run.

People like things that are popular. If you go in and see a show where there’s only 10 people in the audience, you’re gonna say, “Eww! Maybe this isn’t a popular show,” even if it’s the best show you’ve ever seen in you entire life. But if you go in and it’s completely sold out, you’ll have one of two reactions: either, “Oh man, this show’s amazing. This is so popular and this is so great, I’m so glad to be here,” or, “Why does everybody like this?” But the thing about the “why does everybody like this” reaction is, if it’s already packed and the audience is over-effusive and it’s completely sold out, people are actually less likely to say negative things about it. You don’t want to seem like you’re missing something. Either way, if you saw the show, you win.

Does renting out your own spaces give you more freedom than if you were just given a half-hour time slot at an established venue?

One thing that happens when you rent your own venue and it is completely on you, is you do have this sense of urgency. “Oh crap, I’ve got to make my money back.” As opposed to places like The PIT and UCB, and I don’t want to speak for them or what their financial deal is or anything, but there’s certainly a little bit more of a buffer there because you’re not putting up that initial money. Because of that there’s not always that same sense of urgency that we’ve got to sell this out.

But it seems like there should be, because you’re more likely to get invited back to a place like UCB next time if you sell out your show, right?

Exactly.

Was that part of your budget when you came to New York? Did you know that you would have to pay to rent venues and distribute marketing materials, or is that something that catches most comedians by surprise?

We decided pretty early on that we love doing this, we want to be doing this, and we want to make a significant investment in this. With Elephant Larry, we all said, “Whatever this costs, let’s do it.” And we’ve gotten to a point now where we are making money on things that aren’t just performances. It hasn’t necessarily paid back all the money we personally put into it, but it pays for the stuff we’re doing with Elephant Larry, and that feels pretty good.

Elephant Larry has again been nominated for an ECNY Award for Best Sketch Comedy Group. The ECNY Awards will be presented March 8 at Comix in NYC. The group has also recently completed its first TV pilot, “The WOW,” a sketch comedy version of movie theater pre-show “adver-tertainment” like “AMC’s First Look” and “The Twenty”. Watch the full episode online at ElephantLarry.com.

Aspiring comedians can attend a free upcoming The Savvy Actor workshop, “Funny Business: Intro to Making a Career in Comedy/Improv,” at The PIT March 2. For more info, visit www.thepit-nyc.com.

This Q&A was posted online Feb. 25, 2010 at Blog Stage.

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