Grant Perham – You Can’t Make This Up

Although he plays with me on Bad Magic, I got to know Grant Perham best when we spent several Saturday mornings together playing the Battlestar Galactica board game. It was there I learned that he moved to St. Louis from Oregon on a whim into an apartment with his online friend, Colin Katrenak. To me, that’s about the boldest thing someone could do – leave everything they know behind to move into a strange city where you only have one friend (who could be a creepy ax murderer).

Thankfully, Colin is also an awesome dude who didn’t chop Grant into bits, which is great, because I’ve also really enjoyed playing with him on Bad Magic. Grant is more quiet, thoughtful, and patient than many of the players on our team, and he’s just what we need. He’s the guy who always comes into the scene with the perfect initiation or walk on while the rest of us are too busy making dick jokes.

Meet Grant Perham:

Grant Perham

Why did you get into improv? How long have you been doing it?

There’s a long answer and a short answer to this, but I’m going to buck my usual trend of being quiet and reserved and give the long one.

I started taking classes at The Improv Shop a little more than two years ago, but on further reflection, I had a little bit of experience years before that. In middle school my mom urged me to get some friends together for a program called Destination Imagination. I don’t remember it all very well, but it involved a number of little challenges, some artistic, some STEM-related, some improvisational. Part of it was writing a short play, building the sets and all that, and at the day of performance, we were given additional surprise elements and props that we had to implement. We won regionals and went to state! Then, as a freshman in high school, I went on a school trip to a shortform improv festival (for schools, I think) in Portland. One of my best friends from high school met the woman who would become his wife on this trip, but my only memory of it was, when someone asked if anyone had a hairbrush, and I did and offered mine, was them declining and saying they’ll brush it later.

Already being super introverted and socially anxious, I was only able to do either of these after extreme urging from a small circle of friends. After that, though, I started getting even more introverted, and for the rest of high school and throughout college, did nothing at all that could be considered public performance, save for, I suppose, Dance Dance Revolution tournaments. I hella regret making these choices (or rather, not making choices to Go Do Stuff) and spending a solid 8 years as a mess of debilitating depression, anxiety, and later, addiction.

I eventually started getting some of my shit together, started taking anti-depressants, and found myself able to start Doing Things again, after graduating college. Most of my life my parents had urged me to do some sort of performance, and while I don’t know if it was to continue some sort of family tradition, (my paternal grandfather was a Unitarian minister and “humorist” (check out Joe Perham’s Maine Humor! He’s got albums and stuff and videos on YouTube), my mom is a teacher, and my dad was a radio DJ, and is now a poet) or if it was just because I was an obnoxiously dramatic adolescent and they wanted me to channel it into something other than irritating them, some part of that had always stuck with me. I had a circle of friends from high school that I reconnected with after college, and we spent a lot of time drinking and playing Dungeons & Dragons. I had a lot of fun, but was frustrated that nobody I was playing with wanted to ever stay in character.

If you just wanted the short answer, start reading this now! About four years ago, (and maybe six months after finishing college) I moved from Oregon to Glen Carbon, Illinois on a bit of a whim after learning that my dear friend Colin Katrenak needed a new roommate and I needed to move back out of my parents’ house. Colin was (and is!) one of the funniest and kindest people I know, and eventually he started taking classes at The Improv Shop, back when it was still above Pat’s (at the same time as you, I believe). He took me, or maybe I invited myself, along to some shows. I remember seeing a bunch of teams, but some of the ones that stood out were B&E (though I don’t know if they were called that back then, but it was Guy Stephens and Steven Springmeyer) and Bodysnatchers (Mitch Eagles and Randy Brachman). I remember being blown away that both those teams were doing, in a sense, the same thing, but doing it very differently, but also both doing it very well. I loved the shows and I loved the community. I didn’t know anyone yet, but found it easy to talk to people smoking outside all crammed on that back staircase. I was on something of a self-improvement/getting-my-shit-together kick at the time, and I wanted to try to do it because it seemed fun, it seemed challenging, it looked like I could probably make some more friends, and it scared the hell out of me.

What has been your biggest takeaway from playing with Harold team Bad Magic for the past 7 months?

Has it been that long already? Wow. It’s been a great experience. I honestly love Harolds. People complain sometimes that the form seems constraining, but for me there’s something that feels sort of professional, serious, maybe academic, about it. Sometimes improv can feel like nothing more than fucking around, but the Harold provides a structure to it and even when we fill the Harold-container with cunnilingus jokes, it feels like more of an accomplishment to do one than if those same cunnilingus jokes were in a montage, and it’s particularly great to get to do them with so many awesome talented people.

When I first started, I was surprised that I got cast (low self-esteem will be a recurring theme here) and honestly super intimidated by seeing that I would be playing with folks like Jake Sellers and Davey Mendoza, who I didn’t know very well, but I knew had been at this way longer than me, and I would always see performing and crushing it way more consistently than I felt like I was. What really helped me get over this was actually talking to and getting to know these people, and then the other experience of having students or even just random audience members come up to me after shows, and say they liked the show, or even sometimes liked something I did in particular. Things like that help it sink in that time passes, things change, I can improve, and more importantly, make me remember that I was that student saying those things to people in what seems like a very short time ago. And that humbles me, and makes me remember we’re all just humans with this same dumb passion, so what the fuck’s the point of worrying about being scared?

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What was your favorite part about your three-month run with Yossarian Lives during the Long Form Showcase?

I absolutely loved the last few shows that we did. Though our showcase run was just for those three months, prior to that run, the bulk of the team had been performing together as a Harold team for several months already. We grew close, as teams can, and loved performing with each other, but when The Improv Shop changed their Harold program to an audition-based one, we had to find a new form to audition and play with if we wanted to keep playing together. We ended up with something, but I feel like we passed the audition more as a result of our team’s chemistry and commitment to each other, rather than doing any revolutionary work.

I can’t speak for everyone on the team, but personally, I was never particularly inspired by what we ended up with, and my performance and enjoyment of the team declined as a result. When we found out we weren’t getting our run extended though, we jumped on the opportunity to just have fun. For our last few shows we tossed our old form completely out and did three totally different shows, each based just on playing with the team name. We had Yossarian Drinks, a drinking game-based form that Cait Bladt came up with. Then Yossarian Dies, a form I don’t honestly remember too much of, but involved being at the wake of a team member, and it got personal and awesome. Finally there was Yossarian Dyes, the week before Easter, where we just literally dyed eggs on stage while doing a Living Room. These last shows were great because we threw away the pressure of having to do “good” work, and instead we just had fun with our friends on stage, and they were probably our funniest shows. It reignited my passion for this silly thing we do, and reminded me why I love to do it. Selfishly, it was the perfect thing for me to experience right before getting “serious” again when I got cast on Bad Magic.

How did improv help when you perform stand up (and vice versa)?

This probably isn’t the sort of answer you were hoping to hear, but, at least for me, it kinda didn’t help much. At least not as much as I had hoped it would. I’m not nearly as experienced in stand-up as I am in improv, but as I do more of each, I’m coming to find that they’re entirely different beasts. Improv is, with the rare exception of one-person shows, a collaborative process. Stand-up is, with the rare exception of two-person acts (I can only think of two these days, and they’re both sets of twins, (the Sklar brothers and the Lucas brothers)) is a solo thing, at least as far as performance goes.

If something’s not going the way I’d hope in improv, I’ve got between one and eleven people to help bail me out, because they’re just as invested in my success because it’s their success too. If things aren’t going the way I’d like in stand-up, I’m on my own. To be completely cynical, I might even worry that others are rooting for me to do poorly. Because of this, I’m not even sure that I could say doing improv helps me be more comfortable on stage doing stand-up. I don’t really have any sort of stage fright with improv anymore (which is already something that 2-years-ago-Grant would have never thought possible), but I’m still pretty nervous and uncomfortable when I do stand-up.

If there is a way either has helped the other, it’s in broadening my approach to comedy. As you learn from doing improv, audiences will laugh at all sorts of stupid shit. And while improv audiences and stand-up audiences will usually have really different expectations, having something really silly “work” in improv helps give me confidence to try it in stand-up. Plus, though I don’t have any stand-up material that utilizes much physicality or body movement yet, improv has given me a decent set of tools to help out if I decide to write material like that. I’ve also been working on writing some material that I would perform as a character, (Carl Sagan, specifically) and the “if this, then what” improv maxim is something I’ve used when trying to write that.

Can you share some words of wisdom with those just starting out?

Honestly, when I see the students at the shop these days, I’d rather listen to what they have to say than tell them anything. Part of this is because of my own issues with self-esteem — who the hell am I to tell these people what to do? — but partially because when I watch these students play, I see a passion and energy that I think is missing from my own work these days. Without meaning to, just one sentence ago, I referred to their improvising with the word “play” and mine with the word “work”! I keep finding myself caught up in making the technically “best” move, the pull from the opening that’s really funny but also not super obvious, (on my singing team) trying to be “impressive” or something dumb like that by trying to rhyme a phrase with a word like archaeologist, getting really mad at myself in situations when I recognize the game of a scene but being unable to contribute to it well because hitting the game hard maybe requires knowing a bunch about something I don’t know a bunch about.

To bring it back to the previous question, I wonder if my foray into stand-up, into a world of precise construction, rehearsal, and memorization is partially responsible for this, but the last thing I want ever to recommend is “avoid stand-up.” Please don’t do that. Consume and create all the comedy you can because laughing is one of the funnest things in this stupid world. But back to how new folks are doin’ stuff different than me, there’s a bunch of metaphors I could use. I could say that it feels like I’m trying to codify specific rules for Calvinball, and they’re just playing it. I could say that it feels like they’re just hitting the road and cruising, while I’m using Google Maps and trying to stick to the most efficient route. But basically, I’d urge them to hold on tight to that freedom and sense of spontaneity they play with, and if they haven’t awkwardly sidled away from me for complaining too much, I’d ask them how to get it back. If “just starting out” means people who haven’t really even done any 3-line scenes yet, I’d say to just read all the framed quotes along the Improv Shop walls from people way more wise than me. Especially “fuck your fear,” because, fuck your fear.

Grant Perham with Bad Magic

What is the best improv advice or note you have ever received?

I divide improv notes into two categories, big picture and little detail. For little detail, it was in a Rick and Laura Hall musical improv workshop, and it was simply “The lyrics aren’t written on the ceiling.” It’s just a little reminder to be painting a good stage picture, and not looking up or down or any direction that’s away from bright lights when trying to focus on something difficult is a hard habit to break, but it’s an important one. You’re on a stage. Like it or not, people are looking at you. Even if you’re just standing in a line singing a song, make sure that song’s what they’re going to be focusing on, not the one guy closing his eyes to think, the other guy crossing his arms in obvious discomfort while he waits his turn, or whatever.

As for big picture notes, my favorite one, and the one I try to keep in my pocket every time I improvise, comes from Bad Magic (and formerly Yossarian) coach, inspiration, friend, and all-around amazing person, Katie Nunn, and it’s “follow the fun”. It’s such a simple piece of advice, but such an important one. What I like best about it is how little explanation it really needs.

What is the best lesson you’ve learned from improv that translates to your real life?

Comparing and differentiating between “improv” and “real life” has always seemed weird to me. Improv has become my favorite thing to do and is the nexus for my entire social circle. If my “real life” is everything else, real life seems like it’s mostly a collection of bullshit I have to put up with while I’m not doing things that make me happy. This is probably why one of the most common pieces of improv advice I hear is to “have a life outside of improv. Have non-improv friends!” Which seems important, because bills, traffic, work (or worse, lack thereof), headaches, allergies, and occasionally enjoying myself with some music or TV or movies or books or video games, aren’t really enough for any sort of fulfillment. And if you find yourself not doing much besides improv, you might start finding it hard to do scenes that are about things other than improv, and that can get old fast.

So I’m going to say that the best improv lesson (one I need to start taking more to heart), is, again, “follow the fun”. Go on a hike. Try curling. Write a poem. There’s a whole lot of activities people can choose to do. People usually choose to do them because they’re pretty great in some way. People very rarely do things just because they aren’t fun. So learn about some things that people tend to do of their own volition and do the things so you can know more about things. Because life’s probably meaningless, so enjoy it, but don’t hurt people.

Do you have anything going on that you’d like to plug?

Well, besides Bad Magic, I’m on a musical improv team, called Hark!, that I’m having a bunch of fun with. We’ve been doing about a show a month with Poltergeist, another musical team, usually at the Heavy Anchor, but we’re looking at other options too. I’ve also recently created a YouTube channel, which you can find here . There’s not much there right now except for a (very) rough draft of a Weekend Update-style animated webseries; I don’t have the equipment to produce video, and Flash animation is time-consuming and difficult (especially synchronizing lips to speech, which I very quickly gave up on). I’ve also been trying to play more music recently, (mostly bass guitar) and I figured out how to record that on my computer, so I’ll probably put songs on there when I record them instead of SoundCloud or something so I can monetize the video and rake in those AdSense pennies. Finally, you can find me on Twitter, at @audhumla, retweeting radical politics, having long public conversations with people I could just as easily be texting, and occasionally I’ll post jokes. It’d be cool if you wanted to follow me or somethin’ I guess. *looks away sheepishly, kicks some dust up*

(Optional…well, more optional than the others). Is there a video, podcast episode, blog post etc about improv that you find particularly inspirational or inspiring?

There’s tons, but you said “a”, so I’ll just talk about this one — Ben Schwartz, one of my favorite improvisers that I’ve never met, has a monthly show at UCB called Snowpants, where he takes a group of awesome improvisers and then famous people who are not improvisers, and throws together a show. About a year and a half ago, he did this with some of his fellow cast members of the Showtime show House of Lies. So you’ve got non-improvisers like Don Cheadle and Kristen Bell getting super vulnerable and publicly trying something that they don’t know if they’ll be any good at, and doing it with people like Ben Schwartz, Lauren Lapkus, and Eugene Cordero, who are all known for being super good at that thing and it’s all really great. There’s an edited version on youtube here. And a full version somewhere if you have Showtime’s streaming service. I also really liked Katie Cook’s guest post here on “improverts”


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