A talk I gave at the AIN Conference 2015 on how I use improv to converse with other humans.
A 5-minute set I did at The Stand in NYC.
25 April 2015. Brussels, Belgium
I cringed slightly as I took the picture. Up until that point, it was the creepiest picture I had ever taken. Sadly, in less than an hour, it was going to become the second creepiest picture I had every taken.
The picture was of Manneken Pis. I was in Brussels and my companion, friend, and tour guide, Sebastian, a fellow 8th Floor alumni, was showing me around his city.
As we walked around the downtown area, Sebastien shared with me what he had learned in the two years that he had lived in Belgium.
Neither French Nor Freedom Fries
He shared the various Belgian foods that were popular: beer, chocolate, waffles, and my favorite, French Fries. Although to call them French Fries in Belgium is quite insulting.
I was told that fries were invented in Belgium, and it’s clear that today they are still a big part of their culture, with their tiny forks and myriad of dipping sauces to choose from.
The story goes that, during World War II, American soldiers came to Belgium and fell in love with the fries.
However, the Americans weren’t very good at geography, so they assumed that because the Belgians were speaking French, they must be in France. And thus upon their return to the states, referred to the delicious potato treats as French Fries… something the Belgians have not yet forgotten.
Maury Povich of Statues
There, atop one of the buildings, is a statue of a woman holding a baby, but instead of looking at the baby, the woman is looking at another statue.
Supposedly, she is looking at the other statue, that of a man, as if to say, “you are the father of this baby.” That statue, however, is pointing to a third statue, as if to say, “No, he is the father.” Statue #3 is pointing to a fourth statue, who’s looking down, to say, “Yes, he is in fact, the father.
At this point, I started to wonder how true these stories actually were, but ultimately didn’t care as they were thoroughly entertaining.
The Story of the Weird Statue
However, my favorite story brings us back to Manneken Pis and the awkward picture I had just taken.
The great story attempts to answer the question: how did a 3-foot bronze statue of a little boy peeing become the icon of an entire city?
And when I say little boy, I mean little. Not a 10-year-old but a 4- or 5-year-old. And when I say icon, I mean it’s a place where tourists flock with their selfie sticks to take pictures of themselves with a boy peeing in the background.
I don’t know if that just speaks to the uniqueness of the statue or perhaps people’s lack of imagination for other things to do in Brussels, but alas, here I was still in front of the peeing boy, still taking a picture.
The reason for the iconic statue isn’t exactly known, but there are plenty of stories to say why it’s so important, and that’s what I love about the statue.
Some stories are more mundane, such as a witch found the boy peeing on her property so she turned him into a statue, or a father, who had lost his son, promised to erect a statue of his boy in whatever pose he found him in.
There were also a number of stories turning the boy into a hero. One story suggests that the statue was meant to honor a boy who had discovered an effective way of warding off enemy soldiers: by standing in a tree and peeing down on them. Another said that there was a bomb in the city and the little boy had peed on the fuse to prevent it from going off.
But my favorite story was a little bit more elaborate. It claims that there was a great fire way-back-when in Brussels that tragically happened during a great drought. The townspeople didn’t have any water and so they had no way to put the fire out. The town was doomed… until this little boy decided to put the fire out by peeing on it.
Now of course the boy didn’t have enough pee to put the whole thing out, duh, so he had to constantly drink beer so that he could maintain a steady stream to extinguish the fire.
Not only is it a hero story but also one that includes the Belgian beer.
One other great tidbit about the statue is that at one point, French soldiers stole the statue from the town. Later, Louis XVI decided to give the statue back, and as a way to apologize, gave the statue a metal honor. Meaning, anytime a French soldier passes the statue of the little boy peeing, they must give it a salute.
But alas, the tale does end there. For the last stop on our tour of downtown Brussels was where I took the new creepiest picture I had taken, of yet another statue.
This statue depicted a little girl peeing in a squatting stance, weirdly behind a fenced-in area. It was a companion piece to Manneken Pis, but for obvious reasons, wasn’t nearly as popular. It also sadly didn’t have any cool stories to go along with it, other than, “I guess we should make a girl one too?”
25 April 2015. Amsterdam, Netherlands
My boots landed with a heavy thud as I ran down the Amsterdam street. With every step I took, every move I made, I was missing Biggie Smalls… but also making my way closer to Central Station in Amsterdam.
I had just finished a standup show at Boom Chicago in Amsterdam. It had gone really well; the audience was a mix of expats and Dutch people and they had enjoyed my nerdy brand of humor. I had spent much of the time after the show conversing with people and talking with a few booking agents about possibly coming back to Europe to do more shows.
Those conversations delayed me till after midnight and I was now 12 minutes away from Central Station with the next train leaving in 10 minutes. If I missed the train, I was spending the next 90 minutes or so in Central Station waiting for the train to Utrecht.
I was staying in the Amsterdam suburb because I had discovered on AirBNB there was a houseboat that I could stay on, and I figured if I’m in Amsterdam, why stay in a regular hotel when I can stay on a boat in a canal.
The houseboat itself had been really nice, the bed was small but the shower was surprisingly bigger than the showers I experienced in other spots in Europe so far. The problem with the boat was that it was 40 minute train ride from Amsterdam Central Station, and and even longer wait if I missed the next train.
So my boots hit heavy on the ground as I continued to make my way towards the station.
As I ran, I’d take a few pauses to cross streets against the traffic lights. Not to avoid cars but to avoid getting hit by one of the way too many bikes that were still out on the street even though it was after midnight.
The number of bikes in Amsterdam was crazy. Everything that people normally do walking, people in Amsterdam do while cycling: hold hands, carry umbrellas, take up too much space on the sidewalk. Everything.
So I made sure I was cautious in my hurried movements. At one point, I noticed a nice picturesque view of a canal. It was my first night in Amsterdam so I stopped to take a picture, thinking that even if I miss the train, it was probably worth capturing the moment. Maybe (said picture is at the top of this post).
I then picked up the pace on my jog the Central Station, arriving with two minutes to spare but still in need of getting a train ticket. Luckily I had been in the train station quite a few times and knew the process, but as I arrived, I saw only crowded ticket kiosks.
I decided to take a calculated risk and got on the train, sans ticket (sorry, Mom). In my previous trip from Central Station to Utrecht, no one ever checked my ticket. And I figured that if I was caught, I could plead ignorance as a dumb American and hopefully get by with puppy dog eyes.
Fortunately I didn’t have to use these lyin’ eyes as I made it all the way to Utrecht without incident. I had successfully left Boom, crossed a bridge, and made it to the boat.
19 April 2015. Stavanger, Norway
I casted my line out into the water. The lore made a “plop” sound, much like an Oreo does when you accidentally drop it into your chocolate milk.
I’d finally gotten the hang of fishing without a bob after many many attempts. I was in Norway, enjoying a gorgeous day, standing on the side of a pond. It was private property, but I was assured that the owners (probably) didn’t mind we were there.
There were five of us comedians total. We had all performed in the touMAZEing Comedy Festival in Stavanger. A few people had wanted to go fishing, and on a last-minute whim, I decided to join them. I didn’t have anything else that I needed to do that day and hadn’t been fishing in at least 10 years, so I thought, “Sure, why not?”
The other comedians with me were hilarious people. Two of them were Norwegian natives. Tom Weum specializes in musical comedy, known for his ability to work with kids and also the creator of great song parodies. The other Norwegian, Pål Espen Mulder Kilstad, is an actor and dad in the area and was quite the outdoorsman.
Comedian #3 was Tim FitzHigham, a British comedian known for sailing across the English Channel in a bathtub. And #4 was an Argentinian comedian, Adrián Minkowicz, now based in Norway.
So there we were. 5 comedians, fishing for 4 hours, using a total of 3 rods, in 2 different locations, and we caught… 1 fish. Not even a big fish, a small trout about 6 inches long.
Afterwards, we took the fish back to Tom’s house where his sons were already cooking some delicious burgers for us. We threw the fish on the grill along with the burgers and I had an internal battle as to whether or not I’d eat some of it.
I’m not much of seafood person; I don’t like the texture, taste, smell, or sight of fish but other than that… And still, I decided I had to at least taste the spoils of our hard work.
I took a small bite of the trout and was pleasantly surprised that it didn’t taste too fishy (which has always been a little weird to me, the taste of a good fish is that it doesn’t taste like fish).
Prior to this outing, I had always considered fishing to be on the more boring side of leisure activities, right up there with watching plants grow (aka gardening) and watching plants die (aka gardening). But when you’re out with four other comedians making jokes and doing bits, time certainly does fly by.
Maybe that’s what made the fish taste better. I didn’t want to think that I wasted four hours outside and got nothing in return. Instead, I picked up great tips, great stories, and a whole bunch of laughs from the other comedians.
I’m told the next time I come back to Stavanger, I’ll be treated to a proper game dinner with reindeer that’s freshly been hunted, prepared the right way, that takes a day to make, and a couple of hours to thoroughly enjoy.
I’m already looking forward to the return trip.
11 April 2015. Columbus, OH
I looked around the room at the 30+ people playing the warm up Kitty in the Corner. Everyone participating was at least 18 years old and having an incredibly fun time.
I was the oldest person in that room (by just a few weeks). I was also one of the reasons they were in that room to begin with.
I was in Columbus, OH, having returned for the 8th Floor Alumni Weekend. The 8th Floor, an improv comedy group me and 5 other friends started while at The Ohio State University, was still going strong. One of the many traditions, along with others like music making you lose control and unique birthday celebrations, was that every year there was a reunion weekend where as many of the groups’ alumni return for socializing, practicing, and performing.
As one of the founders, I try to return as often as I can, not just to see old friends and group members, but to also to check in on the group.
This was the 11th year of the group’s existence as the premier improv comedy group on Ohio State’s campus, and while we never really imagined it getting this big, we selfishly wanted the group to survive as long as possible. After all, it’s part of the legacy we’ve left at OSU.
The whole thing started while playing Halo (the video game). My best friend wanted to start an improv group… so we did. We started as 6 friends practicing in the basement of Residence Halls. By the time I graduated 2 years later, we were a cast of 16 performing twice a week at a black box theater on South Campus.
After the founders left is when the group really took off. Some very smart people came into the group and got them performing at Freshmen Orientation. Immediately every on campus knew who the group was. Now, 11 years later, it was one of the established things to do on campus, with shows selling out 150+ seat auditoriums.
Tonight was about celebrating that history. In just a few minutes we’d head upstairs to the theater in the Union, where we’d do long-form sets as teams mixed of all generations of the group.
But for the moment, kitty was in the corner, and he went that way.
28 March 2015. Richmond, VA
I stepped out into center stage, or as we call it, the middle of the playing field. The stage lights shined brightly in my face. The loyal fans eagerly awaited what I had to say.
I was performing in a ComedySportz match, playing one of my favorite types of games, with some of my favorite people.
The people were fellow managers of other CSz Teams from around the country. ComedySportz is produced by CSz Worldwide and can be found in 25 different cities in the United States and in the UK and in Germany.
The show is improv comedy played as a sport, where 2 teams go back and forth in game-based improv, where the fans help decide on a winning team. More so than any show that I’ve ever been a part of, ComedySportz is about celebrating the fans who come to see the show, making them the starts of the night as opposed to the performers on stage.
We were all in Richmond, VA for a Shareholders’ Meeting, where all of the managers from the individual cities get together once a year and talk about business strategies, city updates, and general tomfoolery. For the past few years, I had been taking an increased role in those meetings helping the lead branding committee and serve on the executive council.
This was a bittersweet meeting in Richmond because I was stepping away from a lot of those duties as part of this nomad adventure that I was going on.
Back on stage, the show continued on. Thus far it had been a blast, not a surprise when you’re playing with incredibly talented improvisers, many of whom have more than 20 years of improv experience.
The game I so loved was called Celebrity Punishment, a jump-out style game that includes making puns based off of celebrity names, much like Garth from Wayne’s World (“If she were a president, she would be Baberham Lincoln”). Like all ComedySportz games, Celebrity Punishment starts by getting a suggestion from the audience, for this game, the name of a celebrity.
I was stepping out to make a pun based off of the suggestion of Bruce Willis. I took a breath and then shared, “If Bruce Willis was a mediator, he’d be Truce Willis.” The audience mostly laughed.
I stepped back, while my fellow managers and players stepped in sharing their own jokes on Bruce.
I couldn’t help but marvel at the fun that ComedySportz is; it’s one of the funnest shows I’ve ever done and I’ve had the privilege of doing it since I joined CSz New York in 2008.
It’s also given me a ton of opportunity within the corporate world. I’ve helped lead a number of workshops at a number of different organizations in applied improvisation. Much of what I’ve learned in training and performance can be attributed to the people on the stage with me.
I bring my focus back to the match just as the suggestion changes. It’s now Britney Spears. A few managers share their lines before I step out and say, “if Britney Spears were more advanced she would be Britney Bow and Arrow.”
The audience groans in delight at the terrible joke. Admittedly, I take delight in a groan as much as a laugh. The suggestion changes to JFK.
I step forward, “If JFK had come a little bit later, he’d be GES.”
I’m definitely going to miss this.
24 March 2015. Over New York, NY
I sat anxiously in my seat. The plane I was on from Geneva was going to be landing at JFK in a short while.
The pilot was making an announcement over the intercom about fastening your seat belts and the like as my anxiety increased. I wasn’t anxious because of flying or the upcoming landing. I didn’t typically get nervous for those things.
I was anxious because I was watching a movie and I was worried that I wasn’t going to be able to finish it before the plane landed. The very important movie I was so heavily invested in was the classic, In Time, starring Justin Timberlake.
The premise is, that in the future, there is no currency except for time. You can trade it and it’s what you earn at work; the rich people have tons of it and poor people have very little of it. But when it runs out, you’re out of time aka out of life.
I had selected the movie after already having watched Birdman and doing some work. I had long ago justified to myself that flights were the perfect time to watch movies you wouldn’t normally watch. You were already being “productive” by moving from one spot to another, so you might as well veg out.
The problem with movie selection, however, is if you start a film too late, you may never see the end of it. I was worried that had happened and was waiting for the pilot to stop talking so I could start watching again.
Eventually the pilot wrapped up his English portion of the safety announcement… before launching into the German version of it. Then a moment or two later, the French version of it. The disadvantage of traveling internationally.
After he finished, the movie started to pick up again at the intense point where Will (Justin Timberlake) and Sylvia (Amanda Seyfried) are escaping the Minutemen and I can tell the movie is starting to get to the climax and, hopefully, resolution when the pilot comes on yet again, this time talking about the freaking weather.
There’s nothing more frustrating than your movie being interrupted to hear about the weather, save for hearing about said weather in three different languages.
I felt myself getting more anxious, ironically feeling like Justin Timberlake’s character in the movie, wondering if I was running out of time to actually watch “In Time”, the movie, “in time” before the plane landed.
(As a side note, perhaps my favorite part of the movie was that the writers decided to work in as many time-related puns and phrases as possible. If their writing was food, I’d go back for seconds…)
The announcement finished and the movie started to wrap up. And just as the wheels hit the ground, the credits rolled. Just in tim(b)e(rlake).