Denver comedian Sam Tallent has been a rising star in the standup scene over the last few years, hosting The Squire open mic and performing as part of the Fine Gentleman's Club at the comedy quartet's wildly popular Wednesday night show, Too Much Fun. Still, many fans may not know that Tallent's talents are firmly rooted in improv comedy. A graduate of the Bovine Theater with years of unscripted comedy under his belt, Tallent is going to be sharing his knowledge of improv during his new eight-week course, Skills for the Stage, which begins this Sunday at Deer Pile. We recently sat down with Tallent to discuss the improv industry, why he switched to standup, and how his years of improv still inform his standup comedy.
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Westword: There are many different improv classes around town; what is different about yours?
Sam Tallent: This is really a class based on everything I've learned in my years of performing comedy and the classes that I've taken. You could take the Bovine's forty-week thing, but the first eight weeks are just "How to Drink Out of a Fake Glass," or "How to Open a Fake Door," or "Yes, And." They hammer that shit into you for so long, but I'm just doing more of a best-of-all-of-those skills and what I know.
In the last couple years that I've been watching you perform, I've always known you as more of a standup. But you have a hefty background in improv, right?
I started in improv. I'm a graduate of the Bovine, I did their forty-week class. Before I did standup, I was a hardcore improviser. From the age of nineteen to twenty-one I was on the Bovine house team.
I love improv, but it doesn't really pay that well. Standup was more of a means to an end, because it was just me. I didn't have to worry about scene partners or anyone not showing up for practice. I still love improv; I still do it with T.J. Miller when he's in town.
But it's more of a hassle?
It wasn't so much of a hassle, it's just that I haven't had a square job for six years. So if it comes down to doing a standup gig in Lakewood for fifty bucks or going to an improv practice, I need the money.
What are the major differences between standup and improv?
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Improv is totally different. Improv is like football: everyone's working toward a common goal. Standup is wrestling: it's you against another guy, which is the audience, and you have to best them. So with improv you have to learn to work within the team, you have to decide what your form is for the half-hour. There are so many different ways you can do it.
I know you haven't started the classes yet, but do you think your students will be made up of people with no stage experience, or people who are halfway there and want to sharpen their skills?
It's mostly standups. I've had standups asking me for a while where to take classes, and wondering if it's helped me with performing. So they're taking the class to learn how to be more organic on the stage and more fluid in their thinking, not be afraid of the unknown.
So the improv skills that you're teaching are applicable to standup comedy?
The class is definitely skewed so standups can take these skills into what they do. I don't think any of these people are going to be like "let's put together a long-form team" after the class is finished. Maybe some of them will do improv; I hope they do. The class isn't exclusively for standups, it just so happens that most of the people who are taking the class are standups that I know.
I've taught this thing on the road, too. I taught it in Omaha, and Aaron Urist took it out there. I just went into an improv theater and showed them my credits with improv and what I'd done, and I had seven people sign up for the class. And I've taught through the Bovine, and various youth seminars on improv.
You do a lot of crowd work and in-the-moment comedy as a standup; are those skills you honed in your years of doing improv?
I learned all that through improv. When I was coming up, I wanted to be Belushi and Farley -- I wanted to be in Ghostbusters III. I was lucky to go from improv into standup, and now as a standup I can see what is good for other standups to use from the pile of skills I learned in my years in improv.
In my standup act, I force a rapport with the audience, and make them the scene partner. I look for them to react and then I try to create something right there in the room. If someone drops a glass, I want to jump on it and make that an organic part of my act. One of the most applicable skills for standups will be dealing with hecklers. In that moment, the heckler has the power, wondering if he can best you, but you have the status of the microphone. So improv teaches you to concede power to that person, and then follow them -- because you have to follow the follower.
I've heard you say in the past that you love hecklers, which is very different than most standups I've talked to. Do you think that's because your background in improv has affected your approach to standup?
I think I'm definitely not afraid of hecklers. I don't go up there with a completely planned set. Like Charpie [Chris Charpentier] goes up there with crafted jokes that are strong, and they're cut down for word-usage, they're these perfect little crafted jokes that he wants to present. A lot of comics will go up there with this great idea, this polished gem, and they don't want anyone talking during it. It's like if you put up your painting you don't want some guy coming along and drawing on it.
But I don't have that feeling. For me it's more of a group thing; these people are here to be a part of something. I don't want to go up there and do my jokes; I want to talk about this guy's shirt, and have his girlfriend make fun of his shirt with me, I want to talk about their relationship, and maybe extrapolate that into what a day in their life might be. I want to go on a tangent about the room.
As a comedian, is that where you get some of your best material?
Oh, yeah. And I think that's why I get booked more than some other people do, because I don't do the same show every night. If I'm going to do an hour in Greeley at the DownUnder, probably half of that hour is going to be me making it up and trying to do something organic. It's not always the most hilarious thing that you create, but if you have enough confidence, you can follow it out to the farthest reaches of your interaction with this person -- that's where the good stuff is.
Sometimes, though, I'll have stock lines for people in the audience. I'll say something to a person in the crowd, and it will seem like something I just thought of, but in reality it's just something that's worked in the past. So it appears organic, but it's the same road. So I have to watch myself on that. I don't want to set myself up for that false reality where it's just strings that I'm pulling in my own choose-your-own-adventure story. I don't want to do that. If you're willing to just get weird, that's where the best shit comes from.
Do you think that forcing yourself to think of something in that split second, when the pressure's on, activates a different creative zone in the brain as opposed to sitting on your couch with a pen and paper writing out jokes?
Yes. Because you're not thinking. If you're doing improv right, you're not thinking; you're just reacting organically and honestly in the moment. We're having a conversation right now, and basically this is improv.
I don't sit down and write jokes, that's not my process. If I have an idea for a joke, I'll take it to the stage and try to work it out.
But there are great comics out there who do meticulously craft perfect little jokes, like Mitch Hedberg or Woody Allen.
And some of my favorite comics have been one-liner comics. I love Hedberg, Steven Wright, my friend Roger Norquist. When I first started I was a total one-liner comic, I would cling to them. I thought standup was completely separate from improv -- I thought these people didn't want to see me make anything up, they wanted to see me do jokes. So I was terrified to do any kind of riffing on stage.
But if you're doing good improv, you're not thinking about anything. It's Michael Jordan in the zone, seven out of seven three pointers in a row; or the pianist who blacks out during the concerto and wakes up to a standing ovation. It's that zen, that being in the middle of the moment, and being okay with the moment. That's what I want the standups to take away from the class: being okay with not having any idea what's going on, not trying to be in control. Don't think, just react.
Sam Tallent's Skills For the Stage Class begins this Sunday at noon, with a second class at 3 p.m. at Deer Pile, 206 East 13th Avenue. The classes last eight weeks and are $10 a session. To sign up, e-mail Sam Tallent at email@example.com.
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For more comedy commentary, follow me on Twitter at @JosiahMHesse.