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The Skinny on LA’s Improv Training Scene

David Valdez is the Executive Producer & Host of LIVE TAPING! WITH DAVID VALDEZ – a new talk show presented once a month from the Jon Lovitz Comedy Club located at Universal CityWalk. The show is taped in front of a live comedy club audience and features segments similar to the traditional format of the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. This premiere was a pilot episode for the internet site The goal of this collaboration between LIVE TAPING & DipDive is to broadcast young & hip media content through a talk show format. David is also a classically trained actor and writer in the Los Angeles area. He has a Bachelors Degree from Yale University and a Masters in Fine Arts from American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco. David was a frequent collaborator on THE MIND OF MENCIA on Comedy Central, both on the writing staff and as a performer. Recently he has been performing stand-up comedy in theaters and arenas across the country opening for Carlos Mencia. David is also developing his one-man show, Scarred for Life: Tale of a Mexican-American Trying to Get Out of East LA, which chronicles his misadventures growing up in East LA and moving onto an education at an Ivy-league school.

Acting is a funny business. I’m serious. For all the types of acting that can be done nowadays, we actors strive ever-harder to make a quick impression. This isn’t the case for all folks, but it is the case for a rising demographic of Hollywood performers that are trying to “make it.”

It used to be that one would have to build up their rank-or earn their stripes—or elevate their game—or whatever you want to call it, in order to make a stamp in this business. But those were the days when agencies had control of your reels and who to send them to. It essentially changed when YouTube became a phenomenon and viral video stars were created by tracking the latest trends with emails that spread with, “Hey, have you seen this vid?” That spawned a process in the business that would allow many agencies to bypass the olden days of pushing their clients the hard way in lieu of passing on the popular link. And the reason: results. Videos have a result built in. A million hits is a million hits. You make us laugh—even better. Funny always sells. You crack a smile out of us and we’ll crack open our wallets to support the product.

The question to ponder is how this reality has changed the comedy business. We want the audience to laugh. And we’ll suffer any means to make it happen. We’ll play along with Sarah Silverman and Matt Damon when they jest about having an affair on Jimmy Kimmel’s show. Again, it’s the hits that count. Students of acting are quick to resolve that if you make it funny you may make a name for yourself; impressing the crowd will do more for your self-esteem than a full social calendar. That’s right, anybody can become a somebody. And the work can be minimal on that road to fame. Why, David? What changed?

Everyone got a computer.

At least, everyone who matters in Hollywood. Really, what changed is that comedy became more accessible. For over two decades, the only shows that gave comics a constant home were late night talk shows or programs like Saturday Night Live. That was the home you wanted to live in, if your aim was to make others laugh on a regular basis. It was the place where your skills would be tested in front of a live audience. SNL was briefly joined by MadTv, but the same rules applied- fight tooth and nail to land a spot on either ensemble cast. When The Office took shape on American television, we saw the rise of a new breed in improvised comedy in that they proved an improvised or loosely scripted sitcom can hold its charm against traditional comedies. The Office paved the way for a spinoff in Parks & Recreation and built an hour-long block of this stylized invasion. Add to the mix Modern Family and again, the roster is expanding. We are starting to see a trend in the nature of comedy seen on television. Namely, that more improvisers will be called in to fill the tube with their skills. Will we be able to handle the demand?

It’s a joke. We’ve been ready. Hollywood has been gearing up for years. At about the same time the shift was beginning to turn on network television, improv comedy centers were started to gain momentum as well. Where there was only need for a couple major centers of study (and this is only speaking of the Los Angeles area), now we have four: SecondCity, IO West, The Groundlings and newcomer UCB Theatre. Let me break it down for you.

Improvisation and improv comedy was founded in Chicago. It grew to great popularity when some of the local stars hit it nationally in a show called Saturday Night Live. Stars were created, and improv began its influence over pop culture. Inevitably, the appeal of using improv comedy as a means-to-an-end led many performers to Hollywood, where they could use their dynamic skills to land roles in movies and television. Is improv really helpful? Yes. Short and simply, it has become second-nature for casting directors to ask about an actor’s improv background- have you studied anywhere? Do you perform with any comedy groups here? Casting directors will often use this information for the first round of eliminations. So, if you have the training, it will most likely benefit you.

At The SecondCity, you will get an emphasis on developing your craft as a writer. The purpose of this study center is to develop material culled from the improv exercises. Something about the free nature of doing improv exercises leads SecondCity performers to access their best writing. The evolution is expected to happen from an improv exercise to a sketch that is organic and fully developed. At this current moment, the staff of teachers at Los Angeles training center is one of the strongest rosters of comedy educators. That is because the original SecondCity center in Chicago has sent its crème of the crop to Hollywood just for that purpose (and it doesn’t hurt that those same performers are in town during pilot season).

The Groundlings was Los Angeles’ answer to Chicago’s SecondCity. Here, performers like Will Ferrell, Jon Lovitz, Phil Hartman, and Paul Reubens (aka Pee Wee Herman) got their start. The mission of Groundlings is to offer “a systematic approach to improvisation and writing skills.” Having talked to some students who have gone through the program, it is a cutthroat environment. Groundings is serious about the performers they develop and moving through the four phases of their program requires an initial audition and then an invitation to continue further study. This means, you have to make an impression in order to continue studying there. But, overall, the discipline is one of the best of all the programs. There is a real push for students to create a set of “characters” for themselves…characters that would work in any comedic situations. Hence, this is a good study for those that want to be future stars on SNL.

UCB Theatre is the one place for study that has a home on each coast. The only one with that title. Founded by a group of rambunctious friends (Matt Besser, Amy Poehler, Ian Roberts, and Matt Walsh) who traveled from Chicago to NYC with their own show. Very quickly: this led to a show on Comedy Central and then to their own theater space in New York where they built a group of teachers to spread their particular form of improv  in the New York scene. Having come a littler later into the game, UCB is a good place to go if you already have an understanding of the rules of the game. In many ways, this training center is best described as sketch writing on your feet. They do churn out great improv comedians, but do just as well in producing talented writers. Their biggest skill is to take what you already know in comedy and hone it. Improve what you do. I wouldn’t recommend UCB Theatre if you are new to improv as a student, but I would recommend it if you are interested in catching a great variety of shows. Aside from their training center, they are well-known as a theater that provides a space to many traveling shows. All of their shows are relatively inexpensive and sometimes surprise you with celebrity drop-ins wanting to work on some new material. UCB is a great place to catch quality comedy for an average of five bucks a show.

If you plan on using improvisation as a skill on your resume, IO West offers the best introduction for beginners. It is a very welcoming environment for those newcomers because there is no pretense of what you need to know to begin to study the art of improv comedy. Their fundamental program revolves around the original decrees laid out by founder Del Close. Del is credited with originating the long-form of improv and establishing a set of rules that can be shared amongst those wanting to participate in it. It is Del’s book, Truth in Comedy, that is the most widely referenced in all improv courses. Del’s approach to improvisation was the first to organize a set of standards for how to practice and evolve the art form. There are a lot of different groups that perform there and I can attest to the quality of entertainment that they present. The best way to describe the vibe at IO West is to compare it to a circus- everyone goes there to have fun and you can tell that the performers are enjoying the show as much as the audience. I like that in my comedy. Here, your comedy will always begin with a simple suggestion from the audience that leads the performers to a series of scenes based off that suggestion. The performers generally make it look easy. Spoiler alert: it’s hard to make it look easy. The training is all about teaching performers to free up, be available, be affirmative with their choices and to create an open space with their teammates: in other words, the bottom line is to be a good actor.

That’s true. I’ve found that some of the best improv performers happen to be some of the best actors. It all comes back to listening. Actors need to listen. Maybe that’s why casting directors are so interested in improv performers…because the real secret is listening. I can’t believe I just admitted that. But I stand by my word.

To learn more about David’s show, LIVE TAPING! WITH DAVID VALDEZ, visit its Facebook Fan Page.

  1. Michael Venske on Tuesday 20, 2010

    As an actor looking to move to LA eventually, it’s great to have this information in my back pocket! Thank you again!

  2. Jamie Fishback on Tuesday 20, 2010

    I am currently going to Hot House Improv. While not in this list, or well known, I believe that it will hold up against any of the top contenders in LA.

  3. Social comments and analytics for this post…

    This post was mentioned on Twitter by southey: .@Wolffem Check out this blog post, it has a brilliant breakdown of the 4 main Improv schools here in LA

  4. Fad23 on Tuesday 20, 2010

    I have been taking classes from Monkey Butler – and loving it. The classes are free and several there are four beginning classes that meet every week. I can’t compare the class quality to the four schools mentioned as I’ve only seen shows and never have watched classes, but the Monkey Butler teachers care quite a bit about what they’re doing. I think some of the advanced Monkey Butler folks are starting to move up the ranks at IO and UCB. If anything, at least their classes are a great place to get one’s feet wet. For my part, it’s been nice to have a place to just get creative.

  5. Kat Primeau on Tuesday 20, 2010

    I highly recommend Laughter for a Change – check out why here: