I recently had the opportunity to sit down with Don Fanelli of the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater in New York City. Don is a performer at the theater that was co-founded by Amy Poehler, Matt Besser, Ian Roberts, and Matt Walsh and has bred some of the nation’s best improvisers and sketch writers.
Tell us a little bit about yourself and how you got started in Improv Comedy.
I went to Lehigh University in PA. I graduated in 2005 with an Industrial Engineering degree. I didn’t know about improv at all. I worked in an engineering job and moved to Maryland and really hated it. A year later I moved home and was a little lost in what I wanted to do. I used to be in a band and missed being on stage. I spoke with a friend and told him I wanted to be an actor and he told me about UCB. So I saw a show and signed up for a class and that was it. I didn’t get obsessed with it immediately as I was trying to figure out my way. But after a year and a half of classes I really got serious with it. I started classes in 2007.
When did you start performing at the UCB Theater?
I first started performing bits on The Chris Gethard Show, which was a once a month crazy stage show hosted by Chris Gethard. I then auditioned for a Harold team, which are house improv teams, in 2010 and was placed on a team called The Opera. I auditioned for Maude Night, which is sketch team composed of actors and writers and got on to a veteran team called Gramps for two years; that was a team stacked with great people. Not only was there a steadfast group of excellent male actors, there was an amazing rotation of hilarious actresses I got to play with like Kate McKinnon, Jen Bartels, Elaine Carroll, Laura Grey, Morgan Jarrett, Abbi Crutchfield. After Gramps was retired, I was placed on a team called Dinner.
In 2013 I started writing a show with Dru Johnston called “Sketches From An Italian Restaurant: A Billy Joel Sketch Show. It took a couple of times to audition it and eventually it was picked up for a run. It ran for 6 months at the UCB Theater in New York and we performed it once in LA. We worked super hard on it, continuously tweaking and punching up jokes, until we felt it was in a really good, tight place. It was featured in TimeOut NY, The New York Times, Village Voice, and then Vice did a review and interviewed Dru and I.
What kind of opportunities have come up for you at the UCB Theater?
The best thing that has come out of joining this theater is meeting like-minded people. I met a lot of my collaborators and friends here. You meet people you work well with who share your comedic instincts. I got cast in an improvised mainly horror movie that my friend recommended me for three years ago which led me working with my current manager from Principato-Young. You never really know where your break is going to come from, or what body of work someone is going to like, so you just have to keep putting yourself out there and creating stuff.
I’ve done showcases at UCB for NBC, ABC, Just for Laughs, and other casting directors. That’s helped me get in the door and audition for pilots and TV/Film projects. I would also get cast for things after people saw me perform on Harold Night and Maude night. I’ve been performing since 2010 and currently perform with The Stepfathers at the theater on Friday nights at 9pm.
What future plans do you have?
I’m working on a one-man show, writing another sketch show and a pilot with Dru, and honing characters to put up on stage.
What advice can you give about pursuing a career in comedy?
Only do this if you physically and mentally can’t do anything else. Improv doesn’t pay the bills at first. You can dedicate yourself to it and continue to challenge yourself to get better, but you have to continue to balance your real life with your passion, or else you will be broke very fast. And then the bank gets mad at you and that’s just not fun. It’s great to be part of a theater or collective, where you can meet like-minded people, and make stuff that makes you and your friends laugh.
The UCB became my home and it allowed me and continues to allow me to develop my comedic voice. Set major goals and then smaller attainable goals that lead to those major goals. There’s a lot of different paths you can take, and you can often feel lost and scared and dejected, and often close to quitting. But if you love it, you’ll keep moving forward. So keep creating goals for yourself and always keep working hard. Do things that you think are funny. Take notes and apply them to your voice. Work harder than everyone else so you have no excuses at the end of the day. Also, don’t be a dick.
For more information on Don Fanelli, go to the Upright Citizens Brigade website.