Recently, I had the privilege of sitting down with comedian David Siegel. David is an improvisational comedian based in New York City, and an instructor at the Upright Citizen’s Brigade. David is also a political impersonator, who’s impression of John McCain won Denny’s national “Vote For Real” competition in 2008. I was fortunate enough to have him as my Level 1 instructor and have learned a tremendous amount about comedic theory and performance through his lessons. He agreed to an interview so that I could share his story and insight with people outside of the class. Like you! We spoke about how he got involved in comedy, why performing is like a drug, and his top comedic lessons for non-comedians.
How did you get involved with comedy?
I got my start with improv when I was in college, that would be the formal time. I had seen short-form, I had seen ComedySportz in high school, and I had done improv in drama class. I really liked that, and when I got to college at UNC [University of North Carolina], they had, and still do have, an excellent improv group called “Chips,” the “Chapel Hill Players.” And I saw some of their shows and thought it was just awesome. They would do shows in an auditorium for 300 people, and I really wanted to do that. But I didn’t get in, I didn’t get in a couple of times. I kept auditioning every semester and never made it. Then my sophomore year, a little over 10 years ago, a guy named Zach Ward started what became Dirty South Improv, which is still an active theater. He started teaching classes there, and I got involved in the first round of classes they offered. I was very lucky because a lot of the coaches who started the program with him had done a lot of stuff up here [in New York]. One of my first coaches was a guy named Scott Jennings who had done a Harold team here at UCB. So I was doing DSI, mostly long-form but also some short-form as well. I also then eventually did get into “Chips” in my Junior year, so the second half of my college experience was spent doing a lot of improv, much to the detriment of other things, my GPA included. When I graduated I was doing improv all of the time, and I thought, “Well, I don’t want to stop, I want to see what else I can do with it.” I had spent a summer up in New York City for an internship, but Chicago I didn’t know at all. So I came here, and that’s what brought me to New York, in September of 2006. I started taking classes right away and have been at it in some capacity ever since.
How would you define your personal brand as a comedian?
That’s a very self-reflective question. I’ve really not pursued, possibly to my own detriment, too many opportunities outside of improv. For example I don’t go on many commercial auditions, I have a day job I’m also pretty committed to. I think that is a bit of a myth, that improv can be a path to fame or to a real comedic career, that’s a bit of a “red herring.” No one is going to get famous just for doing improv. Improv is still very esoteric, in the way we are talking about it, to really study it, it’s still extremely esoteric. So I don’t even know if I’m known in the comedy community outside of the UCB world, and I don’t even know everyone here at UCB. I would say in the context of UCB, you want to be known as someone who is easy to play with. The best I can do is think of the improvisers I think highly of, and it’s the ones who are easy to play with, who you get on stage with and it doesn’t feel like hard work. I hope I’m thought of that way.
What are the differences between New York improv and Chicago improv?
Well, I can only really give a broad answer to that because I don’t know the Chicago scene well enough to speak authoritatively on it at all. But the general answer to that is that I think most of it is the same style. But of course there have to be some differences because New York is just such a different place than Chicago. I think the way that manifests itself is that New York improv, which is a term I would even hesitate to use, because when I say “improv” I’m only talking about at this theater. They are doing different things at The Magnet Theater and The PIT [People’s Improv Theater]. In terms of here, I’d say it’s a little faster, it’s a little more aggressive, it matches the city that it’s in. There is a “get to it” mentality, and that is a lot of what our curriculum is based on, getting to what is funny, getting to the point. The general feeling is that in Chicago it’s geared more toward a slow-burn, it seems to be tilted more towards the acting at times than necessarily the comedy. And we want you to be great actors up there, but we are more focused on it being funny. Again, that is a very uninformed perspective.
What do you enjoy about teaching comedy and performing it?
I like seeing what an inherent ability it is in most people. It’s remarkable how much the average person has to say about the world. Just by virtue of them not having died, that they made it from Point A to whatever point they are at. The first thing we do in every Level 1 that I teach is a monologue, and real people’s lives are tremendously funny, tremendously compelling and engaging. And I like showing people that they can present that, and it can connect with audiences. You can make people laugh without going out on stage and doing whatever they would usually associate with comedy. It’s a very empowering feeling, and I remember being empowered when I was a student. And I still am a student, I take classes here. I remember being really surprised when I realized that just my life is enough to engage an audience. So it’s really fun for me to be in the room when other people experience that for the first time. It’s also really funny, in class I’m laughing for real. That’s the biggest part I like about teaching it.
In terms of performing it, it’s a junkie rush. It very much is, it has a very illicit feel to it. It’s a certain kind of rush, a certain kind of buzz, and I’ve obviously been hooked on it for long enough that it’s become a pretty big part of my life. When it’s working there is nothing better. I’ve always been a procrastinator, I like when I have to pull something off by the seat of my pants. I enjoy things when they are a little bit chaotic, rather than planned and thought out. I was always the guy who would wait until the night before and bang out a 20 page paper. Also, the audience is always more supportive for improv. No one goes to improv to see a bad show. By definition, someone who is there wants you to do well. The audience expectations are so drastically different for improv than for stand-up or sketch. That one basic concept that it’s being made up on the spot changes the entire equation. I can get away with things in an improv context that would never work in a sketch.
For improv you have to be in the same room for it. You have to be breathing the same air as the audience for it to work.
What comedic lessons have you learned that could benefit anyone?
I think in improv it’s very important to understand why someone else, a character, thinks the way that they do. You don’t have to agree with it, but you have to understand it. When you’re dealing with the “crazy guy” in the scene, you can’t just dismiss him as the “crazy guy” you have to have some sense of where they are coming from. Usually, from their perspective they aren’t crazy, to them it makes sense. So the ability to think inside someone else’s skull is an important skill that can translate well into real life. I’d also say, just listening and reacting is important. To hear something before you respond to it. To let something sink in and effect you before you say your piece. Even broader, I guess a sense that whatever happens you can handle it when it comes up. Not individually, improv is a very ensemble based thing, but the idea that you shouldn’t worry ahead, to wait for whatever happens and respond to it.
Thank you to David for taking the time to share his expertise with me. I also would recommend his class at the UCB Theater in New York City. Or you can go see him perform on Harold Night, as he is currently a member of the team “Sherlock & Cookies.”
I am a better improviser because of him!