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Remembering Ken Manthey

When we think of the people who are in the improv community, performers, teachers, directors and even the people who run the theaters come to mind. But there are other people who may not possess those same talents who also have a special place in the community.

Ken Manthey was one of those people. Ken died this week.

When Ken first showed up at The Annoyance Theater’s dingy, original theater on Broadway  back in the late ’80s, he was at least ten years older than all of us and he had real, adult day job, booking Disney films into movie theaters.

He would show up on the weekends and watch shows, sometimes four in one night. He sat in the first row on the aisle. That was Ken’s seat and he was so protective of that shitty yellow plastic folding chair that he put his jacket on it to save it. He was proud of being the Annoyance’s Number One Fan. After the show he would go down to the bar with the rest of us derelicts. Sometimes he would drink too much and end up sleeping on the couch in theater.

Then after watching Co-ed Prison Sluts close to a million times and working the box office, he became an actor in that show. In those days, you got cast by hanging out and being a nice person. Ken did both. He played the Warden, which was a thankless part. He only had a couple of lines at the top of the show and a couple of lines at the end and an hour-and-a-half to kill in between, during which he would sit at Mick’s wooden desk and count the money from that night’s box office.

As my friend Gary Rudoren reminded me in his Facebook post this week, Ken “would go from working the box office right into playing the Warden in ‘Co-ed Prison Sluts,’ and I realized he was probably the only actor to be on stage with hundreds upon hundreds of dollars in his pocket.”

Ken was not much of an actor. He was stiff. His delivery was always the same — flat and self-conscious. When he did get a laugh, you were never really sure how. Susan Messing called him “our Larry Bud Melman.” She was right. But he was not there to become a star, or to be in a hit show, or to get more stage time. Like most of us, he was there to feel like he belonged, to have a sense of community, to be part of something. He found his family at The Annoyance.

I am lucky to be in Chicago where there are lot of people who contribute to this community in their own way. I think of Jerry Schulman who photographs every important comedy event and improv show that is going on in the city. And Tom Vencill who has come to countless Improv Nerd shows and holds the record for attending Messing With a Friend the most number of times. There is Adam Jacobs who audio record shows live improv shows. These people are often taken for granted, but they are as much a part of the community as the performers, teachers and directors.

We need all sorts of talents in our community, and sometimes we only place value on what happens on stage, but when I heard about Ken’s passing, I was reminded that we also should be grateful for all of the people who contribute to the community in their own way.

(By the way, the Annoyance will be holding a memorial for Ken on Sunday, July 30 at 3 p.m. for all of those who wish to attend.)

Who in your community makes contributions that go unnoticed? We’d love to hear about them.

Only 4 spots still available in Jimmy’s Art of Slow Comedy Intensive, happening July 29-30. Sign up today!

192: Ed Furman

Ed Furman is a writer, actor and improviser who has performed in three Second City revues and co-written Chicago’s longest running musical Co-ed Prison Sluts at The Annoyance Theater. He’s also written a sketch project for NBC, two children’s plays and a best selling book. Jimmy sat down with Ed and talked to him about starting out at the Annoyance, how he developed his unique comedic voice, and not worrying about getting the laughs when he improvises.

Getting back the joy

Annoyance 25th AnniversaryRecently, a student in one of my Art of Slow Comedy improv classes admitted she had all these judgments about what you should and shouldn’t do in improv and was trying so hard not to make a mistake that she wasn’t having any fun.

The sad thing was, she hadn’t even been doing improv very long, but already the joy was gone and you could see it in her work. I could relate.

When I first started doing improv comedy, it was simple: I did it because I enjoyed it. I took improv classes and did shows in the back room of skanky bars for the joy of it. At that point, the thought of money or fame or even my status in the improv community didn’t even enter my mind. I was having too much fun doing it to worry about where it was going to lead.

I was letting fun be my compass. If something seemed like it would be fun and I was excited to do it, I would do it.

In fact, back when I was just having fun, some of the best shows I was involved in seemed to just fall in my lap. That’s how I became an original member of The Annoyance Theater in 1989. I had seen a production of Co-ed Prison Sluts and loved the show. I asked Mick Napier if I could understudy for the part of Hamster Man, and six months later I was doing it full time. That led me to joining the theater and creating more shows there, including a one-man show called “I am 27, I still Live at Home and Sell Office Supplies,” which to this day has been my biggest hit.

Unfortunately, my motives changed over the years. As people move on and achieved success, I became more cynical. I lost sight of the fun and started focusing on where this was going to take me.

I left the Annoyance after two-and-a-half years, even though I had achieved a fair amount of success. I thought I wasn’t being respected or appreciated enough there, though truth be told, I didn’t respect myself and didn’t appreciate my talents and contributions. So I just faded away from the theater, bitter and resentful towards some of the people and the place.

Twenty years later, I was still nursing this resentment, and I was afraid to go back for their 25th Anniversary show last weekend. Thank God for Susan Messing who encouraged me to go.

At the 25th Anniversary, I was invited to perform a medley of songs with other members from my era from a bunch of shows, some of which I hadn’t been in, so I didn’t know the words or choreography.

But you know what? Once I was there, it didn’t matter that I didn’t know all the words perfectly. What mattered was I was doing it for the fun of it. There was no pressure, since I was in the chorus, and the best part was it brought back the feeling why I did this in the first place: the community, the sense of belonging, the chance to be part of something larger then myself. I will be forever grateful to the Annoyance for the experiences and the friends I had there, and most importantly, for giving me my first opportunity to teach improv classes professionally.

When I look back today, I see that there are a million things that can suck the joy out of our work, and most of them are in my head.

If you’re starting to feel burnt out by improv, remember why you got into it in the first place: To have fun. Stop focusing on doing it “right,” getting picked for a team, a part, or getting seen by an agent.

Instead, remember that improv is all about creating for the sake of creating and letting go of the results. Your best work will come when you focus on the joy.