I recently watched a short film called The Improv Guru, written by improviser George McAuliffe and produced by former Second City director Scott Goldstein. It’s based on McAuliffe’s popular Twitter account @improvguru39, which I have always found extremely funny.
The film is a dark comedy about an arrogant improv teacher, and his deranged students, as they desperately climb over each other to reach for the bottom rung on the ladder to fame. The film is shot in Chicago and takes a cynical look at the city’s improv community, though I think most improvisers around the country will relate to the improv culture they depict.
McAuliffe plays the title character, a bitter and arrogant improv teacher and improviser, whose career has not gone the way he thought it would.
In his tightly written script, McAuliffe pulls off the one of the toughest tasks in comedy — playing a jerk whom we actually feel for, much like Ricky Gervais’s character, David Brent, in the British version of The Office.
Underneath the posturing of McAuliffe’s guru character is loneliness. Maybe I am projecting my own life onto his character, but I don’t really care. Isn’t that what art is supposed to do? For us to see ourselves in the characters?
If that is true, then I am embarrassed to admit that for the first 10 to 15 years that I did improv, I certainly exhibited many of the traits of the Improv Guru character. (I think we all have, if you’re being honest with yourself.)
Like McAuliffe’s character, I know at times I have taken myself way too seriously or been a self-righteous pain in the ass, and I think I have been pretty open about how bitter and jealous I have been about other people’s success, which I have gotten better at.
Had I not been fortunate enough to bottom out with my number of addictions and get my ass in therapy, I might be The Improv Guru today. God knows, I have come close.
As you can probably figure out, this short film was personal to me in the same way Mike Birbiglia’s terrific indie film, Don’t Think Twice Twice, was, and like a good improv scene, both films explored the relationships of the characters and the disappointments and the sadness in improv that we rarely talk about it.
The film was produced by Scott Goldstein and his brother-in-law, Dave Yakir. Scott is no stranger to the Chicago improv scene. He started out at The Annoyance Theater, performed at iO and has directed The Touring Company at Second City.
I was so impressed by The Improv Guru that I wanted to ask him some questions about the film. Here is the interview.
Q: You started a production company with your brother-in-law, Dave Yakir. Why did you decide for your first project to create a dark comedy short film with a niche audience called The Improv Guru, written and staring George McAuliffe?
Goldstein: George reached out with his Improv Guru script, and it seemed perfect for what we were looking to accomplish, which is filming in Chicago, on a low budget, with locations that we could access, with the super talented people we know. At the very least we hoped it would be watched by our own community and it would be appreciated, and people would say “Hey, I could do this too.” It just seemed like a perfect fit on several levels.
Q: In the film, George McAuliffe plays an improv teacher in Chicago. What is it about improv communities that sometimes creates gurus like George’s character in the film?
Goldstein: A lot of the students are young, which makes them more susceptible to the tools these folks use to bring them under their thrall. In improv there is a constant flow of people coming and going, which allows a few mediocre individuals to elevate themselves through a combination of bravado, bluster and bullshit to “guru” status. To be fair, there are some terrific teachers, producers and directors who get called “guru” and who reject this nonsense and are great people. There are also plenty who get their first taste of power, relish it and exploit it, and they should be shamed.
Q: You make fun of some of the elements in the improv culture and some that are specific to Chicago. Why do you think it is important to make fun of ourselves?
Goldstein: I once said to George, “I don’t like when you call the students ‘deranged’,” and then in character he responded, “aha mon frere, but we were all deranged students once.” And it instantly made sense. A fellow former Second City director said, “I’ve been at least five of these people in my career.” There are things that make me cringe, because I recognize myself in it. When you are inside of it, you often don’t realize just how insufferable you’re being. Then you look back and realize there were times you were an absolute jag-off and in pursuit of what? Lighten the fuck up and have fun. Also, mocking those who ruin the good time for everyone is a community service.
Q: We are taught to find the funny in any situation. Why do some of us in improv take ourselves so damn seriously?
Goldstein: Because it’s an artistic situation with a competitive element, a ladder to climb, and the idea that we are just random stardust lucky to be alive gets lost when you’re desperate be on a Harold team, Tour Co. or a stage.
Q: Some of us, that means me, can get down and bit cynical about improv. For someone like you, who has his ups and downs in improv, how cathartic was this project for you to do?
Goldstein: Symbolic more than cathartic. Improv was great to me. It was also very bad at times, but a lot of that was my own inability to not get lost in it. It’s hard to form genuine relationships and a stable existence in a sea of people constantly looking to move on to something, or somewhere else. But it’s too much fun to work with the smartest, funniest people, and there’s no way I’m giving that up, even if we aren’t doing bits ‘til tamale guy shows up at the Ale House. Did I mention that I really miss the Ale House in this quarantine? SHOUT OUT TO THE ALE HOUSE! I WOULD LIKE A BAG OF CHEESE TAMALES PLEASE.
Q: The Improv Guru takes a comedic look at fame. For someone like you who has worked with people who have gone on to make it big, what is your relationship with fame these days?
Goldstein: I still believe the proper level of fame is somewhere between Peter Francis Geraci and John Wayne Gacy. I am rooting for everyone to get what they want. As for me, I like being friends and acquaintances with smart, funny people from all walks of life, while spending most of my time with my wife and family, and I would consider that a life well lived for anyone, but to each their own. I think the ideal level of fame/success would be where you can choose who, where and what you work on, and you’re able to enjoy as much of it as possible.
Q: How much improv was used on the set of was on The Improv Guru?
Goldstein: I would say that 80% of the movie was on the page, and another 20% was found on set (margin of error is plus or minus 5%). It wasn’t so much that new scenes were created, but we did find little magic moments that you could never imagine until you get to the set. The director, Max Barbakow, and Director of Photography Arlene Muller added so much of their artistry to it, and you really see that at its peak in the final sequence at The Annoyance. They came from outside of this bubble, so they saw things from a different perspective. George wrote a terrific script, and was great about revising it to fit the parameters of what we could pull off logistically. So by the time we were filming, it exploded off the page and the improvised lines lived within the scripted structure. It was a collaborative environment, where people were free to contribute. One assistant director said, “I’ve never been on a set before where I felt like I could shout out a line for a scene, but that’s what it was like.” It was the most fun you could ever have during a polar vortex while racing to get scenes done before running out of time, going over budget or getting kicked out of a location.
Q: Why is it so important for you to produce projects that are written and starring Chicago improvisers?
Goldstein: I am a bigger homer than Hawk Harrelson. If I lived in Toledo, I would probably produce projects that starred folks from Toledo.
Q: You also have produced another short film called Asner, and you’ve had some other projects in pre-production before the world shut down. What is your dream for these projects?
Goldstein: Asner is a pilot, but like the Improv Guru, it is a hybrid, where there is an initial semblance of a conclusion, but also something more to the story. We want to make stories that can stand on their own in a single serving, but also be part of a larger framework. We have three really great projects coming up that fit this same criteria, where you could watch it at a festival and feel satisfied, but be left wanting to see it as a series. We are foolish enough to believe that we can help to build something in Chicago where people get paid, have equity in a project, and that someone will eventually take notice. If they don’t, we’ll go back to making the best damn custom corporate work you could ever hope for.
Q: What advice would you tell someone who wants to create his or her own content like The Improv Guru?
Goldstein: Grab your friends, focus your stories, and make it. People make projects great, not big budgets. Also eat tamales at the Ale House with your friends whenever you get the chance.
Watch The Improv Guru here, and you can also donate to their Go Fund Me Campaign to support the cast and crew members in need during this time, as well as laid off employees from theaters across the country.