May 1, 2012

Geeking Out with...Susan Messing (Part Two)



By WICF Contributor Pam Victor

[“Geeking Out with…” is a series of interviews with well-known, highly experienced improvisers. It’s a chance to talk about stuff that might interest hardcore, improv dorkwads like Pam. The series can be found in full frontal geek out version on My Nephew is a Poodle and in pithier version on the Women in Comedy Festival blog.]




If you don’t know the answer to “What can we learn from ‘Doublemint Twins Get Fucked Up the Ass’?” then you’ll probably want to read Part One of “Geeking Out with…Susan Messing” when Susan and I got our geek on about her improv history as well as her approach to teaching improv. In this second of our two-part interview, we talk about Susan’s fearlessness on and off stage, her take on how improvisers can adopt a more confident approach, and how best to get high off improv. And apologies, dear readers, that the subject of Louis C.K.’s enthusiastic masturbatory habits comes up that for the second time in this series. I will try not to allow it to happen again (but no promises).

When I asked several of Susan Messing’s friends and colleagues to name three words they associate with her, a couple fine lasses couldn’t resist the opportunity to add a few more words of love and gratitude for Susan:

From Angela V. Shelton of Frangela:
“LOVE LOVE LOVE THE SUSAN MESSING! Of course, she's one of those people it's impossible not to love, not to laugh with, not to let her smile make you smile...No one, and I mean NO ONE has more joy and generosity on and off stage at Second City. She improvises the way that kids do - it's fun and not just about getting a laugh...She LOVES to improvise, she's an amazing actor and improviser, and she is utterly without ego or a mean bone in body and no one has to earn her respect on stage. She takes "yes and" and "make each other look good" to heart, but I suspect that if she'd never come to Second City - she'd still be yes andin' and making everyone in her life look their very best.”

And from Kate Duffy who is a member of the improv trio The Playboys with Susan,
“Susan has the imaginative ability of a child. The ability to slip into worlds and live there with no judgment, complete acceptance, and she just builds and builds. The imagination I think we are all trying to re-capture in our work. The imagination we all had before the world taught us to worry about what others think and judge our ideas. It is inspiring and inspired. She is a joy.”

***
 "For me it was more about being brave,
which is being scared as shit
but doing it anyway with the result of flying."
-Susan Messing 


PAM: Oh, by the way, in the name of research and curiosity, I watch "Fatty Drives the Bus" a couple nights ago. 

SUSAN: Oh god.

PAM: LOL! [Readers, “Fatty Drives the Bus” is a movie directed by Mick Napier and features many Annoyance players you may know, including Susan Messing, Mark Sutton, and Scot Robinson. Joe Bill plays Jesus, so you know it’s a unique production. You can order it through Netflix if you’re interested in visiting the "Island of Misfit Toys."]

SUSAN: You had nothing Tivo'd?

PAM: I told you I'm a 'ho for improv, right?

SUSAN: That's not improv as much as it probably was an editing nightmare.

PAM: I bet. The editing was not its strength.

SUSAN: It’s hard to edit something that’s improvised.

PAM: It was sort of Fellini meets Ionesco meets a couple kids with a video camera.

SUSAN: Sounds about right.

PAM: You were a highlight. As was Mark Sutton's diatribe with the flower.

SUSAN: Bless your heart - can't watch it.

I liked the puppy maze.

PAM: LOL! Yeah, that was a great sketch moment.

Speaking of watching, has your daughter seen any of your Real Live Brady Bunch stuff?

SUSAN: Nope. I try to keep her away from it all as much as possible! I don't think she's really watched The Brady Bunch, so I don't know if she'd have anything to compare it to. I assume one day she will.



The cast of The Real Live Brady Bunch 
(including Susan, Jane Lynch, and Andy Richter) 
appear on Geraldo

PAM: Do you try to keep your daughter away from all the comedy or just the early stuff? Is she into the fact that you're a comedian?

SUSAN: I think that she's pleased with it...USUALLY she's amused. Sometimes she's embarrassed, and a few times she's been really pissed when I try to get her out of a bad mood by joking when she still is upset. Still, we went to a Marshall's last week and she suggested that we "walk funny" to the entrance but have our faces look normal.

The other day she did say that I was the coolest mommy, but that might change tomorrow. She is delicious and very, very kind. And she's a better comedian than most people I know. Seriously. Best straight man in the business.

PAM: Is there any effect that parenting has had on your improvising? Or your improvising has had on your parenting?

SUSAN: My parenting is probably far more creative because I improvise. But then again, I became a mother at 39, right before clotting age, so I have more patience than I would have had when I was younger.

PAM: Lol! I spend a lot of time thinking about how the lessons in improv are also some of the most important lesson about life too. What life lessons from improv do you bring to your parenting?

SUSAN: Just took a deep breath…there are too many. Cooperation, working together, all those Spolin-y, feel good words that would sound really trite. My daughter knows I'm on her side, and I'm not just dicking her around because I'm a grownup.

PAM: I first started consciously thinking about humor when I was 13. This is around the same time I discovered the power of a whole class of “dirty” words. The most powerful among them was “vagina.” I mean, it wasn’t even one of those absolutely forbidden words like “cunt.” Vagina was written in biology books, but you still could only whisper it – or better yet, not even say it. This is 1979, mind you, before everything was vag-this and pussy-that. As a fairly sensual person, this blue humor quickly became my default because you could get people to laugh from shock and humor. Two-for-one special. That was a long (and hopefully not overly tedious way) of asking you where your special blend of blue humor comes from?

SUSAN: Special blend? Like coffee? I don't think of it as "blue" as much as I think of it as "uncensored." Content needs to be protected so that people are willing to watch it - that includes locales, time slots, audience consideration. I don't do at Second City or iO what I do at the Annoyance, which, as far as I know, is one of the few places in the world that supports uncensored content.

I was censored on Mainstage [at Second City.] They were worried about the "Annoyance" in me. And it was great to flex social and political satire muscles...but I like to be freeeeeee too.

PAM: I hesitate to talk about your potty mouth in an interview because I question whether the whole issue is sexist. I mean, do people ask Louis C.K. why he talks about his dick so much?

SUSAN: People probably wonder why Louis C.K. talks about his dick so much. It's ok.

PAM: He really does like to masturbate an awful lot.

SUSAN: That's what I've heard...But I also think that he's a genius. So as long as he keeps his dick in his pants around me, I think he's swell…because I'm going to be married and I don't need to see his dick.

I met him once and he couldn't have been nicer.

PAM: I'm sure Louis C.K. is nice, but nobody seems to ask him why he has such an uncensored patter. Meanwhile, I've heard people ask you that quite a bit in interviews.

SUSAN: I don't question it as much as I just answer the question. But you've been doing your research and you've read that a lot, huh. Interesting.

PAM: But - Louis's penis aside - I wonder why people feel the need to bring up your uncensored style on stage?

SUSAN: Maybe because not many women do uncensored work? There was a time at the Annoyance where women actually outnumbered men or were at least fifty percent; and we were all doing and saying what we wanted, so I guess I hadn't noticed it as I was too busy having fun.

PAM: I’ve read in some interviews where you talk about giving yourself permission to go for it on stage. That “self-permission” is a quality I really admire. Some women find it so difficult to be like that – you’ve got to have steely balls, right? What gives Susan Messing such steely balls?

SUSAN: Not sure, but my dad raised three girls kind of like independent boys, and then I played with all guys on Blue Velveeta, and then certainly you had to develop a tougher skin for The Annoyance or to get through a Second City Mainstage rehearsal process… Maybe when I started, comedy was more of a boy sport and I wouldn't survive unless I grew a pair? Not sure. But it sounds right.

However, after reading [what I just wrote], I'm still not sure. Maybe I always sort of had them or at least a baby pair that hadn't descended yet. For me it was more about being brave, which is being scared as shit but doing it anyway with the result of flying.

It was worth being kicked in the balls.

PAM: One of the things I admire most about you on stage is your relaxed yet balls-to-the-walls confidence. That admiration was confirmed when the adjective “fearless” came up A LOT when people were asked to describe you. Does that come from years of improvising on stage or is that a quality you just embody naturally?

SUSAN: I am always scared, but my desire to create supersedes the weirdness I have to go through in order to create - and then I get off again. That's my standard line and it's my truth.

I think my joy is that I haven't been kicked offstage yet...and that people I play with would agree to play with me.

PAM: What is it about your performance or skills that inspire so many people to describe you as fearless?

SUSAN: I have no idea. I'm on the inside so you'd have to ask the outside. Maybe that I'm having so much fun in the moment once I silence the bullshit in the brain? Ultimately we had better have fun or the gig's fucking OVER. God knows we don't do it for the money! Still, very nice to hear.

PAM: And playing with the brakes off is most fun for you?

SUSAN: Brakes off, right into a wall. Yes please.

PAM: Yeah. See right there. I think that's what people are talking about.

What advice would you give to female improvisers on how to play with more confidence and labial fortitude?

SUSAN: Oh…the JOYRIDE. That's rough because part of me had to take the ladies out of the equation and put us all in the people category. How about you do what you do, I do what I do, we shove it in a world, and it'll all work out fine? At the least, when you want to give up and/or blame it on men, that's the exact moment you recommit. What if, god forbid, we were all RIGHT? What if you couldn't be WRONG? What if you were exactly what was needed at that very moment?

And maybe, just maybe, because no one has told me I'm WRONG in a very long time, they think I'm RIGHT; when in fact, I'm just making sure to have more fun than anyone in the whole wide world. And that shit's contagious, and then I'm so grateful they get my gig and we're all happy. -By Susan

PAM: Brava!

SUSAN: You just pulled that out of me. Not me.

PAM: [Insert compliment-deflecting dildo and/or tampon joke here.]

Do you ever hear the ugly "You suck" monster whispering in your head during a show? Or are you past that?

SUSAN: Nah. We all go there for a bit, and the SECOND I go there I recommit to the moment and reinvest in myself, my world, and my friend. And by being in the moment it's as simple as smelling, touching, tasting, fucking, right the fuck NOW. So I'm too busy doing all that to listen to the stupid voice. I can hate myself on my own time.

PAM: What type of experiences make you fall in love with improv all over again?

SUSAN: New and old friends to play with, the excitement from people in the audience who've never been there and the ones who come back again and again and sometimes every week, the beauty and horror of this art, students who have epiphanies...all of it. All the stupid and glorious lot of it all.

But then I'll take a little break because it's nice to make a real cup of coffee instead of miming it.

PAM: Ha. Well said. That should be on a t-shirt or something.

Are there any skills or techniques that you’re working on right now?

SUSAN: Not that I'm consciously aware of, but there are elements of the work that get me off.

I stick people in worlds with other people and SEE WHAT HAPPENS. To me, even though it might work for some others, it's not, "Whoever gets on the stage first and vomits their thesis WINS." "Product" in improv means the scene's fucking OVER, so I don't groove so much to the "mad lib" style of playing, although I can stick my person in your tiresome, left-brain invented plot.

Ouch. That's harsh.

But everyone gets off differently and I get off by discovery and specificity. And justifying what is right in front of me than inventing anything better.

PAM: Wait. Now I'M getting hot. Talk more about discovery and specificity.

SUSAN: Smell it touch it taste it touch it feel it fuck it NOW. Be in the moment. The audience gets off on your specificity, not your "funny" specificity. You can eat a meal of Ritz cracker jokes, but you'll eventually say, "Did I just fucking eat an entire meal of Ritz fucking crackers?" The only way to heighten funny jokes is to be funnier and good fucking luck with that - it's commenting on the moment and not being in it. Save that for your sketch or stand up or trying to pick up that bitch in a bar.

That's my gig and it works for me and it's not right and it's right, right?
Susan Messing
having more fun than anyone

PAM: Right. What makes you cum the hardest on stage?

SUSAN: Pretty much all of it if I'm having more fun than anyone.

PAM: I just wanted to display fearlessness by saying "cum" to you.

SUSAN: Blessings to your cum. (Which looks actually odd in print.)

PAM: My she-jizz thanks you.
I’m always curious about boiling improv down to a simple skill set – that is, what basic muscle(s) should every improviser hone? What one skill or technique on stage do you find the most important for improvisers to focus on?

SUSAN: I don't even know where to begin on that. I guess learning how to be in the moment and trusting your gut instincts more?

Be seen. Be heard. Learn how to act; and actors, learn how to improvise.

Don't take it back. Own what you say and do, and then rape the shit out of it.

PAM: These t-shirt slogans just keep writing themselves!

SUSAN: I guess if this doesn't pan out I can always own a t-shirt shop.
Or work for Hallmark.

PAM: LOL. Dang. I snorted. Not Hallmark. It would be called something else, your card company. “Good Morning, Fucko” perhaps...

What makes a good improviser into a great improviser?

SUSAN: Time.

PAM: Well said.



I can't wait to see Messing with a Friend when I'm in Chicago this summer. [In the weekly show Messing with a Friend, Susan invites one of her fabu improviser buddies to do a series of two-person scenes based on a single suggestion. The Annoyance website promises it is “a joyful, uncensored, and improvised romp through hell.” How delicious does that sound?]   

Do you rehearse the show or just get up and do it?

SUSAN: I have never rehearsed MWAF and I never will. It's improv.

PAM: Is there anybody who hasn’t yet done Messing with a Friend who you’d really love to get?

SUSAN: Harold Ramis. Then I can die.

PAM: Well, I for one hope Harold Ramis never “messes” with you.

Kate Duffy, Susan Messing and Rachel Mason
of "The Playboys" at CIF 2012
Photo courtesy of Jonathan Pitts
Let’s talk about The PlayboysSure seems like you ladies are having a blast together! Tell me about the structure of the show and a little about your process. (People will have to listen to your Improv Nerd interview to hear about the boob-touching and lip-kissing.)

SUSAN: The Playboys (Kate Duffy, Rachael Mason, and me) perform every third Sunday of the month at The DeMaat Theatre at The Second City. We are the most hateful loving hateful loving people I know onstage. Rabid ferrets. No form - maybe it looks like a form to someone, just not to us.

PAM: And how can improvisers keep up to date on how they can take classes with you?

SUSAN: We're building a Susan Messing website right now, but you can find out about special workshops and master classes on Facebook. My Messing with a Friend schedule can be seen at www.annoyanceproductions.com.

PAM: Thank you, Ms. Susan Messing!

SUSAN: You're the most best. XOXOXOXOXOXOXO

PAM: Many more back at you, newfriend.

SUSAN: Yesplease and thankyou and isthismikeonandgoooodnight.


 ***
If you're in Chicago, and you'd like to bask in the glow of Susan Messing, 
you can see her in 
and in 
****


Catch up on past improv nerd-a-thons:
Geeking Out with…Chris Gethard of “The Chris Gethard Show”,
 …with Joe Bill of BASSPROV,
 ...Jimmy Carrane of Improv Nerd podcast,
 …Jet Eveleth of The Reckoning,
and many more!


And "like" the "Geeking Out with..."FACEBOOK PAGE please.



Pam Victor is the founding member of The Ha-Ha’s, and she producesThe Happier Valley Comedy Shows in Northampton, MA. Pam directs, produces and performs in the comic soap opera web series "Silent H, Deadly H". Pam also writes mostly humorous, mostly true essays and reviews of books, movies and tea on her blog,"My Nephew is a Poodle," where you also can read a lengthier, dorkier version of this interview.


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