When I turned forty, I realized I had spent the twenty years since college using my talents to make other people look good. Along the way folks kept telling me that I was funny and that I should be the one up onstage. So I thought, "Why not?" I tried stand-up and hated it. I ran into the same problem of remembering and repeating material. Improv proved to be the happiest place for an undisciplined ham like me. No blocking to remember and the only mistake you can make is to block or deny what is going on with your scene partner. Besides being great fun it's a great study in cooperation. You have to agree with what's offered and, as a result, can find yourself saying and doing (and being) things you'd otherwise never have imagined.
My hometown is Lynbrook, New York which is located on the south shore of Long Island. I was born on July 27th, 1956, the same year Rock & Roll burst on the scene. By all reports my arrival was much quieter. I'm the youngest of five kids. My Dad was a cop and my Mom had her hands full raising us. When her hands got emptier she became a real estate broker. We all grew up in a house on Lyon Place where my Mother still lives today.
I've worked more than twenty-five years as an editor and sometime producer at WABC-TV. My first love is writing because I can do it anywhere anytime. I've directed everything I can whenever I can. From plays of every length, to two feature films, to radio dramas, to sketch comedy, to short films and videos...I've even directed traffic. But for that I only needed one finger.
I got involved in improv very accidentally. I had studied theatre and film at Adelphi University and took classes at HB Studios, The American Academy and sat in on lectures at the Actor's Studio. While I had a lot of enthusiasm I was a simply terrible actor. I would get so caught up in the plays I was in that I'd forget my lines and blocking. My fellow performers threatened to kill me if I continued. So by popular demand I stopped acting and concentrated instead on learning to write and direct. It was while directing the sketch comedy group SPANK (which starred Jonny Fido, Janice Bremec and Leo Jenicek) when I realized they were speaking in a short hand I didn't understand. They'd say stuff like, "Yeah. That's like DING." Or, "It's a 60/30/10 scene." I learned they were referring to improv games that I didn't know. So I figured it would be a good idea to learn them. And that's how I came to study improv.
I saw Jonathan Winters on TV as a kid and loved what he did. Still do. And I saw Nichols and May as well. One night (in the late 1980s) a friend asked me if I could fill in doing lights for his girlfriend's improv show. The guy had a gig with his band and had to leave mid-show. He knew I'd done lights and had seen the group perform so he said, "When the scene feels like it's over or they get a big laugh...BLACKOUT." And then he left. So I did the lights. The group was called The New York Improv Squad featuring a talented guy named Tom Soter. Years later, when I was looking for someone to study with I asked a number of talented improvisers I knew who could give me the best training. And they all said, "Go study with Tom." And I did.
I did Tom's drop in class on Sundays and then became a "Wingnut" in his performance class. I met some amazing performers along the way who were performing as a new group called The Chainsaw Boys. I did lights for them a few times at The House of Candles and performed with most of them in Wingnut shows and Sunday Night Improv jams. Eventually, I was invited to join the group and we did shows all over New York at spaces like NADA 45, The Piano Store, HERE Arts Center, The Kraine, and The Bank Street Theatre. The Chainsaw Boys have performed from Austin to Boston, did the Del Close Marathon at UCB, and were the first improv group ever to appear in The New York Fringe Festival. I left the group to direct a film and have continued to be a regular performer of short- and long-form improv in showcases in New York and LA. And there are rumblings of a Chainsaw Boys reunion on the way. So look out!
My teachers? First and foremost Tom Soter. Learned the nuts and bolts from the Wingnut King. I studied song improv with Noel Katz, who went on to be the musical director for The Chainsaw Boys. We also wrote a musical play together called "Couplets." I learned a lot from every member of The Chainsaw Boys. They all encouraged, challenged, and amazed me night after night. With them, I developed a second sense of humor peculiar to that melange of talented humanity. Most especially I'm grateful to Miriam Sirota and Leo Jenicek for gently guiding me through my first improv scenes onstage in Tom's class. I took a few classes at UCB when they were just getting started. Leo Jenicek and I studied long-form improv with Todd Stashwick (of Burn Manhattan and the Doubtful Guests) and Todd went on to coach the group to help us build a stronger ensemble. Todd is a Second City alumnus and he graciously made it possible for me to visit Dell Close in Chicago where he was still teaching. I got to spend a long afternoon with Del, observing his class and picking his brain. We were thrilled to have the great David Shiner (of Cirque De Soleil and Fool Moon) come to see The Chainsaw Boys and he graciously gave us notes after the show. That was an honor and a great treat. George Wendt (of Cheers) came as well but gave few notes and drank much beer. I spent an afternoon observing Paul Sills (one of the originators of Second City) as he directed an improvised play. His advice to all improvisers, "Listen more than you talk. And don't forget to act." In addition, I've shaken hands with every member of the amazing cast of SCTV except for Martin Short and Joe Flaherty. But I've got them in my sites.
The SNI jam is a joy because you get to play with improvisers from other groups, other backgrounds, other age groups and sometimes other countries. It is a great way to flex your improv muscles and work with veterans and newbies under the lights. Thanks to the Jam I've had the opportunity to work with and learn from brilliant improvisors like Larry Bell, Cate Smit, Tom Carrozza, Lucy Avery Brooke, Chris Hoyle, Denny Siegel and too many others for my feeble mind to recall now. I can't speak for anyone else (or the audience) but doing the show is always fun for me.
My MOST CHALLENGING IMPROV MOMENT is easy. The Chainsaw Boys were onstage at The Improv Asylum in Boston. The theater was in the semi-round and had a bar. To insure that their patrons could enjoy the show without running out of libation the bar sold buckets of beer. I believe there were four beers to a bucket. So our group is onstage in the middle of doing our long form when a drunken women (who'd finished her bucket and needed the restroom) staggered out of her seat and walked right up to me in the middle of the stage. I tried to treat her with the all the respect an intoxicated person who walks into your show deserves. But she didn't appreciate it. She was pretty belligerent (not to mention bleary-eyed) so I gently handed her off to one of the ushers who escorted her back to the bar. I'm proud to say the troupe rallied and got a lot of laughs out of the situation. We finished the show with a gospel song with the title (suggested by the audience) of "Don't Walk on the Stage." It all has to be seen to be believed. I hope to post the whole nasty episode on youtube very soon. Look for it under "The Chainsaw Boys and a Drunk."
My most rewarding improv work? I've always been a huge Jack Benny fan. I've marveled at how he could get such big laughs with just a look, a gesture. So, I wanted to have a "Jack Benny" moment where the laugh came from not speaking. My moment came onstage in Austin, Texas. The Chainsaw Boys were at Esther's Pool doing our long form when Karen Herr turned to Miriam Sirota and told her she couldn't move forward. Miriam asked what was holding her back and Karen said, "My hesitation." So I walked out into the scene and just stood there. Karen asked me who I was and I said, "Your hesitation." Big laugh. When she started to speak I just held up a hand and she stopped. More big laughs. Thanks Mr. Benny. As much fun as it is to jam with people you barely know it's ten times more rewarding for me to have the high level of agreement and support you can only get from folks you work with over time. So being a member of The Chainsaw Boys was the most rewarding experience for me. And, to be perfectly honest, the first time I looked out at the audience and saw more total strangers than friends and relatives...that was a huge thrill.
As soon as I make my first million in improv...I'm out. So, I should be around for quite a while. I use my experience with improv as a tool. It's greatly helped my writing and directing. It's made me more spontaneous and open to changing the set ideas I might have about something. As a writer I rarely get blocked because improv has showed me that there's a million ways any scene can go. One need only make a choice. And the stronger the choice...the better the scene.
I would recommend improv classes to everyone. It's great for building confidence as a public speaker and excites the mind. It also removes tarnish from Grandma's silver, unclogs drains, relieves joint discomfort and leaves no lingering odor. Which is more than I can say for the lady in Boston.
See MIKE BENCIVENGA on Sunday, March 20 at SUNDAY NIGHT IMPROV, 236 W. 78th St. at 7 P.M.!