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Interview: Cult Comedy Heroes 'Convoy'
The boys are hard at work. Photo courtesy of Convoy themselves. How classy.
While Alex Berg, Todd Fasen, and Alex Fernie would probably hesitate to call themselves heroes in any capacity (that is, unless they somehow saved a baby riding a puppy from getting run over by a truck full of hate and fireworks), the moniker does have a certain amount of applicability. In a staggeringly short amount of time, the three-man improv juggernaut named Convoy has risen through the ranks of the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre (UCB), going from weekly improv battle competitors to big-name Thursday night draws. 44 consecutive Cagematch wins in a row will do that for you.
Convoy performs every Thursday night at 11pm at the UCB Theatre at 5919 Franklin in Hollywood. LAist was fortunate enough to catch up with Convoy to really ask some of the tough questions, Frost / Nixon style.
LAist: Where are you from, and what made you come to Los Angeles for comedy?
Alex Berg: We're from all over the place- I'm from Connecticut; Fernie grew up on a horse farm in New Hampshire, and Todd's from LA (well, Pacific Palisades, which is close enough). The three of us met at Vassar College after having auditioned for and been accepted into the aptly named improv troupe "Vassar Improv." About half of Vassar Improv, including Todd, graduated in '03 and moved to LA, so when me and Fernie finished up school in '04 and wanted to keep doing comedy, LA simply seemed like the most logical place to go. Besides, I'm neurotic and can't handle New York.
Todd Fasen: I actually moved back here to try to work in the music industry and live rent-free at parent's house. While I had earlier success with both those goals I eventually quit my job and also moved to my own place.
Alex Fernie: It was either here or New York for me, and, basically, tacos beat pizza.
What are you currently working on and where can we see you next?
TF: We're working on a few things right now. The two main ones we're focusing on are a web series, as well as writing a screenplay idea we've had floating around. Hopefully they will be coming to a computer and movie screen near you someday. We also shot an episode of Reno 911! back in November which should air on Comedy Central in April or May. The best place to see us next is at UCB. Convoy performs there every Thursday at 11:00 with Last Day of School, another great improv group.
On an average night doing comedy, where can you be found?
AF: The vast majority of the time, we perform at Upright Citizens Brigade. That's where we do the weekly Convoy show, as well as perform on Harold Night and other shows that go up there. We've performed other places like IO West and, just recently, Largo, but more often than not we're at UCB.
TF: Berg can also be found at Cheetah's warming up the crowd before the girls come out to dance.
How does being a 3-man improv team differ from larger teams with six or more members?
AB: For me, I've always felt that being a small team forces you to pay more attention to what's going on in the show. When there are only three people on a team, and two of them are doing a scene, the responsibility for where the show is going to go next sits very squarely on the shoulders of whoever's not in that scene, so that person HAS to pay super close attention to what's going on. With bigger teams, that heightened sense of responsibility's not necessarily present, and you often run the risk of everybody thinking "I've got nothing, surely someone ELSE knows what to do now." Academically, it's called social loafing; colloquially it's called "relying too much on everybody else." Also, we hate planning, and trying to schedule a rehearsal with more than three people is a complete pain in the ass.
You guys went an astounding 44-1 in Cagematch competition at UCB. Do you think that streak will ever be broken?
TF: I'm sure it will someday. Every record is pretty much made to be broken. Hopefully when that happens we'll be comedic legends making millions of dollars and won't need to cling to our days of Cagematch domination. However, we'll always be grateful for the Cagematch since it helped get us noticed around the theater and led to us getting our own show at UCB.
AF: Not me. I fully intend to be bitter and cranky and hold a deep and enduring resentment to whoever breaks our record while I work my day shift at Chipotle.
AB: I contend that it's physically impossible to win a Cagematch more than 44 times in a row. The fundamental laws of nature won't allow it.
AF: If you win 45, your body just goes "No...more...voting" and implodes in on itself, creating a tiny black hole. At least, that's what Sagan hypothesized.
What makes you guys want to call the UCB Theatre 'home', as opposed to any of the other improv theatres in LA?
AF: Basically, we've hunkered down at UCB because it is a really good fit for us and the show we do. It's one of the premier comedy theaters in not just LA, but the country, so we consider ourselves quite lucky to be doing the show there every week. And the theater has been amazing about supporting us. One of the nicest things about UCB is that it has this great atmosphere that's sort of all about fostering comedy in all its incarnations. You can take chances on that stage that you might not be able to at a more traditional theater or comedy club. People come there to see shows and they're excited about it. As a performer, you can feel that excitement from the typical UCB audience. You can't ask for too much more than that.
TF: Also, they give us free water backstage.
What are the benefits of doing improv for you guys, as opposed to sketch or stand up?
AB: With improv, you've always got the chance to surprise yourself with something, and that's really fun. With sketch, you're mostly trying to surprise the audience, but since you've written everything out ahead of time the chances of finding some new angle on a joke you've been through a few times are slim. In college, I did stand-up a few times, but even then it was improvised, because the thought of really honing down a routine and working on the same jokes over and over again seemed boring. That sounded like a dig at stand-ups, but I swear I didn't mean it that way. Anyhow- an improv scene's like being in a haunted house, only instead of people jumping out and screaming at you, weird ideas do, and in that sense it can be startling, but in a good way.
AF: It's a short-attention span thing. To be really successful at improvising, you have to work at it, just like you do in sketch or stand-up. But the nice thing is, every time you perform or practice, it's entirely new. You don't get bored with it. So you're constantly generating new ideas, whether you like it or not.
AB: Improv's also so minimalist by nature that you're really only limited by whatever nonsense you can think up. A lot of times when you're writing sketch you'll have to shift a joke or an entire premise around because you can't find an ewok costume that reads clearly enough. With improv, you say, "hey, look at that ewok!" and all of a sudden everyone becomes these furry adorable creatures, and with just a little bit of pantomiming we're all playing the "jub jub" song on storm trooper helmets. Conclusion: I want to be an ewok, but I can't afford the suit/don't want to be mistaken for a furry. That's why I like improv.
Who are some of your current favorite comedians?
TF: We're big fans of The Birthday Boys, a sketch group that performs at UCB a lot. They have such a great, fun, silly energy on stage and their sketches always feel new and original. Also the Human Giant guys are great and we were big fans of their show on MTV. Tom Lennon and Ben Garant are amazing and practically legends and we'll forever being in their debt for taking Convoy into the next phase of our career. Our favorite improv show in L.A. though is Dasariski who perform at IO West. If you’ve never see them we highly recommend it.
AF: I really love watching pretty much anything Andy Daly does. And Josh Fadem has an uncanny ability to make me laugh no matter what he's doing. But especially if he's falling down over and over.
AB: I'm actually just starting to get into Mitch Hedberg, which is great because he's hysterical, and awful because he's dead. I arrived to the party pretty late on that one. Aside from that, my favorite current comedians are people from around UCB- whom I would mention by name, were it not for my fear of them reading this article and then knowing how much I admire them. It would make the green room awkward.
What is your opinion of the Los Angeles comedy scene as a whole?
AF: I think it's pretty great and quite massive. There's plenty of old school stand-up everywhere you look, but in terms of alternative comedy, it really can't be beat. It's LA and New York. Here you've got interesting stuff coming up all over the place, at UCB, Largo, the Steve Allen Theater and countless other smaller places that is some of the best and most interesting comedy you're gonna get anywhere. And it's been that way for a while. In our experience, it's an incredibly supportive scene that fosters new styles and voices as well. LA also benefits from so many talented folk coming here from other cities to work in this whole showbiz industry thing. With all those people coming here, you get a lot of tried and true AND brand new talent wandering into town. So that makes for a lot of opportunities to see great comedy. You never know who's going breeze into town and create the next Perfect Strangers. Deep down inside, all comedians secretly aspire to making something as truthful and pure as Perfect Strangers.
What is one thing you think most people in Los Angeles are missing out on, comedically?
AB: Comedically, there's a lot going on in LA, and I'm so busy with my own stuff that I miss most of it, so it's hard to say. I don't think long-form improv is quite at the point where sketch comedy or stand-up is, in that most people don't have a good intuitive grasp of what it is. It's still kind of a cult phenomenon. And, like any art, it can be tough for someone who's not familiar with the scene to separate the noteworthy from the mundane. The difficulty of distinguishing between the two can make it seem inaccessible, I guess, but if you have fun watching people have fun, then that's all you need. So, while I'm sure there's a ton of other things that people are missing out on, I think I can pretty safely say that most Angelinos are missing out on good long-form improv.
AF: I think that what we really miss out on are jokes that start with "So, I was on the subway the other day..." That's a shame. Subway humor is my favorite.
AB: I'm more of a Quizno's guy. Get it???
AB: I will say this for New York- they've got the deli thing down PAT.