Alexander Zalben is a member of the sketch duo Madam Funnypants , the sketch group Elephant Larry the artistic director of the People's Improv Theater (PIT) , and one of the producers of Sketchfest TV and Sketchfest NYC , June 8th through 10th.
When did you develop an interest in comedy?
In high school. I started doing theater and wrote a short play in my senior year. It wasn't until college that I got interested in it because I joined a sketch group.
Where did you go to college?
I went to Cornell University and studied theater. I started out studying acting and moved into directing and writing. When I graduated, I got a job in an off Broadway theater. Meanwhile, the friends I had been in the sketch group with in college were working on a new sketch group. I ended up joining up with them and we did that for three and a half years. Then I started two other groups and had been with them ever since.
One of these groups was Elephant Larry?
Elephant Larry is also guys I went to college with. One of the guys graduated with me and the other three guys graduated in 2002. We had only worked together for one year in college, but we connected well and enjoyed each other's writing. Madam Funnypants, the other group, is a duo and also somebody I went to college with. We were in the original group from after college and when that group broke up, we continued to work together.
How does Madam Funnypants compare to Elephant Larry?
Madam Funnypants is myself and a woman, and we do relationship and political based sketches. We just did a show called The Israeli Palestinian Conflict: A Romantic Comedy, which was also a musical. Elephant Larry is focused on more surreal, high-energy sketches.
Tell me about X-Ball Online .
X-Ball Online is a website that I started with Stefan, who is one of the guys in Elephant Larry. We worked on that for about two years. It was back when the idea of comedy on the web was still new. We wrote every week, did all the graphics, and coding. It was a parody of extreme sports and anime, but with things like monkeys who played sports and extreme reptiles.
Tell me about All's Swell That Ends, Will.
That's the short play I wrote my senior year of high school. It came out the year before Shakespeare in Love. It's about Shakespeare losing all of inspiration for his plays except that the inspiration for all his plays was all around him. It was a twenty-minute sketch. It won an award in high school and I was able to premiere it to the Telluride Theatre Festival.
How did Sketchfest NYC come to be?
The first sketchfest was in Seattle in 1999. It was really successful and grew to other cities. In 2001, I went to the Chicago Sketchfest for the first time and I loved it. In the back of my head, I had the idea that New York needed its own sketchfest because we had a bubbling sketch community. I wanted to wait until we had enough groups that had been around long enough that we could actually have the festival. Around that time, Elizabeth Ellis and Becky Poole, two of the other producers of Sketchfest, approached me with the idea and I said, "That's great. I had the same idea." We brought in the fourth producer, Keith Michel, who had worked on a number of other sketch related projects.
How does Sketchfest NYC compare to the other sketch festivals around the country?
They all have a different flavor. They take their tones from their cities. With Sketchfest NYC, we tried to have a more packed schedule, which is how everyone performs in New York. It's twenty-five shows in twenty-five hours; one show after another after another. We're keeping it in one theater so that everyone can see every show if they want to. The big thing that separates us from the other festivals is the industry attention, which is a by-product of being based in New York. There's press and people from television networks coming out to see sketches from the best groups in the country.
How will this year's Sketchfest compare to last year's?
We were extraordinarily happy with how everything went last year. We're able to take a couple more groups this year, added two bonus shows, got different sponsors to help us with promotion, it's in a bigger and nicer venue, and we'll have after parties. More than anything, it's cosmetic changes.
How does Sketchfest TV relate to Sketchfest NYC?
Sketchfest TV is a separate entity. That's myself and Mike Balzer, who's in a group called The Animal Club out in Chicago. In our two different cities, we produce a bi-weekly podcast that spotlights some of the best sketch comedy in the nation. We usually highlight three different sketches per episode from all over.
Do you think that the comedy community will be embracing podcasting?
I think so. The reason we did Sketchfest TV is because so many people were saying, "How do we do a podcast? We don't know how to podcast. What do you do for a podcast?" So far it's been very successful. Most sketch comedy groups don't perform in more than hundred fifty seat theater and we usually get between five hundred and a thousand viewers per episode, which is more people than they'll probably be able to get in five shows.
What are some changes that you've noticed in the New York comedy scene?
When I started out, I was very involved in the Lower Eastside comedy scene, which was centered around Surf Reality and The Collective Unconscious. That was much more artsy than the Midtown comedy scene, which is focused on Caroline's and other stand up comedy clubs. Since then, the focus has shifted to where I work now, at the People's Improv Theater. We work in what I call the Improv Ghetto. The PIT is on 29th between 5th and 7th, the Magnet Theater is a block away from that, the UCB Theater is a block away from that, and Gotham City Improv is a block away from that. That's four Improv focused theaters in the same area. It's become a fulcrum for the rest of the comedy community.
How do shows at the PIT compare to shows at these other theaters you've mentioned?
We try to keep it focused on very polished shows. We try to keep the theater clean in terms of content. We're not censoring anybody, but we like to be as inviting to everybody as possible and treat it more like theater, which is something I don't think the other venues do.
Are there any trends in comedy you'd like to comments on?
Six months to a year ago, there was a trend based on The Aristocrats to do dirty humor and push the envelope as much as possible, but that's passed. I think we're in loll period waiting for the next trend. If I were to guess, I'd say that treating comedy as theater is something we're going to see a lot more. I hear that a lot from people. It's great to do these nights and have fun with each other, but what's the goal? Is it "I want to be on commercials" or "I want to be on TV"? For most people, I believe, it's that they love comedy and love doing live comedy.
What do you think of the term alternative comedy?
It doesn't mean as much as it used to. When it came out, it was focused around Luna Lounge because it was the alternative to mainstream stand up comedy, which was the focus of all comedy at the time. Now, alternative comedy has evolved into the mainstream, in a certain way. It's more a designation for a type of humor than anything else.
What are some projects that you're currently involved in?
At this point, my focus is on Elephant Larry because we're opening a new show on Saturday the 13th, Sketchfest NYC because it's coming up in June, Sketchfest TV, and The PIT. As the artistic director here, I'm focused on all the shows and trying to create new shows whenever we can. We have a bunch of fun things coming up in June that I'm excited about. We're having a short movie show that I think will be neat called Trailer Park. People submit their short, funny fake movie trailers and then the audience votes on the ones they like the best and the best ones come back the next month with sequels. I think that'll be fun, especially as people are becoming more savvy with video. There's a show running every Friday at 8 PM in June that I'm excited about called Pete and Brian's One Man Show. It's these two guys, Pete and Brian, and they come out, talk at the exact same time for five minutes, and at the end of that they let the audience choose whose one person show they want to see, except they appear in each other's one person show. It's very funny, unique, and has a different tone from anything I've seen. I've watched hundreds of tapes at this point and it's one of my favorites.
Are there any places that you like to hang out after a show?
After shows at The PIT, we hang out at The Triple Crown, which is a block away. It's a nice Irish pub place and we get a discount if we mention that we're from The PIT.