Ali Farahnakian has over fifteen years of Improv experience, was one of the original members of the Upright Citizens Brigade , is a former SNL writer, and the owner of The People's Improv Theater (PIT) .
Where is that you grew up?
Most of my childhood was spend in North Carolina. The formative language years were in Connecticut, we moved to North Carolina when I was a third grader, I spent the 90's in Chicago, and came to New York in the fall of 99 to work for SNL.
When did you develop an interest in comedy?
Probably in college. I was in a fraternity that did a lot of bits. We were always joking around there and I was always a big fan of comedy. I had watched SNL since the first show, but when I formally began was when I moved to Chicago in November 1st 1990 to take a writing class from a former SNL writer named Michael McCarthy. Then I studied with Del Close and Charna Halpern in the ImprovOlympic, worked with Second City, and went from there to SNL.
What were you like in school?
I was a bit of a class clown. I was definitely someone who could make the people around him laugh. I was also an athlete. It was a combination of being a class clown and playing tennis and baseball.
Prior to moving to Chicago, had you done any writing?
I had written sketches because I wanted to write for SNL. I wrote a letter to them asking how I'd go about doing that and someone contacted me saying to send a couple of sketches. I had also helped people write pieces for the talent show. A friend of mine from the Chicago area told me that there was a place called The Second City. I knew about SCTV but hadn't made the connection. I called Second City and said I'd like to take the class. It was starting in November, so I flew from Chapel Hill, North Carolina, where I went to college, with a bag of clothes and a computer. I took one class there with Michael McCarthy. He was a good teacher and gave us the tools to start writing. ImprovOlympic was where I studied Improv. I studied with Charna once and with Del numerous times. I didn't take any Improv classes at Second City.
What was studying with Del like?
We knew he was an amazing teacher and wanted to study with him because of who he was, but it was an age of innocence. We were very young and he was someone who had been doing it longer than anybody and had a passion for it. He was the type of person who, when he was in the room, made you want to be a better improviser and do better scenes.
What was people's perception of Improv at the time?
It was fairly new to us, the people that were there at the early 90's. It was an amazing group of people in the 90's, as time has told. It was an opportunity to get together with your friends and play make believe onstage. At the end of the day, we hung out with each other more off stage than we did onstage.
What were the next several years like?
I was on the house team The Family for the next four years. We did shows Thursday, Friday, and Saturday night. I started studying acting about the same time I started studying Improv, in '91. I was seeing a lot of shows and performing my own shows. At one point, we were performing at the Improv doing ten shows a week. After ImprovOlympic, some of us were hired by Second City and I toured around the country with Second City for two and a half years, stopped performing for a couple of years, came back and did a show for Second City ETC that Jeff Richmond directed. Nine months later SNL came looking for talent and flew Stephanie Weir, Rachel Dratch, and I for auditions. Rachel and I ended up getting jobs the Fall of '99. Nine years after studying with a former SNL writer, I ended up becoming a former SNL writer.
What happened during the time that you took a break?
I was in a relationship with someone who had a job out in Los Angeles and we moved out to LA. Inertia set in and I stopped performing for a while.
What can you tell me about The Revolution Will Not be Televised?
My friend Jeff Richmond was directing a Second City ETC show. He was the piano player for The Family for four years. He kindly reached out to me and offered me the chance to come back to Second City and do a show. I came back in October of '98. It was a great cast and I got to fulfill a dream, which was doing a show there.
How did you get involved with the Upright Citizens Brigade?
We were all doing stuff in the ImprovOlympic. Myself, Adam McKay, Ian Roberts, and Matt Besser were all in The Family. We were forming another group because we wanted perform more. Along with Horatio Sanz, Drew Franklin, and Rick Roman, who passed away, we did shows Friday nights at midnight at this place called Kill the Poet. We called ourselves The Upright Citizens Brigade. The first show we did was called Virtual Reality. It was sketches, Improv, and interactive multimedia. We did scenes where we took people from the audience and brought them onstage with us or took them on a virtual road trip around Chicago, filmed it, and then showed that film. We did scenes in the streets outside of the place where we did our shows. At the time, it was fairly ground breaking because no one was doing that kind of stuff.
How would you describe the time you spent writing for Saturday Night Live?
I had a great experience. I was the only writer hired that fall, so I didn't have a rookie class to come up with. It was why I left North Carolina to move to Chicago and nine years later the dream had come true. I enjoyed it. It was the thing that gave me focus those nine years, brought me to New York City, and brought me a craft. It was mostly the experience of it that I remember. When you look around, everyone that works there is very good at what they do.
Tell me about Word of Mouth.
Word of Mouth came about after I left SNL. I was doing bits at Bogus Sting, an open mic show at the UCB. I did a bit one night and Owen Burke came backstage and said, "If you do one of those a week for the next six weeks, I'll help you put together a one person show." Every week I did a different bit and then one week my friend Matt Besser said, "I signed you up to do a one man show this Friday." That next Friday night I put up the first Word of Mouth show and then, by the third one, something started to build, it was packed, and people from Aspen came. I wasn't trying to go to Aspen. I was trying to do this show and ended up going to go to Aspen with it and it was a great experience. I did about fifty of them and I would take a picture of the audience from the stage at the beginning of every show and in the lobby of The PIT are thirty of those pictures.
What was the theme of Word of Mouth?
That we are all connected, that we have all loved something, lost something and have been afraid of something, told through stories, characters, anecdotes, and antidotes. Also, people found out about the show only via word of mouth, there was never a postcard, program, or anything on paper ever made.
What prompted you to start The PIT?
It began out of the feeling that I could do more than teach one level four class and perform once a week on a Sunday night. I wanted to take a space that was nothing and turn it into a theater.
How does The PIT compare to other theaters, like The UCB or the Magnet?
We're a smaller theater that tries to concentrate on community, craft, and career. If you work on the community the career will come, if you work on the craft the career will come, but if you work on just the career you'll have neither a community nor a craft. We're a nice community for people that work on their craft and career in a laid back environment.
Is there a particular level of Improv that you enjoy teaching more than others?
I enjoy it all across the board. There's something amazing about watching people that have never studied Improv getting it for the first time and there's something wonderful about guiding people who've done it for a while to have breakthroughs that allow them to move past plateaus. Each class I teach is a three-hour workshop. They're fairly modular, like a yoga practice. Someone can come and do this three hour practice and do exercises and drills that will further their craft of improvisation.
Is there any advice that you would offer to people starting out in Improv?
Find out through word of mouth who the good instructors are and study with those instructors. See a lot of shows. If you want to become a better golfer, watch great golfers and play a lot of golf; if you want to be a better improviser, do a lot of Improv and watch great Improv. Whether that be forming a rehearsal group, going to jams, or taking classes. Whatever you can do to get up onstage more than once a week will benefit you.
Do you have advice for more experienced improvisers?
At a certain point, putting pen to paper doesn't hurt. I believe Improv is a great tool. I don't know if it's a means to an end. It can be and it's possible, but I think producing content, whether it be printed or video, is the next step for a seasoned improviser.
What do you think of the term alternative comedy?
If you ask an audience, I don't think they'll care if it's alternative or otherwise because they just want to laugh and think.
Are there any current trends in comedy that you'd like to comment on?
I think that it's exciting that a lot more people are doing it, that theaters are popping up, and that are more places to perform. It's nice to see that it's making a come back and that people are realizing that it's something that you can do for fun and a career.
Some people say that they want to move to New York to pursue a career in comedy. When do you think that they should make such a move?
The difference between New York City and any other city is that it costs more to live in New York. If they think that they can make their nut living in New York City and pay their bills so that they can study here, I'd say move here when you feel comfortable enough to make the leap. There are plenty of other places where you can study improvisation, like Chicago and Los Angeles.
What are some projects that you're currently involved in?
Right now I'm doing a two-person show at The PIT on Wednesdays at seven o'clock called Farahnakian and Flynn present 2006 AD aka No Schlepping. It's a two-person sketch show that I do with my comedy partner Dion Flynn. Then, at eight o'clock on Wednesday, I perform with the faculty at the theater. Both shows are free. Then little projects here and there that I work on. I also teach Writing for SNL class Sunday nights and a level five Improv class on Tuesday nights.
What are some places where you like to hang out after a show?
I'm married, so, primarily, after shows I head home. This is my craft and career. I've been doing this for more than fifteen years. There have been times in my life where I'd do a show and hang out, but now I primarily go home. If I do go out, I may go to a bar around the corner called The Triple Crown. They give people from the theater a discount and are very generous to us.
To learn more about The PIT, visit Thepit-nyc.com