Saturday Night Live notwithstanding, some of the biggest, most beloved movie stars of all time have come not from academic acting programs or theatrical stage ensembles but from comedy stages. Stand-up is the most challenging school of all for comic actors, of course. Comedians must learn timing, pacing and material appropriateness (or inappropriateness, as the case may be) for various audiences, and they have to contend with hecklers, haters, drunkards and those who simply don't get what they're trying to convey.
Thankfully, alternative comic environments are plentiful as well, from open mics and showcases (like Beth Lapides' UnCabaret) to revered improvisational groups such as the Groundlings, the Improv and Upright Citizens Brigade. Alt-comedy has provided a place for upstarts and superstars alike to spread their wings and learn new ways to tickle our fancies and our funny bones, and most of them take what they learn in these environments with them as they make the transition to TV and film.
The stars of the new movie An Evening With Beverly Luff Linn are notable examples. Both Aubrey Plaza and Craig Robinson are known for their signature wit and deadpan droll charm in film and TV, and both got their starts on the alternative-comedy circuit and small theater stages, something each shared with L.A. Weekly during recent press interviews for the film. Both say what they learned as part of alt-comedy groups was invaluable as they honed their comedic craft, and in their new movie together, they play off each other in unforgettable fashion.
The story is driven by Plaza's character, Lulu Danger, who embarks on a weird journey to connect with a mysterious man from her past (Robinson), whom she sees in a commercial on TV. She encounters thievery and magic along the way, and an unpredictable romantic romp emerges.
The unconventional setup and storyline put these two unique actors together in a fresh and novel way that just might show off a new range of comedic skills they haven't revealed before. Though Plaza says many fans assume she and Robinson have worked together before — they've both been in seen Judd Apatow films — they hadn't, but their paths were sort of similar.
Plaza trained at Upright Citizens Brigade in New York, while Robinson came up as part of Second City Improv in Chicago. On the basis of her training, Plaza says that UCB, which expanded to sketch comedy over the years, is all about the essence and honesty of actor interactions. "The kind of mission statement is teaching truth in comedy, and the whole kind of philosophy [is] when you're doing a scene — a comedy scene — the way that you find the comedy is through the truth of the scene and the truth of the characters and not just trying to be funny or trying to make a joke. It's about actually committing to the truth of the scene and then heightening whatever odd thing happens. Then that becomes what's funny about the scene."
Plaza says she's carried a lot of what she learned at UCB with her throughout her career. "Commitment is one thing ... committing to the character and committing to the scene," she explains. "And being a supportive scene partner and collaborating with other people, because improv is really a group activity, and so it's a lot about taking care of your scene partner and focusing on supporting rather than bringing the focus on yourself. And a lot of times that makes things funnier, if you're able to, as they call it, 'pimp your scene partner out."
Plaza's pitch-perfect pimpin' got her noticed right away, and her quirky delivery and mannerisms helped her stand out among some impressive ensembles, such as those on NBC's Parks and Recreation and FX's Legion as well as films like Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, Life After Beth, Dirty Grandpa, Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates and The Little Hours.
She's also become something of a viral video star for her oddball appearances on the talk show circuit. Fans have spliced together her interactions with TV show hosts over the years and the result is pure hilarity, though she's says it's a natural, not contrived thing. "I think when I go on those talk shows, it always feels like a little bit of a performance," she explains. "It's ironic because I really try to just relax and be myself, but that's my defense mechanism, to make jokes. I think there's something about the format of those shows that feels — speaking of improv — like it goes against everything I've learned. It's such a fabricated kind of scenario. I'm used to being spontaneous and kind of going off, so I think it's just like a perfect storm for me of just all my insecurities on display."
Plaza's roles convey similarly layered types of personalities. Her latest, working with a stellar cast including Robinson (as well as Emile Hirsch and Flight of the Conchords Jemaine Clement), really brings out the nuances, especially with co-star Robinson, whose character the film is named after.
Robinson's role as Beverly Luff Linn entails more physical comedy than we've seen from the actor previously. As he tells it, his time spent on alt-comedy stages, taking classes with immersive-theater groups and working as a stand-up performer all come into play in this film.
"I loved going to the Improv," Robinson says. "They had eight-week classes and I did every single one, and kept going back.
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"Every project I do, pretty much 90 percent, you know, has a fun run or a play-around time, and it's almost expected of you to improvise," adds Robinson, who is known for roles in This Is the End and Hot Tub Time Machine as well as The Office. "Being in Second City was incredible because you didn't know what they were going to throw at you. ... It gave me that confidence. So later, being on The Office and working with Danny McBride and Seth Rogen, Larry David, Bernie Mac, it allowed me to play around and also come with it, when I also didn't know what was coming. It all turns out pretty nice."
Robinson says working on An Evening With Beverly Luff Linn was "an absolute blast since it was so many different comic styles mixed all together." He's excited about the role and audience reaction to it. And he's got a lot more coming up: a role in Eddie Murphy's movie Dolemite Is My Name (a prequel to the 70s cult classic), a Disney film, a stand-up tour and music (he's the singer) with his new band, Nasty Delicious, a an R&B project featuring world-class players his funny, funky vocal upfront. "But when you hear 'em play, there's nothing funny about it," he says.
Clearly, both actors are great at pimping, not only their scene partners but whatever they've got going on, on screen and off. Hopefully, we'll seeing more of both -both ways- in the future.
An Evening With Beverly Luff Linn opens in theaters Fri., Oct. 19. Craig Robinson and The Nasty Delicious play The Mint in Los Angeles on Sat., Nov. 17. Plaza will also be seen on Legion Season 3 premiering on FX in Spring 2019.