From a tiny black-box theater on Sunset, right next door to the nerd mecca Meltdown Comics, Ptolemy Slocum is plotting improv’s return to its freer roots.
Slocum, a character actor who’s appeared in a number of films and in HBO series including The Wire, Veep and The Sopranos, is the lead teacher at the Nerdist School, a year-old improv instruction center named for actor Chris Hardwick’s megapopular geek-culture podcast and website. (Not to be confused with the NerdMelt Showroom, the popular stand-up stage in the back of the comics shop.)
For 15 years, since back in his New York theater days, Slocum has been developing a curriculum that embraces a more experimental, less rule-bound approach to improv.
“It’s about raw performance, doing exactly what’s coming out of you,” he says. “You get to the point where all the rules are gone. To a point of pure expression.”
While the Nerdist School has the backing of Hardwick’s brand, it’s distinctly its own thing. Hardwick doesn't sit in the back row and give notes — he simply bought into Slocum’s vision. “There is a lot of crossover in the philosophies,” Slocum says. “We’re looking for people with personal passion that drives them, but who aren’t the type that, you know, does whatever it takes to fuck over the competition. Chris had one rule: Make sure no one is an asshole.”
Nerdist faces a tough challenge in a marketplace already saturated with big-name improv schools: Upright Citizens Brigade, ImprovOlympic West, Second City and Groundlings. Nerdist's class size (a maximum 16 per class) and price ($350 per eight-class run) are right on par with the other big schools. Without any history, how do they expect to compete?
“I think we have better classes,” Slocum says. “We only have teachers that have been doing it for 10 to 15 years, only teaching what they’re passionate about. We’re taking a more holistic approach, treating our students as entire artists.”
That’s the intangible answer. The more realistic one is that the Nerdist School has a tool that the other ones don’t — affiliation with a site that attracts tens of millions of clicks per month. No other school has an online presence that comes anywhere close to Nerdist's. Slocum is already working on the first Nerdist Presents short-film series, featuring all Nerdist School players. It will be published on the Nerdist site and promoted to its 231,000 Twitter followers and 1.3 million Facebook fans.
As the newest addition to L.A.'s improv schools, Nerdist aims to appeal to veterans of the other schools who want to get in on the ground floor of a program they can make their own. It also intends to attract new talent by being less intimidating than the old guard — and by adopting a different philosophy.
In a town where improv schools absorb a large percentage of the massive acting population, it’s a fun indulgence to imagine L.A.'s Big Four dividing Hollywood like street gangs. UCB, the youngest, hottest, most ruthless troupe — the MS-13 of improv, if you will — rules over the northwest sector. O.G.s iO West and Second City duke it out in the central zone, while the west end is occupied by the Groundlings. Only the Groundlings originated in L.A.; the other three originated in Chicago.
The differences among the Big Four troupes are rooted in the history of improvisational theater. The godfather of contemporary improv was Del Close, a writer, director and performer who got his start at Second City in the early 1960s. His methods were experimental, focusing on the importance of structureless, raw performance. Close is best known for developing “Harold,” a form of structured improv that most shows, including UCB, iO West and Second City, adhere to today. Harold is an attempt to bring order to chaos.
“It’s like a three-act structure,” explains Joe Kardon, a member of Nerdist's original house team, Pilgrim. “Say there's a scene about a doctor that asks way too personal questions. The next beat could be another scene about that doctor or about a traffic cop that also asks way too personal questions.” The opening and the group games are free-form exercises that serve as palate cleansers for the audience.
The format works so well, and is such a good mechanism for both teaching and digesting improv, that it dominates the medium today. Close, though, might not entirely appreciate that it’s become his legacy.
“It’s almost like Christianity and Jesus,” Slocum says. “It sort of became everything he was against. Close is associated with this closed form, when really he was about the opposite.”
Today’s schools are defined in part by their acceptance or rejection of the Harold structure. UCB remains faithful, as does iO West, which named its Hollywood Boulevard theater after Close. IO, however, is less concerned than UCB with conditioning an audience response, emulating Close's more acting-based, experimental work.
Second City is known for its Harold but also for political commentary and scene development. It’s also the most writing-focused of the four — students are taught to use improv as fodder for written sketches.
And Groundlings is the least structured of the lot, focusing primarily on character and audience reaction, which is why it has become a primary feeder for Saturday Night Live. Kristin Wiig and Will Ferrell both developed many of their famous characters at Groundlings.
“I see a ton of shows with groups that can do one scene for 20 minutes,” says Johnno Wilson, an actor who’s been performing with Groundlings for four years. “I am in awe of those people. I think it’s a fantastic form of improv. But I think there are a lot of different ways to do improv and I don’t think the Groundlings goes just for the laughs. We get these huge laughs because the audience knows we're truly committed to the character.”
Slocum does not teach Harold. While he acknowledges that Nerdist is still finding its niche, he says his mission is to be more acting- and performance-based than the others, more free-form and in line with Close-style experimentation. He wants his improvisers to fall headfirst into the scene and stop trying to make anyone laugh.
“We're doing almost, like, punk improv,” he says. “We definitely don’t stay on the stage. It’s much freer. We do clowning classes to get that raw energy of being in the moment.”
Ultimately, Slocum wants to free his students from the constraints of Harold and audience reaction. It’s much healthier, he says, for them to focus on expressing themselves. He teaches the tricks of the trade but empowers his students to make use of them on their own.
“It’s like Legos,” he says. “If you take Legos and say, 'You can only build this,' you lose the reason why you wanted to build in the first place. But if you say, ‘Here’s the Legos, here's the instructions, now go make whatever you want,' then you can use the kit to express yourself, not to build someone else’s idea of what you’re supposed to do.”