Comedy, Tricking You With Its Beauty

An interview with Jess Bryson of Bad Dog Theatre

If you haven’t already had the chance to fall in love with Jess Bryson, you need to spend more time in her classes or watching her perform at Toronto’s Bad Dog Theatre company. (Full disclosure: I’ve done a fair bit of both.) A Vancouver native, and UBC theatre grad, Bryson does triple duty as an instructor, the theatre’s Academy Director, and one of the company’s amazing stable of repertory players.

It was at UBC that she saw long-form improv for the first time (with fleshed out characters and a fully developed narrative arc), as opposed to the sort of short-form improv games more familiar from ‘Whose Line Is It Anyway?’ Needless to say, it blew her mind. Improv ceased to be just a throwaway, an afterthought of high school theatre programs. She saw how it could be Art. And she was hooked.

“When you really give yourself to it,” Bryson says, “it’s the purest form of theatre. It has all the humanity, the cheekiness and the wit of satire and parody, without the months of rehearsal that goes into conventional theatre. The feedback improv gives you is more immediate, and it’s like a drug – as I think all art can be. It was the harder, faster, more intense drug that I was getting NOW! So what improv taught me is you can do it now. That was the big switch.” 

She also switched gears academically, from a practical acting degree to an academic theatre degree, not realizing how well it would serve her as Academy Director at Bad Dog: “I learned how to produce, I learned how to direct, and I ended up learning a lot of the backend of theatre, and now I work in the backend of a theatre.”  

Since making the move to Toronto, she’s become an integral part of the predominantly female management and production team, led by the incredible Julie Dumais Osborne, that has transformed a 30-year-old Theatre Sports league into Bad Dog, the hot young thing of the local comedy scene. It is one of the only theatres of its kind that strives for 50/50 gender parity in its shows. Not bad for Bryson, a relative newcomer to the city in an industry notorious for its sexism. Indeed, it was that glass ceiling for women that her dad – a drama teacher – knew she could break when he encouraged her to go into comedy in the first place.

I sat down with Jess for lunch at the new Dooney’s on Bloor, just across the street from the theatre, to talk about sketch comedy (scripted shows) vs. fully improvised (unscripted) shows, her sketch writing process, comedy vs. drama, and the future of improv as a financially viable career choice in an already crowded and (in some ways) cash-starved cultural marketplace. 

Peter: How do you decide when you want to do sketch, when you want to do improv, and how is the process different? 

Jess: “You always have to ask yourself, what is this going to give me? Because there are some improv shows people want to do that become so planned out or overthought that it’s like, ‘Oh, this should probably be a sketch show. You should just write it and rehearse it.’  

“The magic of improv is that it is live in the moment, and we’re going to enjoy this moment for what might happen, instead of something that is scripted. So, they’re skills that are connected and skills that are separate.”

Are you more or less comfortable performing in either format?

“Improv has become my main thing. I’m very comfortable on stage. But the fun of sketch is that you get to do the same thing over and over again, and find new jokes. There’s always going to be improvised moments within a sketch show.”

What about the writing process for sketch? Do you use improv to work-up scenes and then develop stuff that comes out of that?

“That’s one way of approaching it. Often times, it’s more like riffing. You work with someone you like and you have an idea – not necessarily a full premise, just a kernel of an idea. For example, I think Australian accents are funny, because in my mind they are absurd. They’re either very sexual, or blasé, or angry. So when they become serious, there’s a nugget of funny there. Where can I take that nugget? Wouldn’t it be great if they were reading ‘Anne of Green Gables’ to children? 

“So you start riffing lines. Then you get the beats of the scene. Comedy works in threes – you do it once, twice, three times. What’s the story – the beginning, the middle, the end? And then – it’s called ‘punching up’ – you go back and put in more jokes. You’re trying to hone in on what makes this funny and how you can hit it harder. 

“I work with my sketch partner Freddie Rivas, and we always have a sense of improv. And you find new jokes on the spot. So it’s a dance between what’s written and what’s improvised. It doesn’t need to be word perfect. It’s less about memorizing the script than knowing the script.”

One of your heroes is Viola Spolin, and she used improv for all forms of theatre, not just comedy. Have you ever used improv to develop a conventionally dramatic show?

“I’m not personally, at present, interested in developing that kind of show. But that said, all comedy should have tragedy in it, right? You should never be afraid to find the sad inside of the funny, because it really is just a dance between the two concepts – two sides of the exact same coin.”

In some of Kirsten Wiig’s recent movies (‘Skeleton Twins’, ‘Welcome to Me’) she seems to be pursuing a kind of serious-funny, tragically funny course with what she is doing.

“I think in anybody you see that is really funny, you’re going to see an ounce of sad. Think about Steve Carrell’s character on The Office. How sad is that character? So joyful, and so funny, but so sad. As comedians, we are just dancing the truth of the situation. Some things are just innately funny, but if you dig down deep – even when it’s nostalgia, or love, or friendship – there’s always a pang of sadness inside that. And if you are seeking to avoid that, you are probably not very funny – or you are very sad yourself.”

One of the ideas you taught us that I‘ve found very useful in writing is the whole concept of stakes – what each character has at risk in a given moment, what they have emotionally invested. It’s crucial to any scene, and as soon as I heard that, I thought – ‘Oh, that just intuitively makes a lot of sense to me.’  But then also the idea that the stakes don’t have to be extremely high, in an objective sense, it just has to be high stakes for those characters.

“Yeah, it can be two parents watching their child graduate from high school. That’s not a sad occasion. There’s no conflict between the characters. They’re happy, they’re proud of their child becoming an adult. Maybe there is some nostalgia in it, which is a little bit sad, but it’s beautiful and it means a lot to them. It can be very average, normal things. But it’s how we feel about things that makes them high stakes.

“Because you can also see scenes where ‘It’s the end of the world!’ And people are like, ‘Give me the bomb.’ ‘No, I’ll take the bomb’,“—said in a disaffected monotone. “Ben Affleck in ‘The Sum of All Fears’: “I guess we have to defeat the Russians.” If you don’t act it with any stakes, it doesn’t have any weight. Or, ‘It’s the big game!’ Well, why does it matter to you that it’s the big game? Who cares?”

Or superhero movies where all of New York is destroyed, but it’s totally weightless because it doesn’t feel real.

“There’s no stakes in it.”

Right. 

“But then why do they always put in love stories? Because you’ve got a character who wants to be in a relationship with this girl down the street, but he can’t, because he’s Superman. Somehow, that’s more compelling.”

In Jonathan Franzen’s novel ‘The Corrections’ there’s a character, Gary Lambert, who is basically just fighting as long and hard as he can to avoid admitting to his wife that he is depressed. And in the grand scheme of world affairs, this is not high stakes. But in the context of a marriage, it’s really high stakes. And it’s all played for kind of sad laughs. It’s very funny, but it’s also kind of tragic and absurd at the same time. And learning that concept of stakes through improv really makes clear to me, as a writer, why that sequence works, or why that approach to a character works. 

“I think the best comedy tricks you with its beauty. If it’s a really beautiful long-form piece like ‘T.O. I Love You’, I’m sure the shows people love the most are the funniest but also the ones that make you think, somewhere on that 45-minute trip home, ‘Huh, I should really call my mom.’ We trick them somehow. We make them laugh, but we also make them think about their own lives, their relationships, or about society. That’s the best-case scenario, because then that’s art, and art is just a mirror.”

In terms of crafting compelling scenes, there’s also the idea that ‘Today is NOT any day. Today is the day that SOMETHING happens.’ Maybe it comes from Keith Johnstone’s notion of ‘breaking the routine’: you establish what the normal situation is, and then it has to tilt into something out of the ordinary. But it doesn’t necessarily have to be conflict or something negative.

“Oh, yeah, one of my favourite scenes I ever did was just these two kids at summer camp and they are super-stoked to be there because it's the Best Day Ever! And the scene is just about how they are going to have more and more fun on the Best Day Ever. All that matters is that they care, they’re affected by what’s going on. 

“The same with the graduation scene. It’s not something that happens every day. It’s not routine, and we can relate to it because of how much they have invested in it. Or the character who is hiding his depression. Maybe today is the day he succeeds at hiding it, or maybe today is the day he fails and has to admit it to his wife. Either way, the tension is there, because both he and his wife are invested in whether he succeeds or fails at that.”

I think the most edge-of-your-seat exciting show that I’ve seen at Bad Dog was ‘The Hook-Up’ – in which two strangers in the audience are interviewed about their personal lives, and then actors on stage play out a virtual date between those two REAL people – because you can watch their reactions as it happens. That infusion of tension is just hilarious, and really exciting.

“That’s why do we do audience interaction. We don’t know what these people from the audience are going to say or do. But it makes people nervous, and that’s exciting. People watch improv to watch people be people. It’s the chance that you could fail that is terribly exciting. It’s very scary. And that tension can only come out in one of two ways: you either laugh or you cry.”

But I generally feel like improv audiences hope to see you succeed. 

“Yes, but it’s like watching a tightrope walker. You know they are trained. There’s a net. You know nothing really bad can happen. But there’s a chance that they could fail. It’s still dangerous. And you want to see someone slip a little bit. You’re excited for the danger of what might happen.

“Take doing accents on stage, for example. Most of my students feel like they’re really bad at accents. And I say, ‘Great. We will watch you be bad, as long as you’re confident.’ So if one person comes out with a great Scottish accent, and then someone else has to play his brother, and they can’t do the accent, we’re having just as much fun watching one person fail as we are watching the other one succeed. And if you let us joy in your failure, it can be even more fun than watching someone succeed. It’s all about commitment. Your fear of failing is your biggest nemesis.

“The need for commitment is the hardest thing for people to learn. There are rules, but then you see someone screw them up, and it’s still funny. Sometimes that kind of failure is the funniest thing you see all night, so can you still define it as failure? People struggle so much with that.”

I think that’s true of all art forms, no? That there are rules, but really skilled people know how to break them.

“Oh, yeah – you learn all the rules, then you learn the bends, then you learn the breaks. So we start with rules because it’s easier for people to ‘consume’ rules, and you have to know why you are breaking or bending rules.

“But we are talking about acting. So I can teach you, ‘This is how you can find characters inside of yourself.’ But someone else might have a completely different way of getting there, and they’re not wrong. That can make it a little tough sometimes, because students are looking for something concrete. Like I’ll get students who miss a class and want to make it up, but that class will never exist again with that group of people. Because that’s the other thing about improv: it requires other people.”

It seems like it’s very difficult to make a living strictly within the world of improv, unless you teach, get on TV or become a writer. So where do you hope improv is going to take you in ten years?

“If this culture changes and wants to start supporting live Canadian art, and we start getting funded in a different way, then yeah, maybe being a professional improviser will be a more viable career path. 

“It’s much more likely that I will continue with arts administration. I love adult education; I love teaching adults improv. You know what I’m like. You’ve taken my classes. It’s fun to be a small female goof in a terrified group of people who are, not necessarily older than me, but certainly much more established inside of their own lives.

“I love it because, yeah, you’re gonna learn something, but it’s also saying, ‘What if we all just laugh for two hours?’ I like seeing that there’s a next phase to someone’s growth, and that art can give them that jump that they need, the confidence. And I know it’s scary. I know it is. So I take great satisfaction in seeing them overcome that. If that continues to be a piece in my life, I’d be really happy with that.”

(Mural at Shaw and Bloor, by @jchiale, #Studio835)

When you say the culture needs to change, that we need to start funding live Canadian art, do you mean both the government and the general public? Is there resistance, do you think, to people coming out and paying for shows?

“The truth is, there isn’t a lot of arts funding anymore. There was a time when everyone could pay union rates and it was this healthy rich environment. But funding has been incredibly slashed, so it means that nobody can produce the work that they want to and no one is taking risks on Canadian art.” 

One more thing for Justin Trudeau to hurry up and fix!

“Well, I don’t know if you watched the CBC’s election coverage, but they looked pretty happy with the result!

“The crazy thing is that I think people always want to see live work. We’re so afraid that television and film have completely taken over. But I think there is something really exciting and real about seeing something in front of you. People pack the house to see stand-ups live even though they have their album at home. Why do you want to do that? Because there is something about being in front of someone, being part of a live audience, that energy, that feeling that we are all attracted to. It’s real, it’s very human, it’s dynamic, it’s interesting, we want it. And I think Toronto is an amazing city for loving its own culture. I love that about this city. I love that it wants to keep its own culture alive.

“So I think part of it is that more people need to come out to shows, but we need government action that recognizes it’s important to fund art. And comedy is art.”

Lindsay Leese was interviewed on CBC the other day talking about retiring the Cream of Comedy award she created in memory of her husband Tim Sims. And she was saying that within the big arts funding organizations, there aren’t really categories for comedy. It’s a kind of afterthought. It doesn’t fit within what people think of as art.

“Right, it’s like the dumb little brother of theatre and opera. But then, comedy is for everybody. Improv is like the soccer of art. You don’t need much to play, so you can play it anywhere. It’s the easiest door that we can open for people because it doesn’t take sets, scripts, props, or costumes. It just takes five people and a coach in a room saying, ‘Let’s try this thing.’ 

“If you look at Viola Spolin, her whole thing was taking inner city kids and getting them out performing. Because she thought, ‘We may not have any money, but I can give the power of art to these kids, so they find their voice, so they find their confidence, so they feel like they can grow through art’ – and that’s a very valuable thing.

“But you’re right, I don’t think they give any operational funding to any theatre company that has comedy as their mandate.”

I wonder if there’s a perception that comedy is revenue generating, and that funding it is not necessary because it is a popular art form.

“Yeah, maybe. I also think there is just a feeling that it has less value. Although, if you talk to any good actor, they’ll tell you that it is harder to make people laugh than to make them cry, and that there is value in laughter. 

“Think about it like this: the Greeks invented Comedy and Tragedy as we understand them. Theatre was all for the gods, it was for Dionysus, religious celebration – that is where plays came from. And there was an understanding that catharsis requires sadness as well as its counterpart, laughter. That was their way of expressing human nature to the gods. 

“And the funny thing is, if you take LYSISTRATA – one of the most famous Greek comedies – which is about the women going on a sex strike because their husbands have been off at war, think about what that is: put it in a different context for a second, slow it down, and you realize, ‘This is a story about people that have no power.’ Women had zero power in ancient Greece. The only thing they could do was withhold sex. That was it. Their husbands were allowed to rape them. And essentially they’re saying, ‘I won’t pretend to like it anymore. I’m going to be cold about it.’ Like, that’s part of their threat. It’s very sad. 

“And then, if you take OEDIPUS, which is probably the most famous Greek tragedy, what’s it about? King Laius is told by the Oracle that his own son will kill him, so he’s left out to die on a mountain, found by a shepherd, and adopted by another royal family. Later he goes to the Oracle and learns he will kill his own father. So he runs away, accidentally kills his real father, marries his real mother, figures it out, pokes his eyes out – tragic. I’m thinking, put Australian accents on that thing and it is going to sound hilarious. Because it’s also so close to being over-the-top in and of itself. It’s so close to comedy in how tragic it is.”

Right, it’s excessively tragic.

“In my mind it’s always Australian accents that make it funny. My Australian boyfriend hates that, by the way. He’s like, ‘No, but there’s really good Australian actors…’ And I’m like, yeah, yeah, yeah, sure, but think how funny it would be” – she slips into her best Australian accent – “ ‘Oh, me – my eyes! My mum!’ It’s so close – one step away from being comedy.

“So if you are looking at comedy’s value as an art form, I think it is just as valuable as drama. And because it is populist, it’s even more valuable. Did you know, improv is banned in some parts of the world, because you can’t censor it, right? And that’s really powerful. It’s the power of comedy to speak to what people are really feeling. Maybe it won’t make them cry, but that doesn’t mean it’s not affecting them.”

After this disquisition on the origins of tragedy and comedy, it’s clear: If Bryson ever decides she doesn’t want to be an improviser anymore, she’s got the chops to be a bang-up theatre history teacher too.

“Anyway, those are my opinions, but I think at Bad Dog maybe we are changing people’s minds. It’s improvised THEATRE. We want to make you laugh, but we’re doing theatre. We also hope to move you and make you think.”

Indeed. Bryson’s philosophy, as an educator and a performer, can perhaps best be summed up in her own words:

“I think art is for everybody, though not everyone is going to be a professional artist. But everyone has the right to learn and enjoy art.” 

The Bad Dog Academy, of which Bryson is the director, strives to make that right a reality every day, with programming for teens on up, multiple points of entry (their drop-ins start at $5), and lots of opportunities to get on stage. So what are you waiting for? If improv is the soccer of the art world, isn’t it about time you put on your mental cleats and started doing it? She dares you not to fall in love with it. 

Bad Dog Theatre has shows just about every night of the week, most for $12 or less. Catch Jess Bryson and Freddie Rivas in their regular sketch show ‘The Scene’ at Bad Dog on November 21st. To purchase tickets go to: baddogtheatre.com