Austin comedy legend Dave Buckman (formerly of Second City and Boom! Chicago and presently of ColdTowne Theater) has two shows in this year’s Sketch Fest.
The first is with his longtime partner-in-crime (and in marriage), Rachel Madorsky. Rachel & Dave perform an original sketch comedy revue about people who are overly optimistic and under-prepared for life, loosely based on their 10 years of living and improvising together.
The second show is the new ColdTowne Mainstage show, Austin Translation, is a hilarious and smart collection of original scenes and songs, created wholly through improvisations developed and honed over the last few months under Buckman’s direction (with Assistant Director Drew Wesley). Cast members include Chelsea Bunn, Joesph Dailey, Cene Hale, Lauren Knutti, Sanjay Rao, Jared Robertson and Nathan Sowell.
We talked with Dave about juggling his different projects.
You’ve got two shows in this year’s festival. How are the shows different?
Dave Buckman: A Rachel & Dave show, whether it’s an improv show or a sketch show, usually gives the audience a peek in the underbelly of our relationship. Many of the scenes in our shows are based on some real life conversations and bits from around the house.
Austin Translation is based on improvisations among the cast since the first week of March. We’ve only had two rehearsals as of this writing, but we have like 20 solid scene ideas so far. It’s hard to say what will make it into the show at this point, but the cast is about 10-15 years younger than Rachel and I, so the things that make us laugh with each other are going to be different than what a bunch of 20-30 year olds will find funny and interesting.
But structurally they’re the same: professional looking, well-dressed, sharp transitions and some dark material with a sunny disposition; some good relationships scenes, a couple group scenes and games, a couple blackouts and a song or two.
How are the creative processes different for each show?
Dave: Well, the main difference is time. With the Rachel & Dave show, we had been keeping a list of our favorite improv scenes from the last 10 years, always saying, “remember that scene? How did it go?” So there were a few of those scenes and characters that we’ve been noodling with for years in shows and at home.
So when we we went to put the show together in November, we already had 5 or 6 scenes that we knew that the joke was or why the scene was fun and got a good response. We were even lucky to have some the original improvs on video or audio.
With these ColdTowne Mainstage revues, I am putting a cast together who may only know each other tangentially or as former troupe members. I think [Lauren] Knutti was virtually unknown to a lot of the cast before auditions. So there is a period of getting used to each other and a learning curve when writing for each other.
And then I kind of have to also teach them what the process is like and what the show should look like. A lot of them have never seen a Second City revue so they don’t have that frame of reference.
This whole process is all based on how I learned to put a sketch show together from my time learning from Mick Napier and Jeff Richmond and Norm Holly at The Second City and from Dave Razowsky, Ron West and Seth Meyers at Boom Chicago.
I was very lucky to get a paid education in sketch and improv directing from some real masters and innovators of the art form.
You created the first two ColdTowne Mainstage shows back in the day, “Shanty Town Lake” and “Eye for an iPhone”. What did you learn during that process that you’re applying to this new run?
Dave: Good question. Lessons learned…
1) Austin Audiences don’t want to see people doing comedy in suits and business formal wear. Business Casual is about right.
2) Keep it to one act for like 60-65 minutes, instead of two 45 minute acts of material. Although the Sketch Fest version will only be 30 minutes. Intermissions really only make sense when you have to be selling liquor or food.
3) Don’t be afraid to cut scenes with great lines in them if the scene around it is iffy.
What do you look for when putting together a cast?
Dave: A balance in energy and physicality. People who I can trust to not only “take the note” but improve upon it. People that make me belly laugh.
Andrew Moskos [Boom Chicago Executive Producer] used to always look for POTUS energy. Could this person play, not necessarily the sitting president, but a president? Is he/she presidential? I think it’s a good indicator that an audience will take note of this person before they even say something.
When Jordan Peele auditioned for Boom Chicago in 2000, he already had all of those thing. Andrew and I leaned into each other and whispered POTUS at the same exact time. Now he is actually the President’s favorite POTUS.
What do you look for when writing a scene? A show?
Dave: The best thing Seth Meyers taught me was that if there’s a word that is not necessary to the joke. Get rid of it.
If there is a line of dialogue that is really funny but has nothing to do with overall joke or game of the scene. Get rid of it.
If there is a scene or game that is not aligned with the theme or spirit of the overall show. Get rid of it. Save those things for another joke or scene or show.
Other than that I like a show to have a mix of political and social satire, character pieces, relationship scenes, and a thematic opener and closing song.
Who are your influences? Who are some of your favorite sketch comedy acts performing today?
Dave: The Marx Brothers used to perform revues before they made movies. They used to preview their Broadway revues at the Paramount Theater on Congress Ave. Certainly they had a huge influence over my life. I started a Marx brothers club in 4th grade and made my three friends join it. I just wanted to be Chico Marx in the worst way.
Robin Williams and Jonathan Winters on Mork and Mindy and Looney Tunes cartoons were also a huge influence. And literally every iteration of SNL. My favorite cast members were Chris Parnell and Phil Hartman, The guys who could hold down the reality of a scene and had Bud Abbott level timing mixed with Gene Hackman level acting. Right now, I love the straight work Beck Bennett is doing on SNL. So Dry. He’s the future of straight-work.
I love Kyle Mooney’s solo videos so much. Every character he has in those taped bits is A+. I am so upset the Kroll Show is ending. Jon Daly and Jenny Slate should win Emmys for their work on that show. Delicious Moments. They’ve been here a few times and they have the best of everything, really. Timing, content, charisma, physicality, absurdity, classic form. Brian [Shortall] and Ithamar [Enriquez] are really Pro-2 performers for me.
Oh, and shout out to Vanessa Gonzalez. Rachel and I caught her show “I Don’t Know Dating” at the Spider House. She is unbelievable. That show was amazing. She will be famous. Mark my words. Very inspiring character work.
What makes you laugh the most?
Dave: 1. Old people cursing.
2. Confident Idiots.
What’s the best thing about the Austin comedy scene?
Dave: Community Support & Innovative Artists experimenting on the Cutting Edge of the Art form. People aren’t afraid to take huge risks with shows and runs because they know there’s no shot of NBC walking in and them missing their shot at fame because they want to do an all-pirate show or a professional wrestling show or a nude show or an all-Lubu show, where everyone is doing impressions of Bryan “Lubu” Roberts”. More risks = more innovation. And Austinites are just loving and generous people to being with.
Do you have any fun “worst show” or “worst audience member” stories?
Dave: The time a group of like three married couples of suburbanites came to The Frank Mills show with a cooler full of everything and sat on the side couches by themselves and were carrying on even before the lights went out.
We knew they were going to be a handful, and right next to the stage too….When we asked for a suggestion of what’s been on your mind lately, one of those guys yelled “SEX!”
We all immediately turned to them, walked over to them and politely asked, “Why?” We wanted to know why sex was on his mind. He tried to tell us about wanting to orgy with the other couples, but the wife didn’t want to. We kept asking probing questions but we were also sobering him and the rest of them up pretty fast having to answer personal questions about their sex life next to his embarrassed wife.
We went on to do a really smart show about sex and marriage, low expectations and the pitfalls of romance. I love those moments when we can neutralize a potential heckler just be being intelligent and real with them.
Do you have any fun “best show” stories?
Dave: Performing for The Second City on the Norwegian Cruise Line in 2013 was pretty dope. 1100 seat theater performing a scene that Steve Carrell wrote in ’92 and getting those same laughs was pretty special. Tip: People who can afford to take cruise ship vacations aren’t big Obama fans.
Also, the week after 9-11, I was in my second year at Boom Chicago in Amsterdam. Americans would just wander into he building day and night looking for an American community. Andrew [Moskos] wanted a 9-11 piece in the show. It was very new and raw and hard to get your head around, much less find what was funny about anything, let alone this topic. Jordan and I were living together, watching CNN and smoking weed all day.
One day, we started playing with who and what The Taliban was. Nobody knew what these guys were. I had heard of them because I read newspapers but it was really a new word to a lot of people. So there was some unknown there that could be exploited. Jordan and I went out during Boom’s news segment (like a weekend update correspondent) for like a few weeks straight in ZZ Top beards, white gospel robes and turbans made of bath towels and took questions from the audience as Taliban members, but were doing Cheech & Chong impressions.
We wrote a few pat answers that we knew would get a laugh but really just improvised as Cheech & Chong as Taliban and let people ask these questions that were building up in everyone’s hearts. “Why?” “Where do you come from?” “What is your life like?” it was real cathartic comedy and very visceral because there was real and palpable fear and heartache in the room as well as laughs.
Share with us your tips for a job interview.
Dave: Read their entire website and have your own questions ready to go. Ask what they look for in an ideal boss/supervisor. It throws them AND you get to hear what they are striving to be as a boss.
We need to increase the visibility of this article. Any suggestions for a click-bait headline?
Dave: You won’t believe who this plus-sized model used to be.
What else – comedy wise – is your group looking forward to this year?
Dave: Wet Hot American Summer episodes, Children’s Hospital Season 6, Venture Brothers Season 6, the Out of Bounds Comedy Festival (September 1st-7th), and whatever Erika McNichol directs this fall at ColdTowne.