I had the extreme pleasure of asking the comedy duo Charles (Charlie Stockman and Chuck Armstrong) a few questions about their experience in the world of sketch comedy. These were their responses, in all their glory:
I have to ask, when and how did your love of all things funny begin?
Charlie: I’ve always enjoyed the reward of making people laugh. I think most of us do. Comedians just need that reward in more regular doses. More specifically, when I started writing for the Stanford Chaparral in college was when I really started taking comedy seriously.
Chuck: I had a teacher, Jeannine Rogel, in the fourth grade she encouraged me to add humor to my short stories. It was the first time anyone actually suggested I attempt to be funny. I learned quickly that comedy resonates with people in a way few other things can. Also, growing up in the Seattle area, it would be impossible to overstate the influence Almost Live on my impressionable young mind. Its localness definitely imbued it with an odd empowering quality. I remember watching it and thinking “this is something I would love to be a part of”.
Charlie: We don’t actually exclusively perform in venues that are BYOB.Chuck: Though I suppose we have had something of a history of playing those types of house. In which case it’s mostly a function of cutting our teeth doing shows in places that don’t have a liquor license, or in some cases don’t even technically count as a venue. We did a show in the lobby of a theater, we did a show in the converted common area of an old run-down house in Ballard. And to be honest, those shows can be the most fun, but the onus is on you to be both performer and host.Charlie: You want people to have a good time at a comedy show, you want people relaxed, willing to laugh at what you put on stage. A good comedy show, be it standup, sketch, improv, whatever, should feel not unlike a party, and any party that doesn’t have beer, well, that’s a pretty shitty party. Ergo, BYOB.
When you guys struck out on your own, was there a great deal of planning or did it just feel right?
Chuck: Our first comedy venture was a weekly web-series called Seattle Untimely, which we started in 2007.
Charlie: Considering how much effort is required to create a weekly web series, I wish we would have put more planning into that.
Chuck: Well, we did plan, we planned a whole hell of a lot, I think the bigger problem was that we didn’t know what we were doing and we had no clue how to market the thing. It’s almost impossible to get people to start watching something regularly on the Internet unless you give them a really compelling reason. A lot of people would watch one episode, or we’d have some bit from the show, like Space Bear, go semi-viral, but trying to get repeat viewers or iTunes subscribers or UStream subscribers or any of that was incredibly difficult. So the effort we’d put in to planning, writing, rehearsing, filming, editing, was absolutely massive compared to the response we’d typically get of, say, a hundred people watching.
Charlie: Yeah, I guess that’s what I meant when I said I wish we had put more planning into it. Anyway, our first live sketch performance happened because someone in Chuck’s improv class knew about Seattle Untimely and invited us to open for her sketch group.
Chuck: Yeah, Megan Hescock was her name, though she went by Moog. She used to be really active in the improv scene here, but I haven’t seen her around in awhile and she produced a Sketch/Improv hybrid show called “Sketchprov” for which she asked us to open. When I agreed, I assumed she wanted to show our videos. She did not. So we wrote our first live show. And it was actually pretty well received. Granted, the audience was basically our friends and a bunch of other comedians, but still, it went well. And more importantly, it was a lot more fun than spending twenty hours shooting and editing a video in exchange for some thumbs ups.
Charlie: After that we performed in a few more shows around Seattle, and got asked to appear on several PROK bills, which was a huge boost for us. Then, we were able to get a spot in the Seattle Sketch Fest, which was really like our first legitimate theater venue show. It was the first time we had a technician. And we’ve just been rolling from there.
What kind of advice would you give to greenhorn comedy duo’s on working as a team?
Chuck: In my experience, whenever we disagree about something, whichever one of us feels more strongly about his point of view tends to be right.
Charlie: Oh yeah, history is written by the victors, for sure. The other advice I would give is to write a lot of sketches. It will help you wear down his guard, so that you can sneak in the Stoner Think Tank sketch.
Chuck: (eye roll)
What is your favorite sketch you ever performed?
Chuck: The Ghost of Patrick Swayze. It feels very much like a real argument even though it’s happening between a shallow, upstaging asshole and a preening, arrogant-cum-defensive, identity stealing ghost. Also, Charlie’s portrayal of a self-congratulatory JD Salinger just kills me. I almost crack every time.
Charlie: At the moment, I would say Classic Rock Reunion. I love when comedic tension is combined with legitimate dramatic tension, and I think that CRR is the closest we’ve come to achieving that.
What’s the worst thing about performing to an intoxicated crowd? What’s the best?
Charlie: Sometimes a really intoxicated audience member will decide to insert his own dialogue into the show. This is tricky because you’re usually playing Thomas Jefferson at the time, and you don’t want to break the scene by asking the person to politely STFU. This is especially tricky when the audience member in question is your friend.
Chuck: The best thing about an intoxicated crowd is that they will get rowdy when you want them to get rowdy. We have a sketch that revolves around me putting Charlie on the spot over and over again (e.g. making him do an impression, making him give a speech, making him give a eulogy), and with the support of a drunk crowd this sketch can really hit. We’ve had sixty people screaming at Charlie to do push-ups. That, incidentally, was the same show where our friend was inserting dialogue into our Thomas Jefferson sketch.
I hear you’re both Stanford men. What invaluable lessons did you pick up there that apply to your act?
Charlie: Thank you for being a gracious interviewer and dropping the S-bomb for us. It saves us the trouble of having to shoehorn it in ourselves.
Chuck: I believe you already did.
Charlie: Right, well it’s nice to reinforce it. Anyway, we both wrote for the Stanford Chaparral, Stanford’s humor magazine. The Chaparral provided a great environment to do a lot of writing, cultivate our comedic sensibilities, and get some of the bad jokes out of our system. From the magazine, we got a lot better at writing jokes that had to stand on ideas and couldn’t rely on good performances to carry them.
Chuck: In fact, if I remember, Charlie, when you were editor you instituted a “no silly voices” rule when pitching ideas to the staff. Basically, if it wasn’t compelling when read in an unaffected, west-coast accent, it wouldn’t make it in the magazine. And when we started doing sketch, I think those sensibilities carried over.
Charlie: Which explains why our sketches tend to be heavy on jokes and standing around.
Chuck: I didn’t realize you could put anything else in a sketch. What else is there beyond jokes and standing around?
Charlie: Walking around, I guess?
Charlie: Anyway, the most important comedy lesson we learned from Stanford is that you never know if the person you’re talking to is a Kennedy, so go easy on the sailboat jokes.
Do you have a structured sketch development process or does the hilarity just magically spill from your minds?
Chuck: There’s no codified process we adhere to, but the way sketches get written tends to follow a particular pattern.
Charlie: When one of us has an idea, we’ll usually banter about it and riff on some lines of dialogue, either in person or over IM. We also discuss feasibility, whether there’s a whole sketch there, and what’s the most compelling way to present it.
Chuck: Eventually, if we like an idea enough, one of us takes a crack at writing a first draft and passes it to the other one. We’ll revise back and forth like that until we think it’s pretty close. Sometimes that’s as few as two revisions, sometimes that’s as many as ten.
Charlie: Then we read it aloud maybe with some blocking, which almost always results in another rewrite.
Chuck: It turns out that people don’t begin sentences by saying “well” nearly as often as you might think.
Charlie: When we’ve finished writing, rewriting, rehearsing, and blocking we memorize the thing and put it on a stage.
Chuck: It usually then requires another rewrite after its first performance. There’s just a ton you don’t know about a sketch until you get it in front of an audience.
I saw the sketches you did for WhizArtBang in 2010 on the YouTube and was really impressed by your ability to memorize the numbers for the first bit. Is this a natural talent or something that took extra practice?
Chuck: It’s funny that you mention that sketch specifically, because the character usually holds note cards to make sure we get the ratios right. Though we’ve done it without the note cards or just gone up with blank note cards and haven’t had any trouble. The note cards also make a nice beat for signifying to the audience that a particular sub-section of the joke is done.
Chuck: So in answer to the broader question, not to sound too cliché, memorization is like a muscle. It’s much, much, easier for me now to memorize sketches than it was when we were getting started.
Charlie: We also have an advantage because we write everything we perform, so by the time we get to rehearsal we are already familiar with the dialogue and how we think it should be delivered.
All silliness aside, what’s so important about sketch comedy?
Chuck: This is always a difficult question for me to answer. It’s tough to really get at what makes comedy compelling in the first place beyond: “it’s good.” The best I can come up with, I think, is that really good comedy creates a kind of shared bond. When everyone laughs, it’s because some idea resonated on a non-obvious level. And sketch comedy, in particular, is a really great form that allows you to briefly explore lots of different ideas.
Charlie: I would add that comedy is about making you see the world in a new way, and good comedy makes you see the world in a new, but still logical way. I think there’s value in that.
Any upcoming projects the world needs to know about?
Charlie: We, along with a host of other local comedians, will be teaching one of the classes in SketchFest’s Boot Camp series. Aspiring and established sketch comedians should sign up. Nobody should miss a chance to learn comedy from Mike Mathieu.
Charlie: Also, we just finished up writing and shooting some video pilots and sketches with Spike Friedman and some other members of Ubiquitous They and The Satori Group. They should hopefully be edited and online in the next couple months. We’ll announce it on Facebook when they are.
Chuck: In fact, all of these things will get announced on our Facebook page, which is facebook.com/charlescomedy
Charlie: Way to stick that in.
Chuck: You know how we do, marketing.
Learn more about Charles and keep tabs on their upcoming shows on Facebook. If you’re interested in learning about the rehearsal process from these veterans of sketch, join them at the SketchFest Boot Camp April 2012.