Interview w/ makers of The Committee: A Secret History of American Comedy

Our friends Jamie Wright and Sam Shaw of the SF Improv Festival are tackling a pretty awesome project chronicling some unsung comedy heroes who made their name right here in the Bay Area, The Committee. Check out the interview below, and if you’ve got a spare couple of bucks to send towards an awesome documentary on local comedy and how it shaped improv and pop culture in general, check out their Kickstarter campaign here.

How did you first hear about The Committee?
SAM: I heard about them in books like Jeffrey Sweet’s “Something Wonderful Right Away”, which is an oral history of the Compass Theater and the early years of Second City. They were simply referred to, there wasn’t much on them. And I knew that the cornerstone format of longform improvisational theater – Harold – was invented there. But that was about it until I started digging around.

JAMIE: I’d heard about The Committee growing up in the Bay Area, but mostly for their work with sit-ins, be-ins, love-ins, whatever in the Park. I thought they were this hippie protest street theater group. It wasn’t until I was at Boom Chicago in Amsterdam & stumbled into a full-time gig working in improv professionally, that I started asking around about what San Francisco’s history was with improvisation. I was talking with Jason Sudeikis after a show – and his uncle is George Wendt who before Cheers was a Second City guy, so Jason had this really great, familial knowledge of improv. He said he knew The Committee was this really influential group (though he wasn’t 100% sure why), that they had helped develop long form improvisation, and that Del Close had worked there for several years. That pretty much hooked me – I had to know what the hometown had done for this great thing – improv – I had discovered in Amsterdam.

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Why is it important to tell this story?
SAM: It’s really rare to find a story like this. The Committee’s influence on comedy is widespread – not only in terms of their innovations in improvisational theater work. American society and culture were totally transformed in the 1960′s, and The Committee were there to comment on this social upheaval as it happened. Improv and sketch comedy, more than any other form of expression, can thrive on what’s happening now. And I’m not talking solely of “the moment” in the acting sense, it’s really about what’s happening in the culture. During the Free Speech, Civil Rights, and Women’s Movements, during the Vietnam War, The Committee served the same function as Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. Except their ultimate expression was on stage, not television.

JAMIE: They were innovators. They were fortunate and driven enough to take this relatively new (or some might say freshly reinvented) theatrical art of improvisation, take it to the edge – both in terms of the content and the continent – and create from it some of the most cutting and socially relevant comedy of the time. Because it was theater, and because it came from improvisation where you only have what you bring to the stage – and that is usually what has just been happening with you outside the theater in one way or another – they were really fresh and relevant and talking about the things everyone in all other traditional forms of media were avoiding, or talking around. Every night they came up with new pieces in their improv sets or new twists on their sketches that kept them sharp. They are an example of what theater and comedy can be in it’s best form – something relevant that gets people awake.

What’s the full budget of the film, and when do you expect it to be released?
JAMIE: Well, there are budgets and there are budgets. Shoestring, we could probably get it done without their various TV appearances and without music from the time for around $75-$80,000. Our Kickstarter is for $45K, which will get us the interviews with the surviving members of The Committee. Once we have that, we have a doc.

But what we see this being is a feature-length documentary that explores their full influence, including interviews with people like Dan Aykroyd, Harry Shearer, Tommy Chong and others who said they owed much to The Committee, including their SNL-like appearances on the main TV variety shows of the time (The Tonight Show, The Dick Cavett Show, Flip Wilson, etc), including – hopefully – interviews with the people we watch today who studied with them (Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, etc.) or at the schools they started (Will Ferrell, Kristen Wiig). And it’s going to be entertaining to watch – not only for their material, but we want it to be entertaining in the ways Stacey Peralta’s “Dogtown and Z-Boys” is entertaining – we want it to be well-crafted.

Getting rights to all that TV material, music of the time, and producing it at the level of quality we want to will require some cash. We’re projecting a final budget in the range of $175-200K, as we want to have distribution beyond the festival circuit, and we think it has legs for that. It’s pretty much the biggest story never told about comedy and the 1960′s.

Are you going to send it to Festivals and if so, which ones?
SAM: We are focused on completing the film in time to submit to the 2015 festival circuit. Our strategy of which festivals to submit to very much depends on our final product, so it’s a little premature to speculate, but we are aiming for widespread distribution. This is a story with really broad appeal.

Why did The Committee eventually close up shop? And if they hadn’t, how would the SF improv and comedy scene would look today?
SAM: We’re still in the interview process and unraveling the story as we go. From our vantage now, and this might change, it seems that the old guard of the company grew tired and their move to LA siphoned off a lot of their talent for TV and film. It’s really hard to say now without getting more of the story, but The Committee lasted a solid decade. A pretty amazing run.

JAMIE: Having grown up here, it’s obvious San Francisco is a boom & bust city. From the Gold Rush to the Internet Boom, people jam into The City to make it big and when the scene dries up, the carpetbaggers go away, maybe 15% stay and become San Franciscans or Bay Area natives. It’s hard to economically sustain something that is culturally relevant in that setting. And theater companies are usually most successful when there’s a committed core group of people who stick and pour their creative (and often economic) resources into it.

But working every night in front of live audiences does three things for you: it makes you really good, it makes you aware that you’re working really hard, and it exposes you to people who’d like to hire you away. After a while, even the best jobs get tiring – and once that core group of people start to drift on to other opportunities, the focus starts to fade & then you’re done. I think that’s part of what happened, but like Sam said, we’re still discovering this story which only gets more amazing the more we learn about it.

If you were of age in the 60′s – 70′s, do you think you would have had the stuff to join The Committee?
SAM: I know I would have been a fan. They were a pretty tight collective but had a pretty big community around them, and started many actors in the stage manager role, then casting them afterwards. I think I could have made stage manager. I like to think I could have ascended further, but frankly I probably would have ended up blowing my mind out on psychedelics to be much use.

JAMIE: I don’t know – I’d have likely been pretty square at the time, but if I made it into a workshop, I’m sure I would have ended up pursuing it as far as I could. That’s how I ended up working at Boom Chicago. There were so many opportunities for different lives then: drug casualty, soldier exchanging fire in rice paddies, improv & sketch comedian…

Your Kickstarter campaign just passed $10K – What are some strategies you’re employing in the Kickstarter?
SAM: This is the first Kickstarter for both of us and we’re learning a lot fast. We’re just constantly beating the drum on Twitter and Facebook and have been working our improv rolodex. We started the Kickstarter just prior to the SF Improv Fest so it could be live as we screened the trailer before shows. It was great for bringing the story to more audiences but this also meant that as fest producers we had less time to promote in other venues. We anticipated this, so we chose a long Kickstarter campaign – 45 days. We have a few weeks left and are getting to the “urgency” stage where most Kickstarters thrive, so we’re confident we’ll make our goal.

JAMIE: I’d love to say I have the drop on social media & fundraising, but it requires a lot of time for me to get it right. Like Sam said, we’re learning a lot, and there are a lot of personal contacts that we’re working to get the word out. It’s not called ‘A Secret History of American Comedy’ for nothing – we have the double task of making people aware of who these guys are, and then getting them to commit cash to the project. It’s definitely work, but once people get what the story is and see the trailer, they’re usually pretty fired up.

What’s surprised you most looking into the history of SF comedy?
SAM: Honestly what surprises me most is the fact that styles and ideas of comedy that we think are novel or new – like longform improvisation, incorporating mixed media in live performance – were done over 50 years ago. And it’s not like they’re archaic or primitive versions of what is done now – The Committee’s output is the real deal and it holds up completely.

JAMIE: That some things haven’t changed – it’s still just people making a decision to do what they love and having faith that it will work out – or that it won’t and that thy’ll just see what happens after that. Alan Myerson and his wife Jessica had the talent & experience, came out here with an idea and pitched it, got investors and committed to making something great happen. They had both the good fortune and foresight to start it in San Francisco at just the right time, of course, but it was that kind of ‘jump and the net will appear’ mindset & commitment to turning out something professional and relevant that made The Committee succeed. I think that’s still what works today.

How do you feel about the SF comedy scene right now? And how does it compare to other major cities like Chicago, NY & LA?
JAMIE: I feel like it’s finding its center again – it’s had a lot of starts & stops, particularly in terms of improv outside of Fort Mason, and sketch is coming back stronger since it’s most recent heyday in the early 2000′s. Chicago will always be the improv capital of the States, and New York and LA are the places to go if you want to make a steady paycheck. I think New York has the best writing gigs, or the most interesting, though probably fewer than LA. But San Francisco is almost as expensive to live in as New York, so we’re making gains there…

Where do you see the SF comedy scene in 5 years? 10 years?
SAM: I think more and more venues will pop-up in the Greater Bay Area, which will lead to a circuit that will allow sketch and improv troupes to perform for more and more different audiences. Select companies will thrive in San Francisco, but the cost of living and real estate prices will spread the scene outwards.

JAMIE: I think there’s a really talented core of people who are committed to making something great happen right here in San Francisco – PianoFight & your new space is one really exciting example of that. I think in 5 years, people in the rest of the country will be wondering what’s happening in San Francisco. In 10 years, people will be jamming in here to try to make it. And then it’ll bust, the carpetbaggers will leave, and then we start all over again. Or Sam will blow his mind out on psychedelics. Maybe both!

Thanks guys!

-Rob

Posted October 10, 2013 at 11:33 am

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