Interview: Actress Lauren Lapkus

Lauren Lapkus is an incredibly talented, skilled and quirky performer capable of bringing audiences to uncontrollable fits of laughter. Her characters are fascinating and weird. I’ve been lucky enough to see her perform on several occasions at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater in Los Angeles, and I’ve always admired her ability to commit wholeheartedly to her characters and to capture the audience’s attention with a single sound, mannerism or wack-a-doodle facial expression. She’s a genuine comedic master, a born performer, and like all great actors she recognizes the importance of infusing even the zaniest of choices with heart and honesty. Lauren was kind enough to let me interview her.

You’ve worked with iO and Second City in Chicago. How did the Chicago schools of improv and sketch comedy shape your humor?

I am originally from Evanston, IL and mainly trained and performed at iO Chicago. I also trained a bit at The Annoyance and did a few shows there, as well as at The Playground Theater, and I put up a few shows at Donny’s Skybox at Second City. At iO (and the Chicago improv scene in general) there is a big focus on character and relationship-based improv, which I love. It was great for me to be able to start at iO because I’m naturally inclined to play characters, and I was able to hone that skill over the five years I was there. I started taking classes there when I was a senior in high school. At first I was really nervous to talk to anyone in class and I felt that because everyone was a bit older than me that they wouldn’t want to hang out. Of course, over the year of classes I got really close with many of those people. Improv really helped me gain confidence in many ways. So that’s cool.

Speaking of Chicago improv, were you a fan of the TJ & Dave show? Did you ever work with Susan Messing at all?

Who isn’t a fan of TJ & Dave? They are two of the most revered improvisers in Chicago. Susan Messing was my level 2 teacher at iO, and she is awesome and hilarious as well.

How does the Chicago comedy and improv scene compare to the Los Angeles live comedy scene?

In 2008, I moved from Chicago to NYC for a little over a year. In January of 2010 I made my way to LA. All three places have fun improv communities… I trained at UCB in NY and it was a great experience. I met so many funny, awesome people. And the same is happening for me in LA. I think all three cities have somewhat similar comedy scenes, but different theaters have different goals and styles. In each place you will find tons of indie teams doing their own thing and performing, which is really cool to me. On any given night in all three towns, you can find improv groups in bars or small theaters trying new forms and just having fun. UCB thrives in both NYC and LA and I feel very lucky to perform with a couple groups at the LA space. For me, the Chicago improv community will always be home, but I have been able to find glimpses of that feeling in each city, which says a lot about the people doing this art form. From Chicago to NYC to LA, you’ll find wonderful, nice people, many of whom happen to be funny as hell. It’s inspiring– it is pretty special when you step back and look at this community of artists coming together with a common goal.

How would you characterize your sense of humor? What drives your comedy?

I love creating weird characters and just being silly. I find true joy in not thinking too hard and just having as much fun as I can. I’d have to say my comedy is really driven by having a good time and bringing the audience to a place where they may not even know why they are laughing. I’m constantly amazed when I watch or perform with more cerebral players… It’s not my natural tendency to be very analytical, but I think it adds a great element to this style of performance.

Do the people you portray in scenes- because they all did seem like real people- are they based on real people at all?

I am definitely inspired by real people. I’m constantly amazed by how ridiculous people are. Especially at Target and Marshalls. I’m sure that a lot of the crazies I encounter live in my head and come out in my improv.

You’re able to play dumb without resorting to stereotypes. Are you developing these characters on the fly or coming in with a strong choice and sticking to it?

Thanks! I think I tend to just start talking as a character and see where it takes me. I don’t typically walk on stage with a fully fleshed-out character. But I try to make a strong choice right off the bat and let that lead me in the scene. So I guess the answer to that question is yes. Haha.

How much truth is inherent in your comedy and performance?

Even though many of my characters can be pretty exaggerated, I still think there’s gotta be truth to it because it’s how I see the world. I also think real emotions and commitment to the scene keep things grounded and allow people to relate. When an improv scene gets too wacky and uncommitted, that’s when things feel untruthful, and often unfunny.

It says on your resume that you do puppeteering and mask work. How have these skills come into being and aided your performance?

Ooh, you do your research! One of my regular shows at iO Chicago was Felt, an improvised puppet show. I also did an improv show with puppets in NYC that had a different format. Puppetry is a fun challenge, not only because the act of physically moving a puppet is difficult, but also because the audience can’t see your face. You really have to have control over your voice and be very clear when you’re using the same puppet as multiple characters. I also took a mask workshop for fun while I was in Chicago. Working with masks is similar in that the slightest change of angle on a mask (or puppet head) can change the emotion the audience reads. Masks also require a certain physicality to help define your character. I think both of those skills have helped me be a more effective performer. Facial expressions are huge in my improv, so being forced to play without that tool has been good for me.

What were the names and personalities of some of the puppets you played?

The main puppet I used in Chicago is an orange monster named Carrot. He was already named when I joined Felt, so I adopted him like a child. Not really. I think the personalities I use when doing improv with puppets are as varied and unplanned as in regular improv, though other performers may create a personality for their puppet and improvise with that added layer.

Over the years, who are some of the comedians or performers that have truly inspired you and informed your sense of humor?

When I was in elementary school, I loved Chris Farley and Adam Sandler. SNL was so huge for me at that point. Maya Rudolph, Amy Sedaris, and Diane Keaton are big influences for me as well. Diane Keaton is adorable! I love her. I also think Lisa Kudrow is hilarious and wonderful to watch.

Our mutual friend Sarah has known you since grade school and she says you’ve been as funny as long as she can remember. What’s your earliest memory of making someone laugh?

Oh man, that’s a tough one. I think I was always funny with my friends, but I think I started to hone it a little bit in middle school. Lots of impressions to make my teachers laugh. I was big on throwing out sarcastic remarks in class. I could be a reaaal cut up. I was always given funny roles in the children’s theater plays I participated in, and getting laughs was a great feeling to me right from the start.

Some of my friends from college are in Story Pirates. Tell me a little bit more about what you guys do and why it’s so special.

The Story Pirates is such a great organization. We teach creative writing workshops in schools and adapt the kids’ stories into sketches and songs. I joined the company right when I moved to NYC in 2008 and when I moved here in early 2010, the LA branch was just starting up. The cast is full of extremely talented people from coast to coast, including lots of improvisers. It has been great to be able to continue performing with Story Pirates out here and getting some LA friends involved. Our show is not your typical children’s theater show. The style and format we use really seem to grab and hold the attention of kids and adults, which is rare– I am really proud of the work we do.

Visit Lauren’s website for info on her upcoming shows, and be sure to check out Lauren on Chelsea Handler’s new show, “Are You There Vodka, It’s Me, Chelsea”.

Interview: Field Producer Sarah Moshman

I worked with Sarah Moshman at my first internship in Los Angeles. A modern day Peggy Olsen, Moshman is an intensely fierce worker who often leaves little time for sleep, food, and other creature comforts the rest of us regularly enjoy. Amidst the onslaught of work she surmounts on a daily basis, Sarah produces quality product. I have constant admiration for her gung-ho attitude, ability to manage a rigorous (often nutso) schedule, and her conviction to complete her personal pet projects – you know, those little things we’ll all get around to doing sooner or later. Most recently, Sarah has worked as a Field Producer on ABC’s Dancing With the Stars and as an Associate Producer on NBC’s Minute to Win It.

Your documentary Girl’s Rock! Chicago was recently featured on Chicago Public Television. What was that experience like?

When I set out to make “Girls Rock! Chicago” I was just doing it for myself. After working in reality television for a little while I missed what it feels like to have a project that you can take complete credit for. I found out about this spectacular rock camp for girls in Chicago that takes place for a week in the summer and I was truly inspired. It was one of those excited sleepless nights where you just know you are meant to do something. I funded the whole thing myself, rented equipment hired a sound girl, collaborated with my good friend Dana Cook and before I knew it we were there for the first day of camp ready to shoot. It felt great to complete this baby of mine, I’m not a great editor by any stretch of the imagination but I did all the editing and when it was done I was beyond proud of what came of this one idea. My Dad is the one who pushed me to submit it to air on PBS in Chicago, a one time employer of his. It was almost too easy– they watched it, loved it, and a couple months later it was on the air. I wasn’t able to be present for the broadcasts but seeing it in the TV Guide, and getting feedback from people watching it on TV was definitely an amazing feeling. I’ve had my name in the credits several times now for shows and such, but this was all mine. If you didn’t like the documentary there was no one else to blame but me, which is a scary and exciting feeling.

What is the nature of your work as an associate producer on a show like Dancing With the Stars or Minute to Win It? How does that differ from the work of a field producer?

Well my job as an associate producer on DWTS and MTWI are completely different even though they share the same title. On DWTS as an AP I worked as a story assistant half the time and a field producer half the time- it’s sort of a hybrid position. When I’m an assist I take field notes during dance rehearsals and then after our daily shoots I go back to the office and log the tapes we shot. Everyday a field producer and assist are sent into the field to shoot a couple as they rehearse for the next week’s show. As a field producer you are the one operating the camera, setting up the audio, conducting interviews and helping form the package for that week. So I went from an AP to a full time field producer on the show now, so all I do is shoot and interview the couples. Each week you are assigned a different couple to follow.

On MTWI as an Associate Producer my job is to help develop the stories for the potential contestants on our show. It’s a game show, but we aim to reveal a lot about our contestants in between the games they play, especially what they will use the money they win for. I brief the contestants on what to say when they are speaking to our host Guy Fieri, I help coordinate and produce surprise guests, phone calls, and video messages that take place during the show. And during shoot days I am backstage cheering my contestants on hoping they win big money! It is a very fun job, can be rewarding in a lot of ways and something I probably wouldn’t have sought out for myself but it sort of landed in my lap at the right time and has developed into a great opportunity.

What is your family like? Why do they inspire you?

I grew up with the nuclear family Mom, Dad, brother and me. My parents are still married after 30+ years and that’s inspirational on its own for me to get married only once and that relationships take hard work, it can’t always be a fairy tale. I hope to have a healthy and happy marriage like they do, and like my grandparents do as well. My brother Nathan who is a couple years older than me is an anomaly. He is incredibly smart in math and science, he is currently getting his PhD in astronautical engineering (I hope that’s right) whilst also working with and for NASA. On top of that he is a skater/snowboarder/California dude. He is the coolest “geek” you’ll ever meet. My Mom is the kindest, most encouraging woman I have ever known. She is always positive and warm, very rarely judgmental. I never felt like any dream was too big in my house which is a great way to approach your life. My Dad is my hero. Aside from the fact that he is 25+ time Emmy winning television producer- so there are some obvious shoes to fill- he is an endless pool of knowledge on ANY subject. Although our personalities can be very different there is so much I have to learn from him, more than any professor, or director, or book for that matter. I have the utmost respect for him and I hope one day to take a photo of him and his 25 Emmys surrounding him and me holding an Emmy of my own.

That's not Sarah's dad. That's Buzz Aldrin.

My Dad went to Northwestern as a drum major originally but then left the music school and studied radio/tv/film. He worked as an editor for a while but ended up as a television producer for a magazines series called “Wild Chicago” for 12 years, and then he worked for WGN and then CBS and now he is the EP of a business themed show called “First Business” on Channel 26 the U. In his free time he makes historical documentaries. His most recent one was about a submarine that left Wisconsin during World War II and disappeared off the coast of Thailand. It was found a few years ago with all 86 soldiers still on board.

You’ve worked with some incredible talent. Has anyone in particular made a strong impression on you?

Meeting Buzz Aldrin was definitely something that sticks out, he is a historical legend and I am honored to have worked with him! Working with Usher was great just because I am such a big fan of his and he is so talented. I liked working with comedian Niecy Nash because she was such a professional when it came to being on camera. Working with professional athletes (Michael Irvin, Jerry Rice, Emmitt Smith, Rick Fox, Kurt Warner, Evan Lysacek, Shawn Johnson) is cool because they are so specialized that they are the best at what they do. Nicole Scherzinger is great, her voice is incredible and I don’t think it is showcased as well as it should be. Other singers I met like Brandy, Jewel, Mya and Toni Braxton were a thrill to meet because they are so talented and lovely.

Can you weigh in on the Bristol Palin controversy? How did it feel to have the highest rated show in the nation?

It is an honor to be a part of such a highly rated show. I’m not sure why people love it so much, but I will say when I wasn’t working on the last few weeks of this season I did race home to watch it like any other middle aged woman who loves it. There’s something about watching someone go on a journey doing something they have no knowledge about. As for Bristol I think it’s easy to agree that all the people who love Sarah would then vote for Bristol too. I don’t think there was any conspiracy of any kind. People were drawn to her like they were to Kelly Osbourne and Ty Murray who weren’t the best dancers but they had an authentic quality to them. I worked with Bristol and she is a normal girl just enjoying this opportunity given to her. She never took it too seriously and I commend her ability to shake off the haters since she is only 20 years old! And the people that complain about the voting system probably didn’t vote anyway, so how can you complain when you aren’t taking part in swaying it another way? I guess the more publicity the better when it comes to our show, after 11 seasons it’s good that it is maintaining momentum!

What was it like filming in Costa Rica for I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here? What were the conditions like?

I spent 5 weeks in Costa Rica in the middle of NOWHERE near the jungle where the show was set up. I had to take a bus every morning 45 minutes to the location from our rinky-dink hotel and 45 minutes home, often stopping to make way for a herd of cows! We worked in 12 hour shifts so I started as 10am to 10pm and ended up with 1pm to 1am. When the bus would drop us off we had to walk over this super-rickety bridge to get to the camp where we worked. The food was decent at first and then incredibly bland, bugs everywhere, hottest weather I’ve ever experienced and I lived in Miami for 4 years! Just a very uncomfortable situation. Part of my job was to make runs into the jungle to drop things off or pick things up often times in pitch black darkness! The people I worked with were great, I knew some of them from “Dancing with the Stars,” but it was definitely a shock to the system. I only had 4 days off throughout the entire 5 weeks and I made a point to go exploring each time. I went zip lining, river rafting, I went on a chocolate tour to see how chocolate is made, I went horseback riding to a waterfall, those parts of the trip were awesome.

Girls Rock! Chicago is about girls overcoming stereotypes and becoming rock stars. What sort of challenges do you think female musicians face?

It seems like female musicians face the same challenges that women have faced in other industries– people not believing in them at first, not expecting much from them in terms of being a rock star. But in some ways that can be a good thing, if nothing is expected of you then people can be pleasantly surprised by the amount of talent you possess. The camp was really good at acknowledging those stereotypes and helping the girls bust through them.

What are you drawn to about documentary, and what are the limitations of the medium?

I’m drawn to the accessibility of documentary. I love the idea of finding an interesting event or person or issue and flushing it out to expose all the moving parts. I also like the fact that the cinematography is held at a seemingly lower standard when it comes to documentaries, not much is expected of them in that sense, so I try to make it a point to have a visually interesting as well. I love real subjects. I enjoy scripted shows and short films of course but there is something appealing about a real and true story unfolding before your eyes, and it’s your job as the filmmaker to shape it just the right way to keep the audience engaged.

As for limitations, as with any other medium there is so much saturation now it’s harder to stand out, but as whole I think people are way more accepting of documentaries as a form of entertainment, and people are paying to see them in theaters which is inspiring.

How do you like working in reality television?

I like it a lot more than I thought I would. Reality TV as a whole is garbage but there are some shows that really help people, or really take you on a journey, which is something special. In a way it feels like reality TV and documentaries go hand in hand. I’m really grateful to have had the opportunities I have had since I began. If it weren’t for reality TV there is no way I would be able to see my footage and my produced packages on a show that has an average audience of over 20 million people. I appreciate the way people are promoted and hard work is recognized in this section of the industry. I love being behind the camera and I’m very happy to have found a couple jobs that allow me to physically shoot which is something that would have taken me 3 times as long plus I would have had to join a union in the scripted world. It’s not where I intended to end up and it’s not where I will stay forever but I am very grateful for all the possibilities that available in reality TV.

You once told me you wanted to get into film eventually. What kind of movie would you like to be involved in?

I would love to get into film and scripted TV! Glee and The Office would be my dream shows to work on, and I would love to be involved in an independent film like Waitress or Little Miss Sunshine. Something with a smaller crew rather than a huge Hollywood budget, a more intimate process. The only films I would not like to be a part of are horror films! Otherwise I’m down!

What’s your beef with horror movies?

Well since I nearly passed out in 127 Hours I don’t think I could handle blood and horror. And horror movies stick with me and then I get scared to be alone at night. So… not for me.

Minute to Win It returns tomorrow at 8/7 Central on NBC with the start of its three-part Christmas special. Check it out.

Interview: Comedian Pardis Parker

It’s not often a sight like this comes along. The birth of a new era: the inception of an interview. Here to celebrate it is comedian Pardis Parker.

Q: You were born in a Sri Lankan rainforest atop a mountain’s peak. That’s a pretty epic birth story. Have you ever revisited your birthplace? Do you think your birth foreshadowed your lifetime of adventures?

A: Of course it did. The first thing I saw when I was born was a lush valley filled with tropical fruit and ceremonial elephants. If that’s your starting point, you tend to feel as if you’re missing out on something when you’re surrounded by strip malls and parking lots in the middle of a Canadian February. I’ve only been back to Sri Lanka once, and I actually had an opportunity to visit Kandy, the town where I was born. It’s gorgeous. Postcard beautiful. If you’ve never heard of it, Google it. Then visit it. In that order. It makes it way easier to plan.

Q: You’ve traveled around the world, working and volunteering in places like Australia, Guadeloupe, and the Solomon Islands. What inspired you to travel to those specific places and what kind of work did you perform there?

A: I thought it’d be a good idea to get out of my comfort zone, so I decided to volunteer with the Baha’i community in Australia. Within a day of arriving I realized that Australia was not at all the type of place I needed or wanted to be in (it was just a warmer version of Canada), so I immediately started looking for another country to move on to. At the time, I desperately wanted to live and work in a place where I would be tested – pushed to my physical and emotional limits – so I narrowed my choices down to a few African countries, a couple of places in Southeast Asia, an Arctic outpost somewhere in northern Scandinavia, and a number of neighboring Pacific Islands. I finally decided on the Solomon Islands because it was the least developed country that I had access to and gave me the best opportunity to live outside the sphere of physical comforts I had grown accustomed to. It was exactly what I had been looking for – I spent more days in awe of the world around me than not. I lived and worked deep in the bush, both in the highlands and on the coast, until the Australian Air Force evacuated me on one their Hercules jets in the wake of the country’s military coup and in the midst of heavy fighting between warring militias. The country was on the brink of civil war before I went, and things only got worse after I got there. I’m fairly certain my arrival had nothing to do with it.

Q: Do you think there is a direct link between comedy and political activism, or the notion of changing society for the better?

A: I don’t know, but it seems as if we want and expect to hear the truth from our best comedians, and that their frank discussion of the true nature of our reality can lead to, at the very least, a change in perspective.

Q: How much of your award-winning 2008 short film Afghan is based on personal experience?

A lot of it is. You can only be angry for so long. At some point you need to come up with more creative ways of responding.

Q: Do you think that humor is necessary to overcome the hardships of reality?

I think perspective is, and I think humour is a great way of giving people a new perspective.

Q: How much influence does your race and unique life story have on your stand-up?

Dunno. I try to find humour in whatever happens to be on my mind. When I first started out, a lot of what I discussed was race-related. And
it was a good thing. It was cathartic. I got a lot off my chest. Now there are other things on my mind that I feel a need to talk about. It’d be boring to talk about the same thing over and over again.

Q: What is it like to balance between stand-up comedian and serious filmmaker?

It’s great. I take a break from one to do the other. So even when I’m working I’m really just taking a break. And really, at the end of the day, there isn’t much difference between the two. Your task in both is to connect with your audience and to present your thoughts and ideas in a way that engages them.

Q: I used to live near a beautiful Bahai Temple. How long have you been Bahai, and how does it affect your day to day life? How does being Bahai affect your personal philosophy as a filmmaker and comedian?

I’ve been a Baha’i my whole life, so it’s tough to know how being a Baha’i affects my approach to my work. One thing I can say for certain
is that it forces me to hold my work to a higher standard.

Q: Explain the events surrounding the time you were airlifted to safety after a military coup.

I was in the Solomons, deep inland, in the tropical mountaintops of the island of Malaita. While walking through a village I randomly overheard a villager listening to the BBC World News on a battery-powered radio. It was my first contact with the outside world in weeks and I desperately wanted to know what was happening in the NBA playoffs, so I stopped to listen.By dumb luck I happened to catch the world update, which included a news flash about the military coup in the Solomons, on the main island of Guadalcanal. According to the report, the country’s Prime Minister had been kidnapped by a rebel group and the police armory had been raided. The government had no leader and no weapons. The rebels had taken control.

Here I was, INSIDE the Solomons, and I was learning about what was happening on a neighboring island via a tinny radio report from some British dude who was sitting thousands of miles away. The most alarming piece of information was that all commercial flights into and out of the country had ceased because all the fighting between the militias was happening around the airport. This meant that there was a good chance that I’d be stuck in the Solomons until the situation was resolved and the airlines resumed their service, which, at this stage, seemed unlikely to happen within any sort of meaningful time frame. Since this was the last access I’d have to a radio until I returned to Guadalcanal, I decided to head back to Honiara, the capital, and figure out what to do from there.

It took two weeks to return, and the town was in a state of chaos when I arrived. The New Zealand Navy had sent a warship to the harbor to evacuate expats, there was a run on banks with everyone trying to extract whatever money they could from their accounts, and entire families and their possessions were piled high on the backs of flatbed trucks headed for the wharf. I headed straight for the Australian High Commission, a small hole in the wall that resembled the waiting room at a dentist’s office, and found out that the Australian Air Force had been evacuating expats on behalf of Commonwealth countries. I arrived in time to get a spot on the last plane leaving the country before the airport was shut down. If I had arrived a few hours later, I would have been forced to escape the country on my own, with one backpack and an empty packet of Mr. Noodles to my name (a rat chewed through my backpack in three places while I was sleeping to eat the packet of dry noodles…I wasn’t impressed).

So I headed to the airport, the gunfire getting louder as we got closer. The rumors had started circulating that the rebels were going to shoot down one of the Aussie planes. No one really believed they’d be stupid enough to pick a fight with Australia, but all it takes is one idiot to do something stupid, and there’s never any shortage of those. So we watched, terrified, as our Hercules landed then quickly swung around to take off again. The New Zealand forces had taken control of the airport and were in charge of getting us onto the plane alive. We were escorted to the edge of the tarmac, took cover against a wall to avoid getting caught in any crossfire, and when the plane’s cargo door opened fully, the troops flanked our line and quickly filed us into the plane, where we were given a pack of grape juice and a box of animal crackers as we strapped ourselves into the cargo nets that would serve as our seats for the four hour flight to Australia.

At this stage, we still didn’t know what city we were being flown to. The Aussies were willing to get us back to the Commonwealth, but precisely where in the Commonwealth was of little concern to them. We touched down in Townsville, a town built around an Aussie Air Force base in the middle of nowhere, and an emergency response unit greeted us, fed us, and debriefed us…and then told us we were on our own. The government’s role was over – they got us out of the fighting in one piece.

Luckily, I was able to stay with a local Baha’i family until I could make my way to Sydney. Once there, I met up with a family member and we went out to McDonald’s for a chocolate milkshake, which seemed like an appropriately symbolic way of reassimilating into the West, but which really only served to remind me of what I was giving up to escape back to the life I had known. It was the little things I experienced, those things that created such rich memories, that I began missing immediately. A papaya that grows ripe on the tree, that you pick as you hike through the thick of a tropical rainforest, and that you peel with the same machete you’re using to clear your path. A young coconut that a 5 year old kid eagerly climbs a 100 foot tall coconut tree to retrieve for you, that you use wooden stakes to remove the husk of, and from which you drink every last drop of coconut water before it’s sliced open so you can scoop out the soft, sweet coconut meat inside with the makeshift spoon you’ve fashioned out of a piece of that coconut’s own husk. A blowfish that you eat after carefully removing the poisonous parts, and from which you take the stomach to inflate and use as a soccer ball when you play barefoot on the beach, with tree branch goal posts, before the tide comes in.

Part of me was happy that I was escaping the Solomons in time to catch the conclusion of the playoffs, but as I sat in front of the big screen TV at an Australian sports bar, the last game of the Finals barely keeping my interest, I had a hard time believing or even understanding why I had felt that way.

Q: How did you contract malaria, and how badly sick were you?

Again, this was one of the perks of living in the Solomons. I don’t know how I actually got malaria, but I found out that I had it because I randomly decided to tag along when a villager took his infected infant to the closest medical clinic (several hours away by foot). I immediately began taking medication, before I had even experienced any symptoms, but I still ended up being bed-ridden for a week – if I moved my head too quickly my vision would be shakey for a minute or two, I completely lost my appetite, I was constantly nauseous, and the experience was compounded by my physical surroundings: I was in a coastal village on the southwest corner of Malaita, staying with a family in a bamboo hut with walls and a roof made from sago palm leaves. The hut was raised on wooden beams to guard against flooding, and every morning around 3am the family’s pigs would start squealing at full volume and running back and forth directly underneath me. Then the family’s roosters would start cockledoodledooing well before the appointed hour, which left me wondering if they had any clue what their one appointed job in nature was. Then the family’s kids would get up at sunrise and start playing on the opposite side of the palm leaf wall, on the same extended pieces of bamboo used for the floor that I was sleeping on in the adjoining room. I believe their favorite game was called “jump and scream.” Hasbro’s coming out with a Lord of the Rings edition – same classic game, now with more annoying.

Q: What was it like to run your own health food store? How did that fit in with your life as an activist / performer / filmmaker?

It was painful. It was four years of my life that I’ll never get back. The only thing I ever want to do and have ever wanted to do is what I’m doing now. I’m grateful that I’ve been given the opportunity to do what I love.

Q: Does your college computer science / philosophy major come in handy in the world of comedy / filmmaking?

All your undergrad does is teach you how to think. So I guess indirectly it’s been beneficial. Right?

Q: There are a lot of funny Canadian comedians. Do you think there is a comedic advantage in being Canadian? How do people worldwide respond to Canadians, generally?

I don’t know. There must be, though. We’ve produced some of the best writers and performers of the last few decades. Maybe we know how cold it is in Canada and really just don’t want to take Hollywood for granted? We’re also universally amazing. So maybe that helps, too? Yeah. A combination of not wanting to take Hollywood for granted, and being universally amazing. Makes sense, I think.

Q: You and I have both performed at my favorite comedy venue, Caroline’s on Broadway. What has been your favorite performance to date? Any other memorable ones? When did you perform at Carnegie Hall, and what was the experience like? Any memorable bombs worth sharing?

My favorite club is the Comedy Store at Piccadilly Circus in London. Great venue, great staff, great comics, and great, great crowds. After that, the stage I feel most comfortable on is my home club in Halifax. I performed at Carnegie Hall as a member of a 550 person choir because my girlfriend at the time was a choir member and they needed more male voices. So I auditioned at her urging and miraculously got selected, only to find out afterward that she had been cheating on me. But it was an opportunity to perform at Carnegie Hall, so I went through with it, anyway, and chose to eat all of my meals at Gray’s Papaya. That’s not important to the story, but their hot dogs are AMAZING. As it turns out, it’s better not to eat hot dogs exclusively for three meals a day over the span of a week. At some point, your body decides it only wants to accept meat it can actually identify.

Q: We both admire Louis CK, Dave Chapelle, and Harland Williams. What do you find inspiring about their comedy?

CK and Chappelle are both crazy smart, extremely honest, and excellent writers, and both have wildly different yet simultaneously perfect
delivery. And they’ve both been the funniest people in the world at some point in their careers (I think CK has held that title for the last two to three years). Harland Williams’ Just For Laughs phone sex joke from the mid 90’s is one of the first things that got me interested in comedy when I was growing up. I taped that set (to VHS, kids), and convinced my teacher to play it for my class at school. Jeremy Hotz’ bit about Pez and Astro Boy was on that tape, too. Those were the jokes that I couldn’t get enough of when I was growing up, and made me develop a love for comedy.

Q: How is your Bollywood musical project for Bravo coming?

I want to shoot it in Halifax, but the film industry is booming here this summer and it’s been tough to put together the crew I want to have because there are always at least a few key pieces missing. The shoot keeps getting pushed as a result, but it looks like there might be a window where no one is committed coming up in August. Cross your fingers.

Q: How does it feel to have been nominated for four Canadian Comedy Awards?

It’s cool to be listed among the rest of the nominees.

Q: Are there any other details about upcoming projects or your life that you would like your audience to know about? Any final thoughts or words of advice to other filmmakers and comedians?

I’ve got that new digital short, Implants, that I’m doing a final sound mix on. It was shot with the very talented Evany Rosen, and should be online sometime this week.

I’ve got a new web series premiering on called Moderation Town. It was just named runner-up on the 2010 Digital Hot List and it’s premiering on the 9th. Plus I’m shooting a guest star role on a new sitcom for Showcase called Single White Spenny that’s premiering next year. And I’ve got that supporting role in Snow, which is just circulating to film festivals right now.

My Breakfast with Wyclef

We are badasses.

This morning I woke up semi-groggy from the aftermath of Brittania karaoke and a hugely successful improv show, vaguely remembering that yes, today was the day I was supposed to meet Wyclef. Still skeptical and shocked that the whole thing was possible and reeling from a day full of friendly jokes about the situation, I shot out of bed and stumbled to the shower unsure of what to expect. One of my comrades cleverly suggested that I was about to be punk’d, that the whole thing was a scam set up by Ashton Kutcher’s twitter account. I brushed those thoughts aside, threw on my best Mr. Sparkle t-shirt and headed toward Sunset. I remembered that Jay, Wyclef’s assistant, had told me the place was right near the House of Blues. (At this time I am willing to divulge that the secret location of our meeting was in fact the perfect place for Wyclef’s new worldwide social movement: the international house of pancakes!) I dropped my car off at the meter and strolled by the Comedy Store to ask a guy where the iHop was. He pointed down the long hill south on Olive Street. It seemed wrong, but the guy worked at the Store so he had to know the area fairly well. Time was running short, and Wyclef had just sent a message to his followers saying “don’t be late!” I headed down the hill and after asking a supermodel-ish brunette for further directions, I found myself on Santa Monica right near Barney’s Beanery. There stood the glorious iHop, and I headed inside.

The place looked deserted. Aside from a few dining families, there was no sign of an international hip-hop sensation. I asked the hostess if there was another iHop in the area. She said that there was, but that it was on Sunset and Orange. Something triggered in my memory, and I recalled that Jay had mentioned Orange Avenue. “Is it in walking distance?” I asked. “No. Not that place,” she replied.

Like a bolt of lightning I shot back up the hill on Olive Avenue, sweating and panting like Chris Farley on a treadmill. Through asthmatic puffs of breath and beads of sweat dripping down my glasses I managed to jog uphill while Google mapping the intersection on my phone. Most disappointingly, the real iHop was even closer to my home than the one I’d just visited. Sweltering from the heat and my own physical inadequacies I surmounted Olive Avenue, jetted back down Sunset, popped in my car and cranked the A/C. Last night’s late night drinking hadn’t helped my hydration any, and I was definitely feeling it now. I called Jay to let him know I’d be a few minutes late (the clock had just hit 10:00 AM on the dime). Jay seemed laid-back and let me know he’d pass the message along to Wyclef. I felt a little more at ease.

When I rolled into iHop (the one across from In ‘N Out near Sunset & LaBrea, NOT the closest one to the House of Blues, although I can see how an out-of-towner could easily make that mistake) I was a sweaty mess. My Simpsons shirt was clinging to my body like a baby marmoset, and I was dripping beads like a slutty girl at Mardi Gras. I walked inside and saw a long table of about twelve people. There at the center, like a hip-hop messiah at his own last supper, sat the man himself, Wyclef Jean. He was looking slick in a white button down shirt with close-cropped hair and I looked like I’d just been on the Rotor at Geauga Lake. I sidled up to the table and strangely enough, Wyclef recognized me from my twitter picture. I reintroduced myself and shook his hand. They added some extra spots at the table and I sat down next to some adorable little girls, maybe six and eight years of age. Wyclef came over briefly to inquire about my background. I gave him a little run-down of my travels from the past four years and told him that I was sorry I was late but I had to run uphill to get here. He was calm cool and collected, as you might expect, and seemed to have little need for apologies or formality. The more time I spent in his company the more I realized he was a man who respects honesty and generosity of character, that no amount of schmoozing could ever win this guy over.

After downing five glasses of water and meeting a few more people, the lady in charge of Wyclef’s new website started broadcasting a live streaming video of our breakfast. I briefly got to do a shout-out to the web where I pimped my blog and stated my appreciation for Wyclef’s approach to Twitter and social media. I wasn’t sure if we were broadcasting live at that point, or if I was being recorded for a future video montage, so I apologize if I seemed unprepared, awkward or incredibly sweaty. According to most people, I am less sweaty in person, I promise.

Wyclef bought us all breakfast and I got to chat with a guy named Grafiki about his idea for a new webisode series. It sounded pretty cool so we exchanged contact information and promised to keep in touch. Noticing Grafiki had left his seat across from Wyclef to talk to me and had now sidled over to a nearby table featuring two very attractive ladies, I took the opportunity to pop closer to Clef and ask him a few questions.

Me: So what’s the next step for this online community?

Wyclef explained that gathering more support, followers (or Warriors, as we like to be called) and creating a real community is the next step. Wyclef envisions a world where artists and fans can interact directly without big business getting involved. While labels and traditional marketing companies have been helpful throughout Clef’s career, there have been times when they have failed to promote certain events correctly or have misread his intentions. Clef dreams of cutting out the middle man and connecting to people directly, so that the true fans can share their messages and stories with the world and also experience the music firsthand. He wants to create more autonomous flash-mob style events rather than big corporate stadium shows.

Me: How do you feel about file-sharing? Has it affected you directly?

Wyclef replied, “With the economy the way it is, you can’t expect people to buy something without giving something away for free.” Yesterday Jay sent me some of Wyclef’s newest tracks. Not only were they incredible, it was a great taste of the things to come on his latest album and they definitely made me hungry for more. Wyclef believes that if you let the people sample the music, they’re more likely to buy the album when it drops.

Me: I think people really respond to your honesty on Twitter. I follow a lot of celebrities, but most of them just crack jokes and you don’t feel like you ever get to know them as human beings. That’s not the case with you.

Wyclef thanked me and said that for him “Twitter is a lot like a psychiatrist…sometimes you’re feeling sad and you don’t want anyone around you to know that you’re sad, so you just- [pantomimes typing on phone]”. We laughed and it was clear that many people at the table could relate. It was interesting that he thought of Twitter as a cathartic release, a form of expression. I didn’t get to follow up on this point, but I would have assumed that his music was his primary form of catharsis. Perhaps the nature of the music industry, big business and traditional marketing had changed the nature of music in his eyes, that what was once performative and expressive had become a full-time job. Twitter and Clef Zone seem to be Wyclef’s method for combatting that stagnancy and despondency that often follows the stress of work. Now he can connect with fans all the time, whether or not his album is getting press.

I asked a few more questions, but the answers were mostly covered by Wyclef’s toast at the end of the meal. He thanked everyone for coming and for their support (especially the wonderful woman who constructed his new website and ran the webcast) and then reiterated that anything is possible with this sort of grassroots movement. He used to ride a donkey in Haiti and now he lives in a McMansion in the states. Anything is possible, but it all starts from communities like the one sitting around him at the table and the gathering masses online. He envisions outdoor shows in parks and creating new content for the streaming video on his website so that it runs twenty-four/seven like a real television channel. Clef suggested that everyone records everything, films whatever they see and shares it with the world (a sentiment echoed by my newfound friends at Found Magazine).

We took a few photos and said our goodbyes. As we were parting I asked the question I’d been dying to ask since I’d started chatting with the man: When are we going to see another Fugees reunion? Clef cracked a slight smile and said that I should look for it sometime next year. Yes. God Yes. I’ll be blaring Fu-Gee-La all day, every day until it happens! Thanks, Clef!

If you haven’t already signed up for Clef Zone, started following @wyclef (or me: @shorester) on Twitter, I suggest you do so now. If this isn’t a story about the magic and wonder of Twitter, I don’t know what is.