Tonight at 8:30 p.m., Stupid Time Machine wraps its weekly residence at The Den at Howlin' Wolf, a Tuesday night improv show in the bar's brick-walled space. Founded in 2009, the improv group (Derek Dupuy, C.J. Hunt and Mike Spara) co-founded The New Movement's New Orleans theater and helped produce events and teach classes before it found its Marigny home. The crew also performs sketch, with comic Dane Faucheux, and was recently featured on FunnyOrDie.com.
Following one of its high-energy, manic Tuesday night weekly performances, Stupid Time Machine talked to Gambit about performing and teaching comedy in New Orleans, going on the road, and teaching high school students about improv:
Dupuy: We were on different improv teams, along with Grace Blakeman, and we would just all hang out socially, and that was sort of the dream team. We would improvise with just the people we were excited about improvising with — this would be the pick. Before we could really do that, we all had a love of sketch comedy. So we wrote a sketch show called Love in the Time of Swine Flu and put that in the New Orleans Fringe Festival, and that went really well.
Hunt: The name came about because we needed a name for the New Orleans Fringe Festival, and we were like … We needed something. At the time mustaches were big, and I’m so glad we didn’t choose a mustache name. We were like, Danger ’Stache! Mustache Party! And that would be so… [shakes head] so we chose that. And that went really well, and from that, I guess we are a group now.
Spara: We started taking that show on the road, to Texas and eventually, after a while, we took it to New York City, but between that, for about four or five months, we liked writing and performing together so much we decided improvising together.
So doing the opposite.
Dupuy: Yeah, and it was kind of the thing where we went out and got spots at the Avenue Pub upstairs, and started running the show on Tuesdays, which was the only night I had available. And to backtrack a little bit, the first time we went out of town was to The New Movement (TNM) in Austin. I had met (TNM co-founder) Chris Trew after a workshop. I followed a lot of the marketing stuff he did with his theater in Austin, and I really liked it. We became friends a bit and exchanged emails. We were running a show at the time and I looked to him for ideas, and he would come to town and do shows with us, and invite us to Austin and we really got to know he and (TNM co-founder) Tami (Nelson) through that.
Hunt: We got to see the vibe of what that theater was like. It was the first year he was in operation. We went there and there were maybe 30, 40 students, but we’d walk in… it’s just like this [points to room] was sort of cut in half, almost.
Spara: An intimate, long space.
Hunt: The audience is only three rows deep, versus like seven.
Dupuy: It had a real electric feel to it, because everyone’s right on top of you. Everything The New Movement does there’s like a vibe. ... The comedy scene in New Orleans had nothing like that. And the scene was I would say really patchwork at the time. We’re talking about — it’s grown so much — a handful of standups who I would say were good, but you didn’t have many standup shows going on. The open mic at Carrollton Station, maybe a few others. There weren’t many. ... Standup people didn’t like the improvisers, improvisers didn’t really necessarily do standup, and nobody was doing sketch. We started doing it. I’m not saying we were the first to do it in New Orleans, but nobody was really doing any kind of sketch before we did ours.
Hunt: And I think the more important thing, there could’ve been a sketch group like in Metairie, or somewhere, we didn’t know about, every couple of months. But we’re talking markets for comedy. Even the improv that existed, we were coming to a situation where there wasn’t a market for improv.
Spara: If you knew somebody, or you even looked, you could find it, but there was no open arms, "Come see the new…"
Hunt: If you were to ask a stranger, "What’s the comedy scene like?" You’d get, "I don’t think there is." And one of the things we’re getting more proud of is now we’ll all run into people like, "oh, I’m going to a comedy show, my friend told me to come," and they don’t know I’m affiliated with it. "It’s the New Movement, apparently comedy is the new thing to do now." And that’s the coolest thing. We love to do cool shows, and it’s great to have a new theater, but to make a market for comedy, the fact it’s becoming a thing that this happens, that’s really cool.
So where were you before you were performing? Were you interested in comedy, or performance?
Hunt: I was teaching. I came down (from Massachusetts). I didn’t know really how to teach very well. ... So I would stay in my classroom until 10 or 11, and tried to find improv as a way of like — I had done it in college and high school — a way of like getting back to something, some sort of social activity.
Spara: It was a similar experience for me, in terms of teaching. I’ve been doing it before, but when I came to the city it felt very… there’ s a whole group of people who came in, kind of young professionals, to work very hard, the enjoyment of the city and all the fun things that were happening, but I didn’t feel there was a group dedicated to comedy being the fun thing to do every week. So I looked for that to find people with a similar mindset. We were around people that were really immersed in teaching and needed to do some outreach work or social justice work, or drinking.
Hunt: "Let’s play kickball, then get drunk!"
Spara: And the music scene was great, but it felt like there was something that could be homegrown in terms of comedy. I had done it in high school and college, too, so I was looking for something I could get back to.
Dupuy: I was the opposite. I’m from here, and I was just working at an air conditioning supply house in Chalmette. I’ve always been really creative, and I majored in business in college. I wasn’t applying either of those things in anything, really, and was kind of floating through life. I was like, "This is… I don’t care for this. I need to do something." I took a class with Second City in sketch writing and was like, "I can’t move to Chicago, that’s a lot of money." I’d imagine you guys had the experience with college and different things where you’re like, "Oh yeah, I’ve traveled abroad, I did whatever." Those types of people aren’t afraid to make those types of leaps. But when you’re just somebody who stays at home and goes to UNO, it seems like more of an impossible jump. So I was here and just sought out doing comedy.
But had the The New Movement theater been here...
Spara: It’s crazy to even think about.
Dupuy: Oh my god. Jeez. We always talk about how we almost feel ripped off. We’re seeing it here now, we really got to see it in Austin. I’ve made so many trips to Austin where we saw people when they were in level two (of five level improv classes), and to see them now, and how good they are, having gone through a program with people who are really passionate about it and are good, and the syllabus is good, and there’s this really loving vibe where they perform — it’s just worlds different. We were essentially self-trained, I would tag us as. We learned what not to do, what to do through our own mistakes and watching our stuff. Then our ambition helped us get really good with that.
Hunt: Then once coming in with The New Movement, trained up as teachers by Chris and Tami. But the experience of being trained ... with the rigorous syllabus that’s been developed, we look at our students with such envy. We’re like old timers. "You have no idea what it was like! We had to perform out in the snow, in front of three people!" That’s pretty close to what it would be like. We’d shill for two… old women.
Dupuy: I remember when we first started the Avenue Pub shows, I remember thinking, "Wow. The waters are a little poisonous out here. This is going to be a tough thing to help build a real positive community scene," because it was very clique-ish. ... And now we have like seven or eight standups taking classes. And now it’s not even a big deal, it’s a normal thing.
Hunt: Now we’re developing shows as part of the brand of The New Movement, standup being part of that.
Dupuy: And there are some great hustlers in that scene, from Dane Faucheux who’s in Stupid Time Machine, and Scotland Green, Cassidy Henehan and Leon Blanda. Love those guys, and they’re all very super cool with us, and everything is all love and good. Those dudes hustle and care about quality.
Hunt: Another obvious sort of turning point was when we got asked by Chris to open the theater.
Dupuy: But so many hard working, hustle-y, lucky things had to happen. We wanted it, we went to Austin, Chris got serious with it, "Let’s talk about it for real." They’re from here, they wanted to come back home. And we did. And they were like, "How about this? Let’s open a theater as co-founders, you guys are going to start teaching in August, we’ll teach you the syllabus," and we did. ... We taught and did shows as The New Movement about a year before they moved down. They’ve been here about seven or eight months.
Hunt: Before that, we were just an imrpov and sketch group who was doing good shows. There’s only a limited impact that has. From the jump, Derek has always said sort of casually, since he had a mind for business, it’s always been like an entrepreneur: "What is the product?" And for a while, for us it was the show. We went to Avenue Pub, and were like, "Let’s make this an amazing show. Let’s make this..."
Spara: An event.
Hunt: An event! Tradition is such a big thing in New Orleans. Everyone has their thing they do. "I do pub quiz, I do kickball." Just as it was exciting for us to be like, "There’s this improv thing!" we found for our audiences it was just as exciting. "We are the Tuesday crew! We come out!" We used to do an award for the deepest posse, the deepest group of people, the biggest crew. I remember thinking, "Oh, this is working" when a girl went up to another girl after the show, and we didn’t know either of them, and were like, "You won deepest posse award this week? Good luck, I am coming back next week to win it with my friends."’ We were building these shows at the spaces we’d go, but that’s the sort of limits of that possibility. And then when it became a theater, it’s like, "Oh my god, we’re no longer building one night, one show for people — we can build an entire thing, and we can bring students in there, and replicate other good troupes." That’s so critical in what we’re feeling now, the energy. You get to expand.
Spara: It started off very much we built a community of us performing and having an audience, and having something special. The community was us doing the show, and spending time with people afterwards, and becoming friends with people who’d see us frequently. But then we had a chance to go into a community of performers and audiences where increasingly people who came to see shows were now performers. They’ve taken the classes, and now we get to continue spreading those community arms, more and more.
Dupuy: What we didn’t know what we were getting when we started this was that feeling when you graduate a class of students, and you have students you email that’s like, "You know, that’s the best part of my life. It’s awful for me right now for various reasons, family stuff, all this other stuff, but when I go to class at the New Movement it’s my favorite thing." My favorite story to tell, there was a student we had, she graduated and is still very active in projects, and she moved from another state with her husband, and she always wanted to do comedy to make it her living. They moved from this small town from another state, thinking "New Orleans has to have a booming comedy scene. It’s a big city." And they got here, and found that’s not the case at the time. She went and tried improv with another little group and it was a disappointing experience. Her husband dragged her to our show — she didn’t even want to go — because she was just bummed out at having her hopes kind of crushed. She thought that was all the options. She came to the show, we happened to have one of our more exceptional shows. We met her afterwards, and she was lit up and so excited for classes. She’s one of our very good friends now. Her husband told me, "You have no idea how happy that made her to see there’s a thing, there are options." That was important for us when we started — to have a legitimate place where people care, we want to do good shows, the best, and also have your back and give you a community that you’d really like to be a part of. New Orleans really deserved that. These guys, and myself, put off moving elsewhere because we believed it should happen here, and that’s the backbone of this whole thing.
Hunt: It’s something we say a lot, when we were first even doing shows in the city on our own, there was this thing: if you want to do comedy seriously, you go to Chicago, you go to L.A., you go to New York. Even if you look at the history here, there are some great comics like Sean Patton and Neal Stastny, people who are really killing it, who left here, because those are the options. Our plan was like, "We got to go to Chicago. We have to take STM to Chicago. Let’s roll there." When the theater came around, I remember Chris said this to us, and we said this to each other, "Let’s change that dynamic, for ourselves and everyone else. Let’s make this the type of theater and scene that makes us not want to go to Chicago because there’s something so incredible happening here."
The past couple times Sean Patton performed here he ended his sets saying, "Please don’t leave, you have something amazing here."
Dupuy: And I think that’s true about comedy in general across the country to create a scene, you just have to have a handful of people who have the motivation and shared vision to make it happen. That’s so rare to get that, that’s why scenes are not booming elsewhere. Everyone just assumes, "Well, you got to move, that’s how you got to do it." We hear so many times, "There’s no money in improv, there never will be," different things where I’m just like, you know what? Maybe that ends up being true, but I'm tired of hearing it. Who’s to say people have not being doing it right? It’s so young. We, and Chris and Tami, the full inspiration on this, they do not bend to the status quo and the normal rules for how things work. We’re doing this bad ass thing, and people say we can’t pull it off. Hell Yes Fest was a huge success, and a lot of people thought you can’t do a great comedy festival in New Orleans.
Hunt: Where you pay the performers, and it’s not submission-based.
Dupuy: We pulled it off. There’s a lot of things like that we’ve done we’re really proud of. And a lot of people involved with the festival — the Scotland Greens, the Leon Blandas, people like that — were also sharing in the vision as well. Like, "Yeah, we’re also excited about making this a legit, booming comedy city. Lets work together to do it." It’s just real exciting we can say, "We’re not bending to the norms."
Hunt: One of our performance groups who came down (from Chicago), one of them was from Baton Rouge, and this was like the coolest thing, they said to us. "If this was here, I probably wouldn’t have gone to Chicago. The thing that you guys have, this indescribable thing that gets lost in a lot of other cities in the scene, is that you guys are intensely on your hustle about the quality of shows like a big city, but you take the time with the community." They saw us do a whole graduation ceremony. The first graduating class, they come and perform, they killed it, and there are speeches and sentimental stuff and we party the rest of the night. The level of attention these students are getting… you can go prestige with a lot of these other cities, but the level of attention and community of these people who are like a family, learning together, performing together and hanging out, that’s our thing we love that we can offer.
How conscious are you of creating that "thing"?
Spara: Very. Nothing takes the precedence over the quality of our comedy — we always want to do the best comedy we possibly can. But if there’s anything that competes with that, it’s the attention to detail of building a community. A lot of the foundation of what we do, the business model, is so similar to the tenants of improv. If a good scene is going to depend on you listening to your peers and building it together, that’s the way we do everything we do. We include people as much as we can, we share our lives with each other, we make sure everybody is respected and taken care of. If there’s something you want to do, that’s sort of the most amazing thing, looking back, there really are very few limits in terms of what kind of show you can put on, what kind of thing you can do. And not in a "Here’s a stage, do whatever," and not have it be supportive. We actually help people make things work. We can do a tour in two weeks with seven people from (TNM's) three cities (Austin, Houston, New Orleans) that have never performed together, and that tour is a success. Or we can do a big comedy festival for the first time in New Orleans where we pay all the performers, as opposed to receiving money from them, and it works.
Hunt: Being out there on our own as a group as Stupid Time Machine, just hustling with the wolves — I don’t know what the word is, but you get the feeling of being on your own in a city where improv is kind of lame — "What is that?" — and performing upstairs from a bar, you don’t have a theater to back you as legitimacy. We learned quick, whereas you go see shows in bigger cities, people are like, "Thanks for coming. Ladies and gentleman, that’s our show. Thank you, good night." We would intentionally hang out in the bar and talk to people, like "What is your name, thank you for coming," remembering their names. "How did you guys find the show?" By the end people feel like, "Damn, I can come back here with my friends, and the performers know me and remember me." That makes the experience for them much more incredible. That started this vibe of like, our fans being our friends, because each time they’d come they’d hang out afterwards. The other was like, after classes were done, you could see they still had energy and wanted to hang out, so we started intentionally taking them to meals and things, making this tradition of, "Let’s all go to this place."
Dupuy: What’s funny is I’ve been to so many theaters across the country, and it’s stunning how they just… it seems to be one or the other: Anybody can put any idea on stage they want, at any show, and who cares. Or you can’t put up anything unless you’ve been there a long time. And it’s so simple to say, "You want to put something up? Cool. What’s your idea? Let us help you make your idea work." So your idea on the surface might be incredibly difficult to pull off and be decent, but let’s figure out how to make your idea into something you can be very proud of and put on stage and we’ll figure out a way to make it happen. We try to walk that line. You either get it or you don’t. It’s either your vision, your baby, or it’s not. And it totally shows. Anybody can try to replicate some of the things we do, but if it’s not your thing, and your heart’s not in it, it doesn’t matter. We genuinely care about this. It’s not a chore to go out for drinks with the students after. We want to do it. We’re excited about it. Nothing is a chore what we do. Everything is welcome. We’re all on the same page. We’re all speaking the same language. That was why when Chris and Tami wanted to open a theater with us we were like, "Yeah. We’ve known for a long time, you see it how we see it. This is how we think it should be run and should be done. So let’s do it."
Hunt: We’re at this level right now where we have this thing we care about, we do quality shows, quality training that’s thoughtful and rigorous, and a community that feels wonderful, whether you’re a student, performer, or someone coming to the show and people know your name, and there’s parties.
Spara: Along with an increasingly national presence as performers.
Hunt: Stupid Time Machine has been going to some of the biggest sketch festivals — sold out Chicago Sketch Fest, sold out San Francisco Sketch Fest. So when we go to those places, ... we get to tell them we’re building this scene, "You should come down and see it." We find great performers we then bring down for Hell Yes Fest, and it’s a win-win because they get to go back and go like, "holy crap there’s something awesome going down in New Orleans." Then we get to see great national comics come in. That’s our next move. With the theater opening, it’ll be very soon before New Orleans starts understanding we have a scene. The next step is national. We are a, if not the, new way. If you’re a performer, anywhere in the country, you don’t have the same limited vision that we had before this came about, that you have to go to Chicago, you have to go to New York. One of the novel things we’ve done, we’re adding to the (Megaphone Marathons) the Megaphone Marathons training camp. That’s a week in each city getting ready for the marathon in each of those cities, long and training intensive. That’s something the bigger theaters do, because they have to. People want to come and study at Chicago but can’t live there, so they’re like, "Let me come and get a taste of what that’s like for a week-long intensive." So we’re taking our first big step as a theater on a national stage but having an intensive. It’s going to showcase the awesome, or unique, aspects of our theater. A lot of intensives run 9-to-5. Our concept in designing it is like, "What hasn’t been done in an intensive yet." As a theater, what hasn’t been done in the world of improv, and that’s where we go. This summer Mike is organizing …
Spara: Tourceratops. It’s going to be a 30-plus city tour. We have three groups traveling throughout the states.
Hunt: And Improv Wins. ... So in the "What Hasn’t Been Done" with improv intensives, a lot of them are 9-to-5, they have luminaries teach and it’s like, "Cool, thanks a lot, see you tomorrow." What if we can extend the experience you get here through the whole thing. If you were running an improv bootcamp, like an improv broad experience that goes around the clock, what would that look like. And what would it look like if it was heavily performance based. So if you’re coming to New Orleans, you’re like, "Hey, friend studying in another city, guess what? I’m doing a show every single night for paying audiences, because The New Movement has so many shows." We end class at 5 (p.m.), "Hey guys, we’re doing to get burgers at 6, make sure you’re at call at 7, because you’re opening for this group, tomorrow we’re hitting the road to Mississippi to go here, you guys have an experience at a road show, and on the way back we’re stopping at whatever lake…" We want to build the same thing with people hanging out after shows, that community vibe. We want to come strong with the community and the "you are going to get your reps in" in a way that’s difficult to get anywhere else. You’re not coming just to learn during the day. You better be ready to be up in front of people. And it’s ending in a trip to the marathon.
This is all a part in getting people to New Orleans to study?
Spara: Inviting them, yeah.
Hunt: It speeds up the process. We could keep doing great shows, great tours, and Stupid Time Machine going to these festivals, and slowly word of mouth like, "I heard something’s going on in New Orleans." ... Let’s give people the chance to come and taste it for real. To come and see the communities, the graduation ceremonies, the level of performance, the level our students are at.
Have you started seeing that yet?
Spara: We’re starting to get that. Its interesting, the interchange that happens between the TNM cities — we have Austin, Houston and New Orleans. We’re already beginning to see an influx of people shifting from one place to another. In the next couple months we’ll be getting several people from Austin coming into New Orleans.
Hunt: We just had one from Houston come.
Spara: It’s exciting because that’s sort of "in-house," like a timeshare. People are going from one city to another. We have a chance to build a legacy in a city of such a bad ass section of America that we get to show people, "Come to New Orleans, it’s a place to celebrate." We lucked out that we’re all in this amazing city that’s so captivating to begin with that it really inspires a lot of people. The conversations happen multiple times with people in established comedy scenes in the other big three, where it’s like, "God, I really like New Orleans, and you guys are really doing something, there’s a scene now." I think you’re going to see that gaining momentum big time.
Dupuy: There are instances already in like Austin, where a dad called up Second City and was going to move his daughter up there because she wanted to do comedy, and they were like, "Where do you live?" "Oh, we’re not far from Austin." "Oh, well you should check out The New Movement." The same thing happened in Houston, someone was like, "Just check out The New Movement." That’s the goal, and we’re starting to see it. It’s not happening in droves yet but that’s because we’re still building.
Hunt: I think we’re all looking forward to the point where someone’s like, "I moved here for comedy."
How'd you get into your roles with each other as performers?
Dupuy: We started as friends — improvisers who wanted to improvise together and start a group. There was an instant chemistry, and an instant spark. We were having fun. It’s fun for us to do a show. ... That shows through on stage a lot. … I think we share a similar sense of humor, there is a little bit, we find some of the same things funny, so that’s helpful when we really start moving, and keep that up. I think we’re all pretty ambitious with the quality of the show as well. It’s very rare when anyone slumps for too long. We move fast. We watch each other and we have to keep up. Those things meld together for a nice little package.
Hunt: The opening, too, has helped set the vibe for the show, too. [The trio has a conversation, usually telling a story, before they perform.] We sort of just did that by default just to start, and we started getting feedback that that’s something people enjoy, just hearing. We’re not like, "Hello! Now we’re going to do an improv show! We’ll be doing characters for one hour!" They get to sort of see friendships unfold, and jokes, and the dynamic.
Dupuy: Audiences, when you do that, they just kind of fold their arms. This is more like, "I’m seeing friends fuck around and give me something nice."
Hunt: Even if they don’t know us, they start feeling like the know us. "There goes Derek again, being hateful."
Dupuy: That’s me. Every good improv group, and I hear this from every improv teacher, once you start playing for a while, you know each others’ tendencies, you know each others’ styles. I know if I go a certain way it’ll set him up for a thing that’s in his wheelhouse, we’re going to take off. I know when we kick into second gear when we’re slowing down. And we try to crack each other up sometimes. All that stuff translates into something you don’t often see in comedy at all. ... Most improv groups are pretty straight forward: "A suggestion, please! Now we’ll do a game!"
Hunt: "Thank you! Old England? Old England! We bring you, Old England!"
Dupuy: And sketch is written, so you don’t get that with sketch.
Spara: The ultimate goal, besides having a really good product, is we’re always seeking to enjoy it as much as we can, any given night. You’ll see us laughing on the sides for a scene we really enjoy, and participating as much as an audience member. Sharing that joy, while it’s happening in the moment. … We know each other pretty well, but we still surprise each other comedically, frequently. The fact that we can make each other laugh. I think that sets the right tone.
Do you find still you're also learning through teaching?
Dupuy: God yes. It’s slows everything down to have to watch with a critical eye. ... Having to be responsible for giving specific notes, and teaching? Yeah, it makes you a better performer. Absolutely.
Hunt: I’m in charge of bringing up our branch of teen classes, for kids. Right now we’re at (New Orleans Charter Science and Math Academy). We’re going to be moving it out as we sort of perfect it. But the next step is having that out of class, not in the school but in the space of our theater. All these teenagers from different places in the city play together, and that’s their class. ... There’s something, just in sort of the learning aspect, of it’s so much easier to teach adults. You can just be like, "OK, let’s try this scene again." But when you’re teaching teenagers who are all about being cool, the most important thing for a teenager... I was feeling really ready for that outside class to start, because I want more time for them. That is like the heightened payoff of what we get as teachers. If we’re learning at this rate when we’re teaching adults, it skyrocketed for teenagers, because you’re like, "I guess that exercise does require you to be vulnerable. I guess that is a difficult thing for people to do, especially kids. And maybe I’m not doing that on stage." And the other part of it is, it holds you accountable as a performer. If you’re telling your students, "Make sure you’re doing space work, walk in an establish something," then you know they’re watching you in the show to practice what you preach.
Spara: It really started when we started taking students here to perform in Texas at our other theaters. We still care very much about the quality of our shows, but the defining quality of those trips shifted from "did we have a good show" to "did our students have a good show." … That’s the measure of success. ... How good are we? The proof is in our students, the proof is in the community we’re developing.
Hunt: You can’t just be like, "oh, look at that, they’re not naturals." As any teacher, you take responsibility. It’s your job to make them great.