Greg Philippi is an improviser and teacher based out of Boca Raton. He will perform his show, Screaming Armadillo Comedy Presents: Stories by the Campfire … To Die For on Friday night in the HCC Studio Theatre at this year’s Countdown Improv Festival. 2022 will mark his second consecutive Countdown Improv Festival appearance. In this spotlight interview, Philippi discusses how he applies stories from his own life as improv lessons, the record albums that he’s been into lately, and his favorite facts about Stephen King.
Your show description promises “a tale of horror told in story and song.” What can audiences expect from your performance? Should they be scared?
Greg Philippi: Simply put, picture a man with a large red balloon and an icy stare, or, worse, a smile. Scared, what do you think? Is there not song in a scream? Is there not story in silence? I’d also like to note that great modern horror uses irony and makes social statements as in Jordan Peele’s Nope. However, To Die For is not that kind of party…
You published a book called Life Improvised: Listening Between the Lines in 2021 that looks at how your life can inform and strengthen your improv and vice versa. A lot has happened in the world over the last year since your book came out. Are there any new stories from your recent past that are informing your work these days?
GP: Finally promoting Life Improvised properly since it came out during my lockdown period. I’m also working on two new books. One is more of a “how to” improv book, and the other otherworldly short stories. To answer your question I’ve cited four examples.
Today I was going through my storage and I came across an outfielders’ glove and ball. I couldn’t remember why I had it since I’m not a sports guy. Then I remembered it was a remnant of my days on a softball team in Hollywood (Calif.) with a bunch of comedians. Our pitcher was former SNL cast member Kevin Nealon. To make a long story short I kept oversleeping and missing games. Finally I decided to be responsible and show up on time but I overcompensated and tried to impress the team by being the first over the fence when a field had locked us out. I ended up on crutches with a torn ligament. I could say the takeaway is don’t keep junk you’ll never use (aka the outfielders glove) but digging deeper I’d say the takeaway is the importance of showing up and playing to the reality of the situation. You’ve got to be true to yourself, otherwise how can you be true to the scene or your scene partner?
A friend of mine, Dan Yeager, played Leatherface in Texas Chainsaw Massacre 3D. I thought about calling him the other day. He’s in New York now and we were chatting about a visit. At one point we had big plans prepping a couple ideas to pitch to major production companies. One idea had Dan, a hulking guy at 6’5” and me, not very tall, both dressed as pirates stranded on an island while screening and discussing public domain films. For another pitch we each penned a few ghost stories and planned to use one new story in each episode. We never actually pitched either idea anywhere. The takeaway, perhaps, is don’t ever give up on your dreams. Just adjust them to the reality of the moment. I also brought up Leatherface here to remind readers this piece and the subsequent show is all about horror! And then there’s the way we treated my French teacher in junior high, which was a different type of horror. I still feel bad.
Recently I was in Santa Fe, Taos, and Albuquerque, New Mexico. While in Albuquerque my wife and I stopped at a downtown farmers market. There was a local artist selling hats and shirts he designed with local slogans. I bought a few items including a T-shirt that said “Sana Sana,” which is short for “Sana Sana Colita De Rana.” The literal translation from Spanish to English is heal, heal, little frog’s tail. It’s a saying used to comfort children when they fall, like a twist on the saying “kiss it and make it better.” While at the artist’s booth, he tried in vein to explain the concept to me. I didn’t get it. I guess I had jet lag. I bought the shirt anyhow. The takeaway is that as improvisers there are many ways to say the same thing. Del Close once said a gift hasn’t been given until it has been received. If your scene partner doesn’t connect with you, either change your tactic and reach out from another direction or throw it all out the window and focus on the emotional connection to what they just said. It’s evident to me that this is why the victims in a horror film always end up tied up in the basement. Now where did I put that rope? In improv there are many viewpoints from which to approach the scene and/or your scene partner and each may take the scene in a different direction. None are wrong. Choose one. Don’t end up in the basement.
Lastly, I work at a friend’s used bookstore a couple days a week. I was helping a woman out to her car with a bag of books. When she popped the trunk I looked down and maybe 50 cockroaches scattered. They were all over in her trunk. I said: Are you sure you want me to put the books in here? She was staring into the trunk as well. I knew she wasn’t blind cause she was buying books. The woman said “Yes, put my books in here,” with no mention of the creatures running amok. The takeaway here is that some people just see what they want to see. Someone like that in an improv scene probably won’t see that curve in the road that happens when the scene takes a right turn. That same improviser will also miss a lot of gifts, but the scene can still work if you’re in the moment and not in your head.
Which shows are you most excited to see at Countdown this year?
GP: Wow! I can’t pin it down to one. Many of shows in this years festival look great, though I don’t know much about them. Based on what I’ve read or heard I’m looking forward to: Dancing with Disaster featuring Joe Bill and Jennifer Lavenhar; the Countdown Festival Ensemble led by Anthony Francis; the show &Anthony featuring Anthony Francis and Dallas Wait; PREACH!, which just sounds like an awesome concept and also reminds me I need to finish working on my written piece, a conversation with Satan’s brother Bob. It may soon make an appearance on the site Medium. And last but not least Hot Mess! The Musical. They were great last year. Of course you guys, Kelly & Justin, are always fun to watch! I’m hoping to just stumble into other shows that grab my attention.
What’s your favorite fact, real or made up, about Stephen King?
GP: Three facts: 1) Stephen King’s scariness is due to a childhood event he can’t remember.
2) When Stephen King’s mom couldn’t afford a babysitter she gave Stephen and his brother each a book and they were told to read to each other while she was out. When mom came home, to be sure they did the assignment, she’d test them on what the books were about.
3) Last but not least, Stephen King’s book The Shining, is about a shoe shine boy. I’d share details but you’ll learn more about that later…
In addition to being a comedian and actor you’re also a big music fan and collector. What’s your favorite record that you’ve picked up in the past six months?
GP: Lately I’ve been collecting deep groove bop jazz, hard bop jazz and free jazz as well as still buying modern rock. As a baseline for the question I like other genres as well from classical to psych, surf, Haitian, soundtracks, blues, rap etc. My favorite recent purchase is THE SMILE, a new band featuring Thom Yorke (vocalist) and Jonny Greenwood (guitarist) of Radiohead. The sound is Radiohead flavored with a sprinkle of Muse.
A couple runner up purchases include the UK band Wet Leg — their singles Chaise Longue and Wet Dream both have great videos — and two jazz records. The bop jazz Curtain Call by Hank Mobley (tenor sax) and The Futuristic Sounds of Sun Ra, a special 60th anniversary release of his 1962 album.
Sun Ra (Herman Poole Blount), experimental jazz keyboard player, was born in Birmingham, Alabama during segregation. To escape his past and discover a brighter future he reinvented himself as Sun Ra, a being from another planet and he dressed the part, in essence becoming the character he portrayed. Sounds like improv, right?!
And, finally, who do you think will be inducted this year into the Countdown Improv Festival Hall of Fame?
GP: I’ve really given this some thought and frankly I don’t have a clue. I love the category, though, and am all for it. I await the day the media as a whole celebrates with Countdown. Now if you were asking who I would induct into the Countdown Hall of Fame rather than who I do I think you will induct, I still couldn’t answer your question. Not till the end of the festival. As Yoda might say, choose wisely, but I already know you’ve got this.