Chris George has spent entirely too much time watching TV and movies. Now, he’s putting it to good use. The audience selects a movie or episode of a TV show; it plays with the sound off. Chris improvises all the music, sound effects, and dialogue. It’s a 25-minute journey inside a pop culture brain.
Previous Countdown Improv Festival appearances
Interview (from 2018)
Can you describe the format of I Am the Show for folks that haven’t yet seen it, and tell us about the genesis of that format and how it came to be?
The audience selects a movie, either from Netflix, or from a stack of $1 DVD’s I’ve bought, and it plays with the sound off and I improvise the dialogue, sound effects, and music that go along with the movie in real time. Because of the breadth of movies on Netflix (and in the used DVD bin) it’s a movie that I’ve never seen before. I would say it is somewhere between “Mystery Science Theater 3000” and “Bad Lip Reading.” I had heard about people (or groups) doing similar shows for a few years, and I was always interested in it, though I never had quite the urge to cross the threshold. Then, I found myself on a team with a bunch of very flighty people in San Diego who would show up late to shows (if at all) and were less-than-stellar in responding to confirmations about shows. One day, with about 5 minutes before show time, and with me being the only one at the theater I thought “What will I do if no one shows up?” and I vaguely sketched out what would eventually become I Am the Show. I never had to “break the glass” with that team, so eventually I thought I just wanted to do it. I tried rehearsing it (twice) and it didn’t work without an audience – and then I just did it.
What are some ways in which your show has evolved since you first started performing it?
How I ask for the suggestion has changed somewhat, but the biggest lesson I learned I got while at the Idaho Laugh Fest in 2016. Up until that point, it had been just “get the movie and go”, but that festival had a lot of standup people I shared slots with and then I realized the value of doing a little crowd work at the top. IAtS is such a weird show for the audience to hang on, so doing a little crowd work pre-heats the oven and gets them a little more comfortable. I’ve gotten more comfortable playing with plot, character, direction, and cinematography, but those are probably less noticeable to the audience.
What are your favorite types of films to do?
So far the worst movies are documentaries, because it’s hard to draw a through line and the edits are so quick – there aren’t true “scenes” to improvise. My favorites are action and horror – lots of opportunities for music and SFX. Generally the “worse” the movie, the “better” the show. I’ve also had a very good run on $1 DVD’s that have featured former actors from the American Pie series; our fates have become intertwined.
You also perform as part of a duo [Merit Badge, with fellow CIF instructor Laurel Posakony]. What are your favorite things about performing as a duo with Laurel? Do you have a favorite memory from a show that you’ve done together that you’d like to share?
If you ever get the chance to play with Laurel – take it. I could name a dozen things that are “favorite things,” but it’s probably more meaningful to say that my singular favorite thing about Laurel is that they are endlessly curious. They’ll never shy from something just because they’ve never done it before. The show that immediately comes to mind is from the Endurance Festival (Madison, Wis.) from this year; the prior act had ended a little early so we were given a longer leash for a show and ended up going close to 40 minutes. About halfway through we realized that we might actually have time to tell a complete story, and I think we both realized it at the same time. Because we both used to be on a narrative team together, we understood what the story needed, the remaining bits that we needed to hit, and landed the story right at the Elixir beat.
How do you prepare for a show? Do you have any habits or rituals?
This may be kind of “how the show has evolved,” but because there’s a technical aspect to IAtS, I always check with the tech person. 20 percent of the time, they were left out of the email chain about tech needs (or never bothered to read it), 50 percent of the time, some driver or such hasn’t been installed and no video will actually play, and 25 percent of the time someone has left subtitles on (this leaves a 5 percent margin of error). The shows that have been bad have (mostly) all had technical hiccups at the top.
In general though, I always need a little time to myself, about 15 minutes or so, to walk around the block and do some stretching. Laurel and I always do a little checking in (how are you, how are you feeling, what do you want to work on) and play “Things.” For things, we go back and forth naming occupations, people, feelings, events, objects, places – the more specific the better.
You’re teaching a workshop on building successful genre and narrative shows at the festival. Can you tell us about how your shows have influenced your teaching, and vice versa?
This workshop leans heavily on the work we did with Book Club in San Diego for two years, telling improvised novels for about 1 hour. Most improv shows don’t get to tell full stories; the typical length and format doesn’t lend itself easily to narrative, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen. Obviously, IAtS uses movies, so being able to recognize the beginnings of story, protagonists, antagonists, helps playing with those movies, but in general, audiences care about people who want something and are changed and that’s narrative all the way. The “second half” of the workshop focuses on specifying genre shows, and that just reminds me that every show is unique, and we should never abdicate responsibility when it comes to style.
Finally: How big is your current collection of improv T-shirts?
Oh gosh. I haven’t counted in a while, but it fills two of those big “under-the-bed clothing storage bins”. Without actually counting, I’d bet around 75. It’s probably higher, but I’d maybe rather not know.