Happy Hour on the Fringe: Kristin Finger, ComedySportzPhilly
Ari: Hello, and welcome to Happy Hour on the Fringe. FringeArts is Philadelphia’s premier presenter of contemporary performing arts. I’m Ari Kantor, podcast intern here at FringeArts, and today we invite you to pour a libation and enjoy our conversation with some of the most imaginative people on this plane of existence.
Today, I’m joined by Kristin Finger, Artistic Director at ComedySportz Philly, a standup comedian and improv comedian, and frankly, a standup improv comedian at that. Kristin has trained and performed with Upright Citizens Brigade, Second City Chicago and ComedySportz Philly, where she founded the annually sold-out hit event, Murder Manor. Hi Kristin.
Kristin Finger: Hey. Thanks for having me on the podcast.
Ari: Yeah, of course. How often have you heard that stand-up joke?
Kristin Finger: Oh, never. You’re the first.
Ari: Oh my God. Great. So I’m going to cut this out so it seems more impressive. How are you doing?
Kristin Finger: I’m good. Thank you for asking.
Ari: So, Kristin, just for everybody at home, why don’t you tell us how you got started with improv?
Kristin Finger: Yeah, I can definitely get right into how I got started. I mean, it brings me joy. So when I was in high school, the only thing I ever wanted to do was be on Saturday Night Live, I think even before high school. So, I went to New York to go to an acting conservatory called the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. And I solely chose that school because it was in New York City where Saturday Night Live was. So I took classes at that school and then one fateful Thanksgiving Eve in 2000, I was waiting in Penn Station for my train and I saw, a well-known now, but unknown then, performer on Saturday Night Live, Jimmy Fallon, walk past me in Penn Station. So I immediately said, I’m going to go ask him how he got on the show.
Ari: Yeah. I mean, I guess you only get that opportunity once.
Kristin Finger: Only once. And this was approachable Jimmy Fallon. First of all, he was in Penn Station, just like nobody else recognized him, except for me who thought he was hot because he was like a background player and featured player on SNL. So he suggested that I start taking improv classes at Upright Citizens Brigade because so many of the folks he knew from Saturday Night Live either were teachers there, affiliated there, or had come from there. And so I was like, great, I will do that. And so I did. So I got off my train back here in Philadelphia and went to the internet and found Upright Citizens Brigade and signed up for my first class that day. And that’s how I got started doing improv.
Ari: It’s interesting that you were brought into comedy from SNL and you even were brought into taking these improv classes by Jimmy Fallon. But you would think that looking at SNL now, that you would have jumped into sketch first.
Kristin Finger: Agreed. And that’s what I kind of found interesting about him suggesting that because he was like, well, do you do stand up? And I had been doing standup for about a year in New York. So it wasn’t like I was a professional stand-up I basically just did open mics and had a regular spot at Stand Up New York on Thursday nights when not many people went to see improv or a standup rather. So yeah, he just suggested that and I was like, okay, great. And it actually has brought me into the sketch world because it had me meet folks that started in that world. And I knew stand-ups. I knew improvisers. And to me it’s all just a different muscle of performing comedy in some sense. So to me, it’s just like, if you want to do comedy, why not do all of them and just be really super well-rounded at all three aspects. Because it’s so funny when, I guess, I don’t know if it’s funny, but it’s like some unknown rivalry between stand-ups and improvisors, improvisors and sketch, and sketch and stand-ups, it’s sort of like a-
Ari: … what metric would you compete them against in any way? I guess, ability to make people laugh.
Kristin Finger: Exactly. What are we gaging this off of? Y’all were trying to do the same thing. Shouldn’t we be on the same team? So yeah, that’s always been my mentality of like, if I can produce a show, I try and bring together as many aspects of people that have some sort of comedy background into it.
But yeah, that’s how I got my start. So I’ve been doing, golly, improv since 2000, and stand-up I stopped doing around 2005 because I realized that I was just improvising my stand-up sets and I wasn’t really actually writing content.
Ari: It’s interesting that you want to bring people that are pretty well-rounded into the teams that you work with. But I guess a lot of the skills at least with improv are transferable anyway.
Kristin Finger: Oh yeah. I mean, it’s listening, it’s communicating, it’s trusting the person that you’re in the scene with versus perhaps you’re working with. Which is why ComedySportz has been doing applied improv, which is taking those skills that you use on the improv stage and in improv scenes and bringing them into workplaces because it’s interchangeable. It’s being able to actively listen and communicate well. And that’s a good human that can do that.
Ari: What skill do you think crept up on you in your regular life that you just weren’t expecting?
Kristin Finger: I think I’ve definitely become a better collaborator. Growing up, I always, particularly if I got put into a group project, I was like, oh. Because I would be like, I have my ideas. I have… If it was, particularly, if it had any artistic endeavor to it, like a diorama or a poster, I was like, no one else can touch this. I can only color this poster.
Ari: Is it a worry of other people touching your vision?
Kristin Finger: Yes. Yes, Ari. People would ruin my vision in fifth grade. Yeah. So I think when I started taking improv, I was like, oh, it’s actually really fun to collaborate and listen to their ideas.
Ari: Yeah. I mean, I guess in fifth grade you probably didn’t make very much until that point. So the things that you’d have made you kind of or are planning to, you hold on to a little more dearly. And then [inaudible 00:06:46] I mean, how many of your sets from a year ago, do you remember? [crosstalk 00:06:49]. Yeah.
Kristin Finger: I know. Yeah. Oh my God. That’s always amazing when someone’s like, oh, I saw your show at this festival and you did this and I’m like, are you sure that was me? I don’t even remember doing that.
Ari: Yeah. Which is weird because these are, I mean, at least the way that you’re playing in them, probably the most memorable things to happen to you in the week.
Kristin Finger: Yeah. Oh for sure. I mean, I go through like withdrawal if I don’t get to do some sort of performative content. And so when I do get to do it, it’s like I am in it. I take my acting skills of just being present in the moment and apply it to my improv skills. I love it. I hope you can hear my cat. He wants to be on the podcast so bad.
Ari: Well, I don’t know, is your cat a contemporary performance artist?
Kristin Finger: He is. His name is Agent Colson. So he’s an official agent of Shield and yes, he loves to perform. He’s really good at sort of just improvising life really? You know?
Ari: Were there any skills in particular that you as a teacher have found difficult to get through people’s heads?
Kristin Finger: I think it’s the one that adults sort of just inevitably feel is they think before they allow something to happen and they think way too hard about it. And they think way too far in advance, they try and preplan. So to break an adult of that behavior, that sort of society has taught us is going to get us far in life is to sort of like, all right, if I take this action, that’s going to probably cause this, then this and that way I make money in life and I can buy a house and then I’ll be happy. But if you take that mentality to the improv stage, you’re never going to stop and listen to what offers are being made to you by your scene partner. And you’re never going to be able to let go and actually be in the moment. So I’d say that’s the hardest one is to shake adults of pre-planning and thinking.
Ari: Interesting. How do you get them to stop thinking that way at all?
Kristin Finger: Yeah. I mean, it’s a series of really just getting them to feel dumb, which sounds so silly, but-
Ari: … just berate them for a half hour.
Kristin Finger: I berate them. I just yell at them and throw shoes at them. No, it’s just allowing them to remember that moment of when you were in third grade and it was recess and that moment of freedom of just like, I’m going to run outside with no inhibition. I don’t even know what my plan is. Will it be monkey bars or swings? So-
Ari: … you just got to be ready for somebody to come up with you with a soccer ball.
Kristin Finger: Exactly. Exactly. And then if someone comes up to you with a baseball bat and it’s like, great, let’s play baseball with a soccer ball. That mentality is what I try and bestow upon my students is that, whatever is offered to you is a great gift. It’s a great idea. And once they start realizing the joy of letting go and the joy of feeling maybe embarrassed or dumb or silly, is okay again. That’s why I think some… We’ve had some kids up on stage during our ComedySportz shows be a volunteer player. They’re the best improvisers I’ve worked with in my life because they don’t have that adult mentality of like, what’s the right answer. They just say, and you’re like, oh my God, this is some really serious improv. Okay kid I’m with you. And it’s so cool.
Ari: Across all the different cities that you’ve performed in and trained in, do you feel like, I don’t know, being in Philly in particular means that you’re playing to a Philadelphian audience or playing to that city, sort of?
Kristin Finger: I don’t think I’ve ever sort of thought of it that way. I-
Ari: … I guess to ask it a little bit in a different way, you’ve done a lot of stand-up where sort of reading the room and engaging in audience work is kind of important. Do you think that that carries over into your improv at all?
Kristin Finger: A hundred percent. I think that’s the best part about being a part of ComedySportz is that it’s so interactive with our shows and matches that the audience is there to actually guide our show. We can’t do the show without them. And I love being ref at ComedySportz because to me that position is you’re basically hosting a party and the entertainment for the party is the players. And then the people that are in the audience are your guests that you need to make sure are having a good time. And that to me is something to celebrate, instead of ignore. Because I’ve definitely seen some improv groups over my, oh God, like 20 years of doing this, of just sort of like, well, we’re going to do what we want to do, maybe we’ll take your suggestion and use it. But I feel like to honor the audience and to gauge their experience will make the performer’s experience even better too, because they’re a part of it.
And it is different with standup because you come in with a preset set essentially of material and you’re going to like see how the audience reacts to it. And I think some stand-ups fear improv so much, but really what they don’t realize is that they’re doing improv while they’re doing their stand-up set, because they have to see how the audience is reacting and then decide, do I go further into this bit? Or should I move on? And those are skills that we have as improvisers.
Ari: Great. I kind of like to talk about Murder Manor now. And that’s an idea that being about a narrative that’s so involved with twists, it feels inevitable that you’re going to negate something that somebody sort of said, or at the very least you need to have some kind of preconceptions going into the scene, right? So you can plant those ideas for later to do twists on. So can you tell us a little bit about Murder Manor and then we can get into how that works with all these rules of thumb that you’ve talked about?
Kristin Finger: Yeah. So I have always been a movie fanatic and Clue is my second favorite movie of all time. I’ll tell you my number one, it’s Ghostbusters. But number two is Clue. And I have watched it, and this is no exaggeration, over a thousand times. In my lifetime, I have always wanted to do some sort of improvised murder mystery. I’ve done some murder mystery scripted theater in my life, and I never enjoyed it because it was like, it just felt too scripted. For the audience, is there to assume that it’s on the fly, off the cuff, but really we had scripted lines.
So when I presented the idea to CSC Philadelphia at ComedySportz, I was like, I would love to do this. And when we initially did it, Murder Manor was… We couldn’t say Clue, because we weren’t sure if we had the rights to say Clue, but we did use the names like Mrs. Peacock, Ms. Scarlet, Mrs. White and so forth. So I cast folks as those individual characters. So they knew who their character was and what their tropes were.
And it wasn’t based off the movie, I just said, you’re going to be Professor Plum. What does that mean? What do you want to be a professor of? So they got to do character development. So we had all of that. We had a lot of practices where we got to meet the characters and just did regular scene work, improvised with those characters. Then we started structuring, okay, well what would this murder mystery improvise thing look like? We need to be sure that the audience understands that it’s improvised. So therefore we need to get suggestions from them. And so we mapped all of that out and I mean, we’ve had maybe three or four iterations of Murder Manor in itself because it’s just evolved from seeing what the audiences have enjoyed, from seeing what the audiences were maybe like, that’s not improvised. Because we got a, I think we got like a review where it was just like, those actors really performed. They didn’t understand that we improvised the entire thing basically.
Ari: Is that a good sign for something like this?
Kristin Finger: I think it’s a great sign, but also someone could also say, those actors were not good at their script.
Ari: Almost like they were improvising, but not quite.
Kristin Finger: It’s like, we were. Yeah. So now when we do the virtual iteration of Murder Manor, we don’t know what the characters and who they’re going to be until the show begins. So we asked the audience virtually live to put in the chat, what is guest number one’s name? And then what do they do for a living? And then we pop on guest number one’s box and it could be Allie Sule and she’ll just take someone’s suggestion of what her name is and what they do for a living and build our character immediately from there and introduce themselves.
To your point of negating can definitely creep in because it’s a narrative. So you’re like, okay, well clearly this is how this is going to go. But then you see the next scene and it’s like, they reveal some sort of information. You’re like, okay, well take that note. I can’t… Then I have to get rid of how I thought this was going to go. So it is like a huge long improv scene of just being sure to listen to new ideas that are offered, but also not throwing too many new shiny pennies into the mix. Like still keeping to, we’re going all on the same journey, don’t have a split into like three different roads because it’ll confuse us, let alone the audience watching.
Ari: Right. Because you need some red herrings, but not every offer’s going to be… I mean, they’re probably not being offered as red herrings, but they become that way when you get another one.
Kristin Finger: Exactly. Yeah. I think there was one where [inaudible 00:17:01] Andy’s character last run was selling something or creating a new tech company and we’re like, that’s it. That’s it. And then like, he wasn’t the murderer. So we’re like, what was the…? And he was like, well, I just wanted to make sure you guys knew I was worth something. And like, I don’t know… It’s just fun to find out that it was just the sweet, old lady who we didn’t assume was the murderer. It’s very, very fun. And that’s the other fun thing is we don’t know as the performers who the murderer is, only the narrator and the stage manager know who the murderer is. And also the murderer knows, but that’s it. So you can assume that if someone… Obviously if no one told you you’re the murderer, you know you’re not the murderer, but that doesn’t mean that we don’t, like you said, throw in little red herrings that make the audience think, well, it could be us. Because we want everyone to assume it could be any of these dumb-dumbs that are at this party.
Ari: What happens when it comes to you then? Then when it turns out you’re the murderer.
Kristin Finger: Yeah. If you know that you’re the murderer, you’re going to end up still uplifting other folks’ ideas because you don’t want to make it look like you’re the murderer, but you do want to still lay the groundwork that it could be you. So that’s sort of the balance of it. And since it’s fully improvised, I mean, are there hiccups along the way? Absolutely. Do we call each other sometimes by the wrong name because we forget who’s who? Absolutely. But if you just use that to your benefit, like I think one show, someone kept calling David [inaudible 00:18:35] by the wrong name. And he’s like, that’s my twin brother you idiot. And it’s like-
Ari: … yeah, one way to go is to justify, Why did somebody call me the wrong?
Kristin Finger: Exactly. There’s a lot of justification in an improvised murder mystery. That’s for sure.
Ari: It’s very tongue in cheek because obviously the audience knows what happened. Can it get too tongue in cheek? How much of that fourth wall can you sort of hammer into?
Kristin Finger: We try not to break it too much, but I think there’s oftentimes where we will laugh at each other just as folks do on Saturday Night Live, because you’re just amazed by the people that you perform with. So bringing that joy to it, I think is okay, because I’m a laugher. I will laugh and I just own it and try and turn it into my character or just try and cover my face and some sort of character way that makes it look like I’m crying or something other than laughing.
Ari: Right. I think Bill Hader would always kind of do that with Stefan yeah.
Kristin Finger: Exactly. That motion that people do for Stefan is literally because Bill Hader was hiding his laughter and I think that’s brilliant. That’s how I love physicality for a character to be developed is just through the natural course of you becoming that character. Yeah. So we try not to get too tongue and cheek with it. We like… But at the same time, some of the suggestions that the audience gives us that we do for a career or our name might be Weatherby Featherbottom, and it’s like, okay, that person’s not… We’re not going to be able to keep that as at a normal pace of a person. That’s going to be someone that’s pretty extreme. So we just listened to the audience and how tongue and cheek that they may want us to go that particular night. Because there was definitely one night where we did it where the audience was like, this is a murder mystery. And it was a lot darker and less playful. It was like, well, ‘you did it,’ ‘no you did it.’ It was like a telenovela, but with murder mystery.
Ari: Yeah. It’d be nice to get an actual CSI scene music suddenly coming in!
Kristin Finger: Exactly. Exactly. Yeah.
Ari: I mean, some of those things might be easier now virtually to add in sudden changes in music or any kind of audio changes. But what’s it been like in general shifting this event to a virtual stage?
Kristin Finger: Yeah. I mean myself, and Don Monterey, and Sarah LeClaire who directs our virtual version of it, just have been stellar in sort of, ‘okay, how can we pivot this? What will it look like?’
And this upcoming iteration of it for May, I’m very excited about because we’ve developed for our own ComedySportz matches and other shows utilizing a new streaming program like utilizing OBS, and being able to have different backgrounds and transitions and stuff like that. So for this new iteration of our virtual Murder Manor, we’re going utilize some of that. And I think it’s going to really change sort of the overall experience of it. Because when we first did it virtually, we just did it in Zoom where we were in all of our boxes, just turning on and off our cameras and we had some transitional things, but like you’re saying, we can use so many more sound effects, music effects. And the stage manager can be very at the ready with that sort of stuff, to be able to make it the direction that that particular night’s going.
And I think the most difficult part was when we did Murder Manor in person, we had backstage, she’d be like, okay, I’m going to go in this next scene, and you can sort of not plan what’s going to happen, but you can double-check backstage where it’s like, okay, wait, you sell horses, right? That’s what you do. Or like, okay, great, you used to work in a kitchen, so you’re good with knives. Yeah. Yeah. Okay. But we don’t have that luxury anymore because there’s no backstage. So what actually the cast has done is just created a text chain with each other that sort of has had to make up for not having a backstage and just being like, wait a minute, wait [inaudible 00:22:58] sells horses? Yes, confirmed. Okay. And we just sort of have to even confirm virtually via text with each other. It’s very silly. And that text chain could just be a book on itself. It’s very silly.
Ari: Yeah. I imagine a lot of the deaths in this kind of show are extremely silly.
Kristin Finger: Yes. Absolutely. Absolutely. And we welcome those suggestions. We also did a Golden Girls-themed Murder Manor mystery thing, and Joe always played Stan and I was Dorothy. So Dorothy smacks Stan a lot. Yeah. So I definitely miss being in person with performing obviously, but I’m so thankful that ComedySportz has figured out how we could still do this. And we’ve been hard at work to really make a great product for people that still want to see comedy, still want to see live theater. And it’s been a lot of work, but it’s worth it. Every time I see the live chat in any of our shows and matches, I know we’re doing the right thing because the people just get so excited in the live chat. And that’s the interactive feeling that I love improv about, you know?
Ari: I do know. Thanks for talking with me today, Kristin. And thank you listeners for joining us for this episode of Happy Hour on the Fringe. Make sure to follow us on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter and download the FringeArts app.
Thanks again to our guest, Kristin Finger. You can see Kristin possibly meet her end in Murder Manor just about every Friday in May. And you can see her compete in ComedySportz live shows every Saturday. To find out more about these shows and how you can attend and you can visit ComedySportzPhilly.com. Take care all.