National Velveeta and Crazy Monkeys

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National Velveeta - Headshot - 1993 CrazyMonkeys - Headshot - 1998

So I've recently had multiple[1] requests to write up something about the history of the Crazy Monkeys improv group. And in the course of trying to pull something together I've realized that I'd also have to talk about the group National Velveeta, which Crazy Monkeys somewhat evolved from. And if I was talking about National Velveeta and Crazy Monkeys, then basically I was talking about my first ten years of improv -- and the history of improv in (Greater) Lafayette, Indiana -- and so I might as well talk about all of that, too.

Oh, and I should mention that I'm terrible about dates. I'm pretty firm about some things (like, I know when I started at Purdue) but I wouldn't try to win any bets with my dating of things. I did check in with some friends[2] and consulted all the newspaper clippings I've accumulated over the years (many of which I've scanned in and posted in a Flickr set).

Anyway, for me it all started in high school when I didn't get into improv. I went to high school in Adelaide, Australia, and down there Theatre Sports was the main flavor of improv around in the mid-80s. As part of the Adelaide Fringe Festival one year I went and saw several rounds of a Theatre Sports tournament and thought it was the coolest thing ever. They were just making that stuff up, and it was so funny! The next summer, my friend Cate Rogers was putting together a team for another tournament and she asked me if I'd like to join. Why she asked me, I have no idea—unlike her, I hadn't done any theater in high school. I was completely terrified and declined. I can't regret it, because things worked out just fine, but I do sometimes wonder what might have happened if I had started improvising three years sooner than I did.

In 1988 I moved back to the US and started at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana. Purdue is a large state school with a tradition in Engineering, Agriculture, and Science. I came to the school to major in Computer Science. Purdue has a theater department, but thoughts of performing were far from my head. Shortly after I got to Purdue, West Lafayette's first improv group[3] was founded: National Velveeta.

National Velveeta - flyer - 6/5/1992

National Velveeta was started around 1988[4] by Phil Granchi, a geology grad student, who had performed with improv groups before he came to Purdue. In September he started the group with five members: himself, Mark Kohlman, Hal Page, Chip Sandlan, and Jim Westrick. Soon they had added 8 more members which included April Holladay and Holly Wott. At some point I ran across a flyer or some such and saw National Velveeta perform at a small coffeeshop just off campus, the Blue Cafe. Names I know of who were in the group before I joined include: Robb Bruce, Mark French, Lawrence Lee, Kristin Lietch, Matt Martin, Dave Mitchell, Mike Monahan, Andy Shark, and Scott Starkey.

Phil Granchi was gone from the group by the time I joined (in the next paragraph) and he had moved (back?) to Chicago, where he began working with the Annoyance Theater. He created a show called "Modern Problems in Science" with Dick Costolo (now the C.O.O. of Twitter) and Rich Fulcher (Bob Fossil on The Mighty Boosh) which they ended up touring around the world in the late 90s. I saw it one evening at the Annoyance (with Noah Gregoropoulos subbing in for either Costolo or Fulcher), but was too shy to introduce myself to Phil after the show with "I'm in an improv group you started". I've just discovered from Facebook that Phil is now a doctor in California.

Anyway, my junior year, my friend Lawrence Lee, who was in the group and who I had met because I shopped at Von's Books so much, started bugging me to come and sit in on a rehearsal. Again, I have no idea what Lawrence saw in me that made me think I'd be good at improv, but I'm really glad he did. It took some bugging, as I remember, because I was still very shy and frightened of failure. The notion of putting myself into situation where it seemed you'd always be on the verge of disaster was very foreign to me. But eventually I gave in to Lawrence and started coming to rehearsals, then in the basement of the Wesley Foundation. And right away I was hooked. After a few rehearsals I was performing with the group.

A word about the training process in National Velveeta. When I joined the group, none of the members (as far as I know) had any improv training outside of the group. And there was never a director or any formal leadership of the group—there were simply people who had been there longer. The training I received, and would later pass on to others, was a 10 minute talk called "the three things you need to know to do improv". It was mostly about Yes And and a little bit of object work.

National Velveeta was not an official Purdue Student Organization, but being in a college town it functioned like most college improv groups. Most members were students at Purdue and every May we lost about a quarter of the group to graduation and then we brought in new folks either through invitation or through occasional auditions in the Fall. Putting this together, I realize that the group had been around for only about two years when I joined, but the number of people who had come and gone from the group in that time, and the size of the group (up to 13 members) really made it feel like it was an established institution.

Between National Velveeta, helping produce the Guru Java (a weekly musical venue), and getting involved in technical theater with the Wesley Players (all three of which Lawrence Lee got me involved in) by the time I graduated in 1992, I felt like my life was going in a different direction than the Computer Science degree I had managed to finish. That summer Lawrence and his then-wife Charlotte VanVactor put together the drama group for a Methodist Summer Camp for high schoolers and hired me and fellow National Velveeta members Robb Bruce and Liz Thelen, as well as our friend Lisa-Marie Centeno. We wrote an original piece—the Reduced Bible: the Bible in 60 Minutes or Your Money Back[5]—as well as performed the play A Peasant from El Salvador. There was drama about our drama, but that's another story. The point is that I was now a paid performer and writer and while I wasn't sure how to proceed with making that my full-time job, I didn't really want to pursue computer jobs and so after the summer I returned to West Lafayette. I definitely wanted to continue working with National Velveeta and I was glad that it wasn't a student organization, because I was no longer a student.

In the fall of 1993, Matt Martin came back from working from a summer camp and brought with him another camp counselor who he had taught some improv for a talent show—Shaun Himmerick. I don't actually recall saying the following, but it's been repeated so often it must be true, yes? Brian Terjung joined the group at the same time as Shaun and I guess I called Shaun "Brian" a lot in the first few months he was in the group. When Matt called me out on mis-remembering Shaun's name I'm told I said, "well, I haven't bothered learning his name, because he's not going to be around in the group for long." The joke was on me, because 17 years later and Shaun and I still perform together (though, really, I'm not sure if he's any good at this improv stuff).

Around this time we also added into the group Carrie Gatke, Gerry Gobel, a former roommate of mine in a terrible apartment called the Magic House (because of the magic shop located in the building that had a huge sign painted on the side), Matt Kaye, Supna Kumar, and Ben Taylor. Gerry and Matt brought more to the group than their comedic talents. They brought drama!

After being with the group for a few months, Matt and Gerry got up at a rehearsal and announced that they were forming a new group and had asked about half of National Velveeta to join them. They wanted take a group in a more focused direction, especially on doing paying gigs, and felt like they had to split off to do that.

At the time, it felt like an enormous betrayal. There was, of course, drama about who had and hadn't been asked to join this new group. But I think I understand better, now, the impulse to want to do something with a focus (and I certainly understand looking for paying gigs). And I think, looking back, given the very leaderless nature of National Velveeta, it would have been hard to try to steer that ship in a new direction. And as we'll see in a couple of paragraphs, I think I basically did the same thing to National Velveeta, albeit with far fewer people left on the other side. And the members of National Velveeta were the only improvisors in the Greater Lafayette Area, so Matt and Gerry's choices were slim when it came to recruiting for their new endeavor. But at the time, woo-boy was I mad.

By then, National Velveeta was a huge part of my life (and I wasn't invited to join the new group) so I was shocked and dismayed. And then after all that drama, the new group went off, rehearsed for a while, did one public show at the Wesley Foundation Great Hall (which, due to Guru Java, felt very much like our venue) and, I heard, did one private show for some sort of corporate party. And then broke up. Is it shallow if I say that the failure of the group made it easy to come back around to being friends with Gerry in a few months? And Matt Kaye moved to Chicago and did an incredible two-person improv show called "My Grandma's a Fat Whore in Jersey" with my now-good-friend Jen Ellison. So there's that.

Despite our rocky start with the name thing and all, Shaun soon proved to be as invested in improv as I was. In November 1994 some of us went down to Athens, GA for the first ImprovStock festival and found other groups of people—other adults, non-students!—who were similarly serious about improv. We also came to a crossroads and took, perhaps, the long way round.

The main workshop that year was by Charna Halpern of the ImprovOlympic. She and Del Close had just published Truth in Comedy and she was very much an evangelist for what was then still a fairly radical and unknown new art form, especially outside of Chicago: long form improvisation. Always a polarizing figure, Charna didn't just extol the virtues of long form, she disparaged short form and criticized some of the choices in the shows the night before. Our hearts hardened and I know we didn't get the most we could have from the workshop—if long form meant being rude to fellow performers we wanted none of it.

And then that night we saw the best short form we'd ever seen. It was some of the best improv I've ever seen, to this day. Three performers from the SAK Comedy Lab in Orlando, FL—Matt Young, Dave Russell, and Jonathan Mangum—performed short form improv games, but they didn't seem to approach the rules as a challenge to be overcome or a goal in itself. The games were just a loose framework, a structure to perform comedy within. They were just playing, with energy and enthusiasm, and it was amazing. We wanted to be them. I think that to this day my goal when I improvise is to achieve the effortless sense of play we saw in that show. I was sold—short form was where it was at for me.

As people drifted away from the group that year, we found that we had no desire to replace them—we were enjoying the tighter nature of a smaller group. By the fall of 1995, the group was down to five people: Scott Starkey, Ben Taylor, Liz, Shaun, and myself. Liz, Shaun, and I went down to ImprovStock again in November and had two crucial encounters.

First, we got to take workshops with Dennis Cahill from Loose Moose Theater. Keith Johnstone's Impro was pretty much the only serious book about improv that we were aware of and we were awed to be learning about improv from someone who had worked with him. And it was games, taken seriously, which validated our short form orientation.

And SAK's Matt Young was back with a new group, Dad's Garage Theater from Atlanta. And they played with the same loose, rockband energy we'd been so excited about the year before. If Dad's Garage was the best improv group in the world, and SAK the second best, maybe we could work hard and become the third best improv group in the world.

We came back from the festival energized and determined to become the best improvisors we could be. And where National Velveeta had been a loose affiliation that no one really owned and that we had inherited, we began to feel like we were doing something new and wanted to create the new thing. As we discussed it, Scott decided that the kind of commitment and direction we were talking about was not for him. So it was just to be the four of us—Fuzzy Gerdes, Shaun Himmerick, Ben Taylor, and Liz Thelen. All that was left was picking a name. (The ownership was the main reason we wanted a new name, but we had also heard that Kraft was aware of National Velveeta but had never pursued any action against us because we were so small. Part of our grandiose plan for the new group was world-famousness, so we wanted a name clear of any legal issues.)

By this time we were well aware of the many improv groups around the country and we knew how many of them were puns or variations on the word improv. We wanted to have a name more like a band -- something that would convey the energy and enthusiasm of our group, without directly saying "we do improv". After weeks of brainstorming and arguing, we got down to two names: Crazy Monkeys and Rocket Science. After hours of argument at a restaurant in the Village area just off campus, we were stalemated and finally wrote the two names on pieces of napkin, balled them up, and then asked our server to pick one. And so we were the Crazy Monkeys.

We sent National Velveeta off with a bang in December 1995—we invited all the alums we knew of back for a final show (something I recommend to all groups, have a 'final show' every now and then, it's easy to pack the house). And then in January 1996 we launched the Crazy Monkeys. For a time we avoided monkey imagery, with an atomic logo (a nod to the second place Rocket Science) and our motto "taking comedy seriously". Later, Shaun's friend Jude Oseto would draw us a sketch of monkey hand holding a banana that I see the group still uses on their website.

Crazy Monkey Atomic Logo Crazy Monkeys - Monkey Hand

The Crazy Monkeys played everywhere that we could. We performed at the Vienna Espresso Bar (later the Village Coffee House, I believe) quite often and performed on campus whenever possible. We traveled to Texas for the first Big Stinkin' Improv Festival. We were doing the kind of work we had set ourselves the goal of doing.

A story from that first Big Stinkin' in the spring of 1996. We were the opening act in a set of shows at the Zachary Scott Theater and we were waiting offstage, very nervous for this big festival appearance, and the start of the show was delayed while some crazy hippy droned on and on about some sort of nonsense about improv and art and such. That crazy hippy was, of course, improv guru Del Close and I've heard other people reminisce fondly about that speech and how it inspired them. But those people weren't backstage getting sick to their stomach and second-guessing which short form game they should play. Perhaps I'll title my memoir "Missed Opportunities".

But even though the Crazy Monkeys was even less Purdue-tied than National Velveeta had been, it was still true that half the group were students. And in the spring of 1996 both Shaun and Ben graduated and left town. Shaun moved to Denver to live with our improv friend Matt Martin and form a group out there called Bare Essentials (and that too is a whole other story). Our tight-knit group was gone.

At this point I suppose I could have just let the group fade away, but I was now committed to living in West Lafayette—I had ended up working for the University in an IT position—and I wanted to keep improvising. I was performing some at the Lafayette Civic Theater and doing a radio show called The Outliers that Benjamin Wachs put together. But improv was still my first love and even if Crazy Monkeys wasn't going to be exactly the same as it had been, I wanted to keep it going as something.

I recruited Kelli Beery from The Outliers and she and Liz and I did a few shows. Then John Wolfe came to West Lafayette to attend Purdue and sought me out. John had been training and performing with Indianapolis ComedySportz and had the desire to keep performing while at school. John infused the group with new enthusiasm. I have a 'trip report' from March 1997 where I talk about driving down to Bloomington, Indiana and doing the "first real show by the new Crazy Monkeys"—that would have been the John, Kelli, Liz, and Fuzzy line-up.

When Kelli and Liz left the group in the fall of 1997 to focus on the post-grad programs they were both in, John and I decided to hold auditions and continue the group. We held auditions on September 15, 1997. We added Alex Aschinger, Leah Link, Chrissy Marth, and Brandon Thomas. Also in the group over the next year were Amy Piskorowski and Elliot Mumble-mumble[6].

CrazyMonkeys - Headshot - 1998

With renewed vigor we began performing around Lafayette. We were performing on campus frequently, in the Union and at residence halls. We did a series of shows at the Greater Lafayette Museum of Art.

As an odd side-note, a rock producer in town decided that improv was the next big thing and that he should have a group to book out for shows. He held auditions and even though they were technically competition for Crazy Monkeys, I went out for the auditions and was cast in the group: Laugh-A-Minute[7]. After a couple of shows at the Tippecanoe Arts Federation the group didn't last very long, but by gum, if there was improv happening in town, I wanted to be a part of it.

Crazy Monkeys was now firmly student-filled again (except for me) and took a complete hiatus in the summer of 1998. I began driving down to Indianapolis to meet John at Indianapolis ComedySportz rehearsals and then began performing with their late-night show Odd Scrod, which was making the first tentative steps towards long form improv. I also did a few ComedySportz shows.

As Crazy Monkeys started up again in the fall, I decided to take classes in Chicago. I had had workshops with a variety of Chicago teachers at improv festivals I'd been attending, some with Shaun and Matt who were going gangbusters out in Denver, and I decided to go through the program at the Annoyance. I began driving up on Saturdays to take the classes. The Annoyance style—not long form as such, but certainly a complete rejection of the rules and structure of short form—excited me and I'd bring a fumbling version of the lessons I was learning back to the Crazy Monkeys. My doubtless-garbled version of the Annoyance style excited the group as well and we began to perform in the more loose, montage style of the Annoyance (and, as well, to push the boundaries of taste in the Annoyance fashion). Our finest moment, I think, was when we attended a college improv festival at Ball State University and performed a psychedelic, frenzied Screw Puppies-style show that, frankly, made us feel like the bad-asses of the festival.

And then in the summer of 1999 I finally got out of West Lafayette and moved to Chicago, there to dive head-first into the world of long form improv and experimental shows. I left Crazy Monkeys in the hands of the existing members and in those pre-social media days, didn't hear much from them until years later.

All this looking back comes at a very interesting time for me—for the last year or so my main performance outlet has been at the Laugh Out Loud Theater, where I'm once again performing short form games. And at this very moment, for the first time in years, my little "upcoming shows" calendar at the top of my website is blank. I have nothing scheduled, nothing upcoming. What's next for me? That's a whole other post, as well, I suppose.

The Crazy Monkeys, I understand, have become an organization with officers and so on. And I see from occasional glances at the Exponent that there are now also official Student Organization improv groups, and perhaps even groups over in Lafayette. Whatever part I had in nurturing improv in Lafayette over the years, I'm glad to see that it seems to be flourishing.

Criminey, this is over 4000 words. Um, improv is the winner!

Related: a mess of photos and news clips in a Flickr set

[1] Two.
[2] Many thanks to Shaun Himmerick, Lawrence Lee, and Matt Martin. Errors that remain are, of course, my fault. Corrections and additions welcomed.
[3] As far as I know.
[4] I will pay $10 to anyone who can give me a date for this article from the Lafayette Journal & Courier. The Tippecanoe County Library has all the back issues on microfilm.
[5] Which we wrote, I'll point out, before the Reduced Shakespeare Company wrote their The Bible: The Complete Word of God (abridged). But after they had already done their Reduced Shakespeare, which is where we got the title.
[6] The request from the current Crazy Monkeys that prompted this 4000 word screed was not "please ramble on about improv" but just "do you remember the names of the people who were in the Crazy Monkeys?". And sadly, I'm failing at that simple task. Oh well, back to the ramble.
[7] Remember what I said about not wanting our group name to scream "comedy"?