by Nina Zade
Improvised entertainment is a unique comedic pursuit, seemingly one to leave most people with sweaty palms and a deer-in-headlights stare. It takes a certain kind of stage presence and sense of humor to keep a crowd entertained for more than several minutes. 27 year old Allie Kokesh does not claim to have her on-stage improve persona perfected. In fact, the San Francisco native is humble and modest when it comes to her jokes and impressions, making her as relatable as any New York City resident.
Kokesh is a member of First Lady, an improv comedy troupe at the famous Upright Citizen’s Brigade Theatre in Manhattan. UCB was founded in Chicago in 1993 and relocated to New York in 1996 with the help of famous comedians Amy Poehler, Matt Walsh, and Ian Roberts. The theatre has aided in creating the modern day understanding of improv comedy.
Kokesh earned her spot in the group by taking classes at the UCB training center for one year, and has been performing live on “Lloyd” and “Harold” night several times a month for the past two years. We spoke to Kokesh after her Wednesday night Lloyd show, and found out some more about her technique “not thinking”, and her future comedic aspirations.
Journalistic Inquiry: When did you come to New York?
Allie Kokesh: I came to New York toward the end of 2010, so I moved to Brooklyn in 2011 and I’ve been doing this ever since.
JI: How did you get invested with UCB?
AK: I started doing improv in college. I went to Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut and I wasn’t finding the theatre program to be very enriching so I started doing improv and fell in love with that. Then some professor said, “If you wanna keep doing comedy, go to the UCB in New York.
JI: What did you study in college?
AK: Anthropology. I started as a theatre major, and then I thought about creative writing, and then I ended up closing out with anthropology.
JI: What does “Lloyd” mean exactly?
AK: It’s an arbitrary term. There’s Harold teams, there’s Maude teams, and there’s Lloyd teams. I don’t actually know where the name came from.
JI: Is it a particular style of improv?
AK: It is a particular style, yes. It’s a style that was started in Chicago by Del Close, and used before by Amy Poehler, Matt Besser, Dean Roberts…
JI: Can you describe a little bit about what the Harold is?
AK: The Harold is a structure. Del Close originated it in Chicago and the UCB four brought it to New York and established the theater and the training center where they teach it. So basically the Harold is a structure, and if you just saw the show, there’s an opening to generate ideas, um, then you pull those ideas and you see them in the first three scenes. And then there’s a group game, which is kind of like a palate cleanser and then you see the second beat of those first three themes, so either a time dash or analogous beat of those same games that have already been established. And then another palate cleanser and then the third beat is a time for either making connections between all those scenes or Easter eggs, as I like to call them, where someone just says something that just like caught your ear, that you thought was funny, that you get to basically do in the third beat.
JI: Did you take classes at UCB?
AK: I did, tons and tons of classes. 101-401.
JI: How do you transition from taking classes at the training center to being on a UCB comedy team? Is there an audition process?
AK: There is an audition process. They hold open auditions once a year, and in fact they are coming up in May. I think they’ll have like 500 people who will sign up to audition. And the number of spots changes every year and then they hold closed auditions also in the fall. So they’ll invite about 64 people to audition.
JI: How many times did you audition? How long have you been a part of the team?
AK: For two years. This is my third team on Lloyd night and I auditioned twice, didn’t get it either time, and then I was placed on a team.
JI: How do you practice improv?
AK: We mostly just run exercises. It’s like sports, you know. I guess. I don’t play sports. Basically we run drills and work on the muscle of justifying and finding games and creating premises.
JI: Do you bring in other ideas and practice?
AK: I wish I was that thoughtful on stage, but it really is just about hearing the ideas that you’re generating as a group. And sometimes when I go out, I’m like this is definitely what I’m about to say and then the other person says something first, and you just gotta react to what they’re saying. Otherwise it just dissolves.
JI: Do you ever find yourself at a loss for words?
AK: Yes, sometimes, but not on stage. There’s no time to be too thoughtful on stage. You’re overthinking, and I think that’s when you’re at a loss for words.
JI: So it comes out naturally on stage?
AK: Yeah, that’s kind of a UCB thing too. Don’t think.
JI: Where does your comedy come from?
AK: I would say, like any working actor, I don’t get paid to do comedy, so I spend a lot of my time doing different jobs. So I feel like most of my comedy comes from that.
JI: Describe the hardest you’ve ever bombed.
AK: Oh my gosh… I can always remember bombing in auditions the most. I would say the first time I audition for Harold actually, which would have been in 2011… I bombed pretty significantly but I was pretty green and wasn’t performing a lot.
JI: What went wrong?
AK: I played a drunk person, which is not unusual or funny. I guess its just like a weird pretend that didn’t feel comfortable in the audition either, so it didn’t translate to being funny.
JI: Do you aspire to get on Saturday Night Live?
AK: That’s actually not my goal. I’m very realistic with my goals. I’m 27 years old, that’s when that happens. I’m not great at impressions. I would be happier writing or creating something for myself.
JI: Because UCB is unpaid, what do you do during the day?
AK: I just got laid off from a job that I had for a year. I was a personal assistant. Before that, I was a paralegal for a year and a half at NBC. I just find day jobs that don’t mind that I will go on auditions or that I will edit scripts at my desk.
JI: How much longer do you see yourself at the UCB or doing comedy?
AK: I set the arbitrary goal for myself that by the time I’m 29, I want to have a job that pays for me to write comedy or act in a comedic way. But there’s no money in improv or the UCB unless you’re in the touring company, which I am not.
JI: What’s your favorite part?
AK: I guess the community. I mean, now that I’ve lived here for… 3 years, all of my friends are comedians. I don’t know if that’s a good thing or a bad thing, but I love it because like I get to work with all of my friends, and I think it’s also great because it’s just a community of people who are super passionate about comedy and also working really hard and turning out scripts and web series and stuff. You always have someone to work with or hang out with.