By Wendy (Tzu-Shu) Shyu
Allie Kokesh is a comedian, who is deeply in love with improvised comedy. She now performs at Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre East in New York. On stage, she can be the funniest milk monster or a flying superwoman, but off stage, she is no more special than any other 27-year-olds, thinking about where her future will be, and working towards her dream.
Coming from San Francisco, Allie has been in New York for three years. Taking classes, performing, rehearsing, and working at various day jobs are all for the same goal of her life: to write and create something of her own.
Journalistic Inquiry: How did you first get involved in improv?
Allie Kokesh: I started doing improv in college. I went to Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut. I wasn’t finding the theatre program to be very enriching, so I started doing improv, fell in love with doing that, and then my professor said that if you wanna keep doing comedy, go to the UCB in New York. I did tons and tons of classes in New York and Los Angeles.
JI: Who inspired you?
AK: I guess Steve Martin would be a huge deal for me. I really love Rachel Dratch, and I think Mindy Kaling inspired me as someone who worked really hard and stuck with what she really wanted to do, and that’s how she was discovered.
JI: Where does your improv come from?
AK: I don’t get paid to do comedy, so I spend a lot of my time doing different jobs. Mostly I’m an assistant, so I feel like most of my comedy comes from that. I just got laid off from a job that I had for a year, a personal assistant. And before that I was a paralegal at NBC, and before I was an NBC page. So I find day jobs that don’t mind that I will go on auditions or that I will edit scripts at my desk.
JI: Is improv a natural talent or generated through practice and training?
AK: Both. I think you need to be kind of intelligent and open to working with all sorts of different people. But that’s why there are classes, because like I did short-form improv in college, and so I had to learn long-form improv.
JI: What were the auditions at UCB like?
AK: The number of spots changes every year. I auditioned twice. I didn’t get it either times, and then I was placed on a team. I think I can always vividly remember bombing in auditions the most because that’s when I care the most. I would say the first time I auditioned for Harold, which would’ve been in 2011, I bombed pretty significantly. But I was pretty green and hadn’t been performing a lot. I played a drunk person, which is not unusual or funny, it’s just like a weird pretense. And I didn’t feel comfortable in the audition either, so it didn’t translate to be funny.
JI: How long have you been on the UCB teams?
AK: For two years, this is my third team on Lloyd’s Night. I’ve been on three different teams: I was on a team called Spooky Ghost, and then I was on a team called City Mouse, and I’m on First Lady now for a year. So there have been minimal changes. [Now] I only perform with First Lady. Always on Wednesdays; always at 7:30.
JI: How often do you practice?
AK: Every week for three hours, with a coach that we pay for. So I think I pay $60 a month for Lloyd and another 60 for Maude. We mostly just run exercises. It’s like sports. Basically we run drills and work on the muscle of justifying and finding games, creating premises in the opening.
JI: Do you bring ideas practiced onto stage?
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 even if I go out, and I’m like, this is definitely what I’m about to say, and the other person said something first, you just gotta react to what they’re saying, otherwise it just dissolves. That’s kinda a UCB thing, too: “Don’t think.” You should just go for it.
JI: Can you steer the show in a way that you want it to be?
AK: That also assumes that you have total control of the situation; that undermines your team partners in a way. I think it’s supposed to be collaborative. If you’re on stage and you’re thinking like, “This isn’t going right,” then you’re the problem, not the scene. You should mostly be focused on what’s going on on stage.
JI: Does the audience help shape the show?
AK: Oh yeah. It’s hard cause you really just want to do it for your teammates, for the sake of what you’re generating and try to perform. But I hear laughter, I’m like, “okay, do that again.” It’s like stand-ups, if you start a row of jokes and no one react, you’d probably drop that row of jokes and move on to something else.
JI: How long will you be doing improvised comedy at UCB?
AK: The arbitrary goal I set for myself is by the time I’m 29, I want to have a job that pays for me to write a comedy. But there’s no money in improv. And there’s no money at the UCB, unless you’re on the Touring Company, which I’m not.
JI: Is Saturday Night Live your ultimate goal?
AK: That is actually not my goal. No, cause I’m very realistic with my goals. I’m 27 years old, that’s when that happens. I’m not great at actually spot-on impressions like famous people. You see like, Jay Pharoah and you’re like, “Oh yeah, he belongs on SNL.” I’m not good at impressions, so I would be happier writing, creating something for myself.