Most people can’t pull improv off. Not even improv that’s “loosely scripted” (Curb style). Not even for a thirty-second, 101 class exercise. Improv’s demanding, and few are equipped to handle its demands. So, it can be painful to watch. At the root of most new performers’ foibles is self-consciousness, fear of being unfettered and weird or, worst of all, “awkward.” Those who excel have good instincts and good timing, sure. But mostly, they’re the ones most willing to pull the trigger, to jump into an uncomfortable scene and risk getting stinky, smelly, dirty and — here’s the really big one — imaginative. That’s funny. And that’s why this week’s feature is "I’m Too Fragile For This", created by UCB stalwarts Connor Ratliff and Cathryn Mudon, and directed by Tom Levin. If I’ve told you once, I’ve told you a hundred goddamn times: be honest, and people will laugh. If you probe the inner sanctums of your deranged minds, you’ll be able to turn even the most banal into 3-5 minutes of smart, authentic entertainment.
Right, cool interview dudes?
What did you guys do before this?
Connor: I went to drama school in England, and worked in the UK as an actor for a little while, but it didn't agree with me. I had a few good experiences, but it felt like even when things were going well, I was getting further and further from what I liked about acting. So I gave it up for a while, and figured I could come back to it later. Then, a few years ago, I started taking classes and performing at UCB and that's when I sort of re-discovered what I originally liked about acting. I'm still not great at the 'career' aspect of it. I just want to do good work. I can't imagine that there will ever be any paid job that will give me the same kind of feeling that I get performing with The Stepfathers on Friday night.
Tom: Film has always been my main focus. I was spending my time directing personal projects, and trying to get better at what I was doing. I was also doing a lot of improv, the three of us all met in the same class at UCB a couple years ago.
Cathryn: Yeah, we all met in a Neil Casey class a few years ago, which was a really terrific experience. And I think we recognized similar comedic sensibilities in each other. I had originally moved to New York to study acting and my program was theatre-based. But I found it exhausting and not especially rewarding. The intensity of those years pretty much pushed me toward comedy. And when I found UCB, it was this fun bizarre place where I could "act" without it being soul-draining, where performing was joyful and all you had to do was be authentic.
Who first had the idea for "I'm Too Fragile For This?" and what inspired it?
Connor: One day Cathryn and I were having a conversation, and as we were talking, she said "we should just film this, us talking. This could be a webseries." I said, "sure" but I think I thought nothing would ever come of it, it just felt like an idle remark. I think even as we were getting ready to film the first ones, I wasn't sure if it would actually work. But once we started filming, I felt it clicking, I thought, "oh this will actually be good." The first day's filming went really well, in terms of the material. I left feeling like we had shot 10 episodes that would work.
But we had all kinds of technical problems. There was a problem with the audio, and the first two episodes — which I think are funny — are basically salvage jobs. I can't really look at them, even though I think the content is strong, it's like watching a rough demo of what the series will become. But there's also a certain charm in the roughness of those first couple of episodes.
Tom is really the third writer of these, in that he's the one who shapes them. Often, the funniest moment in any given episode will be the result of the way he's stitched it together or cut out or added a pause that makes it funnier.
Usually, Cathryn and I come up with ideas for episodes and then we improvise based on those ideas and then Tom gives them a shape and a structure. Cathryn usually comes in with fully-formed ideas that are already funny, like thinking "DTF" stands for "Double The Fun." My ideas tend to be more like "let's do one about how I'm too fat."
Tom: Cathryn and Connor came up with the idea, and I was brought on to direct and piece each episode together.
Cathryn: I had the idea originally, but just that I wanted to create something I could feel in control of. Around this time last year, I was going through a slump where I was feeling frustrated and stagnant. I had gone through another discouraging year of UCB auditions, and I felt like I had been spinning my wheels for such a prolonged period of time, like I was "asking" for approval from some arbitrary entity, like I was waiting for something outside my control to just magically fall into place. And it was like, I NEED to just have a project that's within my control. I need to put something out there that showcases what I think is funny and what I do well. But I'd psych myself out over production logistics. Then my friend, Cate Hellman (our DP) and the awesome people at my work (I work at a photography studio) were like "cool out, you can use our studios and our lights and our equipment" and it was just so supportive and generous. And then I didn't have any more excuses not to start making it.
What are your hopes for the show?
Connor: Part of me doesn't like to think beyond just making these good for their own sake. I'm not super-obsessed with them being a stepping stone to something 'bigger.' The main thing is just wanting people to watch these and enjoy them. Beyond that, there's obviously the hope of other talented people seeing it and asking us to be involved in other projects. And there's the hope that someone with money will give us money to make these for money.
I know we've also talked about what ways we could channel the energy of the series into some kind of live performance. I actually have thought that the vibe of it could translate well into some kind of talk show, but I don't know if, in my head, what I'm actually picturing is a more neurotic version of Regis & Kelly.
There is also an idea we've bandied about for doing a feature, something that would be radically different from the format of the series but still have the same kind of energy. I think that it's like a lot of things, it's all about the execution. I think, on paper, this doesn't seem like we have much of a show. It's two people talking, two grown adults having conversations. But I think if you watch one, it's fun and unafraid and appealing.
Tom: This show is a pleasure to do, and if nothing more ever came from it that would be fine with me. Cathryn and Connor are incredibly talented performers, as well as my close friends. In addition to that, it's a very creatively satisfying challenge trying to piece these episodes together as thoughtfully as I can. I try my best to help make each episode as honest, funny, and dynamic as it can be, and my only real goal is to keep getting better at doing that.
Cathryn: Yeah, Tom puts it really well. Our collaboration in itself is pretty rewarding. Ideally, I wish we had a stronger internet presence, but the people who do follow the series and the feedback we receive from people we respect are consistently inspiring and really motivating. It has a unique voice and a subtlety to it that I'm really proud of — but it's not going to be everyone's cup of tea. We're the Oscar-snubbed indie of internet content. We're very pretentious.
What else are you working on?
Connor: I'm running for President, which is something I've been doing as a frequent contributor to The Chris Gethard Show for over a year now. My entire platform is based on the fact that I am legally old enough to be President. Obviously, with election day coming up soon, things are getting really busy with that. I think I'm probably going to win, although so far the polls indicate otherwise.
Tom: I'm currently working on three short films which I wrote and directed. One of which I'm currently editing, another I'm in the process of shooting, and the third is still in the writing stages.
Cathryn: I perform on a Maude team and a Lloyd team at UCB, I audition, and I have my day job. I've had some commercial luck the past year or so, so I'm hoping to keep that momentum going, see if can lead to more work. Just trying to work on valuable projects, working with people better than me who inspire me, and trying not to over-extend.
What's the key to making a successful web series?
Connor: In terms of getting a million views, I have no idea. But for me, the notion of success has more to do with the quality of it. I think the goal of this series was to be funny by being honest. Also, this may sound obvious but I think good acting is key to ours. Cathryn really knows what she's doing on camera and I find that makes it really easy to act opposite her. She makes my acting better, because she really has a good sense for how to be subtle in a way that the camera can pick up but might not be obvious "in the room."
Tom: I have no idea. I think a lot of elements of this series are things that wouldn't normally work. Every episode is the same two people talking to each other in the same place. Whatever success it has is only a testament to the quality of the content and the performances, because there is nothing else to it.
Cathryn: I am bad at the Internet. But I think the foundation of "I'm Too Fragile for This" is honesty. Like Connor said, we come to the table with a handful of premises but the content is entirely improvised. My job in the duo is easy: Connor's a wildly talented improviser so I just react and laugh and hope poor Tom can make something out of it. I think we're drawn to improv because when done well it's very honest, very truthful. You see people's soul when they improvise. There's no script to hide behind, no rehearsals to assemble some alternate identity. I remember in that Neil Casey improv class we met in, Neil said "the theatre's small and if you're bullshitting on stage I can smell it 15 feet away." And that definitely applies to improvising on-camera. If you try to bullshit the camera, it'll catch you an inch away. And in HD.
* * *
Labor Day’s coming up and you have the day off, so you’re not crunched for time. Just watch a funny series and shut up about it…guys?
Web series are too often concept driven when what really matters — especially in such short pieces — is performance. Ratliff and Mudon believed in their back and forth enough to abandon the flash, and they’ll be rewarded for it, by me — I’ve sent them each one red rose.
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