My first significant interaction with Jester’z didn’t ultimately pan out. It just didn’t seem like music improv was in the cards at that time. However, I still continued to attend their shows on a regular basis and since I now had a more personal relationship with Jef, sometimes I would ask if he would pick me from the audience to volunteer for a game or two, usually when I was with a date and wanted to show off. Jef was a good sport and would go along. In January 2008 I got a call from the Jester’z office assistant asking if I’d be interested in joining an improv class at Jester’z. There was a part of me that was hoping they’d be the one to take the first step as I was still insecure with myself and didn’t really needed someone ELSE to validate me, or to see some potential in me, Jef and the Jester’z were the first to really see that potential.
Improv came naturally to me, I had a lot to learn and would have many struggles but it was clear to me right off the bat that improv was something I was born to do. After 6 months of improv classes Jef called me and invited me to join the mainstage Jester’z troupe. This was a big moment for me. This was a troupe I’d always looked up to and had watched perform for years and now I was considered worthy to perform with them. Those first few months were intimidating, I went from super fan, to being a colleague with improvisers I had idolized like John Coughlin, Colleen Purtle, Dave Spect, Lamar Newmeyer, Matt Surly, Cody Kopp, Alan Schuler and many others. I still remember my first show with Jester’z. My friends had learned that I was performing with Jester’z and word got around. I had about 30 friends come out to that show drastically intensifying my nerves. It was one of the more overwhelming experiences in my life. I also had somewhat of a bad rehearsal that week and wasn’t feeling the support of some of the veteran members as I had not yet earned their trust as a performer.
The show began with a game called “world’s worst,” a rapid fire game where an audience member recommends a profession and the members of the cast begin giving examples of the world’s worst version of that profession. It’s a little bit more of a high pressure game as you really are on your own and have to come up with a zinger. The first occupation suggested by the audience was a garbage man. I had nothing. My fellow cast mates were stepping forward, getting big laughs and I started to feel the pressure that if I didn’t’ step forward soon it would be obvious I was nervous and timid. I still had nothing, but next thing I knew I was stepping forward in front of crowd mostly of friends, and a few strangers, nerves going crazy. I pretended I was a holding a trash can and said, “What should I do with all this trash?” I then proceeded to pantomime dumping a trash can full of trash on my head….There was an awkward silence as my friends and the rest of the audience was confronted with the fact that what they had seen…was not funny. Then the crowd is faced with a tough decision, do we wait and see if he’s planning on doing more and this is just a setup to when it gets funny, do we just laugh and clap to be supportive and an agreeable audience, or do we just stay quiet and let this performer realize he really just bombed a joke, and we all know it…They went with the latter. No one laughed, no one clapped, and I quickly went into faux bows acknowledging my bomb and someone else in the cast, who knew how to improvise and be funny stepped forward and bailed me out. It was a rough start to my first show. The rest of the show is kind of a blur, I seem to remember it going okay from time to time, but I was definitely a newbie.
The show ended and my friends cheered heartily for me, despite my stumbles and rough start. What started that night though would prove the single most significant adjustment in my life of comedy to that point. I found a comedy home at Jester’z, a place that appreciated me, a place that not only found me funny but was trusting the fact that their paying audiences would find me funny and entertaining. I began performing regularly with Jester’z, almost every weekend, sometimes 4 shows a weekend, if not more. Jester’z had a huge corporate client list who would hire us through out the year for corporate parties and team builders. I slowly worked my way up into the troupe and was the first call for corporate shows and was even hired by Jester’z to travel to Hawaii, Nebraska, Texas, and Tennessee for shows. After a few years I was invited to begin teaching beginning improv classes, than advanced improv classes. After I was comfortable with improvising Jef approached me again about attempting to incorporate music again into the shows. Now that I had some experience with improv I was far more comfortable introducing music. I started bringing my piano to rehearsals and we started learning some music improv games. This lead to me creating a music improv curriculum that we offered as a 6 week course. I started treating improv like a way of life, and would love to go to improv festivals and see other improv troupes.
After several more years I began to become a crowd favorite and even gained a little bit of local fame and notoriety. I would get recognized at grocery stores and Coyotes games while in the line for the bathroom, “Hey, you’re the Jester’z guy!” I was gaining confidence in a small way as an improviser, an improv musician and an improv teacher. This did have a minor effect on my confidence in other areas of my life but not much. I did score a few dates with girls who recognized me from the troupe and they thought I was some sort of big deal. It was a fun ride with Jester’z, I estimate I performed over a thousand live shows with them over about 7 years. However, something started to happen near the later years of my tenure there. The shows began to be somewhat mundane. Even though they are improvised shows, after awhile you begin to recognize patterns, and you develop a kind of go-to list of jokes that work in a lot of the games. You have an arsenal of characters and accents and it seems a little too easy to just pull out a German accent in a scene taking place in a Pizza Hut and you know you’ll have just the right amount of juxtaposition to get some laughs going. I realized I wasn’t being challenged like I was in the beginning; for the first 4 or 5 years there were always new fears to conquer and opportunities for growth, but right around the 7th year I felt a shift in attitude and motivation, and this was beginning to be felt by other troupe members. I was not as supportive perhaps of new players, had a little bit of a BIG ego problem and was phoning it in for rehearsals and shows from time to time.
This culminated in a meeting with the owners one night where they expressed their concerns regarding my happiness and fulfillment in the troupe and were anxious to find ways to help me be more engaged in the troupe. It didn’t help that my personal and financial life was in constant flux and I had ran out of money several times since my dedication to real estate was lacking passion and drive. I was depressed, most the time, and it used to be Jester’z was my escape, my ability to be a few other characters for a few hours on a Saturday night, receive the praise of audiences and feel a little bit better about my life. But now, I was standing still in Jester’z and becoming more of a negative influence than positive, my personal life was under stress, my underlying and deep insecurities were still a constant pull toward depression and I still could not seem to find a suitable connection with a woman who I could see marrying and that could see herself marrying me. It was February 2014, and I was sitting with the Owner’s of Jester’z, my head was pounding from a fierce migraine, I was depressed, and they were concerned. I left that meeting and something occurred to me that had not crossed my mind for the previous 7 years, maybe I need a break from Jester’z. This thought was surprising to me, Jester’z was my life and my identity. I had given so much of my time, energy, emotions and talent to the organization and for many years my one wish was that I could be a full-time Jester! The owners had even hired me to do marketing and run their classes to help me find more financial stability to smooth out the rough times from my real estate career. Despite their best efforts to help I was just too unstable at that time, and I knew I needed a break. A chance to step back, reevaluate, discover who I was and see where things landed. I sent the owners an email suggesting I needed some time away from the troupe. Although they were sad to see me step away they were understanding, appreciative and made sure I knew how much I meant to them and the troupe. There I was, 33 years old, a failing realtor, tens of thousands of dollars in debt, broke, depressed and felt I needed to step away the one thing that was holding me a float., the Jester’z. I remember the first Tuesday night after I decided to take a break. Tuesday night was when Jester’z would rehease, and for the last 7 years I drove to Scottsdale Rd and McDowell to rehearse with my teammates. That night, I sat at home, alone, unsure, sad, depressed and alone.
But something happened during that time that would forever alter my path in comedy and would prove to be a significant turning point for me. I received an email from the Tempe Center for the Arts. I had attended a stand-up comedy show there a few months prior on a date. I casually signed up on their mailing list while waiting for the show to start and much to my surprise, they emailed me. This particular email was advertising an upcoming FREE intro to stand-up comedy class. To this point in my comedy life, I had never really thought of trying stand-up before. Honestly, stand-up terrified me beyond comprehension. I was comfortable doing improv and could perform an improv scene in front of thousands without even slightly raising my heart beat. But stand-up was mortifying to me. I had done ONE open mic night at a comedy club in Scottsdale some time in 2012 or maybe 2013, for 3 minutes and it was the most frightening 3 minutes of my life. I considered stand-up and improv as two entirely separate genres, and one of those genres I was comfortable with and the other, I was incredibly uncomfortable with. The class met on Tuesday nights, and had I been actively performing with Jester’z at the time I wouldn’t have given that email a second thought, but the email happened to catch me when I was on a break and for some reason I felt compelled to stretch my comfort zone and give stand-up comedy a try. I responded to the email, signed up for the class. And in March 2014 I went to Tempe Center for the Arts and met my first stand-up comedy teacher Tony Vicich.