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Eric Jensen and Ben Porter are co-owners of the Laughing Stock improv troupe alongside their beautiful wives Sandy Jensen and Melissa Porter, performing at the Off Broadway Theatre with their band of merry makers. Although we originally intended to interview the boys, Melissa came and made the whole experience magical (and tolerable). Jesse Parent and Ryan Locante enjoyed some conversation and orange stuff with them all while they chatted away.
Jesse: How'd you two meet?
Eric: At his brother's second birthday party. How old are you?
Ben: I'm 34.
E: We grew up probably a block away.
B: We went to primary together.
E: We've just known each other our whole lives.
B: Now Eric is older than me, and I looked up to Eric. [Collective "Aww"]
J: And now we know that Eric is older than 34. Explain how you first got interested in improv.
E: First of all, we met Melissa in high school. I met her at Desert Star Playhouse, that's when I first really kind of got in touch with her. But you guys had met way before that.
B: She had a crush on me when I was a senior in high school and she was in ninth grade. Because I was in West Side Story. I was "Action," and I was hot! It was really kind of a stalking experience. (Melissa shakes head). But that really didn't answer your question.
E: But that was really to explain how Melissa got into the group.
Mellisa: Eric and I were doing Desert Star, and Ben I met and got married and I dragged him into Desert Star. So all of us were working at Desert Star.
B: But really, what it came down to is that noone at the Desert Star Playhouse. And Mike Todd, brilliant man, realized that in order for them, the Oleos, to be great, they needed a professional singer and that's how I got involved in the Desert Star Playhouse.
M: Ben can't act to save his life, but he can sing. So we all decided that we could do [the theater] better. We were all working for this other guy and he was taking all the money and we went "Uhhh!" So we went and opened up… and it was Eric and his wife [Sandy], and Ben and myself, and Bob Bedore and his wife, Laura. So we went out and got the Off Broadway Theatre going. And we were doing spoofs because they were cheap and free and these guys wrote them. And then… how did we get involved in improv?
B: I remember Bob coming up to us with a video tape of a troupe, I think it was "Who's Line is it Anyway?," the British version.
E: I think it was Instant Comedy.
B: Instant Comedy, that's what it was. He showed us this video tape and what they were doing and he said "You know, I think this is something we could do and get involved in." So we watched them and adapted their games and thought, "We could do that." Additionally, we probably were pretty hesitant about it. It was the unknown.
M: It was completely new at the time for any of us.
E: That was about 1994.
B: Summer of '94.
"[Improv] became something we wanted to be a part of and we wanted to grow in."
J: What was it like in the beginning? Did you ever think, this isn't going to work?
E: Once we got past the initial feeling of, "Boy, I don't know if this is going to work or not. It might work for other people, but, gee, will it work for us?" Once we got past that and had people coming to see us, I don't think we ever looked back. In fact it became something we wanted to be a part of and we wanted to grow in. We started out at times with 10 or 12 people on stage. And you got to play one game, maybe two games, and then you'd have to sit out the rest of the night. And sometimes we were playing for very, very small houses. And it was kind of rough going. But even then, you'd have a couple of skits that bomb, but primarily went well. We had so much fun, we almost didn't care that people are watching, as much as it was us just having fun.
B: I don't know if we ever questioned whether this was going to work, we just didn't know how it was going to work. And that was the biggest part that we had to overcome: trying to figure out the logistics of actually putting together a troupe of people to entertain. For us it was just a bunch of Boy Scouts getting together and playing a skit and saying, "Hey, look at us goof off!" Eric and I grew up with each other. Eric and [Laughing Stock's] Mark Probert used to do these skits all the time in high school. I watched these guys and laughed so hard and thought, "Oh my gosh, these guys are brilliant! This is funny stuff!" And it was! I was a fan. I followed them around.
E: That's true. It was so funny because I was a senior in high school and Ben was a ninth grader in junior high and he would skip class to come over and watch our assemblies. I couldn't believe you used to do that stuff!
B: But the main thing about it was, that's what we thought improv was going to be. This is a bunch of guys goofing off saying, "Look at me! Look at me!" No format and no real formal way of doing acting at all and why would anyone come out and see that? And they did.
M: We started doing our shows, I think we were showing our Star Trek spoof, and it was like, "And if you guys want to stay, we're doing this little thing afterwards." So people would stick around and do the show, our actual show, and then people would hang out, whoever wanted to, and it kind of started snowballing to where more people came to that than the show.
B: And the improv was actually set up initially that it was going to be filler for us because of the small stage and no place to have rehearsals for upcoming shows, we realized that in order for us to keep an audience coming throughout the week we had to have something else going on. Or otherwise it would be dark in order to rehearse for an upcoming show. And this was the perfect filler, because you could do it in front of a traveler, you can do it without any sets, minimal props and costumes, and no rehearsal. And, quite frankly, no money to produce. So those things were very appealing to us. The fact that people actually started coming out and started watching us was a bonus.
J: Ben, would you recommend tying your own fly or buying one?
B: Absolutely tying!
J: When you teach improv, what are some of the key points you want your students to walk away with?
E: There's a girl that I met teaching improv classes at her own improv group called Mission Improvable. Her name was Toni Butler and she taught classes as well, and she taught a class for little kids. She came up with the three W's: Willingness, Workability, and Wit. And those were the three things she would teach to succeed in improv. And I thought, boy that's really interesting, I would like to maybe take that. I asked her where she had got that from and she said she had made it up herself. So, I've taken that from her, and I've got to give her credit, for sure. I've used that in my classes. And I think that's really the point: willingness, workability, to work with each other offstage, and being able to do be witty onstage, as well. I think those are the three probably most important things to have in short form improv. But of course, overall, I guess the "yes and" theory, really cooperating with each other, adding to the skit.
B: I think, for me, I can quote my friends at Friday Night Improv in Pittsburgh, and that would be, their number one rule for their improv show is "Failure is okay." I think that's probably the key to improv, for people to go up and stand up in a skit or a scene and know that whatever they say is probably going to be okay because it's from them. And that this idea that you have to be funny every time you speak, I think is the biggest fear that people have when they approach improv: "I open my mouth and I'm not going to say something funny." And I think once people understand that failure is okay, they do amazing scenes and they find stuff: reverting back to things they did when they were a kid, the ability to relate and tell stories in a completely honest way. Because they're not worried any more, they let go of that hard candy shell and show their soft, inner side.
"I think once people understand that failure is okay, they do amazing scenes and they find stuff."
J: Ahhh… improv is an M&M. How did you go from being known as Quick Wits to the Laughing Stock?
B: The name change came about in 2000. A long story which has been told so many times that I won't tell it again because everyone has heard it and quite frankly, I think, everyone kind of wants to move on past the Eric Jensen, Ben Porter, Bob Bedore saga. But you have to understand a little bit of it to understand why the name got changed. We're the three original owners of the Off Broadway Theatre, we started out with the name Quick Wits. As time went on, things happened, we progressed, we wanted to go into different directions as a partnership. Some of those directions, not good or bad, just different than what Eric or I specifically wanted to go into. And as a result of that it became necessary that there was a change in the partnership and Bob sold his partnership to us. At that time, we had conversations deciding that we probably ought to decide who was going to be the owner of the name "Quick Wits" and actually, in reality, the name "Quick Wits" was already being used because of the Quick Wits show in Los Angeles, a TV show. Because there was already some confusion over whether that was even a legal name to have to begin with. So we decided, after talking with Bob and so forth, that Bob would go ahead and keep the name Quick Wits and he would own the title of it and that the Off Broadway Theatre would be able to use the name if we wanted to as long as we kept the same show. And there were some stipulations that we needed to meet in order to keep the name "Quick Wits." So we did, for some time, and we both operated… Bob searching for a place in Provo and Ogden and then in Clearfield.
But then we found out, it didn't take us very long to realize that there was a lot of people getting really confused by these two troops called Quick Wits out there. So we started getting comments back, some positive, mostly negative comments, saying, "What's going on with you guys? What's going on with this brand new troupe of brand new people we've never seen before? They seem inexperienced. They don't seem to have the same flair and style that you guys have." And it became obvious to us that we needed to make a change and really separate ourselves and really make that cutoff. And it was going to be really hard because after five or six years of building quite a name, "Quick Wits," it was going to be really hard to go ahead and just abandon it and start fresh with our own name
J: Has the name change helped or hurt you?
B: Initially it hurt us. People just by recognition, you call up information and ask for Quick Wits you got a different phone number than ours. The advantage we had was that we kept the same location so that people were able to walk into our theater and see a show. The second reason was most of the players, with the exception of Bob and [his wife] Laura, stayed at the Off Broadway Theatre so that people when they did come they recognized, "Oh I'm going to see the guys that I've grown to love and appreciate. So, I don't care what you guys call yourselves, it doesn't matter to me. I want to come to see a good show." That took about a year and we're back to celebrating sold out shows again under our new name of Laughing Stock. It wasn't easy.
M: We knew it wouldn't be.
B: Something the actors had to know. They were pretty hesitant and not all of them were excited about the name change either. When you're a part of a troupe, you really feel like, "I've created this. I've help build this. I'm the reason that this is." And you start taking on this identity. And to give that up and say, "Hey, you're no longer Quick Wits" is a big deal to them. Because you walk down the street, you walk into a grocery store, I mean, it's little Utah, but still, people go, "Hey, I know you! You're a Quick Wits player!" And that's great for any actor! It's what you look forward to. So when that wasn't happening, or when you go, "Well, actually called Laughing Stock, now." "Ahh, I don't care, I like you!" And that was our big thing, we realized we're going to be okay. People are going to come out and see us. We've got some great talent and we've got a great show.
J: Eric, do you think that all those old Haircuts Plus commercials you did gave you bad Karma?
E: I don't know what you mean, because I think I'm sexier now… No, I am not. Honestly, I don't think about it much. I think I only did one Haircuts Plus commercial, and after it I noticed that my hair started falling out. But it fell out in a very, very well cut way. I'll be honest with you, when I had a little bit of hair, I got cast in just a few commercials. But once I lost a chunk of hair I looked like the average Joe and I looked like the older father type so I got cast in a lot of stuff. So really, it's done nothing but help me as far as giving me a different kind of a look. The old man kind of a look.
B: This is Eric's self defense mechanism kicking in. He's telling himself, "Life is still okay. I'm a better person. I don't have hair.
E: This from the only guy with a head of hair thick enough to harvest fleas!
"This from the only guy with a head of hair thick enough to harvest fleas!"
J: With Improv-O-Kee, you let the audience participate in games alongside the regular troupe members. What are some of your funniest or scariest moments from that experience?
E: Well, one time we invited a lady on stage, and this was years ago, and she was a little tipsy. And she kept saying dirty things.
B: That's not Improv-O-Kee. But it's a good story.
E: Yeah, but it talks about bringing people from the audience up on stage. We put her on stage on this little Scrooge bed. I remember she was just drunk and now she could not say anything because we had our eye on her and we'd say, "Now don't you say anything" and she'd cover her mouth. And we were making her laugh so hard and making fun of her so hard that she ended up flipping off the back of the stage down into this little cubby hole right on the back of her neck and we thought, "Oh my gosh, she's dead!" Because all I saw was her head go back, the next thing I saw was two red pumps right in the air, and then nothing! And she was gone. And I would say it was about a five foot fall right on the floor!
B: It was like fifteen seconds before we even heard noise.
E: Oh my gosh! And everybody laughed but they didn't see her and I was watching her and I ran over there and said "Gosh, lady, are you okay?" And she was so loose, "Oh… that was so funny!" So we got her up and we all impersonated our take of what we just saw.
B: For Improv-O-Kee, now. "In an unrelated story, about Improv-O-Kee." I don't know if I can remember one particular night. I remember we had some people come into our theater that were obviously older and more sophisticated that were there to experience "theatre." They were in the audience and they realized what was going on. That we were actually asking the audience to get up here on stage and do this, too. We were about three games into it and we were going to play a game, I think it was pieces of paper, and we said "Okay, we need a couple of people who are going to help us out and do this." These little old ladies, "I'll get up and do this," and her friend who looks about the same age, "Okay, I'll get up and do this." Well great! I think the scene set up was a reason you might have an argument with your son and I think that they were arguing over a wedding night or getting ready for their wedding night. So here are obviously two ladies who have experienced this maybe several years earlier in their lives, this particular scenario, then retelling how you might approach your wedding night. And that was just pretty funny just because they were completely out of their element but yet they dedicated themselves 100% to the scene and to the skit and they pulled it off and we all laughed. Pretty unexpected.
M: Improv-O-Kee, none of the actors are there, it's usually just people. So Improv-O-Kee is fun but most of the embarrassing stuff happens during the actual shows when the actual actors are there. The elderly ladies, that was great. Those were the rich ones, usually they donate costumes to the Hale Center Theater and when the Hale Center Theater doesn't want anything, they send them to me. These very rich ladies that gave us like twenty fur coats, came all decked out in furs and necklaces and stuff… it was pretty funny. They were nice.
E: We were playing a tag game where I took a suggestion from the bowl and one of the papers had "a Rocky movie." It was so funny because it's obvious what a Rocky movie means to a guy who is 30 years old or older. It's Rocky Balboa. But to this 16, 18 year old girl, who had not seen any of the Rocky movies, she goes, "Hey, Bullwinkle!" And they started flying around doing this moose and squirrel thing. That struck me as so funny, because I thought there was no other purpose for doing a Rocky movie! And this is the purest form of improv because when you have these people doing improv for the first time, anything goes. And that's one of the things that's so hard about doing the whole thing is the newness and freshness of it all, the things that you'd never expect to happen.
"Because all I saw was her head go back, the next thing I saw was two red pumps right in the air, and then nothing!"
J: Improv-O-Kee was inspired by the Friday Night Improv show in Pittsburgh. Have you had any reaction from that area after advertising the show?
B: I take no original credit for Improv-O-Kee. What happened initially, our Web site is set up with a message board so you can go on there and check out different comments and so forth. A person on our Web site had mentioned that this sounds an awful lot like Friday Night Improv in Pittsburgh. And they said it in a polite, cordial way. And Mike, our webmaster, just being Mike and meant no ill will by it, said, "Oh look, it only took someone an X amount of time to figure out where we got this idea from. Oh, good for you." So consequently, that remark generated a lot of interest in the people in Pittsburgh because it got back to them via the message board and other ways that the Internet communicates to each other. So instead of just, "Yeah, that's where we got it. We wanted to try it. It looked like a fun idea. We read some information, got their rules and figured out how they're going to go about doing it," it kind of came across as, "Well, aren't you an idiot!" Some of their hard core fans picked up on this as well and immediately got on the message board as well and started, "Wow, you don't have any more of your own original ideas, you have to steal ideas," and so forth. And that was never our intent, it was never to steal anything at all. Actually, we considered it to be very flattering for the guys at Friday Night Improv that their idea, seeing that they're in Pittsburgh and we're in Utah, generated some interest for us here and we thought we'd just give it a try on a very small level.
I sent an email to the owner, the founder of Friday Night Improv and explained to him what had been going on and he emailed me back and apologized profusely saying, "I am so sorry. I understand that some of our more exuberant fans have been on your Web site causing havoc and I apologize. I have talked to them personally, I have told them that we are in support of you guys." And he basically said, "You've got my blessing and permission to use any of the information that we post on the Web site to help you out, and if you want more information just give me a call." So they were a big influence on Improv-O-Kee. Sometimes fans get a hold of these things, and if you don't come straight out with what you're doing, they don't understand. You can't read sarcasm, unfortunately, in a message, so you have to take it for whatever it said. But it's all good now.
J: If you guys had to sumo wrestle each other, how much weight would you have to gain to confidently beat the crap out of the other person, if any?
E: Ben's got a little bit of a height advantage so I would say I'd have to at least get equal to him. What are you, about 200... 210…?
E: 200... Really? Okay, well I'd have to gain about 20 pounds. That's it.
B: Because I understand and appreciate the wrath that is Eric Jensen, I would have to say that there probably would not be any weight that I could gain that I could confidently and successfully defeat Eric Jensen. I don't know if you guys know this but Eric is a frightening and a very scary person. And I think people who have had just a glimpse of this in their lives and experienced just a small amount of his wrath and his anger have probably told themselves that, "I could die. I could be killed in the hands of Eric Jensen if I allowed this to go on."
E: That is totally inaccurate. [Screams at waiter] Hey! Could we have some service in here!?!
"I don't think people have the understanding that they need to when they're involved in their own individual troupes how important it is to be good... if they're not good, [the audience is] not likely to go out and give someone else another chance at improv."
J: Where do you want the Laughing Stock to be, as a group, over the next five years?
B: In Vegas?
E: We would just be happy to be around. We would like to play more nights than we do now. We'd like to be able to raise the wages for our actors. We'd like to be able to perhaps get to a point where we don't have to work other jobs, and that we can focus all of our energy into the Off Broadway Theatre. In regards to that in and of itself, we'd also like to have our plays do well, and be able to do our plays and improv shows.
B: I agree, I wholeheartedly agree. I would like to see that we don't have to have other jobs. I don't have to do pharmaceutical research, Eric doesn't have to work for another theatre company. And then we could totally make it on the fact that Laughing Stock is just doing that incredibly well.
E: That's everyone's dream job. Just kind of be their own boss, and work whenever they want to. I love working at the Hale Center Theatre. I have never had a job where I've felt so challenged and so free and so excited about. So I'm not like, "Ahh! How the heck do I get out of his place?" And I'm sure that Ben feels similarly about his job. But, I think, eventually, who wouldn't want to do their own thing. So, do more shows and make it our living.
B: It's hard to separate Laughing Stock vs. the Off Broadway Theatre because we do consider them the same thing. We'd like to see the theater as a whole be that successful.
"And take a look at that big mouth! Take a look at it"
J: Being a couple of original gangsters in the Utah improv community, what do you think of improv in Utah and where it is going?
E: We love the fact that there is so much improv out there. As you were saying earlier, you were surprised to see there was one improv group out here and as we know, there are many. We have nothing but good things to say about other troupes. The ones that we have seen are terrific and we hope that they grow and we hope that we grow. We hope that we get to a point where perhaps the improv is as successful as the small community theaters are successful. The Hale Center, the Desert Star, Salt Lake Community Theatre, SLAC, and certainly the Off Broadway Theatre and others. Hopefully get to where there are a lot of little improv troupes making their living and doing well and being very successful and make it so that if people want to see good improv they can go anywhere and see it.
B: I don't think people have the understanding that they need to when they're involved in their own individual troupes how important it is to be good, just like Eric's saying. People are pretty funny, here, when it comes to theatre in general and seeing something new, or anything for that matter. And that is, generally, if they go and see it one time, wherever they happen to see it, if it happens to be Skinny Lincolns, Quick Wits, 23-Skidoo, or whoever, if they're not good, they're not likely to go out and give someone else another chance at improv.
E: Thankfully, all the improv troupes are good.
B: Right. And that's how important it is for them to be good, because if you go and have a bad experience and go, "Ahh… I already saw that and it's not for me."
E: I think in Utah that all of the improv is just growing. We're growing, and getting successful and hopefully interact with each other, and that's the way it's going.
J: If KYSOff's Micki Jo Rogan and Laughing Stock's Melissa Porter were forced to participate in a Xena ululating contest, who would win and why?
B: Melissa Porter, without any question. I am married to Melissa Porter, so therefore my comment is completely unbiased. Let me make sure you understand. Melissa has had years of vocal training, and because she knows how to use her diaphragm and everything.
E: And take a look at that big mouth! Take a look at it!
B: When she opens it, you know that something is going to come out.
J: Like, "Sleep on the couch!"
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