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Lincoln Hoppe is the founder and creative director of the Skinny Lincolns, an improv and sketch comedy troupe based out of Draper, UT. He was also one of the inaugural members of the Garrens, Utah's first improv and sketch troupe, and occassionally spends time performing with ComedySportz Utah in Provo, UT, as well. Utah Improv's Jesse Parent caught up with Lincoln recently for some burritos and conversation.
Jesse: Garrens was pretty much Utah's first improv group. Can you tell me how you got involved with them and why?
Lincoln: I had hardly done any acting, before. I think I was in a play in high school, and that was about it. I went on a mission to Portugal and we had done a Christmas show there. We did some skit or something that was kind of funny. We did a couple that really ended up being funny and I was kind of surprised because I never thought I had a talent for that.
When I got back from Portugal, I went to BYU and there was a flyer for an improv group. I had just met a girl who had wanted to do some improv. So we did improv, about 6 people in her apartment. It was the first time I had ever heard of it and I just thought it was so crazy. And then the very next day, there I saw this flyer for auditions for an improv and sketch comedy group. So I thought what the heck so I went back and I talked to this girl and so a bunch of us who were at that party went and auditioned and basically I think only 12 people showed up to the whole auditions, so they almost had to take everybody who auditioned. There were about 9 of us, that's how many people that ended up getting in. So by no means was I talented starting off. Certainly didn't have any skills, just seemed like something fun to do.
J: So the Garrens performed mostly sketch in the early days?
L: We did probably 2/3 sketch, 1/3 improv, because we were a bunch of kids that really didn't know how to do improv. So we did mostly sketch and improv was new... I imagine we were terrible. I guess I have some tapes, I could look back. I can't imagine that we were very good. But we were funny people, you know? That always speaks well during improv.
J: How did you go more towards improv from sketch?
L: Just lack of material. We did 6-8 new sketches every week. Wrote, rehearsed, and put up that same week. So, we're talking... we would rehearse for the first time on Tuesday, sometimes we had two rehearsals so would rehearse them again on Thursday, but usually it was just one rehearsal, and then it was sink or swim during the show. I don't think we ever cut anything during the first couple of years, we just did it. We didn't know if it was going to work. So just by sheer lack of material because we didn't do stuff every week. And as we got better doing improv, it was like, hey, improv is just as good and requires a lot less writing... and rehearsal!
J: Do you think improv is an art form then, if it is so off the cuff?
L: I do. I totally do. I don't think spontaneity has anything to do with making it an art form or not. I don't think it's a quality that takes away or detracts from the art, because the art is... in my opinion, the art of improv is a combination between all of the person's subconscious and life and experiences mixed with the spontaneity of other players. So, you know, it's like a painting but with several different artists, and the art isn't necessarily, "Oh, look at the cool painting," although it may be great, but it's like, "Look how each person expressed their personality differently on the same canvas."
"I really do personally feel like we're a group of people who love the same thing and there's not many of us in the world, let alone in Utah"
J: Okay, time for some rapid-fire questions: Chicken or Egg?
J: Ugliness or celibacy?
J: Garrens or Quick Wits?
J: At what point did you start taking classes with the Groundlings?
L: Short answer: Three years ago. Two or three, I get my summers confused. They all run together when you're married and have kids. The end of our first year of Garrens we packed up a car and drove out to see the Groundlings. That was in '93 or '94 and I was just blown away and I always wanted to be involved with it ever since then. So I went out and auditioned, I guess, three years ago for their class. Started doing it and we were planning on moving to LA. The sale of our house fell through so I ended up commuting because I had already started to pay for the class. I wanted to do it so I ended up paying, getting the cheapest deals that we could, to fly to LA. So I flew to LA every week for 12 weeks
J: What level classes did you audition for? The intro, level 1?
L: Level 1 is the first audition level class. If you pass your audition, you get into level 1. That's how they do it these days.
J: What level have you gone up to so far?
L: I passed Level 1 first time, I passed Level 2 first time. Now I'm on what they call the waiting list for Level 3, which is a writing lab. They don't do it very often and there are so many people on the waiting list, apparently, that's it's a year and a half. So I'm supposed to be eligible around January-ish.
J: What drove you to the Groundlings vs. Second City or ImprovOlympic?
L: I saw ImprovOlympic, granted after I had seen Groundlings, years after. And the shows that I saw were not good. They'd adopted such a chaotic approach that I didn't particularly appreciate. And the audiences were small, which, you know, always hurts an improv show. So I got to give them some credit there but I don't know if it was their junior team or what it was but I was not impressed. I think that it may have been the night, I don't know.
So I've seen that, I've seen Second City. No one has blown me away with their scene work like Groundlings. I've seen at least six ComedySportz across the country... I've seen a lot of improve troupes. Chicago City Limits... But by far the best scene work has been Groundlings and I'm mostly attracted to the scene work aspect.
J: You went on to form Skinny Lincolns after Garrens?
L: Not after Garrens. I moved from Provo to Sandy, where I live now, and I do not like to drive, terribly much. So I started the Garrens Salt Lake. And about 6 months after that we changed the name, just to make a clean break. This was while the Garrens were still going strong. And then the Garrens ended.
J: With the Skinny Lincolns' name... were you a fat kid?
L: I was a fat kid, a fat adult, a fat everything. Now that I'm a little more in shape the name isn't quite as ironic. But I think it has a ring of its own anyway. I never really wanted to be associated with a name of a group. I didn't choose the name in fact. A couple of other people did. My wife made the final call. We debated over names for months, and then just eventually she said, "Fine, I'll pick one!" And that was it. I think it is much funnier as a concept than associated with me as a person.
"The whole bar of improv has gone up in Utah, I think that's the best thing we could ask for."
J: Now you said you had formed the Garrens Salt Lake and changed the name to Skinny Lincolns. Was it that clean of a cut? Did you start from scratch or did you draw heavily from your Garrens membership?
L: We made a clean cut, but at the same time it could only be so clean. There were people who had been Salt Lake Garrens. What we did was we changed the name, reorganized, changed some rules. We tried to make a clean cut.
J: Did you have auditions, then? And if so, what was the audition process like?
L: I don't think we had auditions. We just brought people up from classes. That's never quite been the intention... like, come take a class, and maybe you can get in the troupe. Now we do auditions. Originally it was like, I had done some classes, pulled a couple of people aside afterwards and said, "Hey, come to rehearsal" kind of thing.
J: Boxers or socks?
J: How much sketch is now a part of Skinny Lincolns?
L: We do, we rotate sketch and improv shows with all improv shows.
J: So you have a mixed show and you have an all improv show?
L: Right. We have never, although it's not without the realm of possibility, but we haven't yet done an all sketch show.
J: Is it mostly new sketches or do you draw on the old Garrens stuff, as well?
L: It's both. We're kind of repertory. I like to have at least as many new things as we do old things. But, we don't do very many Garrens' things. All the Garrens things that we do are pretty much ones that I've written. And if not, we make sure that the original writer gets credit.
J: In the improv shows, you're sometimes the emcee. How much involvement as a performer do you get to have when you take on that emcee role?
L: In the actual improv performance, just emceeing of course, when I'm emceeing. I certainly prefer playing.
J: So you have a rotating emcee?
L: Yes, I much prefer performing, as I imagine most people do.
J: Skinny Lincolns seems to be made up of predominately professional actors. Do you think that is a hindrance or is it beneficial?
L: It is made up mostly of professional actors. I think it has been quite incredible, in most respects. In the depth that we can take our scene work to. It was kind of my conscious choice when we started, when we reorganized into the Skinny Lincolns, was to have a scene work/acting heavy troupe. I don't have anything against, in fact I very much appreciate, the person who is just clever and funny and isn't necessarily a strong actor, because I think having both really adds a nice variety to the show. So, we've got both.
J: What's it like being the leader of an improv troupe where one of your family members is one of your performers?
L: It's really interesting, because there has to be an element of fairness. And in fact I think my sister working with us, she had more of an uphill battle than most other cast members. I feel like I can be a little more honest with her, even strict. When she was ready to perform, I really scrutinized whether or not she was really ready or if I was just being easy on her because she was my sister. But it is just a ton of fun. I am able to work with my sister in what I love doing. It really is great and I very much enjoy it
J: Does that make the family reunions much more entertaining?
L: We're not a very big family reunion family. But uh... no. It doesn't really. I try not to be funny in real life.
"When you collaborate as far as different groups go, then you start having whole shifts of thought."
J: From the improv performance realm, what is your least favorite or at least most heard suggestion when you're asking for audience participation.
L: Most heard is definitely Jello. Most hated or least favorite... I can't figure if my not being able to think of one is because I don't really care or if I just can't think of it.
J: What is your most favorite or something you just heard and went, wow, that is an awesome suggestion?
L: I love stuff like medieval times, revolutionary war, castle, pirate ship... caveman. Things that take place in other time periods. Or space. Any of that stuff, I really enjoy.
J: Do you think it is legitimate for someone who hears a suggestion to do an improv they did last time they heard that suggestion?
L: No. I don't. I think they should do something different. Now, you get into a different realm with characters, because I feel like you can repeat characters as long as the scene is entirely different. I don't think it's unethical. Well, it is if you say, "This is an all improv show and we're making everything up on the spot as we go," and then you rehash something old. Maybe that's unethical. But it's not that I feel it's unethical, I just find it less of a challenge, less fun, less interesting to me as a performer, and as a cohort of a fellow improviser.
J: Besides short form improv and sketch, what other forms are the Skinny Lincolns pursuing? I know you did a MST3K type of movie parody, recently, for instance.
L: We've got some things in the works that are not yet ready to be disclosed, for publicity reasons. One of them is a mix of long and short form, I can say that much. And they're all gonna be really good!
J: You performed at Trolley Square Live and once called it the new Mecca, what was it like working in the same building with two completely different improv troupes? Was it competitive or collaborative?
L: It was a double-edged sword. As a performer I absolutely loved getting to know and hanging out with other improvisers because I really do personally feel like we're a group of people who love the same thing and there's not many of us in the world, let alone in Utah, so we should all have a bond as far as that goes. I really did enjoy that very much.
Business-wise, it was a nightmare. Because we were treated sometimes very fairly and equitably and other times very unfairly and inequitably. Box office was the major concern. But as far as creatively and performance-wise, I would do it again in a second.
Different groups working together raises the bar, and I enjoyed that extremely. I don't think my group has anything to be afraid of by competing with other groups, or by sharing with other groups. As we feel we need to progress we push ourselves harder because the whole bar of improv has gone up in Utah, I think that's the best thing we could ask for.
J: What's the best superpower?
L: You know, the first thing that came to my mind is X-ray vision, and I just disagree with myself strongly. I think it's got to be flying. But maybe I have some kind of Freudian reason why I was compelled to say X-ray vision.
J: What do you think the improv community at large in Utah feels about performers collaborating? I've heard rumors about requiring non-competes to be signed by some groups.
L: Well, first of all, there are few sadder feelings than at no charge training someone to the best of your ability to help them to improve and then them getting much better and then for not a very good reason just going to another group and then, much worse, sharing all those trade secrets or whatever with other people. But that's only in a competitive environment. In a non-competitive environment, I don't think it matters at all. But we are in a competitive environment.
J: I guess it's less competition... I'm more referring to collaboration than people stealing from each other or moving on to other groups.
L: Collaboration is one of the most creative basic processes. It's essential. At least on the small, individual level. You can't have an improv show without the collaboration of at least the players in the group. When you collaborate as far as different groups go, then you start having whole shifts of thought. I never thought of this that way. Variations of games, philosophy shifts... paradigm shifts. That's valuable stuff.
J: What would you think about collaborating as you did at the 2000 Wasatch Improv Festival?
L: That's great. I think that's great. I don't know that it's for the audiences as much as it is for the performers, the groups. It almost seems like it might be more productive if there weren't audiences involved. Maybe that's not true, maybe it would be more competitive.
"I would say learn and love the improv and go see all the groups, go see all of them."
J: Daryn Tufts, a member of the Skinny Lincolns, also performs with Provo-based 23-Skidoo. I know yourself and fellow Skinny Mark Berrett also perform with ComedySportz Utah out of Provo. Are these collaborations inspired more by a return to your roots of BYU and performing with other former Garrens, or is it driven as a crusade to inject more improv into Utah county?
L: I'll be honest with you, a lot of my friends are down there and I enjoy playing with them. But my whole reason for doing it from the start has been I have directed, taught, and been in charge of improv shows, every single one, since the first one I did with few exceptions like the show we did with Quick Wits [on New Years, 2002], which I absolutely loved and would do again. I would love to be in a troupe where I didn't have to be concerned about running it. That was my initial reason. And I feel obviously that ComedySportz is in a different market than we are and that makes it politically easier. I love those guys. I mean, Curt... I've just come to have incredible amounts of respect for him, he's very good at what he does, fun to work with. His wife, Tonia, who runs the group... very talented, very amazing people and it's been a great new experience for me.
I hadn't been nervous doing an improv show in probably 6 years until my first ComedySportz show. I was peeing my pants I was so nervous. It was so good for me to get back to that. Being in charge, I can let myself slide. If I don't feel like getting up to work out, "I'll just be in charge of rehearsal and kind of direct rehearsal." It's really tough to direct yourself and others, you know? And that's why I started and it's just been such a great experience, all around. Just fantastic. Just like the show that we did with Quick Wits. It was incredibly fun and incredibly different. I love to work with new people who are just talented.
J: Were you surprised that there weren't more Provo-based improv groups that formed, especially after the Garrens disbanded that didn't just fill that vacuum?
L: I think ComedySportz fills the vacuum very well.
J: Even from the BYU stance, where you had a group that was basically nurtured by BYU?
L: But, you know, they all move away. All the people who were in the Garrens, at least for the first couple of years are gone, long gone. When the Garrens started it was the only thing like it in the entire state. There was a newness to it, a uniqueness that's not quite there any more. It's not like you go up to an entertainment going person and say "I just saw the craziest thing, this... this improv" and they're like "What's that?" You just don't get that much any more in Utah. I mean, there is a butt load of people who don't know what improv is but they tend to be not entertainment going folks, or comedy going folks.
So the target audience who's already heard of it, not as unique and new any more. Our new job instead of just being "Oh my gosh, they're making it up" it's like "Oh my gosh, they're making it up and it's incredible!" That's the new level that it has to go to. And I think most of us are already there. And now after that it just becomes "Oh my gosh, they're making it up and it's as good as a play!" And then "It's better than a play." And it just keeps getting better. That's the only way to do it. Otherwise people will stop coming. That's my promise, my "confident statement."
J: How do you feel about working with Eric Snider again in ComedySportz?
L: I love working with Eric. We just had business differences. We've agreed we shouldn't work with each other on a business level. But I've also agreed that I shouldn't work with anyone on a business level because I'm not a businessman, you know? I think I may have some inherent talents for it but business always for me comes after the art of what we do and so even when I do make business decisions now, which I don't, most of it my wife handles most of the business decisions, but when I do have to make business decisions I try to get input and get feedback from what other people think before I decide because I'm not that great at it. Or at least I don't like it enough to do it.
But I absolutely love working with Eric and will probably continue to do so off and on through the rest of my life. I don't have any problems with him personally. We've had business disagreements but that's not new with anyone. My wife and I have business disagreements. I don't dislike her because of it.
J: Do you think Skinny Lincoln Chris Miller should grow his hair back, or do you think he looks better?
L: I'm big on variety, I think it's a great idea to do something for a little while and then change it. So whatever that translates into.
J: Maybe a Mohawk?
"But seriously, if Bob called me Pumpkin Head, I'd just kill him."
J: Where do you think the improv in Utah is going, as an art form?
L: As an art form... first of all I think there is a difference between an art form and an entertainment form. I think rehashing all the same jokes isn't worse in any way, but it's not an art form. I think that's good entertainment, maybe. So I'd rule that out as an art form.
As an art form, which is moving into new boundaries, keeping it real, fresh, where is it going? I think it's just going to keep improving. But it's up to the people in the group and the people in charge of the groups to have that vision and push for it because it is so easy to walk on stage and to think "I've done this before and this works." And that's not art, that's maybe smart. That's maybe survival. That's maybe giving the audience what they want. That's not art. The art is in the risking, it's in the doing new things. It's in the deepening of scenes, deepening of emotions. It's that kind of stuff that in my opinion is art. That's just my opinion. I think that's where we're heading.
J: What are your plans with the Skinny Lincolns in this regard?
L: That's been our goal from the very beginning. And you know what, it wasn't too long before we realized that that's less marketable than say, a group that rehashes the same jokes. That's marketable because you know it's going to be funny before you say it. So you kind of have a guarantee of 207 punch lines per show. It's more marketable. It's not more marketable, it's easier to market with less effort. And again, it's not a bad thing.
J: Would you want to take the easier route or the harder route that's potentially more risky and less marketable, then?
L: I think that's what we've been doing all along. In fact, we are only now making our way backwards just a little bit in the sense of "Hey, we've got to give a little more candy." Because we're good at that. We're dang good at that. But, we try to stay away from it. But you have to, to raise the bar. It's a catch 22. I think we're going in the best possible direction for us right now, because we're balancing the candy with the art and are doing far less candy than art. Because that's the way it's feeling for me and for most of the actors.
J: What is the best piece of advice you would give to someone wanting to start out in the Utah improv scene?
L: Learn and love to improvise because it's not about the money, it's not about getting famous, it's not about being the funniest, it's not about being the worst, it's not about the audiences as a performer, it's about loving and learning and progressing. And on top of that it's got all these great bonuses like being funny and having great audiences and getting noticed and getting a little bit of money.
But that's not the point for me. I would say learn and love the improv and go see all the groups, go see all of them. Because I much prefer what we do to Quick Wits' style but there are many performers and audiences that prefer the Quick Wits' style or prefer ComedySportz style, etc. It's different stuff. I think there's strengths in the differences, too. I think it's in a way too bad that almost everyone is doing competitive improv. And there's nothing wrong with that and I love it, I love... I think ComedySportz perfected it, absolutely just perfected that style. I just can't see why anyone would want to compete with their perfected format of competitive improv. Besides the fact that competitive improv is just fun.
J: Who would win in a fight, you or Quick Wits' Bob Bedore?
L: I fight like a sissy and while I have taken karate I still have a sissy quality to my fighting. But I think that sissy quality might be enough.
J: What if he called you "Pumpkin Head?"
L: I'd kill him. Just kill him.
J: What about in a Dutch oven cooking contest?
L: In a Dutch oven contest, maybe... But seriously, if Bob called me Pumpkin Head, I'd just kill him.
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