The Haiku Lady

Victoria Dym is a performer, poet, and certified laughter yoga leader from the Tampa area. Her character The Haiku Lady has been a fixture of this year’s Very Normal Festival, and will perform once again on Saturday, December 12 in the festival’s 6:15 p.m. EST show block. In this spotlight interview, Dym discusses the genesis of the Haiku Lady character, why haiku is so popular with the general public, and recalls her most memorable classes from her time at clown college.

We’re incredibly excited to have you with us this year! Tell us about Cuckoo for Haiku. What can audiences expect to see over the course of your bits?

Thank you so much for accepting Cuckoo for Haiku into The Very Normal Festival. Loosely based on the improv game Half Life, I will get an audience suggestion of a word and within thirty seconds come up with an haiku on the spot. The timer music is from The Jeopardy Show and my homage to Alex Trebek.

You’ll be appearing as a character called “The Haiku Lady.” Tell us about her! How did you develop the character, and to what extent is she based on yourself? 

She’s a poetry nerd like me. And a bit of a clown like me. In these Covid Times, The Haiku Lady, like so many of us has to live minimalistically and alone. It is a challenge to think small, and still be a big personality. 

You’re a bona fide haiku expert: You facilitate the annual October Haiku Challenge in Tampa and teach haiku and haibun at Polk State. What draws you to this particular poetic form, and why do you think it is so popular among the general public?

It’s easy to learn; difficult to master. Like a puzzle, it demands your time. I play relaxing Japanese music in class and Haiku takes over. It is a way to train the brain and to get back to the images of nature. 

What, in your opinion, constitutes a “good” haiku? (Besides just adherence to the format?) Or is “good” and “bad” the wrong way to think about haiku? 

A good Haikui (short form in the poetry world) is one that not only adheres to the rule of 5-7-5 but also supplants an image as well an emotion in the readers mind. And just like a button in improv, may turn that image in the last line. “Good” and “bad” — what about “publishable”?

Here is an Haiku published in my second book, When the Walls Cave In, from Finishing Line Press, available on Amazon, entitled “Impingement Haiku”:
                                                          Giant octopus                                             tree roots– cat’s claws dig deep down                                                             pain rests in shoulder.

You are a graduate of Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Clown College, which is amazing. What was the curriculum like? Did you have any memorable professors there?

My favorite class was improv, natch, taught by an actual student of Viola Spolin. Bits are “gags” in the circus, and I was lucky enough to be in a master class with Lou Jacobs, the only clown ever to be on a postage stamp. He taught us his famed “Dentist Gag”. Check me out as the dental hygienist in this rare clip from a Clown College rehearsal for our graduation show, which was a TV special, hosted by Dick Van Dyke:

My second favorite class was make-up; I am an Auguste. Personality in the ring is signaled by type of make-up. I wasn’t very good at stilts or arial, however, I earned my stripes by training the two toy dachshunds, Max and Oscar. We performed two gags that I wrote in the show, “The Long Dog” and “The Strong Dog.” Those were the days!

Finally — we are contractually obligated to ask this question — on an ascending scale from 1 to 10, how normal is your show and why?

Very Normal ~10. You may catch yourself doing Haiku during or after my shows; and then sometimes before, And then, long after the festival is over you may wake to 5-7-5.


John Lasavath

John Lasavath is a comedian from the St. Petersburg area. He is definitely in this year’s festival.

We’re so, so excited to have you performing with us in the inaugural Very Normal Festival, John! Can you tell us a little bit about your show? What can audiences expect to see?

Hey guys for the last time, I’m not performing in the festival. Quit texting me.

So let’s dig deep into your creative process. How did you first come up with the idea for the show? How did you develop it over time?

I wake up, I shower, and then I don’t perform in the festival. That’s my creative process.

You’re headlining the final block on Saturday night, and we couldn’t be more excited to have you there! Be honest: Are you nervous to have such a prime-time slot? How do you stay calm when you know that so much is riding on your performance?

Why do you guys keep giving me the headlining spot in all your festivals? The only thing I’m doing Saturday night is catching up on Great British Bake Off and I only get nervous when Noel Fielding talks to the bakers.

You’ve worked often with improv luminary Joe Bill. We’re not asking for spoilers or anything, but maybe just a little preview: Can we expect to see a cameo from him in your big show Saturday night?

I’m not on speaking terms with Joe Bill right now.

You’re a very funny guy, but we never knew that you could also sing! What inspired you to decide to share your musical talents with the world this time around? Are you hoping to show the world a different side of John Lasavath with this show?

Just no.

Finally — we are contractually obligated to ask this question — on an ascending scale from 1 to 10, how normal can we expect your show to be, and why?

I don’t even get the point of this festival. Is the whole thing just a meta bit? Speaking of numbers I don’t know how you got my phone number but I’m blocking you guys. Again.


Just a Few Quick Notes (Harpoon)

Chris George is a Chicago-based actor and improviser who performs with the ensemble Harpoon, among other groups. On Saturday, December 12 in the 7:37 p.m. EST show block, Harpoon will present their show Just A Few Quick Notes: an improvised post-show notes session for a just-finished improv show that did not actually happen. In this spotlight interview, George talks about the worst post-show notes he’s ever received, some of his favorite improviser archetypes, and why so many improv teams insist on giving notes while standing in a circle.

 We’re so excited to have you with us on the festival’s maiden voyage! Can you explain the concept of the show you and Harpoon will be doing on Saturday? What can audiences expect to see?

All of the Harpoon players are relative veterans to a number of national and international improv scenes, and we believe that improv teams and communities are often drama unto themselves; this show allows us to sort of embrace our usual sarcastic, high reference level improv into an improvised improv note session. We’ll be playing a fictional, but probably typical (and only slightly heightened) improv team getting notes after their show. We hope to play with some of the tropes and cliches of the practice of improv and how teams function, while also having fun getting to play characters that we all certainly have previously worked with (or maybe even have been in the past). 

What to you is the difference between a good post-show note and a bad post-show note? What’s the worst (or dumbest, or least welcome) improv post-show note you’ve ever gotten?

I think good notes are actionable, specific, and confirmatory. That is: there is something you can actually do or change, you know what needs to be changed, and they point “the way” as opposed to “not the way” (also included in confirmatory: when someone hits it, you endorse the success). Bad notes are soupy, general, long, and opportunities for the coach to prove how much “funnier” they are than you. To that last one, I think of the great film critic Roger Ebert, who had some authentically good zingers about some movies, which is great for him because he is writing these critiques as almost entertainment pieces unto themselves, but notes aren’t an opportunity for performance: they aren’t critiques or reviews, they are opportunities to shape the performance, and are literally part of the work.

Worst feedback I’ve gotten:

3. “Can you do it more like <other improviser> next time?”
2. “I really want you to be interested in moving on to another team.” (Note: I never got another team there, the coach just wanted it to look like I did to make the owner happy.)
1. “You’re too straight and white.”

Why do improv groups like to stand in a circle when they do notes after a show? Why not just sit down in chairs or something? Why is the improv community so obsessed with “circling up?” Please ignore this question if you have no idea what we’re talking about, it’s possible that this is just a NYC thing. 

Not just a NYC thing; I’ve been in my fair share of circles from San Diego to Vancouver to Richmond. The “answer these questions right” part of me says: a circle is a nice way for everyone to be able to see each other, standing hopefully would encourage them to be shorter (I think of “stand up” meetings I’ve had at work being generally half to a third as long as the “sit down” meetings), and people can’t get too comfortable and lose focus if they’re standing (that last one feels like a stretch). The “snarky” part of me says: one teacher thought it worked well one time, and we’ve never given it up. I’ve done plays, and we usually get notes sitting around the rehearsal space or in email, so I think we’re the outlier.

You are a scholar of improviser archetypes — like “guy who really wants to be doing standup,” and “woman who only plays animals or children,” and so on. Can we expect Just a Few Quick Notes to toy with/pay tribute to some of these archetypes during your set? What are some of your “favorite” improviser archetypes?

Most definitely. At Harpoon’s rehearsal, we spent about an hour writing down archetypes, and then drafting a very loose framework of character POV’s to play that would (hopefully) best exemplify enough of those motifs to recreate the (woefully) worst improv team of all time. Gosh, this is a tough one, because I think at some level we’re all one of them and I’ve probably been a good chunk of them, and also because I’m thinking “does ‘favorite’ mean ‘best’ or ‘worst’?” What person would I want to be on a team with? I came up with a hopeful list:

Worst: “Person who thinks their improv or their theater is a gift to all mankind”

Best: “Person who actually understands the work requires diligent, constant, mindful effort”

Rarest: “Person who watches shows, but not because they’re in them, their partner is in them, they’re coaching them, directing them, or someone famous is in them”

You wrote a play during the pandemic, which is amazing! What’s it about? What inspired you to write it?

 I wrote two actually! “A Weekend at Macbeth’s” is a parody mashup of William Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” and the 1989 “comedy” “Weekend at Bernie’s”. The plot is that two fools in the Scottish court are intended to take the fall for King Duncan’s murder and have to pretend that he’s still alive for the weekend. It lampoons a lot of Shakespeare stuff and some 1980’s excess, while also exploring themes of destiny, power, authority, and responsibility. I think it’s fairly funny, and I’ve gotten some good feedback from some table reads I’ve done; I’m putting the finishing touches on it now in the hopes that I’ll be able to stage it next year. The other is “Fakespeare”, which is a “what if”: Shakespeare’s acting company, on their last night in the Globe, get rip-roaring drunk and improvise the greatest play they’ve ever performed only they can’t remember a thing about it the next day and have to do an exact, encore performance for the king or lose their patronage forever. I get to play around with some Shakespeare tropes in it, which is familiar ground now, but also had a lot of fun playing with some theater and improv stereotypes. Basically, it’s high time we knocked improv down a peg or two. Not sure what the plan for the second one is right now, but hopefully live theater will return in 2021. I think in general I’ve been trying to find ways to fill the creative itch, and I had been wanting to create stuff for a while that was more permanent than improv that I could use to demonstrate what “I can do,” so here we are.

 Finally — we are contractually obligated to ask this question — on an ascending scale from 1 to 10, how normal is Just a Few Quick Notes, and why?

A 10, obviously: everything in the festival is very normal.


Casey J. Newman

Casey J. Newman is a classically trained mezzo-soprano and ukulelist currently based in central Florida. She will perform in the 9:05 p.m. EST show block on Friday, December 11 at the 2020 Very Normal Festival. In this spotlight interview, Newman talks about the challenges of musical performance over Zoom, her love of Japan, and what it’s like being one of the youngest people in The Villages.

We’re really, really excited that you’re performing with us this year! Can you tell us about the show you have planned? What can viewers expect to see?

Thank you! I’m really excited, too! I’ll be performing a short set of covers, just me and my ukulele. 

You’re a classically trained mezzo soprano, which is amazing. How is singing over Zoom different than singing in front of a live audience? Do you have to make any adjustments, from a technical perspective, to endure that you have the sort of show that you want to have?

It’s a new experience for me. I’m used to performing live in front of audiences. I’m still learning the tech, so, managing the levels by myself is a bit of a challenge. It can take focus away from vocal technique, especially since I’m also concentrating on playing. 

Playing in front of a live audience is great because you can see how well they’re responding, and how to play off them. That makes Zoom a whole new world for the performer.  

If we understand correctly, the ukulele is a relatively new instrument for you. What do you like about the ukulele? What do you find challenging about it?

Yes! This is the first show I’m doing accompanying myself on the ukulele! I love the ukulele’s unique sound. That is also part of the challenge of playing ukulele. They have a smaller body than guitars, for example, so it’s more difficult to produce a certain sound. 

We’ve gathered that you’re a big fan of Japan and Japanese culture. We are, too! What are some places that we should absolutely visit if and when From Justin to Kelly makes its first tour stop in Japan?

Kyoto and Osaka! Everything a Westerner wants to see from their image of traditional Japan is in Kyoto. Osaka is a metropolis with its own unique culture and the best food in Japan. You’ll also want to see nearby Nara, and Himeji, where my favorite castle is. I love Fukuoka, as well!

So, we gotta ask: What’s it like being one of the youngest residents of The Villages? What is one thing that you actually, sincerely enjoy about living there? (If the answer is “nothing,” well, then fair enough!)

Haha, that reminds me of an episode of The Simpsons that goes as follows: 

Exec: Each newspaper has a percentage of recycled paper.

Lisa: What percent?

Exec: (Smiles exec smile) Zero!

Lisa: (Grimaces)

Exec: What? Zero is a percent!

Finally — we are contractually obligated to ask this question — on an ascending scale from 1 to 10, how normal is your show and why?

Fairly normal! Although, I am playing the ukulele, and it’s me, so, I would give it a 7. 


Disney Princess Zoom Call

The Disney Princess Zoom Call is a show featuring five Disney princesses living their best quarantine lives in 2020. Starring Tori Baird, Alicia K. Garcia, Stephanie Rae, Lauren Ross, and Katerina Smith, the Disney Princess Zoom Call will take place on Thursday, December 10 in the 7:00 p.m. EST show block at the 2020 Very Normal Festival. In this spotlight interview, Tori Baird talks about the challenges inherent in playing such well-known characters, the upside of Zoom performances, and whether or not she thinks Disney villains *also* have a regular Zoom call.

The conceit of your show is so fun! Do you think it also poses an interesting challenge for the cast as actors, in terms of how to bring something new to these well-known roles? What are some ways in which you’re working to meet that challenge? 

Absolutely! There were some tropes that were just too fun not to play with, but as a whole we really tried to focus on a grounded personification of these classic characters. The question was always “What would Snow White do in 2020 on a zoom call” and then expanding on that, instead of “what is a stereotype of this character.” The goal with our comedy is always smart and witty so that made diving into these story book characters a delightful experience! It really all stems from treating them like real people. My question was always how human can we make them while still keeping the magic alive. The end result is a bunch of princesses who bicker and love and have pet peeves and inside jokes all while still singing a merry little tune. 

Was it difficult to determine which Disney princesses to include and which to omit from the show? Are there any princesses that you wish you’d been able to include that just didn’t make the cut?

So difficult! If we had it our way there would be a nod to every princess! I (Tori) personally would have LOVED to see how Rapunzel was handling a SECOND quarantine in her kingdom of Corona. But at the end of the day we had to come back to “what story are we telling and which characters tell that best.” Who knows though, maybe a spinoff is in the works! 

Do you think that the Disney villains also have a regular group zoom call? If so, who do you think organizes it; who’s the “funny” one; who constantly forgets to unmute themselves; and which villain is the butt of all the other villains’ jokes?

Oh they DEFINITELY do. They heard about the princesses call and got jealous so Malfecient organized a group call. Captain Hook always has trouble with the mute buttons for obvious reasons and Hades roasts him endlessly about it. But they can never get everyone in the same room, bad RSVP etiquette. 

We’re roughly nine months into this new Zoom world. Have you found anything that you *prefer* about Zoom/online performance to live theater? What, if anything, will you miss about Zoomprov when the world reopens and we can all do this in person again?

I think if done right it can create a really intimate focused environment for performers and the audience without some of the distractions of live venues. That being said, there’s nothing quite like a in person show and we are all so excited to see everyone’s faces when it’s safe!

Finally — we are contractually obligated to ask this question — on an ascending scale from 1 to 10, how normal is your show and why?

Definitely 10 very normal. Just gals being pals. What could be more normal than that?


I’m With Her

Bill Binder and Merrie Greenfield improvise together as the duo I’m With Her. Based out of the Torch Theatre in Phoenix, Binder and Greenfield will perform in the 10:10 pm EST show block on Wednesday, December 9 at the 2020 Very Normal Festival. In this spotlight interview, Binder and Greenfield discuss the genesis of their duo, how they know when they’ve had a “good” show, and why it seems like there are so many Chicago transplants in the Phoenix area.

We’re so lucky to have both of you with us this year! Tell us about I’m With Her. What can audiences expect from your show this year?

We both feel so lucky and excited to be involved, thank you! Merrie here, and I’m haunted by writing show descriptions, but I’ll try. I think audiences can expect seasoning of vulnerable and/or emotional prodding, in a bouillabaisse of grounded/absurd play and references to antiquated pop culture nobody remembers/wants to remember except us. Bill has provided a couch for me to quarantine away from my older, immunocompromised parents this year, for which I’m immensely grateful and in constant awe of. I’m sure the extra lockdown time in the same space has been marinating a couple of heightened shows, hopefully even sillier than we usually get. Also, I just learned I’ve been using “bouillabaisse” wrong for literally years.  

Can you please tell us your duo origin story? We seem to recall that it involves the 2016 presidential election, is that right?  

Bill Binder: I actually had a two-person Cagematch-type show at another theater across town and my scene partner had to drop out last second, so I asked Merrie to sit in. It was right around the 2016 election.  

Merrie Greenfield: Ha, Bill always misremembers this as pre-election, but I have an emotional atlas I can consult. It was actually 12 or so hours before Trump’s inauguration ceremony in 2017. The other theater is run by really kind folx, located in a much more MAGA-centric demographic than the Torch. The last time I’d been there, I was performing on a show Matt Storrs and Hattie Hayes put together… on 2016’s presidential election night. Coming back was weird. 

I’m from New York, so I already knew Trump wasn’t “putting on an act,” as I heard theorized. I’d volunteered to get HRC elected. I had to be a human Snopes page more than during any other progressive volunteering I’ve done. The loss wasn’t a shock, I’d already had some wonderful private discussions with a few loved BIPOC loved ones and it was impossible to miss the tenor in my feed. But I was still upset I hadn’t done more and I was on a low constant boil of rage. I wanted to poke the bear. Bill suggested calling ourselves “I’m With Her,” knowing all this and noting how anxious I was to replace an improvisor with years of experience, still intimidated by Bill’s talent. Since he’s well-known in the improv world and I’m not so much, I thought “I’m with Her” was really supportive. I remember being nervous about it, though, because dogs own guns out here. It would be a bait and switch, as we wouldn’t reference politics in the set. Then I was mad about being afraid. He let me decide, but encouraged me it was the right name for the moment.

BB: Especially since it was kind of an ad hoc show. 

MG: One night only.  In a suburb.

BB: We wound up winning by audience vote to return, and we enjoyed the give and take of our play and decided to keep it going.

MG: Bill and I already clicked as colleagues and friends, and he made good on a promise to have my back.  It was satisfying the audience was so warm towards us by the end of it.  

You’re two of the most thoughtful improvisers we know, both in terms of your choices on stage and the ways in which you approach the craft of improvisation. So we wanted to ask: What to you constitutes a “good” I’m With Her show? How do you define success within your duo and your format?

BB: Why, thank you. 

MG: Wow, that’s so kind to say, especially coming from you two. I adored talking to some of our students after your From Justin to Kelly shows, and watching them watch you, sitting forward in their seats. A few literally said they had no idea that’s what improv could be. I am very inspired by you two in multiple ways! I have to save this for future Imposter Syndrome moments.

BB: Our best shows probably come when we find a good relationship (or two) that just feels easy to play forever. A good show has us discover things about each other. A great show has us discovering things about ourselves through each other.

MG: Bill and I are so different offstage, but I trust him implicitly. I have a lot of fun when Bill plays a character totally in control, and my character pours Strawberry Quik all over his blueprints. He does the same to my reserved characters. One of us will tag in with a touch of manic pixie dream girl for the other person. I love the moments when Bill plays someone who isn’t All Business. Offstage Bill’s silliness and generosity of spirit is fun to see peeking through. If anyone else has anywhere near as much fun onstage as I do, if it feels like the times when we’re making the other person wheeze with laughter offstage?  Jackpot.    

The two of you also — and perhaps primarily — perform with several larger ensembles in the Phoenix area. Does duoprov scratch a particular itch for you both that large-format improv doesn’t? Are there things you find uniquely rewarding about duo performance?

BB: Both offer awesome gifts. One thing that’s great about two-person shows is that you can settle in on a good run of discovery and be as patient as you want to let it flower.

MG: I love the big ensembles I’m lucky enough to work with. But two- and three-person teams draw me like a magnet. I grew up on my parents’ stories about the Nichols and May show they saw in a little NY club, about how in tune they were. My favorite shows to watch are either so committed to having fun the train is in danger of jumping the rails, or else high dosage vulnerability. Managing both is always the goal. We were forced to strip away as much pretense as possible in my scripted theater training and I was intimidated out of even trying improv after seeing positively magical shows like that in Chicago. I love when I wonder if an improvisor is using their own life onstage, because it feels voyeuristic and true. I love feeling like I found someone’s diary, or like it’s part of a well-made documentary. That’s a much easier goal for me with one or two other humans.

The two of us were in Phoenix last year for Ghostfest, and for some reason we ended up spending a lot of time at the bar of the Lou Malnati’s in the strip mall down the road from the Torch. Our question is this: Why are there so many Chicago people in the Phoenix area? (Justin is himself a Chicago person who has *lots of* relatives who have relocated to Phoenix.) Any theories?

BB: You know how when you buy a new car, you suddenly see it everywhere? When you learn a new word it pops up three times in the next week? 

MG: Baader-Meinhof phenomenon. Not to be confused with the Dunning-Kruger effect.  

BB: That’s Phoenix. If you’re from Cincinnati, you’ll meet 45 people from there in your first week. If you’re from Detroit, you’ll be surprised how many Detroiters pop up right away. This city exploded since the invention of air conditioning. Our population is 45 times what it was in the 50’s. So most people here identify from where they used to live. Also Chicago is very cold, and Phoenix is not.

MG: I disagree, ha!  I meet other New York transplants out here, but nothing like Chicago expats. They are legion. NY tends to slide mostly down to Florida when it gets sick of the grind, in my experience, and I think a lot of Chicago started coming out to Arizona because of the Cubs spring training and somewhat nearish White Sox training. (I was so happy to leave behind commutes through the mobs of suburban frat guy Cubs fans in Chicago, but now I regularly have to commute through them again after their facility moved in my path.  Go Sox.) When we moved from Long Island, there just weren’t a lot of Jewish people out here. It’s better now, but I still run into “exotic” reactions more than I should, you know?  [My parents LOVED watching The Frisco Kid with Gene Wilder a lot when I was a kid, maybe as catharsis.] I think the whole cowboy pew pew thing deters a lot of potential transplants, except Chicagoans, who harbor nostalgia for the ’20s gangster pew pew thing. I remember I always got shit for moving from Phoenix to Chicago, but I’d just say “I’d rather be cold than embarrassed of my state, especially politically.” I love how mad and desperate some people here are getting while confronting that’s changed. Poke. The. Bear.

Finally — we are contractually obligated to ask this question — on an ascending scale from 1 to 10, how normal is your show and why?

Negative three. Because that’s what this festival demands of us. We’re going to be so damned normal, you’ll start feeling self-conscious about any weirdness you harbor. Also, this answer is not abnormal. Go to sleep.


A Very Terry Christmas

Tim Brewer is a comedian based in the Austin, Texas area. His character Terry Thigpen is a youth minister, reformed sinner, and standup comedian who deploys his special brand of “racy” humor in service of saving souls. Brewer will perform a brand-new Terry Thigpen holiday special, A Very Terry Christmas, in the 10:05 pm EST show block on Thursday, December 10 at the 2020 Very Normal Festival. In this spotlight interview, Brewer talks about the genesis of the Terry Thigpen character, his comedic influences, and why Franklin Barbecue is overrated.

We’re incredibly excited to have you with us this year! Tell us about A Very Terry Christmas. What can audiences expect?

Audiences can expect a peek into Terry Thigpen: youth minister, reformed sinner, lover of candles and handsome men, racy humor, and Jesus Christ. They can expect a short intro into who Terry is and a fun origins-story play in the style of A Christmas Story

Tell us about the genesis of the Terry Thigpen character. How has Terry changed and evolved over the years that you’ve been portraying him? How do you, as a performer, find ways to keep the Terry character feeling fresh and exciting for yourself?

I developed Terry in 2017 when I decided I really wanted to do something on my own. After years of being in improv troupes and sketch troupes, I wanted to explore stand-up, but I also wanted to do something that involved character work and would give me complete creative control and freedom not constrained by others’ availability or input. Terry is based largely off of my real-life youth minister I had in high school growing up in Southern Mississippi, down to the way he looks, how he talks, the jokes he makes, and his general personality. Unfortunately, he passed away a few years ago, so in a way this is a tribute to him. I feel like he really shaped who I am and showed me not to be scared to be yourself. I’ve always admired him for that. Terry hasn’t changed too much since his inception, I’d say. He’s a portrait of many men like my old youth minister in the South: battling inner demons with humor and a large dose of denial, while generally being pretty open about their vices in a way that they can make it seem like “God’s always working on them.” 

What’s your favorite Terry moment? Can you pinpoint a moment when you were like “You know what? This character’s got legs!”

The first time I ever did Terry, I had no idea how it would be received. It was in my friend’s variety show at The Institution Theater to an absolute packed house, and I generally expected him to elicit groans and discomfort. About 3 minutes in, people were roaring, and I really just felt like I WAS Terry and found myself ad-libbing and improvising a lot of the set and those parts of the show even got some of the biggest laughs. I got nothing but compliments and a lot of raised eyebrows after the show of people saying, “dude you really went there but I loved it.” From there, I think people just grew to love the character because (by my own design) he’s very unique and the entire act isn’t something you generally see too much of in comedy, which is someone doing stand-up completely in character and both riffing on the idea of bad stand-up and everything this character is at the same time. 

The two of us perform together as a duo called “From Justin to Kelly,” and every now and then people will come to our shows expecting a screening of the abysmal American Idol movie of the same name. Have you ever had actual evangelical Christians come to watch a Terry show, expecting something very different than what the show actually is?

HAHA, no, no. BUT one time I did a Terry set in the downtime while they tallied the votes for a cagematch show at Coldtowne Theater and there was one guy in the front row who was obviously NOT digging it at all. Afterwards, he wrote the owner of the theater a really long email saying how offended he was that I basically lampooned religion for 15 minutes and how disrespectful my entire act was. They laughed at it because I’m punching up, ya know? We have to make fun of these institutions and their ideas, I think that’s part of my job as a comedian: to spotlight the ridiculousness of the entities that lord over us. That’s what Terry is, essentially, he’s a lens to see the ridiculousness of the south and its culture and religion through. 

You’re based in Austin, Texas, which is one of our absolute favorite cities in the world. The question everyone wants to know: Is Franklin Barbecue actually worth the wait?

Not at all. There are so many smaller bbq places which are just as good if not ten times better than Franklin’s that have no wait. One of them is in my suburb, Pflugerville, called Brothertons, which has got to be the best bbq I’ve ever had and there’s never any wait. Also many places in Austin are overrated, much like Franklins, e.g. Salt Lick. It’s just not that great. There are also so many places we’ve discovered that are hidden gems of dining in Austin that I always recommend – Asiana in South Austin (the best Indian you can probably get in Texas), Kim Pho off Riverside (the absolute best pho I’ve ever had), and Salty Sow off Manor just to name a few. Generally, my advice is, if everyone who doesn’t live in Austin talks about some place you HAVE to go to while in Austin, it’s likely touristy and not worth it. Ask someone who’s lived here for a few years about the hidden gems they’ve found and you’re in for a MUCH better experience. 

Finally — we are contractually obligated to ask this question — on an ascending scale from 1 to 10, how normal is your show and why?

With 1 being normal? Definitely an 8. My entire goal with Terry was to A) do something different than what I had been doing for the past few years, and B) do something I don’t see much of in the comedy scene. I’m heavily inspired by Zach Galifianakis, Tim Heidecker, and Neil Hamburger AKA Gregg Turkington. This is a character who through I intentionally do very uncomfortable and even cringey things. This is me, playing a character, playing a role, very badly doing comedy with bits of genuine wit and well-crafted humor sprinkled throughout. I think that’s why I’ve been so successful with this character, he’s different and he’s doing something people want to see. 


Five Minute Late Night Show

Anthony Francis is an improviser, teacher, and producer based in Delray Beach, Fla. The Five Minute Late Night Show is a madcap, outlandishly condensed version of a late-night television talk show, featuring guests, a musical act, a monologue, commercial breaks, and more — all performed within a five-minute span. Francis will perform the Five Minute Late Night Show at the start of the 10:38 p.m. EST show block on Friday, December 11. In this spotlight interview, Francis talks about the genesis of his show, his top five favorite holiday songs, and which other pieces of pop culture would be better if condensed to a five-minute span.

We’re thrilled to have you with us for this year’s festival! Tell us a bit about the Five Minute Late Night Show. How did you come up with the idea, and what can people expect?

I am so excited to be a part of this festival, thank you for having me. The Five Minute Late Show came from a sketch writing session with Dallas Wait of Da Boyz fame. Originally the idea was to do something you wouldn’t expect at an open mic. The open mic scene in south Florida rarely sees any experimentation or risk, and we thought it would be very fun to do an entire late night talk show in that five minute time frame. Set up, run the show, breakdown, all in 5 min. That would be crazy to see. 

We’ve noticed that you like to challenge yourself as a performer, which is laudable and inspiring. What do you find most challenging about the Five Minute Late Night Show? What do you find most exciting about the concept?

Oh, wow, thank you. The most challenging part of this show is time. Five minutes is nothing. How do we keep it tight and clean and short? How do we not go over? If this show is one second over five minutes, it fails. The most exciting part for me is the amount of variety we have packed into this show from content to the cast. This show has three cast members, and every moment has comedy to it. 

Condensing a full late-night talk show into a five minute span is an inherently funny idea. Can you think of any other pieces of pop culture that would be funnier if they were compressed into 5-minute spans?

I am IN LOVE with this five minute concept now. I think a five minute cooking show would be stupid funny and also a five minute reality show. Like Ghost Hunters 5 minute edition. “Hello!!!…Nope no ghosts”. 

You’re also serving as technical director for this year’s festival! (Thank you!) If you had one bit of technical advice for this year’s performers, what would it be?

The pleasure is all mine. I am so proud to be a part of anything you two put together. You work so hard to make a space for performers and that is rare. If I could give one piece of advice to online performers it’s treat your camera and mic buttons like missile switches. Keep it off, make sure it’s off. Even then, assume all cameras and mics are on. 

You recently released a brief Christmas album with Tone Tata, which is currently available on Spotify. Excluding your own songs, please give us a list of your top five favorite holiday songs, along with a few words for each about why you like them.

5. Noel Noel, it’s just pretty, it’s got so much room for power singers to just go. If you hear it live by pro singers it’s got a lot of power to it. 
4. Santa is coming to town – Bruce Springsteen, it’s just so fun.
3. Simply having a wonderful Christmas time by The Beatles. It’s a love hate relationship.
2. Underneath the Tree by Kelly Clarkson, that song comes out of the gate HARD and just goes, also that ending!
1. All I want for Christmas – it’s #1 for a reason folks. 

Finally — we are contractually obligated to ask this question — on an ascending scale from 1 to 10, how normal is your show, and why?

On a scale.of 1 to 10 my show is a 1. It’s incredibly normal. It’s just a real normal show. If the Commodore is reading this, ahoy sir! It is very normal! 


Heart to Heart with Vanessa

Vanessa Anton is an improviser based in San Diego, Calif. In her show Heart to Heart with Vanessa, she invites audience members to join her in a heartfelt conversation and then perform some improv scenes based on that conversation. Anton will perform Heart to Heart with Vanessa at the start of the 9:15 p.m. EST show block on Saturday, December 12 at the 2020 Very Normal Festival. In this spotlight interview, Anton discusses the genesis of her show, the ways in which online performance can work to facilitate authenticity and vulnerability in improv, and what she likes about living in San Diego.

Watch the show on Twitch:

We’re so happy to have you with us this year, Vanessa! Can you tell us a bit about your show and how you came up with the idea?

Thank you for having me! My show is Heart to Heart with Vanessa and I submitted solo. I hoped that someone would join me and have a conversation about something we’re currently feeling/ experiencing, and then do a little improv! Pretty simple, I suppose! I got lucky that not one, but TWO people were interested. Thanks to your zoom meetups, I found Casey Newman and Susan Kleinman. And we’ll do the set together!

We all know that it can be really hard for comedians to just sit down and talk to each other sincerely, without the conversation devolving into an escalating sequence of bits. What successful strategies have you found for getting people to open up and be vulnerable?

I have found that sharing my own fears, etc. has helped in letting others be more open. I’m also not afraid to embarrass myself or do very dorky things to make others feel more at ease. Also, I like to just call out moments that don’t feel genuine, and encourage others to approach the moment with more honesty and authenticity. If you feel like crap or like an imposter or you have no idea what to say, just use that. Use that feeling, or fear in the character you’re playing instead of pushing so hard to find the “correct” thing to say.

You’ve long been a champion of vulnerability and authenticity in improv. What appeals to you about this style of play? And do you think there are ways in which online performance facilitates vulnerability and authenticity moreso than live performance?

When I started teaching I noticed how people would second guess themselves and try hard to be something they weren’t. So I began focusing on coming from an honest place. Using that realness in characters, instead of trying hard to be “funny” or like a comedian they admire. The interesting thing about being online is that you are there facing each other in these boxes. There isn’t a whole stage space or a physical audience to distract us. We’re present in a different way when we do virtual improv and I think it is even more powerful to play authentically in this space.

You’re the director of inclusion and vulnerability for Cornerstone Improv in San Diego. What does that role entail, and how does it fit within Cornerstone’s broader mission?

Cornerstone has been on a hiatus this year, but when we’re in business the heart of our org is the Inclusion Scholarship. Each workshop has an inclusion spot, some have two. The lovely part is how involved the community got in this with donated inclusion spots. It was really awesome to see folks thrive in a space they might not have been able to be in financially. I look forward to getting back to this again someday. 

You’re based in San Diego! What do you like about living there, other than the weather?

I’ve come to realize how important good weather is! Especially when you’re at home most of the year due to lockdowns. I also love that San Diego is a big city with a smaller feel. And how you the beach, city, desert and mountains are all within reach. I’ve often said I want to move elsewhere, but it’s been 24 years, and I’m still here. I must like it!

Finally — we are contractually obligated to ask this question — on an ascending scale of 1 to 10, how normal would you say your show is, and why?

Hmm, I think it’s actually pretty normal. Maybe a 7? But if you consider that I’ll be playing with two people that I just met a few weeks ago in zoom boxes that you all set up for the Very Normal Fest on the internet, maybe it isn’t as normal after all? But 7 is my final answer. For now


Karaoke Boy

Sam Zee is a writer, performer, and comedian in New York City. In his autobiographical one-man show, Karaoke Boy, he revisits his past life as a New York City karaoke prodigy; he describes the show as “like VH1 Storytellers featuring Weird Al… like Hedwig and the Angry Inch on This American Life… like the Capitol Steps moved to the woods to become a psychedelic sex cult.” Zee will perform Karaoke Boy at the end of the 6:15 p.m. EST show block on Saturday, December 12 at the 2020 Very Normal Festival. In this spotlight interview, Zee talks about his journey from standup to solo performance, his real-life go-to karaoke songs, and why impermanence is a defining part of the New York City experience.

Watch the show on Twitch:

We’re so happy to have you with us this year, Sam! Can you tell us a bit about your show, Karaoke Boy? What can viewers expect?

If you like cabaret, stand-up comedy, or Weird Al Yankovic, this is your show. If you miss karaoke as much as I do, this is your show. I promise sparkles and jokes, stories and song parodies. It’s the result of too much RuPaul’s Drag Race and too much TV as a kid. 

This is your second autobiographical one-man show, right? (Your first, Trust Fund Baby, debuted at the PIT in NYC last year.) What draws you to narrative solo work? Does it scratch a different itch than standup, or am I making an artificial distinction here?

I will always love standup, but after doing six years of it in New York, all I had was one really solid joke. What I did have were all of these stories, some of them funny, some of them just weird and interesting, and by stringing them together I had about an hour of material. I was afraid it wouldn’t be funny, but I was surprised that by performing it over and over, I found ways, new ways, to joke. I also gave myself patience to not joke if I didn’t want to. 

2019 showed us a lot of crossover standup in the mainstream: Mike Birbiglia on Broadway, Hannah Gadsby on Netflix. 2020 has forced us all to break down all distinctions between genres. Everything is TV now. 

What are your real-life go-to karaoke songs? What makes for a good karaoke choice… and what makes for a bad one?

I take karaoke very seriously. I usually start with a crowd-pleaser, like “Dancing in the Dark.” Something to get the blood flowing and establish my good taste. Next, I might put in something to show range, like “Zombie” or “Say It Ain’t So.” I also have a number of risky songs in my repertoire that (depending on the crowd) will totally kill. My tour de force, though … well, you’ll have to see the show to catch that. 

We know you from our Brooklyn pop-up space Countdown Theater, where you were (and hopefully will again be) a regular performer. Excluding Countdown, what are — or were, I guess, given that live performance in NYC isn’t really a thing right now — some of your favorite performance spaces in NYC, and why?

It’s terribly sad to admit this, but most of my favorite places are closed. Even before the coronavirus. Living and performing in New York has prepared me for the heartbreak we’re facing now. Nothing is forever. You build a community and it energizes you, and you show up next day and there’s a lock on the door from the fire department. 
I should be more positive, I guess. I’m thrilled to know Branded Saloon and Pete’s Candy Store are still around (two places where I workshopped Trust Fund Baby). And of course I want Countdown Theater to come back. One of the things I loved so much about that idea was that it really understands the New York experience. You all built a space that doesn’t last by design. That’s some punk rock realism.

This summer you launched a web series, The Roommate Show, with fellow VNF performer Tom Achilles. Now, the question that is on everyone’s minds: what is Tom Achilles like as a roommate?

He’s just like his standup: always entertaining, never predictable. We haven’t lived together in a few months (for obvious reasons), but that web series came at exactly the right time. One of my favorite people to work with.

Finally — we are contractually obligated to ask this question — on an ascending scale from 1 to 10, how normal would you say your show is, and why?

I told a Hinge date about this show and she was like, “Wow, that’s pretty innovative,” and we never saw each other again, which feels pretty normal. I’m going for the full 10.