Jason Specland: Consultant, Comedian

Making it up as I go along. Always.

Sweet Redemption!

The story before today:

For many years, improv was my life.

In the beginning, there was Comics Anonymous. Sure, it was rough troup* to be a part of at times, but I’ve got to acknowledge the company that gave me my start. Frank, the director, put me on stage and let me cut my teeth in front of real audiences. Sometimes, the audiences even outnumbered the cast! Occasionally, we rocked the upstairs cabaret at Jan McArt’s Royal Palm Dinner Theater in Boca Raton.

Then, I auditioned for ComedySportz, Ft. Lauderdale. That place was amazing. We took over The Comic Strip, a former comedy club on Federal Highway that had seen A-list headliners before it shut down. I’ve got to give credit to the director, Pat “The Vampire” Battistini. After practicing with the group a while, I said “Put me in coach, I’m ready to play.” (Being ComedySportz, we were big on the sports metaphors.) He did, and I got the opportunity to perform in front of huge, full houses on Saturday nights. (It’s odd the memories you hold from ephemeral improv shows, years after they’re gone. I still cherish “Song Styles” in which I sang a Disco song about the FDIC.)

Then I went back to college, and joined the No Parking Players. Since I had experience with ComedySportz, I ended up directing them for a while. It was probably one of the most rewarding experiences of my life, and more importantly, I made some of the best friends I would ever have — people I’m honored to count among my friends to this day.

Then, a talk at CMU by Conan O’Brien sidekick Andy Richter (of all things!) inspired me to move to New York City. When I arrived, I searched for a new improv home. I naturally gravitated to ComedySportz New York, who wouldn’t give me the time of day. I was one of many to pass through the meat grinder of Grownup’s Playground (which I will not dignify with a link). The only good to come of that was that I met Keith, who became my roommate and one of my very best friends in the world. I also met my wife at an audition for them, but I didn’t know that at the time.**

Then, I found the Upright Citizens Brigade. They taught me the joy of long form. I had the privilege of learning from some of the best of the best. Armando Diaz, before he founded his own theater. Ian Roberts. Amy Poehler, before she became (more) famous. And Ali Farahnakian, before he founded his own theater… but more about that in a moment.

After going through the levels at UCB, I was cast on a Harold team. I was ecstatic. I was on my way. We called ourselves “Pole Position” and I even created an opening theme with the “Prepare to Qualify” music from the game. We got to perform in their new theater (which is now the old theater). We performed at the very first Del Close marathon (at something like 6 in the morning, but we did perform.)

We… struggled. I didn’t feel like we were clicking as a team. I was getting edgy. I felt the need to come in big and “save” every scene. I talked to Armando about how I was struggling. He felt it, too. The axe came down shortly thereafter. Several people from my team were reassigned to other new teams. I was not.

I was devastated. People whose opinions I valued… nay, people I practically worshipped… essentially said I was no good at the art form to which I dedicated pretty much my entire life. I left improv, and started doing more scripted theater. I didn’t come back to improv for almost a decade.

Not to say that the decade was wasted. I did a lot of incredible theater. I met and married my wife, and we had a beautiful son. And I performed at the Jekyll and Hyde Club, which was not an improv show per se, but certainly exercised those muscles.

I thought I was content. But then my friend Alex did her Level 1 class show at UCB. It awakened something deep inside me that lay dormant lo these many years. I knew, right then and there, that I had to get back into the game.

It’s odd the little things that end up being so consequential. The only reason I signed up at the People’s Improv Theater was because there weren’t any Level 1 classes available at UCB. I went to my first Level 1 class cocky as can be. (Well, cocky as I can be, at any rate.) I was thinking, “Yes, I’m experienced, but I’ll go in with the ‘beginner’s mind’ as the Zen people say.” Well, it turns out that, while I wasn’t a rank beginner, my improv muscles had atrophied sufficiently that the workout shocked me to my senses. I steeled my resolve to become better, every class, every day.

I worked my way through the classes. I hooked up with some amazing performers to start the team that you know as Vorpal. I worked those muscles, and developed a few new ones along the way. And I always had my sights set on the weekend of January 22, 2011. This weekend. House team auditions.

The story today:

After an audition process that was a strange mixture of fun and grueling, I got cast! I’m on a house team at the PIT! It took me nigh on a decade, but I’m back in the game! My journey doesn’t stop here, but gosh darn it, I have an improv home again. And to make the victory even sweeter, the PIT just opened a brand new, gorgeous theater. I get the same, “You’re at the start of something big, kid!” feeling that I got when I was at the first meeting in the “new” UCB space when it was still being remodeled from a strip club.

Except this time, I’m not going to throw it all away at the first setback. I’m here to stay, improv, so you damned well better be ready for me…

* It’s easy to misspell the word “troupe.” However, Frank neglected to use spell check before he had the word printed on our company tee shirts.

** At one Grownup’s Playground audition, we had two black women come in, which in improv is somewhat unusual. The first was the woman I would eventually marry and have children with. The second had just come from a callback for the original Broadway production of Ragtime. Naturally, I was immediately attracted to the second one.

*** Wow, research for this piece has made me open up some damn nostalgic browser tabs! But why are you reading this? The three-asterisk footnote is not referenced in the post.

2 Comments

  1. There’s no sense like the sense of belonging, my friend. You’ve always been a funnier, faster thinker than I—it’s what I’ve always admired you for. I wish I had been a better supporter along the way, but I am excited about your present and even more excited about your future!

    * One day those shirts will be collector’s items.

    ** You clearly made the right decision.

    *** See ****

    ***** Due to a limited amount of space, there was no room for a ****. We apologize for the inconvenie

  2. Hi Spec!

    Brilliant Blog! Welcome Back. I hear you about the rusty chops. I have been teaching it but not playing it much so my ego also took a swipe at me when playing with very smart bunch of 9 year old’s and I felt like an amateur. I am just starting up a new biz based in improv. In short time we will talk more about it, but until then, Great luck with Watson and all of your new endeavors. BTW: Your wife and son are beautiful. I have a Benjamin too. He was (as with Jacob) my last born and being a son, he had to be a Ben!

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