Brian Palermo

Brian Palermo breaks down the power of improv

Brian Palermo knows improv. He’s been making people laugh in all kinds of ways for decades; you probably recognize him from a half-dozen sitcoms and movies. But he’s particularly talented when it comes to improv—not just performing, but teaching and showing how it can be applied to things far beyond the comedy stage.

As an alumni of The Groundlings, Brian is teaching a class this Thursday (May 27) entitled “Groundlings Break It Down,” in which he’s going to deconstruct an installment of “The Crazy Uncle Joe Show” and explain why and how improv performers make the choices that they do. You can get tickets here. But beyond that, through his company Palermo Improv Training, Brian teaches how improv can work in the corporate world, and also does some great work in science communication.

Get to know Brian in our interview, before you get tickets to his latest class by using the link above (it’ll be the best thing you do with this week).

Brittany Frederick: Not every gifted performer can also teach, and you’ve been teaching for a long time now. How did you get into the teaching part of your career?

Brian Palermo: At first, it was just a side hustle thing. I got into The Groundlings and they needed teachers for the main company. I said oh, that’s something I had never really considered, but I’m happy to do it. And then, surprisingly, I really dug it. I started teaching pretty consistently for Groundlings, and then outside of that I do corporate and training for science communicators. I do a lot of the same improv exercises, but for presentation skills and I love all of it. I found it surprisingly fulfilling.

BF: The Groundlings have a great catalog of classes they offer not just to members, but also to the general public. Is it accurate to say that they place as much emphasis on teaching as they do on the performing aspect?

BP: Very accurate. We take it really seriously and rightly so. At the end of the day, it’s producing a lot of silly, hopefully comedic fun that lands with an audience. But it takes a lot of skill to get to that level where you can make comedic fun happen for an audience. So we take the training of our teachers as seriously, if not more, than the training of our students. You have to possibly repeat as a teacher, as a student teacher, which I did once. I trained under several different other teachers over the years. And you learn from each of them and kind of put your own style together, all in service of the Groundlings structure and syllabus.

BF: This particular class, “Groundlings Break It Down,” is essentially film study for improv. We’ve never seen that really done before. Where did the idea to come from to approach improv in this way?

BP: One of my students. There’s a woman named Rosanne Nelson who I’m happy to credit with this. It’s the kind of analytical wonky stuff that I like, but not everybody cares to go that deep with it. So when Rosanne brought it up, she asked specifically for some kind of breakdown of how we got there. What made you make that choice? And I thought, well, that’s a really fun thing for me to discuss. I don’t know if anybody else will care, but let’s try to put it together. We’ll put it out there and we’ll see.

I love doing deep dives in that stuff, especially with some of my friends, like “Where did Roy [Jenkins] come up with that? Where did Stephanie [Courtney] come up with that?” The tracking of creative choices that are made spontaneously in collaboration with other people’s brains that have a billion variables. That’s really fascinating and fun to me. And some of it could be also informative for people who are trying to make those kinds of creative leaps themselves.

BF: What role do you think improv comedy has in the current comedy landscape? Because it doesn’t have that massive mainstream appeal it had in the 1990’s, but it’s still very present and relevant.

BP: Two years ago, I was teaching at an improv festival in Copenhagen, Denmark. That was the first time I was exposed to, there’s an [improv] scene in all these countries, all these sort of places. It’s a much bigger thing than I had any cognizance of; I was thinking mostly through the American filter. Speaking globally, it’s a much bigger thing than I was aware of, and more people are engaging in it. It’s slightly different styles, of course, all over the place.

But it’s also being used more as applied improv. How do you apply improv training for different purposes other than theatrical and entertainment? That’s all the corporate stuff and the sci comm stuff I do. That’s going into a bigger spotlight than just the comedic stuff.

BF: How did you get into the science communication field? That would feel like a huge leap from improv.

BP: I have no science training, but a friend asked me to whip up a workshop. And I said, “Sure, I’ll do it.” I’m very curious about that stuff. I love talking to scientists; that’s fascinating to me. I was talking with a bunch of marine biologists, was that first one. Somebody lived in an atoll out in the South Pacific for six months studying jellyfish, and somebody was literally underwater in the Key West for six days. All these things are fascinating to me. I get into that side of it as well. And you can glean skills that help you in your own performance, but it’s more just an interest for me. It’s another way of looking at stuff and trying to both enjoy it and learn from it.

BF: You also starred in one of the great TV comedies, Significant Others on Bravo, which had a large improv component to it.

BP: It was 100% improvised dialogue, but the producers, and writers definitely had an outline that we’re shooting for. You would have some kind of premise to start with…My friend Andrea Savage was my TV wife, so she and I were mostly together, and she’s so fun. She’s also a Groundlings alumni. And so we worked and played really well together. And all of the scenes, every word you saw was improvised originally. Then the director might’ve said, “Oh, I like that. Give it to us again and change your delivery.” So there may be some scripted versions of stuff, but the dialogue itself is 100% originally improvised.

BF: What other roles have you really loved? Anything else that you’d recommend to people?

BP: I would usually prompt Significant Others, because I was very proud of that show. Other than that, there I did one scene in a movie called Shrink that Kevin Spacey was the lead of, and I love my one scene in that. There’s a giant walk and talk in this crazy party house in Malibu. It was fun and it was very different from anything I’ve gotten to play. And I did a scene in The Social Network, where I was a computer science professor and I had to pronounce one of my words of dialogue phonetically, because I didn’t even know what I was saying. So I like to drop that as a little bit of idiocy. But I’m one of those guys—I float around and I work wherever I can, and I’m very grateful about it.

BF: What are you up to now aside from this week’s class? Especially with everything having gone virtual, it’s an interesting time for improv, which is traditionally a live art.

BP: The applied improv training is what I’m doing now. I’m almost doing more of that than the entertainment industry. The science communication stuff is my niche, and I love it. I just finished a class with the National Park Service; I train a lot of their scientists, both for public outreach and just inter-agency communications. I work at JPL occasionally for communication stuff. I never thought I would enjoy that side hustle so much, but that’s my big thing.

Brian Palermo teaches “Groundlings Break It Down: The Crazy Uncle Joe Show” on Thursday, May 27; tickets are available here. You can also visit the Palermo Improv Training website and follow Brian on Twitter.

Article content is (c)2020-2021 Brittany Frederick and may not be excerpted or reproduced without express written permission by the author. Follow me on Twitter at @BFTVTwtr, on Instagram at @BFTVGram.

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