While I appreciate “Star Trek” (LeVar Burton anyone?) my first thought when friends told me they were doing a podcast and live show called Improvised Star Trek I thought, “Yeah, yeah, yeah… Nerd Fest.” These aren’t just any nerds though. I happen to know that they are all hilarious and smart as hell, which only makes them more hilarious. Knowing this, I went to a show and tuned in for an episode and no surprise to me, loved it. And so do 1000’s of others, with a fan base that keeps on growing.
Be it a “Star Trek” or comedy fan, the weird characters, hilarious fun story lines and smart jokes of Improvised Star Trek is a must subscribe to podcast and must see show.
SO: Tell me about Improvised Star Trek.
Matt Young: The show is set in the year (or two) right after “The Next Generation” would have (will have?) ended. It’s 2373, so we’re always 360 years in the future. We don’t play any established characters, so we aren’t spoofing like Spock or Picard.
Sean Kelley: We actually did spoof Picard once, but it will never happen again. Never.
Matt: We created our original characters and ship (The U.S.S. Sisyphus) and we work within the parameters of the established universe. We then make fully improvised comedic episodes by focusing on the adventures of a less than stellar ship, as opposed to the best and the brightest we are used to following.
Chris Rathjen: We’ve been publishing episodes for two years, and we’re at 65 full episodes and a fair bit bonus material (warm-up scenes, episode commentary, etc.)
SO: What’s the difference between the podcast and the live show?
Matt: Well, obviously we can’t do the same level of sound effects that the guys edit into the podcasts. Although, we’ve been working with Dan Granata and we are getting closer and closer to have full production values on the live shows.
Chris: In the live show you’ve the audience reactions to feed off of and can really tell what’s working. That also affects the audience: they have more energy from the social setting. One of the discoveries we had about the podcast (both improvising and listening) was that shorter faster stories (twenty-two minutes, about a TV comedy length) worked best, while at the live show the episodes run a little longer.
Irene Marquette: At first it was hard not to use my body and only have my voice to rely on but now I love it. You find there are a lot of opportunities for subtlety there that you don’t find on stage. When you’re just using your voices your have to pay much closer attention to everything while simultaneously relaxing more than you would in front of an audience.
Mary Cait Walthall: In the live show, it’s a bit easier to add to a scene, even if you’re not the main focus of (it). You can just be present and respond physically to what’s going on, and those reactions can be really funny in an unexpected way. In the podcast, you have to make your presence known vocally, and you try to do it at the right time, but sometimes it’s a bit rough. And actually, that’s pretty funny, too.
SO: Do you like to do one more than the other?
Irene: They are both fun for different reasons! Obviously, you don’t get the immediate gratification of being in front of an audience when you’re sitting in a living room recording, but by doing the podcast we’ve reached a more massive audience than we could ever hope of performing in front of live. That’s exciting.
Sean: I like both, but I love doing the podcast. It’s actually relaxing for me to sit down and eat some food and record the show.
Mary Cait: I would want to hang out with these people and joke around on Sunday afternoons anyway, so it’s nice that the podcast gives me an excuse.
Matt: No, they both have good factors. I love getting together with this cast anytime.
SO NOTE: It’s this friendship that makes the show so fun to watch (or listen to), a chemistry that only happens every once in a while. I was invited to be a guest on the podcast, which they record at Nick’s place. I’ve drunk home brewed beer, celebrated Festivus and watched dumb YouTube videos here. And while there wouldn’t be a Festivus pole this time, there was still plenty of beer and, because Improvised Star Trek is a classy production, there were also donuts, bananas and mimosas.
After shooting the shit for a while, we started the apparent ritual of “Who’s battery is dead?” then warmed up by improvising with each other. Finally, they picked a suggestion given by the fans that post on their Twitter and Facebook page and kick it into warp speed. (By the way, that “Star Trek” joke is the best I could come up with. That shows you how much of a non-Trekkie I am and yet I still love the Improvised Star Trek.) I may not be a cast member or know much about “Star Trek” or space in general, but like any great improv group they had my back and we all had a blast.
Check out the newest episode entitled “Whoops I beamed it again” where I guest star as Phyllis, the visiting Life Coach. You should listen to it… I mean, you COULD listen to it.
SO: By pressing the play button directly below this sentence!
SO: You’re all improvisers at iO Chicago (and around the city), but how did Improvised Star Trek come together?
Matt: Griffen Eckstein (Lt. Cmdr. Fritz Fassbinder) and (Dr. Foggy McCloud) started the live show back in ’09.
Griffen Eckstein: Charlie was like, “it would be fun to do a narrative based show” and we were both fans of “Star Trek.” There is so much posturing and procedure in the show so (we knew) that would be a fun environment to improvise in.
Matt: They asked some improvisers that they liked and that they knew had some nerdy tendencies. We ran for about 10 months at iO as a live midnight Saturday show, then moved into podcasting after that show closed. Charlie was terrific is no longer performing with us, but we have a great cast that I feel lucky to be a part of.
SO: There’s details about the crew on your website, but tell us about the main characters from your personal perspective. Do you feel that your character mirrors you and if not, how did you create and develop the characters?
Matt: I play Captain Julius Valentine Baxter, a reluctant leader. That’s probably a lot like me in real life. I don’t see myself as a leader, but often find myself stepping into that role. I think my character is more selfish than I really am. Over time I kind of developed as a Kirk-wannabe-type. There is probably some element of me that envies that and likes to make fun of someone who tries so hard to be a ladies man and fails. It justifies me not trying in my real life.
Irene: I’m Lt. Cmdr Lady Cola, a human raised on Ferengenar by capitalist parents. I thought it’d be fun to tackle the archetype of a rebellious rich girl ‘slumming’ by joining a hippy organization (Star Fleet). She’s bogged down with the feminist ideology she’s been taught versus who she is, who she wants to be, what she’ll end up settling for. She’s the opposite of me in a lot of ways, but I can use her to explore things I really think about. I wanted to have someone with major growth potential.
Sean: Crick Watson is the ship’s science officer. He’s from the moon, and he’s probably the most technically capable person on the ship, but he’s also the worst at general human interaction. I originally played Crick as kind of the…rookie by-the-book cop who’s kind of an asshole about the rules, but as time went along, he evolved and became more vulnerable. Like, at first he didn’t care if anyone liked him, and now he really wants people to like him but has no idea how to make that happen. He’s also kind of a mad scientist and that’s been a fun discovery. Also, his parents are kind of…simple rural people and he’s ashamed of them. He’s very lonely. I think all of the characters on the crew are lonely, and that’s what unites them.
Chris: Corbomite Hayes is the first officer. In “The Next Generation” they establish that Will Riker could have had his own ship but chose to stay on the Enterprise, so I took as a starting point the idea of someone who thinks being second-in-command is the highest calling you can have. Once I decided I wanted to play someone who was just enthusiastic to be in any given “Star Trek” situation, I found a lot of similarities with myself. I get excited in the same way he does on the occasion when the crew actually saves the day. When stuff doesn’t go well we end up being the bad guys, he rationalizes like crazy and I think of real “Star Trek” episodes where gratuitous, sometimes pointless, deaths occurred. When nothing is happening he’s just kinda a vaguely amiable guy, which kinda describes me I guess?
Mary Cait: Zarlene Zonalzon is the Chief Medical Officer, but she’s also really young. She was 18 when she was assigned to the Sisyphus. I thought it’d be funny to have her be a prodigy, someone who finished Starfleet Medical at a really young age, but because of that, she was at the bottom of her class and has really messed up self-esteem. She has a lot of irrational fears and anxieties, which is exactly the opposite of what you want in a doctor. I definitely identify with her having high expectations for herself and getting down on herself when she doesn’t feel like she meets those expectations. I’m not afraid of ladders, though.
Nick: I play Ensign Ch’arles Lorem, who is an alien species called a Trill. Trills have symbiotic beings living inside them, and Ch’arles’s symbiotic being Lorem is an unabashed pervert. I like to think it’s a comment on the human condition, where we struggle with inner desires that are often at odds with our intellectual selves. But mostly it’s an opportunity for lewd jokes.
SO: Was it easy to establish your roles or was there some sort of nerd-off battle by the bike racks to decide who’d be the commander of the vessel?
Matt: We workshopped the show for a while before it opened. We talked about the different archetypes in the show (outside of specific command roles). I remember doing a rehearsal where I played a Bones-esque doctor.
Irene: I knew I wanted to play kind of a confused character with a lot to prove in a role on the ship that did not match an obvious skill set. Lady’s the security officer and she’s mostly not great at it. I wanted someone who would either end up really excelling against the odds or supporting the trend of incompetence on board the Sisyphus. So it took a little while to figure out exactly what the recipe was.
Chris: By the time the workshopping was done we’d tried stuff a few ways (I’d also been a doctor) and I think we all thought our roles were a good fit. Being captain is hard; Matt does an amazing job of finding a “lesson” for all of us all to learn at the end of some insane scenario. A think a lot of the ideas I had for my character ended up being less interesting than stuff that was discovered along the way.
Mary Cait: Since I came into the show after all the other characters were established, I basically just had to figure out how I fit with everyone else. I always wanted to be the doctor, though. Beverly Crusher was my idol when I was a kid.
Nick: I was not part of the original cast, so my character came into being when I guest-starred in a live show and decided to do an “extremely personal” log entry. The rest, as they say, is hysterical.
SO: Do you have groupies? Please tell me they dress up in costumes!
Matt: We used to encourage people to come in costume by letting them in free.
Irene: We still do! Come one come all to the NERD PARTY!
SO: Do you feel like you have to really be up on your “Star Trek” knowledge?
Sean: I actually don’t feel like we have to know everything about “Star Trek.” Some of our best guests were people who hadn’t seen a single episode. With that said, I’ve seen every episode of “DS9” twice, and “Next Gen” probably more like 6 times each.
Irene: People always say “so, you must really be a huge trekkie!” and I will awkwardly say “haha I guess so…” then hope they don’t ask me anything too specific.
Mary Cait: We’ve made it a bit easier on ourselves because we’re such an incompetent crew. It’s completely within character for one of us to forget the name of an alien species or what a certain class of planet means.
Nick: We have a few dedicated fans who try to make it to all the live shows, and we hope we reward them with lots of references to things that only people who have listened to a lot of episodes would get.
Chris: I have a nerdy memory for details (which comes in handy) but “Star Trek”, especially for people our age who had “The Next Generation,” has millions of casual fans, so in an average improv performance you can assume what you’ve retained is good guideline for what the audience will get. I’m looking forward to the day we start getting challenged on details and we get to, in true “Star Trek” fashion, provide a techno-babble explanation.
SO: Some of you are filmmakers, others are writers and directors or actors, besides IST, what do you each do and what’s your background?
Matt: I’m an actor and audition for commercials, film, and TV in town a fair amount. I still perform at iO and I play with the Improvised Shakespeare Company and Whirled News Tonight. I’ve recently started working with the Public House Theater.
Irene: During the day I’m the assistant manager at iO and teach beginning improv at the Annoyance. I’m also a director of full length plays like “40 Whacks”, do solo work at places like Making Out, Salonathon and arts festivals including Chicago Home Theater Fest and the upcoming Going Dutch by Core Project Chicago.!
Sean: I have a degree in theater from the University of Massachusetts Amherst. I perform at iO with Coup De Grace. For work (because I’m not a big enough nerd already) I do digital marketing for World Book Encyclopedia.
Chris: I’ve been at iO for years, and have a two-man show with Roger Payton (who helps with editing), and have recently been a few historical recreation/performances of Chicago theater history with A Pocket Guide to Hell. I also have a video production company, Very Clever Media, which occasionally produces things besides Improvised Star Trek.
Mary Cait: This year, I started working with a physically devised theater company called Theater Unspeakable. I played the dumb detective in a character quick-change show, Murder on the Midwest Express, as part of the Chicago Humanities Festival, and I am understudying for Superman 2050, a show performed by 7 actors on a 7’x3’ platform. I also volunteer at the National Runaway Safeline and just, you know, try to do good stuff.
SO: I realized I’ve called you guys nerds multiple times, if not during this interview, then probably behind your back. But being a nerd has proven the way to go. Look who runs the world!
Matt: That’s true. Just look at the big summer movies for the past few years. They almost all come from nerd sources. But there will always be niches that will only appeal to certain people.
Sean: I think there’s actually a fascinating discussion to be had about the changing role of nerds in society and what that means for nerd identity, but that’s probably for another interview.
Nick: Nerds are definitely super in right now. Also super attractive and dateable.
SO: So, time to open up here, were you ever teased as a child for being a nerd? How did being nerdy influence you as a future artist?
Chris: I’m sure my classmates would have identified me as the [one of the?] biggest nerds in our class, but I don’t remember being too picked on for it. I never got picked first in gym class either, but that wasn’t really source of anguish for me. I definitely think loving obscure things to the point of getting lost in them leads into the arts.
Matt: I was semi-secret about my nerdy tendencies and I was also a theater geek, so I blended in. I sort of came to terms with loving the nerdy stuff I love in college.
Irene: I was pretty outside the box early on. We weren’t wealthy, I wore weird clothes, loved watching “Star Trek” with my mom and hung out with kids named Bud who played with liquid mercury at his desk and tried to court me by bringing over a cable descrambler (remember THAT?). I figured people who succeeded did their own thing, so when kids hurt my feelings I would cry hot tears of future revenge. AND LOOK AT ME NOW WORLD! IMPROVISED STAR TREK FOREVER!
Sean: I used to get beaten up every single day at school because I was small, smart, asthmatic, un-athletic, cried a lot, loved “Star Trek” and comic books. I didn’t identify as a nerd until college. Like, sure I liked nerdy things, and I was good at school, but I wasn’t a NERD because that was the WORST thing you could be. I got to college and finally kind of…embraced who I was and what I liked and really started owning it.
Mary Cait: I always thought of myself as more of a brain than a nerd, but I guess that’s pretty much the same thing. I’m so glad I wasn’t one of the cool kids, though. There’s enough social pressure as it is as a kid. At least, being uncool, you can take more risks and figure out who you are, not just who to be to be cool.
Nick: I got picked on too, even though I wore a super-cool Spock t-shirt to school AT LEAST once a week. But then in high school I started making videos that made people laugh and suddenly I was alright.
SO: If you could recommend a movie or books, one for it’s comedic value and one for its science or sci-fi value, what would they be?
Irene: Dark City is an under appreciated sci-fi EXTRAVAGANZA.
Matt: Comedic: The Comedy Bang! Bang! podcast (especially when Paul F. Tompkins is a guest) Sci-fi: “Justice League and Justice League Unlimited” starts off a little flat and then become one of the best superhero stories of all time.
Sean: I’m obsessed with China Mieville, an author whose stated goal is to write a book in every sub-genre of sci-fi and fantasy. He has a book called Kraken about a giant squid god that is both funny, and just a balls out sci-fi/fantasy explosion.
Chris: Irene took mine, but for Sci-Fi I’ll suggest the novel Anathem, and for comedy I’ll say everyone should be watching “Archer.”
Mary Cait: For Sci-Fi, I’ve always loved Ursula K. Leguin. And comedy, I’m really into all the stuff going on at Kill All Comedy.
SO: Quick, each of you name one non-nerdy guilty pleasure you enjoy.
Matt: Cooking shows on TV. I don’t have cable anymore and I miss them.
Irene: RuPaul’s Drag Race and American Horror Story are my top two priorities.
Sean: I love working out. I do Crossfit and I can dead lift 410 pounds.
Chris: Really looking forward to the end of Breaking Bad.
Mary Cait: Clicking all those sensational headlines on the Huffington Post and other sites like that. You know, the ones that are like, “10 Ugliest Celebrity Butts.” TERRIBLE.
Nick: French Kiss, starring Kevin Kline and Meg Ryan.
SO NOTE: Suggest a episode title; see a show, nerd out on their podcast, whatever. They’re all over the Internet!