You are hereEssays on Life / A Matter of Percentages
A Matter of Percentages
CARL KISSIN: IMPROVISER
(This essay, appears with over two-dozen others in DRIVING ME CRAZY.)
Carl doesn’t know I’m writing this.If he did, I’m sure he’d give me a lot of qualifiers, caveats, and other words expressing his not unsubtle desire to “keep the story accurate.” For as long as I have known him, Carl has always been concerned with accuracy, with being fair, and that’s where the qualifiers and caveats come in. “That’s not exactly correct,” he might say. The precision can drive you mad sometimes. But that’s Carl. He is obsessed with the truth and he worries…well, he worries about everything.
I first met Carl Kissin in classes at Chicago City Limits. It was about 1982 or 1983, and we hit it off immediately. Carl was a witty performer, and we shared a common background: we are roughly the same age and were both raised on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, home of lefties and other eccentrics (Carl’s dad moved his wife, daughter, and son to the East Side at some point; I don’t remember when).
Carl and I performed improvisation in class once or twice a week, but like most young improv enthusiasts – we were in our early to mid-twenties – we wanted more. So a group of us started doing improv exercises at home and then at a studio. Out of those rehearsals was born the New York Improv Squad, certainly not the most successful improv troupe around, but one that attracted huge crowds – and picked up quite a few bucks – when we performed on the New York City streets.
It was an exciting time. We rehearsed and rehearsed and performed and performed, seemingly for years and years (though it was actually only for about two years), and we formed a tight, solid bond. We played weekly gigs at Ye Olde Tripple Inn and the Original Improvisation, and turned up at the Duplex, Folk City, and Jason’s Park Royale, among others. We did an eight-show run at the Kraine Gallery, played at parties, and could even be seen at a clothing store (Unique was its name). We rehearsed constantly, we laughed, we cried, and we fought. But,most importantly, we made people laugh.
And through it all, we became like a family. No, we were a family – but a professional one, for Carl always insisted on professionalism. He was also insistent that we study pop culture, history, politics, current events, and old and new movies. If we were going to improvise, he argued, we should have a smattering of knowledge about everything. It wasn’t depth but breadth of knowledge that Carl was proposing. Improv is, after all, a shallow art form, which moves fast and gives off the illusion of depth. So to succeed, we had to seem deep, too.
That’s one reason he so forcefully argued against using the old Frank Sinatra song “High Hopes” as a template for an improvised song. “It moves too quickly,” he said with passion. “We’re setting ourselves up to fail.” We mocked him and sang improvised verses to that very tune, but we all knew he was right. It did move too quickly and we never used it. Such calculations were part of Carl’s theories of improv. As he once declared: “Improv is a matter of percentages,” i.e., the more you removed the unknown variables, the higher your percentage of success.
It was during those years that I learned that Carl is almost always late. It is not, as I angrily said to him once, a power trip (“We have to wait for you, Carl”), nor is it meant as a sign of disrespect. It is simply that Carl loves engaging with people, talking a blue streak with them – but listening as well. That, plus the fact that I believe Carl has no conception of how long it takes to get from one part of town to another (many a time, I’ve been traveling with him and I’m amazed at how many things he thinks he can do in just an hour). Of course, that means that he will be late.
The most notorious delayed arrival by Carl was at the memorial service for Doug Nervik, a close friend of Carl’s (and a pianist at my show, Sunday Night Improv). Joe Perce, the host of the event, introduced Carl as the next speaker.
No one came to the podium.
“Is Carl out there?” said Joe.
“It figures,” said Joe, about to improvise something when Carl bustled in to laughs and applause.
“I don’t know whether Doug would be amused or pissed off,” he said to laughter from the audience. He had charmed everyone once again. It was just Carl being Carl.
Carl has other neurotically endearing qualities that I’ve learned to ignore. He can get obsessive about things: back in the 1980s, he heard about private auditions being held for the Chicago City Limits touring company. No one in our inner circle knew where they were. Carl was determined to audition for them.
“I’ll find them,” he said, sounding like an action hero. Well, he did, he got in, and eventually became a member of the main company (and head writer, too, penning many of the short sketches that came between the improvisations).
I remember a more recent incident, which could have come out of Seinfeld. I happened to mention to him that our mutual colleague, Tim, had proofread a book of mine and I added that Tim was an excellent proofreader.
“I’m a good proofreader,” Carl replied.
“I didn’t say you weren’t.”
I forgot about it until a week or so later when I received a phone call from Carl. He told me that he had found some significant errors in the book Tim had just proofed.
I looked, and what he said was true.
“So, do you think I’m a better proofreader than Tim?”
I was amused, feeling like Carl was channeling Seinfeld’s neurotic George Costanza. “Yes, you’re a better proofreader than Tim.”
“Will you tell him that?”
I didn’t know whether he was joking. “Yeah, sure.”
“You’ll tell him that Carl is a better proofreader.”
I agreed, I did, and Tim was amused. That was Carl being Carl.
Other times, he could be less manic. When we visited my father at the hospital during his last illness, my dad had trouble hearing me because I speak fairly softly. Carl speaks distinctly and clearly and he ended up acting as an interpreter between my father and me.
I left the New York Improv Squad in 1985, but the group went on without me for about another year. For me, it was like a divorce or a break-up; after spending so much time, so intensely with five other people, I was now alone.
But I kept in touch with Carl over the years, and we eventually performed together again at my improv jam, Sunday Night Improv, beginning in 1993. He has been there when I needed his support, and I have watched him in good times and bad. When his son, Django, was born, he and his partner, Julie, a former student of mine, asked me to be the godfather. I, of course, accepted, and have been impressed at his care and concern for his son as he faces a bitter break-up.
If he were just a charming (if neurotic) guy I don’t think I’d be writing this. Although he is a very witty man – something I have known about him since we studied in class all those years ago – he continues to surprise me with his integrity, honesty, and heartfelt concern for others. If I were Jewish I’d call him a mensch. But as I’m not I’ll just call him a great guy I’m happy to call my friend.
May 16, 2015