Today I’m honored to be interviewing Ali Farahnakian. Ali is the founder and owner of The People’s Improv Theater (aka The PIT) and Simple Studios. In addition to running a theatre and school, Ali is a teacher/actor/writer/comedian. He was a founding member of the Upright Citizens Brigade, a writer on Saturday Night Live and has appeared on all the Law and Order’s, All My Children, Late Night with Conan O’Brien, and 30 Rock.
Honestly, I’m not using it as much as I should. I don’t have a website, I probably should. I don’t do the twitter, I probably should. I wish I had someone who was my tech person. I think folks at a higher level probably have people. And some folks coming up now, grew up with technology, understand it.
I recently started on Facebook because a friend from high school sent me photos of his kids and I had to join Facebook to see them. I didn’t realize I’d get inundated with friend requests. However, since I’ve joined good things have happened. I’ve connected with people. I think I should be more earnest about using it because it’s a great tool. When I first started doing comedy, you called people. That’s how you told people about your show. You put up posters. When I did “Word of Mouth” in 2000, the whole show was no posters, no programs, it was all through me calling or emailing people and word of mouth. I still think that’s one of the best ways: call people or email them personally. People are so inundated with requests, you can just check them and go through them and click, click, click and they become white noise. You need to find a way to make it personal.
I heard a story once about how when the internet first came out, Steve Jobs was asked how to explain the internet to people, and he said, “When humans are placed against other animals in their ability to traverse large expanses, humans come in 31st and the condor comes in 1st. But when you put a human on a bicycle, they are 3 times as fast as the condor. That’s the internet, a bicycle for the mind.” The internet lets you get on your bike and go, “Hey would you like to come to my show?” It lets you get in touch with a lot more people than you’d normally be able to get in touch with.
However, if you really want to get people to come see something, I still don’t think there’s anything like the human touch.
2. Have you noticed the payoff yet?
There’s this website called “Linked In”. Someone said, “Do you want to join?” I said yes, because I try to say yes to things. A friend of mine from DC who I took my first writing class in 1990 reconnected with me on it, then he said, “Hey they want someone to teach writing and improv at the DC Improv.” And he connected me to the DC Improv because of Linked In, and I’ve been going there twice a year to teach writing and Improv workshops. Social media has helped me go to different cities and teach, which I really enjoy doing. When I did a show, “Extemporaneous Ali,” it was all through email and Facebook. I did 3 shows and they all sold out.
Nowadays, I’m mostly running Simple Studios and The PIT. I do a show every Wednesday night at 10pm with “The Faculty” of The PIT that always sells out. So for me there’s nothing to be gained to send out a show invite. And I’ve been doing comedy for twenty years, anyone who wants to see me has seen me. There’s not as much of that “eye of the tiger” that there once was. At this point I do it for the love, I enjoy teaching, performing and cultivating small businesses.
3. Speaking of The PIT, how are you using the internet and social media to promote your theatre?
Social media is being used in both businesses, I’m just not the one overseeing it. We have a webmaster, someone doing twitter, Facebook and Google Ad Words. Whatever is out there, we do all that. It definitely benefits us. At the end of the day, what has gotten The PIT and Simple Studios to where they are is word of mouth. It’s about maintaining quality control of our product, which is our classes and shows. So when people come and they have sacrificed blood and treasure to take your classes or to use your space, you want to make sure they’re getting the best experience possible.
Twitter helps for Simple Studios, because if we have a room available in the evening, we twitter it and it sells out. Or for example, Fridays were a day we weren’t getting the same amount of traffic, so we changed our Friday deal to “Freaky Fridays” and made all the rooms bookable at walk in rates and all the rooms sold out. I don’t know how else you could do that without taking an ad out in the newspaper. Having a website, Twitter, email lists and Facebook allows all of that.
Without the internet I don’t know how you’d promote the theatre. In Chicago, they did it with phone calls and leaving messages on answering machines. People talked to each other more, you actually read posters.
4. Do you think the PIT would be as successful as it is without the internet?
It would depend on what city it’s in. if it was New York, I don’t think it’d be as successful as quickly. Things happen a lot faster with the internet. If you have something that’s good and you put in time and energy and believe what you’re doing, it just gets to people faster. It catches like wildfire. People can go on the internet, see your website, find out about shows and classes.
However, at the end of the day, people still call before they sign up. With Simple Studios you still can’t book via the internet because we want to maintain a human touch. Someone may want it every Wednesday from 7 to 10, but this Wednesday they need it 7 to 9. At this stage, it’s easier for us to make sure there’s a human touch with booking the space.
5. How do you think digital tools will change comedy?
The internet is making the world more flat. It allows people in the middle of nowhere with nothing to create videos and movies that would normally require an editing system and cameras. It will allow those people to create content like anyone else. It will level the playing field. In comedy, there’s live versions and internet/movie/television versions. In stand up, you’ll always be getting up with some kind of mic. You’re still gonna be one person talking to people. In improv, you’ll still be one group of people talking to people. Digital tools are making it easier for people to make content, I personally don’t have a TV at home. I watch all my TV on my laptop. That would’ve been unheard of five years ago. Do I watch less? I don’t know. I don’t watch shows with the regularity I’d watch when I had a TV, but now I know I can just go there and watch it when I want.
6. What do you think about posting videos of your performances online?
I think whatever benefits the performer. Why not? An artist is really doing what they do for an audience of seven or eight, and everything else is cake. Whoever else benefits great. It doesn’t matter what level it is. For me it’s hard for me to watch a lot of stuff on the internet. I don’t have that kind of time to be looking at videos. But why not? Like I say about my writing classes, it gives you a reason to write and place to bring your writing to have it looked at by someone who’s been there. If posting your videos helps you go out there and do shows and create a record of it for yourself, then great. Everybody’s technique and craft is different, so whatever works for you.
7. You used to do a show called “Virtual Reality” that used interactive multimedia to put the audience in different scenes. More and more comedians are using projectors and visuals as part of their act. Do you think this is a trend that will really take off?
You can’t do something that’s not you. I don’t think it will become a trend. You can’t become a guitar comic if you don’t play the guitar. In 1972 there were 50 great stand ups in the country. In 1992 there were 50,000 stands up in the country, but still only 50 great stand ups. There’s only gonna be the same number of people at that level, but there will be more people trying. I really believe if you want to teach and perform you can do it. You may not be able to do it in New York, you might need to go to a smaller town. But if you really want to, you can, you just have to find the right market or level that accommodates your level of talent and work ethic.
8. How much information do you tend to share on the social networks?
I’m at the base minimum. I put a picture of me up there, a date of birth, I don’t share much. If I had someone who was my technology consultant, I’d do it. I focus on The PIT, The Studios and life. I think for those who can and know how to do it it’s a great tool.
9. How closely do you monitor what people say about The PIT on YELP, Twitter, etc? How important do you think that stuff is?
I don’t monitor it at all. I’m not one for personally going to message boards or chat rooms. I have built this living in the world of bricks and mortar. I believe you do good shows, good classes, treat people with respect and dignity and create a nice community. I’ve come from different communities, tennis, second city, fraternities. To me, not having come up in a world of computers, I’m more accustomed to being out there and playing. So there’s only so much I can do with looking at the online stuff. I know there are message boards, time is limited for me. If I’m doing something theatre or rehearsal space related I’d rather be teaching, performing or dealing with the details of running a small business.
10. Any last thoughts?
I’m just amazed you’ve been typing this up on a laptop this whole time. That’s amazing. Knowledge is power and tools are power and using those tools can benefit any business. To some degree, with people looking to have a comedy career, or a life in the world of comedy, they are their own individual businesses. It’s a matter of, “How do I get the word out about my business?” At the end of the day, the American public (and further) decides if they want to buy your product. You can create an airline and have it fail even if you had planes and pilots. Or you can create an airline that does very well and gets profitable.
Comedy is like anything else, just because you have the tools, if the product isn’t there at the end of the day, the product will deteriorate. I think more people get shots than they used to, and are able to make things more than they were before. Which is fine if it’s artistic and making yourself sane, but if it’s making money off it, someone has to deem it worth enough that they’ll benefit from paying for it.
Currently, the only way to generate revenues in media is: advertising dollars, angel funds or ticket sales. That’s the only way to make a living doing this right now. I think moving forward, the barrier between the advertising dollars and having a middle man of either a network or a studio will change. The advertising dollars may go more directly towards the people creating the content. You have a great website, you have comedy content, a company comes to you and says “we want to give you money to put our ad on your website”. You’ve cut out the middle man. Otherwise, you go to a network, do your show for them and they get you advertisers during your half hour or hour show.
At the end of the day, The PIT is built on 3 C’s. Craft, community and career. Work on your craft your career will come. Work on your community, your career will come. But if you just work on your career, you won’t have a craft or community at the end of the day. Nobody climbs mountains alone. You need other people. It’s a real team effort.