Nancy Melchert - Conversations with Artists
What is the art of what you do?
The art of what I do in the big scale of life is getting to the truth and cutting through the bullshit, but keeping it light. Even in the art of writing, it's about getting to the truth. I manage the Upright Citizen's Brigade theaters and it's just about cutting through the BS. What are we trying to do today? If we are trying to put up a show that's great. What do we need to do that? For me, it's about getting right to it and getting things done efficiently. Bare bones -- and that all comes from getting to the truth of things.
Is the truth funny?
Yes. There's the old saying - comedy is tragedy plus timing. Even at first when the truth is not funny sometimes the initial shock of it makes it funny because you've got this brand new information and you have to figure out how to process it. Often your initial way to process a bad situation is by laughing because if you don't laugh you feel as if it is going to crush you. There are times when you can't laugh at all and then ten years later when you've lived with something long enough you can finally go, 'yeah, it is funny that the series of events happened the way it did and changed my life in ways I could have never imagined. I had a plan, this thing happened that I thought was tragic and then ten years later I'm on a brand new path and oh gosh isn't that funny?' It might not be laugh-out-loud funny every time, but just funny enough to make you smile. Often I go between thinking: 'oh if I had done this instead of that everything would have been better' but at the same time I don't want to have regrets, I want to move forward. I think we as humans often think about the decisions we make and wonder if opposite decisions would have been better. What decisions am I making that are the truly important ones that actually change the outcome of my life? Versus what decisions have no bearing whatsoever on where I am, so why am I obsessing? It's the series of events in life that are funny. The path you just got off, can be hilarious when you think 'oh my gosh what if I had continued in that way and it was a disaster?' Then there's the point of view of 'oh I am taking on some huge new project that 5 years ago I wouldn't have thought I could accomplish' and there's humor in that. There's humor in the broad sense of being scared on a day to day basis. It can be funny because you're going into something surprising. That's also where you get humor from. The surprise. Subverting your expectations - that's how you get the laugh. To talk about it in improv form, it's how you get the laugh and why patterns work. You do a thing. Ok, the audience knows what it is. You do a thing again, oh ok, haha. You do a thing a third time but you do it differently to subvert expectations and that's how you get the laugh. It can expand to your life and your journey too. Turn everything on it's head. Now that's funny.
Do you try to change your patterns in life to make life funnier for you?
When I notice a rut, yes. I try to take time every once in a while to see how things are going. I check in with myself to see if I'm liking what's happening. If I am, great, then I'm going to continue to do those things. But if I don't ... I was a barista for many years. One day I realized how much I disliked it. It was great when I started but then it wasn't fun anymore. It wasn't funny. It became tragic that a nuclear-qualified aerospace engineer was making coffee - I was like, I guess it's funny, it's definitely funny and if I was watching this I would think it was hilarious. Experiencing it, not as funny - let's change it up so I can then go back and watch it to see how funny it was when it was in the past. Change patterns and find a new path, do something else.
You've mentioned so many things you've done. What are they?
My bachelor's degree is in aerospace engineering, I did that. Then I was in the Navy for 5 years. Went to nuclear power school in the Navy to become a nuclear-qualified propulsion plant watch officer. I was stationed on two ships while in the Navy. The latter was the Theodore Roosevelt nuclear-powered aircraft carrier. Then I was injured, hurt pretty badly, so I left the navy and went to Boston University for my masters in film production. After that, I went to Washington DC to work as a government contractor/consultant on Navy contracts. All that time is when I started getting into theater and improv and sketch comedy and really fell in love with that as both the art itself and as a philosophy of life. And so I came to NY to pursue comedy and writing. I make videos in my spare time and work at the UCB and help manage the theaters Even through all this I'm still going after the whole science angle and I'm applying to go back to school to get a Ph.D. in astrophysics. I dabble in it a little bit.
How does one dabble in astrophysics?
It's self-propelled science. I took some online classes and go to the museum a lot. I go to the lectures - Columbia has a great outreach program. Sounds like I'm plugging Columbia's outreach program - maybe I am. They do a thing once or twice a month - they let the public come into a lecture. I've just been gathering everything that I can to put together an application package in the hopes that 10 to 15 years from now I'll have a science/entertainment empire.
What does that look like?
It goes back to what I was saying before about elevating art and science to a level where they're talked about as they deserve to be talked about and in concert with each other. Inspiring people to both go into STEM careers but also encouraging art and using them at the same time too.... so that they're part of everyone's vernacular. So that all of society isn't afraid of science or afraid of art. Specifically, I want to go after convincing young people to pursue STEM careers and I want to use art to inspire them to do that.
What is a STEM Career?
STEM is Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math. It's an acronym that they throw around because it's hard to say Science Technology Engineering and Math over and over.
What can we do to help society recognize that Science and Art and Music and the things that build your imagination are astoundingly important?
It's a fantastic question and the answer is I think we just keep doing it. We keep making art and we keep doing science and we will get faced with the opposition, but I think we have to go back to the old grassroots way of making it happen. And I think part of what you guys are doing I think is a part of it - shining light on creatives: 'this exists and we're going to do art.' But I wish there was an easy answer. All we have to do is send everyone to school and they'll all learn and it will all be great. But the sad fact is that not everyone wants to go to school and schools aren't even offering art and music - they're the first things to get cut. I think that's where community comes in. Community is very important in making art programs and music programs available at a community level if the public schools aren't going to offer them... I don't know a lot about the public school systems especially in NY - I don't have kids in it. But if art and music get cut from where you're sending your kids every day then you have to get everyone together to create it somehow. I feel lucky to live in NY where if I want to go see an outside concert for free I can, and there's art all around us all the time. New York has those things and we can keep making those things available, keep making them bigger and hopefully, it spreads. Middle-America doesn't have those things as much -- and I only say that because where I grew up in Michigan we didn't have things like that, not because I'm trying to separate the country. Big cities like New York have the infrastructure to support it. Being exposed to art and music is what starts it.
Do you see yourself pursuing your science career?
I would also like to have a career in Science -- I have an aptitude for it. This may sound pompous, but at first, I felt that I owed it to society to be a scientist because I have an aptitude for it and not everyone does. And then for a while, I rejected that thought because I felt I don't really owe it to anyone to 'be something' which in general I still stand by. But now, I've come full circle and feel that if I know how to do it, and I have even a small desire to do it then yeah, I do owe it to society. It's the line of thought that if you're in a position to help, then it's your responsibility to do so. If you're fortunate, the best thing you can do is to help the less fortunate. That's how polite society should work. That's the social contract that we 'sign' when we agree to be in society -- if I have a little bit more I can help out someone who has a little less.
Getting back to the 'truth' - how do you know when you've found it?
I want to make a joke here that 'we may never know,' or 'when we're all laughing then we've gotten there.' But we've reached the truth when there's just no more to find - when we're at the bare bones of it all. Scientists kept breaking particles apart, down to a molecule, then it's an atom and they kept breaking that apart to get to the smallest particle. And when they have what they think is the smallest particle, they say 'no it can still get smaller, we have no idea, let's just keep looking for it.' I love that. That's why I get so pulled into astrophysics - they don't know, and they know that they don't know.
So we may never know. There may not be such a thing as the smallest thing -- which is mind boggling. I say mind-bottling because of that movie with Owen Wilson - it's such a weird reference but now it's stuck in my head. People think I'm dumb because I say mind-bottling. But the fact there might never be 'the smallest thing' amazes me. And we might never know how big the universe actually is. I've been obsessed with Dark Matter lately. Dark Matter and Dark Energy make up 96 percent of the universe and we don't know what it is. Matter that we know about is 4% of the universe. We just don't know what that other stuff is. We're looking, but we just don't know.
What's the connection between science and comedy?
What I love about improv and what drives me forward into science is that I believe they come from the same place. I believe the spark that gets the artist moving is the same spark that gets the scientist moving. I want to discover. I want to know more. In improv, it's listening to the last thing that was just said. You step out onto an empty stage and you know nothing. You don't know how it's going to go. You get a suggestion from the audience and you make it up as you go, blindly. I feel like there's a lot of similarity with how scientists go about things: 'alright, I don't know, we're going to see what this is, I'm going to listen to the last thing that was said and we'll look at the last piece of data and I'm going to build on that to see what comes next.' Is that going to work? Maybe it does, maybe it doesn't. In an improv scene - somebody makes a move and maybe it works, maybe it doesn't. If it works, great, we build on it. If it doesn't, we go sideways and make something else and build on it. They are kindred spirits. I'm fascinated by finding areas that science and comedy intersect.
What is then the science of laughter?
I love that question. I almost wish I had an equation. The science of laughter: a+b = y... Like I said comedy is tragedy plus timing. That is part of it. The science of laughter - tricking your brain, subverting expectations. Laughter comes from something unexpected. This is more physiology which I don't know a lot about, but your natural state is trying to stay contained. Crying and laughing are both emotions that are too much to keep inside so your body produces that sound. Laughter. Everything is fine, and then you see something that you don't expect and that laugh bubbles up and spills over. Sometimes it's repetition, it's joy. If you laugh at this thing you've seen a hundred times there's something about it that just tickles you enough that makes your body express it. There's a great analogy I've heard from several improv teachers about showing a baby keys and they think it's the greatest thing in the world. Now an adult doesn't get so excited about keys anymore because they've seen them enough. But there's still that very basic science of: I'm going to jingle my keys and take them away. I'm going to jingle my keys again and the second time the audience sees them they're going to be like "oh I remember this from before and it was great." Then I take them away and bring them back a third time, and the reaction is "wow, those keys are the greatest thing! we love the keys." Then I bring them back again and it's like: 'ok, the keys are fine.' Then the next time I bring them back from a different side, and it's surprising and the audience is delighted again. That's the pattern - repetition has a lot to do with the science of laughter. And then also a lot of it is just random. Things that make you laugh might not make me laugh and vice versa. The bummer thing about being in comedy so long you is can watch full comedies and be like, it's not funny anymore. You get a little jaded. If you see a performer and they're doing an act - you see right through the schtick. You see it coming, and you're like, 'I'm a little bored, I'm not seeing anything amazing.' And sometimes it's really unfortunate to get jaded, because the performers are doing great work, but you've seen it so many times. The 10th time you see it you know what the patterns are. At the same time our brains like structure. That's why we have three-act structures and when a movie or any story doesn't have structure you're bored, it doesn't resonate.
What about those comedians who do the same act every time and we still laugh? What is it about that?
Yes - there are those times that even though I see it coming it still gets me, I still love it. I saw it coming a mile away but I still love that they did it. I think that comes from when it's genuine. Even if it's done 100 times if it's done genuinely 100 times and done with commitment and the truth - it can still be funny. A lot of times genuine and truth are very related synonyms. So when things are done with that commitment and it's genuine, yep, it's going to get me every time. When you watch performers who are absolutely committed it's amazing. That's why Will Ferrell was so great on SNL. If you read the script you wouldn't think it was funny at all. But Will Ferrell committed to everything so hard that it was hilarious. And then you're trying to write a sketch and you try to emulate something he did and you try to imagine Will Ferrell in your sketch - but unfortunately he's not doing your sketch - and so it bombs. It's all about the commitment.
Have you had something you've written performed by somebody with that kind of commitment?
I did write something that I starred in so I could say yes, I committed to it totally. I was so good. ha ha. Yes, I did a few short films and the scripts were based on improvised scenes. I brought a team in, we did an improvised scene, scripted it out, workshopped it, really got it good. Then we filmed it and there were parts where I was like 'this is so dumb, this is so ridiculous, this doesn't make sense.' But then we pulled the actors in and the actors have that thing... I think we're too hard on actors sometimes because you read something and it's terrible and then you give it to an actor and suddenly it's amazing. They come in and do things that I was sure were dumb as I was typing them - we're doing an air guitar or an air keytar thing and they come in and commit to it and it's hilarious. I have had to walk out of the room because I'm going to ruin the take from laughing so hard. I did a stage reading of a pilot I wrote and the pilot was based on me. The main character was a version of me but they cast someone else to do it. There was this scene that was gut-wrenching to write - it was a comedy with some tragic moments in it. I was watching this actor play me and I believed it was a different character. She committed to it totally and nailed the balance of having us in tears and then a minute later dropping the button on this scene and we all laughed. I was blown away. How great is that to have the actor commit 100 percent?
With everything you've done, where you came from, all of your dabblings, if you could go back and give the young Nancy some advice, 13-year-old Nancy, what would you say?
I thnk I'd tell myself that it's ok if plans change. And you don't have to be so hell-bent on getting 'there.' It's ok if plans change, it is the journey. If you're only looking for the destination you miss so much opportunity along the way. And if a plan is going to change it's ok, it doesn't mean that you're a flip person - you're not flippant just because you change your mind and decide to do something else. Change is good. I think 13-year-old me might listen to that. 13 sounds young but I remember 13-year-old Nancy was still very focused on the plan, the path and there being one way of 'doing it.' It can be good to be that tenacious and determined but there are times where it's detrimental to hold on to the end goal so much that you don't let the journey wash over you.
The other thing I would say to 13-year-old Nancy is: don't get that haircut.
When you were in the Navy, did you see the humor in it? Were you laughing?
Yes, I loved it. I had a great deal of fun and every once in a while I'd get the side-eye from people who were like, this isn't a joking time. But I had some great times. The truth is that even when things are important you can still find humor in the situation. You spend so long training and also, of course, you have to take it seriously, you spend so long being serious and then any drop of levity is greatly appreciated. I found the humor in a lot of places big and small. It was like high school sometimes too. If you're underway long enough on a small ship you pull pranks on people and sometimes it's funny and other times you cross the line. There's humor in pranks. And then there's also the grand humor of it all, of being in the middle of the ocean when nobody else is there and you're like, I'm on top of the world. There's a lot of joy in that.
Nancy Melchert is a writer, director, comedian living in Brooklyn.
She has produced, written, and featured herself in the web-series I Am Not A Stupid Woman. In addition she is the writer, director, producer of the short film series ˆ--short films based on improvised monoscenes. Both series are available on Vimeo.
Nancy earned her Bachelor of Science in Aerospace Engineering from the University of Michigan and her Master’s in Film Production from Boston University. She spent 5 years in the Navy as a Nuclear Surface Warfare Officer in the years between Michigan and Boston. In her spare time she enjoys space lectures at the American Museum of Natural History and traveling to National Parks.