Brad Fortier, educational director for Portland's Brody Theater, has performed - and mostly forgotten - more than 1,500 improvisational comedy shows. The forgetting is important, he says - 'My brain is set up so it just dumps material.'
That doesn't mean Fortier forgets everything. For instance, he remembers growing up in Milwaukee, Wisc., which he insists is a funnier place than Portland. Or Milwaukie.
Portland Tribune: Telling people what you do must be especially hard for someone in improv. A standup comic can say, 'I don't have a routine.' But do people expect an improv comic to be funny at the drop of a hat, or anything else?
Brad Fortier: Typically yes, because of the television show 'Whose Line Is It Anyway?' The big lie of the show is that it's an hour-long show that they take the 22 best minutes out of.
Tribune: Can you recall when you decided to make a career out of improv?
Fortier: I was in my third class in 1996 and we were doing a really simple exercise of taking imaginary objects out of a closet and putting them on an imaginary table. That was when it hit me - I've been a weirdo doing these kinds of things since I was eight.
Tribune: What was the weirdest thing you were doing at eight?
Fortier: I would speak in different accents all the time because my parents were into Peter Sellers in the Pink Panther. I perfected French first, then came German.
Tribune: Ever get in trouble for it?
Fortier: On average about three times a week. I was going to a Catholic school and there was a priest who was teaching geometry class. I got him to laugh so hard and so long that he packed up his briefcase and left class because he couldn't teach anymore.
Tribune: What did you do?
Fortier: We all looked at each other dumbfounded.
Tribune: No, no. What did you do to get the priest to laugh so hard?
Fortier: He let me illustrate word problems on the board. Like figuring out the hypotenuse of a triangle … there's a ship out at sea facing a giant cliff that has a lighthouse on top. I was narrating what the people on the ship were saying and what the people in the lighthouse were saying- 'Do we really want to go to port here? There's nothing to do, it's Wisconsin.' And the people in the lighthouse are watching a Brewers game getting drunk and eating sausage and cheese and deciding to flicker the lights on and off for fun.
Tribune: Any problems with the improv students?
Fortier: I had a student who had gas problems, and not the discreet kind, the loud kind. It would happen repeatedly and she would act like nothing happened.
Tribune: That should have been funny.
Fortier: It would have been funny if you had been watching it as an audience member, but it wasn't funny if you were in the middle of it, like a lot of things in life. Near the end of class I asked her, 'If you're having difficulties, could you please excuse yourself?'
Tribune: Wait a minute. I thought the first rule of improv was whatever someone gives you on stage is considered a gift, and you are supposed to run with that.
Fortier: Part of what we're trying to do in a class is build trust. It's hard to build trust with a fart.
Tribune: Portland has a fairly healthy improv scene. Are we a seriously funny city?
Fortier: Yes. We are a crossroads city. You've got to be adept at being able to create a comfortable atmosphere quickly, and the best way to do that is humor. There are five echo chambers in this city so we can listen to how funny we are.
Tribune: Or we just like listening to ourselves.
Fortier: That's how we maintain our progressive values. We go to the echo chambers and tell ourselves what we want to hear.