By Keith R. Higgons
Comedy is as much a part of the DNA of Brooklyn as country music is of Nashville. The list of comedians who have called Brooklyn home reads like a history lesson of the hysterical: Mel Brooks, Larry David, Woody Allen, Jackie Gleason, and current late night warriors Jimmy Kimmel and Jimmy Fallon, among countless others. Hoping to one day count himself among those names is Williamsburg resident Anthony Apruzzese. He is currently blazing a trail in the super competitive world of comedy with his improvisation/theater/sketch late night talk show at the Upright Citizens Brigade East Theater called “Showtime with Anthony Apruzzese”.
I first met Apruzzese a few years ago in prison. Not a real prison, mind you; we worked in the same office. He was always quick with the clever retort or with sharing a skewed point of view, which made me realize his humor was slightly beyond his years. I was relieved to have finally found a kindred spirit to help ease the mind-numbing pain of white-collar work. At the very least, it curtailed my budding Xanax addiction.
At least twice a day, this package of post-adolescent energy would come barreling into my office spouting various comedy ideas or ruminations, or doing some bit in a strange New Jersey Italian dialect. In the banal existence of our world, they were always a welcome intrusion. After a couple months of serving as his sounding board, and knowing his desire to actually perform, I finally said to him, “Look, you can be the funny guy at the barbecue or you can actually have a go at it.”
Fast-forward to today. He’s now got Showtime with Anthony Apruzzese, a nationally competitive improv team named Curtains, and its improv/sketch, power trio spin-off, Greasy Lake. When I think back to those sessions in my office, and then up to everything he’s doing today, culminating with Showtime, I’m reminded of the creative leap the Beastie Boys made from “License to Ill” to “Paul’s Boutique.”
Since Apruzzese moved to Williamsburg a little over a year ago, I decided it was time to reconnect with my old white-collar cell mate and have a chat. We met a few Sundays ago at Spike Hill, on Bedford Avenue, to talk about Showtime. It had been a while since he and I broke bread, so I figured it would be a good time to catch up and see if he had turned into a raving, egotistical maniac. Thankfully, I found out he’s still the same. A jerk (ba-dum-TSH).
I asked the self-proclaimed former “fat kid” from Bayonne, New Jersey, what made him move to Williamsburg. His reply was simple, “It reminds me of home, ya know?” Having never been to Bayonne, I didn’t know, so I asked him what he meant.
“There’s just a ton of diversity here and a real sense of ethnic and community pride, and I like that. The local businesses and stuff, I dunno, just reminds me of home.”
Even though Williamsburg, not Bayonne, has become the epicenter of global hipsterdom, there’s a grounded quality that allows Apruzzese to see past all the hipster hoopla and derive inspiration from the more relatable aspects of the neighborhood. He loves the down-home and communal atmosphere at Carmine’s (the writing sessions caterer of choice), or when he’s relaxing with a pint at Harefield Road. It’s the local interactions that help ground him and shape his comedy, giving it a universal appeal. Apruzzese sees little value or potential humor in hipsters or “…going in a room and making fun of their mustaches and having verbose opinions on bands we’ve never heard of.”
When asked how he developed his comedy, he admits he discovered comedy pretty early. Every Friday, he and his brother would go to the local Bayonne Blockbuster video and make a beeline for the comedy section. It was through these weekly treks that he began his studies and became indoctrinated into comedy—from the Saturday Night Live “Best Ofs,” where he discovered John Belushi and Bill Murray, to the standup comedy of Eddie Murphy, and the slightly more esoteric Eddie Izzard. And as with any burgeoning skill, becoming good involved lots and lots of practice.
Monday through Friday afternoons found the “fat kid” practicing his developing comedy skills to defuse the tense and awkward moments of youth. Pretty quickly, Apruzzese discovered that comedy came relatively easy to him. His wit and timing took him through adolescence and into his college years, where he began fine-tuning his raw talent with stints on college radio and by dipping his toe in standup.
After completing college, he moved to the Upper West Side, where, relying heavily on his wits and deeply competitive spirit, Apruzzese jumped into the white-hot world of NYC improv. And with so many improv schools and classes to choose from, he had only one in his crosshairs: the Upright Citizens Brigade (UCB).
An exceptionally driven and focused guy, he knew it was the only place for him to learn. So, I asked him what he learned after having matriculated through all of the UCB classes. He took a sip of water and leaned towards me, looking ready to lay down some knowledge: “I learned so much there. I learned the ‘Harold’ (Improv king Del Close’s famous improv structure) there. I learned the ‘culture of yes’ there…” At which point I interrupted him and asked what “the culture of yes” was. He said, “It’s about saying yes to everything on stage. Like, if I walk up to you during a scene and say ‘Is that a coffee cup in your hand?’ and you say ‘No,’ the scene is dead. You’ve stopped me. Whatever I had planned is now dead. But if you say ‘Yes,’ then the scene can go on.” Pleased with his analogy, he added, “It’s not just about improv, either. If someone asks for help on a project, you say yes. If someone wants to work with you, you say yes. It just works, ya know?” I understood the concept more clearly when I thought of it as the antithesis of “No means no!”
But it wasn’t just “mad skills” Apruzzese learned at UCB; he also met the lion’s share of his Showtime writers and performers there. And he met his fellow Curtains and Greasy Lake teammates there. But the biggest lesson learned was from a UCB rejection. After being denied one of the coveted spots on a UCB improv house team, Apruzzese was bummed and frustrated, but decided not to dwell on it. He turned it into positive energy. “I wanted to be in a position where I made things happen, and I didn’t have to ask someone’s permission.” So that rejection opened the door for Showtime.
Which begs the question, what exactly is Showtime with Anthony Apruzzese? According to its creator and namesake, it’s “a live late night show…on stage.” Based on the shows I’ve seen, that’s an accurate description. But it’s not just that. The immediacy of Showtime is what sets it apart from other improv or sketch shows. Like live theater itself, this show will only be this show once. That’s it. There’s no video rebroadcast of the entire show, which gives it some of its uniqueness. It has elements of sketch comedy, with the bits and fake commercials; there is the scripted monologue; and there is always music and a barker to rally the crowd. The show actively incorporates the improv philosophy throughout, and the second guest is always completely improvised. So while it has all the late-night format bells and whistles, to dismiss it as just late-night is to miss its other, more interesting elements. It’s a hyper mash-up of theater, sketch, and improv, three genres that are forever linked but almost always identified individually, until now.
Eventually, Apruzzese let the cat out of the bag and told me the thing he loves most about Showtime. “It gives me the opportunity to work with people I find funny, creative, and inspiring.” He’s not just the host, he’s also the curator. “With standup,” he explained, “it’s just you telling people what you find funny.” But with his show, he’s showing you that “These are the people I find funny and talented.”
Apruzzese admits he “prefers the comedic group dynamic,” and couldn’t find enough superlatives to describe the people he’s collaborating with. It seems like the chemistry is working; after only a couple of sold out months at the Theater Under St. Marks, Showtime outgrew the black-box environment, and, as if on cue, UCB approached Apruzzese about moving the show to the UCB East Theater, where it currently resides.
Over the past few weeks, controversy has once again erupted around late-night television. And while it may be a little too early to see how that shakes out for the up-and-coming Apruzzese, the team at Showtime is certainly making a name for itself. But even more than that, Apruzzese can now be counted as one of the comedians who have earned their mettle on the NYC comedy scene, and who call Brooklyn home.
It’s nice to know the idea of simply being the funny guy at the barbecue wasn’t enough for him. ?
Showtime with Anthony Apruzzese is performed monthly and can be seen next on Thursday, April 25, at The Upright Citizens Brigade Theater, 153 East 3rd Street (between Avenues A and B).