Writing Craft, Vol. VIII: Rob Wilson and Jason Kypros of Plan B (Part Two)

Jason Kypros and Rob Wilson of Plan B sketch comedy and improv.

NORFOLK, Va. — I recently sat down with Jason Kypros and Rob Wilson of the Hampton Roads sketch comedy and improv group Plan B to talk about writing, handling sensitive topics with humor, and the group’s forays into videos. Here’s the second part of that talk. The first part is at this link.

This conversation was recorded at Kerouac Cafe before Plan B’s recent The Big Show at the Naro Expanded Cinema, and it has been edited for length and clarity. There is some adult language below.

Q: How much standup do you do?

Wilson: I do a little bit. Jason, he got me started. Yeah, he started me down that path years ago.

Kypros: What I ultimately would like to see for Plan B is, well it is already – a cool creative entity, a thing that is itself. It’s not me. It’s not Rob. It’s not Brendan. It’s not anyone. It’s everyone. … I’d like to see it where somebody could actually come to us and say, “We need a creative concept.” Because that’s what we do.

Wilson: We’ve done stuff for a lot of different people around the area, like “Plan B Cares.” We’ve got the YWCA we’ve done work for. … On top of that, when Jason says we’re a creative team, we can go anywhere and if you need two hours of entertainment, we can give it to you.

Kypros: Like last night I did standup, Rob did standup, Beatty (Barnes) did standup and then we did an improv show afterwards.

Wilson: There’s so much talent in this group and we’re trying to – I’m not going to say exploit – but we’re trying to bring all that to –

Kypros: We want to utilize it all.

Q: Let me go to “Light Rail” now. Obviously, I think it’s a great sketch. I think it is very funny, especially here.

Kypros: It is a little local.

Q: But it’s not like a local gag and then you show the “Plan B” (video credits). It’s a full thing. So this starts with you guys in the car –

Kypros: Wherever we were, we’re talking about the light rail and this was the time we were just starting the group and we knew – I was really pushing the video. … We were brainstorming, we had this idea, and looked at each other and said, “Let’s just write this one.” So we went back to the apartment, and Rob and I pretty much sat there and wrote the script.

Wilson: What was really funny is we needed a platform for these guys to really talk about this (in a) conversation. So we wrote the conversation first, the dialogue.

Kypros: Well, we had the jokes. We were laughing – you know, “It’s $100,000, you could go to the moon this number times.” So we had the jokes so that’s how we structured it. We knew where we wanted our beats to be. We knew where the open was, and we had our character point of view.

Wilson: That’s exactly it. It went jokes, and then we had the jokes essentially and we went to the characters. Okay, this is the point of view and how we can get to it, and then we came back to the jokes and really formed them to the characters. The part when the high math came in, like, we said that almost simultaneously.

Kypros: We had an idea – One of the things you think about for sketch, too, but definitely for video, you’re thinking, “What’s my stage picture? What’s it going to look like?” And we both were kind of brainstorming and we thought it would just be funny for Rob to be totally like in some crazy, like doing some high math. When we talked to Keith Jackson – and that’s when we got the location. My dad let us get into St. Patrick’s (school) and they had this white board. I said, ‘Keith … I need math on the board. I don’t care what it is. I need math.’ So he showed up with like the equation for hydrogen. So that’s what that is. But this is how that stuff happens. So you’re constantly writing the whole time, and you show up on set – We have our script, we have our beats and our characters, and we get on set and now we have Keith getting in it, too. Keith’s like, “We should go all the way around the board.” We start thinking A Beautiful Mind. So we get these crazy dolly shots that go all the way around the board. And then we had an idea it would be funny if Rob wrote something completely ridiculous on the board, so at the top, what is it? Like, “Ham over eggs times two equals omelet.”

Q: I’ve tried it. That hasn’t worked out for me.

Kypros: (Laughs.) It’s an inexact science.

Wilson: I was working it out.

Q: Let me take you back to the writing. So you’ve got your jokes. You work the dialogue. You know who the characters are going to be. So one of the things I like is a lot of the comedy comes from the acting. It’s your (Kypros) earnestness and it’s the way (Wilson) deflates everything that (Kypros) says with – and I love light rail – but with common sense.

Wilson: That’s the thing.

Q: But do you know that structurally, that that’s what you’re going to do?

Wilson: The thing was. Were knew Jason’s character is the voice of the city. He’s the city’s boy.

Kypros: The city personified. I’m the people making just blind decisions.

Wilson: Yeah. Like, “It’s gotta work out.”

Kypros: We were opposite ends of the spectrum. Republican-Democrat. We’re talking about the same thing but we have different points of view.

Wilson: In my mind, I felt like everyone that I knew. You know what I mean? All of the people I had talked to about light rail, these were the things that they were saying but their voice hadn’t been heard. They were saying it but they weren’t saying it at City Council meetings. They were saying it in bars. They were saying it, you know, wherever. So of course nobody was going to hear it because they were talking to other people in bars.

Kypros: That was the idea. And the choice for Rob to play that character and me to play the other character –

Wilson: We went back and forth.

Kypros: We didn’t really know who was going to play who at first.

Wilson: The “house citizen” line.

Q: That’s a badass line.

Kypros: It’s a good line, right? It’s got some layers.

Q: It’s a really loaded line.

Wilson: Once we had kind of figured out who was going to play what, that line came about then, because it would have been weird to go the other way, I think.

Q: How did you think about that line?

Kypros: We had some jokes, but the jokes do develop as you write the script. You don’t want to have too many jokes and you want it to seem dialogue-y and not jokey. … The house citizen line. We had jokes, and other jokes came out. One of the hardest things about writing a good sketch is the end.

Wilson: Yeah.

Kypros: Getting out of a sketch is so hard sometimes.

Wilson: All the time.

Kypros: Not all the time. Sometimes you get a gift and you know what your out is and you’re like, “This is great.” You know? But finding the out is just really difficult sometimes. That was toward the end and we added it. We knew what the voices of the characters were. We thought it would be cool to be able to say something that had that connotation, but apply it to a different – It’s still a mentality, you know what I’m saying? You can apply the mentality to anything you want.

Q: I worry that people who live outside the area don’t get how good it is. You lay out the logic – how isolated it is, how you stop at 7-Eleven – then you get to the capper, which I think is the Beach, where (Wilson) goes, whatever the line is –

Wilson: “Sure it is, Jason.”

Q: What is it, two minutes long? And you get all the logic against light rail – not that I agree.

Kypros: Well, yeah. I think when we were writing it we knew that we had something that was good. When we were done I felt this is a good sketch.

Q: Have you ever done that one live?

Kypros: No.

Q: A lot of it’s in the acting and the camera.

Kypros: It is. That was Keith. The whole bit at the end, you know, that’s Keith like, “I’m just going to let it run. You guys do what you do.” That’s him saying … let it happen. No, we haven’t done it live. Some of the timing happens in the post production, too.

Wilson: You find out how much of an editor’s medium it really is.

Kypros: You look at the footage for “Light Rail” and you see different takes on lines, different deliveries and intentions.

Wilson: It changes the whole thing. You could have cut really any of the sketches we’ve done a hundred different ways and it changes the meaning. We try it a number of different ways, really.

Kypros: To a degree. You can’t cut them too divergently. Every part of the sketch matters though. That’s a successful sketch to me because, you talk about timing, every part of it to me works together. Like the feet shot, me walking through. That was a last-minute thing.

Wilson: It built momentum for the scene.

Kypros: They’re not all home runs, but that one definitely had a better chance than others.

Q: How much of the finished video is in the script and how much is improv?

Wilson: Well the whole end is improv.

Kypros: The tag is all an improvisation. … Really the ending and the beginning is all improvised. With him working the problem and me coming in …

Q: Sniffing the marker?

Kypros: That was improvised.

Wilson: (Laughs.) I don’t know where that came from.

Kypros: I think Keith caught on to it.

Wilson: “Keep it.”

Kypros: ‘”You’ve got to sniff that marker, man. Sniff it.”

Q: Tell me about “Forest Fires.”

Kypros: We had the “Racism” PSA because we did it as a live performance for the YWCA. The feedback that we got was everybody really liked it. And again, part of the charge for doing more video work. I wanted to shoot stuff. Shoot stuff, shoot stuff, shoot stuff. And so I had a golden opportunity to have some hands on deck that particular day that I normally wouldn’t have. Chip Johnson and Keith Jackson and the racism PSA didn’t involve me, so I didn’t really have to worry about performing in it. We could really make more of a production out of it. So Brendan Hoyle, like all the early stuff with the exception of the (restaurant) interview … that’s all Brendan. He’s really good at turning a script out quick. That forest fires one was a PSA he had written, as well. So we decided it would be cool to try to shoot both. Since we shot the ‘Racism’ PSA, part of the production process was we shot it to look like a real PSA. So we thought it would be funny to sell this other PSA idea as if we just broke from a PSA. So that whole intro to that, the ‘Forest Fires,’ that was all improvised. We made that up on the spot.

Q: That racism one would have been very interesting with shirts off.

Kypros: (Laughs.) It would have been great. And the only reason we called it “Forest Fires” was we were trying to think of ways for it to get hits. We were just playing around. Forest fires were happening at the time.

Q: That one, other than the intro, was that scripted?

Kypros: That one was scripted. But like the donut was an afterthought.

Wilson: I wanted that donut.

Kypros: I ate it.

Wilson: We had like, what, four donuts?

Kypros: Just two. But the donut was a thought. We’ll go into a production and one of the things I like to do is think of the ways to make it more funny visually.You know, we do this and cut to this and I have a donut.

Q: There’s a lot of reversal of expectations in that one, too, which makes it funny. So you just work out the beats in the writing or is it in the rehearsal?

Kypros: Well Brendan had written it – He had written that sketch before Plan B. It was sitting around. So I had a chance to look at it, and just as an actor … You talk about the “Light Rail” and the acting and, well, we have done it for a while and we work well together. I knew – again, I had my point of view. I knew what was happening there. Brendan was going to try to derail, hijack the PSA, and I just wanted to keep it on track. “No, no. We’re not here to talk about childhood obesity.” And then some of the direction comes out of that.

Wilson: You figure it out. What’s really cool is attacking it from all these different angles, as an actor, as a writer. I guess Jason more than most and also Brendan, who is a great theater director, your mind starts working on like three or four planes when you first get a script. My thing is really live shows. I can grasp how a live show is going to work. … It almost happens organically. We’ve been doing it together six months now, and we’re starting to really know each other. … Now it’s one of those things to where when you get there you’ve got a feeling of how it’s going to go down. There are happy things that come out of the process –

Kypros: To interject, it goes back to that intent of the group having an improv base, so you know, here’s the script, you’re off book, I’m off book, here’s who is going to work the camera. Everybody’s got their role. But when you get down to doing it, you can allow that improv to happen.

Wilson: A big improv concept is that of one mind.

Kypros: We want to be like a cool-ass, jamming jazz band.

Wilson: You get the sheet music, you know the song, but you know, like, Lauren might riff off and do some cool stuff.

Kypros: And people have some characters that they can do. When you’re writing a sketch you can write to someone’s strengths. ‘I can just see this guy saying it.’

Q: Can we talk about the silent film? There are a lot of different kind of gags in there. Can you talk about how you came up with the idea?

Kypros: My dad’s been playing (piano) for the silent films forever. Before I was around. Thom Vourlas (of the one and only Naro Expanded Cinema) had mentioned to me years ago, “You know what you should do, you should do a silent film.” … As a part of a way to try and get the group out, and I’ve just reached this point in my life where I want to create, so we mentioned the idea to Thom, would it be a cool idea and he said sure. So we were like, “The Naro, we’ll be able to put a video up.” It was a great way to get some exposure.

Wilson: It was really cool being on the big screen.

Kypros: The concept basically was I thought about whether I wanted to make it look like a silent film, you know, do after effects so it would look all jerky. I tried to film it to see if I could make it look like that and I couldn’t find any easy answers. So my decision was to shoot it like a silent film. What I mean was to use all wide shots and then just dive in for coverage. I wasn’t worried about over the shoulders, medium (shots) …

Q: A lot of the coverage is for gags, like the locket.

Kypros: Exactly.

Q: You see the acting and then you cut to see the joke.

Kypros: Right. That was one of the jokes – Brendan and I opened it up to everybody. We always do. … But that was one of the jokes Brendan and I had from the beginning. We were laughing hard that is would be so funny to reveal this locket and we were both in it. … Because of that, because we couldn’t use dialogue, we knew it was really character-dependant. It was really dependent upon sight gags.

Wilson: The Phineus T. Snellsworth character (the heavy played by Wilson) actually came out – we didn’t know what to do with him.

Kypros: Rob came up with this idea. It was after we put the ‘Light Rail’ video up, and it was getting a lot of play. So we were talking about it and Rob came up with this character.

Wilson: It was going to be this guy and it was the same character but he went into City Council and went, “Yes, I’ve got this fantastic idea. I’m just going to need a hundred thousand million more dollars.” (Evil laugh.) And then the City Council’s just going for it. (Laughs.)

Kypros: And we used that character for a cold open we did at a Belmont show. That was his debut. Then we did this project, we decided to use that character as the lead, pretty much. The villain.

Wilson: We’re always finding new stuff.

Kypros: We had that long title card and there’s no way to read it. We knew we wanted that gag in there. … And we shot that in a day. We started at the Naro, and we thought we were going to this other location and there was going to be a whole chase scene around the house, and we were like, “No, can’t do it.” So we shot it at the Naro. … I wanted it to be like a silent film, but a 2011 silent film. Like it didn’t have to be something that Buster Keaton would (be in). It had to be like that. … We knew we wanted to be clever with (the form of the video) and break convention.

Q: And mess with light rail again.

Kypros: Yeah.

Q: Well, let’s talk about the ending. There are a lot of little gags, like the ropes just being piled on her.

Kypros: That happened there. We didn’t have time to get that shot. And in the editing room that happened. We’re just sitting there watching it like, “Aw, shit. We just pulled the roped off her.” And then we said, “Let’s let it roll.”

Q: And then you go into 7-Eleven.

Kypros: We had established that. (Laughs.)

Q: That was in the plan.

Kypros: That was in the plan. That was part of one of the shots. We knew we needed to get to a railroad track. We knew we needed a rope.

Q: So was that a light rail track?

Wilson: No.

Kypros: That was a piece of track that wasn’t even part of the track. We just lucked into this not-on-the-track track.

Wilson: Location scouting, man. That’s so important.

Q: I wasn’t at the show, but the whole part where you’re waiting for light rail, did that get a big laugh?

Kypros: Oh, yeah. “Where is that light rail” got a big, big laugh.

Wilson: It was just crazy.

Q: For that one, it’s almost like you don’t need the card. Because the joke is in the acting and then you get the card.

Kypros: Yeah, you get the acting and then you get the card and the card just punches it. That was in the timing too. We knew we had to time the joke but also we had an opportunity to get a laugh from the placement of the card. … Really, the title cards came after. Like “Where is that light rail” might have been one of them we knew was going to be in there.

Wilson: I think the whole thing we do that is exciting to me is the layering. It starts with the original person to the group, and you get some additional layering there. And then you get on set, and … there’s the improv that happens there, and then you get into the editing room.

Kypros: In post we can add sounds and play with the timing even more.

Wilson: They say too many chefs spoil the stew, but if you have just the right amount of chefs, you know what I mean? It’s just one of those things.

Kypros: We’re a creative collective. That’s what we’re trying to be. We’re trying to be an improv jam band.

And that’s that. Thanks, guys.

Speaking of jamming …

If you’ve stuck around this long, you deserve a treat. Here’s the amazing Dennis Chambers, playing us out. This song near and dear to my heart because my older daughter, now five, used to dance around to it when she was a toddler. Aptly named, too — “Plan B.”

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