Quipfire!, Princeton’s oldest improv comedy group, launched in 1992 with a set of shows in a black-box theater. Twenty-two years later, it’s something of a campus institution. At Reunions in May, we spoke about the group’s founding with three early members, Matthew David Brozik ’95, Jacob Sager Weinstein ’94, and Steve Reed ’96.
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Video: Click here to watch excerpts from the first Quipfire! show on YouTube.
In November 1992, Princeton welcomed a new style of comedy — new to Princeton, at least: improv. A student troupe called Quipfire! held its first shows, centered on improvisational games like this one, in which players take turns imagining the worst person to sit next to on an airplane.
… Are you going to need your motion-sickness bag?
… Oh my god, there is no motion-sickness bag!
… I’ve already used my motion-sickness bag. Could you hold it?
… Oh, I see you’ve used your motion-sickness bag. Could I hold it?
OK, it wasn’t groundbreaking. But it was funny — and for more than 20 years, Quipfire! has been building on the foundation set in the early ’90s. It’s become something of an institution on campus. It’s also sent alumni into the entertainment industry as performers and writers, most notably Ellie Kemper ’02, best known for her work on The Office and in the movie Bridesmaids; and Rob Kutner ’94, who currently writes for Conan O’Brien’s late night show.
Last May at Reunions, PAW spoke with three Quipfire! alumni — Matthew David Brozik ’95 (MDB), Jacob Sager Weinstein ’94 (JSW), and Steve Reed ’96 (SR) — about how the group got its start. According to Brozik, it all began with a videotape.
MDB: We would watch a lot of episodes of the original Whose Line is it Anyway?, the British version, on a VCR, which, if you’re listening to this, you probably don’t know what that is. It’s a magic box that you put another, smaller magic box into, and then on a third magic box, you’d see pictures…
SR: It’s like Hulu, but with less freedom.
MDB: So we thought, hey, we could do something like this. It’s improv comedy, you don’t need anything other than talented people, and in our travels, we had met some talented people, although, as it turned out, we had not yet met the most talented person. I’ll give you a hint: It’s not Steve Reed.
SR: Why am I laughing?
With $200 from the dean of students and a working name for the group, Brozik and his friends began recruiting members.
MDB: At Firestone Plaza, there was a student-activities fair, and we set up a table. People would come around and say, oh, what is this “Quipfire”? And we’d tell them we were starting an improv comedy group. And several — I won’t say many, but it was more than two and probably around five or six — people would say you have to find Jacob Weinstein. And I had not yet met Jacob. And we kept hearing about this guy Jacob, who people would describe as brilliant, hilarious, hysterical, Jewish…
JSW: Let me just tell my side of the story. So there was an activities fair in front of Firestone Library, so I got an array of colorful costumes: fake beards, wigs, dresses. And I just kept walking by the table saying “Oh, Jacob Weinstein, I love him so much, you must put him in the group.” So, apparently it worked.
MDB: Well, it sort of worked, because what I kept saying to people with increasing, hostility I think is the right word, is you know what, if Jacob wants to come audition, Jacob can come audition. We’re not going to go looking for Jacob. And thank god he did.
Sager Weinstein was happy to get involved. The year before, he was part of another improv group called Spraypaint, which never staged a show. He credits Brozik and other founding members Brad Waller and Jeff Krauss for turning their idea into an actual performing group, starting out in small venues, where even a modest audience could fill the seats.
MDB: I think the first set of shows we did in the Forbes Black Box theater, and we did five shows. I think my parents, and my brothers, and my grandparents were there, so that’s six right there.
Reed says that the group had to define its own style.
SR: When you started Quipfire! and we all came in, we had to figure out what is Quipfire? Now, they get a few new people every year, and a few graduate. And so there is a Quipfire! They’re very quick, and there are a lot of puns, and there are groaners and there are non-groaners. It’s very clever and very quick. But that was a culture that we all had to make that first year.
MDB: That’s true. There was no turnover, everyone was new.
SR: Everyone was new.
MDB: And we did not come in with any great amount of experience. I had no experience as a comedian or as an improv anything. There are rules to improv, which I’ve only learned in recent years, having had nothing to do with improv in recent years. Correct me if I’m wrong, but one of, if not the improv rule is you don’t say no, you say yes-and. Never heard of this. I’d never heard of this. And we would routinely short-circuit set-ups because we didn’t like them. Why do you have a banana on top of your hat? I don’t! But what I do have is this photocopy machine. Terrible, terrible improv discipline.
The audience didn’t seem to mind: Before long, Quipfire! had moved to the Hamilton Murray Theater, where it routinely sold out shows.
MDB: We had a rule, we had a guideline. It was “go for the groan.” About 50 percent of the group adopted this guideline, and the other 50 percent, which I’m almost certain included you, Jacob, railed against this idea that getting a groan from the audience, for a bad joke or a bad pun or something that fell short of being actually funny, was not just good enough, but was good. And maybe I’m miscrediting this to you, Jacob, but I think that you and Rob Kutner [’94], the two guys who probably understand comedy the best…
JSW: Or at least the oldest…
MDB: Yeah, if nothing else, you guys are the oldest. The two of you who grew up with Sid Caesar, the 2,000-year-old man, the silents — what you learned from the Charlie Chaplin school of comedy was not to do that, you did not think that that was a good aspiration.
JSW: I’d totally forgotten that discussion. I think that now, having had more experience with improv, I feel like I would argue less vociferously against that because I think that one of the things that makes improv work is when you’re not afraid to take risks. If saying I’m going to go for the groan and celebrate the groan is a way of saying I’m not going to fear the groan, then I think that can be freeing and a very healthy thing. So I think this whole podcast was an intervention to get me to say, “You were right 20 years ago!”
MDB: That is what I’ve been waiting for. That is why we started Quipfire!
Recent Quipfire! cohorts have been turning heads at competitions, placing second in last year’s national College Improv Tournament in Chicago. The founding members are proud of what the group has become. They also took some personal lessons away from the experience.
MDB: Comedy, like so many other things, is a service industry. If you’re not making other people laugh, then you’re doing something wrong. You can’t blame the audience for not liking your product, your comedy, your book. You can’t always blame the judge for not liking your argument.
SR: While I was here, Quipfire! helped keep me sort of balanced and on an even keel as a person. At different moments in my life, when things have felt a little out of balance, I’ve gone back to improv. And I’m still performing improv. I did it in high school as a fun thing. In college, it was really fun and I made great friends and it proved to be valuable as a stress relief. And now all of that I’ve carried forward, and it’s helpful to me in my life.