This is the fifth entry in a series of essays from actor and co-creator of the Superego podcast, Jeremy Carter. He has been performing improv comedy for over 20 years and the Superego podcast, which was started in 2006 and was described by Splitsider as being “really like nothing else out there”.
Like most improvisers, I develop and play lots of different characters. Some of those characters sink in a little and some soak straight through to the bone.
Usually, you get possessed by those "deep soak" characters because you know them like the back of your hand. You'll start doing them while you're shopping, while in traffic, or after sex, which isn't always received well. Some characters leap out of you, and you don't know where it came from. Some are easy to slip on, like old work boots.
For example, It's easy for me to play my mother. I've seen her at her best. I've seen her at her worst... Usually as a result of something I've done. The way she says,"Oh, uh-huh" when she isn't really listening. Or when she stops talking, mid-thought, because she's had another thought, and you just stand there, waiting for her to finish, but you may as well be waiting for cement to smile.
A few years ago I developed a character named Shunt McGuppin, an outlaw country music star whose heyday was in the 1970s. Often, Shunt will burst into songs that are out right offensive while his sound engineer, Pete, just wants to record a family friendly album to release at Walmart for the holidays. I improvise little ditties often when I'm by myself, making up the hook to a song with the filthiest lyrics.
To put it bluntly, Shunt is a crazy character. He's often stoic but due to years of drug and alcohol abuse, repeated marriages, and the ups and downs of fame, he has been driven half mad. He may have been insane to begin with, but his experiences haven't helped.
Shunt is based upon a hybrid of Waylon Jennings and Hank Williams Jr. But on a personal experience level Shunt is like my uncles and the guys I worked with doing construction when I was in high school: rough, blunt, vulgar, occasionally poetic and loud.
Like Shunt, several members of my family have struggled with substance abuse. One uncle of mine was actually married seven times -- twice to the same woman.
And it wasn't just my uncles. My dad wouldn't allow a couple of his sisters to have our phone number or address for much of my childhood because of the "unique" elements they would bring with them. I remember them having things like cocaine and somebody else's prescription medication the few times we did visit. Then there was the one aunt that had a boyfriend who ended up stabbing her in the face repeatedly before pushing her out of a moving car.
It's those kind of anecdotes that I tap into when I play Shunt or "write" songs for him (many of the songs I've recorded for Shunt's sketches are made up on the spot.) But recently I took it upon myself to write and record "real" songs for him and I couldn't be happier with the results. Writing those tracks really allowed me to dig even deeper into what I imagine Shunt's life has been like. The cold loveless affairs, the deep misguided loves, the struggles of over the road truck driving.
The thing I love about this character, is that I feel it's an endless well. On the surface the joke is that he sings dirty country/rock songs, but there's more there. And though I personally wouldn't ever write songs and record them -- let alone release them -- but there seems to be a comfort in pretending to be somebody else and doing it.