Photograph by Ackerman + Gruber
Comedian Dudley Riggs
There’s a massive painting hanging above the sectional in Dudley Riggs’s loft. The main living area’s two exterior walls are floor-to-ceiling windows with unabated views of the Guthrie, Gold Medal Park, the Stone Arch Bridge, and just about every other Minneapolis landmark you’d want a view of. But it’s the painting that grabs you. It’s not the subject of the old oil painting (a 1600s man surrounded by a feast) that draws you in, but that it’s casually hanging above someone’s couch—its aged wood frame and shadowy brownish-black color palette creating a vortex of darkness in an otherwise sun-flooded space. “We only would’ve bought a place that had room for it,” says Riggs’s wife Pauline Boss, as she passes through. “We kind of acquired it by default,” adds Riggs. The 85-year-old founder of the improvisational comedy theater Brave New Workshop acquired the painting in the early ’70s from an artist friend who was moving abroad and thought it might work well in the workshop’s one-time sister theater/café, the Experimental Theater Company. “He brought it over to me on the roof of his Volkswagen in a rainstorm,” Riggs laughs. “He said, ‘You’re the only one who has a wall big enough for this, can I leave it here?” Fast-forward more than 40 years and the painting presides over Riggs’s daily life and witnessed him writing his memoir, Flying Funny: My Life Without a Net. We sat down with the legendary satirist in the shadow of his painting for a chat.
You sort of ran away from the circus to join a home.
My father, my grandfather, and my great-grandfather all were in the entertainment business. It was the family business. I just assumed that that’s what I would continue doing. I never really had a hometown during probably the first 25 years of my life. During the [circus] off-season, my folks were performing in vaudeville, so we were touring. We were just always touring. I was on the road performing since I was 5. I went through vaudeville, went through a circus career, and, uh, finally ran away from the circus to join the theater here. Finding an audience in this town was a big factor, because I was always looking for the right kind of an audience for satirical theater.
What was it you saw in the people here?
Oh, a well-read audience. I think the cold winters help on the development of the arts here. But the idea of an audience that was hip to a kind of work that I wanted to do. I wanted it to be comedy theater for thinking people. And so, my target market was college students and graduate students.
In the book you mention that your dad used to say, “The two quietest weeks in show business are Christmas in Minneapolis.” And then you go on to say, “Now I live in Minneapolis, which is no longer quiet.” That’s probably because you brought the first espresso machine here, right?
Could be. We would come into each city and look around and say, “What does this town need?” “Tulsa needs an opera company,” “San Francisco needs bread that’s not sourdough,” “New Orleans needs coffee that’s not full of chicory.” . . . You know, whatever the pet peeve was. But here I asked the question and said, “Well, it needs espresso and it needs satire.” And that’s really kind of the origin of what I was trying to do here.
When you arrived in 1956, most of the arts and culture scene that has really come to define the Twin Cities was just getting started. Heck, you saw the first play ever at the Guthrie . . .
I’d been running a theater for three years before the Guthrie came to town. My Chamber of Commerce speech always is, “Well, when I came to town, Minneapolis had seven theaters and six critics. Now, 50 years later, Minneapolis has 150 theaters and they only still have six critics.”
How do you feel about the term improv?
I think it cheapens it. I was working with jazz musicians, and they were pretty possessive of the term “improvisation.” So I thought, you know, jazz is where we improvise. You don’t have the right to that name. And so I called it “instant theater.” Usually, if I am going to talk about improvisation, I like to use the whole word, because the short version, “improv,” somehow or another has never felt right to me. I know it’s become a colloquial term, but I just tend to not use it.
Satire is core to BNW’s comedy. Times like these demand good satire, right?
Absolutely. This is a rich time for satirical work. Being able to have the striking power with it is delicious-feeling. Now that we have 24-hour entertainment everywhere, it’s a little harder to do. It’s a little harder to surprise the audience. But that still remains the goal. In the early years we could do a sketch about something that was just breaking and the audience would go away confused and say, “Gee, I wonder what that is.” And then they’d figure it out when they read the paper the next day. The Future Lies Ahead was a Nixon/Watergate title. And critics said, “Oh, well that’s not a big issue.” Well, six months later, it seemed timely. And that’s an ideal position, to be able to get to the joke at the right point. Sometimes you’re late, sometimes you’re early.
Buy Dudley’s Book!
Flying without a safety net seems to be the theme that ties Dudley Riggs’s life together—whether that’s while flipping in a trapeze show or running without a script in improv comedy. The founder of Brave New Workshop (now the longest-running improv theater in the country) recalls his life growing up in the circus and helping create a new era of American entertainment. April 11. $22.95