Living Amongst Stars: Getting Down With SIKOS
Emma Kemp ’20
“We’re like Sonny and Cher,” Cali Nathanson ’20 joked with longtime friend Atessa Farzami ’20. “Except, you’re definitely Cher. You’re extravagant.” Nathanson (a religion and Russian, East European and Eurasian studies double major) and Farzami (a mathematics & statistics and Spanish double major) are members of the Smith Improv Komedy Org of Smith (SIKOS). The nine-person group performs a series of comedic games to their boisterous audiences in the Campus Center TV Lounge — Seven Minutes in Heaven, Cube and the Clap, for instance. In these games, members create a persona (anything from a mailman to a 500-year-old tortoise to a pyromaniac child), building off of each other to create a scene that ends up being preposterously funny.
They’ve created a reputation for themselves on campus for their hilarity, absurd creativity and spunky coolness. “Not everyone is going to think we’re funny, and we know that,” said Nathanson. “But, I think even just with the amount of people who auditioned last year, it shows how many people want to laugh and have fun.”
The Sophian sat down with the two SIKOS darlings in an attempt to uncover what exactly is the art of improv. “We should have smoked before this interview,” Farzami lamented to Nathanson as the two sat down. “Dude, both of us don’t smoke,” Nathanson reproached. Far from serious, the conversation ping-ponged around — one moment centered around accents, the next consisted of scrolling through old photos of Farzami’s father. (“Dude, he’s kinda hot,” Nathanson broached.)
SIKOS will have their last performance of the semester on April 25 at 7:30 p.m. in the CC TV Lounge. It will also be the final performance for members Isabella Tagliati ’19 and Ellie Richardson ’19, who are also co-presidents of the group.
The Sophian: So, what exactly is Improv?
Cali Nathanson: I think, more so than comedy, it’s thinking on your feet and trusting your gut — trusting your instincts. I think about what the most ridiculous and interesting thing I can say on my feet. Improv is making a scene without any guidance at all.
Atessa Farzami: I feel like it works a lot like a good conversation — you need to be good at making space for people but still adding your own spin on it. Where it breaks down is when people get selfish about it — I think that’s what’s really cool about it, improv doesn’t work with only one good person in the scene.
TS: What brought you to SIKOS once you got to Smith?
CN: I did Shakespearean theater in middle school, but I always knew I was goofy. I come from a funny family; I always found it easy to be the funny person.
AF: I dunno, I just followed you, Cali. We were both living in Wilson, and Cali was like, yeah, I’m auditioning for the SIKOS, and I was like “Those posters look so stupid, I would never do something like that.”
CN: Yeah, I feel like I tried to convince you all of first year, then you finally did it and I was like, I wish you’d just leave.
AF: I didn’t think about it as much, I just saw [SIKOS] as a fun time. I feel like I’ve always been a class-clown type, I’ve always been an entertainer. I thought that improv was this stupid thing that theater people do that aren’t funny. But I think we’re a group of pretty funny people — whether or not we’re a funny group. The thing about improv is that you can’t force it. I’ve noticed that the harder you try to be funny, the less funny you’ll actually be because you won’t be yourself. It’s been so much fun to be with people who I think are funny humans and are good people.
TS: I’ve been to enough shows to know that you two have a collection of accents up your sleeves. I’m wondering, more broadly, do you have bits that you reuse or personas that come out again in certain moments?
CN: Am I a bit person?
AF: Yeah, I feel like you’re more of a comedian in that way.
TS: What actually is a bit?
AF: I think a bit is like — Cali will be like the …
CN: — crotchety, old Jewish man. And I think I’m really drawing on my own life, in that way.
AF: You don’t say!
CN: In the craft of theater, usually people like to draw on their own experiences. And I had a crotchety, old Jewish grandfather and I have a not-as-crotchety, not-as-old Jewish father. I think, yeah, one of my bits is being an uptight, anxious — it doesn’t have to be Jewish — but an older person from the New York Tri-state area.
AF: I feel like, improv, too, you draw so much from your personal experience. I do a lot of foreign accents, and I came from an international background, and teasing different countries is the way my family bonds. You take a lot of your personal experiences into a scene, and you get to know a person by watching them do improv.
CN: I think when I’m being funny outside of SIKOS and I don’t have an accent, I’m just being vulgar.
AF: The way that I’m funny in real life never translates in improv. I feel like, in my own life, I am deadpan and am sort of low-energy. With improv, you become a real person — you get this stage presence. It makes me better at being in front of a crowd, to be more than yourself and come out of that shell. Also, just getting up in front of a group of people to make a fool of yourself.
CN: Or, just, to say something and hope that people think it’s funny or aren’t cringing.
TS: What do you do in those cases when people don’t react how you want them to?
CN: Oh, I feel insecure.
AF: Comedy is so dynamic, you’re feeding so much off [what] people are finding funny. It’s such a weird feeling — it can so impact the quality of what you’re doing when the audience doesn’t react the way you think they’re going to.
TS: Why is improv important on a college campus?
CN: We take ourselves way too seriously at this school. That’s first and foremost. I think it’s important to laugh at the things that are really hard — to laugh in general. We are in this rat race to be the most serious, the most professional adults. We need to unplug our b-holes a little bit and relax.
AF: It’s a space where you’re supposed to be doing that. At the end of the day, we’re trying to make people feel happier and get people to laugh at something at nobody’s expense.