Mr. Yuk

Improv impresario Stevie Ray on 20 years of making it up on the fly

His resumé reads like an improv routine: a beekeeper, a martial artist, a former bodyguard for Pee-wee Herman—go! But Stevie Ray is best known for his eponymous improv comedy school and troupe in Minneapolis, which has spawned Vegas comics, Nick at Nite’s Funniest Mom in America, and numerous performers in this month’s Twin Cities Improv Festival.

Has being an improv master saved your butt in real life?
On every date I’ve ever had. When a woman asks, “Do these pants make me look fat?” you better think fast.

Ever needed to save yourself onstage?
I was once doing a scene outside in which I get someone to stand behind me and be my hands. So I have this girl behind me when a parakeet flutters up and lands on my [pants] fly. The hands behind me freeze. To this day, people ask, “How did you train that parakeet?”

How did you become Pee-wee’s bodyguard?
This was the early ’80s and my roommate was opening for him. Pee-wee has neck pains and I happen to practice shiatsu massage, so I fixed his neck for him. I’m also a martial artist, so he asked me to join him on a tour of New York. We’d be doing photo shoots with Andy Warhol during the day and at night I’d get him in and out of clubs. He didn’t tell me until we got to New York that he’d had a death threat.

You’re celebrating your troupe’s 20th anniversary with a year of stunts, including improv while skydiving. How will that work?
I’ve no idea. We need to figure out what improv we can even do up there, because we’ll be playing to nobody. Not that I haven’t done that, too.

Stevie Ray’s weekly Improv in the Park begins June 7 near the Lake Harriet Rose Garden in Minneapolis. The Twin Cities Improv Festival is June 25 to 28 at the Brave New Workshop.