Skinny, goofy and Jewish. Corey Cohen had all the wrong traits growing up in West Philadelphia.
So to protect himself from the other kids, the lanky Jewish boy with a head of curly hair developed the ultimate defense mechanism: Sarcasm.
“I grew up in an area where there aren’t a lot of skinny, goofy Jewish people,” the Temple junior said. “My mom could have yelled at me a couple more times when I was a kid and told me not to be sarcastic, and I probably would have been a different person because of it.”
About two years ago, Cohen took his skills from the West Philly streets to the stage when he began taking improvisation or “improv” comedy classes, the study of unplanned, created-on-the-spot performances. After taking classes at New York City’s Upper Citizens Brigade – one of the country’s top improv theaters – Cohen began to see comedy as more than just a way to avoid conflict. That’s when the little Jewish boy from West Philadelphia got stars in his eyes.
He landed a spot with The Ninjas, a group of mostly 30- and 40-year-old guys who, unlike the then 20-year-old college sophomore, balanced improv comedy with careers and wives at home.
“I got on this kick that I was destined for comedy,” he said. “I showed up [to The Ninjas audition] having only heard about them from a friend who saw one of their shows and said they were good. I checked [online] just to see if they were having auditions and it just so happened that they were having them the next day.”
When he first started with the group, Cohen couldn’t legally have a drink with the rest of The Ninjas.
“I came in and I started going to bars with them. We went to the Black Sheep and they assumed I was 21 until they were like, ‘Oh, we’re going to be going to a different bar,’ and I was like, ‘I don’t know if I’m going to be OK there … ‘ and they’re like,
‘Oh, you’re not 21? Oh, OK then,’ ” he said.
Despite being the youngest member of the eight man troupe, Cohen has successfully worked with the group for the past year, performing with them at the Philadelphia Fringe Festival, Philadelphia’s Second Annual Improv Festival and at gigs like Fergie’s Pub, the Rotunda, Society Hill Playhouse and the Grape Street Pub in Manayunk.
The group’s improv set is a complicated sequence of scenes, or “beats,” based on inspiration taken from an audience member’s cell phone. After asking the audience for a cell phone, one of The Ninjas scrolls through its contents and asks the audience member for some information on three to four people. The group then creates an “area” – it can be a town, street or building – and they begin to establish characters and storylines based on what the audience member told them about the people in their phone’s contact list.
“It’s awfully complicated. It’s easier to understand if you go, sit back and just take it in,” Cohen said. “If you go in not knowing there’s really much of a structure and watch it come together you’re just [like], ‘Wow! How’d they do it?’ I even say that after we do a whole show.”
Out-of-the-ordinary contact names in a phone or interesting tidbits, like a person having an interesting career or hobby, help the group to develop its scenes.
“One girl had three or four numbers that said ‘Do not answer.’ And we were like, ‘Who are these ‘Do not answer?’ and she’s like, ‘I don’t know. So I just don’t answer.’ ”
The English major has little interest in acting, especially at Temple. “I can’t stand theater majors,” he said. “Some of them are very delightful people, but for the most part … I think I’d rather die than be a theater major. I figure I’m safe with the ambiguity of being an English major.”
After deliberating on whether to drop out of school and move to New York to take his chances at making it big, reality set in and Cohen decided that getting his degree was more important. And while you won’t see Cohen on Broadway anytime soon, New York is still his ultimate goal for the future.
“There was a period where I was going to drop out of Temple and just move to New York,” he said. “Right now it’s not about having some big dream at the end of the tunnel. It’s just about doing it.”
She didn’t tell him to shut up when he was growing up; as a result Cohen’s mother unintentionally developed her son’s natural humorous qualities. Cohen worries that she sees her error in his upbringing.
“I know my mom worries that I’ll end up being a temp for 10, 15 years and just disappear into obscurity. And she’s probably right,” Cohen said.
Let’s hope Cohen can rewrite her prediction and improvise his future for success.
Sammy Davis can be reached at email@example.com.