Big Tobacco

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Big Tobacco was formed around March of 2006. Its longest-running lineup was Phil Chorba, Sean Clements, Brandon Gardner, Mark Gessner, Lydia Hensler, Lauren Hobbs, Terri O'Reilly, Hal Phillips, and Steve Slate.


The original Big Tobacco lineup also included Brian Faas and Jacob Knoll, for a total of 11 members. Eight of those took a Chris Gethard 301 class together (all except Brandon, Brian, and Sean), and then seven took Gethard 401 1/06-3/06 together (all except Hal, Lauren, Steve, and Terri).

The genesis of Big Tobacco was a conversation between Hal, Jacob, and Terri at McManus in early 2006 about starting an improv group. By the end of the night, Lydia had also joined. A few days later, they invited Steve to join. After a few weeks of nothing happening, Hal and Terri decided to invite 301 classmates Lauren, Mark, and Phil, as well as Sean, who they'd met at a recent practice session. All four said yes, and Phil suggested asking Brandon and Brian from his 401, both of whom also said yes. Brandon suggested the name "Big Tobacco" on February 24th; everyone loved it, and it was the only name ever suggested or considered.

The Beginning

Big Tobacco asked Shannon O'Neill to coach, and she agreed. Since a few members had never played together or even met, they held their first practice on March 5th, with no coach, just to get used to each other, and started practicing with Shannon a week later on March 12th.

It wasn't long before they had their first show. The groups Five Dudes and Primal Bias were doing a run of Saturday night shows at Under St. Marks, and invited Big Tobacco to open for them on April 1st.. Big Tobacco brought a huge crowd and were asked back for the April 22nd show, which was the only show they ever did with the full, original 11-member lineup. Shortly after, Jacob left the group to take a break from improv.

Big Tobacco's third show was Cagematch, in April, at which they lost to Rogue Elephant and memorably incited controversy via IRC trash-talk and a controversial coin toss. After they opened for Rogue Elephant at Under St. Marks for their fourth show, Brian left the group. The remaining nine members stayed together for several months.

The Stuff After The Beginning

For a good long while, Big Tobacco had a reputation as a group that could bring a crowd. When Five Dudes took a break from their USM run that summer, Big Tobacco took their place for a while, doing shows with Primal Bias (or sometimes, a mashup called "Primal Dudes") and a revolving third group. Also that summer, Big Tobacco won the first ever Indie Cagematch Tournament, defeating Chantico Warfare and Cargo Cult in the first round, and then Happy Kid in the finals. They continued to work with Shannon for months, and she helped them adopt scene painting as their regular opening. Their Indie Cagematch victory earned them another shot at Cagematch, where they again lost, this time to Mailer Daemon.

After rehearsing on Sunday afternoons with Shannon for several months, Big Tobacco moved their rehearsals to Monday nights in the fall, and Bobby Moynihan took over coaching duties.

At the 2007 Del Close Marathon, Big Tobacco was given a 7am Saturday show slot. This ill-fated time led to a very drunken and very poor 30 minute set but was memorable in that UCB standout Eugene Cordero performed for the first and only time with the group after a spur of the moment group invitation.

By November, the group had begun to fracture, and several members considered quitting. Hal left on November 17th, Sean left on the 20th (after joining the Harold team Tantrum in September), and Brandon officially left by email on the 26th, (though he had already stopped practicing with the group several weeks prior to that). The remaining six members stayed together until January, when Lauren and Terri left.

Phase Two

Lydia, Mark, Phil, and Steve stayed together as Big Tobacco, eventually adding Kristy Webb. Continuing to work with Bobby as their coach, they developed a form called True Hollywood Stories, which ran at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater for several months in 2007, eventually adding Alden Ford as a cast member. Since the end of the run, Big Tobacco has been inactive.

Where Are They Now?

This is a list of each member's most active current project; several members are involved with multiple improv groups, as well as sketch groups and other projects.


  • When Hal and Terri first talked about coaches, Hal had a hunch that Shannon O'Neill would be a perfect coach for them, but debated whether or not to suggest her, since he'd never had her as a coach/teacher. Immediately after he thought that, Terri said, "You know who'd be a good coach for us? Shannon O'Neill." It was destiny.
  • When the only confirmed members were Hal, Jacob, Lydia, Steve, and Terri, Hal preemptively made a Google Groups list, and since the group didn't have a name, he just called the list "fuuck". He's pretty sure the list still exists, and bets he'll e-mail it sometime when he's drunk.
  • Big Tobacco's first time performing the scene painting opening was at the Indie Cagematch finals.
  • The group was very attached to Shannon, and when she showed up to one practice wearing a Bombardo hoodie it broke their hearts.
  • Big Tobacco's email threads often got out of control with a lot of arguing. There was also the trend of "I'm leaving the group" emails. While working on True Hollywood Stories Phil, Mark, Lydia, and Steven started a bogus email thread that was a giant argument/breakup. This came about because Lydia noted that some former members hadn't taken themselves off the email group and could possibly be reading our current emails. The thread was a test to see who would ask about our breakup- we caught Clements. Keeping with BT's great improv though, the thread itself had unintentionally become the Third Beat of a year long Harold via email, complete with callbacks and connections from past email arguments.