• Lindsey Bowden

Conversations...with actor, Patrick Bristow.

Updated: Apr 24


Patrick Bristow

In the late 90’s I was an avid fan of the sitcom Ellen. I loved the quick-witted writing, the hilarious stories, and the quirky characters, including one of Ellen’s best friends, Peter Barnes. Little did I know, years later in 2013, that I would be working with that ball of energy at the Edinburgh Festival.

Patrick Bristow is one of those actors that pops up in everything. You may have seen him making Elizabeth Berkley “thrust it” in Showgirls, or you may remember that he refused to put Monica and Ross on the dance podium in Friends, or perhaps you recall him from Mad About You, Transformers, Pretty Little Liars and more recently with RuPaul in AJ and the Queen on Netflix. He’s as comfortable on screen as he is on stage, and is the king of improvisation.


Let me introduce you to my dear friend, the uproarious, Patrick Bristow.

Lindsey Bowden (LB)

Hi Patrick, thanks for joining me in this series of chats, I’m thrilled you agreed to join me.

Patrick Bristow (PB)

I am thrilled to join you anytime.

LB

How lovely! So, let’s start with what inspired you to go into acting and who your biggest inspirations were?

PB

My parents were stage actors in the late 1940s, so there was a lot of theatrical memorabilia around the house. I was fascinated with the photos and my parent’s stories of their time in the biz. I did a little play in my third-grade class based on young Abraham Lincoln. I played his stepbrother, a little comic relief from the heady, intense, patriotic drama that comprised the bulk of this 9-minute epic theatrical endeavour. I was bitten by the bug after getting laughs from no less than 22 other 8-year olds. It was intoxicating! Though I wouldn’t know what intoxication was for at least 3 more years. As for inspiration, it was Carol Burnett. Hands down. I wrote her a fan letter at about 10 years old and got an “autographed” photo back in the mail. I say “autographed” in quotes because even at 10, I could figure out the signature was not on the surface of the photo but was actually part of the photo. I’ve hated her ever since.

LB

Oh Carol, I’d expect better from that one. You were a member of the famous Groundlings theatre group and school in the 1990s with people such as Lisa Kudrow alongside you, and you also taught at the school. Can you talk a little bit about your experience there and how it helped your career?


Patrick Bristow & Lisa Kudrow at Groundlings

PB

Groundlings. Where to begin? First off, I have to say that every good thing that has happened in my career, and my life, is due to my having walked through that door in 1986 for my first class. I met my husband of 26 years there, got noticed by the L.A. casting directors there, found out what my personal comedic approach was, and that last part is really one of the greatest gifts of having worked there - to find out, through guided trial and error, what is effective comedically for each individual. It helps you find your “brand.” Did I just say, “your brand?” Ugh. I’m gross.

LB

You did. I can’t even look at you right now so we’ll just carry on. You have a strong history in improvisation and appeared on Whose Line Is It Anyway in both the UK and US versions. I’m also a huge fan of improv, but some actors find it terrifying. What is it about improv that you are drawn to and how can it help enhance an actors skills?

PB

I know from teaching just how many people find it terrifying. For me, it’s liberating. I have failed miserably in improv only to have a really successful experience just moments later. It’s theatrical thrill seeking, I guess. I think one of the benefits for actors is that improv (when taught to an actorly and not jokey end), really helps you not only stay in the moment, but WANT to be in the moment. The moment is electric when we embrace it. It doesn’t even require effort once you’re sort of addicted to the moment. Then the challenge is applying that to written lines and shoots in which you have to match previous takes. But that’s fun too.

LB

You are well known for playing Peter Barnes in the sitcom Ellen with Ellen DeGeneres, and featured heavily in the infamous Puppy Episode, the coming out episode. That episode is well documented as being highly controversial at the time, and it nearly ruined Ellen’s career. Can you talk about what it was like to be involved in that at the time, and how you look back on it now?


Patrick Bristow, Clea Lewis & Ellen DeGeneres in Ellen

PB

Wow. It was an intense ride. The notion of her coming out had been floated about a year before. She mentioned it to me in confidence on set and I remember thinking, “this is going to be HUGE.” The process of crafting that season (or series, as you all are wont to say), and that particular episode was done with such attention to detail and such love. I was brought into the writer’s room by Ellen to answer questions from the writers regarding my own personal coming out experiences. They used a heightened version of my experience with my family for Peter’s lines on the subject. I loved that they used my own parent’s 100% supportive, almost “non-reaction” to my coming out as Peter’s experience. Trivia bit - I’ve never told anyone this in an interview. But when they were figuring out how Ellen would first announce she was gay, I suggested it could be an accident. Like a hot mic at an airport boarding area where she inadvertently blurts it over the P.A. system. They went with that. Flash forward to the next GLAAD awards ceremony (Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation) where the show Wings was being nominated. They showed a clip from an episode where the exact same thing happened! And they had shot theirs long before ours. I swear I never saw that episode of Wings. I sort of slumped in my seat and checked my nails and pretended not to have noticed. The rest of the Ellen table was looking around at each other in disbelief as they knew they had the same joke in the finished episode that hadn’t aired yet. Yay.

LB

Oh wow, that’s incredible, I can imagine the disbelief! I remember watching the episode and just being glued to the TV. I also followed Ellen's career after that and so know how it came very close to being over for her. But it was, I personally feel, one of the most important moments of TV ever, for so many people. So, as well as Ellen, you have also guest starred in many comedies including Mad About You, Friends and one of my favourites Curb Your Enthusiasm, where your dance skills were put to full use! Was comedy always your forte?

PB

Oh, yeah. I had used humour to disarm people since I was a kid. I was the fey red-haired boy who was usually the first one a bully might set their sites on. So, I needed a defence strategy. I think this is a common enough story among some comedic actors and stand-ups who were never one of the cool kids. So, I was developing my own timing from early on. I was also good at running away very quickly. This got the attention of the track coach in high school, but I declined the invitation to join.

LB

Well, I can definitely identify. Not with being a fey red-haired boy, but I was the biggest girl in my year at school and got bullied, so I had to be funny and be prepared to laugh at myself too. Although no-one ever actually physically went for me, as I think they weren’t sure what the biggest girl could do if she retaliated! Ha! Now, we can’t chat about your career without mentioning your appearance in one of the most legendary films of all time, Showgirls, because you, Patrick Bristow, are the “thrust it” guy! Did you have any idea how much that film would go down in cult history?


Patrick Bristow & Elizabeth Berkley in Showgirls

PB

I had no clue it would attain cult status. I thought it would either be successful against the odds, (that script!), or it would be a bomb and forgotten like so many others. I’m actually glad it has remained one of the best/worst films in history. Every time a new film is pummelled by reviewers and held up as the worst, I get rather defensive. I don’t want Showgirls to be eclipsed! CATS made me a bit nervous along these lines.

LB

It did all of us, and I love the show! So, you and I met at the 2013 Edinburgh Festival during the stage show Puppet Up by the Henson Alternative, which is part of the Jim Henson Company. This remains one of my favourite projects to date, not least because we became friends and you bought me a lot of chocolate! And I was given my own Puppet, who I named Glenda and still have! Can you talk a little about Puppet Up, your many hats within it, and your relationship with Brian Henson who now runs The Jim Henson Company?


Patrick Bristow in Puppet Up!

PB

This one would be an interview unto itself. I was brought into Henson to teach improv in 2005 so the puppeteers he hired would have that skill in their pockets. It went great and we did a little demonstration of puppetry and improv one night. It was seen by some Aspen Comedy Festival people who wanted us to do it again the next year at their event, so we did and it took off. It has developed so organically over the years into what it is now. So collaborative. Much of the show’s success is due to the performers and Brian’s input. I’m credited as director, but the truth is that there are elements at any given moment in the show that are amazing and that I can’t take credit for. It’s my favourite job ever. I love hosting it. I love the cast taking the piss out of me. I love the audience sassing me. It’s a party! And Brian Henson’s personal looney, but smart, humour and his vision are present in the show even when he’s not there. Say hi to Glenda for me.

LB

I will, she misses you. The Henson lot (Studios) in Hollywood is closed to the public, but you kindly showed me around. A lot of people probably don’t know it’s the old Charlie Chaplin studios and it actually felt like walking around my childhood. Muppets everywhere! Puppet Up has now played on the main sound stage at the Henson lot, that must be an incredible experience to perform the show in the place with such history?

PB

It is. We’ve done probably 20 shows there over several years and it feels right. We convert the soundstage into a club of sorts. Tables, bar, platform stage, it’s so special for the audience members who appreciate the history of the lot. So the venue becomes part of the whole experience. Love it.

LB

Yep, I'd really like to see the show on the lot, knowing it as I do. So, just going back to your improv work, you have your own weekly improv class in Los Angeles, can you talk a little about your style of teaching and how someone could be involved?


Patrick Bristow in Whose Line Is It Anyway

PB

It’s basically a pain cult. If they don’t do it right, I have a remote shock device which zaps them. More fun to teach than to take. Okay - sorry. I taught at Groundlings for many years and wanted to change my approach from the necessary aspects of teaching in a conservatory model school (Groundlings or any other multi-level school) to teaching to the student as an individual more. I like taking time with them and giving them a wide berth to make mistakes, explore, and learn that failing is not the end of the world. In fact, if someone really, really, really blows it in a scene, I mean massively horrible work, they get a standing ovation from class and they take a very self-indulgent bow. So, we have fun with the process. Class is on hold presently, but there are, and will be, tons of great improv classes out there. Just make sure you are learning tangible lessons that you can apply to your work and that the space is safe and uplifting. I’ll leave the yelling and browbeating to athletic coaches. Comedy comes from joy more than fear in my experience.

LB

As an actor who often guest stars in various genres of shows, can you talk a little about your process in developing a character? If you’re only appearing in one episode, would you spend the same amount of time developing that character as you would a series regular?


Patrick Bristow in Friends

PB

Absolutely. I did an episode of Criminal Minds a few years ago, playing a suspect who was on the Autism spectrum. I was terrified of blowing it, so I spent tons of time researching it and seeing the amazingly diverse “spectrum within the spectrum.” Had to cry probably 14 times that day. The next job I had after that was probably some sort of nerdy school teacher. Probably didn’t prepare as much for that! As for series regular or even recurring, you get time to build the character in team with the writers and directors. Very different beast. Being a guest star, in my experience, is WAY more stressful than being a regular.

LB

Who has been your favourite character to play and why?

PB Impossible question! Different ones are “favorites” (I corrected your spelling for you there) for different reasons. I owe a great deal to Peter on Ellen because he was such an optimistic and good person. I loved that back in that time, he was fresher than many of the other gay roles that were offered to us all. A person once referred to him as “the bitchy queen on Ellen” and I thought, “Fuck you! Did you ever watch it?” He was a doll! Much nicer than me. Call me a bitchy queen, and well…fair enough. But hands off Peter!!!!


Patrick Bristow, Izzy G. & RuPaul in AJ & The Queen

LB

No comment! If someone reading this has a desire to become an actor, what is the one piece of advice you could give them?

PB

I am going to sound like my parents in 1979. HAVE A BACK UP CAREER!!! Not in case you fail, mind you. But to keep you afloat before you get to make your living at acting. That may take years. Or you might be the kind who has wonderful massive breakout jobs with several years in between them. Or you may not experience a sustainable career as an actor until you grow into yourself. If you are 22 years old but really come off like a 50 year old, you may have a career that blossoms further down the road. Enjoy the journey and have something to pay bills so you don’t have to do porn. Unless you want to. Dong porn when you don’t want to never looks convincing. Don’t ask me how I know that.



Follow Patrick Bristow on Twitter @1patrick_bristow


Follow Lindsey Bowden on Instagram @lindseybowden76 and Twitter @lindseybowden76


Follow Puppet Up on Instagram @puppetup and Twitter @PuppetUp



Patrick Bristow and myself in Edinburgh 2013

© 2020 Lindsey Bowden.