Paul and Christy are Second City alumni whose comedic skills cut like a knife. He’s one third of improvised sci-fi comedy podcast Illusionoid, and she’s the star of countless stage and screen productions. We asked them how they landed their favourite role, as man and wife.

Photo © Paul Bates

Photo © Paul Bates

P&C: How and when did you meet?

Paul: I’m not sure when Christy and I first met. But the first time I can remember us talking is when she was in Second City’s Touring Company and I was directing her for a corporate show. I am not above using my status for my own gain.

Christy: It was Second City (2000?), the first time I remember seeing Paul was after I got hired for the Touring Co. and snuck in to watch the Mainstage show. There was Paul Bates as Stephen Hawking and I thought to myself “Who’s that funny guy?” I don’t remember him directing me…I must have blocked that out of my memory for some reason. Bates, we need to talk about that!

P&C: When did you first know you liked the other person?

Paul: The moment I laid eyes on her, across the upstairs bar at 56 Blue Jays Way.

Christy: First of all, Paul’s answer made me melt. I actually knew I liked him that same moment I first saw him on stage. It’s a bit odd to think that a guy pretending to be Hawking is hot.

P&C: Were you ever (or are you now) on the same team? What’s it like performing together?

Paul: We’re on the same team when we discipline our child (corporal punishment) but I can’t recall being on a Theatresports team with Christy.

Christy: I love playing with Paul; it doesn’t happen as often as I’d like. Especially now that he snuck a baby into our lives. Now shows are a little bit more of “divide and conquer.” It’s hard enough doing a show for free, but to pay $15/hour to do a show is even harder.

P&C: What’s the best, worst, or funniest moment you’ve had on stage – either together, or with the other person watching?

Paul: The worst: Christy tried to pretend to hit me in the nuts. But instead hit me in the nuts very, very hard. To her dismay we still conceived. (Christy: I forgot about that. It was a pretty funny moment, for me.)

The best/funniest moments I’ve had with my wife is performing The Soaps, the improvised soap opera she produced. The best one we did is the one that took place in the War of 1812.

Christy: I think some of the best moments were when I filled in for Aurora on the Second City Mainstage show for a week. It was really that week that gave us more time together and made us realize there was more to the attraction than just crushes. To be able to play with someone on stage and having them make you laugh really ups the connection factor.

Honestly, Paul makes me laugh every time I watch him and perform with him. It reminds me of why I fell in love with in the first place (not a hilarious answer, but true). When Paul is in the audience watching, I get a little nervous, but I also know he always has my back. Which is the best.

P&C: Has improv helped your relationship?

Paul: We listen. We say yes. We support each other. Counselling has helped too.

Christy: The skills of Improv are definitely tools for a good relationship. Also knowing what the other person is going through when they have a bad show is a huge help. We come from different ‘schools’ of improv. I’m Keith Johnstone based, he’s….I actually haven’t figured that out yet. Let’s just say, I’ve taught him a lot.

P&C: What impact has improvisation had on your careers?

Paul: Second City gave me my start and continues to give me new and exciting opportunities. I am forever grateful.

Christy: Improv is such an important and overlooked skill in the acting world. My background in improv has booked me commercials, a gig on Broadway, a show in the West End, and has given me a confidence on stage when the wheels fall off during a ‘proper play’…so much so that I kind of live for the wheels to fall off. It’s also shown me that the best warm-up for a show is a drink or two. In a way, Improv is my career.

Recently a friend posted on Facebook. He was talking about Canada, but it could just as easily have been America, or Ireland, or Micronesia:

“How do we fix the Canadian entertainment system? How do we get funding to more people? How do we do this without stifling creativity? How do we get audiences to take note? Is there anything we can do? Anybody?”

Replies poured in:

  • Canadians tend not to appreciate talent till they move to the States and become successful
  • Canadian film/TV should stop trying to emulate America
  • Canadian film/TV should stop worrying about creating “Canadian” stories, and just let Canadians tell stories
  • Government-funded content is usually an “art wank,” as opposed to something with broad appeal
  • Canadian funding is too risk averse, leading to watered-down end product

All valid points. In fact, I’ve heard them from actors, writers, producers and directors for the past 25 years. And in all that time, not much has changed. If anything, in some ways it’s worse.

So what then? “Can’t win, don’t try?”

Heeeeeeeeell no. I’m saying “Can win, do try;” you just may need to change the way you do it. Here are some things I’ve learned in the last quarter century that can help.

Show, don’t tell.

You’ve written a screenplay. It’s box office gold. You just need someone to read it, and soon you’ll be rubbing shoulders with Seth Rogen.

In that case you should check out I Will Not Read Your Fucking Script by Josh Olson. It explains, in no uncertain terms, why you probably should spend some more time on it before unleashing it on innocent victims.

On the other hand, maybe your script really is brilliant. Maybe you’re the next Aronofsky, or Apatow, or (please God, not the later stuff) Adam Sandler.

You’ve still gotta put in some work – OK, probably a lot of work – to convince others of your genius.

The Office wouldn’t exist if Stephen Merchant hadn’t filmed Ricky Gervais for a corporate training video. They cleverly used it to pitch Ricky’s David Brent character to the BBC.

“If we’d just handed in a script, it would still be sitting there on someone’s desk,” says Gervais. “You’ve got to see the performance in context.”

While part of me weeps for the English language with every emoji, people think in pictures, and your 100-page script is a long slog for anyone to attempt. Make it easy for people. Film a teaser or demo to bring it to life.

New ideas are scary. 

The BBC weren’t just sitting around waiting for the next When The Whistle Blows to walk through their door. Or maybe they were, and that’s the problem.

It’s a sad fact of life that it’s easier to like the familiar. Most innovation is only embraced after the fact.

Remember Dove Evolution?

It won two Cannes Grand Prix, logged millions of views, and spawned countless parodies. With an idea that brilliant, it was an obvious slam dunk from the start, right?

Not quite. While the ad agency knew they had something powerful, the clients weren’t convinced. Instead, they approved another, tamer ad:

The underlying message is similar, but the execution isn’t nearly as strong. It quickly disappeared from view.

But the agency didn’t give up. Writer and co-director Tim Piper pulled favours from suppliers and begged the client to piggyback Evolution on the other film’s shoot.

When other clients saw the millions of YouTube hits, not to mention free press from Ellen, Oprah, and countless news outlets, they wanted an Evolution, too. Ask any creative who worked in 2007: suddenly every brief was for a “viral video like Dove.” (Of course, very few clients had the balls to pursue brave ideas, so most of the work stayed in boardrooms. Like we said, new ideas are scary.)

If opportunity doesn’t knock, build a door. – Milton Berle

Canadians of a certain age will remember Speakers Corner. For a buck, anybody could enter the booth and talk to the camera about any subject. The best (and worst) clips were aired weekly on City TV.

Albert Howell and Andrew Currie hijacked the show with improvised mayhem. Calling themselves The Devil’s Advocates, they built a cult following that led to their own TV show.

Today there’s a much bigger Speakers Corner, called YouTube. And while jillions of videos vie for attention, you can still stand out from the crowd.

How about taking some of the worst fanfic ever written and filming it?

That’s what the creators of the My Immortal web series did, racking up tens of thousands of views and winning die-hard fans.

The real value of “free.”

There’s a difference between someone expecting you to work gratis, and doing stuff for free because you can’t get it made any other way (yet).

Create your own web series, short film, or stage play, and someone may like it enough to pay you. If not for that, then for something else.

The My Immortal crew shot the first two seasons on their own dime. Then, thanks to their loyal fan base, they were able to fund a new series through Kickstarter called No Boys Dorm.

Those crafty Devil’s Advocates made numerous appearances on Speakers Corner before being offered their own show, Improv Heaven & Hell. Albert Howell went on to write for Comedy Inc, This Hour Has 22 Minutes, and most recently, a little thing called The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon.

Evolution‘s Tim Piper has his own film and television studio, where he directs long-form content for clients.

And after scoring the lowest rating of any BBC program ever, The Office went on to win BAFTAs, a Golden Globe, and a Peabody, spawning a US version that lasted for nine seasons.

Of course, there are no guarantees. You may not find big investors for your one-man show about your sex life, or your hilarious podcast about periods. That’s OK. You’re probably just ahead of the curve. Keep believing in yourself, and eventually others will too.

“Our lives are our biggest projects.” – Ayse Birsel

Sometimes we think, “If I could just (direct an award-winning film/write a groundbreaking comedy/host a late-night talk show/get a date) I’d be happy!”

In that case Jonathon Dayton and Valerie Faris, who directed the Oscar®-winning Little Miss Sunshine, should be retired. Instead, they shoot commercials for State Farm and Sprint to help finance their passion projects.

Bob Odenkirk and David Cross changed the face of comedy. But they struggled for years after Mr Show ended, before finding new fame with Arrested Development, Breaking Bad, and coming soon to Netflix, With Bob & David.

And who could forget Conan O’Brien? After years of being groomed to take over The Tonight Show, he was put in an untenable position. Forced to choose between walking away or moving The Tonight Show till after midnight (essentially becoming The Tomorrow Show), Conan resigned.

It was a low point not just in Conan’s career, but in late-night history. But Team Coco followed him to TBS, where he and Andy Richter continue to make their own brand of funny.

To go back to my friend’s original post, “How do we fix the [your country here] entertainment system? Is there anything we can do? Anybody?”

The answer, as always, lies with you.

There is no finish line. There is no free lunch. But there is such a thing as artistic freedom when you take responsibility for it yourself.

You can rail against the system, or you can say fuck the system. Create your own content. Involve your friends. Learn the skills you need to make it happen. Most importantly, as Mick Napier would say, just do something. Anything. It doesn’t have to perfect.

Share your work, build your own tribe, and others will join you. Before you know it, you won’t care about fixing the system, because the system will be chasing you.

For further reading, we recommend:

Chris and Laura are staples of the comedy community. Chris shot and directed How To Spot An Improviser, and Laura is one half of hilarious sketch duo, Two Weird Ladies, among many other things. We got all real talk on their relationship.

Photo © Laura Salvas

Photo © Laura Salvas

P&C: How and when did you meet?

Chris: Laura claims it was at a party of a mutual friend. I have no recollection of this.

Laura: That’s because it was 2:30 am on New Year’s Day and Chris was drunk. Though it’s good to know I failed to make any sort of lasting impression.

The first time I noticed Chris was at a Vanguard improv show at The Supermarket. I thought he was really funny so I tucked his existence away in my mind. Then I tried to talk to him at the party he doesn’t remember. To be fair, the conversation was very boring.

Chris: One of my earliest memories of hanging out with Laura is the Del Close Marathon in New York the summer of 2010. At the end-of-festival dance party, we took a photo with one of our friends. We look like we’re having the time of our lives, and that we kidnapped him against his will. It’s one of my favourite photos and part of my earliest memories with Laura.

Laura: We hung out at DCM in 2010 and again in 2011, but the first time we really got to know each other was during the 2011 Toronto Improv Festival. We’d both gone to see shows alone, and although we knew lots of people at Comedy Bar, we were both pretty socially awkward and ended up just talking to each other all night.

A week later we were back at Comedy Bar for Halloween. I was dressed as Zombie Princess Di and Chris was dressed as some comic book character called Axe Cop that I’d never heard of in my life. Despite my tasteless costume and abundant zombie makeup, we got drunk and made out. Yadda, yadda, yadda – we’re getting married in November. I’ll really have to work on this story before we have kids. So they respect us and stuff.  

Chris: They can respect Laura all they want. I’m planning on being the embarrassing dad.

P&C: When did you first know you liked the other person?

Chris: I stage-liked Laura when I saw the remount of her Second City Conservatory show, Citizen Vain. I thought she was hilarious.

I started to like-like her at the Del Close Marathon in 2011. (Notice a trend?) Four of us were discussing Seinfeld, and which characters we were most like. She was Elaine, and I was George. I was a little distraught, as only in Jason Alexander’s fan fiction would Elaine ever fall for George. Luckily over the course of the festival we got to get to know each other more.

I wouldn’t make a move until months later when I ran into her at Comedy Bar. After a long discussion I came up with the brilliant flirting line, “I don’t want to date comedians.” Somehow we got together. (Booze.)

Laura: I found Chris appealing from the moment I saw him on stage as part of his Vanguard show. Mostly because he was funny and I really liked the way he improvised. But also he was attractive and was dressed in a weird skater/slacker/I-do-improv-and-have-no-money style that I particularly liked.

But I felt we really hit it off at DCM. Finding out Chris loves Seinfeld and relates most to George Costanza was sadly a big plus for me, as I am somewhat of a female Larry David.

Chris was just as excited as I was to spend hours in FAO Schwartz looking at toys, and together we came up with the plot to a sequel to the movie Big, called Little, starring Colin Hanks. A love for Seinfeld, affinity for Lego, and abnormally detailed knowledge of a 1980s Tom Hanks classic. What was not to like?

Photo © Laura Salvas

Photo © Laura Salvas

P&C: Have you ever performed together?

Chris: We were never on the same improv team, but we did write and perform in a sketch revue together. We’re both Type A (okay, I’m more of an A minus) so we got stuff done. She is a crazy talented comedy writer, so she brought out the best in me.

Laura: We were both part of a short-run improv show where we improvised episodes of Degrassi Junior High. Man – we really need to bring that show back. It was so much fun. I played pregnant Spike and Chris played Mr. Raditch.

Other than that, we’ve done a few one-off shows together, co-wrote a news joke podcast, and worked together writing and acting in an anti-Ford municipal election sketch show.

It’s great working with someone who shares your crazy work ethic and obsession with detail (even if it’s maybe because they’re a little scared of how Type A you are). I remember I initially said I didn’t want to be that couple who does improv together. Now I actually want to start an improv duo with Chris called “That Couple Who.” I should remember to ask him about that…

Chris: Laura, remember to ask me about that.

P&C: What’s the best, worst, or funniest moment you’ve had improvising together?

Chris: In a workshop we were given the task of improvising as each other on a date. For some couples this could be an effective means to truncate a relationship. We certainly fell into the trap of pointing out each other’s flaws: she talked about superheroes and checked her phone a lot, while I took the entire scene to decide what to order. I also made note to correct the grammar of the menu.

While the people watching thought they were seeing a couple air their grievances, we were, in a way, retelling the night where I realized I loved her. I’d come back from the washroom at Fran’s Restaurant to find Laura correcting their menu with a green pen. They had a fascination with unnecessary apostrophes. It was at that moment I knew it was love. (I’m fairly certain she thought I would bail immediately.)

Laura: Not improv, but the worst for me was the one time Chris saw me do stand-up. I used to be a pretty decent stand-up, but I didn’t love it the way I love sketch and improv so I retired. A couple years later, after I started dating Chris, on a whim I did stand-up once, using new material I’d written the night before. Untested material, mostly about travelling to a crowd who either had never travelled or thought I wasn’t funny.

So the only time Chris saw me do stand-up I really fell flat. It haunts me. It’s like skipping Wayne’s World and Austin Powers and going straight to The Love Guru; you’re never going to believe that Mike Myers was once funny.

P&C: How has improv helped your relationship?

Chris: We’re in the final stages of planning our wedding. We have to keep reminding each other that we can’t just choose the funniest thing, that our wedding should also be sentimental.

Laura: If it weren’t for improv, we never would have met, never would have continued to meet and never would have yes-and-ed our Halloween drink consumption to get to the point where we were drunk enough to make a move.

Since then, I’ve realized how important it is to have someone who understands the desire to dedicate your time doing something you love for free. We both understand when the other person has stretches of time when they’re never home, we both understand the importance of going to each other’s shows and supporting each other, we both understand that there’s no “end goal” in doing improv – we both plan and hope to do it for as long as we are able.

People who aren’t passionate about an art form, playing a sport, etc, often don’t understand these things. Plus, our relationship has been fun.

P&C: What impact has improv had on your careers?

Chris: I was in a toxic seven-year relationship with a nation-wide book chain. In my interview with my current employer, my boss doubted my ability to take rejection well. I’d be doing sales if I got the job, and it’s not a job for everyone. I told him, “I auditioned for Second City Conservatory for five years until I got in, I think I can handle rejection.” He replied, “You’re hired.”

Laura: If we’re talking about my day job, not going to lie – improv has probably mostly hurt my career. While it has helped my people skills to a certain degree, it also means I say things without thinking and can be an unprofessional piece of trash who sometimes crosses the line without meaning to.

Recently before entering a meeting with a high-level exec, my boss had to pull me aside and warn me not to do anything dumb. Essentially all I can do is be myself and hope the people who matter like my sense of humour. And of course being involved in the arts makes it hard to sit at a desk being all non-creative and stuff. Improv is about creating, exploring new ideas and being innovative, but sometimes the corporate world is not open to change and just wants to go by the book, which I find challenging.

Outside of the office, improv has helped me immensely in auditions and other forms of comedy. Recently during my solo play, the power went out halfway through the show. Alone on stage in the dark, I’ve never been more grateful for my improv skills.

That said, making $40 on a play you spend hundreds of hours writing, producing and acting in hardly counts as a career. During the day I sit at a desk reading legal contracts and writing professionally-worded emails, then trying not to say anything that will get me fired when I’m in meetings with VPs. But I am slowly taking the steps I need to to become a writer for television, and once that dream comes true my improv skills will help me immensely.

Harper Halloween

(Chris wins for scariest costume as Stephen Harper. And did we mention the Comedy Bar Halloween show is right around the corner?)

A bunch of really cool, really funny people met through improv. We asked some of our favourite couples how they hooked up.

Photo © Kenway Yu

Photo © Kenway Yu

P&C: How and when did you meet?

Laura: Josh and I first met in a weekend musical improv workshop. I recognized him from Impatient Theatre Company, but he was a later generation than me, and I wasn’t really in that segment of the scene anymore.

Josh: Laura wrote an article for my blog after the improv workshop. I remember seeing her sing and being like – Whoa! Who is this person I’ve never met before? What a voice! I could tell she was captivated by me, but I played it cool.

P&C: When did you first know you liked the other person?

Laura: When we first met at the workshop, he was dating someone else, and I was aiming to seduce the instructor. We didn’t really think much of each other until the Comedy Bar Halloween party of 2011. He was dressed as Gazpacho the genie, and I was a slutty sandwich board for Occupy Sesame Street.

When I kissed him that night, and his breath stunk of garlic from all the gazpacho he’d been eating, I really didn’t think it was going anywhere. We’re getting married next year.

Josh: Laura was instantly taken by my confidence and sex appeal at the Comedy Bar Halloween party. It was clear she was smitten, and I decided to give her a chance. The next few months were a whirlwind romance.

P&C: What’s it like performing together?

Laura: We first performed together as a duo called Lil Zazzers. He wanted to name our child that, so I used the name for our improv duo to ensure that name was used for something else.

We also performed together on a team called Crazy Horse at SoCap. Josh and I often improvise scenes, songs, and characters privately to each other, so performing together is really just being our private selves in front of people. Our sense of play generally focuses on finding creative ways to annoy each other. Like my clown: Cramps, the menstruating clown.

Josh: When we have twins, they will both be named “Lil Zazzers” and will be a Vaudevillian comedy duo. Think gold lamé, canes, a top hat, pencil moustaches, etc.

P&C: How has improv helped your relationship?

Laura: We always listen to each other, say yes to each other’s ideas, and generally avoid judging each other, so that is wonderful. I think that listening all the way to the end of the other person’s sentence before formulating a response is a great skill for relationships and life in general, and one that I still work on.

And then of course there are the endless bits, voices, etc. Also, if one of us has a bad set, it’s great that the other can offer constructive feedback and not just be totally embarrassed. Josh has also coached me, and he is a fantastic coach!

Josh: What Laura said.

P&C: In what way has improv influenced your career?

Laura: I work now as a music teacher, and I’ll be teaching a class on performance skills for musicians this year to kids. It’s all improv based, because improv is a great way to help any type of performer come out of his or her shell.

Josh : I work at the University of Guelph. I use improv in my training and coaching to build rapport with my staff and help them get comfortable with their work.

P&C: What’s the best, worst, or most memorable show you’ve done together?

Laura: My favourite show was a jam at Unit 102 a few years ago with some other people. The suggestion we got was “bigotry,” which is pretty heavy for a random jam. We were with a great group of people, and we really threw it to the wall.

Scenes included the Museum of Racism featuring Star Trek, a billionaire Chinese businessman becoming a soap opera director, Aunt Jemima taking questions at her Ted Talk, and 100-year-old Rosa Parks demanding a seat on a crowded bus. I don’t know if we moved mountains that day, but we certainly threw the audience’s shitty suggestion back in their face. I was proud of us!

(Hot tip: Comedy Bar‘s Halloween party is just around the corner.)

We’ve expressed our love of Mick Napier’s Improvise: Scene From The Inside Out before, but now he’s gone and heightened it further.

This new, expanded edition contains a foreword by one Stephen Colbert, tips for improv success, plus a full reproduction of Napier’s web journal for Paradigm Lost.

Get your mitts on a copy here.

Photo © Mick Napier

Photo © Mick Napier

Image © Ben Noble

Image © Ben Noble

P&C: How did you get started in improv?

BN: I had an awful break-up my final semester of college. I had isolated a lot of my friends to spend time with my then-girlfriend, and the ones I did keep in touch with were moving away from St. Louis after graduation.

During that period, I was feeling sorry for myself and started listening to WTF with Marc Maron (those two things are unrelated). He was interviewing Jon Favreau, who mentioned getting his start through improv. I remembered I’d always enjoyed my acting classes in high school, and had performed in several plays. I thought about getting back into it, as a way to make friends and as a creative outlet.

When I got home that afternoon, I immediately Googled “improv in St. Louis,” clicked the first result, and signed up for the classes that were starting that weekend. I thought, “What’s the worst that could happen?”

P&C: Why did you write Improv ABC?

BN: Back in April of this year, I was having a lot of trouble working my way through the UCB Comedy Improvisation Manual. It’s packed with great info, but it’s dense. It feels like reading a textbook. But other than that manual, most other improv books I’ve read are all about theory and encourage practice.

Where I am now in improv, that’s the kind of book I’m looking for. But when I was a student, I wanted to get really good really fast. I know everyone wants that, and obviously, that’s just not how it works. But there also wasn’t much in the way of resources about practical advice to improv. So I decided to write the book I wish I had when I was coming up and learning the craft – something practical, straightforward, and most importantly, fun.

Image © Ben Noble

Image © Ben Noble

P&C: What makes a great improviser, in your opinion?

BN: I think the single most important trait of the great improviser is that they don’t have an agenda. They don’t need to prove to the audience or the team that they’re funny. They’re kind and generous. Their only goals are to have fun and make their scene partners look good.

I hope that people come away from my book with some practical tips for creating character, having a point of view, etc. But I also hope they leave knowing that improv is just as much about who you are as a person as it is how well you can find and heighten the game, or how well you audition.

P&C: Who would you say has been the biggest influence on the way you improvise?

BN: There’s a really great improviser in St. Louis, Andy Sloey. I remember watching a scene between him and another improviser, Kevin McKernan (here it goes… someone else’s improv story, ugh) in which one played a paramedic and the other a female by-stander. What struck me about this specific scene was that, despite their characters, they were just having a regular conversation I could see them having at the bar after the show. In that moment, I realized I could be myself and have a real conversation on stage, and that was way funnier than trying to be funny or think really hard about the game or whatever.

P&C: How has improv helped in other areas of your life?

BN: There are so many ways. I could go on forever. But I think most importantly, improv has given me the confidence to “yes and” my own ideas. To believe that my contributions are worthwhile and add value to the world. Without the confidence I gained from improv, I never would have started my blog or written my book.

P&C: What’s your favourite improv book?

BN: Truth In Comedy by Del Close and Charna Halpern. It was the first improv book I ever read, and I love how applicable it is to both improv and real life. Although I am excited to read TJ and Dave’s new book, Improvisation at the Speed of Life.

P&C: Do you have any plans for a follow-up? Say, Improv by the Numbers

BN: I would like to write a follow-up, but right now I have some other projects in the works, including a podcast that goes deeper into the themes I discuss on my blog: how improv can make you more creative, and how it can help you in real life. You’ll have to wait until next year for Improv by the Numbers or whatever book comes next. But in the meantime, if you want to check out more of my writing, sign up for I’m Making All This Up‘s weekly email. Every Monday morning, I’ll send you the latest from my blog for a little creative boost to start the work week.

Click to order your copy of Improv ABC. (Spoiler: “ABC” does not stand for “Always Be Clap-focusing”)

Ben Noble headshot

Sharilyn Colbert Photo

Stephen Colbert asked me a simple question.

“Are you an improviser?”

I didn’t say what I wanted to say, which was: yes, and it’s entirely because of you.

Instead, I stammered and hedged and spit out “um, sort of, like… on and off?”

Nerves weren’t to blame for my awkward reply, though anyone who knows how big of a fan I am of Colbert would be hard-pressed to believe it. After all, I flew to New York 13 times just to see tapings of The Colbert Report, and co-authored a full-length fan guide to the show. Students at Stanford university studied me as part of a course on fandom. That’s hardcore.

When he appeared before me as I waited in line outside the UCB Theatre last November, my friends concluded, “you manifested him!”

No argument here.

But I couldn’t give him my perfect answer because I wasn’t confident in the “yes” part. (The “it’s entirely because of you,” however, was entirely accurate.)

The story goes like this: I first saw Colbert in person 10 years ago, on a Daily Show discussion panel at the Just for Laughs Festival. His obvious joy for connecting with the audience was unlike anything I’d ever seen. I felt invigorated just watching him, and marvelled at whatever this thing was that made his presence so electric.

His new series became a hit, and he made global headlines when he roasted President Bush at the White House Correspondents Dinner. But it was a much less scandalous speech a few months later that made my jaw drop for the second time: his commencement address at Knox College.

He implored the graduating class of 2006 to “say yes.” He explained how to create an improv scene — accept offers, be open, make agreements — and told them they were about to embark on the biggest improvisation of all.

“Will saying yes get you in trouble sometimes? Will saying yes cause you to do some foolish things? Yes it will. But don’t be afraid to be a fool,” he said. “You cannot be both young and wise.”

I saw the connection between the freedom he seemed to have in his performance, and the openness in the philosophy he shared with those students.

His words caught me at a critical time. I’d always been passionate about comedy, but knew I wasn’t meant to be on stage. I worked as a comedy journalist as I tried to claw my way into the business side of “the” business, where I could be where I was most at home: behind a desk.

But it clicked: I’d actually been saying “no.” I tried so hard, but was only pursuing opportunities that I knew I could succeed at if given the chance. Saying “yes” would mean removing these parameters. I had to channel my passion in every direction, no matter how much discomfort, risk, or even failure it brought with it.

I took a page from Colbert’s book, and signed up for an improv class.

Improv? Had I lost my damn mind?

Between my paralyzing stage fright and control issues and only-child syndrome, this would surely be a disaster. This experiment was so doomed that I travelled 1,600 miles away to study in New York, reducing the chance of any gory details reaching my hometown.

It wasn’t easy, but it was great. Aside from bonding with wonderful classmates and teachers, it immediately changed the way I operated in life, in all the ways we know it does. I didn’t dwell on difficulties, I became a better problem-solver, and was super proud because holy crap you guys I did improv.

I upped the ante. I moved halfway across the country. I dove head-first into comedy writing classes that were way too advanced for me. I wrote and performed a one-woman show, somehow spending an entire hour on stage by myself. And I kept taking improv classes.

This is the part where you’re expecting me to say that I found my calling on stage, got overpriced headshots, and never looked back.

But no. All of those creative pursuits were exceptionally hard, and I still didn’t crave the spotlight.

So a few years in, when I started getting busy with other stuff, it was easy for me to take a break from improv. It was easy to let months pass. And easy to then let the months pass in packs of 12. After four years away, it became too hard to go back.

I didn’t realize how big a mistake I was making, because I was still using what I learned in those first improv experiences to say “yes” to things. I mean, I wrote a book for crying out loud – and accomplished in eight months what most writers have 18 to do.

It was a huge challenge. But a challenge I knew I could do as long as I sacrificed enough sleep. Big workload, low risk.

I was accomplishing, but not growing. That’s not what improv — and by extension, Colbert — taught me to do.

When Colbert and I spoke that night, standing just feet from the first stage I ever improvised on, the end of The Colbert Report was four weeks away. It would be nine whole months before he returned to television. I dreaded it, wondering what I’d do with myself in his absence.

The answer was in his question. I would make up for lost time, and “yes” the fuck outta 2015.

In January, I went to my first improv jam, and (predictably) sucked in front of Colin Mochrie. “Get in trouble,” Colbert once said in an interview. “You’ll never get good unless you fail.” I chose to chalk this up as a win.

I took some refresher classes at Bad Dog Theatre, where a whole new generation was discovering improv while I re-discovered it.

I did a three-day intensive Second City Chicago (Colbert’s old stomping grounds), where Jay Steigmann made me prove that I don’t suck at sketch writing after all, and Rachael Mason made me wish I wasn’t too old to be adopted by her.

I wrote a pilot, a daunting and painful process, often with little to show for in the end. I did it anyway.

I studied theatrical clown, a difficult and vulnerable artform for anyone, but thick with layers of anxiety for me. Can I handle looking like an idiot? Can I handle people knowing that I want to look like an idiot? AM I an idiot for worrying? I pushed through my nerves to develop a solo piece, and was invited to perform it on the biggest stage I’ll likely ever step on.

It was hard. All of it. Performing will never be in my DNA, and I’ll always feel like I’ve had to work harder than those who are hungry for it. But it’s because it’s hard that I’m a better person for pushing myself towards it. Each and every one of these creative challenges has made me stronger and my life richer.

I learned this year that just saying “yes” over and over again, in itself, doesn’t cause growth. I need to say “yes” louder, and say it in agreement to bigger and scarier things. Otherwise, all I’m doing is repeating a scene I already know the ending to.

I’ll be in the audience at the Ed Sullivan Theatre when Colbert tapes his Late Show premiere on Sept. 8, officially marking the end of my fandom vacation.

But as excited as I am to watch Colbert’s next chapter take shape, I’m even more excited about my own. I have pilot script rewrites to finish, a clown character to develop, and fall improv classes to get into the groove of.

And then?

Like in any good improv scene, I have no idea what’s going to happen. But I know “yes” will take me there, as long as I say it loud enough.

Sharilyn Johnson is the author of Bears & Balls: The Colbert Report A-Z. She has been an entertainment reporter since 1995, focusing on comedy since 1998. Her blog, Third, is required reading for comedy nerds. Follow her on twitter @thirdbeat.

Kat Letwin is a crazy-talented actor/improviser (pictured below, second from the left). When she posted this piece recently, we were so enamoured we demanded to share it with readers.

Photo © Jenn Fraser

Photo © Jenn Fraser

A lovely thing happened tonight at Bad Dog Theatre. This doesn’t come as much of a surprise, since lovely things happen nightly at Bad Dog Theatre, but the nature of this particular thing was special.

Micetro runs every Wednesday. Improvisers show up at 7 pm for a drop-in workshop, and the 8 pm show is cast from said drop-in; as a show that has a clear champion at the end, it’s low stakes enough to be freeing, but competitive enough to make you try. I’ve been showing up to Micetro whenever I could since September – before then, I’d done improv in fits and starts, really only here and there. This show is what got me into regularly improvising in Toronto.

So, tonight, because I could, I showed up. When I arrived, Burn Notice (which is a show you should definitely go see, it runs until Friday) was finishing up their tech run in the space, and there were several people in the lobby quietly hanging out.

“Is Micetro happening?”

“I don’t know.”

“I don’t think so?”

Someone asked an authority figure.


We all looked at each other.

“…you guys wanna do it anyway?”

With that, in the lobby, we circled up and played together for an hour.

None of us knew each other, nor did we have an audience to give us laughs, nor did we have any kind of direction. But we wanted to play, and so we did. We took turns sharing games we love; we navigated a wide range of experience levels; we tried and failed and succeeded while doing some very silly things. Other people in the theatre came and joined us on their breaks from classes and rehearsals, just because they could – just because, like us, they wanted to play.

There was no clear winner in this privately held microcosm: no ranking system, no hierarchy, no one to tell us how good or bad or fantastic we were. There was only us, and our need to make something out of nothing. We came to perform for an audience – of course we did – but as a group of strangers, we ended up staying to create for ourselves.

What a lovely thing to have happened tonight at Bad Dog Theatre.


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