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Bears & Balls: The Colbert Report A-Z is the definitive guide to the Peabody-winning satire that rewrote the rules of comedy. We asked co-author and superfan Sharilyn Johnson for the truthiness, the whole truthiness, and nothing but the truthiness.

Cover Design © Kurt Firla

Cover Design © Kurt Firla

P&C: You’ve been covering comedy for 16 years, in print, radio, and with your blog, third-beat.com. When did you first become aware of Stephen Colbert, and were you a fan from the start?

SJ: I was a loyal Daily Show viewer when Colbert was still there, but I wasn’t a fan of the correspondents. At the time, the field pieces still had a bit of the “weird news” angle, and I often didn’t feel good about their choice of targets. It felt like they were making fun of well-meaning people. I didn’t pay close attention to Colbert until I saw him on a Daily Show panel in 2005 at the Just For Laughs Festival in Montreal. The energy and warmth he had in that context totally sold me. By the time the Report premiered that fall, I already had a sense of what was underneath the character, which made me appreciate the show more. Attending my first taping the following summer put me in overdrive.

P&C: Your book, Bears & Balls: The Colbert Report A-Z covers almost a decade. How has the show evolved over the years?

SJ: It’s been fascinating watching some of the old, lesser-known clips again. In the show’s initial eight weeks, in late 2005, the character was very heavy-handed. His voice was different. And he was a bit more of a jerk at the beginning, when the show was intended to directly mirror The O’Reilly Factor. It did find its stride quickly, though. Within the first year, the show started creating its own world, with its own rules, and the execution of the character loosened up. These days they really can do anything they want. They can think big, and Colbert is free to openly show the audience how much fun he’s having, both of which result in the show’s greatest moments.

P&C: TCR has a killer team of writers, including Stephen. How do you think his improv background has helped with his character and the show itself?

SJ: The majority of his writers have improv backgrounds. They typically work in teams of two to generate material, so collaboration is part of the process from the start. I think they use their improv brains to approach their writing the same way any improviser would. In any news story, they’d be looking for that “first unusual thing.” In the book, we talk a bit about the construction of The Word, and you could look at the verbal portion of that segment as an “If this, then what?” thought process.

As for Colbert himself, his interviews are perhaps the most obvious illustration of his improv skills at work. He has some prepared questions, but for the most part he’s reacting to the guest’s responses as his character. He’s also an incredible listener. Viewers might not realize that, because his character listens to nobody. That’s something we’ll see more overtly when he takes over the Late Show.

He’s sometimes talked about how at Second City, he learned to wear his character “as lightly as a cap.” I think his ability to show his humanity underneath the character has been an essential, if not the most essential, ingredient to the show’s longevity. Viewers would’ve gotten tired of “Stephen” if there wasn’t something else there to connect with.

P&C: When Kissinger was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, Tom Lehrer said that political satire was obsolete. Why do you think TCR (and TDS) are so popular?

SJ: Aside from being hilarious? It used to be just the politicians who told you what to believe and what to think. Now it’s “journalists” doing it. People have this overwhelming sense of wanting to call bullshit on everything that’s being fed to them, but don’t know where to start. I think Colbert, Jon Stewart, and John Oliver are doing that for us. (But mostly, it’s that they’re hilarious.)

P&C: The Colbert Report is so brilliant night after night, it’s hard to think of highlights. That said, what are some of your favourite segments or episodes?

SJ: There are some obvious ones. Walk up to any Colbert fan and utter the word “Munchma,” and watch them dissolve in giggles. The Super PAC stuff was brilliantly executed. The Daft Punk episode was incredible, even more so when you learn what happened leading up to it. The Wheat Thins “sponsortunity” was proof positive that sometimes the simplest idea is the best idea. An early 2006 episode that had both the Charlene video and Stephen’s Laws of Love was a great one-two punch.

As far as lesser-cited ones? There’s a segment from 2011 called “Close Sesame” where he incompetently does the “marshmallow test” on himself. It’s pure clown and just wonderfully, innocently dumb. He was clearly having a blast performing it, too.

The band Gorillaz, which is made up of animated characters, was on the show but “Stephen” refused to interview the real guys behind the characters. He stormed off the set and returned in his own street clothes to interview them as the mild-mannered “Steve Colbert,” which was a wonderful reality-bending meta moment.

For the medical segment Cheating Death, he introduced a fake medical product called Vaxa-Mime, and did a great little mime routine to go with it. I’ve heard he did killer object work as an improviser, which I would’ve loved to have seen.

And obviously, I’m partial to the 13 episodes that I saw live in the studio.

P&C: Was there anything you learned about Colbert while writing this book that you didn’t expect?

SJ: Is it egotistical of me to say “no”? There might’ve been if this was a celebrity biography, because I’m not really interested in his personal life and I just don’t retain that information. But I’m deeply interested in his work, as is my co-author [Remy Maisel], and that was our focus. I like to say that I’ve been researching this book for nine years. The hardest part about writing it was compiling the citations. Almost every little-known detail in it was something one or both of us had been carrying around in our noggins all this time, but we had to go back and find legitimate sources for them. It was almost like writing the book backwards.

P&C: A lot of TCR fans (ourselves included) are gutted at the loss of his character. While we understand the demands of the show, he did so much that transcends mere satire (the Super PAC, the White House Correspondents Dinner, his championing of Hachette authors, to name a few). What do you think the show’s legacy will be?

SJ: That’s hard to say. Many fans view this as the loss of a great political satirist. How political he’ll actually be at CBS remains to be seen, but even though the character will be gone, the point of view that informed the character will live on. Stephen will continue to view the world partially through that lens. He’ll just express that point of view in different ways. Plus, so many of his greatest bits on the Report are entirely apolitical. He could deliver a segment like Cheating Death in his own voice as a traditional talk show desk bit, and it would still work.

Something like the Super PAC, or his run for president, or even going back to the Green Screen Challenge — these are all games he’s played with his audience. He has a very unique relationship with viewers, and I think we’ll look back at that as something that couldn’t be recreated. The sense that we’re all in conspiracy with each other to create this world and propel these games forward.

I think the legacy of The Colbert Report will be determined largely by what the Late Show turns out to be. None of us have a clue what that is yet. But I sure am looking forward to finding out.

Bears & Balls is available now in paperback and Kindle editions. Click here to order.

Photo © Chantal Renee

Photo © Chantal Renee

Sharilyn Johnson has been an entertainment reporter since 1995, focusing on comedy since 1998. Her blog, Third Beat Magazine, has been called “the Wikileaks of comedy” by CBC Radio. Her comedy coverage has also appeared in the Winnipeg Free Press and the Toronto Star, and she’s appeared on CBC Radio’s LOL and Definitely Not the Opera. 

Rob Norman is a pillar of the Toronto – make that Canadian – improv community. If you’ve seen him perform or taken a class, you’re a fan. We asked him about the serious subject of make-‘em-ups on the eve of launching his new book, Improvising Now: A Practical Guide To Modern Improv.

Photo © Rob Norman

Photo © Rob Norman

P&C: You’re one of the busiest improvisers we know. You act on TV, do The Backline podcast with Adam Cawley, teach at Second City and Bad Dog Theatre, and perform with Mantown, Filthy, and other teams. How did you find time to write a book?

RN: Finding the time wasn’t a problem. As a comedian, you work nights, leaving your days free. I have some friends who spend that time going to the gym or taking acting classes. Instead I wrote a book. It took me seven years and my body looks disgusting when naked. But I wrote a book.

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

RN: I was part of a youth community theatre group producing musicals at this huge 500-seat theatre. As a side project, I offered to put together a small improv show. The Board (consisting of one 26-year-old and a bunch of teenagers) approved it. So I went out, found a copy of Truth In Comedy, and auditioned 16 people to be in the cast. I was in Grade 11 teaching longform that I had never seen or done myself.

I’m sure the improv was terrible. And I was a terrible teacher. But we did it for three years to sold-out crowds. I’ve been doing jobs that I’m unqualified to do ever since.

Fun fact: In that original troupe was Steve Hobbs (El Fantoma) and Joel Buxton (The Sketchersons). They both work as teachers at the Second City Training Centre now.

P&C: What’s been the biggest change you’ve seen since you started?

RN: So much has changed! When I started Second City had gone bankrupt. The Bad Dog was struggling. The only company doing longform was collapsing. No audiences. No mentors.

Toronto improv is better now than it ever has been. Improv shows sell out. Consistently. Improvisers are booking TV and film, but sticking around to build the live comedy scene.

It’s the kind of comedy boom I dreamed of when I was first starting.

I used to get made fun of because I was so eager. I had read every improv book. I knew the Second City archives better than my teachers. I was a very special kind of improv nerd. There is an army of beginner improvisers mastering Game of the Scene, shortform and narrative structures early in their career. It’s a work ethic that makes my generation look uneducated and lazy.

P&C: Your book is subtitled “A Practical Guide to Modern Improv.” How do you define “modern”?

RN: I teach a lot of improv classes. And there are some lessons that I’ll look at and think, “I have never used this technique onstage. No one I know does this onstage. Why am I teaching it?”

Improv has changed so much since the 1980’s. Not only our own improv vocabulary, but also the expectations of our audience. You have to be faster. More direct. More revealing of yourself.

For me, modern improv is the techniques, tricks, and tips that improv professionals are using onstage right now. I don’t want to hear anecdotes of how improv used to be. I want to know what I can do tonight onstage.

P&C: Do you think it’s necessary to learn different styles of improv, or is it possible to fall in love with one approach and stick with it – even though you also perform outside your particular theatre?

RN: Modern improv is a mosaic. You are responsible for knowing all of it. Personally, I tackled each of them one at a time (I should say, I am tackling them…)

It’s not about forcing your style on a show. It’s about understanding the dominant energy of the room, and complementing that shared mental model.

P&C: Do you think it’s possible to unlearn bad habits (blocking, dropping offers, etc), especially if an improviser has been doing them for years?

RN: Sure! But I don’t believe in good improv/bad improv. There’s tons of improvisers bulldozing, blocking, dropping offers – AND getting paid for it. Really good players doing “bad moves” that audiences and other improvisers love. The difference for the experts is that these moves are choices. They come from a place of power.

Your desire to block, be negative, to avoid being affected by your scene partner, is a symptom of a more fundamental problem: your fear, panic, or issues with control. Don’t unlearn anything. Try something new. Find another path. Focus on doing something you’ve never done been before. Way better than using your psychic energy to avoid doing something you always do onstage.

P&C: What do you think separates good improvisers from great ones?

RN: Talent is an exceptional love of something. Some people LOVE being funny onstage. Others LOVE the act of improvising. I want to play with people who understand the craft, who cultivate technique, and get off on building something with someone else.

P&C: A lot of improv teams break up or dissolve within months. Very few last more than a couple of years. What’s the secret to long-running teams like Mantown?

RN: Friendship. Adam, Jason and I have been best friends for ten years. I didn’t know Bob Banks and Rob Baker incredibly well when we started working together. But over eight years you become incredibly close. Ending Mantown would be like ending a marriage.

P&C: In the States, a lot of students see improv as a means to get on Second City’s Main Stage, and ultimately, SNL. What about Canada? What do improvisers aspire to here?

RN: Yeah. There’s this idea that you if work hard as an improviser, you’ll get hired for Second City and then whisked away to star on Saturday Night Live. But it’s not true in Canada. And I think that’s increasingly less true in Chicago. Lots of my friends have finished Mainstage or starring on television shows, then gone back to working day jobs.

Your aspirations as a comedian in Canada should be simple: work in comedy. Build things. And then try to sell them. If no one is buying them, build them anyway.

P&C: Do you consider yourself an improviser, an actor, or both?

RN: Improviser. I could star in the best scripted show, and I wouldn’t be satisfied. We’d finished bows and I’d already be in a cab on my way to Comedy Bar. It’s a problem really…

Click here or on the image below to order from Amazon. It’s a must-have for any improviser’s library. 

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In 2012, Sam Willard began photographing performers as part of an ongoing series called The Improvisors Project. Born out of his fascination with the talent and expressiveness of improv actors, we asked Sam about the project as he prepares to photograph the Chicago Improv Festival.

Photo © Sam Willard

Photo © Sam Willard

P&C: You’ve been a professional photographer for 10 years, specializing in portraits. What is it about portraiture specifically that appeals to you?

SAM WILLARD: I started making photographs as an amateur long ago, and I was interested in a variety of subjects. But my eye always went toward people more than anything else. Faces are just so varied and interesting. I have always been a people-watcher, and am curious about what expression, posture, etc say about a person. Portrait photography is, in part, an excuse to look longer and more deeply at a person, to uncover more about what makes them tick. The work of accessing, understanding and capturing someone’s inner self through a portrait session is never boring or repetitive, and is always full of discovery. Kind of like improv.

P&C: You started taking improv classes in 2009. Has it influenced your photography, and if so, how?

SAM WILLARD: When I took my first improv class, I immediately recognized how the act of creating a portrait (and the skills involved in doing it well) are very similar to the act of creating a good improv scene. In both situations, you start with nothing, and have to find a relationship and a reason to connect. The skills I had developed as a photographer–support, engagement, listening–were incredibly useful to my improv scene work. And skills I picked up in improv have definitely helped my portrait work.

More than anything else, improv teaches you that you can find ways to connect with someone, no matter what the situation. In my regular client work, I often get portrait subjects who are distracted, or scared, or at least very self-conscious. Improv has given me tools to cut through their armor, build trust, focus, and create a portrait together that is honest and compelling.

P&C: You have to work quickly, typically spending about five minutes with each person. How do you connect with them in such a short time?

SAM WILLARD: Five minutes is indeed a short time to form a connection. But this is a perfect example of how improv has helped my photography. I performed improv for a long time, and every scene in every show was different; and I didn’t have 5 minutes to figure out an angle and go with it, at best I had 5 seconds! Any improvisor can relate to this.

One of the great things about photographing improvisors is that they are so receptive to a suggestion, and so willing to commit to an emotion, that it really isn’t difficult to make that quick connection, because they are used to doing it on stage. For example, if someone walks on to my set standing tall, chin up, with a slow, confident stride, I might initiate a mini-scene in which they are a general surveying the battlefield after a victory. If confidence and bravado are the emotion, I might play the role of an adoring corporal, eager to celebrate the general’s win and heighten his esteem.

The process of going from an initial hit–bravado–to a moment of peak emotion (and back to baseline again) can be quite fast. With energetic and open improvisors, I can sometimes go through this process of “hit, heighten & reset” several times in a short five minute session.

P&C: Improv attracts a very diverse range of people. After photographing so many different performers, are there any similarities that you see?

SAM WILLARD: As I mentioned earlier, I am attracted to portraiture because every person is different, never repetitive. This holds true with improvisors. However, the common thread is their openness. The average person out in the world has walls and defenses up. Social norms to evaluate. Rules to play by. Much of what we do in life is informed by what we cannot do. The amazing thing about improv is that those rules from out in the world are flipped. On stage, all things are possible, and everything you do and commit to will be embraced and supported by your fellow players. That incredible and precious trait of openness and supportiveness is what I see wherever I go to photograph improvisors.

P&C: You photographed members of The Committee at their 50th anniversary reunion. What was that like?

SAM WILLARD: Attending that event was a special privilege. There was so much talent in the room, many of whom I photographed. The best thing about the experience was seeing the strong bond between those artists. Many of them had not seen each other in years or even decades. But the love in the room was palpable. It reminded me of the great bond that improv creates between performers who play together.

P&C: You’ve got a busy schedule ahead of you. This year you’ll be attending CIF and the Detroit Improv Festival. Is there a difference in energy between shooting people at a festival versus in your studio?

SAM WILLARD: Yes, 2014 is going to be a busy year! I will be at the Chicago Improv Festival April 4-6, and the Detroit Improv Festival August 8-10. And some other photo shoots are in the works, as well.

Festivals are a great venue for making portraits for The Improvisors Project because energy is high and many talented people are gathered in one place. For simple logistical reasons, there are limits to who I can gather to my studio in Oakland, California. Festivals are also an excuse for me to get out and see more of what the wider improv world has to offer. This project has allowed me to meet and photograph so many great people who I would never have had the opportunity to know otherwise. I look forward to starting this year off in Chicago!

P&C: What’s more fun for you: watching the shows, or photographing the performers?

SAM WILLARD: When I am photographing improvisors, I am participating in an improv performance with them. As an improv performer myself, I would always choose to do improv over just watching; so I would have to choose photographing performers as my answer. The photo shoot is a unique experience, different than being on stage. But it is really great. I love it. And the 200+ people I have photographed so far all seem to love the experience too. It is a win-win.

P&C: You’re also attending Camp Improv Utopia. Can you tell us a little about the camp, and your involvement in it?

SAM WILLARD: I attended the first Camp Improv Utopia, a few years ago. The founder, Nick Armstrong, conceived of an improvisor’s paradise, with an old-school summer camp vibe. The camp attracts a diverse group, features great instructors and workshops, and the venue itself (on California’s Central Coast) is beautiful. This year will be my third trip to Camp, and my second year making portraits of improvisors there. It is the best possible environment for making good portraits–positive and creative energy, and people from all over the country.

P&C: You’re on twitter, instagram and facebook, and people can also follow your blog. What’s next on the agenda for the project?

SAM WILLARD: The best way to stay up-to-date on The Improvisors Project is to follow it on Facebook and Twitter. I post new images regularly, and announce details of upcoming photo shoots. I encourage anyone who is interested in participating to follow on social media, and reach out to me with an email if they want to be photographed. Everywhere I have traveled, I have met nothing but great people in the improv community, and I can’t wait to meet and photograph many more this year. And look for more photo shoots and a book in 2015!

Photo © Sam Willard

Photo © Sam Willard

Photo © Sam Willard

Photo © Sam Willard

Christian Capozzoli is an actor/improviser/instructor, member of the fiercely funny 4Track, and author of Aerodynamics of Yes: The Improviser’s Manual. We asked him a bunch of stuff, and he was nice enough to answer.

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P&C: Why did you decide to write Aerodynamics of Yes? Is there a specific audience you wanted to reach?

CC: I’ve been touring and teaching for about five years now, and often I’ll come into town and have three hours to squeeze in an entire methodology. It’s a pretty big undertaking.

I know that my workshop is all about moving and reacting, but that leaves very little time for the students to take notes. It’s hard to read a billboard on a bullet train, and I’m asking them to play Where’s Waldo? So I wrote the book primarily to supplement my teaching – go back and unpack each lesson with time and care.

I suppose I did it because I also like to write. By no means do I think I’m saying anything new. I’m saying the same old stuff, just I’m saying it my way.

As a Master of Ed and Lit, I try to take into account all types of learners. Some need to move on their feet, others need to hear it explained, or tether it to a metaphor; some just need to see it written down pickled in prose.

P&C: Your book covers a wide range of topics, from improv fundamentals to scene work to formats. How long do you think it takes to truly master these things?

CC: You don’t. It’s forever. The more you do, the more you realize how much more there is. Or how choices can be made in minutiae: from sentences, to words, to syllables, and the gaps between when we speak, the heat and weight of what we say, every second, gesture, eyebrow lift can be filled with choice, colouring our scene.

And just when we learn to react in the now, moment-to-moment or second-to-second, then there will always be nano-seconds.

Improvising with Peter Grosz, I was amazed at how fast he was. How quick and textured. Speed is relative of course, but I don’t know that we ever master it. I think we just get comfortable with that speed, more familiar with these synapses, and we get more comfortable being present and making choices. So comfortable or Zen that it looks like mastery to others.

The less hippy dippy answer: 10 years of time, discipline, performance, rehearsal, and failure would be a good foundation to feeling competent.

P&C: Who were/are your mentors or heroes in the improv scene?

CC: Susan Messing – she uses all of her brain to be funny.

Heroes, in this order: Paul Scheer, Rob Huebel, Brian Huskey, Zack Woods, Jason Mantzoukas, TJ and Dave, John Lutz, Peter Grosz, Dan Backedahl, and Scott Adsit.

P&C: What’s the one thing you see being taught today – or not being taught – that irks you most?

CC: Anytime improv comedy forgets it is on stage, it irks me. Live theatre should be theatrical.

P&C: You say “Improvisers would rather be right than foolish.” How can improvisers get over that need to control?

CC: They have to be willing to fail. Unfortunately, we hold stage time and scenes so precious that we put too much pressure on ourselves.

Repetition is key. Let yourself be wrong. Scenes are a sine wave; they don’t have to start a specific way, they need only begin and invest in information and it will work.

P&C: You cover 4Track form in the book. How did it come about, how did you develop it?

CC: I was in a master class with Kevin Dorff. We hit on the idea of making scenes grow, [of] protecting energy.

I was also really into The Eventé, so I suggested we do a high energy-matching scene, followed by a character extraction to a series of tag-outs. It worked and evolved from there.

P&C: Many teams come and go, but a handful stay around long enough to become almost legendary. What makes a great team?

CC: Confidence, connectivity, trust, exposure to new things, agreeing to play a piece the same way!

Aerodynamics of Yes is available for download on your iPad or iBooks. Click here for iTunes or here for the Kindle edition.

Mick Napier is to improv as Keith Richards is to rock’n’roll. In Part Two, we discuss acting skills, Chicago versus New York and LA, how to start an improv theatre, and erector sets. 

Photo © James Schneider

Photo © James Schneider

P&C: You’ve probably seen more improv than most people on the planet. Do you ever want to scream when you see a clichéd scene that you’ve seen a million times? How do you stay fresh and motivated [in] your attitude towards seeing improv?

MN: Well, that’s a great question; it’s very hard to do. There are an infinite number of things you can do in improvisation, but there seem to be the same patterns of behaviour that show up often. So it’s difficult.

I think I do mention this in my book. If the suggestion is “bowling alley,” then someone’s gonna put their hand in the air in order to hold a ball, or they’re gonna hold a hand dryer if they’re clever. Or if someone says “graveyard,” they’re gonna grab a shovel to dig, and it’s just these associations that we make.

So those become trying after a while, and difficult to pay attention to because it’s the same constructs.

And then behaviourally, people do reference time a lot, or people will say they love things a lot, or there’s all these different words that become [unintelligible]. So it becomes crazy, and it becomes very hard to stay focused often.

Sometimes I don’t really even listen to the words of a scene so much; I just kind of can hear the cadence of a scene to know what’s up, or to know the kind of behaviour that’s behind the cadence in a strange way. I don’t even know how to say that… But oftentimes I am not really listening to the content all the time.

If I have a feeling that it’s going to go in a particular way, I can assess from the very beginning of a scene pretty much what’s going to happen and I’ll kind of check in to the scene. And I feel horrible because I’m essentially admitting that I check out of a scene, but sometimes I do.

And then over time I feel like, that, I’ve just become really good at also just looking past the content and looking at human behaviour. So when I look at improvisation, especially when I’m teaching, I really am thinking about the person, and what can I bring to that person, and what are they doing?

So that’s the part that becomes stimulating to me; not whether the scene’s funny to me or whether the scene’s working, but y’know… “Sally just did that twice. Is she gonna do that again? She didn’t or she did. That becomes a pattern. Is that pattern an asset for improvisation, a deficit, or is it merely something she needs to find balance with? And how can I say that and asses that, and remember that.

And that’s the part that becomes stimulating when I’m teaching.

P&C: I was blown away when you came to Toronto and just nailed everybody’s style and their go-tos, and you did it so quickly. I understand that you have a lot of experience, but I also think you have a gift for that, because it seems like you enjoy that kind of analysis.

MN: I do, I really do. That is stimulating. And I really do like to see if I can empathise with the feeling and thinking of the person while they’re improvising.

I think if I have a gift, one of them is that I don’t forget ever what it’s like to improvise. Because I still improvise, and I still remember the same feeling I have when I improvise. I remember the same feeling I had the first time I saw the Mainstage at Second City. The first time I saw a Harold. The first I auditioned for the Generals or Tourco at Second City.

I’ve been running those auditions for twenty years, and I always, on the way to those auditions, stop and remember what it’s like to audition. Because it’s scary.

So I feel like that, if I do have any abilities, that’s one of them, is just to remember what it’s like and to always feel like I’m improvising and to see if I can get inside a person’s head. Because improvisation is scary as fuckin’ hell. It’s scary…so I get it.

P&CYou wrote a list of twelve tips for people auditioning for Second City in an Annoyance newsletter. One of the tips was “Study acting. You won’t, but you ought to.”

When David Razowsky was here recently he said that the last generation of improvisers was taught by actors, and this generation – to a large degree – is being taught by improvisers. Do you agree, and if so, how do you think that affects the quality of improv we’re seeing?

MN: Wow. I almost wish Jennifer would answer that question. She just said she agreed. I never thought of that, but boy, as I think about it I can agree. It becomes increasingly surprising to us that people don’t know stage left from stage right, or don’t, you know, know how to be on stage… I think that’s probably true.

I think of Dave Razowsky and me, I had theatre training, and it does come from an acting point of view. I don’t watch other people teach, but I do know who is teaching, and as I Rolodex who that is in the city right now, many of them just come from the improv community, and I can’t think of a lot of them like, 30s and under, that have had a lot of acting experience.

P&C: There’s some amazing talent [in Toronto] and obviously in the States, and I feel like actors bring more subtlety to their performance.

MN: I think that’s probably true; a little more substantive, a more grounded approach to their improvisation.

I say that, but I also think that right now, the younger talent pool at least in Chicago is… there’s some really good people. So I certainly don’t want to throw that away either, because I really do believe that the younger talent pool here is really impressive, and their ability to be good on stage and get laughs is really great.

P&C: Do you think people don’t take acting lessons because they’re afraid to?

MN: I think that that’s part of it. I’ve always seen a fear on both sides: from the theatre community, they’re afraid of improvisation, and I feel like improvisers are afraid of acting.

But I also think that a lot of young improvisers just feel like they don’t need…that it’s a given that they can act, or that it’s something they don’t really have to deal with. That they’re…“Of course I can act.” And I see that being a huge issue all the time.

Especially if you’re paid to do it. You’re not paid to do improvisation, you’re paid to probably do sketch comedy, or probably act in archival scenes at Second City, etcetera. So it is an acting job first.

I’ll see really good improvisers improvise at the Second City Generals, and they get called back. And in the callbacks, they’ll have to read from a script, and it’s pretty much the thing that will either get you hired or not get you hired. It’s the edge that you need to make that final step to get hired professionally.

P&C: In that same list, you stress the importance of doing things other than improv, and that you have a lot of hobbies. I know quibit, or rapping is one of them. What are some  others?

MN: Oh my lord. Goodness… well, all my hobbies are… (laughs) Like, I do cards, I like to do a lot of card stuff. I played pool every night for like, fifteen years. I love pool, I studied pool a lot. I was into lock picking for a while. Weight lifting. Guitars…

P&C: Is it because you like learning new things?

MN: I do, yeah. I think the internet was a hobby of mine before you could click on anything. I was on the internet in 1988. That was all Unix. I knew Unix, and used to be on IRC and Gopher and all that.

The fun thing about me and the internet is that an old Annoyance actor is… I’d heard about the internet and heard he was on it, and I asked him how to get on it and he told me…his name was Dick Costolo, and he’s the CEO of Twitter now.

P&C: Oh wow. (laughs)

MN: Yeah. (laughs) I’m also into erector sets. Do you know what those are?

P&C: Yes.

MN: I’ve have probably five thousand dollars’ worth of erector sets. And what’s funny for me is – I think this is telling for me in the world of process versus product thinking – is that I will spend four or five hours making something with an erector set, and just seconds after I finish it I will tear it apart.

P&C: Interesting.

MN: Yeah, I never care about the outcome of it. I think I’m like that a lot; I hate to go backwards and look at stuff. I’ve never read my book after it came out.

P&C: Go back and read it, it’s great!

MN: (laughs) I just kinda like do things and kinda move on. It’s probably called A.D.D.

P&C: It’s funny, because I listened to Jimmy Carrane’s Improv Nerd podcast interview with you, and he said you’re very good at being present. It sounds like you really enjoy this moment, and not so much the past or the future.

MN: Yeah, I try. I try. You know, I worry about stuff and all that, but yeah…

P&C: A lot of great improvisers move to New York or LA, while others stay in Chicago. Do you think there’s a certain type of person who flourishes more in one city, or is the type of career you choose?

MN: That’s a real good question. I feel like that, to move to New York… Well first of all if I had to advise anyone where to move, it would be New York. I think New York’s a better chance of actually getting paid to do it. And I actually think that New York’s a more exciting and more fun place and vibrant place to be, so I always tend to advise people that way.

I think that it takes a certain mentality to live in Los Angeles, and a certain amount of patience, a certain constitution… To be able to feel like that you’re always waiting, and that you always have something that’s a possibility for future success. I feel like that’s a huge part of the psyche of someone living in Los Angeles, so I think that you have to have the make-up for that.

I think that in Los Angeles you have a better chance you can get there quicker, so if they want to go to LA I’m always like, “Well you should go right now.” The more you wait in Chicago, the less marketable you’ll be in a weird way.

With New York I think they have more tolerance for that. So I think that if you’re someone who keeps the quality of life and their desire for that kind of adventure as high on their list as their career, then I think that’s a fuller person in a way.

Someone who stays in Chicago could be someone who is so immersed in the culture here and has such a love for it that they forgo other opportunities, like TJ Jagodowski. Or it could be someone who is probably in fear of making that leap, like Jimmy Carrane, self-admittedly. Or it could be someone who has tried it and then comes back to Chicago. And it could be a mixture of all those things, which I think is me.

I was in New York for three years and loved it, and wanted to get back to the Annoyance in Chicago. So for me there’s times where I’ve regretted not fully moving to New York. Because Jennifer was there for seven years and worked there as an actor and did well, and there’s part of me that’s like, “Oh fuck, I wish I would’ve done New York and, you know, had that life there.”

I’ve never wanted to go to Los Angeles. I worked in television for a bit and I feel like that I’m…I guess almost like, too angry to work in television.

I can’t have that conversation with twenty producers that I don’t respect, who are constantly providing input that I have to negotiate and compromise and through attrition agree to or subscribe to, and acquiesce power and all that. I’ve done it and it’s just enraging.

I admire people who can do it, I really do, and come out with a good product on the other side. But then I think about that, and usually that’s in New York.

I respect Tina for being to get through all I know she had to do to in order to get 30 Rock the way it was. And I respect Stephen Colbert, and people I’ve known through the years who’ve made that leap. It just takes so much energy, and I respect it so much.

And the people, the mediocrity you have to meet along the way, and the product-oriented people coming at you all the time. It takes a lot of energy.

I worked on Exit 57 and I learned a lot about the quality of life one must endure to be in television, and I was so angry all the time at having to deal with everything you have to deal with, that I think that became a decision for me to never, ever immerse myself in the culture of Los Angeles where that would be pretty much the constant. And add to that the waiting, and the feeling like my next phone call was gonna be something… and it was just, oh my God…

So to answer your question, I think it  takes that kind of constitution, or that kind of demeanour in order to live there without absolutely going out of your fucking mind.

P&C: Whenever I see the part in Annie Hall where Woody visits LA and he watches the guy put the laugh track on, that’s pretty much my concept of what it must be like to work in TV. I work in advertising, which is not even art, and the compromises are often nauseating. Doing a TV show, I can only imagine how many fingers are in that pie.

MN: I’m sure. And I’m sure you’ve seen in advertising some very funny, original concepts just be homogenized to lukewarm mediocrity.

P&C: Exactly.

I’ve read The Art of Chicago Improv, and it became really clear that it’s a very tough thing to do, to open a theatre. What advice would you give to someone who wanted to start an improv theatre today.

MN: It’s boring advice, but to go to the trouble of finding out all the logistical things you need to do in order to run a theatre legally and safely. I know that is such a 50-year-old person’s answer, but what I learned is that I’ve done it many different ways, and I’ve found that it takes a lot less energy to do it legally and right than it does to skate around. And it’s also less expensive to do it correctly than to not.

The reason I say that, first, is that when you’re starting out you feel like you want to skate around this. You don’t want to really have to get a fucking permit and do all this other shit. And what I’ve learned over time is that it takes so much more energy and so much more secrecy and so much more money to do it that way.

So I guess my first piece of advice would be – as boring as it is – go to the trouble of and have the courage to just do it the way you want to do it, and that will give you more creative freedom later, because you don’t have to be hiding behind shit.

Now that is the first thing that comes to me while I’m in the process, just this morning, of looking at a space to try to move the Annoyance. So I’m in that mindset for sure.

We’re really close to moving, and so I’m kind of in that mind space right now, and just reflecting on the way that I’ve created theatres in Chicago, and really wish I would’ve taken the energy to do it a little differently when I was younger. But that’s on the business stuff and boring side.

On the artistic side of things, I think that having a real clear idea of the voice you want to create with your theatre, and completely being relentless about the fervor that you want to bring to that voice, and not letting the way you think it should be, or the way you think it should be perceived, be the thing that guides you.

You’ll lose artistic ground and respect if you’re attempting to acquiesce to other people’s opinions and thoughts, etcetera.

That’s one thing I’m hugely proud of with Annoyance. If you’re really going to go to the trouble to get a theatre together, you might as well at least own what your point of view is and what your vision is.

P&C: And that’s going to dovetail me nicely into my final question, which is: you are a legendary figure in the improv community. What are you most proud of in your career?

MN: As far as improv goes, I’m most proud of creating the Annoyance Training Centre. That’s the thing that if when people ask me right now “What are you most proud of at the Annoyance?” it’s the Training Centre.

I’m proud of creating an alternative way, a different way of looking at improvisation, a different way of learning it, and I’m proud of creating the Annoyance’s training that reflects that.

I really am proud of a lot of shows I’ve directed and stuff, but when it comes down to it, when people ask me that, that’s my first answer and I think it’s the most honest answer.

The shows have happened at the Annoyance, some of them have been great, some of them have just sucked. And I’m proud of the fact that allowing them to create whatever they want on stage, I really am, and above and beyond that, I’m just really proud of the training.

We have the courage to give people individual notes, and individual assessments, and keep it playful, keep it uncensored and all that.

P&C: Wonderful. Well thank you so, so much for your time. Please thank Jennifer for letting me take you away from her for an hour. Truly a pleasure to talk with you Mick.

MN: Thank you so much. Tell everyone hello.

 

Photo © Tom Booker

Photo © Tom Booker

Mick Napier would probably say “fuck it” to a formal introduction, but here goes anyway… He’s an actor, teacher, author, founder and Artistic Director of the Annoyance Theatre, and Artistic Consultant to The Second City. He has directed Tina Fey, Stephen Colbert, David Sedaris, and just about anyone else you think is cool.

P&C: You’ve said that you don’t watch a lot of comedy; you’ve never seen Seinfeld or Friends. Do you think that gives you a more unique perspective on what’s funny?

MN: I think it can. That’s not the reason I don’t really watch those things but I do feel like it gives me a feeling of not being affected by all those, or influenced by them, in a good way.

But it also provides a deficit when I’m working. Like if I’m directing at Second City, I kinda feel out of it sometimes. I rely on my cast to tell me if something’s been done, or we’re visiting a comedic premise that’s been visited before.

So I think it’s kind of a fun thing, but it’s also been a bad thing for me, too. It makes people think that I’m indifferent to comedy.

It’s interesting you’re asking me that right now, because I made a concerted effort to express that less to people lately because I think it leaves people with a feeling that’s like, “Oh God, he doesn’t even like comedy…”

P&C: (laughs)

MN: I do! I do like comedy. It’s just that sometimes it becomes a little bit of a work…a job for me.

With media or like with television and stuff, if I’m presented a comedy versus, you know, a Law & Order or something, I’m gonna probably go for the drama. But it’s also that way with me and fiction. I don’t read fiction that much, so if I can read The Scarlet Letter or how a refrigerator works, I’m going to read how a refrigerator works.

P&C: (laughs)

When you started doing improv, you didn’t actually have any improv training per se; you just sort of jumped into it, is that right?

MN: Yeah, I was in college and I was in theatre, and I think I grew a little weary of rehearsing the same thing over and over, and at that time happened upon a book by Jeff Sweet, Something Wonderful Right Awayand I really was enthralled by the idea of just making it up.

So I got together with my friend Dave MacNerland and we formed a group in college and I had never seen it, nor had I ever done it. But I put an audition notice up for a group, and we auditioned people and we started improvising. Mostly sketches and short form stuff, games.

We were actually writing a new sketch show every week or two, and then we would throw improv games in the middle of those.

For college it was crazy, because we spent an incredible amount of time – three or four nights a week – working on stuff or rehearsing stuff. So it was a new, I’d say hour-long sketch show every week, with some games in there.

P&C: Wow, that’s a lot of work.

MN: It was. I look back on that now, and look at the two-month rehearsal process for the Second City Mainstage to get that much time, and it’s crazy.

I think when you don’t know something you just kinda do it and say “Fuck it.” And I think you don’t know that you’re not supposed to really know that, or not know that.

We had a nice following. It was called Dubbletaque, and we were in a couple of different bars in college.

P&C: From there, you were on an iO team called Grime and Punishment.

MN: Yeah, I was in college until ’86 and then moved to Chicago, and almost immediately started at iO and started at Second City all at the same time.

Back then there were only about, maybe five or six iO teams. And there was the Second City training program, which had just created its official Conservatory back then.

I started improvising about the same time as a guy named Dave Pasq – or not Dave Pasquesi, he was improvising before me – but Dave Razowsky. And we were on the same team. That was with Rich Laible, and also Tim Meadows was on that team. That was a really good group of people. Timmy and I started improvising about the same week in Chicago.

P&C: Can you describe the improv scene in Chicago at that time? Obviously it was a much smaller community.

MN: I think long form was really starting, and that was only about five or six years old when I got to Chicago. It was a lot smaller; at the time though of course I thought it was huge because I’m from Indiana, and Second City’s training program was big enough that I certainly felt the competition, so I never really thought it was small at the time. But now looking back on it, I do.

Like, Second City when I was there, it took a little less than a year to get through their entire program. And now they have A through E, and then they have One through Six, and then iO has six levels, and then the Annoyance has five levels. So I think it takes a lot longer for people to get through the improv experience now.

Does Toronto’s Second City have two years, do they have A through E? I don’t even know.

P&C: They have A through E, and then you can audition for Conservatory, and I believe they now have a long form program that is separate that is probably five levels, and a musical Conservatory.

MN: Jeez.

P&C: You can spend your life taking classes. (laughs)

MN: Ain’t that the truth. It’s a lot different that way. I think also with Second City, [there’s] the different programs they’ve set up internally, like their BenchCo, their Twisty here which is like a house team at Second City, and then the ships that you can go on, and then Touring Company and e.t.c. and Mainstage…

When I started, the average age of a Mainstage actor at Second City’s Mainstage was probably 26-7, now it’s about 31.

So all of those things, all the training, and the ships, and all those experiences have actually created an older Mainstage actor.

Which has become a bit weird for them when they leave, because sometimes when they’re ready to go to Los Angeles, they’ve aged themselves out of a market in a weird way. And that’s become an issue on the long term for those actors.

I also feel like that, in Chicago anyway, there’s a feeling that you want to go through at least the Annoyance, iO’s experience and Second City’s experience; that that makes a fuller, kind of more well-rounded actor/improviser. And I believe that’s reinforced by the culture here…that all of your peers are doing that.

People are jumping from one place to another. And in Chicago in the last few years you add to that pH, and Playground, and ComedySportz, and Upstairs Gallery, and literally there’s people that would do three shows in three different places here. They’ll do a show at the Annoyance at 8, and go to iO and do a 10 o’clock show and then go Upstairs Gallery and do one at midnight. It’s crazy.

I also think adding to that, the feeling of being on a team in a weird way here in Chicago – I think a little of this happens in Toronto, too – is that sometimes people feel as if once they’re on a team, that that’s good enough for now, and they kind of become complacent.

I’ve seen this a lot in Chicago, where it feels so right and reinforced to be on just a team and to be part of something, that it’s easy to then feel satisfied to put your career aside in a weird way.

To ironically not even work on your own career. It feels like it’s where you should be at the time, and suddenly six years have gone by. And you’re on a team, and you have done little to really, sort of selfishly pursue your own interests and career. Does that make sense?

P&C: Absolutely.

MN: I’ve just noticed that happen more and more. And I think with more training and more performance opportunities, ironically it can work against someone that way.

P&C: A lot of people fall in love with improv and it becomes almost an addiction. You want more, so you take more workshops and classes, but at a certain point it becomes a law of diminishing returns.

You talk about that in your book Improvise. I think on page 5 you say that by the time someone has spent about two grand on improv classes, they’re probably fully in their head. And I went “Oh my God, that’s me!”

MN: (laughs) Well that came from my own experience; that was me, too. I spent all that time and money and I thought, “Why am I rendered immobile?”

P&C: Now you’re working on a new book…

MN: [Jennifer Estlin]’s my girlfriend; [she] runs the Annoyance. Jennifer edited Improvise and she’s edited…we put together about 50 pages. We just started to send it out about two weeks ago. It’s not directly marketed for business, but certainly much more.

Heinemann, who published Improvise, they’ve been great; they’re more of an education-based publisher, and I’m wanting to go a little higher and a little more widespread and commercial. So we’ve learned that I need to get an agent really, to approach those kind of publishers, so that’s what we’re doing right now is fishing for an agent.

The book itself is just about innovation and all the different things that people, when they get together and create something…that’s entailed in that. It’s everything from how to conduct a meeting, to how to present, to how to pitch something, to the psychology that goes behind creating something, to the inner demons that you have when you start to create something.

And I attempt a few times to recreate scenarios of like, how one is thinking when they’re approaching a podium if they’re gonna speak, and how terrified they are.

Or the feeling of the room in a meeting when you have that one asshole in the back with his arms crossed, and looking at you, and what he’s thinking, and why he wants to get attention. And how it doesn’t matter what your idea is, how he’s gonna be negative, and all of that. Hopefully stuff that people can relate to.

And then there’s a chapter about how to drink – which is very funny and timely for me – I have a chapter about how to drink coffee…

P&C: (laughs)

MN: …how to not spill coffee on yourself, because I’m always doing that. And this morning I was walking and drinking coffee and spilled it on my shirt and thought about my own advice. I have a whole chapter on drinking coffee. (laughs)

P&C: Going back in my notes… You’ve said that you find agreement in improv a weak concept. Can you expand on that, since the whole principal of improv seems to be built around agreement?

MN: Well, I think that agreement has been overblown and overrated in a weird way. I certainly don’t disagree with the idea of immediately agreeing to the circumstances or reality of a space presented to you in an improv scene.

If you ask for a hammer, then I can be at a hardware store and that’s all good. I believe that it’s an extra stretch… Like, if you were to ask for a hammer and for me to say “I’m on Venus right now,” it’s a lot of baggage to bring those two worlds together.

So I definitely adhere to the notion of agreeing with the circumstances of an improv scene or circumstances of a relationship, or that label.

I believe the weakness that I refer to comes from how hyped “Yes and…” is and has become. And I don’t believe that that’s the root of good improvisation or the root of good comedy even. And it left me powerless, to have someone throw an initiation out there and for me to literally, or sometimes comparatively, form the words “Yes, I agree with that, and let me add to that.”

“Yes, I like ice cream, and strawberry’s my favourite.”

And it left me just weak, and I didn’t feel like I had any edge on what I was saying. I didn’t feel like I had any underlying irony, or sometimes I say like, a hateful nature about it, or a wicked way of looking at it, or an ironic way…so I had a hard time with that in and of itself, being such a tentative improvisation, and it leaving me feeling so weak.

And just coming to realize over time that many people would disagree, or characters would disagree with me in an improv scene, or I would do the same, and there was great strength in that. Or other times people would aggressively, and there could be great strength in that.

But the weaker people that I noticed in improvisation were those that were merely relying on, without much behind it, saying “Yes” and agreeing with things, and then adding a little something to it in the content.

So I felt like there was a lot more to improvisation than that. And I felt like the teaching of that, and the priority that people placed on that, was actually tending toward being a deficit to their improvisation, and a deficit to the power they brought to it, as opposed to an asset.

It’s easy enough to teach in about thirty minutes, general agreement to the circumstances of a scene. But to really put a banner behind “Yes, and…” and have people literally agree with everything and add to it in that way, I feel like there’s a lot of different tactics to improvisation that give people a lot more power.

While that very basic idea of agreement still lives there, I think that once those circumstances are agreed to, a whole other bevy of things can occur.

P&C: Annoyance, iO, UCB, and Second City all have their own distinctive styles. iO started in ’81, Annoyance started in ’87 as Metraform, and UCB started in 1990, and Second City way before that.

When people from Toronto go to Chicago or New York and take workshops, you can see their style change and be informed and more dynamic in certain ways, based on where they trained.

Do you think there’s still room for new approaches, and if so, why do you think there hasn’t been any for so long?

MN: That’s a really good question. I’ve given absolutely no thought to that.

P&C: (laughs)

MN: I can think about it and talk at the same time…

I feel like some of that might be that, although there’s different styles, like with iO and UCB, I believe they’re still under the umbrella of long form. I believe that long form and its cultures have become so encompassing that I think that the styles are found within that, but that people don’t feel like they’re gonna create a whole other school of thought that exceeds what is out there now. I’m kinda talking out my ass…

P&C: (laughs)

MN: (laughs) I am. I also feel…it’s kinda like, Second City is sketch comedy. There’s so many things you can do with it, but it’s always gonna be unrelated scenes, monologues and songs.

And I feel like improvisation is the same in a way, because it’s always going to be someone on a raised platform saying words they didn’t know they were gonna say, and making them up. And you can do that in many different ways, and the only thing that’s really changed by definition is the length of time, in my opinion: long form versus games or short form.

If you expand to like, Comedy Sports or Theatre Sports, that’s a slightly different way of playing games. UCB is a slightly different way of looking at the Harold. I think the Annoyance took improvisation and created more narrative works, more musicals, more full-length plays written through improvisation. And that kind of extends from Second City’s way of creating sketch through improvisation.

So I don’t know the answer to the question, but I feel like there’s all these derivative methods of using the tool that is constant, which is making up things on a stage. And I feel like that sometimes has its limits, which is kind of an age-old argument about whether or not improvisation is actually worthy in and of itself to be a product placed in front of people to pay money for.

Even twenty-some years ago I kept hearing the conversation, “Will there ever be an improvised television show?” or “Can you take improvisation to movies or TV?” And I feel like people have done that, but it still has its hit rate that you have to accommodate commercially. Or not. But I think that that becomes relevant.

Because even among the very best improvisers I’ve ever worked with, the very best have a 75% hit rate. Three out of four scenes are gonna be great and one’s not. 

And you have to ask, “Is that commercially viable?”

In Part Two, Mick talks about working in TV, acting skills and auditioning, how not to run an improv theatre, and pool.

 

Jimmy Carrane has performed with some of the biggest names in comedy, and accomplished things in his career that most of us could only dream of. But take heart; you can learn a lot just from listening to him talk to the luminaries on Improv Nerd. In Part Two of our interview, Jimmy talks about the podcast, self esteem, and where he sees improv going.

Photo © Jimmy Carrane

P&C: One of the chapters in Improvising Better is called “Stop Wanting.” Why do you think some people have an attitude of “Why didn’t I get picked [for a show or a team]?” while others just go out and produce their own shows?

JC: I think it’s an inside job, and I struggle with this. “Am I good enough?” “Am I worthy?” “Do I deserve success?” You know, you’re putting yourself out there, and that’s a very vulnerable thing to do.

Not only are you putting yourself out there, but if you wanna succeed at this you’ve gotta fail a lot. And I think that’s a big issue.

There’s some people that I’ve seen in Chicago that weren’t the most talented, but inside they believed they deserved it and they’ve gone on to very successful careers. There’s people that I’ve seen who are immensely talented and end up quitting and they’re not improvising anymore.

So I think it comes back a little to people coming from dysfunctional families. I think we’re working out a lot of our family issues and other issues inside improvisation in the community. And we said this in the book: it is so, so, so important for improvisers to find support and nurturing outside the improv community.

The big mistake that I had when I came in – I was really screwed up, now I’m less screwed up – was, onstage we have these rules: Yes and, Listen, Make your partner look good, all of that stuff. That works on stage. That doesn’t necessarily translate off stage, so get help. Find people that will support you and nurture you and give you affirmations that you need, because this business is filled – and I’m one of them – is filled with dysfunctional people. And we’re all trying to get healthier, but it can be a very tough environment if you don’t get support.

P&C: You can get too focused on “I’m gonna make my life revolve around improv…”

JC: Well that also affects your life. If you’re immersed in the community and you never have a life and you never take a date night or you never go to a movie or you’re not living a real life, you have nothing to bring to that stage. And I’ve seen it.

I’ve worked with people, directing longform improv shows, and you can just see it in their eyes: they are gone. They don’t have anything more to give because they’ve over-extended themselves in improvisation. The well is dry.

If you don’t have a life, you can’t bring it to stage. It doesn’t work that way. Especially in improvisation.

P&C: Absolutely. Now let’s talk about Improv Nerd. What made you decide to start the podcast?

JC: Well I was at Station 773 where I teach my classes, The Art of Slow Comedy, and I talked to them about doing this, and they were very open, very supportive. It really was an extension of my teaching. I really love teaching improvisation, I just enjoy it so much, and I really wanted people to hear from these incredible artists here in Chicago. But not only their accomplishments; I wanted people to reveal part of themselves.

So when you’re at home listening on your computer, or you’ve got it on your iPod, you hear TJ talking about his insecurities, or Tim Meadows talking about how he didn’t feel he’s enough after 10 seasons of Saturday Night Live. So people at home can relate that these people get to this place, but they had to struggle. Everybody had to struggle to get here.

If you listen to TJ’s, he’s had a very hard life. Susan Messing was very honest and she talked about her struggles in theatres; how she was treated. Dave Koechner, if you get a chance to hear that, that wasn’t a live show, but I just loved this from that show. Dave is gonna be in Anchorman 2, and he was in the original Anchorman, and he talks about the four leads on that cast: Will Ferrell, Paul Rudd, Steve Carrel, and Dave Koechner. They all went home to their wives and said, “Oh my God, [one of the other actors] is doing better than I am. This is gonna be his movie. I’m not doing as well, I can’t keep up with them.” And then they all met on the set in a trailer and they all confessed that this is how they were feeling.

P&C: (laughs)

JC: To me, that is so important for the improv student. Because Dave Koechner is no different than the guy who’s just starting. It’s a different level, but there’s still fear, there’s still insecurity. And that’s the thing that’s common, and that’s the thing that I think is really important that these people share; that no one had an easy path to this.

P&C: I find that there are a lot of kind people in this community.

JC: Yes, there’s a lot of benevolent souls in this community. And I love it, you know? I went to Detroit and this woman comes up to me and says, “I love your podcasts. They’re so honest, they’re so inspirational.” It’s so fulfilling. It’s like I’m reaching a bigger audience, I’m teaching a bigger class. It’s so rewarding, I can’t tell you.

We just did – it hopefully will air in a month or two – we did an interview with Keegan-Michael Key from Key & Peele. There’s also one where it’s the two of them. I was in my head and very worried – “I want a different interviewer!”

He gave a course in improvisation. It was totally different from the other interview that I did with Jordan and himself, and it was so… People were like, “It’s educational, it’s inspirational, it’s entertaining.” That to me is just so rewarding.

P&C: One of the great things about Improv Nerd is that you interview people, and then you do an improv set. What made you think of incorporating that? Did you think of it as a Master Class for the listener?

JC: No, I kind of think of it as a big longform. Like, we do the interview, and certainly we’re going to be inspired by that when we do the improvisation. And I gotta tell you, the improv part… You know, I’ve been interviewing people on public radio here for ten years in Chicago. So the interview I always look forward to. But the improv scares me, because I wanna be great at it. So I’m starting to find, “OK, now I can be as honest in the interview part as I can in the deconstruction part afterwards.” And I think that’s very helpful too.

Improvising with Keegan, I was playing a black character. “How did you feel about you being bi-racial, me playing a black character? I was always taught that in Chicago, you don’t play kids and you don’t play black characters.” And so to get his opinion on it. Or “I made this choice. And I really made this choice ‘cause you were getting a lotta laughs and I thought, y’know, I’d like to get a laugh too.”

P&C: (laughs)

JC: That kinda stuff, I’d like to bring even more of that to that part of Improv Nerd. But that’s the part that scares me the most because that’s really revealing, and that’s where my ego’s involved.

P&C: But you have the awareness of it. I find that people who’ve done personal development work, when you talk about ego, the fact that you’re even talking about it, you have this awareness that that exists. So I feel like you’re actually probably already doing a good job. (laughs)

JC: And I think for me, especially the classroom… I’ve been able to use the classroom to become a better teacher. You know a lot of people say, “Oh, I learn so much from my students.” And it’s true, it’s like, “Well, how do you do it?”

I had an incident where there was a woman, she was an older woman, and there was this younger guy, and they did this scene where he swooped across her breast. He didn’t touch her breast, but she was very jarred by that. So she emailed me and she said, “This has never happened to me, and blah-blah-blah… I’ve been in a lot of acting classes.” And then I had to respond to her.

And what I had found out – and I talked earlier about this – I had been sexually abused. I totally shut down. And so that was helping me get over my sexual abuse, and I said, “I really checked out, and had I been more conscious, I would’ve side-coached you. Y’know: ‘Back off, don’t touch me,’ something like that.” And that to me, that’s where the teacher can learn from the student. That’s made me a better teacher.

I approach teaching today as, I don’t have any lesson plans anymore. I go in and I’m like, “I’m improvising with my students.” Meaning, I’m improvising my lesson plan. Whatever comes up, I’m gonna follow them. And that’s made a big difference in my teaching.

In my class there was a woman, she was getting caught up with sexual stuff; she was really blocked. So then we just did an exercise that dealt with that. And then there was another guy who felt he talked too much. So then right in the moment we created an exercise where it dealt with him being… He’d sit in the scenes and be quiet throughout the scenes, not say anything, because he talked too much, or felt he talked too much.

Those kinda things, to me, are the most powerful things, and it’s right in the moment. I’m improvising with them, and that to me is so exciting. That’s how teachers get better, when they’re willing to deviate from their lesson plan and go, “Hey, just like I’m on stage, what’s in front of me? What did they just initiate? I’m gonna use that and I’m gonna follow that.”

At the end of class, that was the thing they felt was the most beneficial; when you took something in the moment and you worked on something with somebody individually. Because the other thing is, you may be working with one person, but my experience is it affects the whole group. Some other members of the group benefit from that as well, even if you’re working with just one person.

P&C: Absolutely. I’ve seen transformations in classes or workshops that the whole room felt was a breakthrough, even if it was dealing with a specific behaviour of one person, as you say.

JC: Because it’s group dynamic. That one person is holding onto something for the whole group.

P&C: That’s a really great point.

OK, in all your years of teaching, performing, and writing about improv, what are you most proud of?

JC: Oh my God, I am proud of so many things. Wow. I’m proud of Improv Nerd. I’m really proud of Improv Nerd. I’m proud of Jazz Freddy. I’m proud of The Comedy Underground, which was a short-form group that had just phenomenal people: Andy Richter was in it, Dave Koechner was in it, Kevin Dorff was in it, Brian Stack was in it…

P&C: Wow.

JC: My God, who else? Mitch Rouse was in it,  Jay Leggett, Brian Blondell, Brendan Sullivan…

In terms of The Annoyance, a show that I’m hugely still to this day proud of is a show that was written through improvisation called I’m 27, I Still Live At Home And Sell Office Supplies. That show ran for a year and a half and it was a huge, huge hit. It was something that I always wanted to do, and it’s something that I’m really, really proud of.

Another show that comes to mind is Naked. It was probably one of the first two-person improv [shows], I guess. It was me and Stephanie Weir from Mad TV and she is amazing. She is just a phenomenal writer, a phenomenal actress and a phenomenal improviser. We did one scene for one hour, same relationship.

The other show that…I was in the original cast of Armando here at the iO, and that was a very special time that brought people from UCB, people from Second City, there was a house team at iO called The Family that Adam McKay was on… Charna Halpern had just opened her space on Clark & Addison, and that was a very exciting time because all of these people like Jazz Freddy and The Family and UCB and Second City, we all came together to do Armando.

Armando Diaz was actually Armando. It was scary; it was very, very scary, and very rewarding too, at the same time.

P&C: Do you find that a lot of times it is the things that scare you the most that, when you do them, you’re so happy you did?

JC: There isn’t one project that I haven’t gone into feeling that, “I’m not good enough,” or… That always comes up.

P&C: Not with Improv Nerd though?

JC: Yes. I didn’t feel I was good enough.

It’s taken me a while to get confidence. I didn’t feel like… there was parts of the show that I would get, and there were other parts that I wouldn’t get. There’s times that I don’t feel that I’m good enough. Even stuff that you create.

P&C: I think when you’re putting yourself out there, it’s easy to be hard on yourself about the results. What’s amazing to me is, you’ve been doing it for so long and are so respected, and you still have those moments.

JC: The other thing too is, when you put up a show, I don’t care if it’s a scripted show [like] I’m 27, or The Armando; it takes a while in front of an audience. Anywhere from eight to twelve – it all depends [on] your learning curve – but it takes a fair amount of shows to figure out what it is.

And I feel like in Improv Nerd, we’re still figuring out what it is. Which is exciting and scary. The exciting part is, it’s new every night and you’re not just phoning it in. The scary part is, you don’t know what to expect and you can’t control it.

P&C: Listening to all these amazing things you’ve done, in some ways it feels they could only have happened in Chicago. Do you think it’s necessary to move to Chicago, New York or LA? Say you live in Ottawa or Austin; do you have to go to one of those Big Three cities to be successful?

JC: I think it all depends what they want. The other thing is, you bring up Austin…it’s so interesting because Austin has got this flourishing community there now. Tom Booker and Asaf Ronen, they started a theatre. Asaf was in New York, Tom was in Los Angeles, and Tom was at The Annoyance with me. So you’re getting these people that have major market experience now going into smaller markets.

If you wanna be on Saturday Night Live or you wanna be on Mainstage at Second City or you wanna be a writer for Colbert, yeah, you probably have to go to New York or LA or Chicago. But if you wanna do it and have a great longform group and be really respected and probably make some money at it, I don’t think you have to move to one of those cities.

I think it’s beneficial to come to Chicago to study, or when teachers come to Toronto. In many of the interviews of Improv Nerd you’d ask people, “Do you have to move LA? Do you have to move to New York?” And a lot of people say because of the internet and YouTube that you can get stuff…you know, content…[that] you don’t have to move there necessarily anymore.

P&C: I think a lot of Canadians yearn to go there, but maybe it’s that “grass is always greener” kind of thing.

JC: I think it all comes down to your goals. What’s your vision for yourself? Do you wanna do Mainstage at Second City? Do you wanna do one of the boats at Second City? Do you wanna live in a bigger city, and be more exposed to stuff? That’s only gonna help your art, if that’s what you want. But I think today there’s a lot of good people in these smaller markets.

I go to Rochester and there’s a guy named Law Tarello and John [Forrest Thompson]… Those guys, one spent time here at iO, was a student of mine, and Law was at UCB. And they’re starting a theatre in Rochester. And that’s really changed, and that’s really helpful; that these people in major markets are going into smaller markets because they have experience, and they’re bringing that from the bigger cities.

P&C: Which is very cool.

JC: Oh it’s really cool. And the other thing is to just get exposure. I mean if you’re in a small city, you’ve gotta come and watch improvisation. That’s why I love it when I teach in St Louis or Detroit or Rochester and people will email me saying, “What are the shows to see?”

And that’s great, because that is such an important thing. And that’s why Chicago is such a mecca, because we have so many shows. And people forget that watching improvisation is a teaching tool in itself.

P&C: For sure. It’s funny, when Cameron and I started improvising, we didn’t go to many shows. And then when we started watching them, it was like, “What were we thinking, learning in a vacuum?”

JC: Yep. It just keeps inspiring, and keeps the community growing and growing and growing.

Image © Jimmy Carrane

Jimmy Carrane is the creator and host of the very cool Improv Nerd podcast, and co-author of Improvising Better: A Guide for the Working Improviser. 

He was an original member of The Annoyance Theater, Armando at The IO-Chicago, and the legendary longform group-slash-show, Jazz Freddy. We asked him about his career, Chicago, and why he loves improv nerds. 

Photo © Jimmy Carrane

P&C: As someone who’s been improvising for decades, how has improv changed for you since you started, or has it?

JC: Well I started when I was 18, so I’m 48 now.

P&C: Wow.

JC: Yeah. I think it’s changed in terms of…when I started, especially longform was based in Chicago. Now it’s all over the country, all over the world and North America.

You look at New York, you look at LA, and there’s people that’ve started in Chicago. Like you look at the UCB, those people started in Chicago. PIT and The Magnet… those people all started in Chicago. iO now has an outlet on the West Coast, Second City’s out there.

And then there’s teachers that then leave UCB and go teach down in Florida or Oklahoma. It is so spread out, I think that’s the biggest change. Chicago isn’t the only place anymore to do longform improvisation.

P&C: But it’s still the mecca, though. Would you say that’s still the case?

JC: I’ll tell you why Chicago I think is still the mecca. One is, it’s got the history. Certainly going back over 50 years with the Second City. The other thing is, I think, versus New York or Los Angeles, it’s still very accessible to get on stage.

You can do improvisation in front of an audience, and that’s where you really learn, in front of an audience. It’s much more accessible and less competitive than New York or Los Angeles.

P&C: I guess it just depends on what your end goal is.

JC: Well I have to say for me, it certainly has become more… When I started at improv Olympic, this was back in ’84, somewhere in there, ’85, ’86… you knew everyone. There was maybe seven or eight teams at the most, so you knew everybody. There truly was this community.

Now it’s enormous and when people say “I’ve gotta audition for a Harold,” I just think to myself, that wasn’t the case when I was there.

P&C: Improv has become this huge thing, which is good because it means more people are getting paid to teach and even perform. But do you miss the intimacy of the smaller community, or do you think this is a great thing that’s happened?

JC: I think it’s a great thing. I just came back from Detroit for the Detroit Improv Festival, and they just treated me like a king.

I think for someone like me who’s been around for a while and is starting to be known, it’s really cool to take what I’ve learned here the last 30 years, and then go to different cities. ‘Cause there is a connection between improvisers. We all speak the same language when it comes down to it.

P&C: Do you travel a lot?

JC: I’ve started to travel more as the opportunities have come in. I won – which was a total surprise to me – the 2012 INNY Award for Best Workshop with The Art of Slow Comedy. So I’ve gotten some interest there, but my basis is still Chicago.

P&C: Were you born in Chicago?

JC: I was born in Chicago, yeah.

P&C: I read that you said you were “pretty much in denial” that you wanted to do improv for years. Why is that?

JC: I always wanted to be… Really young, I think my first vision was to be a stand-up comedian. And part of me, I’d still like to do it. And then I got into improv, and once I got there – it was at the Players Workshop at the Second City, which I don’t believe is there anymore – but there was just like, a handful of places that were teaching improv back in the ‘80s and that was one of them.

I had been the class clown at school, I had been the funny one in my family, and everything that I had worked to, to that point, was rewarded. And I finally found, like, “I found my people. They understand me.”

P&C: When you say “your people;” your podcast is called Improv Nerd. I didn’t think of improv being associated with nerds as a personality type until I saw an interview with TJ, and he said “Improvisers are nerds,” and I thought, he’s right! Do you find that it’s like this group of people who were outsiders who’ve come together in improv?

JC: Yes. I think, you know, it’s a different breed. And in Chicago, we’re really not actors…we are actors, but in Chicago there’s division between actors and improvisers which I think is very interesting.

And I think that improvisers, y’know, they’re really not stand-ups, they’re really not actors, they’re this hybrid. So I think that there’s this sense that we’re kind of on the outside. And I think if you asked improvisers their background, one is you’d find out most of them come from dysfunctional families. And two is, they probably didn’t feel like they belonged.

And I think for most of us, when we found improvisation or we found a certain theatre that did improvisation, we felt we were home, and we were accepted. In that case, I think yes, we are all nerds, and we are nerds finding ourselves. Improv is a nerd colony, and hopefully that we will reproduce.

P&C: (laughs) It’s great because improv gives you the courage to do things and say things and feel things that you may not in real life. I think in your book you say “It’s not therapy,” but there is that angle to it that it’s like a release when you’re up there.

JC: Well there is a healing quality of improvisation that I started to tap into the last five or six years as I have been in group therapy. It’s so much fun to be in a class where people will…you’ll have an opportunity to help people get over an issue that they’re working on onstage, that they think is only about what they’re doing onstage, when in reality – since improvisation is such a transparent art form – it really has to do with what’s going on in their life.

P&C: For sure. Going back to you on that point, you’ve said that you’re in therapy and that you’ve had a hard time letting go of low self-esteem, because you’re afraid if you do, you’ll lose your comic voice. Do you still have that concern?

JC: No. I’d like to find more joy in improvising, and that’s parallel to my life. I’d like to find more joy in my life. So I’m not worried that I’m not gonna do… I think today for me, where I’m at in terms of therapy is that it’s actually helping me become a better improviser because I’m discovering things about myself.

I’m all for – and this is where I go towards and what I find the most fascinating in improvisation and in comedy in general – is going for the honesty. The things that are revealing; the things that when you get off stage, I’m gonna feel a tremendous amount of shame, or the audience may feel a little uncomfortable and laugh. That’s what I like in comedy, and that’s what I like in improvisation, and there’s also a lot of healing in there.

If you can get onstage, and I’ve done this many times and talked about my sexual abuse, for instance… that becomes very healing for me, and hopefully it becomes healing for the audience. And in the process, hopefully there’s humour to that, which makes it easier for people to deal with. But that’s part of the healing process too; laughter is really important to that process.

P&C: There’s some great lightning-fast shows with lots of sweeps, but then you go and see something like TJ and Dave where it’s so much slower and more about the relationships, and you can see – I don’t know either of them, but you can sense their personalities in the characters they’re portraying – and I think that’s why audiences absolutely love them.

JC: And on top of it they’re both very passionate about improvisation. When I was coming up at the improv Olympic, everybody looked up to Dave Pasquesi. I mean everybody wanted to be Dave Pasquesi.

P&C: (laughs)

JC: It’s interesting; I don’t think it was aired because there was a technical difficulty, but we had Noah Gregoropolous. I don’t know if you know Noah, but he’s very well respected at the improv Olympic. He’s kind of curmudgeonly and has very high standards, very professorial, and Noah said in the interview, the only person he looks for approval from is Dave Pasquesi.

And then TJ to me, he’s like Mozart. I mean, nobody… I’ve played with him, and when there’s a suggestion you can see it in his eyes, he’s already got something. He is amazing; he’s easily one of the best I’ve ever played with, and I truly believe that he is a genius at what he does.

P&C: In the Improv Nerd interview with TJ, you said you and TJ were on a team together?

JC: We were a team called Carl and the Passions at iO here.

P&C: So this is early days of iO?

JC: No, this was later. My relationship with the iO has been on again, off again for years. So this was probably four or five years ago.

P&C: I’m jumping around in my notes right now…you were in Jazz Freddy, and you’ve interviewed some of [the members] on your podcast: Rachel Dratch, Dave Koechner…

JC: Dave Koechner, sure. Kevin Dorff was on that. Brian Stack, who writes for Conan O’Brien.

P&C: Can you describe the improv scene at that time? Jazz Freddy went on to become this very influential group, but who was there at the time that you looked up to?

JC: Well to answer you first question, the scene back then… there wasn’t as many opportunities to perform improvisation. So it was kinda fun because in a way it was like the Wild West. You made your own opportunities, which I think was such a benefit because people took more risks.

So that was kinda the lay of the land. We’d all finished studying at the improv Olympic, so Pete Gardner was the one who really had the idea because he had been with a group called Ed, and he’d learned a lot from a guy named Jimm Dennen and they had done a show at the Remains Theatre. They were probably one of the earliest groups that I can remember that brought longform into a legitimate theatre.

The Remains Theatre was a very big equity house here in Chicago. So we really patterned ourselves after that. We always wanted to do a little more slow and a little more serious scene work, and we wanted to take it into a theatre, and so Ed opened the door for us to do that. And so we put it up I believe on a Monday night, and it’s one of those shows where, quickly it started to sell out, quickly we started to get great reviews, and became this phenomenon.

Then we did another run and that was a huge success. I think we moved it to the weekend, still at Live Bait Theatre. And it’s interesting, even today, improvisers who were behind us, y’know, one or two generations, will say, “Jazz Freddy was a huge influence on us. I got into improv because of Jazz Freddy, it was amazing to see what you guys were doing.” And I think that was really the benefit of those times.

It was a very exciting time here in Chicago in terms of, you had Jazz Freddy, you had Ed, the Annoyance… I was doing the Annoyance Theatre and Jazz Freddy at the same time, and the Annoyance had just begun on their space on Broadway here in Chicago, and The Real Live Brady Bunch and Co-ed Prison Sluts, and all their shows. I mean it was really an exciting time. And Looking Glass Theatre which had David Schwimmer and Joey Slotnick, they were starting up… It was a real kind of Renaissance period in Chicago in terms of theatre and improvisation.

P&C: And how long was Jazz Freddy an entity?

JC: There was a couple runs of it, but I don’t think it was really… maybe, totally? The first run was maybe six weeks and maybe we extended it another six weeks, so maybe that was twelve weeks, and maybe the next run was twelve weeks too. I don’t think it was that long of a run.

P&C: That’s amazing. That is truly a testament to what you were doing.

JC: The other thing, I think this kinda ties in to how improv has changed. When we did Jazz Freddy, we looked at it as, we’re putting up a theatre show. We brought all the discipline and respect that putting up a theatre show [entails].

Which meant – which is unheard of today – saying “Look, you cannot do anything else that’s gonna conflict with this. This is your priority.” Which would never happen today. Today people would be like, “I can’t do it, I’ve got another show at X-Y-Z Theatre. I’ve got another class at Second City. I’ve got my final performance at Annoyance.” But that commitment is what I believe – and certainly the talent that we had – but that commitment made that show.

And the other thing is, I think there’s a plus and a minus for the expansion of improvisation today. In terms of the expansion, those opportunities like Jazz Freddy, those shows that influence generations, I don’t think they’re gonna happen as much, and I’ll tell you why.

[It’s] because there’s so many performance opportunities, and this is mentioned in Improvising Better, the book I co-wrote with Liz Allen. People are so addicted to… I think we called them Stage Junkies. They will run to class, they will run to a show, they will spread themselves way too thin. And in that, they won’t give their art enough space and enough time to create something like Jazz Freddy.

Because everyone’s worried; they wanna make sure they’ve got all their bases covered in case the Next Big Thing comes. Well I can guarantee if you’re playing that way, you’re not gonna find the Next Big Thing. They’re betting against themselves and they don’t know it.

P&C: I think that is universal. You hear “Get as much stage time as you can,” so you think, “Well, if I get can three shows a week, that’s great!” But then you also might be taking classes and to your point, you reach overload and then you’re not really committed to anything.

JC: Right. And here’s the thing: there becomes a ceiling.

When you start out and you’re getting stage time it’s great, because you’re getting experience. But then you’re gonna hit this ceiling where, now it’s about getting quality stage time.

So that’s really an important thing for people to remember.

In Part Two we discuss Improvising Better, the Improv Nerd podcast, how Jimmy’s teaching style has evolved, and pushing past fear to do new projects.

Photo © Jimmy Carrane

Greg Hess is an actor and writer living in Chicago.

He’s performed with The Second City National Touring Company, teaches improv to actors and corporate clients, and created a Master Class series for iO Chicago. He plays the guitar, ukulele, banjo and accordion – just not at the same time.

Photo © Joshua Albanese/The Improvised Shakespeare Company

P&C: You encourage acting (and reacting) in a real way in scenes. Why do you think that’s important?

GH: I think when I teach the reason I like it is because it gets people out of their heads, thinking that they have to be the most clever person on stage.

The cool thing that I always liked about improv was that everybody brings something to the table because of just who you are and what your point of view is. And that isn’t gonna come out as well unless you’re able to basically, not freak out, and connect with your scene partner and do a good scene.

Some of the groups that I’m a part of do some of the more absurd, sort of, silly things on stage, but I think the cool part of that is that there’s always a commitment to how absurd it is. I would say Cook County does some of the more unbelievable scenes that I get to perform, but everybody’s emotional commitment to them is 100% real.

P&C: [We were] saying that it doesn’t matter what you’re saying; if you’re doing it with utter commitment and truly living that character you will buy it, but you will also laugh.

GH: You can ride a bus and see things that are crazier than what are on an improv stage, and the people on the bus are always really committed to whatever they’re talking about.

P&C: What is your view on openings, and why do you think they’re so hard for so many improvisers?

GH: Well, I just finished teaching a week of openings at iO for the Summer Intensive for Level 4, which is the Harold. I actually…you know what’s funny is, I don’t know why people think they’re so hard.

My feeling about openings is that they can be alienating, hard to watch, boring, and/or insane. And the reason for that is because everyone in the last few years, I think, has been taught that openings mean chanting and walking around in a circle and free-associating words and sort of building insane machines together…

P&C: Yes!

GH: …and then trying to figure out what that means.

And actually – and taking this from Holly, who’s my wife and is an amazing Harold teacher – she said “You know, an opening is just a time for us all to connect and to build a few ideas together, and it’s really nothing more than that.”

So the fact that openings have become such a burden is kind of too bad. Because really, an opening can be whatever you want it to be. And if you don’t like chanting and marching around then don’t do that.

P&C: (laughs)

GH: The cool part is that you’re just generating some ideas together and you’re connecting with your ensemble. And then hopefully you’re doing that in a way that makes the audience lean forward a little bit and thinks that “Oh, something’s happening here” rather than “Oh God, why did you take me to this on a Monday night? We’re never going out again.”

P&C: No wonder you’re not enjoying it if you’re doing stuff you’re not enjoying. That makes a lot of sense.

GH: The first Harold team I was ever on was a team called Sturgis. [It was] another team that had a bunch of great players on it: TJ Miller, and some guys from Cook County Social Club.

We actually went by the rule that we were gonna over-commit to the Harold in the opening at the very top, and try to do basically the most over-committed, insane opening that people had ever seen.

What it ended up turning into was unconditional support for the weirdest things, and we would get some of the biggest laughs of the night in our opening because we just thought they were so silly, we wanted to just have fun with it.

P&C: You didn’t get to see one, but that’s usually how an S&P opening goes.

GH: (laughs)

Cameron: We got nervous because we had superstar Greg Hess [onstage].

GH: Well I blame Cameron for ending that opening, because I’m all about doing super over-committed, insane openings… All I wanted to do was jump around and free associate and no one would let me.

Cameron: (laughs)

P&C: Is there anything that drives you nuts in improv scenes?

GH: Oh yeah. Plenty. (laughs) I think the one thing… I was teaching another class today and the one thing I told people that I don’t like to see is just people being so polite and timid that they’re afraid to react and really give each other gifts onstage.

You see it here and you see it wherever you go, and it’s because we’re making it up we feel like “waiting for something to happen” rather than kinda diving in the pool and swimming around.

I think a frustrating thing to me is always, you’re up there saying how much you like this girl, but you’re basically just standing there and talking. You’re not actually doing anything.

I love that quote that “Acting is doing.” I don’t know who said that; probably Utah Hagen or somebody… (laughs) But it is kind of true in improv. too. I think improv is doing, it’s not the opposite of doing. So if I do have a pet peeve it’s people who get sidelined by their fear or their brain or whatever it is that keeps you from having fun and playing onstage.

P&C: What’s the funniest or the weirdest thing that’s ever happened in one of your shows?

GH: Well, Cook County has definitely gotten somewhat naked on stage before, so that’s always interesting. Back in the early days we almost were kicked out of the theatre because someone took Brendan’s pants off and he sort of dared them to take his boxer shorts off, too. We got a stern reprimand – as we should have.

But actually, one of my favourite moments, somebody from Toronto brought up to me when we were at the bar the other night. They saw a show where I did a two-man show – it was a Cook County show – and it was just two of us, and I accidentally roundhouse-kicked Mark in the face. His nose sort of exploded in blood, and um, we kept doing the show.

P&C: Oh my God.

GH: We stuffed bar napkins into his nose from the closest table. I’ve honestly never been so terrified onstage. I was just so…I thought I’d broken his nose; I sort of knocked his lights out for a little bit. He was just so dazed.

We had about 30 minutes more of the show and we just kept going, and it ended up being one of our favourite shows we’ve ever done. It was fun to go to Toronto and somebody came up to me and said, “I was there the night you roundhouse-kicked Mark in the face and bloodied his nose.” I just loved that because it’s a great example of taking a risk, having the risk go terribly wrong, but then seeing some really fun things come out of it. (laughs)

P&C: That’s pretty hardcore.

GH: Yeah, it’s real punk rock improv, I guess. I guess the most punk rock thing is that I screamed after I did it and didn’t know how to deal with it.

P&C: (laughs) That’s amazing. OK, last question: You’re a working actor in a very competitive field. What advice do you have for improvisers who want to make a living at it?

GH: Well, I think my advice would be, Don’t think about the living until the living shows up.

I don’t think I ever thought I would make a living doing improv until one day I kinda realized that I had enough opportunities to piece together that it didn’t make sense for me to be a desk jockey anymore.

I think that only came out of working really hard to try and learn it and to find people that I liked performing with. And then after that things started to fall into place.

That doesn’t mean be complacent; it means work really hard. I like working really hard at it for how much you love it, and hopefully the return on it is people asking you to do more. So that was always kind of a nice thing to think that, Man, I didn’t move here to think that I would get to pay the bills this way, but now that I get to I couldn’t imagine doing it any other way.

P&C: That’s great advice. I’m a big advocate of “Do what you love and the money will follow” – and that could mean doing a bunch of different things in order to practice what you love. Susan Messing said when Second City had its 50th anniversary, some people didn’t go because they compared themselves to alumni like Colbert or Carell. But that’s their path, and everyone has their own path.

GH: I do think that improvisers can be really complacent and feel like no one’s giving them any opportunities. That’s a big problem in Chicago, is we have all these talented people that probably should be doing it at a different level, like on TV or whatever. Maybe they don’t want to, or maybe they don’t think it’s gonna show up.

I think part of it is you have to put in the work for the return that you want. If you think that someone’s gonna show up and hand you a television show, it just doesn’t really happen. But if you write a TV show and do the work that it takes to learn how to write one, then there’s a better chance that you might get that opportunity.

Did you guys read the Patton Oswalt address at JFL?

P&C: No.

GH: Oh you’ve gotta read it, it’s really awesome. I just love his take on… That sort of, the playing field is just getting more and more equalized. There’s so many great young comics [and] with the internet and everything else; there is an audience and you just have to continue to try to make the thing that you wanna make, and hope that it can find itself.

You should read it, because his take is like, “The tides are changing,” and he definitely puts the feet of the industry to the fire, because he says “It’s time for you to stop thinking about it in the old way. Give these people who have a voice more opportunity.”

P&C: Very cool. We’ll read it and post a link. Thank you very much for your time.

GH: Thank you.

Note: You can click the link above to read the Oswalt piece. And if you ever have an opportunity to take a class with Greg, do it – or to paraphrase Susan Messing, be an idiot and an asshole.

P&C: You encourage acting (and reacting) in a real way in scenes. Why do you think that’s important?

GH: I think when I teach the reason I like it is because it gets people out of their heads, thinking that they have to be the most clever person on stage.

The cool thing that I always liked about improv was that everybody brings something to the table because of just who you are and what your point of view is. And that isn’t gonna come out as well unless you’re able to basically, not freak out, and connect with your scene partner and do a good scene.

Some of the groups that I’m a part of do some of the more absurd, sort of, silly things on stage, but I think the cool part of that is that there’s always a commitment to how absurd it is. I would say Cook County does some of the more unbelievable scenes that I get to perform, but everybody’s emotional commitment to them is 100% real.

P&C: [We were] saying that it doesn’t matter what you’re saying; if you’re doing it with utter commitment and truly living that character you will buy it, but you will also laugh.

GH: You can ride a bus and see things that are crazier than what are on an improv stage and the people on the bus are always really committed to whatever they’re talking about.

P&C: What is your view on openings, and why do you think they’re so hard for so many improvisers?

GH: Well, I just finished teaching a week of openings at iO for the Summer Intensive for Level 4, which is the Harold. I actually…you know what’s funny is, I don’t know why people think they’re so hard.

My feeling about openings is that they can be alienating, hard to watch, boring, and/or insane. And the reason for that is because everyone in the last few years, I think, has been taught that openings mean chanting and walking around in a circle and free-associating words and sort of building insane machines together…

P&C: Yes!

GH: …and then trying to figure out what that means.

And actually – and taking this from Holly, who’s my wife and is an amazing Harold teacher – she said “You know, an opening is just a time for us all to connect and to build a few ideas together, and it’s really nothing more than that.”

So the fact that openings have become such a burden is kind of too bad. Because really, an opening can be whatever you want it to be. And if you don’t like chanting and marching around then don’t do that.

P&C: (laughs)

GH: The cool part is that you’re just generating some ideas together and you’re connecting with your ensemble. And then hopefully you’re doing that in a way that makes the audience lean forward a little bit and thinks that “Oh, something’s happening here” rather than “Oh God, why did you take me to this on a Monday night? We’re never going out again.”

P&C: No wonder you’re not enjoying it if you’re doing stuff you’re not enjoying. That makes a lot of sense.

GH: The first Harold team I was ever on was a team called Sturgess; another team that had a bunch of great players on it: Nick Vaderah and TJ Miller and some guys from Cook County Social Club…

We actually went by the rule that we were gonna over-commit to the Harold in the opening at the very top, and try to do basically the most over-committed, insane opening that people had ever seen.
What it ended up turning into was unconditional support for the weirdest things, and we would get some of the biggest laughs of the night in our opening because we just thought they were so silly, we wanted to just have fun with it.

P&C: You didn’t get to see one, but that’s usually how an S&P opening goes.

GH: (laughs)

Cameron: We got nervous because we had superstar Greg Hess [onstage].

GH: Well I blame Cameron for ending that opening, because I’m all about doing super over-committed, insane openings… All I wanted to do was jump around and free associate and no one would let me.

Cameron: (laughs)

P&C: Is there anything that drives you nuts in improv scenes?

GH: Oh yeah. Plenty. (laughs) I think the one thing… I was teaching another class today and the one thing I told people that I don’t like to see is just people being so polite and timid that they’re afraid to react and really give each other gifts onstage.

You see it here and you see it wherever you go, and it’s because we’re making it up we feel like “waiting for something to happen” rather than kinda diving in the pool and swimming around.

I think a frustrating thing to me is always, you’re up there saying how much you like this girl, but you’re basically just standing there and talking. You’re not actually doing anything.

I love that quote that “Acting is doing.” I don’t know who said that; probably Utah Hagen or somebody… (laughs) But it is kind of true in improv. too. I think improv is doing, it’s not the opposite of doing. So if I do have a pet peeve it’s people who get sidelined by their fear or their brain or whatever it is that keeps you from having fun and playing onstage.

P&C: What’s the funniest or the weirdest thing that’s ever happened in one of your shows?

GH: Well, Cook County has definitely gotten somewhat naked on stage before, so that’s always interesting. Back in the early days we almost were kicked out of the theatre because someone took Brendan’s pants off and he sort of dared them to take his boxer shorts off, too. We got a stern reprimand – as we should have.

But actually, one of my favourite moments, somebody from Toronto brought up to me when we were at the bar the other night. They saw a show where I did a two-man show – it was a Cook County show – and it was just two of us, and I accidentally roundhouse-kicked Mark in the face. His nose sort of exploded in blood, and um, we kept doing the show.

P&C: Oh my God.

GH: We stuffed bar napkins into his nose from the closest table. I’ve honestly never been so terrified onstage. I was just so…I thought I’d broken his nose; I sort of knocked his lights out for a little bit. He was just so dazed.

We had about 30 minutes more of the show and we just kept going, and it ended up being one of our favourite shows we’ve ever done. It was fun to go to Toronto and somebody came up to me and said, “I was there the night you roundhouse-kicked Mark in the face and bloodied his nose.” I just loved that because it’s a great example of taking a risk, having the risk go terribly wrong, but then seeing some really fun things come out of it. (laughs)

P&C: That’s pretty hardcore.

GH: Yeah, it’s real punk rock improv, I guess. I guess the most punk rock thing is that I screamed after I did it and didn’t know how to deal with it.

P&C: (laughs) That’s amazing. OK, last question. You’re a working actor in a very competitive field. What advice do you have for improvisers who want to make a living at it?

GH: Well, I think my advice would be, “Don’t think about the living until the living shows up.”

I don’t think I ever thought I would make a living doing improv until one day I kinda realized that I had enough opportunities to piece together that it didn’t make sense for me to be a desk jockey anymore.

I think that only came out of working really hard to try and learn it and to find people that I liked performing with. And then after that things started to fall into place.

That doesn’t mean be complacent; it means work really hard. I like working really hard at it for how much you love it, and hopefully the return on it is people asking you to do more. So that was always kind of a nice thing to think that, Man, I didn’t move here to think that I would get to pay the bills this way, but now that I get to I couldn’t imagine doing it any other way.

P&C: That’s great advice. I’m a big advocate of do what you love and the money will follow – and that could mean doing a bunch of different things in order to practice what you love.

Susan Messing said when Second City had its 50th anniversary, someone didn’t go because they were comparing themselves to alumni like Colbert or Steve Carell. But she said that’s their path, and everyone her own path.

GH: I do think that improvisers can be really complacent and feel like no one’s giving them any opportunities. That’s a big problem in Chicago, is we have all these talented people that probably should be doing it at a different level, like on TV or whatever. Maybe they don’t want to, or maybe they don’t think it’s gonna show up…

I think part of it is you have to put in the work for the return that you want. If you think that someone’s gonna show up and hand you a television show, it just doesn’t really happen. But if you write a TV show and do the work that it takes to learn how to write one, then there’s a better chance that you might get that opportunity.

Did you guys read the Patton Oswalt address at JFL?

P&C: No.

GH: Oh you’ve gotta read it, it’s really awesome. I just love his take on…that sort of, the playing field is just getting more and more equalized. There’s so many great young comics [and] with the internet and everything else; there is an audience and you just have to continue to try to make the thing that you wanna make, and hope that it can find itself.

You should read it, because his take is like, “The tides are changing,” and he definitely puts the feet of the industry to the fire, because he says “It’s time for you to stop thinking about it in the old way. Give these people who have a voice more opportunity.”

P&C: Very cool. We’ll read it and post a link. Thank you very much for your time, Greg.

GH: Thank you.

Note: You can read a transcript of Oswalt’s speech at Third Beat by clicking here. And if you ever have an opportunity to learn from Greg, do it. Or  to paraphrase Susan Messing, don’t do it, and be an idiot and an asshole.

Greg Hess is a member of the legendary Cook County Social Club and the equally-esteemed Improvised Shakespeare Company. When his Toronto workshop was announced, Susan Messing said, “Greg Hess is incredible. Anyone who misses this class is an asshole and an idiot.” With a letter of recommendation like that, how could we refuse? 

We asked him about his influences, the importance of team chemistry, and improvising in iambic pentameter.

Photo © Ryan Ward Thompson

P&C: You’re originally from Virginia. Why did y’all move to Chicago?

GH: I went to the College of William and Mary in Virginia, and that’s actually the first time I saw improv, was in my freshman year orientation.

There was a short-form improv group there and it kinda has a unique history. It’s one of the older college groups in the country and a lot of the people from that group ended up in Chicago in the early ‘90s, studying under Del. So the group was started in 1986 and it was called IT, or Improvisational Theatre, in a really original turn of a name (laughs). So a few people each year seemed to move to Chicago. Among those were Craig Cackowski, who was on the Second City Mainstage, and Ali Davis, Brendan Dowling, Joey Bland…a lot of people that still perform in either LA or here. And I kinda just followed in their footsteps.

P&C: So when you moved to Chicago, what was your plan of attack, or did you have a specific plan in mind about what you were going to do next?

GH: I didn’t. I knew I loved improv, and I knew this was the place to do it. The really nice thing is, because I was sort of being a copycat, I had friends that were friends from college that I lived with that were also doing improv, and they told me what classes to take and where to go to see shows. So I sort of just fell in pretty easily with that.

My plan of attack was always sort of, I just loved doing it, and I didn’t know at that time what level I could be performing at. I just wanted to come find out more about it.

P&C: You studied at the School at Steppenwolf. What did you learn there that was different than some of your other training?

GH: Well, the Steppenwolf Theatre is a famous Chicago theatre known for doing great ensemble work. Their alumni [include] John Malkovich and Gary Sinise…. So the School at Steppenwolf is a summer training intensive that they do, and what I learned there was Meisner technique, Viewpoints technique, and believe it or not, some improv. Sheldon Patinkin who was a founding member of the Compass Players and Second City is a teacher there.

P&C: Is that where you studied Viewpoints with one of the originators of that technique?

GH: Yeah. My teacher that summer was a guy named Guy Adkins, who was an acolyte of Tina Landau who was considered one of the founders of Viewpoints method. And she was around, but he was sort of the mainstay. He was amazing; he ended up passing away at a very young age. He was a Chicago actor and it ended up that that was the last summer he taught. I think he died when he was 45 of cancer. That was obviously a heartbreaking time, but I consider myself to be very lucky, obviously.

P&C: What in particular, was it his teaching style, his personality, his technique…?

GH: If people are familiar with Viewpoints, in terms of improv, I really liked that Viewpoints just gave names to a lot of the things that we do in improv anyway. It’s really a director’s language to get actors to do what they want. So what I loved about his teaching was not getting lost in yourself, and realizing that your job as an actor is also to respond to what others are doing on stage. And probably at its simplest it’s that: he really gave a ton of focus to ensemble work, which was awesome.

P&C: How has all of that informed the way you perform?

GH: I was talking with somebody about this today – actually Ken, from Toronto – how I felt like at the time. I was one of the only improvisers going through that program, with a bunch of actors. I felt really out of my league at times. And it hasn’t even been until the last few years that that training has come out in ways I hadn’t expected. Being OK with text in a script and being able to attack it as an actor and an improviser at the same time has been super helpful.

P&C: We’ve had the discussion with a few people about the whole “actor vs improviser,” and is there a difference… Would you say that you feel less of a delineation now than you used to?

GH: I don’t feel a delineation for myself that much. I know actors who are horrified to improvise, and improvisers who are horrified to do anything that’s scripted. So I do think that there can be a difference, but I’m not one to lose any blood over it.

P&C: You focus on the “How” of the scene: How you enter a scene, how your scene partner reacts, how you connect with them. Did someone teach you that, or did you develop that approach of focusing on the “how” on your own?

GH: I sort of developed that on my own after I went to the School at Steppenwolf and learned some of the skills of just identifying human behaviour in your scene partner, and that’s actually kind of a Meisner technique.

The actual language that we use for it, I think maybe other people have used. I don’t wanna say that I’m the first one to ever say that. But I actually developed that with my friend Mark Raterman who is in Cook County Social Club, and we ended up building essentially a three-level training program with that being one of the foundations.

P&C: You’ve been with Cook County Social Club for, is it ten years?

GH: Seven years.

P&C: What do you enjoy about performing with them, and how have you and the team evolved or changed over the years, or have you?

GH: (laughs) We have changed over the years. When we first started, we were really serious about trying to do something new.

Well, at first we were really serious about trying to copy 4 Square, which was a really great group in Chicago that was John Lutz, Dan Bakkedahl and Peter Grosz and Rob Janas. And they were sort of the great, four-person, small ensemble playing at iO at the time. And all those guys have gone on to do great things: John Lutz is on 30 Rock, Bakkedahl was on The Daily Show, Peter Grosz was a writer for Colbert, and Rob Janas was at Second City and just sold a movie.

So they were sort of our heroes and I think we wanted to do something like they did in terms of, they brought their own style, and we really wanted to kind of create our own style.

We rehearsed for, I think like six months with Jeff Griggs, who has been at iO for years and years and wrote Del’s book actually, Del Close: Guru. And I think when we first started we really just wanted to try to bring our own style and our own way of navigating a long form, and that started really by doing four-person scenes where we would all be on the stage at the same time and we wouldn’t do any sweep edits. (laughs)

Over the years we’ve experimented in all sorts of different ways, ranging from lazy to really adventurous. And I think the nice thing about that group and to answer your question, the thing I enjoy most is, the one kind of unifying thing is, the shows are always fun, and those guys are my best friends. So even when we feel like maybe we’re not at the top of our game, it’s pretty rare that we don’t find something really fun or funny to play in a show.

I think of any group that I’ve ever played with, “play” is the operative word among those guys. It’s just all-out play.

P&C: It’s interesting to hear you say that. Someone asked [P&C] a couple of months ago about “How do you make things work with a Harold team?” So we started thinking about all the great teams that have longevity, and the big thing seems to be – whether you wanna call it chemistry or friendship – genuinely liking each other and respect for each other seems to be huge in having trust and being playful on a team.

GH: I totally agree. And I think it’s always hard when you are assembled by an outside force. For example in Chicago it happens a lot that you’ll be chosen for a Harold team that isn’t by your own design. And you can look at the statistics: I mean, really one out of every, probably ten or twelve teams that gets made has any longevity. And I think that’s because you have to first choose who you play with and love that, or if you don’t love it, find a new group.

I think it’s always hard when there’s no chemistry because you have to first, I think, enjoy each other and find each other funny. Find each other fun to play with.

P&C: Who are your improv mentors or heroes, and why?

GH: I think, for me, those guys that I mentioned in 4 Square I think were the first time I had that epiphany. They were just those people who… there wasn’t a week that I wasn’t there. That was probably my first real fanboy experience.

And then… my wife. (laughs) Holly was, I think I mentioned this, one of my first teachers when I moved to Chicago. And the thing that I really always loved about her – and her group, The Reckoning, was probably the other big influence on me – was how they just weren’t afraid to really trust things going in an odd direction, and really letting it be an adventure of improvisation. It just never seemed like they were afraid to take it wherever it needed to go. And that’s what I really loved about them, and still do.

Maybe as an individual performer…um…gosh, there’s a whole litany of Second City alums that I always really loved. But probably actually after working at Second City, it’s Stephen Colbert. I love watching old tapes of him.

After I got to have fingers in the archives of those guys, I mean… Actually I was watching Pinata Full of Bees, which is a show at Second City that was really famous with Rachel Dratch and John Glaser.

P&C: I’ve heard of it, but you’re saying they have it on tape?

GH: I have a tape of it, and I actually popped it in two nights ago and I was just like, “Oh my God… “ Scott Adsit was in that cast, Adam McKay, and Jenna Jolovitz. I was like, man, this show was just so awesome. I love watching those guys. So definitely some Second City people in there too. Colbert, Adsit, Rachel Dratch.

P&C: I’ve not seen The Improvised Shakespeare Company, but I’ve heard from anyone who has how amazing they are. Can you please tell our readers, for people like me, a little about it?

GH: Sure. Improvised Shakespeare Company is a company, I think we’re about 16 strong now, and we improvise a two-act Shakespeare play that’s never been performed before. So the audience gives a suggestion of a title, and then we do a two-act play in Elizabethan language, rhyming couplets and all, and try to navigate a Shakespearean improvised story.

P&C: And do you do it in American accents, or faux British accents?

GH: We do it in all sorts of accents. (laughs) Probably the best description somebody has given is, it’s Shakespeare and at times meets Monty Python. So there’s definite absurdity to it. But the cool thing is that everybody that’s in the company has either performed Shakespeare before or has a genuine love of Shakespeare, so there’s some real nerdy nerds up in there.

P&C: So which one of those camps is you?

GH: I’ve performed some Shakespeare and also love reading Shakespeare. And probably didn’t love reading Shakespeare until I joined this group, which is kind of funny. We try to read a play, and we meet with a college professor at Loyola University and we have honest-to-God, like, sit-down discussions about the plays.

P&C: Wow.

GH: Which is probably the nerdiest thing any improv group has done for a while.

P&C: I love that. So how long have you been involved; have you been involved since the beginning?

GH: I have been involved for a long time. Not the very beginning, but I think I was the first wave of people that started doing it after the initial audition. So I think the show ran for about a year, and I joined in the second year, and I’ve been with them for probably six or seven years.

P&C: That’s two very long-running [teams], for improv. You’re also in Baby Wants Candy, which is another long-running Chicago success story. You must like singing.

GH: I do, I love singing. I was a very middling musical theatre guy in college and in high school, so, I tried my best to really do musicals. (laughs)

P&C: When you say middling, you mean you think your talent was middling, or you just weren’t as involved in it as you wanted to be?

GH: I think I straddled the line for a long time of wanting to be not only an actor, but also a soccer player. (laughs) And so I’d do a couple of plays and then I would say I didn’t like them and go back to playing soccer. So I guess middling may not be the right word, maybe just closeted. (laughs)

P&C: Do you still perform with Baby Wants Candy?

GH: I haven’t performed with them in a while, and it’s only because it conflicts with Improvised Shakespeare. I’ll do a road show every once in a while with Baby, but actually Baby was my kinda first, to me, my big dream come true in Chicago, because all these people that I knew and loved and loved watching played on Baby Wants Candy and I remember being asked to be in that show was kind of an epiphany.

P&C: Is there an audition process, similar to Second City, or…

GH: They do have auditions, but I actually just got asked because one of the founding members was a teacher of mine at iO, Al Samuels, and I think after taking his class and kind of performing around Chicago for a year or two I just got the invite to sit in, and then that became more of a regular thing as I performed.

P&C: [In Canada] in the last couple of years, there’s been a lot of interest in musical improv. Is it becoming more popular in Chicago as well?

GH: It’s always kind of been around Chicago. I feel like Baby had the crown for a long time of the only people doing it, but everybody sort of knew about it. And now you do see there are other improvised musicals here in town. A friend of mine from Improvised Shakespeare hosts an improvised rap battle, there’ve been other rap battle shows, and so, sort of the skill set is the same of being able to improvise songs on the fly.

P&C: That would terrify me, rapping.

GH: It terrifies me too. I’m going to try and do it next week. I’ll make sure to send you some video footage of me getting booed off the stage.

P&C: (laughs) We’ll post a link.

In Part Two, we discuss acting skills in improv, making a living as an improviser, and Greg’s most memorable moment on stage. 

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