It’s the first annual Say Day at iO Chicago tonight. Created by TJ Jagodowski, it’s a beautiful idea that you can share wherever you are. You can read more about it here.
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No offence Bill, but we do that every night.
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For over a decade TJ Jagodowski and David Pasquesi have wowed fans and critics alike with their two-man show. Last year they opened their own theater, The Mission. And now they’ve co-written a book with Pam Victor, whose blog chronicles her own improv journey while celebrating the work of others. We asked them about (what else?) improv, on the eve of the book’s launch.
P&C: You’re both busy acting in films, TV, web series, on stage, and now running a theatre. Why did you decide to write a book?
TJ: Circumstances seemed to conspire. All around the same time, David and I had both separately started jotting down some mad ramblings and then Pam offered to help us if we ever decided to write something.
P&C: Pam, how did you get involved with TJ and Dave, and specifically the book?
Pam: I’m slowly releasing the long answer to this question in a new series called “Writing The TJ & Dave Book” on my blog – it’s a real behind-the-book look into my experiences over the last two years. Lots of sex, shoe-throwing, and gore. (OK, that’s not true at all.) But here’s the short answer: I’ve been a ginormous fan of the show pretty much since the first moment I saw it, which was in the documentary Trust Us, This Is All Made Up. When they did a show in Western Massachusetts, where I live and TJ just so happens to be from, it was sold out, but I just had to get in. So I showed up, ticket-less, at the door and somehow begged my way in. When the lights came back up fifty-three minutes later, my life was forever changed.
After the show, I screwed up my courage and introduced myself to Dave. He was (and is) utterly charming, so I asked him if he’d be willing to do a “Geeking Out with…” interview with me. For some reason he said yes. That seemed to turn out pretty well, which lead to TJ’s “Geeking Out with…” interview, conducted in his living room while I was in Chicago for the five-week iO Intensive. Once those interviews were published, I wasn’t ready to stop being in their heads. I emailed them to say as much, suggesting that they should write a book and offering to be the one to help them with it. (I’m a little ballsy that way.) For some reason, they agreed. That was in the Fall of 2012, and I’m still waiting to wake up from the dream.
P&C: What can readers expect from the book?
TJ: I think they can expect a really thorough examination of how we think about improvising, which is a big thing we really love.
Pam: Basically, I spent two years asking TJ and David every single darn question I could come up with about how they approach improvisation, mostly within their show but also a bit as it applies to other shows. I think our hope is that readers can find an insight or two that they can take back and try out on their own. These gentlemen really have a unique approach to improvisation – it might seem pretty different than what we’re seeing out there these days in most comedy schools – so I’m personally hoping that readers will simply expand their views of how one could improvise
P&C: The book is called Improvisation at the Speed of Life. What do you mean by that?
David: As opposed to any pre-determined speed. Like slow or fast.
TJ: That we would like our improvisation to represent reality. To look and feel real and in that, move at all the different paces the real world moves at.
P&C: What’s unique about your approach, versus the way others improvise?
David: I think we look at it as realizing what is already occurring, as opposed to what we can make it into.
TJ: I think we play how most of us were taught to. Moment by moment, focused on your partner and what is happening. So, I’m not sure if we are unique, but if we are then a lot of folks have abandoned their education.
P&C: You’re both so respected and your show so well loved. Why aren’t there more people doing what you do?
David: Ask them. Actually I think there are people doing two-person stuff.
TJ: I think there is a lot of two-person improvisation going on. We are lucky in that we have been doing it a long time and get a long time on a given night to do it.
P&C: You’ve been performing as a duo for 13 years – longer than some marriages. How have you been influenced by each other’s style, or has your style evolved together?
David: We don’t agree totally on everything, but we certainly agree on the larger ideas about improvisation and what it is capable of delivering if we allow it to.
TJ: I think we have remained almost completely unevolved. We are still chasing the thing we started chasing 13 years ago in much the same way we began. I dont know if we have individual styles but if so, I still feel David is very much David and I still I.
P&C: TJ, you said in an interview that improv is often about “Why is this day different?” whereas you’re more interested in “Why is this day the same?” Is that something you consciously do on stage: look for the everyday?
TJ: I would say more than looking for everyday, I don’t look to find how this is different. It seems unnecessary to me. An audience has never met these characters before, so why do they have to be different than they normally are? I think that way of thinking is employed so that there is action or emotion to your play. But there is action and emotion in the things that happen everyday. And even if nothing big happens, David and I would prefer to honestly bore people than fabricate a meteor strike.
P&C: David, you’ve said that Del Close taught you to be honest and authentic in scenes, versus funny. Do you think improvisers shy away from honesty because they’re afraid of being vulnerable, or afraid of audiences not laughing?
David: I suppose so. But Del also said that onstage you can afford to tell the truth…no one will believe it’s you.
P&C: There’s a lot of emphasis in curriculum nowadays on game of the scene. How do you think this is shaping improvisers or improv in general?
David: I’m not real sure what that means, so I cannot comment on it. I am not a student in class and I am not one who writes or follows a curriculum, so I am unqualified to say.
TJ: I don’t know how it’s shaping improvisation in general. I know that I don’t think it’s needed in improvisation. It serves a certain function in a style of play, but a good scene certainly doesn’t need a game.
P&C: Actors are strongly encouraged to have improv training, yet few improvisers seem interested in taking acting lessons. Do you see that as a problem, or just the evolution of the art form?
TJ: I don’t know if it’s a problem, but if an acting class would benefit your improvising then I see no reason why you wouldn’t want to do that. Sometimes we turn improvisation into sketch, and being able to act those sketches would be of real use as well.
David: I think it’s very helpful to learn to listen more and be more present. On more than one occasion I was told by the director that I got the job in a play because of how I listened. That is directly from training and practice in improvisation.
P&C: You don’t go “meta” on stage. How do you feel about shows that do that?
TJ: It sooo rarely goes well in my opinion that I think it’s better to avoid it altogether. Things often seem to go meta when the show isn’t going well, as a way to step out and away from it like you’re not really doing it anymore, so you can feel free to comment on it and acknowledge it as something separate from yourself. Also, once you go meta you almost never get your show back into non-meta thinking. And I as an audience am now taught that this scene may not be there to be believed, but is there to be referred to or stepped out of
P&C: What are some other shows or performers you’ve seen whose work you enjoy?
David: Beer Shark Mice. I love watching them. They know each other so well, it’s like one person rather than five guys. Dassie and Stef Weir, Scott Adsit…tons of folks. Literal tons. (Or tonnes for your British and Irish and Australian readers.)
TJ: I love the whole cast of our theater’s sketch revue, our house ensemble, Michael O’Brien, Gethard, Trio, Quartet…this would truly be a very long list, so I’m going to stop.
P&C: Mick Napier jokingly (well, kind of) referred to improv as a cult. How important is it to cultivate other interests and experiences?
TJ: When I first started, I was totally immersed in it. I think that helped me for a while. My passion was really intense and I had a lot to learn, tons of stage time to benefit from, new friendships to form. But at some point I realized I was talking about scenes I saw or was in as though they really happened out in the world. I got kind of scared that all my experiences would be imaginary, so I found a better balance in my life after that.
P&C: At the start of each show you say, “Trust us, this is all made up.” Trust is obviously a huge factor in how you play together. Do you think it’s possible to have that kind of trust with larger teams of players?
David: It is. I have had it. I think good group improvisation requires that trust.
P&C: What is it about improv that’s kept you doing it for over 25 years?
David: Still trying to do the same things. Trying to do them better, with more ease and grace. It always is exciting to see what is going to happen.
TJ: It lived up to its promise. It’s different every time and on any given night it may be the most wonderful thing in the world. Why would someone not want that possibilty in their lives?
Improvisation at the Speed of Life: The TJ & Dave Book is available for pre-order at amazon.com. Chapters include:
• The Job of an Improviser
• Being a Good Stage Partner
• Listening (No, We Mean Really Listening)
• Shut Up (No, We Mean Really Shut Up)
• Fuck The Rules
• The Importance of Disagreement in Agreement
• Being Funny Isn’t The Goal
• Don’t Step in That: Dealing with Trouble
• Taking the Next Little Step
• The People We Play
• Details and Specificity
We’ve written about how we think in pictures. Here’s an example from the worlds of art and science.
In 1990, Dr Frank Meshberger went home after a long day’s work and decided to flip through some art books to help him unwind. When he got to an image of the Sistine Chapel, he stopped in his tracks. There in front of him was what he’d been looking at all day: a dissection of a human brain.
Now, I’d always wondered why the billowing fabric behind God looked so bizarre. Not to mention the contorted bodies of the angels around Him. (The one with his butt turned toward us? What’s that about?)
But when you compare them with a cross-section of a human brain, it all makes sense.
Incredibly, The Creation of Adam has been viewed by millions of people for half a millennium. Yet it took a doctor who’d been looking at brain scans all day to connect the image with the artist’s hidden message.
The painting has always been interpreted as God bestowing life on man. But Dr Meshberger points out that Adam’s eyes are already open, suggesting he’s already alive. Perhaps what Michelangelo was suggesting is that God was bestowing intellect – the thing that separates mankind from all other creatures.
So what does all this have to do with improv? Well, when you’re in a relaxed state, you make connections that you wouldn’t otherwise. You literally see things differently. Something to think about – or not, rather – the next time you’re on stage.
Laughter’s a funny thing.
What tickles you may not amuse your neighbour, as I can attest from heated discussions about Family Guy.
We tend to laugh more in a group than when we’re alone (although Colbert could make me corpse with a raise of his eyebrow). We also laugh more easily around friends and family.
It’s defined as “a physical reaction in humans and some species of primate, consisting typically of rhythmical, often audible contractions of the diaphragm and other parts of the respiratory system.” Ooooo..K.
So why do we do it?
The Laughter of Surprise
Sounds like: Shrieks, barks, sustained guffaws, often associated with cheers or applause.
When improvisers and the audience make a discovery, when a character takes a left turn into crazy, or when someone on your team brings back the suggestion everyone’s forgotten and ties things up with the perfect blow line…that’s the Laughter of Surprise.
The Laughter of Recognition
Sounds like: A rat-a-tat-tat of laughs, chuckles, or sometimes a beat of silence followed by laughter and steady applause.
This type is like an “Aha!” from the audience. It comes when they hear something they can relate to: current events, pop culture, or just good ol’ human behaviour. Louis CK uses this type of comedy to great effect in his stand-up…
“People can laugh hysterically at something as mundane as ‘junk drawer.’ Use your rich life experience, and bring that to the stage.” – Susan Messing
The Laughter of Relief or Tension Broken
Sounds like: Either nervous tittering, or like a bomb just went off in the theatre.
When you’ve had a six-minute laugh-free set (intentional or not), the slightest thing can set off this kind of reaction.
It could be someone tripping on stage, slurring a word or saying it incorrectly, or any one of a million other tiny, inconsequential things. Anything that breaks the pattern that came before.
Sometimes the audience is nervous for you, in which case you’ll hear nervous laughter.
Other times, the tension can be created by drama. The scene’s not tanking, it’s just intense. The audience gets wound up, too. So the moment it tips from dramatic to deranged, it creates a laughter explosion.
All three kinds of laughs feel great. If I think back on old sets, I can still hear and feel the different reactions to scenes I’ve watched or played in. And to me, there is no sweeter sound.
“If you want to tell people the truth, make them laugh, otherwise they’ll kill you.” – Oscar Wilde
(Editor’s note for non-Canadians: A “power play” in hockey is when at least one opposing player serves a penalty, giving your team a numerical advantage on the ice.)
I’m officially a Senators fan.
On Monday, the Ottawa Senators (NHL team, for those who aren’t Canadian) fired their coach, Paul MacLean. The day after a great come-from-behind victory, too. Possibly their best game all year. Weird.
Why fire the coach after an amazing game?
When did this become a sports blog?
I mean, what the hell is going on here?!
Listen to the reason GM (General Manager, sheesh) Bryan Murray gave for letting MacLean go.
“I think what happened last night was, it was one of our better games, there’s no question. The good thing that happened for us was that we got behind 3-0. We forgot about all the rules and structure and everything. We just went out and played hockey.
Hockey’s a game and sometimes you just have to go play. Have a little fun with it and chase the puck and do things. We did that and I think our speed showed up. I think some talent showed up and we made some plays and fortunately for us, we won the hockey game. But I think that’s what I would like to see our team be – our players have to have some fun. It’s a game. We have to have some fun playing the game.
We have so many rules sometimes that we take the fun away from it, so maybe now, we’ll play a little different style – we’ll play a little more aggressive style. We’ll try to chase the puck more often and I think that will play to the strength of the young people on our hockey team.
And that’s what I would like to see happen – that we get back to real simple (play). Move the puck. Be in a good position. Help each other and be creative in your way. We have got some very instinctive hockey players here, just play that way.”
I was watching the press conference when it happened (flipping around until Chopped came on), and it blew my mind. It seems obvious that hockey is a game when you ask kids. But when you ask adults, it’s not a game. Nothing’s a game. It’s a business. And you have to win to make money. And winning comes from hard work and doing it right.
It’s a bold statement for a PROFESSIONAL hockey team (meaning playing for money, NOT for fun) to make. But a damn important one. So many “creative” industries try to set up the rules and structures for how to work, instead of promoting play.
The ad agency I got fired from (the most recent time) was implementing the rules of staying late, working weekends, being in the office at all times and a bunch of other old fashioned ways of thinking. None of which have anything to do with being more creative.
So thank you Bryan Murray. Thank you for understanding that even at a professional level, if take away the play, you ain’t got nothin.
Going on the record to say that the Senators will make the playoffs. If I were bolder, I’d say win the cup, but, you know, they’re not that good…. ahhh fuck it.
(This post originally appeared at playwithfireimprov.com)
Words can’t express how grateful we are to Stephen Colbert and his eponymous character for the countless, helpless laughs he/they’ve induced in the past decade. The show’s impact is so immense, it may only truly be measurable decades from now.
Thank you Stephen, for being a Difference Maker.
Uh, that’s “gift,” not “gif.”
While last year’s list still applies, there’s a bounty of new goodies any improviser (maybe you?) would love to open on Festivus morn. First up…
A Load Of Hooey
Bob Odenkirk’s new book is just the thing to get you through post-Breaking Bad, pre-Better Call Saul doldrums.
Like Steve Martin’s Pure Drivel, A Load Of Hooey is a pastiche of bits and pieces from one of comedy’s most ingenious minds. As the description says, “Odenkirk’s debut resembles nothing so much as a hilarious new sketch comedy show that’s exclusively available as a streaming video for your mind.”
If you want to up your long form game, look no further than Improvising Now. Rob Norman’s book is as entertaining as it is educational, and at 150 pages, it’s the perfect stocking stuffer. (If you have stretchy, rectangular stockings.)
Bears & Balls: The Colbert Report A-Z
Only six more shows! Thankfully, Sharilyn Johnson and Remy Maisel’s Bears & Balls helps ease the pain. Crammed with memorable moments and “who knew?” insights, this meticulously researched volume is a worthy addition to any Colbert fan’s shrine.
Chances are you lined up for seven hours to get your copy signed by the First Lady of Improv. Why not share the joy with someone else? Yes Please is part memoir, part self-help book, and all wonderful. More Amy Poehler? Yes please!
Vape to your heart’s content this holiday, with the sexy new Pax Vaporizer. At 300 bucks it ain’t exactly cheap, but it’s amazing how many impoverished improvisers swear by it.
Now you can be in the moment, every moment, with our very own improviser’s clock. Click here or below to shop the full range of designs. And be sure to check out our store for cool shirt designs by Rob Ariss Hills.
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.
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.
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.