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

Photo © Laura Salvas

Photo © Laura Salvas

P&C: How and when did you meet?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo © Laura Salvas

Photo © Laura Salvas

P&C: Have you ever performed together?

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

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

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

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

Chris: Laura, remember to ask me about that.

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

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

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

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

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

P&C: How has improv helped your relationship?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Harper Halloween

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

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

Photo © Kenway Yu

Photo © Kenway Yu

P&C: How and when did you meet?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

P&C: How has improv helped your relationship?

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

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

Josh: What Laura said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Get your mitts on a copy here.

Photo © Mick Napier

Photo © Mick Napier

Image © Ben Noble

Image © Ben Noble

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

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

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

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

P&C: Why did you write Improv ABC?

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

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

Image © Ben Noble

Image © Ben Noble

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ben Noble headshot

Sharilyn Colbert Photo

Stephen Colbert asked me a simple question.

“Are you an improviser?”

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

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

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

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

No argument here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Improv? Had I lost my damn mind?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And then?

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

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