“Nobody in life gets exactly what they thought they were going to get. But if you work really hard, and you’re kind, amazing things will happen.” – Conan O’Brien
That quote pretty much sums up Ken Hall. He’s done improv and sketch across North America, performed as a clown with Cirque du Soleil, teaches improv and presentation skills at Second City, and plays an alien on the Conan-produced comedy, People of Earth. We spoke to him about the long and winding road to get here.
P&C: How did you get into improv?
KH: It was probably about 12 years ago. I’d never done drama or any acting or anything like that–
P&C: You didn’t go to theatre school?
KH: Oh no, good lord no, I barely got through high school. (laughs) I took the Social Service Worker program at Centennial College, and so the idea of performing was never on my radar. And the biggest thing too, was I so shy, I was such an introverted, scared person, fearful of so many things and so the idea of putting myself out there was really unheard of.
And then in my late 20s, I was doing creative writing night school classes, and for the first time in my life I was like, wow, I had no idea that I was actually a creative person. It was interesting because there was a lot of resistance to go in to class. I was like, “I don’t wanna go to class. I wanna play Vice City and stay home.” But I found that once I would go there and actually start writing, something took over and it was thrilling and exhilarating and I couldn’t stop.
I did that for two years and wanted to keep writing, but I wanted to do something else. I was going through the course calendar, and literally the night before registration was going to end I landed on the theatre page. I saw Beginner’s Drama, and at the bottom of the page it had the harlequin mask, the happy face/sad face, and I read the description and just had this weird sensation, this weird feeling of like, “Do it. Just do it.”
I still remember, I know where I was, where I was filling it out, and it was like an out-of-body experience. I did it on a whim, and this was very unlike me. There was a big part of me that was like, “What are you doing? You’re not this person.” Almost like “Stop what you’re doing. Stay here in the safety of your apartment with your video games,” and that world. But I signed up.
I didn’t tell anyone until about halfway through the course, when I told my best friend. He said “Great, man. You should’ve been doing that years ago.”
That very first class, we were doing exercises like, “Be an animal and go around the room,” and it was just so much fun. I loved it. When I [went] for the intermediate class not enough people signed up, so it got cancelled. But at that point I thought, I have to keep doing this. Someone in my class said, “You’re pretty good, man. You should go to Second City.” And for me Second City was John Candy, Eugene Levy, Martin Short, all these wonderful people that I grew up watching on SCTV, and I’m like, all right, slow down, I’m just starting. But I realised it was something I had been missing so much in my life. The idea of playing, being creative, and feeling connected with other people.
For many years I was very much adrift… My whole life, actually, I’ve never felt that I had a place in the world. I always felt, because I look physically different, and I just always felt different to everyone, I never felt like I fit in, and the world never really made a lot of sense to me. So this was something for the first time in my life where I found a community that was so supportive and encouraging and affirming.
The beautiful thing about improv is that it really affirms you, as a person. And even if the end result is that you don’t remain in improv, if you’ve had a taste, it still has the possibility to transform and change you. We know people in the Toronto community that have sampled some improv and they actually changed as people. It’s a really remarkable thing.
So I signed up for a Level A class at Second City, terrified, scared, happy that they had carpets because I felt like I was going to pass out! (laughs) The lights were so bright, it felt like a dream.
I still look back at those classes, and I know that they were fun, but I also remember them as just being a blur, almost like running through a burning building, just trying to get through it! (laughs) But I loved it at the same time. And I knew very early on that this was the very thing I needed in my life.
I went through A through E and took a few specialty classes, and then was encouraged to audition for the Conservatory program. I was going to school at George Brown and again, was like, “I’ll do this,” and that’s where I met Isaac [Kessler], my comedy partner.
My experience is interesting in the sense that, I relate it to my background in career and employment counseling: it’s about connecting with more things that you love in your life.
You don’t know what that end goal or result is gonna be, but if you just fill your life with more things that excite you, inspire you, that you click with creatively, then the probability of something good coming from that just increases.
There’s never any guarantees with any of this stuff of course, but I just feel like that’s the nature of improv: you’re just open, and it changed how I lived, it changed how I looked at the world, how I interact with people. This person who was incredibly shy and anxious and scared of the world is now…it’s the most remarkable transformation, it’s day and night.
And I don’t think that I’m so special in that sense, because we know the power that improv can have, and just the philosophies of “yes, and,” being open. My default used to be saying “no” to things, and being very resistant to change and trying things.
P&C: I think that’s the human default. (laughs) Cameron’s much better at saying “yes” because he lives it and practises it teaching improv. He’ll say “Do you wanna do blah-blah?” and my first instinct is “Nope!” (laughs) But I do have more self-awareness now. I think it’s something you keep applying to your life.
So, when did you first know that you wanted to do this for a living? When did it stop being a hobby?
KH: It was probably about eight years ago. I was working at an employment agency. It was a full-time job, 9 to 5, and an opportunity came up to take a one-week vacation. At that same time [I was] doing Cage Match on a team called What Would Jesus Do? and I was the only one who showed up in costume.
P&C: What was your costume?
KH: We were supposed to dress up in religious clothes. I went to Malabar’s [and] rented robes and a rope belt and a beard and dressed as Jesus. When I [got to the show] no one else was in costume. I was like, “I don’t wanna be the only one wearing a costume!” but they said “Can you please wear that?”
We did well, we started winning, and one week I went to New York City for the first time in my life. I saw UCB had a 101 intensive, and thought “Great, I’m gonna do that.” The intensive was Monday through Friday, but we had Wednesday off, and that was the night of Cage Match in Toronto. So I flew back to do the show, which we won, thankfully. (laughs) I flew back the next morning to finish the intensive and it was that moment where I realised, this is more than just a hobby.
As far as pursuing it as a career, I don’t know. While I was still working in employment counselling, an improv guy got in touch and said “Hey man, there’s this show that’s looking for improvisers.” So I got in touch with the Casting Directors for a show called Freak Encounters. It’s very similar to Scare Tactics, where you dress up like a monster and you scare friends or family members that are being pranked.
I started doing these gigs and it was like, “This great, I’m doing TV!” So fun. And then one of the Casting Directors reached out to me to say an agent is looking to expand her roster, she’s looking for someone with your skill set and size, and so she connected us, and she’s been my agent ever since.
Again, just the idea of being open and saying yes to opportunities, it’s just the nature of improv. You do a show with people and it’s a very close-knit community, and so when people [say] “I love your stuff, do you wanna do a show?” you say yes. And so for me it’s felt like a natural transition. It was never “I have to do this as a career,” it just slowly evolved into it. I went from full-time down to a part-time employment counselling, and it really allowed for that to take off. And now I don’t do any career counselling, just acting, comedy, teaching.
P&C: How long did it take before you felt, not just “I like this” but “I’m good at this”?
KH: It was when I was doing A through E. But I also feel like that was a big part of my ego. I was like, “Oh man, I’m great at this.” I still was very “wild stallion.” It wasn’t grounded, it was so, like, throwing paint up against the wall. It felt very manic, very uncontrolled.
That’s part of my own evolution, is trying to minimize my ego and calling myself out. That was a really awesome moment for me, because I got to realise I really don’t know anything. And it was very liberating in that sense. Not that I carried around this big head, but inside I felt like my capabilities were much further than where they actually were. And so that was a tough learning part, but it was so great. And now I just approach it like, “What do I know?”
I’ve done so many workshops with [David] Razowsky and Jet Eveleth and [others], and I love learning. I don’t want to come to a point where I’m like, “I’m a master at this.”
The lovely thing about improv is that it keeps you humble. I did a show many years ago, it was a duo fest and my partner didn’t show that night, they ended up working. So I went into it knowing I had to do a 12-minute solo set. I got a standing ovation and thought, “Wow, I’m really good at this.” And the very next night I did a show at Bad Dog and it was terrible, it was awful. (laughs)
P&C: In addition to improv, you’ve studied clown. What effect has that had on your performance?
KH: [I studied with] Phillipe Gaulier. Isaac had trained with him. Isaac’s always been the pioneer, he’s always been the one to do all these classes and then [say], “Wow, you’ve gotta do this.” So I had the chance and it was expensive, but I decided this is such a great opportunity. I spoke to one person who said she’d taken his Bouffon workshop to help her get over her fear of authority.
Clown, [like] improv, has a lot of personal transformative effects. So that’s the stuff that I’m really excited about, because it’s terrifying! Stepping out there with no script to make the audience laugh, but you don’t know what is going to make the audience laugh. And what you think will make the audience laugh, doesn’t make them laugh. It’s exhiliarating.
I trained with Paola Coletto, who’s based in L.A., and Francine Cote in Montreal, one of the absolute best clown teachers.
Me and Isaac had already been doing clownish things without even being aware of it. Our director for 2-MAN NO-SHOW was Mark Andrada, who’s got such a huge clown background. But we just saw him and liked that he likes breaking rules and convention, which is very clown-slash-Bouffon.
We were doing it and people [said], “We love the Vaudeville aspect.” I’m small, he’s big, I guess there’s that aspect. Mark Andrada [said] “Guys, it’s a sloppy show.” But that’s part of our charm. We’re not looking for technical precision, we’re looking for fun.
Photo © Alaine Hutton
For me clown has been so transformative personally, but also bringing it back into improv, I began to look at improv scenes in a different way, and looking to add an element of mischief and to mess things up. It’s just fun for me to do that, and to be aware of what’s working with the audience and kind of check in with them. They’re sitting there, I don’t have to pretend there’s a fourth wall there, let’s bring ‘em in, let’s include them in the environment.
P&C: Let’s talk about influences. Who are your improv or comedy heroes?
KH: Robin Williams was someone I really admired growing up. For me he kind of represents all the things that I would love to be: a great actor, funny, manic… I loved that energy and the fact that he was so fast and so quick, and I feel like he had a big heart as well.
John Ritter was one of my heroes, too. His physical comedy is exceptional; he was super talented. I remember emulating that kind of behaviour when I was in school, joking around.
I think of Isaac, who is, in terms of physical comedy, probably one of the absolute best that I’ve ever seen. And the amount of characters and playfulness, and the ability that we’re able to connect and trust each other and go all the ridiculous places that we do…
I remember quite a few times being on stage and Isaac just left the venue. He’ll go through the back, through the parking lot, and come in through the front. And it’s all good, it’s great. He’s such a great comedy mind and he can make anything funny, and anything playful, and I love that spirit and I’m very drawn to that.
Rob Baker has a similar energy. Rob is an absolute joy to play with. Again, it’s this unbridled, almost an unending well of exuberant playfulness. And for a big part of my life I didn’t really have that, so I feel like now I get to play.
Jan Caruana, Kayla Lorette and Becky Johnson, Kurt Smeaton, Carmine Lucarelli…it’s such an infinite list of people. Then there’s people I haven’t necessarily seen a lot of, but I really admire their work, like David Razowsky, TJ and Dave, all the guys from Cook County Social Club.
I love the S&P style, it’s just fun, and like, [if] anything happens, it’s just jumped on. Everyone’s so happy to play that idea, there’s no self-consciousness. That’s something I really struggled with in my life, and it’s such a freeing experience to watch a team do that. With me and Isaac, I think the less time I spend in my head, the better. The more time I spend in my body or in the moment, then I’m on the right track.
P&C: What is the best, worst, or weirdest improv set you’ve done?
KH: One of the best: two years ago for Big City Improv Festival, Isaac came back from L.A. We did a show where we started out, we’re sitting on chairs. I was the father, he was the son, we’re waiting to see the Principal. Isaac had done something wrong, and in the first minute he said something kind of belligerent and I backhanded him. So of course Isaac went flying off the chair, really selling that moment, and he just lay there. And he didn’t move for the whole set.
I didn’t react either, I just kind of sat in that. I mimed getting on my phone, eating trail mix, and the audience was killing themselves laughing, and it was just such a lovely moment.
We’d often done sets where we said, “Oh, wouldn’t it have been great if you’d just done this the whole entire time?” This was exactly how it was supposed to go down, where he literally lay on the ground for 15 minutes.
P&C: So it was a completely silent monoscene?
KH: Yeah, from there on in. But all the things I was doing, all the expressions were from clown-based stuff, with the audience laughing at the absurdity of it all, and then I started laughing because it was just so absurd I couldn’t believe what was happening. That was absolutely one of the most fun and funniest sets that I’ve done.
In terms of worst, I did a corporate show out east. We had these mics that kept falling off, and it was at the end of the day, and no was interested. It was a room full of 200 people and they couldn’t care less. Once the side talking starts happening, it’s like… But they’re not there to see us, they’re there to see other people and drink and have fun.
P&C: What advice do you have for someone starting, or who wants to make improv a career?
KH: It sounds ridiculous, but I’ve always said to people starting out, just have fun. That’s such a big part that I think people can’t miss. The other thing too is, trust the process. If you want to make improv your career, it will happen, because that’s just the nature of it [if] you go through training and you put in time.
It’s like a gym. You can’t expect to be the best there is in a short period of time.
It’s the repetition of continually doing shows and classes, without that sense of entitlement, and you’re going to get asked to do more shows. You’re going to have the opportunity to do more classes, you’re going to have the opportunity to coach teams, and then you’ll have the opportunity to teach. That’s just a natural evolution, depending on where you are.
If you live in Chicago, Toronto, you have an opportunity to perhaps work at Second City, to perform, and maybe there’s Comedy Sports or things like that. Performing and getting paid for it, that’s a rarity, but you can still be connected in that field, teaching, coaching, and trust that that will happen. But you have to put in that time. It’s a lot of hard work.
Always remember why you’re doing this in the first place: it’s because it’s fun. If it’s like an end goal, fine, I guess, but I don’t know if that’s going to work necessarily. Not just with improv, but with anything, it has to mean something to you and it has to be fun, otherwise why are you doing it?
There’s going to be ups and downs. You can have a bad show but still be like “But there’s going to be another one.” As long as you can say I still enjoy it, I love the community, I love putting myself out there. For me, I feel there’s going to be a lot more yeses than there are nos, but if there are some nos, that’s fine too. Look at those things and say, OK, if it isn’t improv, what is it that you’re really interested in? What excites you, what are you passionate about, what are your values?
I remember Mick Napier talking about the [Second City] generals, and seeing so many players who don’t do great because they take it so seriously, like, “Aaaargh, I’ve gotta get hired!” And he said, man, if they’d just let go and have fun and breathe into it… So I’d say just remember that, and trust in the process, and that good things are gonna happen.
P&C: Speaking of which… For people who don’t know you, you’re on People of Earth. It might seem like you’re this overnight sensation, when you’ve been working towards this for more than 12 years. How did the role come about?
KH: I went for an audition. About two weeks before, for the first time in my life I started working with an acting coach. So much of life is very serendipitous, and again being open to opportunities and saying yes to things.
There was a general audition for Storefront Theatre where I had to learn a monologue. I was teaching clown at a place that offered a variety of things, like Shakespeare, voice over, on-camera techniques. The teacher, Michael Gordin Shore, said “Hey man, when are we going to work together?” He kept asking and I was like, I don’t know. But he said if you want, sit in on my class. So I did, and I realized oh, this is great.
P&C: And he became your acting coach?
KH: Yes. Not too long after the Storefront audition came up. And then a week or two after that the audition for People of Earth came. And I put in so much work, and I realized, wow, I’ve been going into a lot of auditions relying too much on improv, not being 100% on my lines. So this time when I went in I was so on-book and so focused and so confident, not like ego, but in terms of, I know I’ve done the preparation so therefore I can play.
I got a call back and Greg Daniels was there, the creator, David Jenkins was there. We did the scripted portion and then they were like, “OK, we’re going to give you some premises and we’re just going to improvise some stuff.” And I was like, all right, let’s do this! So again, it was about being open, being in the right place at the right time, putting the work in and showing up prepared.
Not too long after that I found out I got it. We shot it, and we found out new year’s eve that it was picked up to become a series.
It was so thrilling. It was the best experience that I’ve had so far, just the people I get to work with and the amount of comedy talent on that show, and the writers and the directors. It’s a dream come true.
P&C: Where do you see yourself 10 years from now? Or where would you like to see yourself 10 years from now?
KH: Happy and healthy.
P&C: What?! (laughs) With a gold statue of you as a fountain on the front lawn of your L.A. mansion.
KH: (laughs) I love the surprises. I’m already on my way, wherever this is going to go. It’s like, great, let’s find out what happens.
Photo © Ken Hall