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Posts from the Comedy Careers Category

You’ve trained. You’ve rehearsed. You’re ready to rock’n’roll. But where?

In the past, improvisers performed where they studied, or looked for existing shows to be part of. Now a new breed of players is getting creative in the ongoing pursuit of stage time.

Pop-Up Improv

Image © Countdown Theater

Image © Countdown Theater

Retailers have pop-up spaces, why not improvisers? The idea “popped” in my head last year. But while I was still musing, Kelly Buttermore was making it happen. Countdown Theater is a pop-up improv space in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. (Could it be any cooler?) It opened February 1st this year, and closes April 1st. In her words, it’s “an ephemeral space for an ephemeral art form.”

Do what Kelly did: keep your eyes peeled for potential locations, then get in touch with the landlord or lease holder. Invite other teams, and maybe even collaborate with other artists in your community (musicians, dancers, painters, etc.) It’s a buzz-worthy way to showcase talent, and who knows where it could lead? To learn more about Countdown, click here.

Podcast Your Passion

There’s a podcast for practically everything nowadays, from modern love to mental health to mostly made-up movies. Most podcasts are two people and a mic in a basement, but why not do it in front of an audience? Here are three podcasts that do just that.

Improv Nerd is a show, a podcast, and an improv master class rolled into one. Host Jimmy Carrane has interviewed and performed with the cream of comedy, including Key & Peele, Scott Adsit, Rachel Dratch, TJ & Dave, and The Improvised Shakespeare Company to name a few of his over 200 guests. If you can’t make it out to a live show, you can listen on iTunes.

Comedy Bang! Bang! The show that launched a thousand catchphrases, Scott Aukerman’s Comedy Bang! Bang! has been making fans laugh with improvised nonsense since 2009. While it started on Earwolf and later aired on TV for five seasons, the core players have also performed live. Last year they toured North America, as well as four stops Down Under. Regular cast members include Paul F. Tompkins, Lauren Lapkus, Jason Mantzoukas, Andy Daly, Ben Schwartz, Matt Besser, and Bob Odenkirk. All joking a salad, we heart CBB. 

Illusionoid Nug Nahrgang, Paul Bates, and Lee Smart have been bringing their brand of sci-fi comedy to audiences for almost a decade. Past guests include Colin Mochrie, Sean Cullen, The Templeton Philharmonic, and Scott Thompson.

According to Nug, “The show is like Twlight Zone or Tales from the Crypt. There’s a host, and it’s this man from the future, the last surviving human, and he’s sending these stories backwards in time in hopes that we’ll prevent these horrible things from happening.” (We can think of something we’d like to prevent, Nug…)

They’ve just signed with Antica Productions, the folks behind Gord Downie’s Secret Path. If you can’t catch the show in person, subscribe here.

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If you really want to think outside The Harold, go beyond improv and appeal to a whole new audience. Abra Cadaver met in the Second City Longform Conservatory program, and have gone on to perform for packed houses across the city. We asked them about their signature show, Bunz Live.

P&C: Your show is called Bunz Live. How did you come up with it?

Molly: Cameron Algie was our coach at the time–

P&C: Terrible.

Molly: (laughs) He was really encouraging us because we’re a very theatrical group, to kind of use our bodies because we’re all really comfortable “movers,” to try and find a form that would encapsulate that. And there’s also this burgeoning community called Bunz. It’s an online platform where you can trade items for anything. Like, if I have an extra shoe, I can trade it for some ramen noodles.

Robbie: Of all of the examples, that was not the most amazingly descriptive example, but…

Antonis: Let’s say this: someone can teach you piano, but they won’t ask for money, they’ll ask for a sofa because they really need a sofa.

P&C: That’s one of the things about Bunz, no cash is allowed, is that right?

Molly: Yes, exactly. No cash, only item for item.

Robbie: Side note: it ends up being a lot of people asking for tokens and beer, and subway tokens are kinda funny because it looks like money, people treat it like money, so why don’t they just give each other money?

Antonis: Plus it has an exact monetary value.

Robbie: Maybe they haven’t heard of this thing called “money.”

Dana: Another interesting thing in coming up with the form was that Cam kind of wanted to expand us to the idea of thinking outside of just the Conservatory. Thinking like, OK, if you’re gonna take the time and you want to explore something and make a show, really think about, “What’s something that hasn’t been explored in Toronto?”

That was something we weren’t necessarily thinking of when we were making our form. It [went from], “What hasn’t been done [in long form]?” to “What’s happening right now that hasn’t really been explored, that might have an audience?” And there’s a huge Bunz community.

Molly: I feel like we got lucky. In Toronto there was this online start-up company, and we were like this online improv company (laughs) no, live improv company. It just kind of worked; we were both coming up at the same time and a lot of people we knew were also involved in that community. And it was an audience outside of the comedy audience.

P&C: That’s what’s so interesting. As you know, improvisers often end up performing for other improvisers. We’re always asking “How do we get people from outside the community to come and see a show?” Especially when the players are at a certain level, performing to a handful of people, you think, “Aaaaahhh, if only more people could see this!” Get more people into the cult. (laughs) And I find the vibe in the room can be really great when there’s new people.

Molly: Absolutely. We’re just starting out, but even connecting with the Bunz team at their headquarters was so great to say, “We’ve got an idea, we’re trying something new. You’ve got an idea, you’re trying something new.” It’s awesome.

P&C: So how did you approach Bunz?

Molly: I’ve played in bands in Toronto, and I had played with Emily who started Bunz in a new year’s show at the Silver Dollar. She played in a band called Milk Lines. I was friends with her on Facebook and then noticed that she was starting Bunz. So when we started playing with the idea, I got in touch with her and it kinda went from there.

P&C: You said you’re a theatrical group. What do you mean by that?

Antonis: We all have differing backgrounds, in theatre, in film, in dance. I personally started in music theatre, I have a lot of dance background, and I try to bring that out in my comedy. I think that’s something about Abra Cadaver and Bunz Live that is really fun, is that we all have diverse talents and we all work hard to bring those talents out.

Dana: It’s all about becoming those objects or those people, so when we all started doing it together it was so wonderful to see other people jump into the form and really do it.

P&C: You’re a very physical team compared to “stand and talk” kind of shows that are more common. As an audience member it’s very cool to watch.

Robbie: All but one person have some kind of theatre background.

Antonis: That’s Jason, and he works at a museum, so that’s equally as fascinating, so I feel like his frame of reference is huge.

Robbie: And we need that difference. Also Jason’s a physical actor.

Antonis: He’s a very, very funny guy.

Molly: He’ll be an actor when we’re finished with him. (laughs)

Catch Abra Cadaver (Kate Fenton, Molly Flood, Robbie Grant, Ross Hammond, Leanne Miller, Dana Puddicombe, Samara Stern, Jason Voulgaris, and Antonis Varkaris) at Bunz Live, SoCap Theatre, Monday, March 13. Admission: $5, or bring an item to trade and enjoy the show for free! 

Photo © People & Chairs

Photo © People & Chairs

Click here for Parts One and Two of this series.

Photo © Sam Willard

Photo © Sam Willard

On Friday, November 18, Jimmy celebrates the 5th anniversary of Improv Nerd with a special show featuring Scott Adsit at the Chicago Podcast FestivalWe asked Jimmy about the podcast, his career, and how to succeed in improv.

P&C: Congratulations on five years of Improv Nerd! When you started, did you ever think you’d do over 200 episodes?

JC: Never. I never thought that. At this point I thought that I would’ve been a really big TV star; someone would’ve said, “Oh my God, this guy can really interview people. Let’s give him his own show.” So I probably would’ve done 100 episodes and gotten a TV deal.

P&C: Like Marc Maron?

JC: I thought maybe like a talk show, or a radio show. It’s interesting, because if I would’ve known what I know now starting out, podcasting – podcasting has just exploded – I don’t think I would’ve done it. Because I really thought when I started out, it was me and Marc Maron and that was it, who were doing interview comedy podcasts. And the longer I did it the more I realised there is tons of podcasts out there, really good ones.

P&C: There is. I’ve had this conversation with friends, where you’re doing something and you think, “I’m gonna do this!” But then you see or hear something and you think, “I can’t now, someone’s already doing it!”

But no one will ever do exactly what you would, because your worldview is unique. So I’m glad you started at a time when you didn’t think, “It’s been done already,” because then we wouldn’t have Improv NerdWas it because you had a specific goal in mind, that you wanted a TV or radio show?

JC: Probably, it was a goal of mine. But certainly I thought I’d be in the top 10 comedy podcasts. I really thought I was going to be Marc Maron, that popularity, so that’s really what I was shooting for.

I know for me it’s really hard to do something and not expect certain results. I have certain expectations. That is the hardest thing.

P&C: You’ve interviewed so many amazing people: Key & Peele, Adam McKay, Jill Soloway, Mike O’Brien, Mick Napier, TJ & Dave, Susan Messing, Ilana Glazer & Abbi Jacobson, and Bob Odenkirk, just to name a few. Even reading that list is mind-blowing! Who was your favourite interview, and why?
JC: There were so many…Bob Odenkirk was one of my favourites because I was a huge fan of Mr Show. We did the interview and got really personal about his Dad and about Second City, and he talked about having this incredible feeling because he wrote the sketch for Chris Farley, the motivational speaker, and it was originally a sketch at Second City.

And he talks about just this great feeling. And at the end of the interview he said – I’m paraphrasing – “That was the most personal interview,” and then he signed his book, “Thanks for ripping my heart out.” And to me, someone who [I] idolised and really looked up to, because he’s mentored a lot of people, that just meant a lot to me.

The other one that – any one [interview] I could really talk about – but Dan Bakkedahl. He’s on Veep and Life In Pieces, and has been a friend of mine here in Chicago and I talk to him a couple of times a month. His interview was like the perfect episode. He was very honest and candid about his successes and some of the things along the way, like being on The Daily Show and what happened at Second City – I think he, if I remember, punched a hole in the wall because he was so upset.

And the thing is, he’s got great perspective on that. He is just one of my favourite improvisers to improvise with, and it was just so much fun. Because when you interview people that you know, it can be a little harder because you want to respect the boundaries; a lot of stuff that will get into your subconscious because you talk to them on a frequent basis.

Abbi and Ilana from Broad City impressed me. They didn’t make a Harold team at UCB, which is a very big honour and something everyone shoots for, akin to making the MainStage at Second City. If you get there, it’s a ticket to stardom. And they made their own path. And the other thing that impressed me about that was, I think it was the second season of the web series, before it went to Comedy Central, they took their own money and invested in the production. And I always thought – including myself, I need to learn this – if we all did that, how much farther would we be? They really believed in what they had.

P&C: I agree, it’s investing in yourself and believing in yourself, even when you don’t know if it’s going to be a hit. And it’s not like improvisers are walking around with huge wodges of cash, but if you do it for the love of it, it’s amazing where it can go.

When Shit Girls Say went viral, and then Shit New Yorkers Say, Ilana and her brother were in it, and I remember seeing, “Coming soon: Broad City, an Amy Poehler-produced web series.” So it started with one little video they probably made themselves for 20 bucks.

JC: For me, I’m obsessed with, “What is the secret?” with each of my guests; what has made them successful? Everyone has a different path, but I’m always trying to uncover, if I can walk away with one nugget or one tip on how to be successful – not that I’m going to apply it to my life (laughs) – but I feel like I’ve done my job.

P&C: Absolutely. I think everyone’s looking for shortcuts, or ways to avoid some of the problems, or whatever.

On that subject, you’ve been improvising for over 30 years. What advice do you have for someone who’s impatient because they’re not, either great at improv yet, or famous, and they’re in their 20s or 30s?

JC: I would say one of the biggest things is building relationships. So if you’re in a class, you’re already networking. Because here’s the thing: opportunities, or guests that have appeared on my show, Adam McKay or Jon Favreau or even Mike Birbiglia – not that I knew Mike, but he’s in my sphere so I could reach out to Brian Stack and say, “Hey, could you help me get him as a guest?” – all of that stuff comes from being a nice person, a kind person, and being someone who’s fun to work with.

I certainly in my 20s, probably 30s, and even my 40s, had an attitude, was a comedy snob, I still struggle with that. But if you can focus on the relationships, as well as having fun as you’re moving up the ladder hopefully, it’s going to pay dividends down the road. If you’re were a jerk, it’s going to be a lot harder for you if a friend gets a job, let’s say on a late night talk show, to reach out to him and say “I’m putting this packet together, can you look it over?”

I think the other thing is something I struggle with, and it’s constantly asking for help. I love it when people contact me and say, “Can you talk to me?” or “I just moved to Chicago,” or “I wanna move to L.A.” That stuff is invaluable, especially if people are successful and have done what you wanna do.

P&C: Some people might be intimidated, because they think, “Oh, so-and-so’s probably too busy,” or “We’re not on the same level, and who am I to approach them?” So you’re saying don’t feel that way.

JC: I’ll tell you, I wish I’d continue to ask more and more, because I have a very hard time asking. But there’s always going to be…for me, there’s more fear that they’re gonna say yes than that they’re gonna say no.

I love Jeff Garland. He’s one of my favourite people, one of my favourite performers. I’ve interviewed him twice for the podcast, and probably a couple of times for public radio. He’s always very generous with his time. He was doing a show at Steppenwolf and I had contacted his press person, and they said “Jeff’s only doing interviews on certain days, sorry.” The next day the press person contacted me saying, “Jeff didn’t realise it was you, he’d be happy to do it, he’ll give you 40 minutes before his show.” And I gotta tell you, I felt a ton of shame. I was honoured, but I called my [therapist]: “He’d do that for me?” And that’s the thing, that I think for me, not asking, I avoid.

I’m in therapy, I talk about it on the podcast, [he says] “You’re not afraid they’re going to say no. You’re afraid they’re going to say yes.” Because what I’ve experienced, there’s a lot more feelings that come up when somebody says yes. There’s a lot more feelings when you get “This might become a TV show.” There’s a lot of feelings with “You might get a part in a Judd Apatow movie.”

P&C: Is it feelings of “Do I deserve this? Am I good enough?”

JC: That comes up, but also sadness, like “Why didn’t this happen sooner?” Anger, like, how dare anyone recognize that I’m talented? It’s really hard, I was talking to a friend, she’s a great singer, her name is Meagan McDonough, and we were joking. It’s true, whenever you get close to your vision or your goal, you wanna quit. I don’t know what it is, but you just, like, “Uhh, I wanna quit.” And there’s been a lot of times where I felt like I’ve gotta quit, and I’ve done it. And now I know, that’s just part of it, that’s just part of my process.

P&C: Having the self-awareness to recognize that. I think Cameron and I have, just from being on the planet longer, we’re getting better at “Oh, I can see this pattern with me,” or this self-defeating behaviour.

Which dovetails into my next question: What have you learned, personally or professionally, from talking to these 200 or so people?

JC: I think the hugest lesson – and I was talking to my wife Lauren before the interview – I thought that everybody thought like me, which is, “Fame is the most important thing.”

And the thing that I’ve learned is, there’s a lot of people doing improv, a lot of very accomplished improvisers and teachers that really aren’t obsessed like I am about fame.

P&C: Did that surprise you?

JC: Yes, it totally surprised me. As an interviewer, just like as an improviser, you’re bringing your life experience and your point of view and your obsessions to the interview. It leaks out.

Growing up in Chicago around Second City, and seeing so many people that I started out with going to New York and Los Angeles and becoming huge in TV and film, I always thought you got into it – not that I originally got into it to be famous, though on some level I probably always wanted to be famous because I thought that would make up for my low self-esteem – but that that was the end goal. And to see people not only in Chicago, but to travel around and go into smaller cities and see these people that are creating these great improv and comedy theatres, and the work is really, really good, and that they’re super happy doing that, it really did surprise me.

P&C: Improv and comedy – and really, the world – is going through a sea change in 2016 with regard to awareness of and treatment of women, and also people of colour. Do you see things moving in a better direction now in the improv community?

JC: It’s hard for me to really give that perspective because I’m a white male. I would say that bringing it to the surface, that’s gone on for the last year, is really helpful. I consider myself a pretty sensitive and pretty compassionate person, and I think it’s helped me become more sensitive to these issues.

P&C: I was talking to Susan Messing about your episode on the subject, and I thought you handled it really well, even though you’re a guy (laughs). It’s a tough thing; we’ve got similar issues in Canada, and I’m sure England and Australia are having similar conversations…and this was all before Trump. (laughs)

JC: That episode…I was really afraid. It was a very angry time, and I was afraid that I was walking into something… I thought everyone handled it so well, and people’s points of view came across. Being a white male it’s not my issue to talk about. I can’t speak from experience, but I can give people a platform to discuss it. Hopefully the discussion keeps going.

P&C: When you started the podcast, there were very few improv resources available. When Cameron and I starting improvising, there was Truth in Comedy, your and Liz Allen’s book, Mick Napier’s book, and that’s pretty much it. Now there’s this plethora of podcasts, new books, blogs, e-books, improv camps, new theatres cropping up in small towns that never had that kind of thing before. Do you think having all these resources is making better improvisers?

JC: Yeah, I think it is. I will get someone contacting me periodically from somewhere in Europe, let’s say a very small town in Ireland, and they’ll say “Thank you so much for Improv Nerd, because it’s like getting a Master Class.” I think being in Chicago or any major city that has a lot of access to teaching, we probably don’t think of it as much, but there’s so much going on in Europe.

I do intensives in the summer and I get a lot of people coming to Chicago to take Second City and iO, and then they’ll study with me, and I’d say most of my students in the summer are from Europe. And what’s interesting is, Europe is like what Chicago was when I started back in the ‘80s. Will Hines has a book and Paul Vaillancourt has a book and Mick Napier just wrote a new book, and I think this is really good because [it helps] people in different countries where they don’t have access to the kind of training we have in big cities.

P&C: We all know improv has exploded in popularity, especially the past five years. Do you think it’s possible to become too popular, in terms of stage time and opportunities?

A friend of ours auditioned for a Harold team recently and he was number 600-and something. I thought, wow, you’re one of 600 for a chance to audition to maybe get on a team. And I guess that’s the reality because there’s so many people now vying for a place. So my question is, how big can this get? Are some people going to get frustrated because they think “I’ll just never have a chance”?

JC: If the improv community gets bigger, if you’re number 626 and you audition and you don’t get in at one of the big institutions and theatres and schools, that doesn’t mean you’re not good. We mentioned Broad City; they didn’t look at UCB as their gatekeeper, they created their own thing.

There’s so many people that I’ve had on the podcast who’ve said, “Once I gave up wanting to get into Second City, the opportunity presented itself and I got in to Second City.” So, when I hear that I think, that’s a lot of people doing improv, doing comedy, and I hope that just because they don’t get in there that they give up.

What I’ve seen since I’ve started is that people have become a lot more savvy. Here in Chicago, it used to be that people would do three or four MainStage shows. Now if somebody does two MainStage shows that’s a big deal, because they already have representation in Los Angeles, a manager and an agent. There’s people in Touring Company at Second City that are being scouted and are getting managers and agents. So it’s really changed.

When I started, if you were thinking about going to L.A. or you were going to get a headshot and do commercial auditions when you first started out, you were selling out. Del really preached an artist mentality, and a lot of us took it to heart, for better or for worse.

The other thing I think is interesting, because I not only come at it as an improviser and a performer, [but] as a teacher: I have seen the teaching side of it, not only here in Chicago – iO has exploded in terms of its training centre, the Annoyance, Second City just did a 25,000 beautiful square foot expansion of their training centre; there’s other theatres like Under The Gun, and Kevin Mullaney and Bill Arnett and Dina Fackliss teach independently here in Chicago, which is really super encouraging, and I of course teach here in Chicago – so that movement’s going on. But also what’s going on as far as corporate. I do it for team building, [how to] be more creative. I’ve seen it with doctors, people teaching doctors how to have better bedside manner. Or social anxiety… So the teaching aspect probably is endless in terms of where people can take this.

P&C: That’s a really good point. Cameron teaches Improv for Anxiety, and a lot of students don’t necessarily want to be improvisers, or perform onstage. But some of them fall in love with it so much they end up going through the regular Second City program and even Conservatory. And others are like, “I just wanna be able to leave my room without breaking into a cold sweat,” which was Cameron’s story. The diversity of classes available now is probably tenfold what it was a decade ago!

JC: When I go and teach workshops across the country, I’m seeing a lot more people coming to improv later in life. And that’s where it’s like, they don’t care about being famous, they don’t care about getting the writing job on The Daily Show. They’re doing it because they want to express themselves, and they want to be part of a community.

The two greatest things about improv is, one, it’s very accessible, anybody can do it, and two, you feel like you’re part of something, even if it’s a class of 12 people, you feel like you’re part of a community, something bigger than yourself.

P&C: Totally agree. OK, last question: What does the future look like for Improv Nerd and/or for you outside of that?

JC: Oh, God…

P&C: No pressure.

JC: Well, every 10 years I do a one-person show. My first show was called I’m 27, I Still Live At Home and Sell Office Supplies. So I’m hoping to start to work on that. I have a lot of material from my daughter, who just turned 16 weeks, and the whole experience. So I don’t know what the show will be about, but I would love to do that.

As for Improv Nerd, I did go out [to L.A.] in the Spring and try to pitch it, and I got some interest about it. It would be great if someone would just turn it into a TV show and I’d get eight episodes and get the biggest names in improv and it would be on Seeso… That would be great because I love interviewing people. So, I don’t really know, but that would be my vision.

P&C: Thank you for speaking with us, and for doing Improv Nerd and putting your passion out there, because it’s inspired a ton of people. And I also want to give a shout-out to your blog, because your blog fucking rocks. I love that you express things that I think many of us have felt at one time or another. Love your writing, love your honesty, so thank you.

JC: Thank you.

Jimmy Carrane is an improviser, interviewer, teacher, author, and long-time member of the Chicago improv community. As creator and host of the Improv Nerd podcast, he’s interviewed just about everybody in the comedy cosmos. He has written three books on improv, and his blog is a must-read for improvisers. 

 

A friend and highly respected comedian shared this recently, with the plea, “Dear Comedians, Don’t do this. Dear Marketers, Pay your talent.”

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Now, maybe you’re thinking, “What’s the big deal? It’s a couple hours of my time in return for a Domino’s Deluxe and some sweet, sweet Pabst Blue Ribbon.”

To advertisers, you’re just naturally funny people, and if you’re going to have funny ideas anyway, send them their way and they’ll actually make them happen.

What they don’t see is that it takes years of training and thousands of dollars to get to the point where your brain is worth picking. Just like they spent years of training and thousands of dollars learning about advertising.

Students pay around $300 in Canada, and $400-$475 in the US for classes. And as every comedy student knows, there’s a lot of classes. Acting, improv, stand-up, sketch, clown…it’s a field where you never stop learning.

It’s not that you can’t do favours. It’s just that you might be forgetting you’ve earned the right to ask for money. You went to school for what you do. You put in the time and money and now you can reap the rewards. Not just have others reap the rewards.

And by rewards I mean that sweet, sweet $35,000 a year the average comedian makes (with many earning far less). No wonder we’re willing to work for food.

In this age of Fivvr and crowdsourcing and Kickstarter potato salad, the line between an investment in your career and being taken advantage of can get blurry.

But stay strong, young Grasshopper. Because the real lesson here, buried in that ad, is Dollar Shave Club.

Two weeks ago, Unilever bought the company for $1 Billion.

The commercial that made DSC famous (23 million views and counting) wasn’t created by an ad agency. It was the brainchild of CEO, Michael Dubin.

Dubin studied and performed comedy for eight years at UCBT. He made the video, which he wrote and stars in, for just $4,500.

Michael Jones was an early investor. In a piece for CNBC, he said he wasn’t totally sold on Dubin’s business pitch. What convinced him was a rough cut of the video. After viewing it, he said, “I knew that Science Inc. needed to come on board…”

Comedy. It’s powerful stuff.

Research shows people rarely make rational purchases; they make emotional ones. Simply put, we buy brands we like. Dubin’s idea for a shaving company was worth something. But his comedic idea was worth billions. The value of Dollar Shave Club was made clear in that creative expression.

Sure, he could’ve given it away for some pizza and free razors. He’s a funny guy with plenty more ideas. But he didn’t. And now he never has to.

Neither do you.

All creatives – comedians, copywriters, art directors, designers, photographers, filmmakers, musicians, and yes, even comedy students – deserve to be compensated fairly.

Because now more than ever, ideas are our greatest currency.

*We initially quoted $30K as the average comedian salary. A Workopolis survey pegs the average wage for arts, entertainment and recreation at $30,186. Stats Canada reports an average of $40,300 for actors, comedians and drama teachers combined. (That figure seems high – to us and people we’ve spoken with – given that many seasoned performers live with roommates and scrape by working as film extras, servers, baristas, or real estate agents to supplement their comedy pay. Also, some stats are for Quebec; francophones book bilingual, as well as French-only acting roles, far more often than bilingual anglophones.) Still, according to StatsCan, one third earn $10,000 annually or less. 

John Cleese was on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert recently, talking about how Monty Python sold their first series. Cleese, Chapman, Idle, Jones, Gilliam and Palin had only met once, but they decided to pitch a show to the BBC.

What’s astonishing isn’t how young they were (very), or that they hadn’t discussed what kind of show it should be before the big meeting.

No, what blew my mind was the man from the Beeb saying “OK,” and trusting that they’d bring back something great. Because frankly, you’ve got more chance of finding a unicorn in your bathtub than a television executive who says “Yes.”

Contrast that with a meeting I had years ago. The Creative Director called writers and art directors into the board room under the guise of a “status meeting.” He closed the door, looked at the dozen or so teams and said, “If you don’t win awards, you will be fired.”

He said a bunch of other things after that, but no one was listening. We were too busy calculating how much was left in our chequing accounts.

Within weeks, half the department had quit. Not because we couldn’t win awards, but because we didn’t feel motivated – or relaxed or playful, two things essential to being creative – by having a gun to our heads.

When failure is not an option, fear takes over. And fear is creative kryptonite.

“The process of developing television shows is really, can be really demoralising. And I always liken it to – and it’s the same, I guess, for actors – it’s as if there was a restaurant that opened in your neighbourhood, and you got all this positive feedback. You read good reviews, had good word of mouth, you’d drive by and it was busy and it seemed like, ‘Oh, this place looks like it’s great. Let’s go ahead and try it out.’ And then you get a table at the restaurant, and instantly go back to the kitchen and tell the chef how to cook things. That’s what casting and buying shows is. It’s like:

‘This guy’s talented, look at all this work that he’s done! Let’s hire him.’

‘Yeah, let’s!’

‘He wants more money.’

‘Give him a little more money.’

‘OK, we got him!’

‘He’s ours? Now let’s treat him like he’s an idiot.’”

– Andy Richter, from A.D.D. Comedy with Dave Razowsky

Business fears creative because there are no guarantees. It wants to control things; after all, there’s usually a lot of money at stake, whether you’re making an ad, a film, or Kanye’s next collection. But art can’t exist without the possibility of failure. And as my first boss told me, the greatest risk is in playing safe.

I think that’s why so many successful actors still improvise. It’s a chance to take risks, to do something a little crazy, knowing they have the freedom to succeed or fail spectacularly.

The opposite of fear is trust. That’s scary, because you have to make yourself vulnerable in order to trust someone. But as Python demonstrated, the pay-off is so, so worth it.

Matt Baram and Naomi Snieckus are inseparable, both onstage and off. They’re Second City alumni, founding members of the National Theatre of the World, and creators of a new sketch revue, Baram & Snieckus: You And Me Both. We asked them about their unique brand of chemistry.

0055_NTOTW

P&C: How and when did you meet?

Matt: I was just coming back from a west coast swing with the Second City Touring Company. In fact I had to leave the tour early because my mother had passed away. And at the same time, I found out that the rest of the Touring Company had been let go and replaced. And when I came back to work, I saw Naomi’s headshot on our touring manager’s desk and I was intrigued to find out who the new firecracker was. Because I knew everyone else but I didn’t know her.

Naomi: Right, because I crashed the auditions. I happened to be in town visiting friends. So you wouldn’t know me. And we ran into each other outside of Second City.

Matt: And you had told me that your-

Naomi: My grandmother passed away that morning.

Matt: And so there was an immediate um…

Naomi: Connection.

Matt: Right. And I told her I was going to get a coffee, did she want one?

Naomi: And I thought that was lovely. I don’t know why I was so moved.

Matt: Had anyone else asked you?

Naomi: Nobody else has ever asked me if I wanted coffee before that.

Matt: In your life?

Naomi: Nope.

Matt: There you go. And so there we were in front of Second City with our coffees. Both of us dealing with so much. Naomi having just moved to Toronto from Vancouver. Her grandmother just passed away. And there I was, all of my friends had just been let go and I was about to meet my new company, and my mother had just passed away.

Naomi: Little did we know, we were about to start this new chapter together. A partnership that would take us to where we are today. Baram and Snieckus.

P&C: When did you know you liked each other?

Matt: Well we started doing Main-stage and we discovered our chemistry together. We started to create more and more together until it became annoying to others in the company I’m sure.

Naomi: We began to build up this stockpile of relationship material. If there was a relationship scene at Second City from 2003 – 2006, chances are, we were in it. If someone else wanted to do a couple scene, we would come and say, no!

Matt: Yes, we would come and we would threaten them. Relationship premises was our turf.

Naomi: We slowly realized that we had gone through the entire evolution of a relationship together in the sketches we were developing.

Matt: That’s right. There was the First Date Couple, Couple Running Out Of Gas, Proposal Couple, Sleeping Together Couple,  Anniversary Couple, Dominatrix Couple. We even did a sketch where we played two dogs falling in love.

Naomi: And we would spend all that time creating together. And performing together on stage. And so in a way, the audience knew that we were in love before we did.

Matt: It was a complicated time beyond belief because we were both in committed relationships. We both loved our partners deeply but we also couldn’t ignore how special our relationship was becoming. It was literally the best of times and the worst of times.

P&C: Wow. So, what’s the funniest moment you’ve had onstage together?

Matt: For me, I think it’s hard to think of the funniest moment we’ve had because we are so invested in the moments and it’s hard to step back and really enjoy them. But that being said, we also record a great deal of what we improvise for the purposes of developing our ideas further. And I can remove myself enough from the moment then and really enjoy the stuff we’re doing. And the stuff Naomi has done has made me lose it on many occasions.

There’s this one sketch that’s in the current show called “Make A Wish” where Naomi’s character is attempting to stop me from wishing aloud because it won’t come true if it’s wished aloud. And she demonstrates how to wish without speaking and it makes me howl every time.

Naomi: We used to do this show called The Carnegie Hall Show and Matt had just proposed to me the night before. And we had agreed that we weren’t going to tell anyone until we got married. I think it was Matt that insisted that. And then we were doing the intro bits and Matt says, “Uh… I proposed to her last night.” So we told our audience before we told many of our friends.

Matt: It’s weird that way. You just get so used to the audience being there for you that you end up feeling comfortable sharing everything with them.

Naomi: I’m not sure you had told your brother yet.

Matt: Still haven’t.

Naomi: Anytime you have a mustache onstage, I can’t help but laugh.

Matt: You too.

P&C: You perform together a lot. How has improv helped (or hindered) your relationship?

Naomi: We get to play a lot together. And be together more often than other couples do. Because we have this company together. Also it doesn’t surprise me that I would fall in love with an improviser. Because when you are first in love you say yes to everything. You want that person to look good. You say yes to all of their ideas. You laugh at them.

Matt: It’s not until you really feel comfortable with someone when you can really filter in the “no”s and the “you’re on your own”s and the “I’m not going to go along with that”s.

Naomi: But you still make me feel like the funniest woman in the world.

Matt: We laugh at each other a lot. And Naomi is an easy laugh.

Naomi: Are you calling me a laugh slut?

Matt: I’m saying you give good laugh.

Naomi: Thanks.

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

Naomi: I would say that because I’m an improviser and because my husband is one too, my comedy muscles are always limber. Which is good for auditions, hosting, gigs, and son on. I don’t have to gear up my funny bones to get ready all the time.

Matt: I agree and there are many gigs that require you to punch up scripts on the fly.

Naomi: We’re always punching each other up.

Matt: That sounds violent.

Naomi: It’s how we do.

Matt: You don’t talk like that.

Naomi: Word.

Matt: Also we create our own work through improvisation. So it has not only been a tool for writing and collaboration but it’s also been the main focus for us for that last several years with The National Theatre of The World. Impromptu Splendor, The Carnegie Hall Show, and The Script Tease Project are all improvised premises.

P&C: What inspired your new sketch show?

Naomi: Well, Theatre Passe Muraille asked if we wanted to be a part of their Guest Company Series. And not ones to turn things down, we jumped at the chance. To have a space offered to you like that is a real gift.

Matt: And there’s no greater gift for an artist than a deadline. We basically made ourselves find the time to write and rehearse this.

Naomi: And we spent months thinking of what kind of show we wanted to do. We came up with a half a dozen improv formats we wanted to try.

Matt: But then we also realized that over the years, we’ve created so much work that evaporates into the ether. Because it’s improvisation and unrepeatable.

Naomi: So he had the idea that we build up our sketch catalogue.

Matt: And we’re always writing based on improvisations that we do in front of audiences. Based on suggestions. And recording them. And so we decided to take those kernels and flesh then out.

Naomi: And that’s when Kurt Smeaton, our director, came on the scene. He helped us flesh some things out and helped distill our sketch list down to a cool ten or so.

Matt: I mean the type of stuff he, Scotty, and Jim have been doing with Falcon Powder has inspired us for sure.

Naomi: And we have enough material for a couple of shows.

Matt: But one at a time.

Naomi: That’s right.

Matt: We hope Baram & Snieckus: You And Me Both is the first of many.

Naomi: What are some future titles we were thinking of?

Matt: Heels over Head?

Naomi: And there was the “Reunion Tour” idea.

Matt: Right after we break up and get back together.

Naomi: They’re Still Alive!

Matt: That should be a fun one.

Naomi: I hope we’re both alive.

Matt: You and Me Both.

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

Photo © Paul Bates

Photo © Paul Bates

P&C: How and when did you meet?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

P&C: Has improv helped your relationship?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Replies poured in:

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

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

So what then? “Can’t win, don’t try?”

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

Show, don’t tell.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

New ideas are scary. 

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

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

Remember Dove Evolution?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The real value of “free.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The answer, as always, lies with you.

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

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

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

For further reading, we recommend:

http://endcrawl.com/blog/7-ways-make-your-own-luck-film-industry/

http://www.cracked.com/blog/6-harsh-truths-that-will-make-you-better-person/

http://www.theguardian.com/film/2015/mar/15/mark-duplass-south-by-southwest-sxsw

One of Toronto’s most loved performers posted a message recently about his struggles as an actor. Anyone who’s played with, watched, or been taught by Kris Siddiqi will tell you that he is hilarious, talented, kind, and generous.

We’ve written before about rejection, and the need to refocus your efforts. While that’s true, it doesn’t mean there isn’t room for change. Kris spoke in more detail about his decision with The Backline Podcast. Click here to listen.

Photo © Marcel St. Pierre

Photo © Neil Muscott

Here’s a rant for ya

There’s this feeling I get when I go to pick up my son from school – it’s a feeling of being unwanted, of not being good enough, of never having the right amount of…something. There are times when I stand at the school doors to pick up my son, and upon the very first glance of me, he begins to cry. He cries because I’m not mom. He was expecting his mom. It’s a feeling that hits me so hard in the gut and the heart – to know that I’m so undesired that the sight of me causes my son to burst out in tears. It make me want to burst out in tears.

This feeling is the exact same feeling I get when dealing with the world that I work in. And after feeling this not only from my son, but from the business that I’ve tried so hard to navigate, I’ve decided that I’m done.

After a long time of trying to be part of this machine one calls the Entertainment Industry, I’m finished, I’m done. I’m hanging up my hat and walking away from years of frustration, stress, anxiety, depression and complete and utter hopelessness. I’m done with having to know that I’m not white enough, or I’m not dark enough, or that my complexion is too confusing. I’m done losing sleep over auditioning when I know a role will go to someone who is full white, or full brown, or full black. I’m done questioning my talent level and my ability. I’m done with trying my best and my hardest only to have this ongoing silent rejection rule my life.

And why am I done? Well, I’m done because of you – because you who work in casting, in production, at networks – because you don’t know what you’re doing even though you like to make it seem like you do. You are the decision makers and the gate keepers and you would rather stick to the same old than take a chance. I’m done because you are only tools of a bigger entity that also thinks they know everything: “the client”. I’m done because “the client” rules everything and because they don’t have any interest in me. I’m done because even though I think I could work on your project, you don’t think so because of the complexion of my skin or because I’m just not talented enough. I’m done because all of you make me wish I didn’t have this skin colour – I wish I was all white or all brown, so at the very least you would consider me for your roles as cabbie, or tech help, or delivery man, or whatever other shallow role you’d like me to audition for.

This is the first time ever that I’ve felt like I’ve wasted my life. I’ve wasted time and energy and mental stability on you. I don’t want to feel like that anymore, so I’m moving on.

I apologize for placing such a pompous, arrogant, shameful, cry-baby, feel sorry for me rant on the one place I hate posting stuff like this. I apologize for coming across as ungrateful, or snide, or egotistical…I don’t mean to.

Why then am I posting this? I honestly don’t know.

Maybe I think someone will take sympathy on how pathetic I am and give me a job. Perhaps somebody will read this and think “oh, what a privileged jerk! There are bigger things in this world than your inability to book a show/commercial/anything.” Maybe deep down I am looking for sympathy and want to collect a huge amount of likes and comments on this, but in the end I think really all I’m looking for is to feel wanted, like the days when I go to pick up my son and his face is beaming with smiles because I’m there, no one else, no mom, just me. Maybe that’s the feeling I’m looking for from this industry, but will never find, because the decision makers and gate keepers are not a 5 year old child.

Sorry for the pity party
Krinky Ding-Dong

David Shore is an alumnus of The Second City Mainstage and iO West. A 13-time Canadian Comedy Award nominee and two-time winner, he is the founder of Monkey Toast. In 2010 he relocated to the UK and is now Artistic Director of Monkey Toast UK, where he oversees both its improv school and shows.

David Shore & Monkey Toast Cast

When did you first know you wanted to do improv/comedy/acting for a living?

I don’t know that it was ever a conscious decision. It’s more something that just happened and I think a lot of people in my age range came about it this way. I wanted to write sitcoms and got into acting in a backwards way. I fell in love with long form the first time I saw Bitter Noah at the newly opened IO West. I never thought I could earn a living at this or the direction that it would take my life in. I just knew that I had to try it.

What were you doing before this?

I am overly educated. I have a BA and a BAA. The second degree is from RTA at Ryerson. I wanted to be a TV writer/producer.  That’s what took me down to LA and that’s where I discovered long form. As jobs I’d worked at a custom B&W photo lab, was the receptionist at a gay synagogue, and also worked as a headshot photographer. But I was trying, with minimal effort, to be a sitcom writer.

Who has had the greatest influence on your career, and why?

That’s really hard to say.  I’ve learned so much and have been shaped by my improv teachers and cast mates. Scot Robinson’s class at the IO West in LA had a profound affect on me. He’s simply the best teacher I’ve ever had. He doesn’t get enough credit. He’s one of the founders of The Annoyance. Shulie Cowen, my former coach taught me a ton and so did Jenna Jolovich, who taught me how to act while eating after a show at Canter’s Deli. Also, Paul Valencourt, who was in Bitter Noah and opened up the IO West and was my first teacher there. He was and is amazing.

There was one event that changed everything about the way that I play and the way that I teach was taking Alan Arkin’s workshop in Toronto at the Second City. He worked directly with Spolin and literally changed my life (and I know many others who took the course that felt the same way).

I still quote him to this day to all of my students and do some of the exercises that he did with us. Most importantly, he taught me that a character doesn’t need to change and in many cases, must not. I did a scene with Albert Howell, and Arkin told me to pick an emotion and play it. I was a baker in a bakery, and I chose happy. So when Albert came in, I was very happy. Then he said, “I’ve just seen Cynthia,” and I heard something in his tone, so I suddenly became sad. It was a good scene but at the end, Arkin asked me, “What was your emotional choice at the top of the scene?” I told him that I was happy. He then asked, why I changed. I told him because of Albert’s offer. He had us do the scene again, and told me, “This time, not matter what, stay happy.”  The scene worked on a completely different level. It was a real eureka moment.

What was your first paid improv-related job?

Well when I came back from LA to Toronto, I did a run of the One-Man Harold at the Tim Sims Playhouse and actually made some good money off of that. But I suppose it really would have to be when I was hired to join the Second City Mainstage.

How much have former instructors, coaches, and team members played a part in your career?

I guess I already answered this question. If you don’t learn from the people that you’re playing with, then there’s something wrong with you or you’re simply not learning. I was lucky that I got to play with these amazing Chicago alumni rather quickly out in LA.  That gave me the confidence that I could play. But the people on my Harold teams were tremendous influences on me. I had a core of about 3-4 people that I played with regularly for three years in LA, and it was just so supportive and fun and really cutting edge for the time.

Do you see improv as a means to doing other work, or an end in itself?

I think most people get into it to do something else, like writing or acting. I did it because I had writer’s block and I wanted to meet people and form a sketch troupe. But once I got into Chicago-style, I wasn’t so concerned with writing anymore. For me it is an end onto itself, but it has certainly made me a better writer (or at least I think so). It’s also one of the most social things that you can do. I made and still have great friends out in LA, and made a ton of new friends in Toronto when I returned (I was not part of the scene before I left). Now almost all of my friends in London are through improv. Because you’re onstage with people with nothing but “yes, and” and trust, you bond much quicker and form deeper friendships.

When you hear the words “working improviser,” what comes to mind? 

To me that’s someone who earns most if not all of their living via improv. I think the majority do it through teaching and corporate work. While corporate work pays more, it is much less rewarding. I think there are very few who can earn a living by just performing improv. In Canada, I don’t know if anyone outside of Colin Mochrie, and the Second City Mainstage cast who earn a living from just performing improv. Certainly lots of people act and write.

Describe a typical day in your life.

I don’t really have a typical day, and I suppose that’s typical. I teach a few nights a week and do a double on one day of the weekend. If it’s the weekend, I’ll drag my ass out of bed, eat, shower and make a sandwich before heading off into central London to teach. I’ll teach for six hours straight, and then most likely have a drink with the final class once it’s over. I may got out to eat, or meet my wife somewhere, but most likely I’ll head home and have dinner with my wife and spend some time with her.

During the week, I will get up and do whatever is on my to-do list. Depending on what time of year it is I may have a ton of admin to do as I run my own improv school. So I may have 4-6 hours of admin to do on any day (we’re looking for ways to streamline this). Right now, I don’t have much admin, so I might go run errands, work on promoting the upcoming show, book guests for future shows and then I’ll head off to work in central London. After class, I will sometimes stay for a drink and if not, I’ll head home and will relax a bit with my wife before going to bed.

What’s the salary range for an improviser in your city?

I really don’t know what the salary range is in London. I know that I earn almost all of my income from teaching and running classes. I always tell people that if they’re getting into this to be rich, then do something else. There are far easier ways to make money.

What are the differences (if any) between improv in the UK and North America?

There’s a tremendous amount of talent here and work ethic is impressive. Performance-wise, some of the biggest differences are the lack of the “where” when doing a scene, and the Brits’ tendency to try and be clever. There is also a false belief that audiences in North America are better educated in improv, but I don’t feel that’s true. I think improv is one of the most underrated and under-appreciated art forms pretty much everywhere.

Improv has been steadily infiltrating corporate and popular culture. With all of the interest in improvisation, why is it still so difficult to get bums on seats at shows? (Or is it, in your experience?)

I think there are lots of reasons for this. First off, in North America you need a machine behind you to put bums in seats because people just don’t go out as much. The Second City has people whose full time job it is to sell tickets. That makes a big difference.  Also, for whatever reason, if people see a bad improv show, they think all improv is bad. They don’t feel that way about stand-up or sketch.

Also, there’s a big problem with the way that groups promote themselves. How many groups promote themselves as being amazing or some of the best, when really they’re not very good or they suck? Yes, suck. Are you really pros? There is a difference, and unfortunately only people in the local improv community know the difference.

What’s the best, worst, or weirdest improv gig you’ve done?

The worst was easily when the Signa Nu fraternity bought out the Second City for their international convention. Playing before 400 frat boys was the worst experience that I’ve ever had. Maybe that only qualifies for sketch. Doing improv in a tent in North Hollywood was pretty weird. They had this beautiful theatre where we thought we were going to perform, but someone thought it would be great to put improv outdoors, near the music tent. They even promoted the should as a children’s show, which it was not.  My coach was furious, and at one point jumped into a scene and started shooting people. I have a vivid memory of a mother grabbing her young son and quickly taking him out of the tent.

Do you think it’s easier to make a living as an improviser today than it was when you were starting out?

I think that it probably is as there’s more people doing it so there’s more opportunities.

Where do you see yourself 10 years from now?

Healthy, happy and still teaching but doing more Radio and TV as well.

David Shore & son Cale

David Pasquesi is an actor/improviser and Second City alumnus. He’s both lauded and loved by everyone who’s anyone in the improv community, and is the Dave half of legendary improv duo, TJ and Dave. His film and television credits include Groundhog Day, Strangers With Candy, Angels and Demons, Curb Your Enthusiasm, and Veep.

Photo © Eleonora Briscoe

Photo © Eleonora Briscoe

When did you first know you wanted to do improv/comedy/acting for a living?

For a living? I didn’t know it was even possible. First class was with Judy Morgan around 1981. And I loved it from the start. I had found something I enjoyed that was not illegal and that I was not terrible at.

Who has had the greatest influence on your career, and why?

There are many people who have helped me immeasurably all along, but the single person? I would have to say Del Close. He is the person who I had the most contact with. He was a generous man with his knowledge and experience.

What was your first paid improv-related job?

My first paid job in the umbrella of entertainment was stand up. I was the M.C. at The Chicago Comedy Showcase as I was studying improvisation with Del.

Do you see improv as a means to doing other work, or an end in itself?

Both.

When you hear the words “working improviser,” what comes to mind?

Waiter.

Describe a typical day in your life.

Jesus. No typical day. Lately it’s been trying to run this fucking theater with TJ.

A lot of folks come to improv classes and get stars in their eyes. What advice would you give to someone who wants to pursue improv for a living?  

If you are pursuing improvisation for the money…you are a fool. Do it because it isn’t a choice. You have to. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, then maybe that’s your answer.

Improv has been steadily infiltrating corporate and popular culture. With all of the interest in improvisation, why is it still so difficult to get bums on seats at shows? (Or is it, in your experience?)

I think because it is viewed as something everyone can do, there isn’t a need for me to pay to come see you do something I can do, too. So why should I pay to see you do it? Also, there are so many shows there isn’t enough audience to go around.

What’s the best, worst, or weirdest improv gig you’ve done?

Trying to do a Harold outdoors with no stage in the summer in a park on grass and dirt between stands of trees at Taste of Chicago as tourists ambled past on their way to ribs and cheesecake. And also, no one in the world knew what a Harold was.

Best for me is TJ and Dave, some highlights were doing TJ and Dave at Town hall in New York City. Also a European tour doing TJ and Dave. Factory, a TV show improvised with other guys from iO. Mitch Rouse’s show with me, Jay Leggett and Mike Coleman. All of us friends, we had a bunch of our friends come do stuff with us. And of course, the beginning with Del and just starting the Harold. That was very exciting.

Do you think it’s easier to make a living as an improviser today than it was when you were starting out?

God yes. There was no way to make money as an improviser. The only paying job was Second City. And that was not to improvise.

Where do you see yourself 10 years from now?  

I don’t.