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Posts from the Interviews Category

Photo © Jenna Szabo

Kyle Dunnigan is an American comedian, also known for his role as Craig in Reno 911!. Kyle just booked a supporting role in Gus Van Sant’s new film, He Won’t Get Far on Foot and his original pilot Shit Kids just premiered at Sundance Film Festival. He was a writer and performer on all four seasons of Inside Amy Schumer and he won an Emmy for writing the song Girl You Don’t Need Makeup. He continues to be a regular contributor for The Howard Stern Show. Kyle is also a recurring cast member on Tig Notaro’s Amazon series, One Mississippi. He is launching a new website soon: kyledunnigancomedy.com

Josh Bowman recently spoke with Kyle about his upcoming tour, improv comedy, work on Inside Amy Schumer, his mother’s thoughts on his Emmy, and his dog Olive.

JB: So I just thought I’d get your plugs, what dates you’re playing, stuff about your movie, Inside Amy Schumer, anything you want to talk about first.

KD: The tour dates are the most important. The thing [Shit Kids] that went to Sundance…we’re gonna start pitching it soon but that’s about it. And the Inside Amy Schumer thing is, that show’s over now, but…I miss it. So…

JB: Is it done? Why don’t…I feel like I should’ve known that.

KD: Yeah they don’t make any big announcement, they kind of just stop doing shows. It’s a little weird. Sometimes they don’t even tell you if you’re a cast member. Your manager or agent goes “don’t go in tomorrow, it’s not there anymore.”

JB: That’s…crazy.

KD: Yeah. It is crazy. Cause it’s like a family, it’s almost like a family and you go to war together and it’s just, like, it’s over. But that’s the nature of it. Yeah.

JB: And then Professor Blastoff, that ran for a while, and then I guess Tig got too busy with touring and stuff? Because that was a really great podcast, I really liked that podcast a lot.

KD: Yeah…oh thank you. I really liked doing it, you know, Tig and David are my friends and it just felt like chatting, it didn’t really feel like a job and you know we started getting a good following. Yeah, you know it was kind of bittersweet, but we were all pretty busy, and it just wasn’t practical. But I think we may do a special. We’re talking about doing a ten-episode run here and there to kind of keep it going a little bit.

JB: Cool. Yeah, and I think I read somewhere you were thinking of doing another podcast called Brainmail, does that sound right?

KD: Yeah, I feel so bad because I was going to do it, and then Earwolf was dragging their feet and a couple months went by and I was in New York working on the Schumer show and I just got too busy to do it myself. I can go and show up somewhere if someone else has a podcast but for my own I just never really got enough time and energy to throw that way.

JB: It feels like a lot of work.

KD: It really is, and work that I’m not interested in doing. You sort of get into show business because you don’t like to do clerical stuff, and there’s so much of that, and you have to get the website up and all that stuff. Like, my website’s gone, I don’t have a website anymore because that’s how terrible I am at upkeeping.

JB: Yeah I saw that, it was like a spam site…

KD: Yeah it will just destroy your computer, my website just destroys people’s computers now.

JB: Thanks. Yeah.

KD: But I got a new website –  kyledunnigancomedy.com, and that will not destroy your computer and I should have dates up there, tour dates.

JB: Great! So you won an Emmy which is amazing.

KD: Yeah!

JB: Did you bring your mom? Was your mom there with you?

KD: I did. Yeah. I brought my mother to the Emmys. She’s very into award shows. It’s almost like I couldn’t not invite her, like whenever there’s an awards show she tells me who should win, even though I don’t even ask her or care she just likes to tell me.

JB: Sure.

KD: Whenever she sees a movie she goes “So-and-so I predict will be nominated for Best Supporting Actor.” She just lets me know that, and I think she gets dressed up to watch the Oscars and the Emmys, that’s just my hunch. She gets dressed up at home.

JB: So what’s her take on the Oscars thing, on the La La Land thing? Does she have like…I’d love to hear her opinion on that.

KD: Well, I didn’t talk to her too much about it. She didn’t love the movie. Which, I was surprised. It seems right up her alley. She thought it was OK, but didn’t love the dancing and the singing all that much, but when I won the Emmy, the first thing she said to me was “Can they take that away from you?” Those were the first words out of her mouth.

JB: …can they take that away…?

KD: Yeah, I mean…you can just talk to a therapist forever about that.

JB: Yeah…thanks mom.

KD: Yeah it’s always hedging…you know they mean well, they’re afraid of being disappointed so they hedge it, they just try to figure out…you know, what’s the worst thing that can happen and just shoot for that?

JB: I feel like there’s a certain level, there’s a base level where they’re like…OK, it’s OK. They have a roof over their head, you know?

KD: Yeah, and I can imagine, you know, you have a kid, you don’t want them ever to feel pain, but…if your kid doesn’t feel pain they’re gonna grow up to be a useless person.

JB: Yeah. Do you feel like that’s kind of the premise behind Shit Kids at all?

KD: Yeah, actually…yeah. Yeah, it’s almost like, coal without pressure on it, you don’t get the diamond. People who are just gorgeous and life is easy… I think they have it really tough later in life because inherently life isn’t easy. And so you get the message early on that you can just coast through on your looks or your…whatever, and you’re gonna have a rough moment somewhere. Everyone has to feel disappointment and heartbreak, it’s too bad but we all do or else, I don’t know you just come out weird.

JB: Yeah…so on that note, I thought Professor Blastoff was awesome, and part of the reason was because you were all very philosophical and very open. Do you find there’s like a balance in your stand up between going to those places in terms of pulling stuff out that you can use, and then like just doing dumb, funny bits that are just…goofy?

KD: Yeah I kinda drift back and forth. I think I like the silly stuff better to be honest. I think right now the flavour is people being really open, and I think that’s cool and interesting, but I like to be goofy, which isn’t really in right now. But I’m gonna keep doing it.

JB: It’ll come back around, right?

KD: It always does.

JB: So…what is your relationship with music, cause you’ll play the keyboard and you’ll beatbox but you also do it in a way that’s sort of jokey, like that character you did on the Schumer show [Rapper Boyfriend], but then you wrote a song that won an Emmy so you obviously play.

KD: I always played music, kind of like a hobby, therapy type of thing. I never thought that I would win an Emmy for it, it was sort of just for myself. This opportunity came up where Amy said do you want to write the music and I was like “yeah!”

JB: But it’s not just that…like you’ll have a keyboard in your set or you’ll have a loop pedal in your set…

KD: Yeah…I had a very musical uncle and I think I got some of his interest in music. I’m probably trying to live out a rock star life. Without a lot of people noticing.

JB: Secret rock star!

KD: Yeah, in my head like I’m playing for a huge crowd that thinks I’m cool.

JB: Yeah. I mean, aren’t comics like rock stars now?


KD:
Yeah…some of them are, some of them have this swagger, like they walk around and they point and squat. It does feel like some of them are doing rock shows. And a lot of rock stars wanna be comedians. It’s a weird thing. Like I know some successful musicians and they kinda wanna be comedians and all comedians kind of wanna be, you know, cool…

JB: Right.

KD: We don’t wanna be so black and white – “you can’t pigeonhole me!” So we wanna do something else…

JB: Yeah…I think you’re right, or I think maybe like that part of your brain that’s creative, there can be some parallels with musicians and with comics, right? Like maybe there’s a similarity like you’re kind of weird in high school or you always wanted to perform or you wanted to face your fear…

KD: Yeah, you’re right. There’s also a lifestyle similarity of being on the road, there’s some similar things, and I relate to people who are musicians and their life is sort of similar.

JB: Yeah. So I know that in one of your interviews you said, and I don’t know if this was tongue in cheek, but you said you might be further along if you had just focussed on stand up, but that you like working on different projects and you find that exciting.

KD: It depends on what you want. Like the lifestyle I wanted…I wanted to do different things. This is right for me to jump around, but if you wanna be like the best stand-up comedian for example, you really need to focus on it. That’s just how it is. I feel like people want you to be one thing, and I understand that. Like Dudley Moore, he was a funny actor and he actually was a really good piano player, and one time I saw him on TV playing the piano and in my head I was like, I want him to stop it! Cause I was like, you’re Dudley Moore, not a good piano player. I was confused.

JB: Yeah.

KD: I kind of jump around. I mean, like right now I’m doing a lot of home improvement stuff on my house. I think I wanna be a contractor for buildings. Like every month I wanna do something different. So I might go into that. Building homes.

JB: Yeah, so this interview is kinda pointless…have fun…

KD: Well, I don’t know, a homebuilders magazine might be interested in this interview.

JB: Yeah you’re right.

KD: Like I refinished my floors last month. There’s a lot of fun stuff here.

JB: So you did improv with Groundlings and then improv in New York? Is that right?

KD: I was in a couple of improv groups in New York, yeah. One was called “Some Assembly Required”, we’d do corporate gigs, we weren’t all that great. I was in another group when I first got to New York but they were charging me, it was just kind of a scam.

JB: Right. So the Groundlings was kind of where it took off for you would you say?

KD: No…I was in New York and I sort of realized there’s no money in improv or sketch, there’s really no money unless you get on Saturday Night Live. So I had done stand up once in high school and I thought, let me do that. Once I started doing that I got some attention and then I got on Conan O’Brien. I got a few things off that, like a manager and agent in L.A., and that’s how it sort of took off for me, and then I did the Groundlings once I came out here kind of just for fun.

JB: Oh OK…interesting. So you wouldn’t say that the improv stuff was foundational for your stand up or for your career?

KD: Not really, to be honest. The Groundlings was…I met a lot of great people there and I’m really glad I did it but it was so crowded. We had 21 people, and I was in the Sunday Company, you’d have like one sketch. They’ve since pared it down, they don’t do that anymore. They keep their classes small.

JB: Interesting, OK. Yeah. So the reason I was asking about that was it feels like a lot of people who do comedy now that is their background.

KD: Oh yeah, yeah.

JB: And it’s interesting for you to say “I did it, it was fine, but it wasn’t really my…”

KD: Yeah it didn’t really help me career wise at all, like I did a sketch show before I did The Groundlings, it was called Cedric the Entertainer, it was on Fox, and that was the only real sketch, you know, thing I made money doing and that was before the Groundlings.

JB: So a lot of your characters, you choose weird-looking people that you do impressions of. Is that physicality a big part of the comedy for you?

KD: I guess…yeah that Craig character on Reno I’ve been doing since I was very young. I have pictures of myself like at 9 years old doing that character. I don’t know, I just deform my face and that character kind of came out of that, making that face.

JB: Right. So then when you do Caitlyn Jenner and Donald Trump…

KD: It’s kind of funny, like Caitlyn Jenner talks like that…she’s kind of like “Oh yeah!” Her voice goes right up high, she has kind of a lisp on her ‘s’s and stuff.

JB: Yeah…

KD: You know what I mean, like… “yeah baby!” It’s her catchphrase…yeah baby.

JB: Right. Is that her catchphrase?

KD: Yeah kind of…doesn’t it feel like it? I don’t know if she’s ever said it, but it kind of feels like it.

JB: It feels like she says it in like her, in just the way she is.

KD: Yeah. And Trump is like “terrific,” “believe me,” that’s his phrase. “Believe me.”

JB: Yeah yeah…oh God he’s…yeah. This is a weird time.

KD: I know it’s…it’s exhausting. I’m exhausted.

JB: It’s exhausting, right?

KD: When I do the impression in my stand up now, I can feel people just like…they don’t even want to hear the impression, they’re just so mad. Sometimes it’s hard to lampoon him because he’s such a cartoon of himself. You usually go a little bit further than what the person does and that’s what’s funny, but he goes there for you, and there’s almost nothing to say other than what he actually says.

JB: Like Tina Fey did with Sarah Palin but it’s somehow different now.

KD: Yeah. But we’ll get through it, we’ll live.

JB: I mean I’ll be fine. I’m doing great.

KD: You’ll be fine. You’re in Canada.

JB: I’m in Canada, I’m white, I’m male. I’m really….

KD: Yeah, you’re all set.

JB: Do you find writing partners like Tig, or Amy Schumer…is it like if that dynamic clicks you say I wanna work with you, I wanna write with you…is that kind of how it happens?

KD: Different ways…I mean with Tig, I just…you know I just loved her right away, we just immediately clicked, we had the same sense of humour pretty much. You know it was obvious, we just had so much fun together.

JB: Yeah.

KD: I’m writing with somebody now, and that happened a little differently. He’s a funny comic and he just had an idea for a movie and I thought it was a good idea, so that’s how we started writing together.

JB: Do you think you could write with anyone?

KD: Pretty much…some people will be more helpful than other people. I think I couldn’t write with somebody who was very strong-headed and had a different sense of humour, that would be impossible. If you didn’t agree that something was funny and weren’t willing to compromise, like…that won’t work.

JB: Let’s suppose there’s a big network comedy that stinks but pays good money. Do you feel like you could write for it but it wouldn’t be great, or have fun with it…?

KD: I would like to think I would have fun, but I wouldn’t do it unless I needed some money. There was something I turned down recently that was good money but just not something I wanted to be involved in.

JB: Right.

KD: I liked writing on Amy’s show because it’s nice being with a group. In stand up a lot of what I write is alone. And having a schedule’s nice.

JB: Yeah yeah…it’s not just you in a room in your pajamas like at 3 a.m., right?

KD: Yeah, like a crazy person.

JB: …collecting your fingernails…

KD: Like a raving lunatic.

JB: Yeah…yeah, I feel like there’s a fine line between successful comedian and raving lunatic.

KD: There’s no line. Same thing.

JB: The only other thing I wanted to say, because it seems to keep coming up that you like Billy Joel.

KD: Oh yeah, I love Billy Joel!

JB: So there’s a soca song called Go Down Low and Wine, and it’s like a parody I guess, or like a version of For The Longest Time?

KD: Oh OK.

JB: And I just really think you should listen to it because it’s really weird.

KD: I would love to.

JB: Yeah, it’s pretty great. Anything you wanted to add?

KD: No…I’d love people to come to my shows, because I do these little rock clubs now, and they’re fun shows and I used to get like a lot of Professor Blastoff people, those are the best fans…they just bring me things. This is my first tour without Professor Blastoff, but I hope they still come because I would get like little gifts and stuff. It’s nice.
Catch Kyle on tour in the following cities:

March 24-25th – Arlington, VA

March 28th – St. Paul, MN

March 30th– April1st – Madison, WI

April 2nd – Iowa City

April 3rd – Kansas City

April 4th – Omaha

May 11-14th – New York Cit

*     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *

Josh Bowman is a professional fundraiser, story-teller, comedian, and blogger. He has worked and consulted in Vancouver, New York, and now Toronto for almost a decade. Josh also runs and writes for tenthingsivelearned.com, writes for The Huffington Post, sings and improvises

“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

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

Photo © Ken Hall

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. 

 

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.)

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

If you’ve just joined us recently, welcome! Below you’ll find some of our most-read topics to date, so pull up a bentwood chair and enjoy.

Image © People and Chairs

Image © People and Chairs

How-To Posts

Eight Ways To Be Good With The Improv

Eight More Ways To Be Good With The Improv

How To Succeed At Anything by Being Yourself

Audition Tips From The Other Side Of The Table

How To Write A Kickass Performer Bio

Performance Anxiety: How To Dissolve Pre-show Nerves

How Cameron Got Over His Anxiety (And So Can You!)

Harold/Long Form & Scene Work

Openings: The Good, The Bad & The Funny

Somebody Edit This, Please

John Lutz on Keeping It Simple

Enjoy The Silence: Improvising Without Dialogue Part One and Part Two

On Coaches, Chemistry, And Finding Your Dream Team

Specificity: Why Pabst Blue Ribbon Beats Whatever You’re Drinking

All By Myself: Solo Improv

How I Lost Interest In Game Of The Scene And Found Something Way More Fun

Great Guest Posts

12 Tips For Festival Organizers by Amy Shostak

12 Tips For Improvisers Attending Comedy Festivals by Matt Folliott

7 Tips For Surviving An Improv Jam by Laura Bailey

Now’s The Time To Know The New by David Razowsky

How Not To Get Sued (A Guide for Canadian Comedians) by Rob Norman

Never Give Up by Jimmy Carrane

How To Avoid Being A Creep by Conor Bradbury

Improv Community & Insight

For The Love of Art, Pay People

Why Improv Is Good For Business

The Art of Comedy

When “Yes, And” Becomes No

Comedians, Don’t Sell Yourself Short

Random Fun Stuff

Improv Explained In Venn Diagrams

What’s Your Improv Persona?

It’s An Improv Thing

When Improvisers Date

An Illustrated Guide To Improvisers

Improv Forms That Don’t Exist (But Should)

When Ralph Met Becky

Web Series: Inside The Master Class

Stick This In Your Ear: The Improv Podcast Round-up

Video: How To Spot An Improviser

 

A blog post about blogging? Why the hell not?

St. Louis-based writer/improviser Ben Noble interviewed us recently for his improv blog, I’m Making All This Up. The result is exactly the mix of earnest (me) and funny (Cameron) you’d expect. Click here or below to read. Thanks, Ben!

Artwork © Nadine Prada

Artwork © Nadine Prada

Matt Holmes (below, left) performs improvised shows with a stranger in Philadelphia. Neil Curran (right) does the same thing across Ireland. They connected recently to talk about their experiences, and the improv scene on both sides of the pond.

Matt& and Neil+1

P&C: How is performing with a non-improviser different from performing with someone who understands “Yes, and”?

NC: I find that eventually the audience member naturally realises that they should “yes, and”, even though they don’t know what they’re doing.

MH: I think everybody has a child-like sense of playing and creating, somewhere inside.

NC: Yes, the less experience the better. They’re pure of heart then!

Neil: What attracted you to the format, and what inspired you to do it?

Matt: It sort of came about organically for me. There wasn’t one particular impetus for it. It was kind of an experiment. I liked the idea of coming up with the idea myself.

Neil: How does it feel to be at the forefront with the format?   

Matt: I really like advising other people about this kind of show and seeing what variations people make.

I’ve found that people can take the basic notion and tailor it to themselves with little adjustments. I’m very loose with it, but I like seeing similar shows that frame it uniquely for the performer doing it.

Neil: I’d love to try to do it with yourself and two audience members, as a foursome.

Matt: Oh, I never would’ve thought of that. We should pitch that for some festival.

Matt:  What’s your history with improv in general?

Neil: I grew up immersed in theatre. My mother is an actor and a drama teacher/examiner, so from an early age I was involved in theatre in some form.

I always had a love for improv though, and while improv in the drama world is often different to what we do, it was the liberation and freedom that came with it that I loved. No restrictions.

Whose Line Is It Anyway? was also running when I was a teenager, and I was addicted to it. Imitating games with friends, it was my favourite show on TV, and Ryan Stiles became a hero.

Later in life, I set up a theatre group in Dublin that held weekly drop-in workshops. Improv was used a lot in those classes, so I started to take improv more seriously, short-form first, but the lightbulb moment wasn’t until I was introduced to a UK improv troupe, The Maydays, and in particular, John Cremer.

That’s when everything changed for me. John is one of the most inspiring teachers I’ve met, and their skill at long form made me want to work hard at being the best long-form performer that I could be. Through The Maydays, I was introduced to other great teachers, such as Jason Chin, and Marshall and Nancy behind Zenprov.

Matt: I don’t know what improv is like in the UK or in Ireland.

Neil: The improv scene in Ireland was very small.  There was a very long-running, successful short-form group in Dublin (Dublin Comedy Improv), but no one was really doing long form.

So I started to teach long form and performing it with the troupe I was playing with at the time, Laughalot Improv. I think we performed Dublin’s first Harold, but I could be mistaken.

Over time, my workshop numbers grew and grew. I now have four levels that I teach. More and more long form groups have been sprouting up. It’s fantastic.

Matt: Your story is surprisingly similar to mine. I was semi-aware of improv as something that actors do and that comedians learn before getting on Saturday Night Live or MADTV, but then Whose Line really crystallized it into a specific idea.

I was shy and never would’ve gotten on stage, even though I was really interested in performance. Then I tried short-form in college and shifted into long-form after college, starting up Philly’s small comedy scene with shows and classes and workshops.

And now I have that same situation as you, with lots of groups sprouting up around me.

Neil: It was challenging trying to continuously train at long form, as I had to go to the UK to learn. Fortunately, The Maydays run intensives, which proved hugely beneficial.

I then met a lady who used to live in the U.S. but lives in Galway, Ireland, now and has since become a very good friend: Órla Mc Govern. Órla is an actor and a veteran long form improviser. She performed with a number of groups in Seattle and beyond before moving back to Ireland.

Matt: For me, the improv festival circuit was a great way to learn more about improv via experts from Chicago, New York, Toronto, etc.

That was where I really leveled up and incorporated those different approaches, along with learning by teaching others and having to get my head around it all.

Neil: How do you find being independent of the Chicago/New York/LA scene influences your improv?

Matt: I think it has allowed me to pick and choose what works for me personally.

Neil: Yes! I find that’s the same in Europe.

Matt: I feel like being separated from the “official way” to do it has kept me open to all kinds of styles, interpretations, and influences.

I think improvisers in those saturated places go through one specific idea of what improv means. Some do multiple tracks or branch out with an intensive at another institution, but they’re still these firm routes.

Neil: I agree, and we’re witnessing almost a hybrid style emerge in Europe, which is truly wonderful.

Matt: How is improv different in Ireland/UK/Europe from other places you’ve been?

Neil: The UK scene is very evolved, although players there may disagree. However, things are really flourishing, and there are some tour de force acts there. The scene in Europe is growing rapidly, with more and more festivals emerging. The sense of community is huge.

Matt: What do you mean by “evolved”?

Neil: I mean that there are some high-calibre groups doing cutting-edge things. The standard is very high.

Matt: I see. How is the material itself different (if it is)? I’ve read about cultural differences that led to improv in Latin America being different in style from American/Canadian/European improv.

Neil: You see less improv events here being marketed as Armando nights or Harold nights, etc. because frankly audiences don’t know what it means, nor do they care.

Troupes are developing their own formats and styles, putting their own slant on things. Slapping ‘Chicago long-form improv’ on a poster in Europe won’t sell seats to non-improvisers, as people don’t know what that means.

Matt: Are people doing Harold/Armando/etc. or just “long-form” and their own new stuff?

NeilIt’s a mix, to be honest.

One of my goals (and Órla’s) in Ireland is to establish long form improv as an art form in the eyes of the arts community and media, beyond the improv community.

Matt: Philadelphia is such a theatre town. It would be great to have more-artistic improv connected to that realm.

Neil: I agree. I try to stage as much of the Neil+1 shows in theatres as I can.

Órla’s troupe, The Sky Babies, have been accepted into the Galway Theatre Festival, a first for any theatre festival in Ireland. Their show The Suitcase is very much a great example of improvised theatre.

As awesome as Whose Line is, to the people not familiar with improv, they assume that Whose Line is all there is to improv.

When I first announced Improv Fest Ireland, one journalist asked me “How do you expect to entertain audiences for a week of just Whose Line Is It Anyway?-type shows?”

Matt: I’ve had that same kind of experience. Nine times out of 10, I can tell what people are thinking when I say “improv.”

Matt: What sparked the original idea for you to try performing with an audience member?

Neil: It’s somewhat unorthodox. I travel a lot with work and otherwise, but when I was in my first improv troupe, not everyone could afford to travel or want to, and I always wanted to take a show on the road.

So I asked myself, “Can I perform improv solo, so that I only have to worry about myself when I travel when arranging a show?”

There was the whole taboo of using the audience as guest performers. That’s when I met you. I believe your words were “Just book the gig and see how it goes”!

Matt: I didn’t think about how well the set-up works for the road until I had been doing it a while.

Neil: Yes, for me Neil+1 evolved quite rapidly as my confidence grew. The first show was very successful, so that set the stage.

Matt: You do an hour-long show. Did you start off doing it that way?

Neil: Now it’s an hour long. When I was finding my footing with the show, I moved into turning it into a narrative piece, and the extended time came naturally.

Matt: I’ve done shows to fit any timeframe: 15 minutes, 30 minutes, 45-ish minutes, but a full hour seems daunting.

Neil: To me, I make the show completely about the audience member. They play themselves. The show tends to be an alternate universe view of what their life could be like, or could have been like.

I play with the formats too. So I have the general “anything goes” Neil+1 format, but since November I also have the Boy Seeks Girl format, where the interview is actually a first date.

Matt: I was going to ask about that new take on it.

Neil: The new take is interesting, it’s a study into our dating lives, I guess. I had a “Eureka!” moment when I performed Neil+1 in San Francisco a while ago. The audience member became teary after the show.

I had played his father in a few of the scenes. There was a fallout and a reconciliation in the show. He told me afterward that his father had died over a year previous, but the show had been the first time he had emotionally connected to his father’s passing since the funeral. He was very grateful for the experience.

I realised that the show can become an avenue to explore aspects of our lives. Boy Seeks Girl became the next obvious step for me.

I’m debuting a new format this year called You’re Dead! which goes a step further, and the opening interview is set at the gates to the afterlife, and we talk about the audience member’s review of their life, regrets, etc.

Matt: Do you see these formats presenting the show as theatre that just happens to be improvised, as opposed to being an improv show?

Neil: It’s hard to say. I see the show as improvised theatre. One reviewer called it interactive theatre. I often say spontaneous theatre.

The labels though are really for connecting with the non-improvising public and media. At the end of the day, it’s long-form improv, and proudly so.

What I love about the format is you can’t bullshit your way throughout. You have to work hard to make the show work, and you have to make your co-star look awesome.

If we learn in improv there is no wrong way to do it and to make your partner look good, then it shouldn’t matter what experience your co-star has.

P&C: Do you ever worry about the people you bring onstage with you clamming up, or not giving you enough to work with? 

Matt: For me, it can occasionally be a challenge. I’ve learned to accept and welcome that hesitancy. It makes it all the more wondrous when they do open up and play along.

Neil: Never. The only thing I worry about is alcohol.

If I ‘yes, and’ the whole way and respect the way the audience member feels, then there is nothing to fear. It’s important to be conscious of how the audience member is really feeling.

Matt: You worry about your partner being drunk?

Neil: Yes, I would worry if I selected someone who had been drinking.

Matt: Some of my best shows have been with tipsier partners.

Neil: That’s interesting. I wouldn’t be comfortable with it. We don’t perform with improvisers who are drunk, so the thought of performing with a drunk audience member is not something I’m keen on!

Matt: I think it’s different, because that person is not an improviser. They exist in a limbo between performer and audience.

P&C: Do you find that this kind of show is more “real” than a lot of the regular improv you do?

Matt: I think it’s remarkable how similar it is to a regular improv duo. There’s an added element from bringing somebody from the audience onstage, but the material itself is usually like any other improv of equal caliber.

I don’t consider it a solo show or just some gimmick. My audience partner is my partner, who just happens to be from the audience.

It does have a kind of coalesced quality to it, though, like it’s pure and cooked down: freebase improv.

Neil: I think it can be more real. And that’s why I make the narrative about the audience member. Their feelings on stage are real. Their emotion tends to be more raw and real.

I agree it’s not a gimmick. The audience member is your co-star. They get laughs, and they cause the audience to emote.

Matt: I’m struck by how such similar shows can be so different. Your show seems like it’s a bit more dramatic and theatrical than mine, especially with your partners playing themselves.

Neil: It felt like where I excel better; let the audience member be himself or herself, and I will play all the other characters.

Matt: I’ve had some partners who revert to being themselves and also try to get me to be myself, which is not comfortable for me.

I like to get into a scene with different characters and situations and have it feel like somebody from the audience has been pulled in, like Alice going through the looking glass, or Pleasantville.

P&C: How do audiences respond to this kind of show, versus other improv sets? Is there a difference?

Matt: I’ve still gotten audiences who don’t understand how improv works, that there are no planned parts, or how we use the suggestion, but still loved the show.

And I’ve also gotten audiences that get a clearer picture of the fact that we’re making it up as we go, because the audience member on stage is kind of a stand-in.

Neil: Interesting question. I asked Will Luera his opinion when he saw my show. I was interested to find out if the audience liked the show because I and my guest survived, or because it was an entertaining show. He said it’s both.

So I guess it gives an additional edge for the audience. The element of risk is perceived to be higher.

Matt: There are more layers to our shows. Every improv show has the performance and then an underlying game of being improvised. It’s more transparent in this case.

I think it’s the kind of thing that really grabs a new viewer, but also an experienced performer who can see what’s being done.

Neil: True. Audience reactions vary from being entertained and impressed, to claiming the show was rehearsed and a stooge was used.

After one show, I overheard one audience member in the bar ridicule the show because he believed my guest was clearly trained and scripted. As funny and complimentary as that is, it’s unlikely I’ll see that guy in the audience again. He probably now thinks all improv is scripted!

Matt: I love hearing audiences question whether a show is improvised.

Matt: What has surprised you most about doing this?

Neil: It never ceases to amaze me how, eventually, every audience member will naturally realise it’s better to ‘yes, and’ than to block.

Obviously, he or she will have no idea what they are doing or even know what ‘yes, and’ is, but every show, at a certain point, the “Eureka!” moment kicks in.

To me, that’s when the magic really happens.

P&C: Have you ever had a show that just bombed? What happened?

Neil: Not bombed, but I have had very challenging shows.

I had one show where my guest went through a random pattern of accepting reality and then denying it a moment or two later.  It kept me on my toes and really re-emphasised the need to listen hard and justify more.

I had another show where the guest just asked questions for most of the show.  That was also challenging.

Matt: I had a bunch of shows that just didn’t click into place. It was really more about me as a performer than about this unique set-up.

I think all improvisers hit slumps like that and need to get back on track.

Neil: What has doing this format taught you about yourself?

Matt: I think I’ve found that it’s possible to make the best of your strengths and your weaknesses.

This show builds on my natural talents, but it also takes my bad habits (for a standard improv show) and makes them into necessary elements.

I think this kind of pet project can allow for more exploration about what’s important for an individual artist.

P&C: Have you ever stayed in touch with anyone you’ve performed with in this way?

Matt: I’ll chat with them after the show, and sometimes I’ll get an email or something.

More than once, I’ve had a partner return to the show with friends or family members, hoping to see them go through the same experience.

Neil: Occasionally. Two of my guests took up improv classes after taking part in the show. With others, we connected after on Facebook, and more often than not we have a beer in the bar after.

I’m planning on doing t-shirts for future shows that say something like “I was Neil’s +1” so I can leave a physical memento for the guest.

I haven’t had any tell me after that they had a negative experience, and that’s the most important thing.

Matt: Yeah, I just think that the person gets as much of a kick out of playing with us as we do from playing with them.

Matt Holmes has been performing, teaching, and directing improv since 1998, including “Best new house team” Hey Rube at Philly Improv Theater, and “arguably the best improv group Philly has ever produced,” Rare Bird Show. 

Neil Curran has been performing and teaching improv for many years and has a passion for formats involving audience members. He also performs with the Poets of Penance, and is the founder and Artistic Director of Improv Fest Ireland. 

 

For over a decade TJ Jagodowski and David Pasquesi have wowed fans and critics alike with their two-man show. Last year they opened their own theater, The Mission. And now they’ve co-written a book with Pam Victor, whose blog chronicles her own improv journey while celebrating the work of others. We asked them about (what else?) improv, on the eve of the book’s launch. 

Photo © Eleonora Briscoe

Photo © Eleonora Briscoe

P&C: You’re both busy acting in films, TV, web series, on stage, and now running a theatre. Why did you decide to write a book?

TJ: Circumstances seemed to conspire. All around the same time, David and I had both separately started jotting down some mad ramblings and then Pam offered to help us if we ever decided to write something.

P&C: Pam, how did you get involved with TJ and Dave, and specifically the book?

Pam: I’m slowly releasing the long answer to this question in a new series called “Writing The TJ & Dave Book” on my blog – it’s a real behind-the-book look into my experiences over the last two years. Lots of sex, shoe-throwing, and gore. (OK, that’s not true at all.) But here’s the short answer: I’ve been a ginormous fan of the show pretty much since the first moment I saw it, which was in the documentary Trust Us, This Is All Made Up. When they did a show in Western Massachusetts, where I live and TJ just so happens to be from, it was sold out, but I just had to get in. So I showed up, ticket-less, at the door and somehow begged my way in. When the lights came back up fifty-three minutes later, my life was forever changed.

After the show, I screwed up my courage and introduced myself to Dave. He was (and is) utterly charming, so I asked him if he’d be willing to do a “Geeking Out with…” interview with me. For some reason he said yes. That seemed to turn out pretty well, which lead to TJ’s “Geeking Out with…” interview, conducted in his living room while I was in Chicago for the five-week iO Intensive. Once those interviews were published, I wasn’t ready to stop being in their heads. I emailed them to say as much, suggesting that they should write a book and offering to be the one to help them with it. (I’m a little ballsy that way.) For some reason, they agreed. That was in the Fall of 2012, and I’m still waiting to wake up from the dream.

P&C: What can readers expect from the book?

TJ: I think they can expect a really thorough examination of how we think about improvising, which is a big thing we really love.

Pam: Basically, I spent two years asking TJ and David every single darn question I could come up with about how they approach improvisation, mostly within their show but also a bit as it applies to other shows. I think our hope is that readers can find an insight or two that they can take back and try out on their own. These gentlemen really have a unique approach to improvisation – it might seem pretty different than what we’re seeing out there these days in most comedy schools – so I’m personally hoping that readers will simply expand their views of how one could improvise

P&C: The book is called Improvisation at the Speed of Life. What do you mean by that?

David: As opposed to any pre-determined speed. Like slow or fast.

TJ: That we would like our improvisation to represent reality. To look and feel real and in that, move at all the different paces the real world moves at.

P&C: What’s unique about your approach, versus the way others improvise?

David: I think we look at it as realizing what is already occurring, as opposed to what we can make it into.

TJ: I think we play how most of us were taught to. Moment by moment, focused on your partner and what is happening. So, I’m not sure if we are unique, but if we are then a lot of folks have abandoned their education.

P&C: You’re both so respected and your show so well loved. Why aren’t there more people doing what you do?

David: Ask them. Actually I think there are people doing two-person stuff.

TJ: I think there is a lot of two-person improvisation going on. We are lucky in that we have been doing it a long time and get a long time on a given night to do it.

P&C: You’ve been performing as a duo for 13 years – longer than some marriages. How have you been influenced by each other’s style, or has your style evolved together?

David: We don’t agree totally on everything, but we certainly agree on the larger ideas about improvisation and what it is capable of delivering if we allow it to.

TJ: I think we have remained almost completely unevolved. We are still chasing the thing we started chasing 13 years ago in much the same way we began. I dont know if we have individual styles but if so, I still feel David is very much David and I still I.

P&C: TJ, you said in an interview that improv is often about “Why is this day different?” whereas you’re more interested in “Why is this day the same?” Is that something you consciously do on stage: look for the everyday?

TJ: I would say more than looking for everyday, I don’t look to find how this is different. It seems unnecessary to me. An audience has never met these characters before, so why do they have to  be different than they normally are? I think that way of thinking is employed so that there is action or emotion to your play. But there is action and emotion in the things that happen everyday. And even if nothing big happens, David and I would prefer to honestly bore people than fabricate a meteor strike.

P&C: David, you’ve said that Del Close taught you to be honest and authentic in scenes, versus funny. Do you think improvisers shy away from honesty because they’re afraid of being vulnerable, or afraid of audiences not laughing?

David: I suppose so. But Del also said that onstage you can afford to tell the truth…no one will believe it’s you.

P&C: There’s a lot of emphasis in curriculum nowadays on game of the scene. How do you think this is shaping improvisers or improv in general?

David: I’m not real sure what that means, so I cannot comment on it. I am not a student in class and I am not one who writes or follows a curriculum, so I am unqualified to say.

TJ: I don’t know how it’s shaping improvisation in general. I know that I don’t think it’s needed in improvisation. It serves a certain function in a style of play, but a good scene certainly doesn’t need a game.

P&C: Actors are strongly encouraged to have improv training, yet few improvisers seem interested in taking acting lessons. Do you see that as a problem, or just the evolution of the art form?

TJ: I don’t know if it’s a problem, but if an acting class would benefit your improvising then I see no reason why you wouldn’t want to do that. Sometimes we turn improvisation into sketch, and being able to act those sketches would be of real use as well.

David:  I think it’s very helpful to learn to listen more and be more present. On more than one occasion I was told by the director that I got the job in a play because of how I listened. That is directly from training and practice in improvisation.

P&C: You don’t go “meta” on stage. How do you feel about shows that do that?

TJ: It sooo rarely goes well in my opinion that I think it’s better to avoid it altogether. Things often seem to go meta when the show isn’t going well, as a way to step out and away from it like you’re not really doing it anymore, so you can feel free to comment on it and acknowledge it as something separate from yourself. Also, once you go meta you almost never get your show back into non-meta thinking. And I as an audience am now taught that this scene may not be there to be believed, but is there to be referred to or stepped out of

P&C: What are some other shows or performers you’ve seen whose work you enjoy?

David: Beer Shark Mice. I love watching them. They know each other so well, it’s like one person rather than five guys. Dassie and Stef Weir, Scott Adsit…tons of folks. Literal tons. (Or tonnes for your British and Irish and Australian readers.)

TJ:  I love the whole cast of our theater’s sketch revue, our house ensemble, Michael O’Brien, Gethard, Trio, Quartet…this would truly be a very long list, so I’m going to stop.

P&C: Mick Napier jokingly (well, kind of) referred to improv as a cult. How important is it to cultivate other interests and experiences?

David: Essential.

TJ: When I first started, I was totally immersed in it. I think that helped me for a while. My passion was really intense and I had a lot to learn, tons of stage time to benefit from, new friendships to form. But at some point I realized I was talking about scenes I saw or was in as though they really happened out in the world. I got kind of scared that all my experiences would be imaginary, so I found a better balance in my life after that.

P&C: At the start of each show you say, “Trust us, this is all made up.” Trust is obviously a huge factor in how you play together. Do you think it’s possible to have that kind of trust with larger teams of players?

David: It is. I have had it. I think good group improvisation requires that trust.

TJ: Absolutely.

P&C: What is it about improv that’s kept you doing it for over 25 years?

David: Still trying to do the same things. Trying to do them better, with more ease and grace. It always is exciting to see what is going to happen.

TJ: It lived up to its promise. It’s different every time and on any given night it may be the most wonderful thing in the world. Why would someone not want that possibilty in their lives?

Improvisation at the Speed of Life: The TJ & Dave Book is available for pre-order at amazon.com. Chapters include:

• The Job of an Improviser

• Being a Good Stage Partner

• Listening (No, We Mean Really Listening)

• Shut Up (No, We Mean Really Shut Up)

• Fuck The Rules

• The Importance of Disagreement in Agreement

• Being Funny Isn’t The Goal

• Don’t Step in That: Dealing with Trouble

• Taking the Next Little Step

• The People We Play

• Details and Specificity

TJ and Dave book