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Posts tagged TJ Jagodowski

Photo © Greg Stewart

David: To behave consistently and reasonably is the gift. If someone comes up to me and says I’m their cousin with one arm – that’s not a gift. That doesn’t have anything to do with anything.

TJ: It’s like, “Sister Theresa, everyone here at the convent has heard about your abortion.”

David: Yeah. That’s not a gift. That’s a sentence I have to serve.

From Improvisation at the Speed of Life: The TJ & Dave Book  by T.J. Jagodowski and David Pasquesi with Pam Victor

When Ted Flicker saw the Chicago Compass Players in 1955, he said, “I knew improvisation had great potential, but I saw that they were doing it wrong.”

He went on to open the St Louis Compass Theatre, ushering in a louder, faster, funnier style of improv. But when Chicago founder David Shepherd saw it, he said, “You’ve turned it into entertainment. You’ve ruined my dream.”

Now, few improvisers would say they’re against entertainment. But the debate persists. Is improvisation art? Comedy? Unscripted theatre? Is there a right or wrong way to do it?

It’s like religion. Some people worship Del Close, others revere Keith Johnstone, while others are staunch followers of iO, UCB, Annoyance, or The Groundlings. Which is cool. The problem is when you try to convince someone their religion is wrong.

And it’s not just theatres that have differences of opinion. Even tight-knit teams or instructors at the same school sometimes disagree.

My friend Alanna Cavanagh says “Creative people are brats.” When you tell them “No,” they rebel.

Image © Bansky

Image © Bansky

These days you can see fast, game-focused improv, slow comedy, musical improv, improvised Shakespeare, Chekhov and Mamet, ComedySportz, and even a mix of short and long form in the same show. Different theatres use different techniques, but the end result is the same: laughter and satisfied audiences.

But isn’t there “good” and “bad” improv? Sure. You can see a crappy improv set any night, even with seasoned performers on stage. Most likely it’s because the players weren’t committed or connected, not because they weren’t following rules.

TJ and Dave are at the pinnacle of this art form, and they’ve said that you don’t “master” improv. Great improvisers – great artists – are constantly learning. How then, can there be one right way to improvise?

We asked some people who consistently knock it out of the park to weigh in with their thoughts.

TJ Jagodowski

If I try to think of people who thrill me, I can’t think of one who I would describe as always having done something correctly. “Oh boy, were they right!” doesn’t even sound good.

But I have been thrilled by both improvisers and other types of performers who I would describe as unique, unafraid, generous, interesting, fun, truly themselves, or free. All of those states are very difficult, if not impossible to achieve, if there is a chunk of your mind in some deliberation over whether you’re doing it right. What is right is what your partner needs, your scene needs, your show needs. Do it right that way.

Jimmy Carrane

Since improv is an art form, that means it’s subjective, like music or theater or comedy. Some people love Will Ferrell and think he’s the funniest thing ever, while other people can’t stand him. It doesn’t mean Will Ferrell’s style of comedy is right or wrong, it’s simply just that: a style, a matter of taste. And in a way, the fact that there are so many differing opinions about how to do improv actually proves that it is an art form.

We said in Improvising Better that there is only one way to improvise: yours. And I still stand by that statement. Your job is to find what works for YOU. It’s a personal art form, so what works for one person may not work for another. If finding the game in the scene works for you, by all means keep using it. If it gets in your way, throw it out. There’s no right, and there’s no wrong way to improvise, unless you are not having any fun, then you have a problem.

Susan Messing

Rachael Mason and I did a four-parter for Second City called I’Mprovising RIGHT, which totally sends up those who insist that there is a right way to get there – which is so ridiculous. To me that’s like having sex right. Isn’t the job to get off?

Are there suggestions that I could offer as a teacher to support you in getting off sooner, and your partner as well? Sure, but the ultimate responsibility is to have more fun than anyone else, and if your partner’s having fun that’s even more of a turn-on in terms of this work.

And then you win and the audience was in the moment with you, so they got off, too.

The audience, guaranteed, will never look at your show and say, “Hmmm. They are doing correct improv.”

However, they will see the insecure, overlooked, overbearing, condescending, judgemental players and immediately disconnect from the scene because they are either worried about the performer, or hate them for their in-scene judgement.

The Improv Police needs a hobby: like getting off more onstage, and stop worrying about the “rightness” of it all.

I’ve heard all the rules. I play major nice with my friends. Our assumption is we are respectful to each other in terms of basic agreement, et al. That said, I’m going to get off and it is contagious, and I don’t overthink it, because ultimately it’s simply getting to play like kids but with grown-up sensibilities, and if we’re lucky, maybe a piano player. The end.

We turned this shit into rocket science/brain surgery/physics/chess because we wanted to give it so much integrity to match the joy we felt when we did it. But this does not need to be as complicated as many have made it.

As a matter of fact, I am quite sure that if I can be a fucking improviser, anyone can, because I just didn’t give up.

There are so many schools of thought and all of them I have worked for or with, and they’re all only opinions.

And they’re all great.

And it might infuriate you because one day you’ll be given a note, and the next day you will receive the equal and opposite note from someone else, and that will drive you crazy.

But you’re an improviser and are malleable, and ultimately you’ll be the kind of improviser you want to be, doing the kind of work you want to do with who you want to be doing it with. But you will be able to do everything, and hopefully evolve and not be a tiresome, closed, right-minded little shit.

Isaac Kessler

A quote from my Dad:

“If someone says their way is the only way…run the other way.”

You can’t do improv wrong.

You also can’t do improv right.

You can, however, improvise.

Doing something right or wrong denotes a failure at achieving a final goal, and there’s no final goal in improv. There’s no princess to be saved or sunset to ride off into if we get to third beats in a Harold or defeat The Hepatitis B-Boys (last week’s shortform champs).

Improv is a process. It’s about the current moment, and this moment now, and oops-ya-just-missed-it-but-don’t-worry-it-was-behind-your-ear-the-whole-time moment right here.

So my question is thus: What fuels you through each moment? What’s pushing you off the back line? What’s truly driving you into the unknown?

What would happen if you tried Joy on for size? Not the kind of joy you get when meeting a puppy, but the Joy and excitement of tapping into your true potential. To be driven by the pleasure of exposing your love and your pain. Show us your laughter and show us your tears.

Don’t be right and don’t be wrong. Just be You.

Anyways, that’s the only way to improvise.

(please don’t run away)

“Whatever satisfies the soul is truth.” ― Walt Whitman (not my Dad)

David Razowsky

Whatever works for me, works for me. Whatever works for you, works for you. I will be vocal in expressing what works for me. Please remember that my expression of what works for me has absolutely nothing to do with how much you should enjoy your approach to improv.

If asked what reaction I’d like you to have when you hear my enthusiastic rantings of what works for me, I’d tell you: “However you want to react, react that way. It’s how you feel. Knock yourself out.” If you’d like to argue how what works for you is the correct way, well, go right ahead. Please express your well-thought out opinion. The more you talk about it, the more you voice it, the more you understand what works for you and how best you can express that. Please don’t expect any reaction from me outside of, “Cool. Go knock yourself out.”

I get onto the stage, I look at my partner, I react in that moment. That works for me. Should I play with you and you don’t play the way that I play and I don’t care much about how our show went, please know that it’s very likely we’ll not play together anytime soon for I didn’t have fun, rather I had work. I’m not here to work. I’m here to play. Your play is your play and my play is my play. I’ll express my joy at having had the chance to play with you for I am grateful for that. I’m grateful for all chance to play.

Most likely I’ll walk off that stage and think, “How cool. We both have our own style. That’s what art’s all about.” I’ll then move on and knock myself out.

Joe Bill

If we’re going to use religion as a metaphor, then I guess I would be a Unitarian/Universalist. I think the consideration of right or wrong within improvisation depends on the context in which you’re doing it.

I taught Harold for the first time in a couple of years at summer intensive last year at iO, and coming back to it after not teaching Harold for probably three or four years was really interesting, because of the perception that the kids in their 20s have now. Which is more rigid, which is more rooted in this proposition of what’s right or what’s wrong.

I don’t believe in my heart, in my artistic heart, that it does the players any good while they’re doing Harold to think about what’s right or what’s wrong.

I don’t remember Del talking about a right Harold or a wrong Harold. He just spoke of Harold and not knowing what Harold was going to be until Harold’s here. He DID say things like “Play to the top of your intelligence” (for my money, the most overrated note in improvisation) and “Wear your character like a veil,” which could lead people in the direction of assessing the rightness or wrongness of a move, in that moment.

I think what’s right or what’s wrong really is rooted in an objective point of view to what you’re subjectively engaged in. And if you’re being objective to what you’re subjectively engaged in, then you can’t engage fully to experience what the magic of the piece can be, because you’re in primary conversation with yourself, and you’re in secondary conversation with your cast mates and the piece that’s unfolding.

When I see UCB Harolds, like strict Harolds, it’s like watching nine or twelve analysts on stage, analysing their way through a living writing process, as opposed to, once you advance your way through UCB, you get to what Del claimed Harold was anyway, which is, “Eventually if you give a group of people a suggestion which they theatrically brainstorm on for five minutes, and then that group of people improvises based on that exploration for 20 to 30 minutes, you come to some type of conclusion You’ve done Harold.”

I’ve been with Charna where a perfect, textbook Harold happens on stage at iO, and they hit all the things and connections were made, and you look at it and structurally, that was a Harold. But it was like a zombie Harold because there’s no soul, there’s no heart; the acting within that – that is, the theatrical proposition that we are here to affect each other, and we are going on an emotional journey, or one or more characters in this piece are going on an emotional journey as much as they’re going on an intellectual journey – if that magic doesn’t take place and we don’t see a transformation of spirit within the piece, we don’t really care.

If you’re improvising with people that have gotten to a point where you know that improvisation is just a state of being, and it’s a state of mind, and it’s a state that you’re in, that there’s nothing that can be wrong. There’s nothing that can throw you off. There’s nothing that can violate anything.

There’s the academic exploration of improv, and then there’s the practice of it. And I think in the practice of it, right or wrong are built into some contexts [like short form], that serve the audience. And in the academic pursuit of it, there’s right or wrong that can keep us drinking beer or coffee together.

There’s a fork in the road when you’re improvising that quickly comes up, and it is, ‘Are you pursuing comedy, or are you pursuing truth?’ And the pursuit of comedy, psychologically, is a masculine proposition. The pursuit of truth is a feminine proposition, if masculine equals goal and feminine equals process. And regardless of what you’ve got between your legs, we all have both in us.

But we’re wired, we have synaptic channels in our brain that tend to wire us towards one as our alpha personality and one as our secondary personality. And comedy is goal; the goal is laughter. Truth is a string of moments. And comedy doesn’t exclude truth, and truth doesn’t exclude comedy, but they may come up in different ways.

A big cornerstone of my teaching is, “What’s organic?” And it’s just, “Discoveries are instantaneous decisions we make that are unencumbered by the day-to-day self-judgemental bullshit that we walk around with in life.”

I teach the idea that “Obligation and inspiration are inversely proportional.” And I think people want to see inspiration in theatre, so the fixation on right or wrong puts you into a state of obligation, and you don’t want to be obliged…unless you’re doing short form, where obligation is a color of mindset and behavior paint on the improvisation palette to help you deliver laughter.

But the other piece is, would you rather be right, or would you rather be happy?

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

Jimmy Carrane has performed with some of the biggest names in comedy, and accomplished things in his career that most of us could only dream of. But take heart; you can learn a lot just from listening to him talk to the luminaries on Improv Nerd. In Part Two of our interview, Jimmy talks about the podcast, self esteem, and where he sees improv going.

Photo © Jimmy Carrane

P&C: One of the chapters in Improvising Better is called “Stop Wanting.” Why do you think some people have an attitude of “Why didn’t I get picked [for a show or a team]?” while others just go out and produce their own shows?

JC: I think it’s an inside job, and I struggle with this. “Am I good enough?” “Am I worthy?” “Do I deserve success?” You know, you’re putting yourself out there, and that’s a very vulnerable thing to do.

Not only are you putting yourself out there, but if you wanna succeed at this you’ve gotta fail a lot. And I think that’s a big issue.

There’s some people that I’ve seen in Chicago that weren’t the most talented, but inside they believed they deserved it and they’ve gone on to very successful careers. There’s people that I’ve seen who are immensely talented and end up quitting and they’re not improvising anymore.

So I think it comes back a little to people coming from dysfunctional families. I think we’re working out a lot of our family issues and other issues inside improvisation in the community. And we said this in the book: it is so, so, so important for improvisers to find support and nurturing outside the improv community.

The big mistake that I had when I came in – I was really screwed up, now I’m less screwed up – was, onstage we have these rules: Yes and, Listen, Make your partner look good, all of that stuff. That works on stage. That doesn’t necessarily translate off stage, so get help. Find people that will support you and nurture you and give you affirmations that you need, because this business is filled – and I’m one of them – is filled with dysfunctional people. And we’re all trying to get healthier, but it can be a very tough environment if you don’t get support.

P&C: You can get too focused on “I’m gonna make my life revolve around improv…”

JC: Well that also affects your life. If you’re immersed in the community and you never have a life and you never take a date night or you never go to a movie or you’re not living a real life, you have nothing to bring to that stage. And I’ve seen it.

I’ve worked with people, directing longform improv shows, and you can just see it in their eyes: they are gone. They don’t have anything more to give because they’ve over-extended themselves in improvisation. The well is dry.

If you don’t have a life, you can’t bring it to stage. It doesn’t work that way. Especially in improvisation.

P&C: Absolutely. Now let’s talk about Improv Nerd. What made you decide to start the podcast?

JC: Well I was at Station 773 where I teach my classes, The Art of Slow Comedy, and I talked to them about doing this, and they were very open, very supportive. It really was an extension of my teaching. I really love teaching improvisation, I just enjoy it so much, and I really wanted people to hear from these incredible artists here in Chicago. But not only their accomplishments; I wanted people to reveal part of themselves.

So when you’re at home listening on your computer, or you’ve got it on your iPod, you hear TJ talking about his insecurities, or Tim Meadows talking about how he didn’t feel he’s enough after 10 seasons of Saturday Night Live. So people at home can relate that these people get to this place, but they had to struggle. Everybody had to struggle to get here.

If you listen to TJ’s, he’s had a very hard life. Susan Messing was very honest and she talked about her struggles in theatres; how she was treated. Dave Koechner, if you get a chance to hear that, that wasn’t a live show, but I just loved this from that show. Dave is gonna be in Anchorman 2, and he was in the original Anchorman, and he talks about the four leads on that cast: Will Ferrell, Paul Rudd, Steve Carrel, and Dave Koechner. They all went home to their wives and said, “Oh my God, [one of the other actors] is doing better than I am. This is gonna be his movie. I’m not doing as well, I can’t keep up with them.” And then they all met on the set in a trailer and they all confessed that this is how they were feeling.

P&C: (laughs)

JC: To me, that is so important for the improv student. Because Dave Koechner is no different than the guy who’s just starting. It’s a different level, but there’s still fear, there’s still insecurity. And that’s the thing that’s common, and that’s the thing that I think is really important that these people share; that no one had an easy path to this.

P&C: I find that there are a lot of kind people in this community.

JC: Yes, there’s a lot of benevolent souls in this community. And I love it, you know? I went to Detroit and this woman comes up to me and says, “I love your podcasts. They’re so honest, they’re so inspirational.” It’s so fulfilling. It’s like I’m reaching a bigger audience, I’m teaching a bigger class. It’s so rewarding, I can’t tell you.

We just did – it hopefully will air in a month or two – we did an interview with Keegan-Michael Key from Key & Peele. There’s also one where it’s the two of them. I was in my head and very worried – “I want a different interviewer!”

He gave a course in improvisation. It was totally different from the other interview that I did with Jordan and himself, and it was so… People were like, “It’s educational, it’s inspirational, it’s entertaining.” That to me is just so rewarding.

P&C: One of the great things about Improv Nerd is that you interview people, and then you do an improv set. What made you think of incorporating that? Did you think of it as a Master Class for the listener?

JC: No, I kind of think of it as a big longform. Like, we do the interview, and certainly we’re going to be inspired by that when we do the improvisation. And I gotta tell you, the improv part… You know, I’ve been interviewing people on public radio here for ten years in Chicago. So the interview I always look forward to. But the improv scares me, because I wanna be great at it. So I’m starting to find, “OK, now I can be as honest in the interview part as I can in the deconstruction part afterwards.” And I think that’s very helpful too.

Improvising with Keegan, I was playing a black character. “How did you feel about you being bi-racial, me playing a black character? I was always taught that in Chicago, you don’t play kids and you don’t play black characters.” And so to get his opinion on it. Or “I made this choice. And I really made this choice ‘cause you were getting a lotta laughs and I thought, y’know, I’d like to get a laugh too.”

P&C: (laughs)

JC: That kinda stuff, I’d like to bring even more of that to that part of Improv Nerd. But that’s the part that scares me the most because that’s really revealing, and that’s where my ego’s involved.

P&C: But you have the awareness of it. I find that people who’ve done personal development work, when you talk about ego, the fact that you’re even talking about it, you have this awareness that that exists. So I feel like you’re actually probably already doing a good job. (laughs)

JC: And I think for me, especially the classroom… I’ve been able to use the classroom to become a better teacher. You know a lot of people say, “Oh, I learn so much from my students.” And it’s true, it’s like, “Well, how do you do it?”

I had an incident where there was a woman, she was an older woman, and there was this younger guy, and they did this scene where he swooped across her breast. He didn’t touch her breast, but she was very jarred by that. So she emailed me and she said, “This has never happened to me, and blah-blah-blah… I’ve been in a lot of acting classes.” And then I had to respond to her.

And what I had found out – and I talked earlier about this – I had been sexually abused. I totally shut down. And so that was helping me get over my sexual abuse, and I said, “I really checked out, and had I been more conscious, I would’ve side-coached you. Y’know: ‘Back off, don’t touch me,’ something like that.” And that to me, that’s where the teacher can learn from the student. That’s made me a better teacher.

I approach teaching today as, I don’t have any lesson plans anymore. I go in and I’m like, “I’m improvising with my students.” Meaning, I’m improvising my lesson plan. Whatever comes up, I’m gonna follow them. And that’s made a big difference in my teaching.

In my class there was a woman, she was getting caught up with sexual stuff; she was really blocked. So then we just did an exercise that dealt with that. And then there was another guy who felt he talked too much. So then right in the moment we created an exercise where it dealt with him being… He’d sit in the scenes and be quiet throughout the scenes, not say anything, because he talked too much, or felt he talked too much.

Those kinda things, to me, are the most powerful things, and it’s right in the moment. I’m improvising with them, and that to me is so exciting. That’s how teachers get better, when they’re willing to deviate from their lesson plan and go, “Hey, just like I’m on stage, what’s in front of me? What did they just initiate? I’m gonna use that and I’m gonna follow that.”

At the end of class, that was the thing they felt was the most beneficial; when you took something in the moment and you worked on something with somebody individually. Because the other thing is, you may be working with one person, but my experience is it affects the whole group. Some other members of the group benefit from that as well, even if you’re working with just one person.

P&C: Absolutely. I’ve seen transformations in classes or workshops that the whole room felt was a breakthrough, even if it was dealing with a specific behaviour of one person, as you say.

JC: Because it’s group dynamic. That one person is holding onto something for the whole group.

P&C: That’s a really great point.

OK, in all your years of teaching, performing, and writing about improv, what are you most proud of?

JC: Oh my God, I am proud of so many things. Wow. I’m proud of Improv Nerd. I’m really proud of Improv Nerd. I’m proud of Jazz Freddy. I’m proud of The Comedy Underground, which was a short-form group that had just phenomenal people: Andy Richter was in it, Dave Koechner was in it, Kevin Dorff was in it, Brian Stack was in it…

P&C: Wow.

JC: My God, who else? Mitch Rouse was in it,  Jay Leggett, Brian Blondell, Brendan Sullivan…

In terms of The Annoyance, a show that I’m hugely still to this day proud of is a show that was written through improvisation called I’m 27, I Still Live At Home And Sell Office Supplies. That show ran for a year and a half and it was a huge, huge hit. It was something that I always wanted to do, and it’s something that I’m really, really proud of.

Another show that comes to mind is Naked. It was probably one of the first two-person improv [shows], I guess. It was me and Stephanie Weir from Mad TV and she is amazing. She is just a phenomenal writer, a phenomenal actress and a phenomenal improviser. We did one scene for one hour, same relationship.

The other show that…I was in the original cast of Armando here at the iO, and that was a very special time that brought people from UCB, people from Second City, there was a house team at iO called The Family that Adam McKay was on… Charna Halpern had just opened her space on Clark & Addison, and that was a very exciting time because all of these people like Jazz Freddy and The Family and UCB and Second City, we all came together to do Armando.

Armando Diaz was actually Armando. It was scary; it was very, very scary, and very rewarding too, at the same time.

P&C: Do you find that a lot of times it is the things that scare you the most that, when you do them, you’re so happy you did?

JC: There isn’t one project that I haven’t gone into feeling that, “I’m not good enough,” or… That always comes up.

P&C: Not with Improv Nerd though?

JC: Yes. I didn’t feel I was good enough.

It’s taken me a while to get confidence. I didn’t feel like… there was parts of the show that I would get, and there were other parts that I wouldn’t get. There’s times that I don’t feel that I’m good enough. Even stuff that you create.

P&C: I think when you’re putting yourself out there, it’s easy to be hard on yourself about the results. What’s amazing to me is, you’ve been doing it for so long and are so respected, and you still have those moments.

JC: The other thing too is, when you put up a show, I don’t care if it’s a scripted show [like] I’m 27, or The Armando; it takes a while in front of an audience. Anywhere from eight to twelve – it all depends [on] your learning curve – but it takes a fair amount of shows to figure out what it is.

And I feel like in Improv Nerd, we’re still figuring out what it is. Which is exciting and scary. The exciting part is, it’s new every night and you’re not just phoning it in. The scary part is, you don’t know what to expect and you can’t control it.

P&C: Listening to all these amazing things you’ve done, in some ways it feels they could only have happened in Chicago. Do you think it’s necessary to move to Chicago, New York or LA? Say you live in Ottawa or Austin; do you have to go to one of those Big Three cities to be successful?

JC: I think it all depends what they want. The other thing is, you bring up Austin…it’s so interesting because Austin has got this flourishing community there now. Tom Booker and Asaf Ronen, they started a theatre. Asaf was in New York, Tom was in Los Angeles, and Tom was at The Annoyance with me. So you’re getting these people that have major market experience now going into smaller markets.

If you wanna be on Saturday Night Live or you wanna be on Mainstage at Second City or you wanna be a writer for Colbert, yeah, you probably have to go to New York or LA or Chicago. But if you wanna do it and have a great longform group and be really respected and probably make some money at it, I don’t think you have to move to one of those cities.

I think it’s beneficial to come to Chicago to study, or when teachers come to Toronto. In many of the interviews of Improv Nerd you’d ask people, “Do you have to move LA? Do you have to move to New York?” And a lot of people say because of the internet and YouTube that you can get stuff…you know, content…[that] you don’t have to move there necessarily anymore.

P&C: I think a lot of Canadians yearn to go there, but maybe it’s that “grass is always greener” kind of thing.

JC: I think it all comes down to your goals. What’s your vision for yourself? Do you wanna do Mainstage at Second City? Do you wanna do one of the boats at Second City? Do you wanna live in a bigger city, and be more exposed to stuff? That’s only gonna help your art, if that’s what you want. But I think today there’s a lot of good people in these smaller markets.

I go to Rochester and there’s a guy named Law Tarello and John [Forrest Thompson]… Those guys, one spent time here at iO, was a student of mine, and Law was at UCB. And they’re starting a theatre in Rochester. And that’s really changed, and that’s really helpful; that these people in major markets are going into smaller markets because they have experience, and they’re bringing that from the bigger cities.

P&C: Which is very cool.

JC: Oh it’s really cool. And the other thing is to just get exposure. I mean if you’re in a small city, you’ve gotta come and watch improvisation. That’s why I love it when I teach in St Louis or Detroit or Rochester and people will email me saying, “What are the shows to see?”

And that’s great, because that is such an important thing. And that’s why Chicago is such a mecca, because we have so many shows. And people forget that watching improvisation is a teaching tool in itself.

P&C: For sure. It’s funny, when Cameron and I started improvising, we didn’t go to many shows. And then when we started watching them, it was like, “What were we thinking, learning in a vacuum?”

JC: Yep. It just keeps inspiring, and keeps the community growing and growing and growing.

Image © Jimmy Carrane

“What do we do to prepare? Observing people and people’s idiosyncracies. We practice. We practice paying attention.” – David Pasquesi

TJ and Dave make improv look easy.

In theory it could be, maybe even should be. But as anyone who’s spent more than five minutes doing it knows, there’s a whole lot that can get in the way.

All those rules you learned (don’t ask questions, don’t talk about people who aren’t in the scene, don’t turn your back to the audience)?

TJ and Dave break them all, and they have a great time doing it.

There’s a reason these guys have attained cult-like status. Besides being masters of their craft, their style is unlike the fast-paced, frenetic improv most of us are used to. But their scenes, their characters, and the audience are all richer for it.

The set-up is deceptively simple: just two guys playing a handful of characters over 50 or so minutes. They don’t even get a suggestion from the audience.

It’s what they do in those 50-plus minutes that defies description. The stories they weave and the people they play are so funny, so utterly believable, it’s no wonder some folks think they planned it beforehand.

Filmed at the Barrow Street Theatre in New York, Trust Us… features one complete performance, plus a glimpse of the two pre- and post-show. Thanks to multiple cameras and skilful editing, Director Alex Karpovsky captures the essence of their relationship, both on and off-stage, beautifully.

Improv may not be easy, but TJ and Dave prove it can be hilarious, truthful and – that rarest of things in this ethereal art form – memorable. If you haven’t had the pleasure of seeing them in person, this is the next best thing. Trust me, you’ll be a fan.

You can buy the DVD here.


Photo © Sharilyn Johnson

Tom Vest has been improvising in Toronto since 1997. As one of the admins of the TJ & Dave fan page, he has been dubbed the “Official Overlord of the Electronic TJ & Dave Empire” by TJ. 

I’ve been a fan of TJ & Dave for a few years now, and yet for the life of me I can’t remember when and how I first heard about them. It must’ve been around 2004 on the “yesAND…” forum boards. The discussion was probably something like “Best Improviser(s) in the City.”

In those days I was even more dedicated to unravelling the mystery of improv and all its secrets than I am now, so when I came across the comments on why they were so good, I was intrigued. It wasn’t long after that I went to their Myspace page (yes, 2004 seems about right) and purchased a few of their shows on DVD. They were everything people had said they were.

When they came to Toronto for a workshop and show, I was asked to pick them up at the airport. Some people thought I did it so I could ask them a bunch of improv questions, but the opposite was true. I picked them up so they wouldn’t have to talk about improv at all. I can’t imagine anything worse than having to travel to another city, only to get trapped in a car, answering questions about improv the whole way.

Instead, we talked about the details of what was right in front of us: the outdated decor of the waiting lounge, the parking lot and its confusing enter/exit lanes, various sights on the way in to Toronto. David admired the wind turbine at Exhibition Place and was very outgoing, while TJ was more quiet. They were both pretty laid back and fun to talk with.

When it was time for them to leave a few days later, I drove them back to the airport. This time the conversation went all over the place. It felt a bit like doing a three-person set, only no one was watching.

Last summer I performed with my group The Seedlings at the Del Close Marathon. On my last day in New York, I was walking down Fifth Avenue towards the Flat Iron when I spotted David about to enter a coffee shop. My mother and brother were with me, and they continued walking as I stepped over to say Hi. When I called his name he turned around and recognised me right away, to my relief. It’s always fun to run into people, but he seemed genuinely pleased to see me in a way you don’t encounter often.

We talked briefly before I mentioned I was on my way to the airport, and had come to the city with my mother and brother. Immediately David wanted to meet them, so we went over and I introduced everybody. We’d gone to see him perform with TJ the night before at the Barrow Street Theatre, and it was probably the best 50 minutes of improv I have ever seen. My mother and brother both liked it, and had fun talking about their favourite moments after the show.

Without doubt, David has a unique way of paying attention that makes you feel like you are really being listened to. It’s a really genuine way of relating to another person, and something that’s very rare. To take time to meet my mother and brother wasn’t something he had to do, but he has a way of making you feel like he has all the time in the world for you.

I came away from the encounter wanting to have that kind of “availabilty.” To be more open, genuine and considerate. It’s qualities like these that help to make a TJ and Dave show what it is, and I don’t think they could do it on stage if they weren’t like that in real life.

When they returned to Toronto for a show at Second City, they both spotted me in the line-up and came over to talk. After the show TJ invited me out with him and David, and we went to a local bar where we talked about a variety of things. For such funny guys, I really like how there is no “ON” button. The conversation may be funny, but nothing is ever forced and the easiest thing I found was just to “go with.” (TJ also paid for my 7Up before I even knew the bartender had asked. You’ve got to be alert with these guys!)

Before the night was over, we got a picture of the three of us, and while there may be a story behind it, that’s one I’ll keep to myself. : )

Tom James Vest

TJ, “TJ” and Dave

Object work is a simple way to take your scene from meh to mesmerizing.

Watch a master improviser onstage, and you’ll swear you can actually see the banana they’re peeling, the stick shift they’re driving, the roll of duct tape they’re wrapping around Grandma’s dead body.

On the other hand, bad object work can destroy the reality of a scene like nothing else.

We’ve all seen tables get walked through, floor mops that come and go, and razor-thin cigarettes inhaled between two fused fingers.

When you give your objects weight and mass, it instantly grounds you and makes your movements more deliberate. It also paints a more vivid picture for the audience.

One of the biggest go-to’s in improv is drinking (insert AA joke here). For some reason scientists have yet to explain, we drink improv beverages through our thumb.

“Watch how you actually drink from a can or glass, then watch how most improvisers mime it. Just try drinking with your thumb in your mouth.” – TJ Jagodowski

Become an observer, starting with yourself. Notice how you do everyday tasks. Practice the movements with and without the physical objects.

When you’re bored with that, go people-watching. Someone who holds their cigarette with their index curled over top is very different from someone who holds it cupped beneath their palm. We all have our little quirks. Try on someone else’s for a change.

A lot of people try to get through object work as quickly as possible in order to “get to the scene.” But if you take your time and invest in whatever activity you’re doing, it can actually inform your character. Or become the scene itself.

Which is funnier: A guy taking off his clothes in two seconds, or watching a guy unbutton his shirt, unbuckle his belt, unzip his pants, and finally remove his underwear while his doctor puts on gloves, one finger at a time?

It’s the anticipation.

When you take your time with objects, your scene partner has time to process what’s happening too.

Say you’re in a scene where you’re on a date. Instead of flipping a pull-out bed instantly and throwing your scene partner on it, the struggle becomes turning the couch into a bed. Removing the cushions. Trying to lift the rusty metal frame. Smoothing out the wrinkled old sheets while your date – and the audience – watches.

As Joe Bill says, “You don’t have to put a shelving unit together in ten seconds.” In their workshops, he and Mark Sutton teach that, “Improvisers spend a lot of time on stage moving things around, and not enough time letting things move them.” That’s great advice.

Like the song says, it ain’t what you do, it’s the way that you do it. Look at TJ holding a glass while he’s on the phone (below). The way he holds it speaks volumes about his character (in this case, a housewife with a fondness for cocktails).

Cheers.

Photo © Sharilyn Johnson