Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Geeking Out with...Dave Pasquesi (Part One)

By Pam Victor

[“Geeking Out with…” is a series of interviews with well-known, highly experienced improvisers. It’s a chance to talk about stuff that might interest hardcore, improv dorkwads like Pam. The series can be found in full frontal geek out version on My Nephew is a Poodle and in pithier version on the Women in Comedy Festival blog. For behind-the-scenes action, ‘like’ the “Geeking Out with…” Facebook page.]

Ask any longtime improviser worth her salt to name the top five improvisers in the world, and I would put good money on David Pasquesi’s name being on the list. Even if you winnow it down to the top two, I’ll still keep my money on Dave being one of them (and his partner TJ Jagodowski being the other.) The first time I saw TJ and Dave’s show, I could hear an almost audible whoosh as my improv bar was raised high, far higher than I imagined it could go. Hours after seeing their show, and still thick in my elation, I was chatting with improv-legend-in-his-own-right, Joe Bill.

“Are your cheeks still flushed?” Joe asked me.

Amazed, I answered, “Yes, they are. How did you know?”

"Yeah," Joe replied blithely. "They do that.”

Toss a stick in David Pasquesi’s direction and you’ll surely hit a plethora of accolades, admiration and respect from audience members, critics, and, most fervently of all, fellow improvisers. This dude has gravitas. Because he excels at establishing patterns, he might pick up the stick and chuck it back at you, so be ready for that too. Was I intimidated interviewing David Pasquesi? Yes, I was absolutely quaking in my Birkenstocks. Did he immediately put me at ease with his kindness and generosity? Yeah. Yeah, he did.

David Pasquesi
David Pasquesi has achieved an impressive array of film, television, and theater accomplishments. To name but a few: He was given the Joseph Jefferson Award for Actor in a Revue for "The Gods Must Be Lazy" at the Second City Theatre. He was shot fatally in Angels & Demons under the direction of Ron Howard. He and TJ won Improviser of the Year at the 2006 Chicago Improv Festival. And in his early days in improv, he landed a spot on Del Close’s very first Harold team, the highly lauded Baron’s Barracudas. He has performed with TJ Jagodowsi in their award-winning, critically acclaimed show TJ and Dave since 2002, and if you haven’t seen their documentary Trust Us, This is All Made Up, please do so immediately. Seriously. Right now. It’s on Netflix. This article can wait while you add it to the top of your queue. (In two hours you’ll thank me, so I’ll say it now: You’re welcome.)


PAM VICTOR: Do you prefer to be called Dave or David? I don’t want to make assumptions and call you Dave before we’re ready to get to that next step.

DAVE PASQUESI:  No preference. I answer to either. I'll know who you mean.

PAM: You can call me Pam, but I also answer to Lola.

DAVE: Nice.

PAM: So I hear we, your fans, have a bit of serendipity and Joel Murray to thank for getting you into improv. Is that true? Can you tell a little of the story of your introduction to improv?

DAVE: My first introduction to improvisation was when my brother went to an improv class while he was attending law school. My mother almost insisted I accompany him. I was in about my third year of college.

I had never been on stage before. I went to this class - tagging along without registering.  Lo and behold, the class was full. But the teacher, Judy Morgan, allowed me to stay. I really liked it from the start. Though I was going to Loyola, my focus switched to improv. Then I read the book "Something Wonderful Right Away," by Jeffrey Sweet, and I found that Judy Morgan, my teacher, was in the book. She was in the cast at Second City with Ramis, Flaherty, John Belushi and Brian Murray…She was a great teacher.

PAM: Judy Morgan's class was at The Player's Workshop?

DAVE: Exactly. Jo Forsberg's place. Then, at the end of the workshops, you got to do a show on the Mainstage at Second City....on a Sunday afternoon.

PAM: Woah. Was that a huge deal for you?

DAVE:  It was for me. I had never been to a show at Second City, but I had heard about it from my parents for my entire life.

Then, the next year, I went to school in Rome. That's where I met Joel, actually on the plane over, and we became roommates.

PAM: Your parents were interested in improv?

DAVE: No. They just admired Second City.

PAM: So you grew up watching SNL?

DAVE: I was 14 when it started. I remember a buddy in my neighborhood telling me about these "Not Ready for Primetime Players." I was a Python fan, and he said that I'd like these guys just as much.

PAM:  Ah, a Python fan…

DAVE: Yes. Python, Marx brothers, Carson.

PAM: Favorite Python sketch?

DAVE: Silly walks.

PAM: I was just thinking that one! That's so weird.

Was love at first sight, with you and improv at that first class? What do you think about the art form struck a chord in you at that time?

DAVE: I'm not sure. It was kind of love at first sight. I sure appreciated that you kind of can't be "wrong." I know that later on, when I started to spend more time at it, I loved the hippy ideas of agreement and the power of the group and stuff like that.

PAM: So you take the class, start to love improv, and then you're on a plane to Rome...and coincidentally you sit next to Bill Murray's brother?

DAVE: Yeah. Not even sit next to. He walked by with a book, Hunter S. Thompson's "Great Shark Hunt." I was/am a fan, so I said so. Then we started drinking on the plane….we started hanging out in Rome, running around, traveling together. We did a talent show at the school in Rome, and occasionally we begged on the street where Joel would sing and I'd juggle. He has a good voice.

Joel Murray
actor and Roman sidewalk singer
PAM: What effect did your friendship with Joel have on your desire to do more improv (if any)?

DAVE: Well, we both kind of joked about wanting to work at Second City.

PAM: Joked? You didn’t think it could happen?

DAVE: It still didn't really seem to be an actual possibility, just a silly pipe dream.

PAM: Right. I hear that.

DAVE: (Still doesn't.)

PAM: Ha! No way. Really?

DAVE: Honestly. I get to do stuff and I think as it’s happening, "This kind of stuff doesn't happen," like traveling to do slow, long-form improvisation.

PAM: That's one helluva pipe dream you're having there, Mr. Pasquesi. (If you answer to that name.)

DAVE: Who are you addressing?

PAM: Lol.

It is quite amazing you get to take the show on the road. I really feel like you are longform ambassadors to the world for us. Maybe you’ll go out there into the loud, busy world, and teach people about the joys of watching slow longform…maybe even pave the way for new opportunities for the rest of us. Is that just my sick fantasy to get the rest of the world hooked on my drug of choice?

DAVE: I like it.

PAM: Me too. Thanks for doing it.

Ok, so you and Joel have your drunken, juggling misadventures in Rome...then did you come home to study more improv?

DAVE: Not immediately. I finished school, still thinking that I needed something else for a career.

PAM: Trying to parlay that philosophy degree into something lucrative?

DAVE: Oh up a little philosophy shop.

PAM: Like Lucy in Peanuts. A little stand with a sidekick dog making snarky comments? But how many times can you answer, "What is the meaning of life?" and "Why is the sky blue?" It would get boring.

DAVE: Wasn't Lucy a psychiatrist?

PAM: Yes. Obviously, you would have to change the sign.

DAVE: lol.

(I just said 'lol.')

PAM: Hahaha!

DAVE: I'm ashamed of myself. I know what I am going to want to edit [out of the interview].

PAM: Hahaha. No way. That's staying in.

DAVE: Well, it’s true. I did "L" and it was "OL."

PAM: Ha. (I am sitting on a big ball right now, so if you make me laugh really hard, I could easily be ROTFL.)

Ok. After your misguided attempt to make money, I assume you turned back to your one true love? Where did you get your improv training?

DAVE: Ok, so....I tried to work in the actual world. And it was a great job, buying and managing commercial real estate for this small group of investors. It was a great job....for someone who wanted to do that. Turns out, I did not want to.

Then I was all set to go to Kellogg Business School at Northwestern. I had been accepted, but hadn't yet registered when I made a drastic decision. I moved onto a buddy's floor (a mutual friend of Joel and mine who we also went to school with in Rome), and worked for him as a laborer - he was a contractor -and started going with Joel to Del's classes.

PAM: You'd explored philosophy, comedy and hard labor, all before the age of 25.

DAVE: I was a cowboy on a sheep ranch in there too, between college and real estate. I also worked construction when I got kicked out of college. The stone masons were all Italians (from Italy).

PAM: A cowboy???? Wait. Kicked out? For what?

DAVE: I was "invited to not return."

PAM: Too much partying?

DAVE: Yep. It was a little Lutheran school in Minnesota. I was not a good fit for them.

PAM: That was before Loyola?

DAVE: Yes.

PAM: I'm sorry, I'm sitting here trying to imagine you on a horse, lassoing a calf...

DAVE: Sheep ranch.

PAM: Oh shit. Right. A lamb then. [Yes, dear readers, I just displayed horrifyingly bad “listening” skills in an interview with David Pasquesi. I’m deeply ashamed.]

DAVE: 88,000 acres in southwest New Mexico.

PAM: You were sitting around a fire, chewing on a stick, and thinking, "I wish I knew how to quit you, improv."

Speaking of which, back to improv - like a dog with a bone, I am - Do you consider iO to be your first, real training grounds? In so much of the publicity material, I see Second City credited as where you originate, and I always wonder if that pisses off Charna.

DAVE: Besides Players Workshop, the only place I ever really studied was with Del,
absolutely. Del taught me all that I know and more than I'll remember.

PAM: From what I've read and heard of the man, I feel like he would be really proud of the work you and TJ do.

DAVE: Nice of you to say.

PAM: I was just thinking this morning about how the last bastion of players directly trained by Del Close are being pushed out of the way by the next layer of improvisers - I mean in the big picture, the mass consumed improv world - and I worry how this will change improv, how it's taught and performed.

DAVE: mean teachers and such?

PAM: Yes. There are folks who are now teaching who were not directly taught by Del.

DAVE: Most. Almost all. But I was in classes with guys for years. I go to their classes and I hear them say, "Del said...." And I NEVER heard [Del say] that, and I am sure he would never have said that.

PAM: I mean the attributes Del promoted may not be taught as forcefully today.

DAVE: Or even known. ABSOLUTELY. That's what I've been doing with TJ for the last ten years, the exact same stuff that I believe Del was suggesting.

PAM: Exactly. Exactly what I mean. And when I think of 90% of the improv out there being taught right now, I don't see it following the same value system. Again, this is why I elect you our ambassador.

So talk about that. Talk about the stuffy Del was suggesting please.

(Oops! I mean “stuff” NOT "stuffy. lol.)

DAVE:  This is only my interpretation of what Del was promoting....

PAM: Naturally.

DAVE: (I did not L OL at stuffy. I'm not that easy.)

PAM: (I did.) (I am.)

What are a couple major influences, things that you've learned from Del that still influence your work today?

DAVE: Playing slowly, not worrying about the audience, not worrying that they are being entertained. Top of your intelligence. Characters played as a thin veil. Honestly responding only to the scene and other player.

PAM: Ok. I don't think you know what an improv ho' I am. That was like manna. I want more. Please talk more about all of that.

Let's start with playing slowly and about the pacing of TJ and Dave. It’s luxuriously steady, unrushed, and utterly sure. The imagery that your show evokes for me is of you languidly reaching out into the air to set a real teacup on an imaginary table; and just as the cup is released, a table appears. Does that make sense?

TJ and Dave
DAVE: Awfully nice of you.

PAM: Nice or not, it's true.

DAVE: No need to rush. There is no destination to get to, no punchline to arrive at, not even any story to tell. Just unwrapping the thing bit by bit.

Del said that we're not trying for laughs; we're going for cheers. Don't let them laugh little laughs. Let it build up.

PAM: (I just fell off my ball in joy.)

DAVE: (Get back on it. I learned that on the ranch.)

PAM: (LOL. Ok, I'm back on - I always get back on the ball. I just loved all that so much.)

So this is my next question; and it's totally related to my personal evolution, but hopefully other people will relate. I've been exploring the slow discovery, and there is a struggle - particularly among players who are very tied to making the audience laugh - of what happens if the discovery doesn't lead to anything momentous. I don't think momentous is the right word - how about interesting? funny?

DAVE: It will.

PAM: When?

Wait. Ah, I see. You just set the teacup out...

DAVE: Yes. If I am following the most interesting discoveries, it will be interesting.
Now these are my beliefs. I do not suggest Del thought these things.

PAM: Yes, I understand. I'm interviewing you, not Del, here.

Good. Ok, how do you decide which discovery is most interesting? Which thread to follow?

DAVE: Improvisation is itself an exercise in faith. In faith of Improvisation. That if I do the next tiny thing, all will be fine.

PAM: Amen. (I've never gotten teary during an interview. I'm such a fucking dork.)

DAVE: And following the fear is exactly that. Follow the most interesting thing - maybe untraveled, uncomfortable - because I don't have anything funny to say about it, so that is scary...

PAM: Uh, yeah it is. But that’s where the higher power is.

DAVE: …but I'm supposed to do it anyway. Be afraid, but do it anyway. “Follow the fear” does not suggest anything about not being afraid. It requires it. TJ and I rehearse to find out that very thing for us.

PAM: Can you expound further on the idea of "following your fears" as a way to best discover the most interesting thread to follow? I specifically am curious on how best an improviser, such as myself, can use this guidepost to lead to the more theatrically and comically interesting discoveries on stage.

DAVE: The phrase from Del is "follow the fear." It comes from a principle to keep in mind for a good/interesting scene.  It means (at least to me) that I am to go toward the things that I would ordinarily go away from,  i.e. uncomfortable topics, perhaps unpopular but honest responses.  Not only shocking stuff, but also kindness and empathy.

In real life, we sometimes guard ourselves with less-than-true responses.  We can afford to be honest on stage. Afford to be afraid. Afford to be unlikable.  Afford to be sweet.

"Follow the fear" is a guide to lead the direction of a scene. Is this frightening?  Yes? Then this is the right direction.

PAM: Where is the fear for you?

DAVE: The brand new is frightening; but if you do it a while it is no longer new and not as frightening, so it evolves.

PAM: I can't imagine you get very fearful on stage with TJ anymore. Does that in itself scare you?

DAVE: I'm not afraid of the same things. I'm not afraid of the show sucking. I'm not afraid my scene partner is gonna sell me out. (The reason I'm not afraid of the show sucking is not that I don't think we can suck, ‘cuz we do. I'm just not afraid of it sucking.)

PAM: So what ARE you afraid of now?

DAVE: Not gonna tell you.

PAM: LOL. Chicken.

DAVE: Oh look, it's 11:30. [Signaling the end of our interview.]

PAM: Hahahahaha! By the way, you're afraid of a girl asking question while balanced on a silver ball, cowboy. Just sayin'.

DAVE: I feel that what I am afraid of on stage is immaterial. That I try to remain concerned is the thing, not the specifics. Also, Del said the job of the improviser is "to lead an interesting life, then tell people about it." I think some improvisers forget that, that the requirement is to live life.

PAM:  Good answer. Thank you, kind sir.

DAVE: Here's a fear:

PAM: I'm listening.

DAVE: That all this yammering of mine will make this sound too precious or "important.” It is just make-em-ups, after all.

PAM: lol. I'm not sure what I can do to allay that fear except say who fucking cares as long as you're enjoying the yammering? (Which I am.)

Seriously, one of the things I love about improv is that it gives you some meat to chew on and talk about and over and under, and that is like wonderful brain candy. (Ew. Meat. Brain. Candy.)

DAVE: Yum.

in which we dive still deeper into Dave’s improv philosophy
 as he entertains my determination to get a peek
under the hood of TJ and Dave.

You may also enjoy "Geeking Out with...TJ Jagodowski."


Catch up on past improv nerd-a-thons:
Geeking Out with…Chris Gethard of “The Chris Gethard Show”,
 …with Joe Bill of BASSPROV,
…Jimmy Carrane of the Improv Nerd podcast,
 …Jet Eveleth of The Reckoning,
and many more!

And "like" the "Geeking Out with..."FACEBOOK PAGE please.

Pam Victor is the founding member of The Ha-Ha’s, and she produces The Happier Valley Comedy Shows in western Massachusetts. Pam directs, produces and performs in the comic soap opera web series "Silent H, Deadly H". Pam also writes mostly humorous, mostly true essays and reviews of books, movies and tea on her blog,"My Nephew is a Poodle." If you want to stay abreast of all the geek out action, like the “Geeking Out with…” Facebook page!


  1. I love David Pasquesi. But I think he should be playing romantic leads.

  2. Wow, this was a delight to read!