Friday, September 28, 2012

Geeking Out with...TJ Jagodowski (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 whole series can be found in full frontal geek out version here.]

For purely practical purposes of time and geography, I typically interview people via online chat. I type questions, then they type answers. It’s weird, I know, but it actually works pretty well. But when TJ Jagodowski, of iO, Second City and Annoyance Theatres, shied away from my usual practice, I made an exception and offered him an in-person interview since I happened to be in Chicago for the iO Summer Intensive. As a generally passionate person, I get ridiculously excited about all my geek out sessions. But I must admit, this interview nearly put me over the edge as I maintain the conviction that TJ and Dave, the show TJ performs weekly with the legendary David Pasquesi at iO Theatre, quite simply is the best improvised show on the planet. And though TJ no doubt is shaking his head while reading that, I’m pretty sure if you, dear reader, have ever seen them, you probably agree. With me. Not with TJ. (Sorry, TJ.) Certainly, the Chicago Improv Festival agreed when awarding TJ and David “Improvisers of the Year” in 2006…and the Del Close Awards when they named TJ and Dave “Best Improvised Show” in 2003 and 2004…and The Chicago Reader who did the same in 2008…I could go on, but I won’t. But, yeah, when TJ Jagodowski graciously agreed to allow me to geek out with him in person, you bet your sweet bippy I jumped at the opportunity.

TJ and Dave
Therefore on a yet another sweltering Chicago afternoon in August, I found myself hurrying to TJ’s home along with my dear friend and iO Summer Intensive teammate Peter Kim, who agreed to hold the camera while I geeked out with TJ Jagodowski. To say I was nervous would be an understatement, but I also was completely exhilarated at the rare opportunity to sit down with one of my improv heroes in his home. Please join me on the couch in TJ’s pleasantly welcoming living room for this slightly edited, transcribed version of Part One of our time together.


PAM VICTOR: Let’s do a little history first. Tell me about the first time you met improv comedy. Was it love at first sight or a slow, burning love that grew over time?

TJ JAGODOWSKI: I guess it was love before I did it because I saw it at Second City and fell in love with it there. The first time I did was the first class I took at Second City; and I don’t remember if I loved it, but I had a feeling I would love doing it. And it was the first step on the road I wanted to be on.

PAM: When was this? So you’re living in Chicago and you went to see a show at Second City?

TJ: Yeah. It was around ’93, so it was Mr. Carell and Mr. Colbert and Ruthie Rudnick, Fran Adams, Jackie Hoffman. Dave Razowsky. It was just after it was turned over from Ms. Sedaris and Mr. Dinello. They had just left.

PAM: Were you in Chicago to go to school?

TJ: No, I graduated from college and was here. I thought I was going to go into television production…a friend was working on a TV show called The Untouchables which she said she could get me a job at. So I was a production assistant for a little bit….I didn’t care for that so much, so I ended just taking a bunch of different jobs to survive.

PAM: Were you a theater-y guy growing up? Did you do theater in high school high school?

TJ: Nope.

PAM: Did you do improv?

TJ: No. Never heard of improv. Our high school was sort of falling apart, so we didn’t have a theater or do plays or anything like that…

PAM: So you just went to a Second City show on a whim?

TJ: My friend Lisa [Haleski Masseur], who when I moved here let me live on her couch…for like four months, she brought me to my first Second City show. She was the one who encouraged me and drove me to take classes at Second City. She brought me to my first show at Improv Olympic. As much as anyone in the world, she determined the course of [my improv life.]

TJ Jagodowski
PAM: You started at Second City, not Improv Olympic? Was sketch more interesting to you than improv or…?

TJ: Just didn’t know the difference. Wasn’t aware of iO. And it worked out fine. If I had to do it again, I’d probably going to iO first and then The Annoyance and then Second City.

PAM: Why would you do it that way?

TJ: Because now I know longform group work is what I love the most, and metaphorically it makes sense to me. iO teaches you how to make fire. Annoyance teaches you how to make it a flame thrower. And then ideally Second City teaches you where to point it. That progression just makes sense.

PAM: What do you mean, “where to point it”?

TJ: What targets you should be hitting, like satire or relationships or politics. Once you’ve figure out how to work with people, once you’ve figure out how to strengthen your voice, then knowing how to use that voice that you’ve worked on to what end.

PAM: What was the first moment you saw longform and you were like – sigh - “This is it”?

TJ: It was upstairs at what is now Mullens and used to be called, I believe, Abner’s Yard. And iO was upstairs there. That was the first time I saw longform. I think I saw an opening and I was like, “What the hell is this?!” I think everyone who sees it for the first time is like, “What is going on? All these people are, like, rabbits now, and none of this is really making sense. They are not talking to each other and they’re all moving weird.” And once you get out of the opening, you’re all like “Oh, ok. Here’s a scene. Ah, gotcha. Now I get it now why you do that weird thing at the beginning.” So once it got into the scenes and group games, and you watched how they grow together and twine and untwine…that was a nice thing to have seen.

PAM: Did something trigger in your brain?

TJ: I was already diggin’ it, just from having seen that set at Second City and going down and seeing more sets. So I was already digging improvisation in general to watch…

PAM: You know how it is with an improviser - well, I assume other people are like this too - it strikes a note in your soul and you’d rather do it than anything else. You can’t not do it.

TJ:  Yeah, that was pretty much from watching that first set. It was better than anything I’d ever seen, and I had this feeling that if I didn’t try to pursue that, I would never really be happy. So I was already, like, you work whatever awful job you have to do, so that those three hours of class you feel more alive than you do at any other point. So you just look for it all week -  Tuesday night from seven to ten - because it just does something special.

PAM [agreeing]: Is that crazy? Why do you think improv, rather than another artform, struck a note in your soul?

TJ: I guess because it was momentary and immediate. I don’t like re-reading and re-watching things…so the fact that you see it once and there it goes, and the next time you see these people, it’ll definitely be different. It seemed to hold the possibility at any time to be the most wonderful thing. You might see the most amazing, magical thing happen. And if does, you had to be there for it because otherwise you missed it, and it’s never coming back. There is something about that that draws me.

PAM: Which improvisers have been your greatest influences during your early days of improv as far as people who you watched?

TJ: Scott Adsit. Kevin Dorff. Stephnie Weir. Rich Talarico. Bob Dassie. Paul Grondy. Rachel Dratch. Tina. Brian Stack. The UCB folks. I’m sure I’m missing someone…

PAM: These are teachers or people you watched?

Noah Gregoropoulous and TJ
in "In a World"
(Annoyance Theatre,
August, 2012)
TJ: People I got to watch play. I don’t think any of those folks taught me. I had Marty de Maat as a teacher. Don Depollo was a big inspiration. His energy that he brought was just so wonderful to be around that it made you want to come back to class. And Martin [DeMaat] was the same way. Mr. DeMaat was invaluable in teaching not only how you’re supposed to be on stage but just as much how you’re supposed to be backstage or how you’re supposed to behave as a member of an ensemble…Norm Holly was very encouraging to me as an instructor. And Noah [Gregoropoulos.] It’s easy to overlook Noah because he’s been doing it at such a high level for so long, but he kind of keeps the ship pointed in the right direction and has for a long time…

PAM: You didn’t talk about Del when you talked about your influences…

TJ: My experience with Del was very brief. And he did not care for the way I played, and he was right not to care for the way I played. I was not a good player. I was premise-laden, and he was not shy about unloading on you…But I had a very brief period with Del, so I can’t speak intelligently as to my experience with him.

PAM: What was the first Harold team you were on?

TJ: I was simultaneously put on a team called Bucket and Georgia Pacific as sit-ins. It was amazing. Amazing…

PAM: I imagine it’s not weird anymore, but it maybe it was at the beginning that you were playing with you teachers at their level.

TJ: Yeah, improvisation is weird in that way that the generations turn over so fast…It is very intimidating the first time doing an Armando with all the people you watched. It’s scary as hell. And back then they were still splitting acts, so there would nine people in the first act and nine people in the second act. So you might only get one scene; and if that thing tanked, you felt really like you just messed up in front of everyone that was in your pantheon. So it was nerve-wracking.

And you never really get used to it. For “Just for Laughs” just a little bit ago, I got to play with Dorff and Adsit and Dave, who I get to play with all the time, and Jon Glaser, and it still felt like the little brother they pull from the other side of the playground because those are the guys I grew up being awed by.

PAM: Do you get nervous?

TJ: Oh, yes. Terribly.

PAM: Really?! Just when you’re playing with someone new…

TJ [shaking his head]: New. Old. Two people. Eight people. Four people in the audience.

PAM: Do you get nervous with TJ and Dave?

TJ [Nods. Pauses, watching Pam. Smiles and laughs.]: You look disappointed.

PAM: No! I’m not at all disappointed. That was just personal. I get more nervous when I don’t get nervous because it means I might not have good energy for the show. There are certain amounts of good nerves for the show. You’re not talking about a Barbra Streisand, when you’re vomiting in the bathroom before the show?

TJ: Not quite vomiting, but I’ll tremble and stuff. Dave likes being nervous because that is an indication to him that this is important, that he cares, that it’s worth getting nervous about. I don’t feel that way at all. [Laughs.] I’d rather be not nervous at all. I’d rather be very calm and relaxed. When I get nervous, I just don’t have access to everything that I want, access to my body moving the way I want it to be or thoughts coming cleanly and relaxed.

PAM: So what are you afraid of, do you think?

TJ: There is always a reason. You could be afraid of anything…disappointing.

PAM: To your scene partner or the audience?

TJ: Um…Everybody. Everybody. If someone has seen you fifty times, you want the fifty-first to be better and different. You don’t want them to have that feeling like, “I feel like I’ve seen that do something like that before.” Or God forbid they brought someone and they’re like, “Hey, this team is really good,” and then you suck. And they look like a fool in front of their friends, and they’re like, “This is good?”

Each time you go out in some way or form, you’re defending improvisation to either a new or experienced audience. There’s never a reason not to prove yourself, and prove that this thing that you’ve dedicated a lot of your time and energy to is a really awesome pursuit.

PAM: After all this time, do you feel sometimes that you suck?

TJ:  Yeah. Oh, God yeah.

PAM [incredulous]: Shut. Up.

TJ: No, I won’t shut up.

PAM [laughing]: That’s it! Shut up! We’re done.


TJ: Yeah. Oh, yeah. And a lot of people that I think are really good would maybe be at a point in their craft where they don’t suck anymore. And I know they feel like they suck. Dave feels like he sucks sometimes…You never get passed blowing it.

PAM: I think you’re perception of not achieving is probably different than mine or the audiences.

TJ: No, this is objective sucking….

PAM: I’ve seen you perform a lot since I’ve been here-

TJ: I haven’t sucked in front of you?

PAM: You haven’t sucked in front of me.

TJ: Well, I’m on a good streak.

PAM: Could happen at any minute.

TJ: Any time. I reserve the right for that to end at any time…

PAM: Both you and Dave said, separately, on the Improv Nerd podcast, that the only show you “sucked” was the first show.

TJ: That one was irretrievably terrible. Yeah. The other ones have not necessarily been good, but they’ve at least we were moving towards something that could be better. That first one was awful. Awful…
TJ Jagodowski at iO Theatre (2012)

PAM: Which improv philosophies helped you become the improviser you are today?

TJ: It’s nothing revolutionary. We all come back to the same stuff. Listen. Pay attention….Show don’t tell…. I don’t know if it’s philosophies - it’s you get older and you do it a lot and get a little more comfortable in your skin. Or ideally you find ways to not get as nervous, so you have access. But I think it’s just – I don’t know if it’s philosophy but - you get life experience, more emotionally mature. Then you realize through a lot of trial and error that playing closer to real or playing emotional points of view sustains you a lot easier than making a joke or freaking out. So I tend to take paths of least resistance, those seem more easily sustainable in scenes.

PAM: Do have a mantra beforehand?

TJ: Not really. I try to look and listen. Speak from a truth. I used to try to fall in love one time with whatever - a person, a thing, a moment, a place. It gives you a positive area to call your base.

PAM: Ok, I have a whole slew of  TJ and Dave questions…I’m just going to come right out and admit it to you that I’m this ginormous TJ and Dave fan. Take that as you will. I actually think that it’s the best improv show on the planet.

TJ: And you’re wrong!

PAM: I’m not wrong because it’s my opinion.

TJ: Ok. Well, your opinion is wrong.

PAM [laughing]: So thank you.  I actually thing you guys have raise the bar – and I’m probably wrong about this too – but I think you’ve raise the bar for everybody.

TJ: Raised the bar just high enough to be stepped over…

PAM: When did you know that Dave was your improv soul mate? When we that fire lit for you?

TJ: We got accidentally put together put together– or coincidentally put together – for a Chicago Improv Fest show. They were kind of banking on the fact that the strike was going to happen, and it didn’t. So a lot of people that they were hoping who would be back from SNL and Conan and Mad and all that weren’t able to make it. So they called six or seven of the people around here who they knew didn’t have a job or wouldn’t be busy on a Friday or Saturday night. And so I got to play with Dave and [Kevin] Dorff and [Scott] Adsit and [Mick] Napier and [Jimmy] Carrane. And Dave and I that night were both nervous and both had a pretty good time.

They were doing an interview afterwards for their promotional material, and the lady said to Dave, because Dave hadn’t improvised in a while, something basically to the fact like, “How did you feel about improvising again?” And he said that, “If it was like this, I’d do it all the time.” And Adsit and I were both like, “Rooo?! [TJ makes a Scooby Doo-like noise of coming to attention.] That’s our master’s voice right there.” But Dave was spending more time in Los Angeles at the time…so Adsit walks over and was like, “I get first crack at Pasquesi. Don’t dare cockblock me.” So he and Adsit did some shows out in Los Angeles. And then when Dave kind of came back here on a more permanent basis, Noah [Gregoropoulos] actually suggested that it might be fun for me and Dave to play together.

And neither one of us remember the first phone call, but I guess I must have gotten in touch with him – I don’t even know how I got his phone number – and then we met over coffee a couple of times. And we started playing. And so it certainly wasn’t after week one of our show, but after week two, I think, “Well, let’s keep on doing this and see if we enjoy it.” Over time it’s turned out that we both like doing a lot of the same stuff.

PAM: That was maybe around 2001? 2002?

TJ: We just went over ten years, so yeah…

PAM: Where do you think your connection with him comes from?

TJ: We’re both a little dimwitted, so it takes us a long time to think of things to say.

PAM [sarcastically]: That’s true. You’re known as pretty stupid people.

TJ: And he’s tall, slender, and angular and I’m round, so we fit together geometrically.

PAM: Your personalities are different.  [TJ nods.] If you didn’t work together, if you just met him at a PTA meeting or something weird like that, would you connect with him and want to hang out and go have beers?

TJ: Is he the teacher and I have a child?

PAM: No. You’re both-

TJ: I don’t know. I don’t know if we’d have beers or not. We’d probably get into an interesting conversation. But improv definitely is the place that we– I mean we get along. We’re friends. But after that first year we did shows together, we would have spent roughly 52 hours together. One hour each week on Wednesday. And we kept going to New York. We travel together. We have a great time. But we don’t see a lot of each other the rest of the week. Improvisation is definitely where we meet most copacetic…

PAM: Charna [Halpern] must have seen something in you [and Dave] to give you that gift of the whole hour?

TJ: The real pop of that was Dave coming back to play. Because Dave hadn’t been improvising on a regular basis, and he’s pretty legendary. Even if you had never seen him play, you knew the name “Pasquesi”...Pasquesi was the one that made Noah want to improvise in the first place, so he’s like he’s like great-granddaddy to the granddaddy…The fact that he was agreeing to come back to play on a regular basis was about all it took. It was Dave.

PAM: But the fact is, that the show is on Wednesdays at eleven o’clock, and you guys sell out all the time.

TJ and Dave,
geometrically complementary
TJ: It’s grown. It’s gained an audience. And I think in a way that it’s Wednesday at eleven might be kind of “nerd-chic.” You gotta stay up a little later. I think in a weird way it probably works for us than it being on a Friday. It’s not a Friday at eight o’clock kind of show. It’s a Wednesday or Sunday at eleven or midnight kind of thing.

PAM: My teammate Peter [who is recording this interview] and I were talking about what defines a “good show.” He said that Mark Sutton [of BASSPROV] doesn’t like when people say, “We’re going to have a good show…”

PETER [explaining Mark Sutton’s advice from a class]: …you don’t set yourself up for expectations of a show that can’t happen. Just enjoy the show that is happening.

TJ: Yeah. I understand that entirely. It’s counterintuitive in it’s own way because you want to go in with a lot of energy and prepared to have an excellent show, but you almost have to be prepared to find an excellent show. It’s almost like when people say, “Let’s go out there and have fun!” Fun is a real tough thing to fabricate. It’s like, “We’re gonna have a good time.” It’s like trying really hard to fall asleep. The energy put into it almost precludes it from happening at all. But you want to go in energetic and prepared, but it’s almost like that show has to be delivered to you. You just have to be ready to receive it. You can’t force this really good, fun thing to happen.

But at the same time, Dave says – and he’s probably explained it as well as I’ve ever heard – as that you’re always going to come up short of what you shoot for. So if you shoot for a funny show and you come up short, underneath funny is sucky, uninteresting…there are a lot of bad adjectives. If you shoot to be great, you’re going to come up short. But you might hit some other cool stuff coming up short of that. It could be interesting or insightful or challenging and you may get funny. So you want to go in prepared to be great or ready to be great or with the idea to be great, but you can’t make that happen. The only things you can do are [hone] the skills that would allow for that to happen. And that’s why you pay attention and that’s why you listen. A great show is not going to happen if you’re not listening. It might happen if you’re listening and paying attention, but you can’t force it.

So what Dave and I would consider to be a really, really, good, good show is when this other element of magic happens that feels like neither of us were able to determine, neither of us made this happen. We just happened to be visited by this extra thing that was going on that night…I think in our jargon there is no better term for it than “magic” happening.

PAM: Magic. I get that. Are there things you can do to make the magic more likely?

TJ: Yep. Paying attention. Being aware. Being at ease. Being emotionally available. Reacting...

PAM: So it sounds like you’re going into a show with a sense of openness.

TJ: Yeah. The more open, the better. The more momentary you allow yourself to be, the better chance you have.

PAM: Interesting. Tell me a little about your routine before and at the beginning of each show. You have what seems to me to be a pretty definite pattern of behavior - you seem to stretch in the same place…

TJ: It’s a little ritualistic.

PAM: Right. Your ritual. Tell me about that.

TJ: There’s some stuff I’ll tell you about it. There’s some stuff I won’t tell you about.

PAM [Laughing, my mind instantly going to naughty places because there is something deeply wrong with me sometimes.]: Pleeeeease???

TJ [shaking his head]: Uh-uh. Uh-uh.

PAM: Just a tiny bit?

TJ: Uh-uh.

PAM: Is it private, “in your bedroom” stuff?

TJ: NO! I don’t even know what the hell that is, Pam.

[That cracks me up. And TJ returns to the safety of answering the original, not-bedroomy question.]

Dave and I talk. It’s all stuff we do to basically relax, to free ourselves, to just be present. And so we talk about what’s been going on that day or that week, and then I find when I get nervous – I don’t know which starts which, either I’m physically tight and that makes nervous or I’m nervous and that makes me physically tight – so I try and stretch out. And then I do a couple things and say a couple things to myself that ideally put me at ease. Looking at the audience before a show. Meeting eyes with people, that seems to relax me as well.

It was Dave’s idea that we go up halfway into that opening song, so we have like a minute and a half or two minutes just up there. And I equate that with getting in the pool where it could be really cold when you first get in there, but after a minute you get used to the water. And so we kind of “get used to the water.” And then looking at people for me is like, “I know you can see me, but I can see you too. We’re together hoping that this thing goes well.” So it seems to put us all on the same team, drives that point home to me…

PAM: Is [TJ and Dave] separate for you? Inhabit a separate space in your heart, in your improv soul?

TJ: Yeah. It’s the show that’s probably gained the most cachet to it. It’s more intensive. It’s longer. You’re out there the whole time, and so it is a different breed of show. And I really never disappoint Dave. I could take disappointing other people I improvise with, that would roll off the back a little more easily than feeling like I let Dave down.

PAM: What do you think that’s about?

TJ: He would never do it to me. And he doesn’t phone shows in. He doesn’t phone a minute in. He’s unforgiving in the way he goes about pursuing the show and improvisation - of himself - so he deserves at least that from his partner.

PAM: Does he intimidate you?

TJ: He intimidates everybody. And it’s something you kind of just put on yourself. You watch people just turn themselves into knots trying to talk to him, and all Dave is doing is just listening. He just has some innate sense. But he’s also intensely charming and charismatic, so he has that too. So he also charms me, thrills me, as well.

PAM: I don’t know if you read all the [Geeking Out with…Dave Pasquesi] article, but I asked him what he finds funny, and he said you…he wasn’t talkin’ about me. He was talkin’ about you.

TJ: Oh nice!

PAM: I wish he was talking about me.

TJ: I bet you do.

PAM: I really do. [TJ and Pam chuckle.] I read somewhere you guys had a “mission statement” for TJ and Dave? I was wondering what that is.

TJ: I don’t know if we do. I’d be interested in hearing it.

PAM: I should have that of ask Dave.

TJ: Oh, world domination. That’s Pasquesi’s mission statement.

PAM: Oh is it?

TJ: Yeah, world domination through improvisation.

PAM: What’s he going to do with the world?

TJ: Probably make it a really wonderful place.

PAM: I would think…Let me ask you how your experience of the show evolved over the years?

TJ: Very little I would say. We still shoot for exactly the same thing we started with…

PAM: Are you worried it will become less challenging for you at some point or engaging?

TJ: No, no. We try and assure - and Dave’s really good about that - if we ever feel like we’re getting complacent, we dig back in and find out ways to make it scary again.

PAM: Like what?

TJ: To go deeper in. To try to penetrate moments more strongly. To make sure we’re not avoiding hard situations or tough emotional choices. That we’re re-committed to making sure we try and get everything out of it. So we go back into rehearsing.

We’ve talk, sometimes here and there, stylistically. We’ve maybe been open to throwing a flashback or maybe a quick cut-away in, which we almost never do, but we remind ourselves that just because we haven’t done it doesn’t mean it might be the exact right thing to try at that time. So, no, I don’t worry. I don’t worry about anything ever become too casual or easy. [Laughs.] There will always be a reason that it will be difficult and tough, especially with the show with Dave.


Stay tuned for Part Two of "Geeking Out with...TJ Jagodowski" 

in which TJ digs in even deeper into the technical aspects 
of his process with Dave. 
Oooh, it's so improvlicious, my friends. I can't wait to share it with you.

In the meantime if you're in Chicago, do yourself a huge favor and see TJ and Dave at  iO almost every Wednesday at 11pm. They also perform occasionally at the Barrow Street Theatre in New York City. But even if you won’t be in NYC or Chicago, you can see their wonderful documentary Trust Us, This is All Made Up. It is the rare opportunity to see improv brought to the screen in a most adept fashion. Trust me, it’s true.

Check out this short snipped of "Geeking Out with...TJ Jagodowski (Part One)"
when TJ admits to his pre-show jitters.


Catch up on past improv geek-a-thons:
Geeking Out with...Dave Pasquesi of TJ and Dave
Geeking Out with…Chris Gethard of The Chris Gethard Show
…with Joe Bill of BASSPROV
…Jimmy Carrane of the Improv Nerd podcast
…Susan Messing of Messing with a Friend
and many more!

Pam Victor is an improv comedian, author, teacher, consultant, and nice person. She is the founder and Head of Happiness of Happier Valley Comedy, the epicenter of improv in Western Mass, where Pam teaches The Zen of Improv to the best students in the world as well as bringing the power of improvisation to the workplace in her "Through Laughter" program.  TJ Jagodowski,  David Pasquesi, and Pam are the co-authors of "Improvisation at the Speed of Life: The TJ and Dave Book."   She lives online at

Unless you're a meanie, Pam would probably like you.

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