Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Geeking Out with...Jazz Freddy

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.]

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The deeper I dig into the history of legendary improvisers through my Geeking Out with… series, the more the name Jazz Freddy crops up. In the last year, I’ve had the enormous pleasure of interviewing Jimmy Carrane, Rachel Dratch, and most recently Brian Stack, who supplied the final push in my impetus to dig even deeper into the story behind the still lauded and respected improvisation team Jazz Freddy.

I used a variety of sources for my little exploration into Jazz Freddy, all of them noted below, though I’ll give a few special shout-outs. Thanks to Kevin Mullaney who runs the IRC Message Board, a living, evolving time capsule for improvisation, and thanks as well to Craig Cackowski from whose IRC post I liberally quote because he’s so fucking smart and astute in his assessment of Jazz Freddy and pretty much all things improvisation. Thank you to Rachel Dratch and Brian Stack for sharing their fondest memories with me. Thanks again to Brian Stack and to Michael Golding for passing along the photos in this article. Most of all, I owe great gobs of gratitude to Pete Gardner, founder of Jazz Freddy, who generously made time on a busy work day to allow me to probe his mind and memories. You taught me a lot that day, Pete. Most of all, rather than snottily judge different improvisers’ approach to pacing, you helped me to think of improvisation as music. You encouraged me to appreciate that some play it fast, like rock music, while others approach it more like classical music. But it’s all good and just and in keeping with Del’s vision. Thank you, Mr. Gardner.
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Jazz Freddy
back in the day

From what I can tell, there would be no Jazz Freddy if there hadn’t been Ed. In 1990, a show called Ed came along, directed by Jim Dennen and credited as the first longform show to be performed in a real theater as opposed to a bar or cabaret. (This was before iO had a permanent theater.) Of Dennen’s vision, Del Close is quoted as saying, "I see what his ambition is. It is to basically rescue improvisation from improv. To rescue improvisation from the notion that it has to be funny in a cabaret sort of way." (The quote comes from the important review, “The ‘How’ of Funny: Chicago’s New Wave of Improvisation Aspires to More than a Punchline,”  by Tony Adler published in American Theatre in December, 1993, as found here).

And by many accounts, Ed did just that. In our interview together, Pete Gardner (a.k.a. Pete Zahradnick) remembered his experiences working with the group, “Ed was something different. It was in a theater, which made people listen.” So often before, improv was presented in a space where performers had to
Pete Gardner today
compete with boisterous patrons, drink-procuring noises, and other visual distractions that may have had the effect of pushing the performers towards a “faster, louder, funnier” approach to improvisation in an effort to maintain audience’s attention. Pete Gardner continues, “Maybe that’s what [other groups] were reacting to – working in bars to audiences who weren’t listening or just listening for the joke. Just placing improv in a different environment, a theater, made people take it more seriously.” As improviser and teacher extraordinaire Craig Cackowski remembered in a thread on the Improv Resource Center board, “When I think of those Ed shows and the performers in them, I think of all things that good IO improvisers can do, but with the acting raised a notch.”

Ed expanded the idea of longform beyond The Harold, which had begun to feel restrictive to Pete Gardner. “It was hard to break out of what Del taught,” Gardner told me. “We were acolytes.” But Ed interpreted Del’s instructions and took things “to the next level,” which Gardner later found out was what Del hoped all along. “And all of it was right. Del said, ‘Take it and run with it.’”

Indeed Gardner sought to take what he learned in Ed to his friend at iO and see how far they could run with it. So he began a series of workshops combining folks from Ed and iO. From those workshops, Jazz Freddy was born in the summer of 1992 with the original cast of Pete Gardner (who directed as well,) Dave Koechner, Brian Stack, Noah Gregoropoulos, Kevin Dorff, Jimmy Carrane, Pat Finn, Chris Reed, Miriam Tolan, Stephanie Howard, Rachel Dratch, Susan McLaughlin and Meredith Zinner. Carlos Jacott and Theresa Mulligan were guests in the first run and later joined in the second run, which was directed by Jim Dennen, and Molly Allen was added to the mix as well.

In the IRC thread, Cackowski reflected, “The Ed style was very grounded in acting and physicality, which I think was a positive influence on the IO guys, who were all brilliant to begin with, but, I suspect, took their scenework to a new level.” As Jazz Freddy director Pete Gardner relates in our interview, “There was a feeling of bringing your A-game, which established a lot of trust.” As a director, he felt like he had full support of the actors, which lead to amazing rehearsals. “People let go and experimented with formats and structures. Everyone understood that they were playing it straight – truth in comedy – like Del taught. They weren’t playing for jokes. These people were all so funny that it would always be funny anyway. You never had to put the kibosh on funny.” Rachel
Comedy Central's
Naked Truck and T-Bones Show
Dratch remembers one of the very funny moments born from this process, “Jazz Freddy gave birth to one of my favorite Koechner characters - Gerald (who he ended up basing a whole show around called Naked Trucker and T-Bones Show). It was this character that just came up in rehearsal, and everyone was tagging in because they wanted to do a scene with Gerald!” According to Gardner, the focus was to “take your time, play it straight, and listen.” As always in the best improvisation, that approach often leads to great, multi-dimensional comedy.
Brian Stack relayed to me, “We always hoped the shows would be funny, but we tried to play the emotional reality of the scenes, and hoped that the laughs would come out of that.”  

Again, like Ed, Jazz Freddy was a forerunner in the gender-equalization of improvisation. Previous to the early ‘90s, the typical ratio was more like seven, eight, or even nine men to one woman, which could lead to “lots of testosterone and one upsmenship,” as Gardner reflected. Ed was four women to four men. Likewise, Jazz Freddy sought to maintain as close to equal gender ratio as
Jazz Freddy comedy royalty
possible. It is widely believed the fair balance of the women and men in Jazz Freddy further expanded their improvisation in pacing and dynamic. As Craig Cackowski remarked in that absolutely delicious IRC thread, Jazz Freddy became known for its, “good, slow, relationship-based scenework.” 

Although patient improvisation existed before, it seems that Jazz Freddy is noted most often for its groundbreaking pacing. Gardner told me, “The pacing was based on the trust. There was no fear on how do you’d get it done because someone was going to edit the scene. We knew the more we let people roll, the more information we’d have to pull details out and have more to play off of. It wasn’t slow all the time. There would be fast and slow scenes, with the slow scenes being the source scenes. Plus the tag-outs picked up the pace, which was about taking someone people backwards and forwards in time.” (Jazz Freddy sometimes is credited as the originator, or at least the main popularizer, of the tag-out.) As Brian Stack told me in our Geeking Out with… interview, “We were basically just trying to do the best scene work we could do. Luckily, we had such a great mix of people in the group.  The chemistry was special because were all pretty different from one another.” Environment, pace, temporal play, emotional reality, chemistry – these all became hallmarks for Jazz Freddy’s work.

And the press took notice. With the dawning of this new age in the art form, improvisation finally began to be reviewed in the newspapers as legitimate comedic theater rather than a series of guffaws and gags. Cackowski wrote that Jazz Freddy “demanded that critics look at it as a piece of theatre…I can't tell you how important that's taken a while, but I think Chicago critics finally give improv the respect it deserves when they review it, without using words like skits,’ ‘send-ups,’ ‘yuks,’ and, god forbid, ‘spoofmeisters.’" And indeed in a Chicago Reader article from April 1, 1993 simply titled Jazz Freddy, Jack Helbig wrote, “Jazz Freddy premiered last summer at the Live Bait Theater and blew me away. The young 14-member group worked together with egoless ease, creating intelligent, nicely structured two-act pieces out of thin air. In its 1993 incarnation, Jazz Freddy has slimmed down to 10 members and taken on Ed
Stephanie Howard and Chris Reed
before a Jazz Freddy show
and Filmdome director Jim Dennen as a pair of ‘outside eyes.’ Otherwise the group remains essentially the same, as sharp, witty, and eager as ever. But not so eager that they won't hold back when a scene demands patience. This restraint was clear on opening night when Theresa Mulligan began performing a simply killing imitation of a goldfish, right down to its black, fish-eyed stare. Lesser improvisers would have leapt in, trying to yuck up the scene with awful jokes and worse shtick. Mulligan's fellow players gave her the space and time to fully develop her marvelous silent scene. I can't think of any other group currently performing in Chicago with the esprit de corps to let a fellow performer shine like that.”

The atmosphere of The Live Bait Theatre and the pairing of the show with elegant jazz music further elevated the status of their improvisation. “Everything about it exuded class, from the Ray Charles music that played as the house lights faded to the fact that they were playing on actual sets of regular Live Bait productions,” related Craig Cackowski.  In our conversation, Rachel Dratch touched upon the impact of The Live Bait Theatre atmosphere upon the quality of the improvisation, “I never even thought it at the time, but being in a theater made it more about the truth of the scene than the pressure to get laughs instantly or come in with a big crazy character.” 

Perhaps due to their remarkable chemistry and the environment of trust, Jazz Freddy performers always seemed to be having so much fun playing together. Some scenes live on in people’s memories. Brian Stack will never forget one Halloween night. “We were all in costume, but we made a rule to not play any characters that one would associate with those costumes. For example, Carlos was dressed up as a cartoonish Mexican bandito, with a bug bushy mustache, eye-patch, cigar, bullets draped across his chest, and an enormous sombrero, but in one scene he was playing an ordinary little American boy who had just gotten home from Little League practice. Jimmy [Carrane], who was playing his dad, said, ‘Take off that hat at the dinner table, young man.’ Rather than taking off the sombrero he was actually wearing, Carlos reached up and pretended to take off a little boy's baseball cap. It brought the house down.”

Jazz Freddy became the show to see. Cackowski continued, “it was often tough to get into the tiny Live Bait Theatre. I think it did a lot toward bringing the improv community together, because so many people from the different theatres around town would come to see it and socialize afterwards.” In the same IRC thread, Michael Jeffrey Cohen effused, “I believe Jazz Freddy was the best improv show and best improv ensemble I have ever seen, ever, ever, ever…The scenes were just fucking incredible. Slow, intelligent, hip.”Perhaps as a result of the universal attraction, Jazz Freddy often drew from the “upper classmen” of improvisation for its special guests, such as David Pasquesi. As Gardner says, “Each show had a special guest to bring in new flavors and voices. It was the first time they started to play with the generations.” This cross-pollination of generations continued into the audience. Craig Cackowski again: “As a young improviser, I looked up to these players not only as performers, but as social role models as well. They were the cool kids and I a nerdy freshman. So I watched the show, but I also studied much fun they were having, how much they supported each other's work, how much joy they brought to one another.” Another young upstart named Peter Gwinn (Baby Wants CandyThe Colbert Report) lucked into interning with Jazz Freddy, "Shannon [Cummings], Wendy [West] and I were all in the ACM Chicago Semester in the Arts program. (ACM stood for Associated Colleges of the Midwest). I had taken some IO classes a couple years earlier, and was doing improv at Carleton College, so when the program got a call that 'some improv show' was looking for people to do lights, they offered it to me. A bunch of us went to check out the show, and I will never forget my jaw dropping when the lights came up and literally every improviser I had idolized from my time at IO two years earlier was standing on stage together. So naturally I took the gig." No doubt this melding of ages, genders, levels of experiences, actor-improvisers and improviser-actors lead to the success of Jazz Freddy. A success Second City was soon to notice.

Pete Gardner recalls, “All the people in the show were heavy hitters who hadn’t gone on to Second City yet. Everyone was at their prime, playing with other
Chris Reed, Brian Stack, and Jimmy Carrane
on stage in Jazz Freddy
respected people. There was an amazing energy of everyone giving it their best. The environment was perfect with trust and working together.” Soon enough, Second City directly plucked many of the players from Jazz Freddy and initiated them in their grand comedy institution.

But the legend and influences of Jazz Freddy lives on in the hearts and minds of many. Brian Stack fondly told me about another unforgettable scene, “One of my favorite memories of Jazz Freddy involved a recurring scene in which two old men were playing chess in a park, and another unrelated recurring scene that took place in a medieval castle.  At some point late in the show, a reference was made during the ‘castle’ scene to the ‘strange, checkered landscape’ outside.  It became clear that the action in the castle was taking place in the rook on the old men's chessboard. It was one of those totally organic on-stage discoveries that I'll never forget, and it still reminds me of why I love improv so much.” That these highly experienced improvisers like Rachel Dratch and Brian Stack, who no doubt have done hundreds and hundreds of scenes since their time together, still maintain detailed and cherished memories of Jazz Freddy scenes is true testament to the place this group holds in their hearts.

I’ll tip the hat one last time to Craig Cackowski, from that IRC thread I know you’re just dying to read at this point, because he says it so well. “Jazz Freddy was the paradigm for [JTS Brown], for the show I'm directing now, and for any others I might do. They set the bar impossibly high and reached it, and have inspired me and countless others to do the same.” And the final word goes to Ms. Rachel Dratch, “I remember standing backstage and hearing the One Mint Julep music come up before every show and just feeling so lucky to be a part of it. If I had to watch from the audience, I don't know what I would have done! But thinking of Jazz Freddy reminds me of all the joy and fun and art of improv…”
Jazz Freddy, Fall '92 (with the light crew and stage manager):
Peter Gwinn, Brian Stack, Kevin Dorff, Chris Reed,
Shannon Cummings, Miriam Tolan, Dave Koechner, Pete Garner, Stephanie Howard, Noah Gregoropoulos, Susan McLaughlin, Jimmy Carrane, Nathan "Peanut" Gumley, Pat Finn, Rachel Dratch, Wendy West
Thanks to former Jazz Freddy intern Peter Gwinn for this photo!

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Read Geeking Out with...Brian Stack
in which he says, 
"...once before a writers' meeting, I pretended to shoot Brian McCann in the leg.  He sang a happy little song on the spot about having 'bullet-proof legs,' so I shot him in the chest and he fell off his chair, dead. Apparently, only his legs were bulletproof."


Catch up on past improv geek-a-thons:
Geeking Out with…Dave Pasquesi  of TJ and Dave
...David Razowsky of iO West
…with Joe Bill of BASSPROV
...Charna Halpern, co-founder of iO Theatre
...Jimmy Carrane of The Improv Nerd podcast
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 Show 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! And get it all at 

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