Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Geeking Out with...Susan Messing (Part One)

By Pam Victor

[“Geeking Out with…” is a series of super improv-geeky interviews 
with well-known, highly experienced improvisers. 

If you could use three words to describe Susan Messing, what would they be?

The "loving, fearless, talented"
Susan Messing
“Loving, fearless, talented.”
-Tim Meadows (Saturday Night Live, Uncle's Brother)

“Well, it will be hard to sum up my friend Susan in 3 words...
I'll try but I will make it 6 with adjectives:
Fiercely Loyal
Endlessly Generous

Beautifully Imaginative.”
-Kate Duffy (iO Theater, The Second City)

“Lovely, vulgar, original.”
-TJ Jagodowski (TJ and Dave)

“Brilliant, caring, fearless.”
-Mark Sutton (BASSPROV)

“Wild, silly, playful and loving.”
 – Jet Eveleth (iO Theater)

“Ebullient, welcoming, sincere, and if I had one more – fearless.”
 - Angela V. Shelton (Frangela)

“Mama Chicago Improv"
 – Jonathan Pitts 
(Executive Director, Chicago Improv Festival Productions) 
Jonathan continues, “She hates when I say that, but after Joyce Sloane (the original Mama Chicago Improv) passed away, I say the crown passed to Susan. She's one of the few people who is beloved by every improv theatre and training center in Chicago.”

Most likely, if I continued to poll her friends and colleagues, I would hear piles and piles of more love, respect, and admiration for all that is Susan Messing. But I'll stop myself from polling further because I fear Susan might tell me to relax my crack and stop being so fucking OCD about collecting bullshit quotes about her. (Though I do hope she smiles secretly into her coffee in private pleasure after reading them.) As she said to me after listening to me rub raw my improv musings, “There's just too many cool things to rape, dear goodness, my poor mommy.” Be still my heart - that woman is speakin’ my language. As our interview progressed, I quickly could see why her peers love and respect her so much. Yes, she is all of the above, and much, much more. Ladies and gentlemen, the incomparable Susan Messing!

Susan Messing has been improvising in Chicago for well over two decades, 
and was adorned the title of "Funniest Woman in Chicago" by Chicago Magazine. Susan has performed, taught and/or directed at all the major theaters including The Second City, iO Theater and The Annoyance Theatre. One of the founding members of The Annoyance Theatre, Susan performed as Cindy in their break out hit The Real Live Brady Bunch as well as adapted and directed the critically acclaimed What Every Girl Should Know... An Ode to Judy Blume, plus something like a wadzillion other shows. She currently performs weekly at The Annoyance in Messing with a Friend, and monthly at The Second City with her three-woman show The PlayboysSusan also is an adjunct professor for  DePaul University's Theatre School, and The University of Chicago. She continues to teach at The Annoyance, occasionally at Second City and iO, and will be teaching at Steppenwolf Theatre this summer as well.


PAM VICTOR: Tell me about the first seed of improv that was planted in your heart.

SUSAN MESSING: I was at Northwestern- sophomore year- and I auditioned for their comedy show, The Meow Show. The producer that year was some English guy named Dan Patterson - ended up being the Whose Line is it Anyway? founder. Whatever. I sucked.

Then junior year, there was some sort of audition for an improv group in Chicago at a place called ImprovOlympic. Again, I wasn't cast. But when I graduated with a B.S. (bullshit) in Theatre, and I was still a terrible actress, my thoughts came around again to that place and I started taking classes there. [That was] 1986.
The first three guys I met were Rich Laible, Dave Razowsky, and Mick Napier. My life kind of changed forever.

PAM: It seems like that time, that era, in Chicago was a golden time. I mean, there were so many people who just came together and...stuck.

SUSAN: Yup. Looking back, it was incredible. These people now run comedy. Seriously. However, at the time, we were just fucking around, trying to be the best performers we could be, getting fucked up, and laughing. Pretty incredible in retrospect.

I wrote incredible twice. So it must have been pretty great.


SUSAN: And we had no idea how much our work would blow up. We were just hanging out, making up fun shit.

Sometimes it makes me sad that people have quite the agenda now in their work. I always felt that having more fun than anyone made great work happen with great results. But then again, it was a different time.

PAM: Is there even a space in Chicago these days for people who just want to have fun and make stuff up?

SUSAN: Yes. I don't care what peoples' reasoning is for doing it. If they just want to be famous, that's nice, but know that you can also get famous for killing a busload of kids. Know that I don't recommend that.

PAM: Hahahaha. Exactly.

SUSAN: There is always a space for doing anything, including this work, primarily for joy. Sure. Frankly, I think it makes the ride much easier.

PAM: I do improv because I have to or I would wither on the vine. Why do you do improv?

SUSAN: It's my favorite way to create and I get to play. Simple.

And I have brilliant friends and I get to make up shit with them and then it's over.
And then I get to do it again. Forever.

PAM: What a blessing. 

Would you consider Mick Napier to be the first real guiding force for your development as an improviser?

SUSAN: Well, Charna [Halpern] was my first teacher and then John Harrizal, Del - and Mick was my first coach and one of my first teachers. I think Mick's influence on me was his style of comedy. It made so much sense to me, twisted, perverse, uncensored...

All of my teachers, including Don DePollo, Michael Gellman, John Michalski, Cary Goldenberg, had some sort of influence on me, but Mick's comic sensibilities spoke to me. And of course, I was completely influenced by the brilliant talent of my friends. I have always just felt lucky not to get kicked offstage. I think I'll always feel that way.

PAM: So which friends are you referring to from back then?

SUSAN: Shit. They're all great. I don't want to make it sound like I'm dropping names. Look at iO, The Annoyance and Second City and mix and match from 1986 - present. Seriously. I've either played with them, cried with them, partied with them, slept with them...

PAM: Ha. Ok. What improv philosophies do you feel you learned from Mick Napier that continue to serve you well today?

SUSAN: The best way to take care of your partner is to take care of yourself so they don't have to worry about you. The first three seconds of the scene is your promise to the audience of WHO you will be. You don't know what the scene is until the fucker's over. That if you're onstage you belong there...

And he's had such a sense of play and whimsy in this shit that I couldn't help but agree with it all. And it works.

I love iO and Second City too...However, I think through time we've turned this shit into rocket science and that can get to be too much. Improv is no longer your bastard cousin of creation. It's everywhere and used for all sorts of creative shit, and it's pretty amazing at how legit it's become in the artistic world. I never thought that today I'd be teaching and performing all over the place, including universities. Odd.

Charna spoke to the CERN people - the fancy particle physicists - I mean what the fuck, right???

PAM: Wow. One of my mentors, Will Luera, is what I consider to be an improv physicist, so actually that makes perfect sense to me. Plus - and forgive me if this is too woo-woo for you - I actually think the lessons from improv are all the very best lessons for living a good life.

SUSAN: Absolutely.

PAM: So it is a relief to me that smart people are looking to improv for guidance.

SUSAN: Sure.

PAM: But what the fuck did the CERN people want from iO?

SUSAN: These fuckers hate each other. Each one thinks the others' ideas are for shit. So no one collaborates. But out of one "shit" idea can come brilliance. The "shit" idea might ultimately be dropped, but it got the ball rolling. So we agree and add and there you go...even particle physicists.

PAM: Especially particle physicists.

SUSAN: Go figure.But everyone comes out with a little more focus, maybe more compassion for others, and comedy's a brilliant, brilliant teaching tool for everyone, whether you want to be a comedian or not.

PAM: Tell me about The Annoyance back in the day. Seems like it was crazyfuncrazy.

SUSAN: The Annoyance used to be referred to as "The Island of Misfit Toys”…It was a freak show…irreverent and uncensored. That's not a right as a comedian; that's a luxury. And when you walk into the Annoyance, the comedy is completely protected in that you can do and say whatever you want. There are few places in the world that let you do that, and you don't take that lightly. If comedy isn't protected, the audience doesn't feel like they can laugh, and that's not very good when you're doing comedy.

PAM:  So just set your history straight for me. Your first formal improv training and experience was at iO? You land first in Charna's lap?

SUSAN: Uh huh,and it was the perfect place to land. I'm so glad that I started it all at ImprovOlympic with her, John, and Del. And then I worked with a group called Metraform at the same time, which became the Annoyance, while I was studying at Second City. And then, twelve years later I did Mainstage at Second City.

PAM: Good grief, woman. How absolutely lovely.

SUSAN: It certainly didn't suck.

PAM: Sorry. I just got stalled by a moment of reverence.

SUSAN: In retrospect it's pretty insane but at the time it made perfect sense to me. And I don't think I would have or could have done it any other way. I'm way grateful for the ride.

Susan Messing

PAM: Gratitude is the key word.

SUSAN: Always.

PAM: Ok, back to your first years at iO. It sounds like you and Charna have had a pretty rollercoastery relationship, which must have been really tough since she had the keys to the kingdom at the time (and still does). It seems like she was HARD on you, Susan. What helped you stick it out while other women were quitting?

SUSAN: I was a masochist and I knew that one day I'd be able to do it. Charna gave me the hard note. And I had no spine but that's ok. She's one of my VERY best friends now, but at the time...

PAM: Wait a minute. You can't have no spine but still have the conviction to stick it out. (Ok, maybe you can, but...)

SUSAN: Masochist.

PAM: Really? You liked that she was being hard on you?

SUSAN: Not in the literal translation, no. I'm sure it would have been MUCH easier had she liked me; but even if the messenger was a tough ass, the message was good. And it didn't kill me, and I developed a spine.

She's much mellower on her students now.

PAM: That’s a relief! What was she giving you such a hard time about?

SUSAN: You know what? I have no fucking idea.

PAM: Ha!

SUSAN: All I know is that when I was put as "the girl" on the "D" team that became Blue Velveeta, they treated me like a gem and automatically I was a gem to them, so there you go. Mick was our coach and he was brilliant, and all of a sudden my work was like night and day.

PAM: You flourished with the support.

SUSAN: I think that positive reinforcement seems to work better than negative. Some would disagree. I don't give the rough notes unless someone can handle it or is fucking up the dynamic so much that you've got to deal with it. And I'm not interested in embarrassing people in front of others. I've always felt that it's MY job to adjust MY semantics so that THEY'LL get it.

Look, my ride is different from others - many people flourish from equal and opposite direction - and I could only be who I was at the time that I was that.

PAM: Amen.

SUSAN: I try to give people a break or the benefit of the doubt until I can't, and then I rip new assholes and take no prisoners.

PAM: LOL.  You worked with Del Close for many years, and it seems like he was instrumental in your development as an improviser. What was it about Del that made him such a powerful teacher and guide?

SUSAN: Del didn't teach me as much as he AFFIRMED me. When I had his approval, it meant the world to me. I throw the word "brilliant" around a lot, but he really was, and since there was no fucking way that I could even have a decent exchange of ideas with him because he was so so so damn smart, I just chose to love him and he loved me back. People kind of forgot he was human because he was such an icon, so I approached him a little differently than maybe most people. He seemed intimidating but I kind of ignored that.

And I miss him.

PAM: I bet. Tell me who Del was to you. Was his softer with you than with other people, do you think?

SUSAN: Definitely. I don't think that many people hugged the guy. People were very intimidated by him. He could give you a note in class that made you wish the floor opened up and swallowed you, but I tried to ignore that. I don't know. I just found him to be really human, and most people didn't approach him emotionally and that's how I lead. So I kind of broke that barrier, and I'd like to think that he liked that. He was such a good man to me.

PAM: I think that is the most tender description of Del Close I've ever heard.

SUSAN: I just simply loved him. He was a great guy, and although I think he'd be very amused and pleased at how people have made him a sort of comedy god. Underneath it all, he was just a really good man who kind of shut that down a bit later in life, and I refused to keep the door shut.

I have a really cool picture of him from maybe his SC years, and he's vibrant and sly and just an all around groovy guy. I don't think he really lost that in my eyes.

PAM: What lessons about improv do you still carry with you today from Del? (I fear that's a hard question because so much of everyone else's lessons are built on Del's.)

SUSAN: I do believe that it's important to treat each other like artists and heroes and the audience with respect. I do believe you should play at the top of your intelligence; although in character work I think our opinions aren't the same as he didn't really give a shit about character work.

Working together to create immediate brilliance is possible. Improv is not just a means to an end...

...and I love longform so there you go.
"...and I love longform so there you go."
Susan Messing

PAM: Me too.

You have a reputation as an amazing teacher. More than one person has done the “I’m not worthy” hands when describing your teaching style.

SUSAN: Oh dear that's nice. Glad I'm not just shitting into the breeze.

PAM: No, Susan Messing. You are definitely not shitting into the breeze…and if you are, your shit shrapnel has landed all over the land. In a good way.

SUSAN: Aw. That's most sweet.

PAM: What do you enjoy most about teaching improv?

SUSAN: I guess I'm into the epiphany; I like seeing them get it and fly. I like telling them they're right and then making them more right. I like pulling comedy out of commitment and recommitment to their choices. I like supporting them in joy and discovery instead of standing around inventing tiresome clever.

I like good table manners.

I like pretty pictures.

I like them figuring out how they can access their brilliance - and for selfish reasons - it'll only make it easier for me to play with them later on if we happen to meet each other on stage....if I haven't been kicked off yet because they've discovered that I'm a hack.

PAM: You are the most marvelous combination of steely balls and soft, self-depreciator. If you don't mind my saying.

SUSAN: I am not for the faint of heart but if you can handle the messenger you'll definitely get the message.

PAM: Speaking of your way with words...When I told people that I was interviewing you, they frequently said, “Ask her about the exercise named _______.” (Fill in the blank with a wonderfully profane title.) You are famous for creating great exercises with wicked name. Can you tell me about some of them?

SUSAN: “Doublemint Twins Get Fucked Up the Ass”? “Good Morning Fucko”? That just helps to keep us interested, I guess. I'm an improviser - I'm sure I'll make up something tomorrow with an even more hateful name, but I love that it's entered the general lexicon.

PAM: Ha! What can we learn from “Doublemint Twins Get Fucked Up the Ass”?

SUSAN: Sharing energy. Discovery vs. invention. Listening. Building a scene. Some basics, but the exercise is maddening and frankly the comedy comes from the struggle to do it more than anything. When it's over, they're so happy to have their own opinions back they actually use them. I have a lot of reverse psychology stuck in there.

we expand on the source of Susan’s ability to appear balls out amazing,
discuss the role of motherhood in her approach to improv as well as
mull over many other profane and profound improv topics.


If you like groovy-geeky improv stuff, you might enjoy
The Zen of Improv series, 
which contemplates improvisation and 
mind-expanding ideas like non-judgment, joy, and curiosity. 


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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