Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Geeking Out with...TJ Jagodowski (Part Three)

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.]

In this third and final installation of my special, in-person geek out session with TJ Jagdowski, we continue to bat around improv theory and technique. As you’ll read in this interview, TJ modestly attests he continually strives to follow the path of least resistance when improvising. He claims it’s simply the “easiest” method. But, c’mon boys, if improv merely was a matter of doing what’s easiest, we’d all be f’n rock stars playing to a packed house every Wednesday at 11pm in the Cabaret at iO Theatre.

Nevertheless, if you want to get all deep ‘n shit together - let's pretend for a moment we're making mental love to our philosophical ideas as we’re sitting on the floor in a smoky dorm room - I understand that TJ’s “easy” theory of improvisation actually is the same as the most masterful approach to improv. In my eyes, the beauty of a TJ and Dave show is found in the simplicity of their process for the deceptively complex Zen of it. To appreciate a great TJ and Dave show is to revel in simple complexity of a snowflake or a DNA strand. Absolute elegance.

As David Yazbek wrote in the New York Times (Theater Talkback: Finding Inspiration in Improvisation, September 6, 2012) “…T.J. and Dave are like jazz musicians at the top of their game. They clearly are naturally gifted, but decades of acting and improvising have honed their considerable storytelling tools so that they’re fully equipped to go to The Place Where It All Comes From, the place that Buddha and Jesus and these days Oprah talk about—The Now.”  

Easy, right?

PAM VICTOR: This is going to make you a little bit uncomfortable.

TJ JAGODOWSKI: Is this another compliment thing?

PAM: Sorry. It’s not a compliment. Maybe you’ll see it as a bad thing?

TJ: I hope. It’s a lot easier then.

PAM: People seem to enjoy working with you as a scene partner. When I’ve talked to people around, they really love playing with you. Some people say you’re the most supportive player they’ve played with.

TJ [joking]: Every laugh is mine. People better stay the hell out of my way. Don’t take my light. You’re here to serve me up softballs. And everyone knows that. And everyone is terrified of me. That’s why they say nice things. That’s how that goes.

PAM [trying again]: What if I wanted to become a good support play-

TJ [interrupting]: Can’t do it. Can’t be done. [Pam laughs, and then TJ addresses the question.]

You be the kind of player you want to play with.  I [have] a pretty acute awareness of what it’s like to be alone there, so it’s so nice not to be alone there with someone. For that amount of time…you’re kind of clinging to life with one other person in the world-

PAM: Even in an Armando, which is a big cast of extraordinarily capable players, you seem to hold the net under…

TJ: No way. No way.

PAM: I mean this is a totally bad way…

TJ: I’m dropping banana peels all over that place for people. Nothin’ but landmines and banana peels that I’m dropping.

No, I hold no net. I usually just walk onto a scene that’s already good. Wait for other people to do the hard work and then make an entrance. That’s the easiest way.

PAM [sarcastically]: Yeah, and then you tell jokes. [Speaking of which,] it seems in TJ and Dave sometimes, you do allow yourselves a string of jokes. You’re playing the game of a scene.

TJ: We’ve wandered across a couple, yeah. I think more often than not those usually happen once the body of the show is already there.

PAM: Definitely. It’s usually around three-quarter mark, that I’ve observed.

TJ: Wow. You’ve got this thing down…We do also sometimes remember that it’s also supposed to be a pretty good time. And if it tickles us, we don’t shy away from it; in the same way that ideally we don’t shy away from something that makes us really uncomfortable as well. But, yeah, if something is funny and fun and it doesn’t hurt the show- I think we’re acutely aware of that. If it feels like this thing is capable of flight, then we can start messing around a little bit. But until that work is done, I don’t think we-
A TJ and Dave show featuring
Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright
Tracy Letts,
who is feeling up TJ at this moment
(Summer 2012)

PAM: -you wouldn’t dare, [make a joke] at the expense of the show.

TJ: Only because it makes it harder. If you don’t have something good going on, and you start doing a run of stupid garbage, it’s going to be hard to get the show going. So it’s truly just a matter of it’s easier to do it later on once you feel you’ve got your footing.

PAM: The [Susan] Messing quote – when I was talking to her about the games you sometimes play – was, “It’s unfortunate but we ARE comedians, so sometimes we’re funny.

TJ: Yeah. Occupational hazard.

PAM: Exactly. My favorite example of that was actually at the UMass show when you played this guy Cal who was in a donut show, and he was obese. And you were cracking up Dave, which is one of my favorite things to see.

TJ: It’s one of my favorite things too.

PAM: Because your character was really funny…or just struck him as funny because he was so…[Pam is trying desperately to remember a show from months and months ago]…fat-

TJ: I don’t know if was that. Dave doesn’t just laugh at heavy people.

PAM: No! It wasn’t just because you were fat! You were saying- I wish I could remember better… [TJ is mocking Pam by doing a caricature of a fat guy. Pam plays along.] Oh yeah, anytime you do a fat person…

TJ: Yeah, Dave will love this. [Pam is laughing, so embarrassed.] Yeah. Dave laughs at fat people, the handicapped. That’s all it takes. Kids being attacked by animal, he laughs at that…

PAM: Oh, I’m not good at remembering shows…but it was really funny…

TJ: I like watching David laugh.

PAM: It is fun.

TJ: It is fun.

PAM: And it seems to make you more grounded. You won’t break at those moments-

TJ: I find nothing funny anymore. That’s why I won’t break. Because nothing is funny. [Laughter.]
 Here's the video of Pam looking like a dodo
because she can't remember the details of a show.

PAM: What is your interpretation of Del Close’s commandment for improvisers treat each other as “geniuses, poets and artists”?

TJ: I think, again, it makes it easier. And people tend to rise to expectations or lower to expectations. I think it’s in that way that Dave talks about: You may as well shoot to be great, and maybe you’ll rise to that level. Shoot to be middling, I’m sure you’ll probably hit that. It’s a more lovely way to live.

PAM: Do you consider yourself an artist, genius, poet?

TJ: No. But I would like if other people considered me that. [Laughs.] If people treated me like an artist, a genius and a poet that maybe I would live up to it. No, but it’s a helluva thing to strive for.

PAM: How does your mom describe your profession?

TJ: Pathetic disappointment?

PAM: I know that’s not true.

TJ: Do you want me to call her? Let’s get her on the horn. [TJ calls his mom. She was playing trivia, so she called us back at the end of our time together.]

PAM: When I was interviewing Dave, he talked about following the thread - building the scene brick by brick, going step by step, the next little thing and then the next little thing - and I was interested in knowing how you know which thread to follow. And he talked about [following] the one that makes you the most scared, the one where the fear is, as the more interesting one to follow.

TJ: Right.

PAM: I don’t understand that.

TJ: Let’s see if I can come up with an example... We’re doing a husband and wife scene, and he has a feeling that I have been unfaithful and I’m still being unfaithful. We’re also getting ready to go out to a charity event. So, we can either – and this is a pretty ham-fisted example – we can either talk about how much we like this charity and how much we want to save the zoo animals, or we can get into the fact that after 16 years of marriage, me, who you were committed to for the rest of your life, you’re making a fool out of and with someone I know. So there’s the one thread and there’s the [other] thread.

Talking about zoo animals is not a very frightening prospect. Getting into an actual, hurtful, hard, grinding, grueling conversation of the reality of what it means to be an adulterer and to be unfaithful and hurt someone that you love is a little scary. So that’s where you go.

Coincidentally, usually the thing that’s more scary is also going to sustain you a lot more. The conversation about zoo charity is not probably going to take you through the next 40 minutes of that show. It’s not going to be as useful. Getting into this emotional reality is going to seem like it’s the harder, scarier thing. But it’s actually the more sustainable, the more worth while, and in the long run the easier thing to do because it’s going to take care of you longer and give you more places to go and more things to feel, more stuff to do.

PAM: I think people might also be afraid to take that path because as soon as we do that, we’ve called out the deal of the scene, and then what do we do?

TJ: Then you do the next thing after that! You ever watch a scene where you know someone’s going to get fired, but they think that’s the end of the scene, so they find a way to stall for four minutes before they let someone go? Fire that person. Something is going to happen after that.

When in life do you think, “Oh my gosh. We shouldn’t do this because then that ends everything”? There’s always the thing after that. Like, “I’m not going to tell this person I love them because what’ll happen after that?” Go ahead and do it because there is nothing worse than stalling out an audience whose already waiting at a finish line while you meander towards it, thinking that’s where it ends. You never know where it’s going to end. It doesn’t end until someone tells you it’s over. There will be something else to do.

Watch this movie.
PAM: So in your movie, your great movie-

TJ: Ah, my great movie, yes.

PAM: Your oeuvre.

TJ [joking]: I’m glad we finally got to my “great movie.”

PAM: …you say that you need improv more than improv needs you. I totally relate to that sentiment. I feel like someone doesn’t really know me – my favorite me – until they see me perform-

TJ: I hear you.

PAM: I don’t want to seem dramatic, but if I didn’t have improv…

TJ: It would be a lot harder. It would be a lot tougher.

PAM: It would be. It would be like black and white in that movie Pleasantville. What do you think that’s all about?           

TJ: Oh, I don’t know. I know the part about improv not needing anybody. Improv is fine. It’s fine by itself. It’s fine for thousands of improvisers who have come and gone, and it will be fine for thousands of improvisers who have yet to come.

It’s life, but a little bit better when you improvise. You’re your best self. I don’t know if the adrenaline or whatever is drawn out of you at that moment…you’re more present.

I liken it to like when I was a kid playing chase at night, running through the woods or through people’s backyards. You feel like you can see better and hear everything more. All your senses were heightened in this moment. You could hear every breeze that came through the trees and stuff. That’s what improvising is like. It’s like a more heightened, excited version of you, living in the way you’d like to live all the time but for some reason we don’t. Whatever is going on physiologically, there is something else happening there. I don’t know what’s it’s about, but it real, real good.

PAM: Isn’t it? I go back and forth between it being like a drug or being like nirvana, depending on how evil or good I’m feeling.

TJ: Yeah, it’s like a runner’s high. I guess there is a physiological – dopamine or whatever kicking in – there’s an aspect to that. But then there’s just an aspect to, like, you’re doing the thing you love to do the most. So there is probably a little bit of chemistry and spirituality and psychology…and magic.

PAM [deep, dreamy sigh]: Now I need a cigarette.
Rich Sohn, TJ, and Rebecca Sohn
In Another World
at Annoyance Theatre
(August, 2012)

What do you think is next for you in the improv world? Oh, we already said you don’t have a goal except for having a whisky…

TJ: Yeah, next is-

PAM: Armando on Monday-

TJ: Mmhm. And then next is Chicagoland and Another World on Tuesday. Carl and the Passions and TJ and Dave. Then The Scene on Thursday. Challenger on Friday. And then Armando on Monday…[Laughs.]

PAM: What’s Challenger?

TJ: Challenger is fun. That’s as fast as I get to play.  It’s really quick. It’s late, at midnight, on a Friday.

PAM: At iO?

TJ: Yeah. It’s bang-bang and kind of sloppy and fun and messy and groovy and vulgar and high-minded. Yeah. It’s as fast as I get to play and I enjoy that.

PAM: Peter and I were talking about this on the way over and we wanted to ask you…I’m trying to think how to phrase this so it doesn’t come off like a compliment…

TJ: Just say something awful then.

PAM [searching for more awful-ish words]: So…you are so "bad" at playing confident players…it seems like you’re good at playing vulnerable players. [Laughs. Gives up trying to be awful to TJ.] …I’m still trying to figure out what that means to play vulnerable.

TJ: People root for underdogs, so to play vulnerable allows you to be the lower status person in the relationship. And we love to see those people built up…I haven’t thought about this before, so this will probably be an incomplete thought but…we also like to watch people be impressionable. And if you’re playing a high status hard-ass, you don’t always see those people being impressed upon as much by their partners because they probably feel like, “I have to hold this viewpoint and stuff.” But when you’re vulnerable, you probably have an impression made upon you by just about anything. If you’re insulted, it hits you hard. If it’s a compliment, it hits you hard. So that vulnerability is probably another way to say an openness.

PAM: A willingness to change.

TJ: Yeah. But – we don’t see it as much – a real high status character that is also real vulnerable is probably even more fun than watching low status characters who’s entirely vulnerable because we assume that part. But I think with vulnerability, if you can change that word to be “impressionable” or “open” then I think it’s more universally typical to any aspect of character that you’re playing. And it allows you to be in a place of reaction, which we like watching because it’s almost proof - the proof-positive of improvisation is watching someone’s reaction to something that they didn’t know was coming.  You can think sometimes that someone’s been coming up with that line for a little bit, but you can’t come up with your reaction to it. That has to happen in that second.

PAM: We like to see people change. They have a character arc, which we talked about-

TJ: We like to see people change for a good reason. We like to see people change because they’ve been impressed upon by their partners. Because their partners lead them to a change-

PAM: -an organic change.

TJ: Yeah. We hate watching change for no good reason.

PAM: That’s what I was going to ask. How that jibe with “holding your shit”?

TJ: If you think of it musically, your initial declaration – your initial point of view…holding your shit is that bass beat that you’ve created. But you’re impressed upon, and so you might add something – you add your high-hat to that bass beat. In music, you listen to the Ode to Joy, how it starts. It goes a lot of different places, but you never feel like you lost where it began. And then when it returns to that at the end, it’s like you’ve gone on this trip, and like, “Ah! And that’s the guy I met first! He’s still there!”

It’s your job to grab that point of view, but realize that point of view is not a static bar. It never goes away, but it can move and fluctuate. And if your partner – God bless – gives you enough reasons to be almost an entirely different person by the end, then your partner did one helluva job. I don’t know if you do it great job. But your partner gave you a lot of good reasons to have done this 180.

You’ll watch someone go through any amount and size of change if it’s done for a reason that you believe. If any amount of change for any reason you don’t believe, you’ve just seen someone give up on their shit.

PAM: And I guess that’s another reason to wear your character as a – what do they say? – as a thin veil?

TJ: I never quite understood that phrase.

PAM: Really? Because I think you represent it so well.

TJ: The fact that I don’t understand it may not keep me from representing it. [Laughter.]

PAM: We see TJ on stage. Your character can’t feel anything that you don’t feel.

TJ: Yeah. Then I would disagree with it. Because some of the people I love watching most absolutely vanish. Like Scott Adsit, Steph Weir – they would dis-a-pear. You literally forgot it was them doing it because [they became] some priest right now.

Mr. Jagodowski and Ms. Sohn
in In a World at
Annoyance Theatre
PAM: You don’t think [they’re playing] some weird angle of their personality?

TJ: Probably. Maybe they know that. But for me as a viewer, they weren’t there anymore. And it was thrilling that they got so into that point of view and the body of that person, they went away. I love that….

PAM: But your approach, the way you perform…

TJ: It’s easier for me to come from a place that I understand and that I can be honest about. But, heck, I would love to be able to say I disappeared for a while. I would love if someone was, “I didn’t know that that was TJ because it was just that guy that ran that gas station was the one person that was there.”

PAM [wrapping up the interview]: Ok, I’ll stop now. I only had compliments left.

[A short time later, TJ’s mom, the delightful Maureen Jagodowski, calls back.]

TJ [on the phone to his mom]: I was doing an interview with Pam Victor and Peter, and Pam’s question is how you would describe what Dave and I do? How would describe improvisation and the TJ and Dave show?

MAUREEN: After the word “magical”? [Laughter.]

TJ: Yeah, after that. If you were bringing someone on the bus [TJ’s mom packs a bus full of family and friends to travel from their hometown to the show at the Barrow Street Theatre in New York City,] and they were like, “What the hell are we going to see?”

MAUREEN: You are going to see a thoroughly improvised play…It can be very insightful. It can have tremendously evocative dramatic effects, but always with the ultimate goal of entertaining and leaving you feeling better than when you arrived.

TJ: Holy shit, Ma! Can I steal that?

PAM: How does she describe what you do to her friends when they’re like, “My son is a doctor”?

MAUREEN: …I don’t want them to feel like I’m putting their kids down.

PAM and PETER: Awwww! What a good mom.

MAUREEN: After the word “genius,” I have come up with another way of saying it…It’s like mental calisthenics. It’s incredible to me what you can do. And it’s incredible the situations that you handle…It’s hard for me to explain…so I let them see it-

TJ: -and then make the apologies.

MAUREEN: And then I let them tell me how smart you are and how creative you are and what a genius you are.

It is simply taking a mental image in your head and creating a one-hour, improvised play. And you have complete trust in the person that you are with. You let the other person shine, and in doing so you shine.

TJ [a little choked up]: Perfect, Mama. That was it.

TJ's mom describes
TJ and Dave

If you haven’t already, please read Parts One and Two of my geek out with TJ. And 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. And if you're extraordinarily fortunate to be in Rome, Italy on Friday, November 9th, you can see TJ and Dave perform at at the Arciliuto Theatre, which can be found in the Palazzo Chiovenda, an old residence in Piazza di Montevecchio, dating from the fifteenth century.
Molto elegante!
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!

And "like" the "Geeking Out with..." FACEBOOK PAGE please.
Thank you to Peter Kim
for his geekhood, his friendship, 
and for holding the camera.

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!


  1. Pam,
    Thanks for the great series of interviews.
    I think what was so funny when TJ did that character Cal at UMass was the way he sat just exuded this heaviness, he was leaned back and his arms dangling at his sides in back of his back - I still have the mental image of it and the voice he did in my head.

  2. So you're saying it was funny because TJ was playing fat?!? Ha! Vindicated!