Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Geeking Out with...Charna Halpern (Part Two)

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 a Chicago Reader article from 2002, Conan O’Brien writer Kevin Dorff said, "Charna created a space for us to be fully committed to our ideas and not fear failure." As Charna Halpern and I continue our geek out/mind meld from Geeking Out with…CharnaHalpern (Part One,) it becomes  more and more clear how much space she has created - and continues to create - for developing comedians hoping to make the whole world laugh. Training true comedians is not easy work, and neither is mixing art and business. At times, Charna Halpern’s no-nonsense methods rub people the wrong way. However the fact thatiO Theatre consistently produces a supremely high level of improvised comedic theater is undeniable testimony to the singular force that is Charna Halpern. In my humble opinion, improvisers owe her thanks for creating, maintaining, and growing iO Theatre. Speaking for myself alone, I am most grateful for her work and dedication to this art form that makes my life so much richer. (You probably think I’m a suck up for writing that - and sure, if you shouldn’t suck up to Charna in this business, who should you suck up to? - but be that as it may, this is what I honestly believe to be true.) I am grateful for iO Theatre, past, present, and future.
* * * 

PAM: How do you interpret Del's ‘geniuses, poets, and artists’ quote. I love it, and I use it all the time.

Charna and Del
(Photo courtesy of
iO Theatre)
CHARNA: It’s about treating each other’s ideas as if they are the most brilliant things we've ever heard. Respecting each other’s ideas because we believe in the genius of each other. I have a story for you…

PAM: I can't wait.

CHARNA: A number of years ago, I got a call from Kevin Dorff who was a writer on the Conan O’Brien Show, along with other iO alumni Brian Stack, Jon Glazer and Brian McCann. Kevin said, "Charna, you will be so proud when you hear what just happened today." They wrote a bit for the show, and in rehearsal Conan said he didn’t like it because it was too close to a movie that had just come out. He asked if they could come up with something else. So they all walked over to the edge of the stage and in minutes they had something else.

Conan said, "This is brilliant. How did you come up with something so brilliant so fast?"

Kevin Dorff
Kevin said, "We’re an iO team."

The meaning behind this story is that if Brian McCann has an inkling of an idea, Kevin Dorff is going to think, “Well, if Brian thinks this is funny, there must be something to it ‘cause Brian is a genius.” So Kevin adds to it. Then McCann thinks to himself, “Well if Dorff and Stack think this is funny, I’ll add to it ‘cause those guys are geniuses.” And in seconds, because of how they treat and respect each other, they created brilliance. And they use this philosophy in their work daily and thought I would be happy to see how it works.

PAM: That is a great story. At iO, I learned a lot about suspending judgment on stage too.

CHARNA: Yeah. Who wants to work with an asshole who says, “NO, my idea is better”?

That’s why iO people get so much work. People want to work with others who follow that philosophy, so they tend to come back and "throw down the rope," so to speak.

PAM: But, c'mon Charna. We don't all work with Brian Stack and Dorff. Chances are, we're going to play with some duds now and then. It's hard to imagine them as geniuses.


PAM: Hahaha. Yes. I know. It's my biggest flaw on stage. And I'm my own worst judge too. (I'm working on it!)

CHARNA: Look at someone like TJ [Jagodowski.] I’ve seen him take people from the audience and play with them. Tara DeFrancisco takes brand new students who have no skills at all and makes them brilliant. Everything is used and everything works. “Judge not lest ye be judged.” (Oops, God just took over the keyboard for a second. I apologize.)

And even if someone isn’t brilliant that night, even if someone comes up with a lame idea by accident because they are totally blocked, let's not forget we also get laughs by agreement. So when the other player takes that lame idea and agrees - and commits to using it - the audience howls.

That’s not to say we shouldn’t always try to come up with the best ideas. Let’s not purposely test this theory. But we get laughs through agreement, especially when we are put to the test of accepting the lame idea.

PAM: That's an excellent point, Charna. One of my favorite things about writing this series is that I get to work on, read and re-read, and really ingest important concepts like the one above. Thank you.

My next question is, what is the interplay between judgment and assessment? We are not supposed to judge ourselves or others on stage, but does that extend to after the show too? What role does assessment play, of our own work and the work of others, in improv?

CHARNA: I definitely think folks can and should talk after a show to assess what went well and what went wrong. Absolutely. But keep in mind, it’s all in the semantics. You can say something to let someone know what you meant to do and not come off ACCUSATORY. It’s important to talk about what worked and what didn’t work and why, so you can work on the problem next time.

You know, that’s how many of the rules we have today were created. Del called them the "Kitchen Rules” because they came about in Elaine May’s apartment after a show one night. They were trying to figure out what went wrong. They decided that instead of saying no to an idea, they would say yes. And if they got a flat tire and someone said, "Do you have a car jack?" the answer would be yes. They would always have what they needed. That way things would move along in the scene. The rules of agreement came about after assessing a show that went horribly wrong.

PAM: At iO, I experienced the benefits of really, truly working with a team who took care of each other. I am not exaggerating that the intensive was one of the happiest five weeks of my life. I made 13 friends for life, and I know any of them would do anything for me at the drop of a hat. As I would for them. On stage or off. [Readers, if you’re debating attending the summer intensive at iO, I say do it! Do it now!]

Charna, this won’t go in the article, but for the record, our Week One teacher Lyndsay Hailey was instrumental in bonding our team. I've told her this many times, but I want you to know that the information that Lyndsay taught me serves me every SINGLE time I walk on stage. And I reference her sayings very frequently with my home team. Her style and message really resonated with me. I adore her...and I am pretty sure we were her favorite team of the summer, if not all time. I know you appreciate her, but I wanted to give her a shout-out off the record.

CHARNA: Put this in. She deserves it. She is a great teacher and one of my closest friends. She and Tara [DeFrancisco] and I went to the psychic together. One of the things the psychic said to me is, "I know you want to be there to give Lyndsay advice on her life, but you must wait until she asks. Don’t keep telling her what to do."
Lyndsay Hailey, Charna Halpern, Tara DeFrancisco
[Photo courtesy of Tara DeFrancisco]

I said, "Yeah that’s not gonna happen." The psychic almost fell off her chair. (This can go in the article too.)

I love Lyndsay. She and Tara love the students, love iO. I’d be lost without them.

PAM: Fantastic.

CHARNA: I’m so glad that she gave you that important lesson and those friendships. That’s what separates iO from the rest. It’s HOME.

PAM: By the way, I give Lyndsay unsolicited advice too!

CHARNA: Well, she better just listen to me.

PAM: Maybe we're giving her the same advice?

Back to the subject of the iO curriculum…Is it correct that in its original design, Level Two was what is now Level Three? I understand that Susan Messing designed the current Level Two, which is focused on character, is that right? Can you talk about iO’s philosophical approach to creating character?

And before you anticipate my next question, here it is: I have heard that Del encouraged students to wear character as “thin veils”? Can you explain to me what that means to you?

CHARNA: Yes, Level Three was Two, but we moved it because people wished they had it later when they can appreciate it.

Del use to say, "Wear your character like a straw boater. Light enough to tip it and reveal yourself." You take on these characteristics and bring yourself to it to make it three-dimensional. What would you be like if you were a serial killer? I remember when Jeffrey Dalmer was caught with all the heads in his fridge after he ate the people. But the neighbor said he was a nice guy who used to mow his lawn. Yes, he was just like you and me, but he happened to eat people.

You can bring some humanity to anything with some added characteristics - that one little thing that may set you off. It’s the idea of, “What would I be like if I were that person?” That’s one of the things Susan works on, and there is some cool group work too.

PAM: I find the concept of wearing one’s character very lightly - but also with a strong foundation in reality - so interesting. Of course it makes perfect sense.

CHARNA: My favorite example is Carol O’Connor as Archie Bunker [in the TV series All in the Family]. He played an amazing bigot. He was so real. His take was that a bigot was ignorant. He managed to make that statement through his character. He was incredibly real, and the humanity he brought to that character actually made him loveable. Archie Bunker was a great guy - he just didn’t want any black people in his house.

PAM: Oh dear. Ha.

CHARNA: Did you ever see that show? It was amazing.

PAM: Of course I watched that show. Everybody did.

CHARNA: That’s character work.

PAM: It really was.

CHARNA: Some folks nowadays are so young they have no idea what I’m talking about when I use him as an example. It kills me.

PAM: Yeah, All in the Family doesn't transport through time well. You had to be there.

CHARNA: Dick Van Dyke was amazing too. So honest in everything. His body was his tool.

PAM: Definitely. The man had funny bones, so he didn't have to do anything.

In classes at iO, I think I heard the term “grounded” a wadzillion times, much to my improviser heart’s delight. Tell me what that means to you and why it’s such a great focus at iO.

CHARNA: It just refers to strong scene work. Strong relationships as opposed to totally being lost up there.

PAM: I don’t want to put you in the position of playing favorites, but I’m curious what team or show do you think optimizes the iO philosophy?

PAM: That's what I figured.

CHARNA: Also Whirled News Tonight. Those folks have a high reference level, and show how the news of the day affects our lives. They are great.  

PAM: Have you seen any shows or players lately outside of iO that have gotten you really excited about improv?

CHARNA: In Canada, I was hired to direct some folks from Edmonton and New York and some other cities. They were the best from the previous festivals who were invited back this year to work with me and to put up a show. (Mark Meer was one - you folks can Google him.) They were inspiring and reinvigorated me to come back and teach an advanced level. These folks took to everything I showed them like fish to water. They killed. Excellent improvisers and most of them were actually just actors. Just brilliant people.

Lucas Neff with iO veteran Craig Cackowski
who perform The Better Half 
at iO West
Also Lucas Neff from Raising Hope. He has been sitting in whenever he is in town, and he plays in a show at iOWest. He was never trained as an improviser, but has such tremendous respect for the work. He loves iO. He did lots of shows last week, and he was fantastic. It was exciting watching someone just doing what comes naturally and being successful.

PAM: I think it’s key that the people you just mentioned are actors.

Speaking of TV, I’m so curious about what your conversations with Lorne Michaels are like when he comes around scouting for Saturday Night Live.

CHARNA: He is very sweet and very appreciative and complimentary. He is always blown away by the showcases I’ve put up for him, and he tells me he depends on the iO training. I loved that.

The one thing he said to me that was the most important thing ever, happened years ago. I put up an improv show with some of the best people. My folks were so giving to each other. It was a musical. They literally handed the spotlight to each other, so that everyone had a moment. He recognized that and was in awe. Usually folks try to take the spotlight and are only concerned with themselves. He couldn’t believe how caring and giving the folks were to each other. That makes folks look like they aren’t desperate that way. I was pleased he saw that. And that’s probably why he comes back year after year.

(Boy, am I writing too much?)

PAM: (Are you kidding???? I'm loving it!)

So many people come through your theater to get a chance to be on SNL. What do you advise them is the best path for an improviser to transition to comedy on the screen?

CHARNA: First, I tell people not to come here to be on SNL or to be famous. You need to come here because you love the work. If you love the work you will come to the shows, your classes, and play as much as you can. Then you will get good and rise to the top. Those who come here to be famous usually have nervous breakdowns. When you get good folks will notice you.

Everyone’s path is different. Sometimes writing is a great path, but you end up not performing for a long time. But it gets you into that world. But SNL isn’t the only path. Write for a talk show. Create videos. Lots of things are happening with folks who post videos. I’m creating a network with a woman, so that we can create pilots. We have so much talent here. We don’t have to go to Comedy Central to sell stuff anymore. It’s a new day.

CHARNA: A unique idea. I’d love to see it. [Pam plotzes, but still puts in a link to her show.]

PAM: What would the best path for a person who wants to have a career in improv – not to get on TV, not to work at Second City, not as a mean to an ends. I mean, a career in the pure art of improvisation strictly for its own pleasure? (I think there are exactly seven people making a living successfully at improvisation; but I’m an eternal optimist, which is why I ask.)

CHARNA: Probably to have a different job to pay your bills, so that you can improvise at night and not worry about making money. Lots of folks do that. I have lawyers at iO that are brilliant -  Rush Howell and Gianni Cutri - they should be stars, but they love their jobs. But on stage, they are career improvisers.

PAM:  It sucks that improv doesn't pay. I know way too many people who do jobs they don’t love only to afford their improv habit. Just the other day, a friend of mine bemoaned, “I just want to support myself creatively, so I can do more improv.”

It baffles me that improv comedy doesn’t pay well. Musicians get paid more per gig than the vast majority of improvisers, even at the top theaters. Can you please speak to the financials of improv? Why doesn’t being a genius, poet, and artist pay better?

CHARNA: First let me say that some improvisers can support themselves. People like Tara and Lyndsay teach here, then do road show and corporate gigs. Some do commercials. So it can be done. But again, you have to be on the top of your game for that to happen. TJ and Dave do commercials and voiceover work and movies, but there is a struggle until you get there. It doesn’t happen overnight. But it can happen.
Speaking for myself, for the newer improvisers - and there are hundreds - performance is part of their learning process. If I were going to hire performers for a salary, I’d hire ten and cut two hundred. I don’t think folks would like that. They want the chance to get good and performance does that.

PAM: Ah. Very interesting. Just a few improvisers get paid to perform at iO, yes?

CHARNA: I have incredible expenses to run a theater. It costs around $80,000 a month just to keep the doors open. The top shows get a healthy percentage of the door. But I can’t pay 300 new performers. Every time you pay someone, you pay payroll tax and workers comp…it costs a lot of money just to pay someone. I help folks get agents and outside work when they are ready, and I give them the shot when they are ready for it as well, like letting Lorne see them. But with rent and property tax and the bullshit the city gives you…let’s just say, people think you are rich when you own a theater. They have no clue what’s really going on.

PAM: Yeah. I'm not pointing fingers at you or iO. But it makes me sad, in general, that musicians would never do a gig for free, but we do it habitually. Even regular stage actors get paid.

CHARNA: I’m not feeling paranoid. But I don’t know what musicians you’re talking about. They have it just as bad. They rarely make money.

PAM: I don't know that many musicians who would do a gig for free. Improv is a financially under-appreciated art form.

CHARNA: A club will give musicians a potion of the door and keep the rest. Usually the club owner hasn’t made much, and he hopes liquor sales will make the rest of the nut.

Before I had my own space, I worked in 17 different places. Seventeen - no lie. I was thrown out because the club owners didn’t make enough money on us. Andy Richter had a truck and use to put our set in it, and call me and say, "Where are we going next, Charna?" To this day, he thinks the only reason he stayed on a team was because he had a pickup truck.

PAM: I think the fact that improv is as addictive as heroin might be at the heart of it. Improv has us by the short hairs. We have to do it. I'd rather eat Ramen noodles and improvise than eat steak and not improvise.

CHARNA: You get the bug. John Belushi jumped off Del’s stage in a workshop and said, “THIS IS BETTER THAN FUCKING!”

PAM: I've heard a lot of people say that. LOL.

CHARNA: I ate peanut butter and jelly for a year too. It’s because we want to do that which makes us happiest.

PAM: When it's good, it's soooo good.


PAM: Yeah. And when I'm Queen of the World, improvisers are going to get to perform for the pure joy of it AND get paid like Hollywood royalty.

CHARNA: Hey, it makes you appreciate the good time when they are there. It’s called paying your dues. Tina and Amy ain’t starvin’ now.

But I remember Amy taking me to thrift stores and pulling together an outfit for  two bucks. Of course, she looked cute in anything.

PAM: Amy Poehler couldn't stop herself from being cute.

I'm asking this for folks who are starting out in Chicago and to stoke my faraway dreams of playing at iO. I know there hundreds of improvisers in Chicago who are working their tails off just to get a spot on an iO house team or a Harold team. (Hell, if you would take him, I’d trade in my first born for the chance.) How do you suggest an improviser go about achieving that goal?

CHARNA: Many do it. Just by taking classes. I need to do the training here for quality control. The teams come out of my classes. They get an eight-week run in their Level 5B class, and we can see who is ready. Those who aren’t ready can continue training in electives and audition. I do auditions every six months. If someone really wants it, they can have it.

A who's who of improvlucsciousness
at iO's 25th anniversary
[Photo courtesy of iO Theatre]
PAM: So many amazing comedians have gone through iO training, like Tim Meadows, Chris Farley, Mike Myers, Rachel Dratch, Vanessa Bayer from SNL, Scott Adsit, Jack McBrayer, and John Lutz from 30 Rock, Kate Flannery, Angela Kinsey, and Dave Koechner from The Office, Eric Stonestreet from Modern Family, Wyatt Cenac from The Daily Show…the list goes on and on. Didn’t you train Stephen Colbert too?

CHARNA: Yes, I did train Colbert. He and David Schwimmer [from Friends] were in a college team I trained for my college competition. They were from Northwestern, and their team name was No Fun Mud Piranhas. They were great, and he and I have kept in touch. I visited his show last year. He gave me tickets to bring my entire family to a taping as we were all in New York for my nephew’s wedding. It was a hoot. And by the way, his director and head writer are iO alum.

PAM: I am amazed time and time again that iO Theatre is the unsung hero of the comedy world. I mean, Second City gets all the credit, but the FOUNDATION of the comedy world was built by iO!


PAM: Last question: What is something about Charna Halpern that people might be surprised to know?

CHARNA: Hmmmm. I’m the type of person who wants to help everyone. Most people don’t know me well enough and some fear me. I also have a great sense of humor and sometimes the kids don’t expect that. So they don’t know I might be doing a bit, and they take something I said seriously. I like to goof around. That would surprise people.

PAM: Excellent. I was half-hoping you would admit to sleeping with Andy Dick, but that was good too.

CHARNA: I’d never admit to sleeping with Andy Dick. 

* * *
Check out Geeking out with...TJ Jagodowski 
in which TJ says of improvisation, 
"It’s life, but a little bit better when you improvise. 
You’re your best self."

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
…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.

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 comment:

  1. Another great article! Thanks Pam for asking the questions we are all curious about! :)