Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Geeking Out with...Jason Shotts

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 here.]

Once in a blue moon, performers get to meet their improv soul mates. Some improvisers wait years. Some of us are still waiting, always looking, forever hoping. And some wind up cudgeled with the lucky stick and get to share the stage every week with their missing piece. Jason Shotts is one of the fortunate few. (I hope you are too.) If you’ve seen DUMMY at iO Chicago, the show Jason Shotts performs with improv soul mate and real-life love Colleen Doyle, you know what it looks like to see performers bend and sway around each other as they seemingly effortlessly weave together shared discoveries in a show that awes, inspires, and entertains. DUMMY was christened “must-see improv” in 2012 by the Chicago Tribune, who went on to croon that Colleen Doyle and Jason Shotts “have that all-important ability to create believable characters in an instant and they displayed what appeared to be a simultaneous (if unspoken) acknowledgment of the direction their narrative should take …”

During his decade-long tenure at iO Chicago, Jason most recently also played with Smokin’ Hot Dad, and he has been a member of several iO teams, such as Henrietta Pussycat, Armando Diaz, Otis, Willie Nelson Slept Here, Cougars, Felt, Brad Renfro, Mayhem, Chesterfield, and Dr. Shotts and Big Rig. Jason also is a valued teacher at iO, receiving in 2011 The Del Close Award for Excellence in Teaching. (Jason notes that he knows that awards mean next to nothing and you should never take them seriously, but he still thinks that one is pretty cool.)

Recently, Jason revealed that he and Colleen Doyle are leaving their beloved Chicago, and there is no doubt that the Chicago improv community mourns yet another big loss to their ranks. But their loss is Los Angeles’ gain, as West Coast audiences now get regular doses of the improv delights served up by DUMMY.

* * *

PAM VICTOR: I pretty much always start with this question - on account of the fact that I'm a secret romantic ...

When did you first fall in love with improvisation?

Jason Shotts and Gary 

JASON SHOTTS: It was back in the fall of 1997. I had just moved to Chicago in August of that year. One member of my circle was working at the Cheesecake Factory with John Lutz. She would go to iO and watch him perform, and one night she took me with her.

I had never seen improv up until that point, and I thought the show was really fun.

PAM: So Lutz is to blame. That was 4Square?

JASON: It wasn't 4Square. I saw two Harolds, and I'm thinking he was on Valhalla at the time. And that night, my friend poked me during the show and pointed backward at a man with a long white beard and she whispered to me, "That's Del Close."

I had no idea what she was talking about.

PAM: Oh wow.

JASON: But I REALLY fell in love with The Jam at iO. The Jam blew my mind.

PAM: It was a short form jam? Where you could come up from the audience?

JASON: Yeah, sort of. Let me back up a little.

PAM: Okee doke. Back up as far as you want. I’m happy to hear it all!

JASON: My roommate and I started going to iO a lot. Friday night and nothing to do? He and I would go to iO. We'd watch pretty much anything, but The Jam slowly started becoming our favorite. Yes, it was short form games and audience members jumping up onstage, but they also preplanned bits and sketches. Weird stuff. Craig Uhlir and Jim Carlson hosted it back then. The show was always different, and we loved how chaotic it was. We'd lose it and come back over and over. I never got onstage; I just loved watching it.

One night, Lutz was there and when he got up out of his chair to do something, the crowd started chanting "LUTZ, LUTZ, LUTZ!" and when he got up onstage, he killed. That night was the first time I realized that improv was something you could be GOOD at and not just ... people onstage screwing around. That kind of melted my face.
John Lutz and Scott Adsit
[Copyright John H. Abbott,
Photographer for CIF]

PAM: LOL. Awesome. I am a big Lutz fan. I love both 2Square (with Peter Grosz) and Scott and John (with Scott Adsit). So so so good.

But you still didn't think at that point that you wanted to try it out for yourself?

JASON: I just watched for four years. Never took a class, never got onstage. Friends always pushed me to take a class, but I was so scared of it. But after four years in Chicago living like a weird vagabond, I signed up for Level A at Second City.

PAM: Four years! Why Second City? Why not iO where you first were drawn in?

JASON: I had another friend who was taking classes at Second City and I think she recommended not starting at iO. I think she put me under the impression that iO would be too advanced for me. She was right. iO would've been too intimidating for me. I had ZERO performance experience and Second City’s beginning classes were perfect for me.

Plus, I didn't imagine I'd ever be an improviser, but I thought I should probably take a class just to see what it would be like. At the time, I was temping, bartending ... I drove a trolley for about a year and a half. I really didn't have any direction, and I guess I was looking for something to stick.

PAM: Interesting. So you had no theater or performance interest up until that point?

JASON: None.

PAM: Woah. And did you have an interest in comedy before that? I mean, aside from a "Haha! John Belushi is funny on TV" sort of interest? (I may have just dated myself. Sorry.)

JASON: You're not dating yourself! I’m no spring chicken.

PAM: Well, I’m a fall chicken.

JASON: I was painfully shy growing up. I didn't have a lot of friends and always felt like an outcast. But I remember the first time I made a classroom laugh at something I said, and it felt AMAZING. The other kids smiled at me and I think that changed me.
Jason Shotts at iO Chicago in Wrigleyville

I love comedy movies. Ghostbusters. Monty Python. Eddie Murphy anything.

PAM: Did you have Eddie Murphy's first album? The one called Eddie Murphy?

JASON: I didn't have albums. I remember seeing his standup on HBO as a kid, Eddie Murphy Raw.

PAM: Right. I think Raw was his second one. I had that first album memorized. We listened to it obsessively in college.


PAM: I still can recite most of it. Except I try not to do it in public because I sound too racist.

JASON: Right? It's really hard to recite anything from Chris Rock without sounding ... terrible. Right?

PAM: Yup. Exactly.

That first album is online (on Spotify), I think. You should listen to the part about when he puts aftershave on his dick. Very funny. And the talking car. And the part about the Pope mobile. And ... well … anyway

JASON: That's something I wish I had more of, comedy albums. Maybe that's how I'll handle getting old? I'll just listen to old standup albums at the library.
If there are still libraries.

PAM: Floating library in space maybe. But they laser beam the album directly into your brain.

JASON: I was just talking about downloading knowledge into our brains like The Matrix.

PAM: Though I don't think we'll have brains by then. Just nerve endings that momentarily process information from the Internet.

Anyway, you were in college - a fan of good comedy and ginormous hamburger jokes - but still not even close to trying out for a play or anything?

JASON: Nope. I was so shy. But I had an interest in filmmaking. I wanted to be Steven Spielberg and make movies. I’d be behind the camera.

PAM: Were you able to overcome the shy boy?

JASON: Yeah, by the time I got to high school, I was a bit of an ass. Sarcastic. Cutting. That carried through into college. The shy boy faded back. He still makes appearances though.

PAM: How were those first classes at Second City for you?

JASON: The first classes were great! I was lucky to have Andy Cobb for Level B, who was great. He's definitely a major influence on the way I teach improv.

PAM: In what ways did he influence you?

JASON: Well, he was so energetic and FUN. When we'd do scenes, Andy would crouch down on the stage in between the two improvisers and look up at you. He seemed to really care about us. I didn't have any confidence in my abilities, but he built me up. He was the teacher that made me think, "Could I be good at this? Could I really be an improviser?"

After he taught our class, I heard he quit teaching. Months later, I bumped into him at a bar and I said to him, "Andy, I heard you quit teaching! You were definitely my favorite teacher at Second City. Why did you quit?"

He said, "I quit because I felt like a fraud. I don't think you can teach improv. Improv is something you learn to do onstage, and no one learns improv in a classroom. I felt dirty taking money for that."

It kind of blew my mind.

PAM: That’s crazy. Do you believe he was correct?

JASON: Yes and no. I don't think you learn to improvise in classroom, but I think improv classes serve a purpose. His take just made me sharpen up what I focus on in a classroom. If we just let improvisers get reps in a class, they don't learn anything. So ... let's not do that.

Instead, let's focus on fundamentals and understanding concepts. Then I encourage students to go PERFORM, which is where they're going to learn anyway.

PAM: Yeah, I guess it was explained to me that the classroom is where you strengthen particular muscles. Then you let it go when you get onstage and that’s when you learn in a whole different way.

What is your aim as a teacher? What do you hope students take away from your classes?

JASON: I think it's my job to help improvisers with the moment they get offstage after a show, that first moment when you get in the green room. My aim as a teacher is to get improvisers to NOT say, "Well, that sucked and I have no idea why!" They should know why a show (or their scene) ended up good or bad. They need to be able to analyze what just happened and learn something from it. They shouldn't feel victimized by a bad improv show. Shows should be a learning experience. And classes should provide students an understanding of improv, so that improv doesn't feel like a invisible leprechaun they're chasing after.

Improv can feel magical, but it's not magic. It's a conversation. It's easy!

That's my other aim as a teacher. I believe it all boils down to human defense mechanisms. We get in front of an audience (or a classroom), and we feel anxiety. Fear. And the body takes over. We get defensive. We can't help it! We've evolved to do this! And now the scene is dog shit. And we panic because no one is laughing. And that panic leads to more defensiveness. And now I'm not listening to my scene partner. And I don't know what to do. And I say, "Fuck you, Larry! And that's not a chair, it's an AIDS MACHINE!"

And now? Improv is the worst, hardest thing in the world. And it just doesn't have to be. It's easy!


JASON: And I tell my students from day one, "I'm not going to be telling you what's good improv vs. bad improv. I'm going to point out what's easy vs. hard."

PAM: Continue with this line, please. Because when I hear big dogs like you say that it's easy, I think some people might interpret that as, "It's so easy my granny could do it." But I suspect that's not exactly what you mean. Do you mean that it's ease-full?

JASON: I think anyone can improvise. Of course, I think some people have an easier time with it than others. Some of us are more defensive than others. If you stick with improv long enough, you'll have no choice but to start dropping some (if not all) of your defenses.

Improv wasn't easy for me for a long time. Why? Why was it so hard? Because I made it hard. It wasn't that my scene partners were doing terrible work; it was me being defensive. I argued. I tore scene partners apart. I backed away from what they said. I said no.

And what took me a long time to realize, as a teacher, is that when these things happen in a class I can't look at the student making his scenes hard and say to myself, "Wow, this kid is an asshole." I see a human being acting defensive. I've been there. I've made it hard. I get it. Can I help them make it easy?

You can watch any bad improv scene and see the parts where it gets hard. A line is missed because the partner isn't listening. Are they a bad person for that? No, they're a human being. An improviser wrinkles their nose at something their partner said. Is that bad? No, it's hard. You can actually just nod instead of wrinkling your nose and POOF!, you're suddenly yes-anding your scene partner and the two of you are having fun onstage.

My favorite moment as an improv teacher is the moment when a great scene has just ended and one of the people onstage looks puzzled. They furrow their brow. The scene was great and they look weirded out. And I'll ask them, "What's wrong?" And they say back to me, "It can't be that easy, can it?"


JASON: Which is not to say I nail every scene I do now. I don't. I fuck this up all the time. But I can always look back at it and say, "Here's where I fucked that up. Here's where it got hard." Duh.

PAM: While I was writing the book with TJ and Dave, we had this same debate as well. (TJ says it's easy too...) I find it very multi-dimensional because I don’t see it as an easy-hard continuum. It's a different dimension of easy, one you can't chase ...

I mean, lying down is easy, right? You just lie down. Babies do it right out of the womb. But I don’t see improvisation as that kind of easy.

JASON: I reference TJ a lot in my classes.

PAM: Yeah, I reference TJ in my brain all the time. He's insidious. (In a good way.)

Maybe this isn't how you see it, but I see it as a Buddhist-type of "easy." Easy but also hard. An easy that can take a lifetime of practice to approach.

JASON: I tell my students to watch TJ’s body language when he's onstage. He does this thing I call the "TJ Bounce" when someone is talking to him. His whole body is listening and he's physically bouncing his head and shoulders. He's finding a way into what you're talking about.

When I was a student, he was the guy I watched the most because he made it look so easy and I had to figure out what was doing. He bounces!

PAM:  Aw, shit. All I need to do is bounce!

JASON: Try it! It helps! It turns down the defenses!

PAM: I'm seeing them on Saturday. I'll watch for The Bounce. (I bounce when I'm overly excited to be onstage. It's not helpful. I'm doing it wrong, clearly.)

JASON: I push body language a lot in my classes. Arms, body positioning, etc. I push my students to smile more, too. It pushes the agreement. It makes the scenes easy!

PAM: That's a good one. I’m stealing that one for the class I'm teaching tomorrow.

JASON: I believe that if I were to take any improv student and put them somewhere where they're anxious (e.g., a party where they show up early and they don't know anyone at the party), they're going to use the same defense mechanism they use onstage. Getting aggressive, passive, managing, acting silly, etc. We can't help it! But if you can identify your mechanisms, you can work on them.

PAM: Interesting. By awareness, you can make your self-defenses less powerful.

JASON: Correct!

PAM: I’m in this strange stage right now, where I’m not taking many classes anymore because, after over a decade of study, I’m feeling like there are too many voices in my head to hear over my own voice. (This is partially a result of something TJ said to me about the downside of too much training.) How did you go about developing your own unique comic voice?

JASON: Hmm. I don't think I have a comic voice. I just try (TRY!) to treat my scene partners like they're a fun person to be around ... then I do what I'd do in real life if the improv scene's scenario was happening to us.

PAM: I think "comic voice" isn't the right phrase ... hang on, let me try again ...
It's not “voice” as in what I use onstage; I mean “voice” as in what is in my head. My guiding light as an improviser. I have a lot of philosophies in my head after studying so many places and talking to so many big brains in improvisation. I guess what I'm trying to ask is how you developed your own approach to improvisation?

JASON: Teaching. Teaching for eight years forces you to be more analytical of improv. The student's improv and MY OWN improv.

PAM: That is useful! Thank you.

You, in particular Jason, seem to be paying attention to what is going on in a scene in a very multi-leveled way. You seem to be listening, of course, to what is happening in the scene, but – correct me if I’m wrong here – you also seem to be paying attention to the show as a whole. Is that something you’re consciously doing?

JASON: I try (TRY)!

Colleen and I try hard to figure out (without thinking about it too hard) what we WANT. What's her character after? What's mine after? "Colleen's character wants to feel romanced. And she loves lilies. Maybe we can end the show with her answering the doorbell and it's a flower delivery? And the flowers are from the office mate she was talking to in the first scene. But they're roses." And then you put that in your pocket, and if that's a scenario that we can use later, let's use it. If not, I gotta toss that out.

With DUMMY shows, I push the both of us to have ideas as to where the show is going. If Colleen has an idea and I have an idea, one of those ideas will probably end the show. Having ideas like that help me relax. And the more relaxed I feel? The less anxiety I have! Less defense mechanisms!!!
iO Bathroom Selfie with "Dummy"
Colleen Doyle, Sarah Dell'Amico, and Jason Shotts
[Photo credit: Sarah Dell'Amico]

PAM: Cool. So you really are consciously looking at the show with an “overhead eye”? (I'm pretty sure that's a term I stole from TJ.)

JASON: I TRY to. I was on a phenomenal Harold team back in the day, Otis. Shelly Gossman was on the team and she would always talk about shows with an overhead eye. She could see the whole thing. And that KILLED me. I was so jealous of that. We'd run first beats she always seemed to have a great idea about where she thought it was going.

The analogy (SO MANY ANALOGIES!) I use for this with improv students is that improv shows are like a fast-moving train. When you do your first improv show, you're standing three feet from the train. It's gigantic and scary, and it's moving so fast you can't see anything. But the next train is five feet away. Less scary. After a couple of years, the train is a hundred yards from you. After ten years? That train is a mile away. And you can see the whole thing from the engine to the caboose. And it's not scary at all.

And that's why it takes time to learn to improvise! You gotta step back from that train!

PAM: And now I'm singing a Grateful Dead song. Thank you, train analogy.


PAM: And now you're singing it. You're welcome.

JASON: By the way, "overhead eye" is quoting you and not Shelly.  :) 

PAM: Quoting me probably quoting TJ, not quoting Shelly. Got it.

In our little chat together, Colleen mentioned that you both share the goal of “burning up” everything that’s been discovered in a scene. Can you break that down that process for me please?

JASON: Yeah, I'd say it's really fun to remember the little things talked about at the beginning of a show and try to find a way to bring them back later in a more important way. The show builds the importance, and when we recall the little things (and they're more important now) it can be a dazzling thing for an audience. And for us! We're like "Oh yeeeaaaahhh ... I mentioned wanting a new cooler for camping trips at the beginning of the show and now Colleen's bringing out a wrapped gift ... it's gotta be the cooler. Sweet.” And we both know it. But I won't open it for another ten minutes and let the audience go, "Oh yeah ... the COOLER!"

We'll always drop stuff, but afterward we like to talk about the little things and then go, "Shit, we could've made the squirrel you mentioned you're new pet at the end. We could've flash-forwarded to you a year later with the squirrel. DAMMIT!"

That's why analyzing the shows a little bit sharpens up those things. You start looking for those things together.

PAM: And here I am left wondering if there is a dead squirrel in the cooler …

JASON: HA! Right?

PAM: Tell about the philosophy behind DUMMY. I’d like to know what went into its creation – why you chose to do a two-person, multi-character, freeform structure – and how its continues to evolve.

JASON: Well, I don't think it's a philosophy thing. We started as a fun "Why not?" thing, and it just started to click. We'd get offstage and say, "Damn, that was good!" After a while we got really comfortable onstage. Too comfortable. The shows were so laid back they wouldn't be about anything. It was just Colleen and me babbling. So we gave ourselves goals. We kinda said, "Let's focus on this …  Let's focus on a want in the early part of the show. Let's try one long scene. Let's do it all in one location." Things like that.

We were doing a show at Chemically Imbalanced Comedy one night during a run, and these two sisters showed up and sat in the front row. The theater was BYOB at the time, and I noticed them right away because they brought a box of wine and two wine glasses. The theater probably had ten other people in it (which was normal for us back then).

Anyway, we're doing this show as two co-workers at the post office. I'm an older guy, and we’re friends. And I'm trying to give her love advice. She deserves better than the guy she's seeing. He doesn't treat her right. She's defending her boyfriend.

The second half of the show is Colleen's character and me, now playing the boyfriend. I'm trying to play him as honestly as possible. He's a shit, but he's also not an 80s movie caricature. I say something mean and then follow it up with something sweet. Push and pull. Colleen's character is dealing with all this inner conflict. Should she go? Should she stay? So fun. Not really that funny, but very honest.

There's a silent moment. Colleen's character doesn't know what to do. It's quiet. Just then, I hear one sister turn to the other and whisper (just loud enough that we can all hear her), "Ugh. She's never going to leave him."

And that was probably my favorite DUMMY moment of all time. It was one of those magical little improv moments where it felt like we were improvising a play, and these two sisters were eating up every word of it. SO FUN!

PAM: Love it. That's like the time I was tying a mucous bow tie around my neck during a short form show and the audience all said, "EWWWW!" And I'm thinking, "WTF? It's AIR, bitches. I'm just touching air, not snot."

Ok. Maybe it's nothing like that...

JASON: It's very similar! Some nights, they believe!

PAM: A generous response from a gallant gentleman. Thank you.

Congratulations about your impending move to L.A., Jason! I am not at all surprised that you two are moving out there - it seems like a natural next step for you both. Though I'm sure Chicago is heartbroken to lose you. What brought that about? Is there a specific project that is bringing you out there?

JASON: No, nothing specific. I've lived here for 17 years now. 17!! And I've lived in the Midwest my whole life. It's time for something new. We've got agents that have been great, and we've had little meetings in L.A. and introduced ourselves and talked about potential things ... nothing concrete.

It feels like the Chicago comedy scene is in a state of flux right now. And that's great! But in talking about a move, it seemed like the right time to do it.
Plus? I'm kind of done with Midwest winters. I've had my fill.

PAM: I hear that. Seriously.

Will you be doing DUMMY out there? And teaching?

JASON: I think so. We've already got a few shows scheduled at iO West in October. We'll see how that goes. We'd like to keep performing weekly, if possible.

Teaching is tougher. We're hoping to pick up a class or two, but it's tricky. And you don't want to be the Chicago assholes that show up and say, "We're here! Where are my STUDENTS?!??!" But I'm sure we'll be coaching and teaching wherever we can.

PAM: I hope so. I'd like to send my L.A. friends your way.

Last question before I reluctantly let you go ... What’s your L.A. dream, Jason? If I get lucky enough to interview you in five years, what accomplishment would you be so f'n excited about telling me?

JASON: Honestly, I've worked day jobs in Chicago from day one. Offices, offices, offices. And last April, I finally quit!

My dream? It’s that five years from now I'm making a living writing or performing, and I'll never need to work in another office again as long as I live. That would be a dream come true!

Colleen and I have started writing together, and I think if we could sell a pilot or two or five, that would be phenomenal. But avoiding any sort of 9-to-5 would be the best!

PAM: That's the dream we all have, right? To get paid to do comedy full time.

I've been enjoying your videos. Truly funny stuff. I'd love to see more of that.

JASON: Yeah, we'd love to make more! If anyone out there wants to put the money up, we'd LOVE TO!!! ;-)

PAM: Ha! Anybody who wants to produce some DUMMY videos, just email me and my people will put you in touch with Jason's people

JASON: Yes, please!

PAM: Well, THANK YOU VERY MUCH, sir! This conversation has been delightfully entertaining and enlightening. Honestly.

JASON: Thank YOU! This has been fun! I’m honored you asked.

PAM: The honor is all mine. 


If you’re in Los Angeles, you lucky souls can see DUMMY’s at iO West. 
Trust me, you don’t want to miss this show!

Catch up on past improv geek-a-thons:
Geeking Out with…TJ Jagodowski  of TJ and Dave
...Dave Pasquesi of TJ and Dave
and many more!


Read "Geeking Out with...Colleen Doyle"
in which she says
"To put it in an artsy fartsy way, 
I’m more confident that improv is a tool to show the truth. 
And that truth may not be comedic."

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

No comments:

Post a Comment