Every once in a while, an artist or ensemble emerges that reminds the medium of its own possibilities. Emerges is the wrong word-improvisers T.J. Jagodowski and David Pasquesi have been performing together under the moniker of TJ & Dave since 2002. To say that they’ve now come into popular relevance or are only now being recognized feels patronizing. I prefer to think that longform improvisation speaks to a certain moment in the trajectory of American comedy that has been only recently realized. The discerning humor viewer, reader, and audience-member now knows that it is within his or her rights to expect to be treated like an adult. TJ & Dave are that alternative. TJ & Dave offer a nuanced show that expects and rewards your attention. The team was the subject of the Alex Karpovsky-directed documentary Trust Us, This Is All Made Up and recipient of the Del Close Awards for “Best Improvised Show” two years running. They play weekly at iO theater in Chicago.
The Independent: It seems like these days a lot of people approach improv with the hope that those skills will translate into a writing or an acting job. You guys seem to be two of a few people working today to affirm: “We are improvisers independent of any other value.”
David Pasquesi: I think so. We both happen to do other things but we don’t do improvisation as a means to something else. Improvisation is worthy in itself. A long time ago, improv was a guaranteed dead end. You didn’t find anyone who was improvising as a way to get somewhere else. There was improvisation and then there was sketch. In Chicago, a long time ago, a lot of people had sketch groups. But the only job that came out of that was Second City. And very rarely at Second City people would sometimes get hired for Saturday Night Live. So that was the only track. Now that happens constantly. And improvisation in itself seems to be valued as part of a larger acting curriculum. Before, it was very separate. It wasn’t of value to anyone. So I think it’s great, quite frankly, that improvisation is viewed as helpful for many disciplines. A lot of people used to, and still do, use improv as something you use to develop material that will be performed for an audience. But there’s the school that believes improv is valuable in itself. Just because someone says that doesn’t mean it’s true. A lot of time improvisation is not worthwhile. So it’s more of a risk by the audience, to go to an improvised show. They can be hard to sit through as a performer and they can be even worse to sit through as an audience. You can’t really do anything about how terrible it is.
Indy: What are your thoughts on forms like the Harold that dictate a sort of rhythm or structure?
DP: What do I think about different forms? It’s all great. Whatever the particular form that someone is improvising within is of less importance to me than the kind of improvisation that is going on. And it’s whether or not the goal of the improvisers, either individually or collectively—if the goal is to be clever, that’s one thing. If the goal is to be entertaining, that’s one thing. If the goal is to be controversial, that’s something. But to me that’s how I gauge improvisation. What appears to be the goal of the improvisers? The form, however it presents itself—whatever package its wrapped itself up in—is of less importance I think. But the Harold, I’m a huge fan of the Harold. Huge fan.
Indy: I always feel sort of claustrophobic going into the Harold. I feel like I’m not as present with that kind of structure.
DP: As opposed to what?
Indy: As opposed to a montage or something a little more freeform.
DP: What is your understanding of the structure of the Harold?
Indy: There’s three beats. All beats have three scenes with the scenes recurring in one way or another through each. There are palate-cleansers—games not associated with any previous scene—between each beat. It’s a weird convergence of narrative and thematic connections.
DP: And how long does a Harold last?
Indy: Something like 45 minutes.
DP: OK. Great. That’s probably closer to what we used to do. They wrap them up more quickly most of the time. And it seems to me like 45 minutes is about the right amount of time. It doesn’t allow for time for discovery rather than invention. To me that’s the most important part: the discovery of what it is that we’re doing. And I think TJ and I make that distinction. It’s not: “What can we make this?” It’s: “What is this already?” We don’t force our will on things. We simply discover what it is that’s happening and has been happening even before we got there.
Indy: How does the time it takes to become a competent performer map with the time it takes to be in an advanced or auditioned ensemble at a theater like Upright Citizens Brigade or iO Theater?
DP: I don’t know. I was not involved. They didn’t have an established curriculum at places when I was coming up. I started improvising in 1981.
Indy: So you knew Del Close.
DP: Yes. He was my teacher for a long time. He was my teacher and then we wrote and performed a show together and acted in plays together.
Indy: Was he the messianic improv guru he’s made out to be these days?
DP: Yeah. He’s the one who developed the Harold and first made long-form improvisation the reason you bought a ticket. It was his belief that improv could be worthy. Whereas like Second City, you go and see the review show—the sketch show—and you paid for that. The improv was something they threw on at the end of the night for free. Just to develop material. His belief was the improv is valuable. Anything I know I learned from Del.
Indy: It seems so counter-intuitive to me to use improv as a writing exercise. There’s a floating context that I don’t think can make it to the sketch.
DP: I don’t disagree. Unless you’re improvising with the goal of coming up with a sketch—which I think is a different thing. I worked at Second City. They have this setup where you establish “Who,” “What,” and “Where” very quickly and we’re going to investigate this particular topic within this setting. Then you improvise within those constraints and you can come up with this sketch that can be repeated. But when you’re doing something like a Harold, I don’t see it either. Like the shows that TJ and I do, the funniest stuff is just not funny to repeat unless you were there for the half hour or 45 minute development that everyone was aware of. We’re all finding out: “Oh, that guy does this.” Unless you were there for the whole thing, I agree with you that it’s difficult to pull a sketch out of a longform improvisation and have it able to stand on its own.
Indy: I always have a hard time describing improv—like if I had to give a sound bite to my parents or something. Do you have a term that you can throw around as explanation?
T.J. Jagodowski: Well, it’s so varied it is tough to put a single sentence or two together. It’s almost always explained as something like short-form. Something like Whose Line? or whatever. And one has no promise or guarantees or constrictions. It has the ability to put scenes in a consecutive order so that they seem to resonate with each other. For Dave and I, for our show specifically, it’s basically a made-up one-act play. That description comes closer than other things even though it’s still not quite right.
Indy: Dave and I talked a little bit about the Harold. I was saying that I tend to feel uncomfortable in that sort of format. What are your thoughts?
TJ: I love it. I love all different forms. If I remember hearing correctly, even from Del’s point of view it just ended up becoming the signature piece that he would work on. For whatever reason, this one ended up sticking around. And I love doing scenes. I love watching the whole cast create something. Implicitly but then explicitly in the group games. It’s as good a form as any. And I’m lucky enough to get to do a bunch of different ones so I appreciate them all for different reasons. Also, you can do the strict Harold on any given night—opening, three scenes, game, three scenes, game—but also the Harold has a lot of elbow room in it too that is free to become whatever it’s supposed to be that night. So I guess I don’t feel boxed-in by it because it still has its own soul that evening. It’s tough. In almost any form you have to start loving the box before you know how to break it properly. Like a child does want rules. I kind of take comfort in the structures of form.
Indy: Chicago is so interesting to me. I feel like—with the community and the history and the cost of living compared to New York or Los Angeles—it really becomes this great watershed for young performers.
TJ: I’ve been here close to 20 years and I’d say it’s as vibrant as it’s ever been. It’s a really supportive space. There’s a lot of theater and not a lot of competition. You can play at a lot of different places without somebody worrying: “No. No. You’re an Annoyance Theater guy or you’re a Second City lady. You can’t play over there.” You can play with whomever you want just about as often as you want. I still think it exports the finest folks to the finest places. All three of the last SNL hires were Chicago improvisers.
Indy: I often see the word “quiet comedy” attached to you two as an ensemble. Would you agree with that characterization?
TJ: I guess we get “quiet” or “slow.” It can be a misnomer. I like the sound of it because it gives us some freedom not to necessarily be fast or loud. But on occasion we are that. We just don’t promise it. I think to say we’re quiet or slow, you might not necessarily fill every moment with chatter. But also that you don’t sell out the moment. And that’s what I take it to mean more often than not, that you don’t put the bit above the reality. If I’m right about that definition, I like that we’re referred to that way.
Indy: It’s more like a relationship-based or patient comedy.
TJ: Yeah. And also that you kind of see where the force presents itself within a scene. You can kind of see: “Well, they can play this for the hard actuality of two people going through a divorce or they can play it for the bit. They can play it for the lighter comedy of it.” And we hope that we can go the more serious route than the bit route.