David Pasquesi is an interesting guy to meet in person. His stature in the improv community scene stands just about as tall as he does in real life. When I first met him almost two years ago I had humbly asked him and his comedy partner T.J. Jagodowski, from the premier long form improvisation show TJ and Dave at iO, to be a part of Lady Parts first series with the wholly improvised skits Work Daze. I knew he had worked with many luminaries not only in the comedy world but in the show biz world at large and so I was a bit nervous. But both of them proved to be laid back down to earth guys just enjoying the fact that they made us all so giddy. And of course there is a reason they are so revered. Their show is still running every Wednesday night at iO in Chicago to sold out crowds, they tour the country in what is probably the only touring long form improv show and they perform in New York on a regular basis.
I had a chance to catch up with Dave out in L.A. almost two years after our first meeting and he is still very tall.
Dave was a philosophy major in college and throughout our conversation we kept getting back to the philosophy of improv, performing and what it’s like to sit at a table full of movie stars geeking out about Woody Allen. One theme was abundantly clear though, Dave has been improvising his whole life and he just didn’t know it. Take the time he sat next to Bill Murray’s brother Joel on plane – an incident that would send him spiraling into the world of improv, comedy and beyond….dun dun dun.
“What the fuck for? You’re not even funny.”
Dave: I did a show with Joel last week here [in LA] and he did stories and the suggestion was travel. The way he does his show there, it’s basically an Armando but he’s always the one telling the stories. And the way he asks for a suggestion is ‘reasons to drink’ and somebody said ‘travel’ and so he told the story of us meeting and we met on the airplane going over to Rome. Didn’t know each other, didn’t have any idea about – and he was telling it – it’s not as I remember it. I mean I’m sure he’s right, it’s just I don’t remember. And he was saying, we ended up just talking to each other – I remember why I said hi to him. He had a Hunter S. Thompson book he was carrying and I’m a big HST fan. And I introduced myself and it seemed like we were both going to this school. LIke half the plan was this class. So I introduced myself and was talking to him, I was half in the bag and we just started drinking all the flight over there. We just drank the entire flight. They ran out of beer. An airplane ran out of beer so we just started drinking wine. And very early on we were saying, even that day “Yo what’d you want to end up doing?” And he goes, “Well I’ve got some brothers who went through Second City and I wanna do that” and I’m like “What the fuck for? You’re not even funny.”
Dave: And then he asked me the same question and I had a very similar answer, except about the brothers.
Jeph: Did you have any idea who his brother was at that time?
Dave: No, no I didn’t. I mean, I figured it out when he told me his name. I may have been drunk but I wasn’t retarded. So we ended up spending time over there and also it was not like a serious endeavor. It was like something that will never happen. It was a wish that will never come to fruition. Over there we ended up spending time together. Yeah, there was a talent show that we performed together in and, yeah, we begged a little on the street, he’d sing – he has a pretty good voice – he’d sing and I don’t have a very good voice and I’d juggle. We just put a hat out and people had pity and would give us a little money.
“Not to say there’s anything wrong with sucking cock because some of my favorite people suck cock. And really my favorite people suck mine.”
Jeph: What was the name of the school you where going to there?
Dave: That was Loyola, Loyola University in Rome.
Jeph: Nice, so it was like a study abroad program?
Jeph: And you studied Philosophy?
Jeph: Philosophy always seems like an interesting major to go into because there’s not any direct path –
Dave: There’s no future in it and similarly to improvisation. It’s guaranteed dead end.
Jeph: Yeah, which is interesting to me because you also talk about how when you met T.J. [Jagodowski] it was just a random occurrence. The two of you just got thrown on stage together. It’s funny how these two events in your life are just so random.
Dave: Yeah, absolutely right. And I think that kind of points to the idea that I feel about improvisation. You know you can prepare a lot but really the best outcome is not one I will come up with. The best outcome is something that is just going to happen and it’s not something I would have planned. It’s probably not even something I would have chosen, but it’s the best one. And I do believe that within improvisation. I think that’s the best outlook to have. I don’t have a plan on where this is going to go but I do have the belief that it’s going to go well. And I also have the experience that if I don’t submit this improvisation to my wishes it’s going to be better than if I did.
Jeph: I feel like a lot of people out there that are also in improv have all the positive thinking in the world about it but they’re still not getting it, they’re not good. Do you have any self checks on yourself to make sure that even though it’s fine to charge forward every once in a while, let’s examine what things -
Dave: Absolutely, all the time, constantly. It’s constant evaluation. That’s what TJ and I do. We don’t rehearse regularly but we do rehearse frequently. And it’s always, just as a reminder “what is our mission statement again? What is it we’re trying to do?” Because part of it is, it has to change for a person. I do believe part of it is I’m supposed to do something that I’m uncomfortable with. But just by the virtue of doing it more I become more comfortable with it. So then I have to change what it is I’m trying to do. And I think it’s always in the same direction for whatever the improvisor’s goal is there’s an ultimate destination I suppose. Whatever it happens to be. For me it’s this two person long form improvisation which to me is just fascinating and endless. But I don’t want to become complacent within that. So it’s just doing things by rote or this seems to work, whether or not it works, it’s not really – I mean that’s part, it does factor in. I don’t want to fucking suck cock every time. Not to say there’s anything wrong with sucking cock because some of my favorite people suck cock. And really my favorite people suck mine. [laughs]
“This is about the distinct possibility of failure”
Dave: The idea of constantly changing and evaluating where one is. I think that’s really helpful. To become comfortable is kind of a symptom of needing change. You do this thing and you become comfortable at doing this thing that used to be uncomfortable and now that I’ve reached that I have to realize that and do something else. I think that’s what they’re talking about when they mention the notion of ‘follow the fear.’ You know, push it a little further. And you know just as a reminder this is about failing. This is about the distinct possibility of failure and to not be afraid of failing. And that’s a weird thing. I don’t know if its possible but that’s what I think we’re talking about. The goal is to fail. I was listening to some interviews with two different people in completely different disciplines and they were talking about the idea of failing. One of them was an innovator and inventor and the other was a visual artist. And they were both talking about how they each have not even a factory but a laboratory where they fail as quickly as possible. Rather than having an idea and working working and working, trying to get it to work, well, they try it and [they say] ‘It doesn’t work. We’re going to move onto the next thing’. And just as a reminder I forget that that’s what this job is too – is to fail. You know I’m supposed to fail more spectacularly than last time, that’s it. Not fail in the same way repeatedly. That’s why I do not do make-a-songs.
Jeph: Yeah you hear people talk about how especially in business investment they look for people that have had significant failure in the past.
Dave: And success! It’s not just about failure. [laughs]
Jeph: Right, yeah. [laughs] Otherwise I’d be rich.
Dave: Yeah right. You look at any discipline like business magnates. You look at them and they’ve had fortunes and lost them and regained them and lost them. It’s not about the acquisition.
Jeph: And in your rehearsal process is that something you and T.J. are making each other aware of? Are you calling each other out on stuff?
Dave: Yeah absolutely. It’s a very weird situation between us. We have a great way of understanding one another and it’s beyond explanation. Because it’s been like that since we met. Without knowing each other at all we seem to have a communication. Something that I similarly had with Joel. But we’d known each other for a really long time, we traveled together and we lived together. We knew each other really well so of course it makes sense that we’d have a different way of communicating. With T.J. it is the same way also. But when we rehearse, what we do is we start our show and just do the first ten, fifteen minutes of a show and then we stop and go back. Which is what we do after every show anyway but when we only do the first ten or fifteen minutes we just go back over every single beat and make sure that we understood what the other person meant and we make sure that we were understood with what we had intended. And that’s always our rehearsal. The closer each of us can pay attention to both the other person and ourself the more interesting the show always is. Always a mistake can be traced to not paying attention or, on the other side, not having a clear intent.
Jeph: What do you consider a mistake?
Dave: Something that was missed. A piece of information that went past. I think that’s all it is, really paying attention to all the information that we have. What I’m communicating to you, I have to be aware of that. I have to be aware of what I’m communicating to you because then you’ll have all that information and I won’t. What a silly thing to have all the information available and I don’t have it. And I of course have to pay attention to everything you’re doing. Because also for us, I may have to play you.
Jeph: That’s true.
Dave: So I should really know what’s going on. And that’s all we mean by mistakes. Something that was missed. Like it was introduced that I had a limp say or I limped and didn’t know I did but now he’s treating me as if I have that and I don’t’ know why. Just stuff like that. And do we call each other on stuff? Absolutely. But we usually don’t have to. You know, ‘aw fuck I didn’t realize that. I didn’t know you were doing that’. And kind of our game is to communicate things with as little information as possible. Because that’s I think where it becomes magical. Like how the fuck…
Jeph: ..did they just, yeah.
Dave: Yeah and we did a show with somebody else a while ago and the information was there for everybody. And we just heard it. Four fifths of the audience hadn’t paid attention, so when both of us at the same time both came up with the same answer it seemed like magic but it was all available to everybody, we were just listening.
Jeph: Since you guys have worked together for so many years now -
Dave: Ten years! Just right about now, this time in February I think.
Jeph: That’s incredible. Do you ever encounter situations where it’s the two of you with other improvisors on stage as well -
Dave: Yeah sometimes.
Jeph: And do you find that your strong relationship affects the scene?
Dave: We’ve done a few different things. We have guests join our show or we’ve done other shows. There was a show that we had which was called Outrider. I was the common factor so I put together all the people I really like, well not all of them but all of them were people I really liked. And tremendous performers each in their own right. John Hildreth, Pat McKenna, Leo Benvenuti, TJ Jagodowski, Tracy Letts, Peter Burns and me. That was Outrider, all of them outstanding, but it just didn’t seem to work out to well. [laughs] You know we’re all adults and we don’t have one hundred hours a week, the one hundred hours a week that it takes to get good as a group. But yeah when TJ and I would perform in that or when we do other shows we’ll end up doing a scene and it’s just easier, it’s just so much easier. I don’t have to figure anything out so it looks different. But we don’t intentionally – actually we intentionally don’t always work with each other if we’re in a setting like that because it’s just not the same.
“Getting on stage in front of people is the best teacher”
Jeph: Continuing on the line of working with other actors, can you talk a little about your experience – I know you did Carnage or Gods of Carnage.
Dave: God of Carnage, last year it was a fucking blast.
Jeph: Yeah, how do you view that as an improvisor?
Dave: Well of course they’re different, somewhat because as T.J. puts it ‘every word in every language except one is wrong’ [laughs] where as while improvising there is no wrong next word. But I really enjoy doing plays. I enjoy the challenge of that. You know some of its way fucking easier ‘oh I know what I’m supposed to say’ just trying to remember what to say is difficult. But once you get it in your head, oh god Jesus.
Jeph: Do you find they want more of the improv energy that you bring to the role?
Dave: Well I think I do bring – in everything just because the way – my only experience, I have no legitimate theater training except working in the legitimate theater, you know that’s it. I didn’t take any classes or anything like that. And I think it’s a great teacher. I’m sure there are other things to learn about performing. I’m also confident that getting on stage in front of people is the best teacher. So I really enjoy performing and doing plays but because of the way I was taught – Del was my main teacher. He was a great actor! And the main skill in improvisation is paying attention and I think that’s really useful everywhere. I remember a director hired me, this was a long time ago – this was like fifteen years ago he hired me. We were at some interview last year and he said ‘I hired him because he’s a great listener.’ So I think that’s directly attributed to my training in improvisation.
TJ and Dave in Work Daze for Lady Parts Comedy
“If these words were being said by a human being, do that.”
Dave: There’s a Mamet book that I think is just great, True and False, and he talks about the classical training of an actor. He’s not a big fan. You know go out there, pay attention – or who is it Cagney? Listen, hit your mark, listen, say your lines.
Jeph: Coming at it from the directing point of view I always find people who say ‘oh I can’t act’ and I always tell people you know anybody can act all you have to do it not think that you can’t act. Just go out there and have a little bit of confidence and you can do it.
Dave: Or if you can’t do it then don’t. Instead of acting why don’t you just say these fucking words.
Jeph: [laughing] Exactly.
Dave: Yeah don’t act because that looks fucking awful. When you see people acting that’s a terrible thing.
Jeph: Yeah especially when you’re working with young actors or new actors, a lot of times I find you know saying ‘okay that was great but this time just say it like you would say it.’
Dave: [laughing] Say it like a human! Like a human being would! If these words were being said by a human being do that. Like a human, like a person would.
“In the ’80s there were ten thousand stand-ups — ten of them were good”
Jeph: With the Laugh Factory and Up Comedy Club opening and since you’re obviously intimately involved in comedy scene in Chicago, do you think Chicago is on the cusp of a new comedy boom?
Dave: I don’t know, you know stand-up comes and goes. Zanies is the only one that stays. So I was around also for the big standup boom of the ’80s and there was ten or more clubs. There was Zanies and the Chicago Comedy Showcase. And then there was some in the suburbs. There was Who’s on First, Comedy Womb, Comedy Cottage which was the Maroon Raccoon. And those where the main-stays and there was a Who’s on First out in Elmhurst. And then the boom came and they opened up many in the suburbs and all the LA clubs opened up in the city as well. There was an Improv, there was a Catch a Rising Star which was a New York club. There was an Improv – I already said Improv – Improv, Catch – was there a Comedy Store or something? Anyway there was a ton of them in town. They all went away again.
Jeph: Why do you think that is?
Dave: I think it was George Carlin that said, you know back in the ’60s there were a hundred stand-ups and ten of them were good. In the ’80s there were ten thousand stand-ups, ten of them were good. [laughs] You know I think that boom came about having to do with television because [when] they started shooting, standup was a really easy cheap thing to shoot. You don’t have to pay the comic, and there’s zero production. You put a camera and a brick wall and you’re fine. And so there was just more demand. It created its own demand and so people started going to comedy clubs, and then they stopped going to comedy clubs because a lot of it was bad. A lot of it was just bad. And there were too many people doing it. Quality decreased and the audience went away and now I think you know – there are a lot of good people doing it, some guys are fucking great. And so people are trying to cash in. I don’t know about – I’ve not been to the room at Second City, I was in it when it was being built, it’s beautiful. I’ve not been to the Laugh Factory, of course they just opened. But I haven’t seen what they’ve done to it, that needed some work, so I’m sure they did a great job. I don’t know if its going to support – who knows. And also I’m not involved in the standup world anymore. I used to be. I used to try to do that but…
Jeph: The improv world has stayed pretty consistent.
Dave: Yes, except – there use to be no improv – well there was the Groundlings out here [in LA] but that was a little different than what we were talking about. And now this kinda long form improvisation and longer form improvisation [is] out here now [in LA]. Charna [Halpern] has her place [iO West], UCB has its place, this place here [Second City Hollywood]. I was around when Second City was down in Santa Monica in that beautiful Mayfair theater. It was lovely. But it’s a different scene out here. Also New York used to have nothing now they have – UCB started there and then from UCB it went off to start The PIT [The People’s Improv Theater] and then The PIT broke off and then they opened up The Magnet. So there’s three theaters in New York that are really good short and long form improvisation. And they’re all successful. So that’s different than it used to be. You know, this kind of improvisation – talking about revue specifically – Second City was the only one that did that. I think they’re still, I think Second City is still the marquee name in revue format. But I think improvisation has grown, you know occasionally there was a place – the Committee in the ’60s – there were places that did it. But no community as it were. As I say, Chicago of course still has it, New York has a really strong improv community, Austin has a strong improv community. It’s far more pervasive than it once was.
“…you know bad anything is bad. Bad anything is awful”
Jeph: Seems to me that even within the improv community it still seems like the long form improv is in the minority.
Dave: Oh sure, because it’s still not as practical immediately I think. You know its like oh we do short form and then we get auditions to do other things that are closer to short form on television or whatever. But long form is supposed to be an end in itself. And it’s just not of interest to a lot of people.
Jeph: I feel like that probably has a lot to do with the skill level of the improvisor too. Because you see a lot of – improv has kind of got that rap where you know if you see bad improv you never want to see improv again but if you see really good or just good improv you want to see it all the time. So I feel like long form is in this dangerous zone. If you’re not good at it, it can be tortuous.
Dave: For everyone, yeah right, I agree. It can be horrible no matter how good the improvisor is, it can be horrible for the audience, it’s just dreadful to watch when it’s not going well. Because you’re uncomfortable for them. A friend of mine came – a very experienced improviser and performed for forty years came to the show the other day and he’s like ‘Ah that’s so nice, I don’t have to worry.’ I mean that’s what happens to the audience – if you see someone flailing up there you fucking worry for them. And you don’t want to have to go to a show, I just paid money and now I have to fucking worry about you? In a play too you see a good actor walk out onto stage and I kick back and I’m like ‘Oh I’m going to be taken care of, he doesn’t need anything from me. He’s fine, I’m just going to enjoy this.’ But yeah I do think that short form – it’s just different interest. I really don’t think one is better or worse than the other. I think, fuck, sketch and stuff like that is tremendous when it’s done well. And game too, when they’re done well, I have a great time. But you know bad anything is bad. Bad anything is awful.
Jeph: [laughing] quote ‘bad anything is bad’
Dave: [laughing] But I mean really..
Jeph: You really were a Philosophy major weren’t you?
Dave: [laughing] Yeah.
Jeph: No that’s cool. I find that Chicago is just an interesting city when it comes to stuff like that because it does seem to like boil up to the surface every once in a while and then inexplicably goes away for a bit and then comes back.
Dave: It’s a great town to perform in, I think because we’re removed from the possibility of tremendous success. So nobody’s coming to pluck you away. And that’s a very real possibility in both Los Angeles and New York. And so it changes people’s mind. No matter what you’re doing it is also a showcase and we are removed from that in Chicago. Nobody’s there, no big shots are watching, so there’s no danger of you getting a big job from this so let’s just do this show. So I think that’s a benefit to the fellow performer and a benefit to the audience.
“No further work needs be done. That is fucking perfect!’
Jeph: You have that movie Trust Us This is All Made Up – I’m assuming you’ve seen that?
Dave: I have. I know some of those guys!
Jeph: Is it a different experience to see it on film?
Dave: Every show now is video taped. We used to audio tape them and now every show is video taped. At least one person, sometimes we shoot them with separate cameras. I remember when T.J. and I saw Trust Us the first time at a film festival with the audience and, I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s true for him as well, I sweated far more watching it than actually doing it.
Jeph: With the weight of the audience behind you.
Dave: Oh it was rough. But the guy who shot it, Alex Karpovsky - I really do believe that’s the first time that I’ve seen a live improvised show that’s even watchable. Irrespective of the material, just visually he did a great job. And I’ve seen tremendous performers shot with expensive cameras and it’s awful. You know I just can’t get through it. This is fucking dreadful, I’m not there, I’m sure it was funny to the people that were there. I think he [Karpovsky] did a great job of just actually shooting it. It was interesting, we were at some of these screenings in New York with people who were at that show and their comments were ‘you know I was at that show and I may feel like this is even a better seat than actually having been there’. It was pretty interesting.
Jeph: That’s pretty cool.
Dave: But yeah it’s no fun watching. Because you know in my mind, fuck man that was smooth as silk but then when you’re watching it, it’s like holy fuck I just ate it! Why don’t I remember that? I was eat’n it right there!
Jeph: They played one of the Lady Parts skits at the Music Box actually before they did a screening of something and they played it before that. And I’m sitting like second row and they played and I was like ‘I should quit. This is horrible’. But you know that’s just the artist in your head just self-editing yourself and putting yourself down.
Dave: Yeah and I think that’s helpful.
Dave: I think it would be far worse to think, “Mmm, no further work needs be done. That is fucking perfect!’
“You should really learn how to say what other people write because there’s no money in improvisation” – Richard Kind
Jeph: You’ve been working on a lot of stuff outside the improv world.
Dave: You know that’s the really nice thing. I get to do a ton of stuff. I get to improvise, I get to do TV and I get to do little bits here and there and that’s one of the things I really enjoy is the variety of the kinds of things I get to do. And I think that’s also traceable to improvising. You’re just like ‘let’s try this!’ You know kind of like an open mind and I really appreciate that. And you know that’s the one thing, I got to work at Second City too and they just fucking ruin you. You know you get to say whatever you want, however you want to say it and then you never get to do that again. Almost never, except while improvising and things like that. I remember Richard Kind told me, “Hey you’re a good improviser. You should really learn how to say what other people write because there’s no money in improvisation” Which is excellent advice!
Jeph: Do you find yourself still having those ‘I can’t believe it’ moments?
Dave: Oh sure.
Jeph: Like when you’re sitting there with Woody Allen.
Dave: Yeah, absolutely. Well the wild thing there, I’m sitting there with fucking movie stars and everybody had the same reactions like, “That’s fucking Woody Allen!” That was hilarious. Like “Can you believe it? We’re sitting here in Rome with Woody Allen.” I walked onto a lot the other day, I still get a kick out of that. I just really, I get a kick out of it all. I do feel real fortunate. I get to go around the country and do long form improvisation. People bring us places to do long form improvisation.
Jeph: That’s great!
Dave: That’s impossible! That just doesn’t happen!
Jeph: It only happens to two people.
Dave: [laughing] Right! I mean it’s just bizarre. That’s certainly not supposed to occur. And that’s one of the things I really like. And also the idea like we do that show in New York and we work in a theater and we did that on purpose and the producer there Scott Morfee brought us in to do it at his theater. And we get reviewed as theater, not as comedy and not as improvisation. And I really enjoy that too, you know hopefully trying to maybe blur that line a little bit between legitimate theater and improvisation. I tell you, I’ll put a couple of our shows against a lot of fucking plays I see.
Jeph: Yeah I would agree.
Dave: And we come up with them in fifty minutes. Some of those people write for you know years and then rehearse for a month and man that just wasn’t good!
Jeph: This just occurred to me but anything you guys improvise in the show – have you ever wanted to do anything more with a particular plot or characters?
Dave: It’s interesting you should ask. We are always trying to figure out how we can. And you know right now there was someone who offered to do it. We sent a couple shows to New York and a friend is transcribing them. With our different characters and figure out who’s saying what.
Jeph: Untangle the mess.
Dave: Yeah. And actually somebody a few years ago for a project they did at Columbia in Chicago, took one of our shows transcribed it and cast it, directed and performed it live. And it was I think only five or six characters in it.
Jeph: Did you get credited as writer on that?
Dave: I’m sure we did. But I actually went and saw that and it held up! I was surprised. That was Jet [Eveleth] and Holly [Laurent].
Dave: TJ always jokes about, we’re going to have them transcribed – all of them and we’re going to publish four hundred plays in one year.
Jeph: [lauging] Be the most prolific writers of that year. Or ever.
Dave: Uh huh, 2013, yeah we put out four hundred plays how about you? What’ve you been doing?
- Jeph Porter talking with Dave Pasqusi in 2012 in Los Angeles
Find Dave here: www.davidpasquesi.com
Find out more about TJ and Dave here: tjanddave.com
Buy Trust Us This Is All Made Up on Amazon