How did improv community look like before the Internet? When did international festivals start? Why should every improviser go to therapy? How to deal with a bad show? What is REALLY improv like in Chicago these days? This and more you can find in this Kreatura Podcast episode recorded with Joe Bill during IMPRO Amsterdam 2020, right before it all went down. If you prefer to read, here’s a(n imperfect) transcription for you!
Listen to "Joe Bill - bad shows, therapy and improv before the Internet" on Spreaker.

Gosia: Hello, Joe, I’m happy to be with you here, at IMPRO Amsterdam!

Joe: I’m very happy to be here Gosia! I think this is what 200 festivals now we’ve been together.

Gosia: Do you remember how we met?

Joe: Was it drinking?

Gosia: Yes, on the street in Athens. I remember, because it was after the mixer show that you prepared and I played in, and it was the Lost in Translation kind of a show [where we use native languages], and it was… so terrible! It was not your fault – it was because nobody was playing the format, and it was about dog fucking on stage…

Joe: Ooh, that the dog fucking disaster. Yeah, I forgot about that one.

Gosia: Lucky you. We’ve never spoke before that show, and after I decided to never talk to you, as I felt so terrible about that show. And then you just stood next to me on the street in Athens and you started talking to me.

Joe: It wasn’t you, there were three of four people that just went a little haywire and as a director, all I can do is walk back and forth in the back thinking „shit, here we go. Nobody wants to be in that show, but we all get to be in that show many, many times in our improv career.

Gosia: What would you recommend, how to deal with bad shows?

Joe: Well, it’s my friend Mark Sutton who I do Bassprov with has the best advice: always remember that the things that a good show and a terrible show have in common, is that they’re over. I think it’s once you’ve done improv for about 20 years, then you can know that you’re in a terrible show, but you can create the illusion right at the very end that it’s not so terrible, and give people something satisfying to leave with. It’s still a terrible show, but nobody knows – that’s the secret. It’s like a ninja force. But yeah, sometimes it’s just bad and it’s the longer you do it the less you do it.

Gosia: Do you remember any particular, terrible show that you had?

Joe: There was one Bassprov show that Mark and I were doing in Toronto. We’re just sitting on a boat, and we have a fishing pole and a cooler with six beers in it. And then we are pretending like we’re fishing and just talking for an hour. We were kind of the first mono scene. And a bunch of our teachers said, it would never work – nobody’s going to sit and watch people pretending to fish. It was maybe our second or third year. We were up in Toronto. And so we had some friends up in Toronto that we had done stuff with, and they had come down to the States to some other festivals and they went back, and said „You need to bring these Bassprov guys” to their Festival organizers, so they did. And for the first 15 minutes of our show there was… it was not even silence. It was emptiness. It just sounded like emptiness.

Mark said we could hear the sweat drip down the cracks of everyone’s ass, and the audience waiting for us to be funny. But finally after about 15, 16, 17 minutes of the show, (which was only 45 minutes long, so we didn’t even get our full hour) but all the sudden, it was like lighting the fires. It went from a morgue full of dead people, to  some laughs, and some laughs, and then we started bringing stuff back from the initial conversation, and commenting on that, like „the fishing trip started off as the worst fishing trip we’ve ever had in our lives”, but we just used it and it ended up being a very good show. But the first 16 minutes of it were torture.

Gosia: I imagine it was hard not to panic, and let it be terrible for some time, and maybe it would get better, hopefully.

Joe: You’re in it so, you just have to be in it. And that would have been maybe 2004,  at that point I’d still been doing improv for maybe 20 or 25 years, and Mark and I knew that what we were doing was still new. I felt bad for my friends that we didn’t start getting laughs right away, but I don’t think we ever panicked. There’s a few people in the world that know me better than him. So we just had to trust ourselves and we did. I think if you panic, it’s usually when you’re playing with someone that you don’t know so well. Then I feel bad for them. And then I feel extra responsible. Like I have to save this, because I don’t want this person to have a bad time. I don’t want them to have a bad time with me. And that’s just the worst mindset to have.

Gosia: Sometimes I find myself in a scene where I realize, we’re in a totally different place I thought. It’s funny to see improviser realizing they got it all wrong, three second of hesitation while the bulldozer is going through their head.

Joe: Sometimes you can be completely mistaken about where you are, and the show is still great. And so it doesn’t matter. That’s one of those weird things about improv has, if we’re nerds, we tend to fixate on everything. Do we get the facts right? Do we know where we are? Is my object work good? Is this how this accent is supposed to sound? A lot of the times if we’re playing characters that are you know, honest and believable, and invested in, emotionally connected to our scene partners, that becomes more important than getting the details right.

Gosia: You said once, after  our scene in „Random” something like „oh that was so Annoyance.” Maybe you could elaborate a bit about the differences in Chicago styles, because in Poland people don’t don’t really know the difference – we just know there is Chicago mostly, but what are the differences between Annoyance, and iO, and Second City or whatever else is there – you’re from there, so you tell me.

Joe: It’s not so simple. I don’t remember exactly the words, but we had a repetition wordplay going, and it was a little bit in the style of dada and it was a little in the style of like David Mamet, the playwright, and it was a little bit like Samuel Beckett. So it was like a stylized piece, and we were very formal, high-status characters, that were basically speaking nonsense, in terms of Chicago style. The word game type thing that you would typically find at Annoyance, and it reminded me of different flavors of theater that were influential to us.

Annoyance is basically a theater that teaches you how to take care of yourself as a character, how to be grounded in the context of whatever we’re doing at Annoyance, we use improvisation as a tool to create plays, so you create a character and the character can be in many scenes, and you string the seams together, and you eventually will then create a play through improvisation that is 90% scripted, and 10% places where you can mess around.

iO is a long form theater and it’s kind of the home of long form improvisation, and they teach Harold, but there’s been a lot of different formats that have come out of iO. I was there as a performer from like 1985 to 2005, with a couple of breaks in between, because you know, Charna makes you go away before you can come back, but really the glory days of iO were in the 90s and the early 2000s and that’s when a lot of new formats came out. Chicago in the 90s was just an insane collection of people and I think it really helped lift the long form specifically to the next level. And I don’t think long form in Chicago is good or innovated, or grounded as it used to be. I think that short form has affected long form in Chicago, and a little bit of the influence from the east coast in LA, the industry is out there. So anytime you do a show, there might be an agent or producer. So people don’t play the same type of support for the other people in the cast, that typically they would have done, when they were in Chicago in the 90s. Everybody’s getting their funny line. There’s still great improv in LA, but that city definitely affects how people play. And so in Chicago

there’s not enough time for the group to do a full Harold. They become kind of jokey. And the acting got out the window, like people playing honest moments is kind of gone. I don’t think [Northern] American improvisers are as good even as Canadian improvisers.

Gosia: So, why are they doing it? If they are not good actors, and not good improvises, is it about comedy writing? To get a job as a comedy writer, showing themselves?

Joe: Yeah, I think so. Part of being one of the founders in Annoyance is like we learned early on, what comedy as a consequence of being real was, versus comedy is the goal. Comedy isn’t the goal. It’s a consequence of us being real with each other. Being human with each other, finding ourselves in human situations, sometimes in very dark situations, and it’s the comedy or the humor that gets us through this stuff. That’s a taste thing, you know, I sound like an old man now, because I am, but it’s just the younger kids are interested in being funny. They want to be funny. And a lot of times people that are trying to be funny, are the least funny thing on the planet.

Gosia: I think that there was in Viola Spolin’s book something like – try to play a good scene and it will be funny, and if you try to play funny scene, it will be bad.

Joe: That’s right. But in Europe, you know, because there’s just so many different cultures and countries, it’s such a rich thing. Almost every big European country has the theatrical tradition of that country that is older than in the States and it’s more impactful on each country’s culture. And so there’s a richer theatrical acting tradition for Europeans to pull from, than there is from America.

Gosia: Tell me more about Europeans – you travel all the time.

Joe: I think Europeans are better actors. I love playing in French, because I’m barely good enough in French to hold my own. I’m not nearly the same improviser in French as I am in English, but because clowning and mime is in France, you can see those sensibilities in almost every French improviser. The comedy that was born in the United States was stand-up, and it kind of reflects what the United States culture is. You have the tradition of theater of dance of movement, clown, mime, even performance art type stuff.

And Europeans are also better to older people. They respect older people, as older people you know you can still bring something to the table. Yeah, I’m 57 and I can still do so, I can still perform and stuff in the States. But I think it’s because of the stand up culture in the states that once you get old, you’re just not as funny, you’re not as attached to popular culture references, you don’t know what music the kids are listening to now. It’s fine with me.

Gosia: Like „women are not funny”?

Joe: I think women are having it a little bit easier now. I think older people are getting pushed aside. I’ve never really cared that much about what society or people thinks, and I’m 57, but I can play older, I can play younger, and I’m an old person, I don’t give a shit if you make me a grandpa in every scene

Improvisation now is booming so much that slowly but surely in the last ten years. It just become this idea, that if you just study improv for one or two years, you feel that you deserve to be on a stage performing every weekend night. It takes improvisation away from what it’s supposed to be, because of entitlement. This leads to people feeling like this is an exclusive art form, when improvisation is an inclusive art form. Improvisation is about all of us playing, and you don’t rise to the top as the star of improvisation, because the number one goal of improvisation is for me to make YOU look good if I can. And right now my country is so fucked up because the complete asshole is our president and the half the country is going to have a nervous breakdown, the other half of the country is terrified and anxious that they’re falling out of power.

Gosia: Well, Europe is also going through some PHASE right now.

Joe: Yeah, in a way improvisation is radical, because in the face of nationalism and countries wanting to just mind their own business, and these politicians selling people on the idea that no other country as our country, and we’re the best, and all of this shit, improvisation is truly a global art form. It is the theater of globalization. And it’s like we’re all one family, and – you’ve now been out on the road long enough – you know, we have friends from all over and we’re all in the same family. We all speak different languages, but we cry, and we hug each other, we laugh, and it’s just like being with your cousin from that country.

Gosia: When I met Keng-Sam, I didn’t even know where they Reunion Island is, and after that I saw there was some hurricane devastating Reunion, and I just texted him – because the world is so small now – and asked, if everything’s okay, ahe said, yes, it’s fine, look, I’ll send you pictures.

Joe: Yeah, and it’s going to spread. I mean it’s going to spread even more. My life is about improvisation. I’m a professional improviser and teacher, and director, and I think when I was in my 20s, I don’t think I could have ever imagined myself being in my late 50s and being able to say – That’s what I’ll be doing.

Gosia: I just wanted to ask – in our show of 7 Women of Different Ages, in the beginning we have these statements, about what’s happening recently in our lives and recently people were posting after New Year’s Eve some summary of the last year, and last ten years, and I thought about the summary of 30 years, as I’m 32. And two main things that happened in my world are that the communism ended, and the internet happened. I was just thinking that I couldn’t do what I do and what we do without internet but you were doing this. So how did improv traveling look like when there was no internet?

Joe: I have to say, can you imagine being me and hearing your question? I’m really being asked what it was like before the internet. And of course I am. My daughter is 14 and she was born after 9/11. Improv Festival started in the United States in the 90s. There was no festivals or anything before then. And so I think this Festival here [IMPRO Amsterdam] is 25 years old. Okay. That’s like 1995, so it started about the same time as Chicago Improv Festival, 1993 or something like this. I think the other big festival was in Austin Texas called the Big Stinkin’ Improv Festival. We were coming up at Annoyance in the days when improv festivals were first being conceived.

And that’s part of when we close the Clark Street Annoyance theater, Mark and I had kind of found these two Bassprov characters. And before that, we had our late night show, eight or nine of us we go to a couple of the festivals, but unless you could teach, you’re going to break even at best and you can’t make any money. If you’re going to make a living in this you have to be able to teach. And then, if you could teach and then make your show great, then you’ve got a chance. I think TJ and Dave were the first really to be able to charge a higher ticket price, but that didn’t even come until 2000. I think it was in 2000 or 2001 we both were teachers and started doing Bassprov with Mark. There’s only two of us. It’s easier for two people to travel and we were kind of the second duo in Chicago. So there was a duo called Heaven by Jimmy Carrane and Stephanie. About six months after that was Bassprov, and then about six months after that was TJ and Dave and that was all around 2000. The festival boom really happened during the early 2000s. That’s because the internet and It was the the first place where everybody met, and that was run by Asaf Ronen in Austin, and where I first met Patti Styles. The internet didn’t really happen till the late 90s and it didn’t happen in any easy meaningful way till early 2000s. Between 2010 and 2015 there were maybe 5 or 10 touring duos. With Bassprov we were the first monoscene, Mark and I played the same character, TJ and Dave were the first ones to every show they play different characters and they didn’t take a suggestion. It’s just trust us, this is all made up. These guys are so good. So talented at what they do.

Gosia: Did I tell you what was the first improv show that I saw, not playing in it?

Joe: Was it TJ and Dave?

Gosia: Yes. And I didn’t realize that for years. I think it was 2007 when I was in Chicago just visiting, and in Poland we were just starting with improv, there was no improv around [so I was playing, but had no chance to watch]. In Chicago we were supposed to go to some students show but there were no tickets, so we bought for „headliners”, and there were these two guys who didn’t take suggestion, and I thought it was super lame, like wow not cool, man. I realized years later, when I opened to the world and started reading, and meeting people – because one of them looked like Adrien Brody.

Joe: Yes. Dave. But actually Adrien Brody looks like Dave Pasquesi.

Gosia: Right! And now you have like a zillion of duos, don’t you?

Joe: I do, I’ve started because Patti Styles and I found each other around 2010, and it was you know – can somebody who came up through the Keith Johnstone school play with somebody who came up through the Del Close plus Annoyance energies and ideas. Just do not go with Keith’s ideas at all. When I first met Patty, it was so easy and we just sat and had beers, and talked and we both love the idea of performing together, and I think it was like a year after we met that we played for the first time together at Wurtzburg, and maybe that was 2011. I did that then pretty quickly. There is other Annoyance people, so Susan Messing had her own duo „Messing with a Friend”. So then I would play with Susan Messing, Dave Razowsky –   he and I could also teach together. We teach the same thing in completely different ways and it’s like 80% the same and 20% different, but we also play very well together. Because we’re very harmonious. It’s like singer-songwriters that are different type personalities. And then after that, I just realized I like doing duo stuff. I think it’s just the discomfort is the most fun. I’d rather be uncomfortable because I have to be present the entire time, me and you, and we have one hour, and just each of us has to figure it out together. And I like the intimacy of that, and I like that it forces us to be a certain way if it’s going to work, and also love the horror the terror of if we don’t have magic here.

A lot of people now will just go and pull a person up from the audience. They’ll duo with them. A lot of people do solo improv, I’ve seen enough that I know it can be great. But if you’re going to do solo improv, why not just do stand-up, or a one-person show?

Gosia: I’m not a fan of solo improv either. But I’ve seen Jill Bernard with her „Drum Machine”, I’ve seen Stacey Smith, and they are both wonderful. And Lee White playing with a member of the audience, which in technically not a solo show. And Jacob Banigan is brilliant in playing multiple characters.

Joe: I saw him in Dubai. Some people are special, there’s nobody else on earth like him. He’s like Jill Bernard. There’s nobody else like Jill Bernard and they’re so uniquely who they are. They are so delightful. Like they were born to do that.

I could never see myself doing solo, or rap battles. There’s so many different flavors even in musical.

Gosia: I loved the blues musical, „Blues Hammer” that you played yesterday with Heather Urquhart and Stacey Smith. I’m not a fan of musicals poorly done…

Joe: There’s a lot of musical improv, but it’s also easy for bad musical improv to look good because most audience’s brains will melt if you can rhyme four lines, if you can rhyme four lines and kind of hold the tune, that kind of sounds like where the piano is, then people will say it was brilliant. God bless those people, we all have to start somewhere and you have to do your shit shows before your shows turned great. But there is a ton of, just to my ears, not good musical improv, not sophisticated, overly simplified. But again, I’m happy that it’s out there and I don’t care if people are good because it’s such a joyful way to play. And I don’t have to buy a ticket.

Gosia: Talking about blues and feeling blue, you refer to therapy in your workshops a lot. Is there anything coming to your head right away, how therapy helped you in improv?

Joe: Therapy is about examining yourself and understanding where certain things come from. Where coping mechanisms or triggers come from. The act of going to therapy means that you’re examining your instrument, retrieving between your ears. That’s the engine. All the characters that you play on stage. For me, if I’m going to break a habit or play in a new way or play emotionally or in order to listen to somebody else on stage – because I’ve been through so much therapy. It gives me another way to view the other person on stage. It’s not just that this person is being controlling but how are they being controlling or for why, might they be confirming or are they depressed or narcissistic or whatever. I would never push anybody or say „you really need to go to therapy”. I think improvisers should have therapists, if they don’t already have one. I think they learn to examine themselves. I’m interested in people that are self-aware on stage, that are emotionally inteligent, that are able to connect on a human level and to label what’s going on between us here so we can play a character that’s working with other character to get through something. 

Gosia: I think that we all should have just some basic manual of what should we do as teachers when we see someone in our class having a problem, when it’s reflecting the group, as improv is not therapy, though it can be helpful.

Joe: Therapists are sending people to improv class as therapy –  but improv is not therapy, but it can be therapeutic. And so if I see somebody in my class, I guess I’ll see them fairly early and then I’ll take about an hour to just check my assumption. I’ll just make sure, and will usually ask them to sit down and just have a talk with them try to get confirmation.

Even though I’ve been in and out of therapy for 25 years, I’ve learned a lot, but I’m not a shrink. I’m there. I got no business messing with anybody’s deals. I can make good guesses.

Gosia: Sometimes you can see that something is affecting the class. Sometimes you can ignore some actions, pushing boundaries. Sometimes you need to just ignore that because that’s what works. But what if you just can’t and you have to react, because you can feel that the group is already reacting to that.

Joe: It depends on who you’re teaching for. So if you’re teaching for a school, then what’s in their syllabus, but then if you’re just teaching for yourself like I often do,

I’m aware of the energy in the room, and I’m aware of my limitations and being able to deal with everything. So just try to be honest. I just try to call it. I’ve had a handful issues like that, not tons, and everyone’s a different case and I try to be compassionate. If somebody is mentally ill or something isn’t their fault, I would ask: what’s going on, tell me what’s happening, why that person seemed to piss you off or why you started sobbing or why you got violent – but it doesn’t happen that often.

Gosia: Ok, Joe. I’m not going to keep you anymore because of I’m being compassionate and I know that you need to eat before the show, I love you, thank you so much. And that was just just our first conversation like that, and I’m going to catch you anytime later any place in the world.

Joe: I will do as many of these with you is you like because you’re one of my favorite people.

Gosia: Thank you, and let’s go see some shows!

IMPRO Amsterdam 2020