I Interview Master Improviser and Teacher: PJ Jacokes!
The other night I was complimented on my skills in being able to react with everything that happens during a show so quickly. That night a lot of things happened during the show. On one side of me I had a neat, but crazy old coot who dressed like he could’ve been Weird Al’s dad. On the other side of me I had a 24 year old girl admitting proudly that her Beiber Fever ran so deep that she liked to pick up on underage boys on Myspace…because apparently only adults are on Facebook. I worked with it.
The reason I am able to work with it so well is because I have an improv background. When I started stand up I took classes at Second City in Detroit when it was still there…and certain powers that be cared more about the arts and less about baseball…or however the story goes as to why Second City Detroit is no longer. My teacher there was PJ Jacokes.
PJ now operates Go Comedy in Ferndale. In addition to being one of the best improvisers I’ve ever seen…he did a long form show one night that ran the gambit of emotions…simply amazing…he’s also an incredibly nice guy. He hooked me up with my acting agent, which is a bigger deal than you may think. PJ and I are both stocky, nerdy white guys. So the roles I’m going out for are a lot of the same roles he’s going out for. That’s pretty awesome when you think about it. He opened the door for someone to be his direct competition!
I sat down with PJ a long time ago, but in the months since got overwhelmed by how long it takes me to transcribe an interview. This coincidentally, is how he and I started our talk.
It takes me an hour to transcribe ten minutes of audio.
Do you have Dragon Dictation? It’s an app on the iphone that takes audio and translates it. It’s 70% accurate.
Why don’t we both record this and test it. I never used it beyond, “don’t forget to buy dog food.”
It started as…I was at Second City and I was the head instructor there. They decided to hire a bunch of new teachers. So I went from a five or six class a week load down to one, which upset me. So I decided I was going to leave, move on and do something else.
Was this after Second City already moved?
This was out in Novi. I was directing the Master Class as it was called. I sent out mass e-mails saying, “I think it’s time for me to move and make a career change so this is the last thing I’m going to do. “ That was all the Dragon Dictation could handle.
How accurate was that?
Is this place that started because Second City leaving Detroit or this a something you had planned going for it started as not identified you and I was seriously and I was the algebra.
Do you not understand percentages?
The thing is when you’re saying seven words and two of them are wrong it’s not that big of a deal! Algebra? I don’t know. So I sent out this mass e-mail saying to come out to my last show and you’ll never get a big e-mail from me again. And one of my old students responded to that e-mail. “Would you be interested in opening a place up? Let’s do lunch.” I thought that would be great. I’m an actor with a kid so I don’t have a whole lot of money. It turned out that he had the funds to get it going so we brought Chris DiAngelo and Tommy Leroy on right at the beginning and opened up. So it was a result of me leaving Second City. Soon after they left Novi.
One of the things I’ve noticed, and maybe it’s just because this place is down the street from me, but it seems like you’ve really reached out to the community. You had a presence at the Ferndale DIY Festival. Detroit Comics was on the back of the show tickets. Is that outreach something you think lead to the success of the club?
Oh yeah. Community outreach is a big part of this. Improv is a team sport. So to open an improv club and try to do it on your own is counter intuitive. The thing is, I’ve lived in Ferndale forever too. I live six blocks away and have for fourteen years. For me to reach out to the places I think are cool and say, “Hey look what I did! Can we do something together”, was a chance to touch base with people who have successful business that I respect and get involved with them.
Was that why you decided on Ferndale for the location?
Yeah, for me it was kind of a no brainer. Downtown wasn’t quite ready for a small walk up place. I worked in Ann Arbor for a long time and the drive was taxing. To me, Ferndale has always been the perfect blend of family and culture.
Plus, like you said, it’s a good walk up city.
Downtown Ferndale is really bustling.
I’ve always felt that comedians who have a background in improv tend to be better comedians. But I still wonder why there’s a little bit of a rivalry between the two arts.
Personally I don’t see it as a rivalry. The analogy I like to use is improv is to baseball what stand up is to golf. They both take a lot of skill and they’re both hitting a white ball with a stick, but improv is team based and stand up, you’re out there on your own. I think people who have stand up for a long time have a hard time with improv because of the give and take. In improv, I always teach that comedy is a byproduct. If you aim for it, you’re doomed. You’re not listening or you’re not part of the scene. With comedy, it’s the opposite I assume. You come aiming at the jokes. It’s a very different mindset.
I’m guilty of this thinking. Is improv art? Because sometimes I think of improv just as a tool in creating sketch or scripts, but then I catch myself and realize that I’m not really thinking of improv as much as I’m thinking of “barprov”*. Like, I saw you do long form here one time where you took the audience on the whole range of emotions and that was undeniably art. Do you think maybe that’s the cause of the rivalry that stand ups dismiss improv as a tool?
It’s certainly a tool. That’s part of the way we sell our classes. We have a ton of teachers and lawyers taking our classes. And it’s not to be funny, it’s to be better on their feet and comfortable in front of a group. A lot of what we teach is real world advice. The thing for me about improv is that it’s disposable. And that can be frustrating.
Even as an audience member it can be frustrating. Here, I saw Jamen Spitzer and Chris DiAngelo do a show that may have been in the top five funniest live performances I’ve ever seen. But when it was done, I was bummed that it was gone forever. It was gold and it was magical, but now it’s history.
We’re always trying to grow, progress and change things. It would be great at some point to have a film archive of everything we’ve done. I’m sure we’ve done stuff here that would be laughed at a million times online. Doing improv live is the biggest high I’ve ever had. To me, there’s an element of magic when you realize what you just said tied together three other elements from twenty minutes ago that you had never intended. Those discoveries give you goose bumps. For me, those moments have only existed in improv. The best compliment we can get is when someone asks, “Are you sure that wasn’t already written?”
I love the moments I have on stage when the audience generates something crazy for me to react to. I already know how all my jokes end, so I embrace those moments where I have no idea how an interaction during a live show will end.
It allows a husky, mid-thirty year old divorced dad the opportunity to be a base jumper. It’s that rush of not knowing where you’re going or you’re going to end up next.
I’m always surprised that with the economy the way it is in Michigan, every time I’ve been here you seem to be either at or near capacity. How do you manage to do that?
There is a quote that I never fact checked, but I’ve used in every interview I’ve ever done.
Well, I’m glad I’m asking an original question!
No. No. They say when the economy is the worst theatres and bars do the best. We are both. It’s a time where things are rough and people need to escape. To escape to a place where people can laugh is nice. One of things we work hard to cultivate here is a sense of community for the performers and for the audience. We make the show together. If they weren’t here we wouldn’t have a show to do because we need their suggestions. Being able to build this thing together is a good feeling.
I still clearly remember the first time I ever yelled a suggestion. It was 1995 at the Second City Chicago and I said, “Spiderman”. Kevin Dorf, who last I knew was writing on Conan, climbed up into the booth as Spiderman. I was 18 or whatever, but it was the coolest thing I’ve ever seen. I did that! I yelled out a word, but I created Spiderman. I think part of it is that people feel comfortable thing. Another one of the stand up v. improv things is a lot of times when we bring people to the front row they’re like, “No, no, we don’t want to be part of the show.” We will not talk to you from the stage unless your slip comes up.
Is it an unwritten rule here that you won’t fuck with the audience unless they give you a suggestion from the audience? My first experience with improv is being at Second City in Detroit on a date. The house went black and when the lights came up a female cast member was right in my face and started asking me questions about the date. Then the whole cast improvised a whole musical number on how awful it would be to go on a date with me. I was horribly embarrassed and vowed to never do that to someone. Of course nowadays the circle of abuse continues and I do that to people on a nightly basis! So do you urge the performers here not to make the audience uncomfortable?
I don’t know if we’ve actually ever said it. For the Showdown everyone fills out a slip and it says on it, “Do you want to come up on stage or not?” I love being on stage, but when I’m not on stage, I want nothing to do with it. There are some people who that will never be fun for. I don’t ever want them in my building to feel attacked. If they bring it on themselves, then that’s another thing.
80% of it is Tommy Leroy and then Aaron Johnstone has done a bunch lately.
I never noticed that high above the lobby are a lot of the posters for past shows. It’s really impressive art. When I saw Todd Barry and Neil Hamburger they were selling tour posters and I thought, “Man, if I had a nice tour poster, I could sell that too!” Do you guys ever sell posters from the shows in case someone wants a souvenir?
We talked about it, but we never did it. The problem is they’re expensive so we wouldn’t want to order a bunch and then sit on them.
I taught a class at Joey’s for stand up and one of the things that’s so disheartening to me is that sometimes there’s a person who gets it and is so good, but you never see them again after their graduation show. I’d imagine since you said a lot of times you have people taking classes who are just trying to grow as a human, learn new tools, and not necessarily be a performer, that has to happen to you a lot.
That doesn’t bother me too much.
Did it in the beginning?
That was a long time ago! As a teacher I taught some people who have done very well with themselves. And I’ve taught people who did their last class and went on to be more confident as people. And I feel better about those?
Why? Because anyone who wants to be a performer is so damaged as a person already!
(Laughs) Right! They’ve got so many issues so what am I going to do? If someone gets a career out of it, that’s great. But if someone gets a better life, then that’s more rewarding for me. Watching the difference it can make in people’s life, at the end of the day that’s worth more to me than anything else.
I feel like in addition to making me a better performer, having studied under PJ has made me a better person too. I am more confident. When I got into performing my confidence was dead because I killed my broadcasting career and had to work retail jobs. Comedy is a rough thing to break into and I feel like it was even rougher back then. There’s also a sense of family that improv can bring out in you. I’ll always feel like PJ is some sort of wise uncle to me. Bryan Lark, who’s gone on to be a improv powerhouse was in my class at Second City and every time I see him I feel like I’m running into a cousin. If you’d like to learn more about Go Comedy and all the great shows and classes they offer you can contact the theatre online at www.gocomedy.net , e-mailing firstname.lastname@example.org or by calling 248-327-0575 for shows or 248-677-1772 for classes.
*Barprov is like improv done in comedy clubs or bars where the audience has a shorter attention span and often times offer really base and crude suggestions to the performers.