The Mother of Improv Comedy
I first fell in love with improv at iO‘s Clark Street location. iO changed my life, but my story is not unlike many others. Charna created a world at iO that many call “home” and it has become the center of their universe. Charna Halpern is one of the most influential people in improv, has paved the path for hundreds of comedians over the last few decades and has assisted in world peace — literally. It was more than a pleasure and more than an honor to speak with her; it was inspirational.
Let’s take it back to the beginning, how did iO get started?
It started in 1981 when I was an improviser myself and I read Jeffrey Sweet’s book, Something Wonderful Right Away. In it I read about David Shepherd who tried to do this thing called Improv Olympic in Canada and it wasn’t really successful, so he went back to New York. It was a comedy competition with short games — that’s all there was back then, there was no such thing as long-form at the time. I heard David Shepherd was in town, I sought him out and I said, “I think I can do this Improv Olympic thing,” because there were all these people but no real place to perform, so he said I could give it a shot in Chicago. Which I did. I worked with David for a while, then I separated from him after about a year and a half. At the time I was doing what was a lot like ComedySportz for a while, but I got tired of it. It was very successful commercially, because I started doing different identity things — for example, I had a group of Rabbis who were called the God Squad and such.
Then I heard about Del Close and sought him out and I said I thought there was something better for improvisation than short-form games. He said he had been working on something since the 60s called The Harold, but it was basically unteachable and unplayable but he wanted to work together to see if we could make it happen. Together we changed the face of improvisation. We created long-form improvisation.
What kind of impact did Del have on you both when he was alive and still to this day?
When he was alive, he was just so much fun. My job was to hold onto one foot so he could dangle in the air and float around. He was this amazing, crazy, brilliant man who never had the same day twice. He revealed the secrets of the universe to me. Everything I had learned up until then was kind of bullshit, silly stuff. I was never told to be truthful or to play to the top of my intelligence. I was never taught to make the other person look good or how to respect each other on stage. Those things informed me about what improvisation really was. It never occurred to me how important it really was and how it could change the world and change each other. He was a mentor. He was a best friend. He was a family member. He was my father. He was my son. I had to teach him how to dress and have a phone without calling the president and threatening his life — that’s why he couldn’t have a phone.
Wait, that happened?
Yeah, he learned not to do that. But he was nuts. He kept all his money in a pot box because he couldn’t have a bank account. Because if he had his bank book on him and he fell in the water and it got wet, he’d never get his money back. I changed his life. I saved him and showed him how to live in the real world and he changed my life and showed me how to live in a fantasy world.
How do you see that portrayed in your everyday life still today?
Everything he taught me, I use and I teach. Because of him, iO exists today. He’s impacted me in so many ways. I am a better teacher because of him. I am a little bit calmer because of him. At one point one of the groups we were playing with were working on a deal with a nightclub to overthrow us and take over iO as the main team and I was so mad. I thought these people liked us and were our friends and he said to me, “Oh but honey, isn’t it wonderful that we gave these people something they loved so much that they were willing to stab us in the back for it?” He always saw the bright side. When I teach and I want to fix a scene, I always think “What would Del do?” and it’s usually whatever the opposite of what I would have originally thought to do. I kind of invoke him in times of trouble.
You said you met up with David Shepherd and then met Del and that’s how iO came together, but was there any one thing or any one moment that made you believe that all your time and energy should be devoted to this? Did it just seem like a fun thing to pursue at the time?
I just loved it. I remember I was living in the suburbs when I heard David Shepherd was in town. I was driving home when I heard he was in town and I thought, “I could do that. I’m going to do that.” and I got on the Cloverleaf and came back. I knew, I absolutely knew. I never thought “I will create an empire, I will create some of the biggest stars in the world, I will make a living and be well known,” I never thought any of that. For me, it was a place to play. That’s good, that’s how it should be. Life is like improvisation — the things that happen are far more interesting than anything that you had planned. I couldn’t have planned any of that. All it was was the love of the art and to do the thing I loved to do. Everything else took care of itself.
I absolutely hear you. That’s actually why I started this blog. Within the first four weeks of being introduced to improv, I fell in love with it and it changed everything. It was that realization that every single day is improv. You improvise your life. It’s a direct correlation.
Exactly. Not only that, it’s really like The Harold with the connections and the things that happen to you. You start to pay attention to the patterns in your life and it’s very interesting. It is a philosophy to follow: to say “yes” and see what trouble you get into. Nothing is going to happen if you say “no.” It’s like a little religion.
I have a theory. I truly believe that if everyone in the world took one improv class, the world would be a better place.
I think so. You know, I went to the American Embassy to teach the island of Cypress. It was an island divided by two — the Greek side and the Turkish side. They hated each other. But the president wanted to raise the border, join sides and make the island one so he could join the European union. He went to the Embassy and asked for help as to how to bring these two sides together and they called me.
Yeah, it was amazing. I couldn’t believe the American Embassy could think of something like this, it was great. They weren’t asking for comedy, they were asking for agreement. I went and taught these people how to collaborate and work together. I worked on each side of the island for a while and then they raised the border. Some nights we were on the Greek side, some nights we were on the Turkish side and by the end — I was there about three weeks — they all adored each other. Now the border has been raised.
Wow, when was this?
Oh about ten years ago.
Oh my gosh, that’s amazing. That’s beautiful.
Yeah, so there are people who recognize the importance of the art form. If they taught it in schools, there wouldn’t be any bullying. Perhaps there wouldn’t be gang problems.
Ah, honestly, improv could save the world.
Ok, back to iO. Could you briefly explain what the expansion process was like when you guys started building up iO?
It was Del teaching me and the people who were performing with me. Then we’d do a show and a few other people would come and they’d want to join us. So they’d join our Monday night classes and we started gaining a following. Del said to me, “Charna, people have to be a certain level before they get to my classes, they’re getting too big. You have to start teaching.” So I started teaching and then I started training more teachers and more students were coming and then I wrote my book, and people started coming from all over the world. Eventually, our best performers became teachers. Same thing happened with LA. People like Neil Flynn and David Koechner moved out to LA and were a little lonely and looking for a “home.” They wanted a place to play, teach and perform in LA so I got a place and they helped run it. At first it was small and then we moved to another place and then we settled on the place we currently have. Light attracts light, so these things just keep growing. Nobody leaves, everybody loves iO and nobody leaves.
It’s like a home.
It is. It’s a home. That’s why BeerSharkMice — Koechner, Flynn and Finn — all these guys are in huge movies and TV shows, but they still play at iO because it’s home.
When you first started iO, what were some of the biggest challenges you guys faced?
I didn’t have my own place. We were thrown out of about ten places. We started opening at bars and bar owners realized they could make more money off concerts and such, so we kept getting thrown out. Andy Richter used to say the only reason he was on a team was because he had a truck. The sets would fit in his truck, so every time we had to move, we’d load up his truck and move to the next place. Then I got my place on Clark Street in 1995 — a place I built and my name was on it — that’s when you’re real. I remember having a panic attack that first month trying to figure out how I’d pay $3000 rent and then out of nowhere there was a line down the block. I couldn’t believe it.
That’s amazing. With so many success stories and so many people come through iO, do you have any favorite stories about people you’ve enjoyed watching grow the most?
I enjoyed watching The Family — Adam McKay, Neil Flynn, Matt Besser, Ian Roberts, Miles Stroth and Ali Farahnakian. It was one of the fastest moving groups. They were all so smart they could access that deeper level of funny much faster than most. The work was always fast, funny and super smart. Del used to say “Watching The Family is like watching six guys all fall down the stairs at the same time and land on their feet.” They were brilliant.
As for success stories, there are so many. Just recently, Cecily Strong used to work in the box office. I do auditions for a few months before Lorne Michaels comes and one night I walked past the box office and asked Cecily why she didn’t audition. She said she wasn’t ready, that she had some stuff, but it wasn’t finished, and I asked her to show me what she had. So she did. I put her up at the audition and she got hired. She could still be working in the box office right now if I hadn’t walked past her that night.
That’s crazy. At what point did you know that iO was going to need a new home?
In about 2007 or 2008 I found out. At the time I thought I only had a year and then I realized I had some time to find the right place.
What was that process like?
It was hellish. I went to a lot of buildings and none of them felt right. But when I walked into the place we now have, I knew right away. It looked like a giant ski lodge, wood beams, sky lights and brick walls. I just knew.
Tell me a little bit about the new theatre.
It has four theatres. One is TJ and Dave’s called The Mission. They will be doing a sketch revue, music and a ton of secret things that they won’t tell me. But it’s within iO, so that’s exciting. It’s nice because they can do their own thing but they’re not leaving me.
So they will be running that theatre, but it will be part of iO?
Yes. It’s their theatre, they’re paying rent and their staff and they’re programming it. You buy your tickets at the iO box office, but they’re running everything else. They wanted their own theatre but they didn’t want to compete against me, so they asked if I was buying a big space, if I’d build them a theatre and I said, “You bet, absolutely.”
So I have three theatres. There are big bathrooms and dressing rooms with showers, it’s amazing. We have a huge round bar that seats a couple hundred people. We have lots of classroom space, two event spaces, a kitchen with a staff of six people that will be supplying food for the theatres as well as catering corporate parties, weddings and other events. We have an outdoor beer garden — we have three bars in total. The bars are outside the theatres so people can just hang out there.
Wow, that’s so exciting. Obviously, everything is getting bigger, but what else will change?
We haven’t talked about ticket prices yet. I won’t change them too much. People come because they’re not too expensive, so they won’t change too much. We’ll hire more staff, janitorial services, etc. Our bills are growing, our expenses are growing and hopefully our income will grow.
Hopefully. You’ve given yourself so many opportunities for income growth, so it seems promising.
That was the idea. At the old space, we had great hit shows on the weekends but they’re so successful, I couldn’t close them. So people have come to me with great ideas for a show on the weekend and I haven’t been able to take them because I can’t close these other shows, so now we’ll be able to put up more shows. We’ll be able to do festivals — we’re going to do a muscial improv festival — and more. We’re also doing a tour in Europe after we open, so we’ll be doing that as well! We’re going to ten different countries over the next three months, we’re just going to do it all now.
That’s amazing, how many teachers are you bringing with?
We booked the tour for four countries at a time, roughly about fourteen days. If they wanted to stay and go onto the next tour they can or they can return to the states and I’ll send someone else. But it will be four teachers at a time.
Wow, congratulations. That’s so exciting. One question, in regards to the new space — first of all, I wish you and iO all the success in the world — but with it’s Clark Street location, it got so much foot traffic, are you at all concerned about it being tucked away in its new location.
iO is a destination. People who come to iO are coming from wherever they’re coming from, I don’t think it will be an issue. It’ll be even easier because we’ll have a parking lot right next door too. I think it’ll be just as crowded.
What all is getting torn down?
Clark Street all the way to Irish Oak. The owner who owns iO also owns the 7-11 and the Starbucks on Addison, but not the garage or the souvenir shop on the corner, so those will stay — it’s going to look very strange.
Geez, that’s a shame. Ok, with all these changes, what is the one biggest thing you want to make sure stays the same in the new space?
I want to keep it that homey-rowdy fun place. The old days people were able to hang out after 10pm because we didn’t have midnight shows. However, with the new bars outside the theatres, no one has to leave, people can hang out again. There’s the event space and couches and the bar — I want that again. I want people to want to come to iO just to hang out and see who’s there, it’ll be a party every night. That’s actually how I came up with The Living Room — Koechner and all the guys would hang out late and laugh and talk and do bits. I thought we’d just try putting it on stage. We put a table on stage with beer and a couch and we’d just hang out and talk and do bits. That’s where that form came from.
On the flip-side, what will you miss most about the Clark Street location?
Its history. This is the place where we really started and became real. It’s sad that it’s getting knocked down, but I’ve had so many problems with the place, I’m kind of glad to be out of there. It’s an old building. The hassles won’t be missed, but the history will be missed.
Throughout your journey, what would you say is the greatest lesson you’ve learned so far?
Not to panic. Everything will be fine. Every day there’s a new crisis and it’ll pass by the end of the day and in the morning there will be a new one. Just figure out how to solve it and move on. Stay calm. I’ve been following those lessons for a while and letting the place be run by the people.
If you could go back and do anything different, would you and if so, what would it be?
I would have forced Del to stop smoking. Maybe I could have kept him around a little bit longer. I did try.
That’s a tough battle.
It is. I mean, this man was an alcoholic and he quit drinking. He was a cocaine addict and he quit cocaine. He did heroin and he quit heroin. But he couldn’t beat cigarettes. The one drug he couldn’t beat. That’s the most dangerous one. That’s the only thing I regret. He could have still been around.
That would have changed everything.
He would have been happy with the way things are changing, it just would have been fun to have him around.
Ok Charna, last question: what is the greatest insight you’ve discovered about life and comedy?
Life is like improvisation. I always say “yes.” Stay in the moment. Let things take their course. The things that happen will be more interesting that anything you could have planned.
Join Charna at iO‘s soft launch tonight and again during their grand opening weekend — August 29th and 30th. iO alums will be coming back and doing their old shows, it’s guaranteed to be a weekend not to be missed.
Interview conducted on July 15, 2014