There’s no teacher like stage time.
Dave is a busy man. From shooting films to TJ & Dave, his weekly Wednesday night show at iO, this man is hard to track down. However, after a few weeks of rearranging schedules, I was able to find a time to chat with Dave. He is very kind and courteous and above all of his success to date, he is in search of “world domination.”
How long have you been acting and improvising?
I started improvising in when I was a junior in college. I took some improv classes with my brother and I had never done anything before that. I took some improv classes at the Players Workshop at Second City.
And where did you go to college, Dave?
Among other places, Loyola of Chicago.
Ahh, nice. So you said you never had any acting or improvising experience before then?
At the end of that series of workshops, you did a show, a revue, on Sunday afternoon at Second City and that was the first time I was on a stage.
Was that a big turning point for you or did you bypass it and take a break?
It was the first time I found something I really loved doing, but I never considered it as something that I could pursue. There just weren’t that many opportunities back then, plus I didn’t grow up in a family where that was really an option.
Could you say a little more about that?
Back then, this was something you’d do as a hobby or something, but it wasn’t a job or anything like that.
What were you going to school for?
I studied of philosophy with the intention of either going to law school or business school after that.
What was it that switched and made you pursue this career path?
It was a few things. The next semester I ended up meeting a friend of mine, Joel Murray, and we talked about what we really liked to do. A few other folks influenced me. I was talking to an fellow construction worker, a guy I used to work with, about how much I liked doing this and he told me, “Well you gotta try it otherwise you’ll always wonder.”
So that was it?
Well, I finished school and I had a job in real estate. A real good job. But, I didn’t like it, so I quit and I ended up doing some construction and sleeping on a friend’s floor and doing stand-up and then Joel and I started taking classes with Del.
Can you speak a little about any relationship you had with Del or any huge lessons you learned from him?
Oh, everything. Almost anything I know now came from him, pretty much directly. There were a few things that I learned in that workshop before, which were helpful, but once I started taking classes with Del it was a different kind of improvisation. At that time, Del was also coming up with the Harold, the long-form improvisation. The idea that it could be more than just funny and clever.
Any one specific thing that Del preached to you that really just stuck?
He was a great teacher, but before he was a great teacher, he was a great improviser, so it wasn’t like he was talking about theory, he was talking about what works best from his experience. The other principles that he talked about too- the other person is the most important, follow the fear, working to the height of your intelligence – all of those things were just truths.
Absolutely. You mentioned Joel and Del, but you’ve worked with a number of actors and improvisers, who has been the most inspirational or influential and why?
Improvisers: for sure Joel and Del. Del and I were actors in a play together (Conspiracy Trial) and after that the two of us wrote and performed a two person show. Just spending time with him was real helpful. He was smart and it took a while to translate what he was saying to normal person speak, but he was the single person that influenced me the most. Other than that, Joel and TJ. I’ve worked with them more than anybody. Those are the three main people just because I’ve spent the most time with them but really everybody else too. Everyone from Second City. Great people from Second City before I got there: Jim Fay, Richard Kind, Dan Castellaneta, Mike Hagerty, Jane Morris, Jeff Michalski, Harold Ramis… all sorts of folks… everyone I saw.
Any personal influences, like friends or family?
No, like I said I was the first one. We had someone in every field except this one. As a kid, I enjoyed watching comedies and the Marx brothers and stuff, but no personal family members or anyone like that to look to.
So Dave, I know you’ve worked with Tom Hanks in Angels and Demons, how was that?
It was a treat. He’s the nicest guy and that director, that Ron Howard fellow, was awfully great too. The two of them just set this tone, that’s just the most pleasant environment. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen anyone more even-keeled than Ron Howard. Stuff would go wrong, like it always does and he was just like, “Oh, ok, that’s unfortunate.” and that was it. No drama. They both couldn’t be more generous and kind…and we got to go to Rome.
I know that’s so nice! Anyway, back to comedy, could you speak a little bit about your experience with Strangers With Candy?
Yea, those guys came up through Second City after me. Mitch and Paul and Amy and Stephen. They had a show before that called Exit 57 and I did some writing on that. When they had their next show, which was Strangers With Candy, they had me come out and do some stuff on that show as well and it was just a blast. Again, just working with people you know and are friends. Always so much fun.
Which shows/movies have been your favorite to work on and why?
Working at Second City was great. Del used us to come up with the Harold, which was pretty neat. There’s a show I did at Steppenwolf called “Glengarry Glen Ross” which was tremendous. Not only was it a great show, it had a great cast: Tracy Letts, Pete Burns, Mat DeCaro, Mike Nussbaum, Alan Wilder, directed by Amy Morton. It was wonderful. If you’re working with great people or working at a great place or doing a great show, or any combination of those things, it’s just fun.
So you don’t necessarily prefer movies or improv over plays; you just like a mixture of all of them?
I do. There are enjoyable parts of all of them. I think my very favorite thing to do is improvisation, but you can’t live on that. I like doing voiceover, too. I like doing everything.
You mentioned TJ has been a big influence in your life. So tell me, how did TJ and Dave begin? Did you have any idea this show would be as successful as it has been and what do you see in the future for TJ and Dave?
So, I’ll start with the last question first: world domination. We got thrown together at an improv festival that had marquee people in it, like the writers from Conan and Mad TV or something, because there was supposed to be a writers strike, but the strike was averted, so most people had to be at work. So they had to fill the slot with people who weren’t working. So it was me and TJ, Kevin Dorff, Scott Adsit, Jimmy Carrane, Mick Napier, it was a fun group.
I’d never been on stage with TJ before and we starting talking after that about wanting to do something. I was in a play at the time, so we waited until I was done with that, and then we decided to see what happened. Charna was nice enough to give us a place. The first one was different than what you see now, but just the first one. The first one was three little scenes. We’d do a scene and stop and then do another little, unconnected scene. We decided that if we needed other people in the show, we’d just add them. So from the second show on, it kind of has been the same thing that you see now. Connected scenes and characters in the same scene. I don’t remember how we started playing characters. I think there was a need for someone else, so we just started doing that. We had the same idea in mind. That’s why we’re doing it still, this idea that if you do these little things, the rest of it takes care of itself. If you just honestly respond in this moment, it doesn’t require a lot of planning and I don’t have to know the trajectory of the scene if I don’t just do this particular moment.
And how long have you been running?
Almost 11 years. We’ve been doing it in New York for about seven years.
Wow, and you guys still aren’t sick of each other?
(long pause) No.
Ok, Dave, what have you found to be one of the most difficult things you’ve had to overcome, in terms of improv?
It’s persistence. There are frustrations and disappointments and stuff like that, but it’s persistence that overcomes most things. Cause you know, it’s a silly career, so there are lots of problems with it. There are a lot of dead ends and things, so those are the difficulties.
What there ever a point in time you questioned yourself and thought maybe you shouldn’t be doing this?
Of course, I still do.
You’re still questioning yourself? You’ve had a number of successes and you love what you’re doing.
Yes, there are a lot of things. Different things happen. Yes, without getting into a super long explanation, yes, absolutely. There seems to be no market for these things that I spend a lot of time working on and making. There just seems to be no interest in it outside of those of us who make and/or write them.
If you could do it all over again, what would you do differently?
I think I’d probably take more jobs that seemed unappealing. It’s always great to work on projects like that and that’s how you get better. There are a few things that I decided not to do and I don’t know if that was the right choice. Other than that, pretty much the same, just maybe more of it. That would be the only difference.
Any other tips to continue one’s persistence?
Do shows. Do shows. Going to see shows is great, but there’s nothing like doing shows. No matter what happens, good or bad. Just keep doing them. There’s no teacher like stage time.
What has been one of your most rewarding experiences stemming from acting and comedy?
We get to do stuff that just isn’t supposed to happen. Years ago, Mike McCarthy was part of this comedy festival over in Ireland and I got to go over to Ireland to improvise, 15 years ago or something like that. I got to do it a couple of times. I get to travel. I get to go to New York five times a year to improvise. I enjoy, literally, where it takes me. I also got to do Second City Touring Company and I enjoyed that as well.
What are you most proud of in your career as an actor or improviser? One pinnacle event in your career?
That Glengarry show was pretty fun. But I don’t know about that, because it’s gone, it’s done. To think that that was the pinnacle, that means that this is all downhill. Part of that was that I don’t consider myself as an actor really. I have no training. I only do comedy and improvisation and I was doing theatre stuff, which was really a hoot to me.
You have no training as an actor?
No, I studied philosophy in college and the only classes I’ve ever taken were from Del.
I guess I never would have thought of that. I would have thought you would have taken a class or two along the way, but nice work!
That’s why I say the stage is the greatest teacher.
How has comedy impacted your life and vice versa?
Well I was just thinking about this the other day with Bernie Salins, the guy who started Second City. Almost in its entirety, the people in my life either have my last name or are connected with Second City or improvisation. All the good things in my life come from it. I’m real fortunate that I get to hang around with guys who crack me up. I don’t think that happens for everybody.
I agree. What advice would you impart to your younger self as an improviser?
Take the odd jobs that aren’t as appealing.
A couple oddball questions for you, if you could meet anyone in the world dead or alive who would it be and what would say to them?
God, would be the one person I’d like to have lunch with. What would I say to him? I’d say “nice job.”
That’s fair. What is a fun fact that not many people know about you?
I worked on a sheep ranch for a couple months.
Do you have a favorite Chicago restaurant?
Nookies. Nookies on Wells Street.
Do you have a favorite dish there?
Yea, the waffle. The waffle at Nookies.
Alright, I’ll have to check that out. Any go-to methods you turn to for inspiration?
No, I wish. That’s one of my biggest problems, motivation.
In what sense?
Just to sit down and write stuff is really a chore. A lot of times, that’s why I work with other people. If I show up and I told someone I’d write something and I show up without anything, that’s unacceptable. So just to know that I said I would have something done for someone, that’s what motivates me to do it.
What other new projects are you working on?
Mitch Rouse and I shot a prison-comedy pilot out in Los Angeles, called Merkin Penal. I wrote something with Sue Gilman that came out of a sketch show that TJ directed and we wrote that into a pilot.
So you’re pitching them then?
Yup, but so far nothing. That’s the discouragement. They don’t choose these things, but they’re putting so much shit on TV. It’s just like a kick in the nuts. It might not be great, but it’s better than that… It makes you feel like you’re in the wrong universe.
What is the greatest insight you’ve discovered about life and comedy?
Um, wow. If you really do respond honestly to this particular moment right now, everything seems to take care of itself.
Any final comments?
I think Chicago is the best place for improvisers, for a number of reasons. We’re away from the eye of people who can give us big jobs. Nobody is coming to see your show and take you away. Most of the time, you can just do your show, which is helpful. Only 3 million of us get to live here and I’m just a big fan. It’s a great place.
Dave Pasquesi is a veteran performer of The Second City as well as the iO Theater, Improv Institute, and Annoyance Theatre. He currently performs with T. J. Jagodowski in “TJ and Dave,” one of the more popular running improv shows performing both in Chicago and New York. He has also been in a number of films, plays, television shows working with actors such as Tom Hanks, Jeff Garlin, Mitch Rouse and more.
Interview conducted on November 2, 2012.