It took a little while to get over the fear of if I’d actually be funny.
My first day of level 4 at iO, I was supposed to have Bill Arnett. However, Bill was unable to make our first class and to our pleasant surprise, Mr. Jeff Griggs had stepped in to teach instead. I whipped up a few questions for Jeff and asked if he would mind sparing a few minutes to chat with me after class. Not only is he a talented improviser and excellent teacher, he is an incredibly kind person with a closer relationship and personal account to Del that could only be second to Charna. I came to discover that he was from the same small town my dad’s family is from in southern Illinois and while we have opposing favorite sports teams, we do share one same passion: improv.
Did you always know you wanted to get into comedy?
I didn’t. I started off with theatre and did theatre in high school and college. While I was in college I saw Second City in Champagne, Illinois and thought “Whoa, that’s really cool” and that’s what made me want to do it.
Ok, so Second City was kind of your transition?
So then, how did you get started in improv? Second City?
I got started with Second City about 10 years later because I was really scared of it. So 10 years later, I finally moved to Chicago and started taking classes at Second City and while I was at Second City, they told me about iO, so then I started taking classes at iO.
What was your big fear that kept you from doing improv?
I come from a small town, so the idea of coming to Chicago scared me. People had always said I was funny, so actually having to really be funny was also a little daunting. It took a little while to get over the fear of if I’d actually be funny.
Ok, so you started with Second City and then went through iO. When did you start teaching?
In the old days of iO, you started taking classes and you’d be put on a team after Level 3. I ended up getting put on a team after Level 1 and I performed with that team for a while and then started working for Del Close. I started coaching teams and after Del passed away, Charna [Halpern] asked me if I’d like to teach a teen class, so I started teaching regular classes and now I’ve been teaching improv for 14 years.
Could you speak a little bit about your relationship with Del?
I was his intern. I picked him up and helped him run his errands. I picked him up every Thursday afternoon and I’d take him to the bank, to the grocery store and sometimes I’d pick him up and he’d say “I don’t have anything to do, let’s go to a movie,” so I’d just go eat and hang out with him. I did that for a year and a half until he died.
Where did the inspiration of Guru come from and how did you begin the process of writing the book?
I was teaching full time for a few years after Del died and people would always ask me about his stories, because I had a lot of weird stories from Del. So I would tell my students about his stories. Then someone had missed a class and asked if I could write out the story and share it with her. So I did, and then another person missed a class and asked the same thing. And then I realized, I should probably write them all down. So that’s what I did.
I sent them to a publisher. He said he liked all of them and said he’d print them, but he also asked for the historical background of Del. So I inserted his history between all of the stories.
How long was the process?
I wrote it six years ago (2006) and it was a really fast process. I think I wrote it in two months. Then the publishers asked for the history part and that took another 30 days. So in total it took 90 days. Then it was published like a year after that.
Wow, that is fast. Outside of Guru, do you have any one greatest moment of your career thus far?
I work for Second City now. They pay me to do improv, which is a pretty good deal. I do Second City cruise ships and I travel all over doing shows. So, the greatest thing about my career is that I get to see the world through improv. When I’m finished doing shows, because of Guru, people will also hire me to do workshops and festivals. So I have taught and performed in Tokyo, Finland, Barcelona, Canada, Hawaii, I’ve been all over. That’s one really great thing- I’ve traveled the world teaching and performing improv.
Have you met any exciting people along your journey?
That’s another really great thing. I met my wife. She was in a class that I taught and after she was finished and graduated, we kept in touch and then six years later we got married.
As a hopeless romantic, that is amazing. What a great story. Wow, I didn’t think that’s where you were going with that, but that’s great.
Ok, so on top of that, who are some of your greatest comedic influences?
Del Close. Mick Napier from the Annoyance. I think Bill Murray is the coolest person I’ve ever seen. I just think he’s amazing. He’s at the very top of coolest people ever. Larry David and Ricky Gervais are phenomenal. But then there are new people, like Aziz Ansari kills me right now. John Mulaney. There’s a lot, but Bill Murray would be the top.
In your 14 years with improv, what would you say has been your greatest difficulty to overcome with improv?
The worry of whether or not I’m being funny. I think it’s something everyone goes through. I think everyone thinks, “Am I funny? Was I funny in that show?” It’s the worst. I did a really great show the other night and I don’t know that I did or said anything that was funny, but I did things that were important to the show and I didn’t need to be funny. I just needed to do what I did. I had no problem in the moment doing it, but then as I was walking home I was like “Was I funny in that show?” It’s the worst. I did what improv needed me to do, but there’s still that vain part of me that walks away saying “Yea, that was really important, but it would have been nice if I’d gotten a bigger laugh.”
What advice would you impart to your younger self as an improviser?
You get so worried about what’s going on in the improv scene. People get so caught up with who’s on teams, how am I going to get on a team and how am I going to get hired by Second City. You get so consumed with that, that you forget that the people you are playing with right now and the people you are with right now are every bit as important as the people you could be hanging out with at Second City or on a team. So enjoy those people and enjoy the fun that you’re having and not think “Oh, that was fun. I wonder if it would have been more fun if I was on TourCo.” I think if I could tell myself to relax and not worry about it, I would have enjoyed myself more. I never made TourCo anyways, so I don’t know why I spent so much time worrying about whether I was going to be put on TourCo or not.
That’s great advice. What are some of your other acting or comedy endeavors at the moment or that you hope for in the future?
I need to do more writing. I have written things, but I need to write more. One day, I will open a theatre. The dream is that my wife and I would move to somewhere, open up our own theatre in a small town and then just live the rest of our life doing improv at our own theatre. So that’s the big dream. It would just be great to spend the rest of your life at a theatre that you own in some cool place and do improv and teach improv and have fun doing improv. That would be the best. That’s the best goal.
I might kidnap that dream from you.
You can have it. A lot of people have it.
Where are you currently performing?
I do the Second City cruise for four months at a time. So we’ll head out for about four months, then we’ll come back to Chicago for two months and head out again for another four months. Otherwise, I perform with Deep Schwa on Sunday nights at iO. When I get out, I do Armando on Monday nights. But I stay at home and I watch wrestling a lot. It keeps me from doing improv.
Well that leads to my next question, do you have any other hobbies outside of comedy?
I’m a big sports fan, so I watch a lot of sports. A lot of sports. I joked about wrestling, but it’s one of those things that I watch. I don’t tell anybody because it’s embarrassing. But I think it’s really funny and it makes me laugh. All Chicago sports. Bears, Cubs, Bulls. I like Central Illinois’ Fighting Illini basketball and sometimes football. All anti-Milwaukee. All anti-Wisconsin.
Ahhhh, I don’t know about that. What is the greatest insight that you have discovered about life and comedy?
This is specifically derived from improv: you can do more as a group than you can as an individual. Because left to our own devices, we come up with one idea. When you have multiple people together, collaborating, then you can each build off of each other and build a gigantic thing.
Jeff Griggs is the author of the book Guru;My Days with Del Close. He has most recently been seen performing for Second City on the NCL Star in Alaska and the Panama Canal as well as the NCL Dawn in Bermuda and the NCLA Pride of America in Hawaii. In Chicago he performs with the team Aphasia and with iO Theater’s Deep Schwa. He also was the Story Producer for the TV show Sports Action Team.
Interview conducted on August 30, 2012.