I am truly the luckiest person I know.
TJ Jagodowski is not only one of the most brilliant improvisers I have ever seen, he’s also one of the nicest guys I’ve ever met. I’ve bumped into TJ a number of times around iO, but it wasn’t until the end of October where I had the pleasure of taking a class taught by him. This man is a poet and every word he mutters is saturated in truth. As TJ and I met on a Saturday afternoon in early November, we settled down outside Starbucks behind iO, me with my tall soy peppermint mocha no whip and TJ with his steamed apple juice. Aside from asking about the functionality of my e-tip gloves, we chatted about improv, traveling, yoga and what’s next for TJ. Always checking to make sure I wasn’t too chilly, TJ and I had one of the best conversations I can recall in a long time.
Where did this journey of improv and acting begin?
Being brought to a show at Second City is where it began, in 1993 or ‘94, somewhere in there.
And then what?
And then it looked like the most awesome thing ever. My friend Lisa encouraged me to take classes- she thought I might like it. She’s the one who brought me to the first Second City show, got me to take classes and brought me to iO for the first time. I just liked it an awful, awful lot.
Where you on any kind of career path before that, where this may have changed things for you?
No, there was no redirection at all. I had no real plan. I first came to Chicago thinking I would work in television production and did a few days PAing for a TV show and it was really unpleasant, but otherwise I had no course plotted. There was very little that had to be changed.
That makes it easy.
You have performed with a number of actors and improvisers, who has been the most inspirational or influential and why?
Um, it would be hard to say someone is most. I’ve certainly been inspired by a lot of people and for a lot of different reasons. Kevin Dorff is a big inspiration for me. Part of that’s how he behaves on stage, but part of that is how, in the right way, he takes it so seriously. We’re not just dickin’ around, we’re trying to do something really well. Scott Adsit and Steph Weir really inspire me for how they can disappear in the people they are playing, how they can vanish. Paul Grondy and Jack McBrayer inspire me because they remind me that this should be a joyful experience, that we shouldn’t take it so seriously that we forget to have a real good time. Noah still inspires me. He’s an artist. After all the time of doing it, he still sets out to do art each time. Dave inspires me because he wants to be great and recognizes that we’ll fall short of that, but that’s no reason to stop attempting it. I’m sure I’m missing some, but those are the people that come immediately to mind.
Any personal or family friends not related to the comedy world?
Well, this woman Lisa who brought to all these things for the first time and had no good reason to think that I would be any good at it. She did this for me. She introduced me to all this and it’s become the single guiding light of the last fifteen years and that’s all thanks to Lisa.
What does your family have to say about it?
They dig it. My mom really digs it. Yea, she really likes it. I think my dad does too. My little brother, I think could take it or leave it. I think he would be really, really excellent at it too, but I’ve never gotten a real read as to how Troy feels about it. My grandmother likes it. My uncles really dig it. When Dave and I would play in New York, my mom would load up a bus of 40-50 people and bring them all to the shows. I’ve gotten to play for my family, grammar school teachers, neighbors, my mom’s hairdresser…
Ok, so you’ve been doing this for 15 years, as you just said. Could give a quick run through of the highlights of your improv career?
As soon as I have one I will make you aware of it.
Ha, ok. Alright…
No, I loved touring with Second City. I adored that. I loved being on the stages there. I’m very proud to be a member of those ensembles. I got to play, for about 10 years, with a team called Georgia Pacific that was a great way to not only come up, but to get comfortable with being in that theatre. I was really happy when I was invited to play at Screw Puppies at the Annoyance, because I had gotten to play at Second City and iO and it felt like there was this other real pillar missing and to get invited to play there, it felt like my Chicago got more complete. Being allowed to play at those places. Getting to play with Dave is still a huge highlight. Getting to play with Noah and Paul as often as I do. Being invited to play Armando for the first time, that was a big deal.
Really, when was that?
Maybe ten years ago. I’m terrible with dates. Noah was away; Noah never invited me to play Armando. Noah was in LA, writing for Dharma and Greg and it was the night of the Oscars. When the Oscars were still on Monday, so there was next to nobody there. Miles Stroth invited me to play. The weird thing about Armando is, once you’re invited, they can’t keep you out after that, so you just show up and play. At least that’s the way it was. Once you’re invited that first time, you’re like “I’m in the cast, I can show up anytime I want to.” So I just kept on showing up after that. Noah came back from LA and it was too late. You couldn’t stop me at that point.
Awesome. So besides that first Armando, have their been any shows have been the most memorable and why? When I toured with Second City, we got to go to Albany. I was working at the box office at Second City at the same time and I called my mom because we had never been that close to home. “Mom, we’re coming to Albany,” which is like an hour and a half away from home; I’m from Holyoke, Massachusetts. She was like, “Oh, ok,” she played it real cool. Then she called back like an hour later. “Do you get any free tickets for this?” I told her we split ten between the cast and asked “Why?” and she goes, “’Cause I got a bus coming and we’ve got about 36 people.” My mom rallies.
I got to play for my grandparents and their great aunts and my brother and my mom and my dad. It was the first time I got to do something halfway decent for them. That was the first big show. They really liked it. We had a pretty good show on our hands, we were touring with fun material and we had a good program going. Dave and I have had a couple shows that we’re proud of, but we can’t really take credit for. They were just shows that seemed to have a little extra magic to them, but that’s nothing that we make, you just have to luck into something like that. That first touring show sticks out big to me.
So as you mention Dave, how did TJ and Dave begin? Did you have any idea this show would be as successful or long-standing as it has been?
It started because we were thrown together accidentally for a Chicago Improv Festival show which they were expecting much better and more famous people than us, but the strike they thought was going to happen didn’t happen, so they called the people they thought they knew wouldn’t have anything to do on a Friday night and Dave and I were two of those fellas. Then Noah recommended one time that he thought it would be interesting to see Dave and I play together.
Neither Dave or I can remember exactly how it happened, but I must have called him and we met a couple times over coffee and just to figure out what we were going to do. Initially it wasn’t just supposed to be the two of us. We were going to try and figure out what it was and then see if we needed more people, but we didn’t want to invite people to something that might be terrible, so we wanted to get it into some kind of working order before we subjected our friends to it. No, I don’t think we had any idea that it would keep on going.
What do you see in the future for TJ and Dave?
Dave has larger plans for it, he plans for world domination. We are doing a show in Rome next week, but I just want to get through every Wednesday, that’s it. Every Wednesday I want it to be halfway decent and then I start worrying about the Wednesday after that. Dave wants to go global. I think Dave is trying to piece together right now a European tour right now.
That’s awesome. That would be great. Do you travel?
[Shakes head “no.”]
Have you traveled? Do you have any interest in traveling?
[Shakes head “no.”]
No, it scares the shit out of you?
You look scared.
Yea. I’m going to Rome next week with Dave, his wife and my friend Kevin and I’m kind of not looking forward to it. [laughs] It sounds terrible. I’m sure it’ll be awesome.
Oh, Rome is amazing! Do you like pasta?
Yea, I do. I like breads and cheese and sauces.
You’ll be fine. I love Rome. Italy was my first and my favorite country I’ve traveled to. The people are all so kind. They just want to feed you. It’s amazing.
Alright, I’m going to count on it.
Ok, so I’ve been asked to ask you this question…
Who? Who’s fingers are in this pie?
Everyone. Everyone outside of the community knows you from the Sonic commercials. Are those scripted or improvised?
We get to improvise them. We get a two to three sentence paragraph saying what they’d like us to discuss. They used to be even looser. The ad agency has changed, so they’re a little tighter now. But yeah, this poor editor would just get like 32 hours of random bullshit dumped on him and he’d have to cut into 22 second chunks.
Do you guys just sit in the car and have at each other?
Yeah, the first eight years of it, they wouldn’t even shut down a restaurant. Well, for a while we were just driving through other restaurants’ drive-thrus, during their business hours. We had hidden cameras, but they were kind of obvious. There was a boom mic attached to the bottom of the side mirror. So if anyone looked, they’d see we were being taped and these cameras pointing at us. So if they ever asked us, we were supposed to say we were shooting a driver’s ed video. That was our escape plan. “Abort, abort. Driver’s ed video.”
Then when we stopped and started shooting them at Sonics, the place would be in operation. So we’d just park it and stall at a working Sonic and every once in awhile people would walk by and look in the window and we’d have to cut and start over again. Now they shut the place down and it’s a much larger operation and they’re a little more tightly premised. Sometimes we’ll get to improvise for a while, but the director, Clay, will be like, “Ok, I think that is going to be our ‘out.’” Sometimes we’ll have to reverse engineer it from the punch line back to the beginning. But we still get to play. There are writers who write the premises, but often we’ll sit down with them and the director and they’ll ask if we have any other ideas. Sometimes we find that we entirely go away from that.
How long have you been doing these commercials?
With a break in there, because they changed the campaign for a while, we’re going somewhere close to 11 years. Oddly enough, it started right around the same time that Dave and I did. We’ll be at 11 years somewhere in February.
[TJ takes a moment to ask if I’m doing ok with the cold weather-what a gentleman.]
Ok TJ, what have you found to be one of the most difficult things you’ve had to overcome either in your improv career or if there’s a personal event that has affected it?
I had an odd physical episode when I was working at Second City. It was the beginning of sort of an anxiety disorder. So I had to leave there and I tried to go back and I had to leave again. So, I basically can no longer do scripted material. I can’t learn and perform scripts and stuff like that. That was a bummer, because I was looking forward to spending the rest of my time after that doing theatre. I wasn’t necessarily interested in film or television. It would have been nice to do plays. But it hasn’t taken away being able to improvise, so for that I’m still really, really happy. It left me with the thing I like doing more than anything else.
Was there anything you specifically did to overcome that?
I have not overcome it. It still is the present case. I still get anxious before improv shows. I just try to stretch out and breathe and stuff like that.
Do you do yoga?
Has anyone ever suggested you give it a shot?
I tried it, but I think I’m just a wuss. A lot of the poses I found real difficult and I lost my breathing and I think that was the whole point of it, to keep breathing at the same rhythm. So the whole time I was like panting, so I don’t know if yoga is the thing for me. I think I still find it sort of new-agey too, even though it’s like thousands of years old, but I still find it so [insert snooty sounds here].
[I must interject, that throughout this interview, I was wearing e-tip winter gloves to operate my iPhone. At this point, TJ asked me how they worked and as I explained how the gloves allowed heat to transfer through the gloves to operate a touch screen, and his response was, “Hey, I heard kids in Japan were using pork sausages for that. On cold days, they’d have a pork sausage and use that. What a comedian, that guy.”]
Alright, what do you think are some of the biggest misconceptions about improv?
Hmmm, interesting. I think the notion that it needs to be funny. That that’s its primary goal. I’d like to say that it’s not white male dominated, but there’s a lot more of us than everybody else. Maybe it’s just the people that I’ve been around and maybe I just have really good friends, but I’ve never felt like it was “bad dude” dominated, that it was misogynistic or chauvinistic. I think a lot of people see it as a lot of dudes stealing scenes.
Ahh, I’ve heard that from a few places.
Yeah, but like I said, I might just have gotten to play with a lot of really good folks.
I feel like it’s a different vibe at iO too, which is where I’ve seen most of my improv.
Yeah, same here. I don’t know, what are a lot of the conceptions about improv?
I’ve heard many people think that improvisers are so brave to get up there and it cracks me up, because I think, “I’m no different than you are, you could do this.” And people do, every day of their lives, they just aren’t on a stage.
I agree with you on that. Just about anybody can do it. I wouldn’t say that it’s brave so much as it’s selfish. I’m not brave. I just really want to do a show, play and perform. So, in that way I don’t think it’s so much as, “God, I’m courageous.”
I get frustrated sometimes when people just expect it to be funny.
Yeah, the work can handle a lot. A lot more than just humor.
I like to refer to improv as therapy.
It’s dangerous if you ever use it as that. But that will be an accidental by-product of improvising, that you will feel better about yourself and other people. The secret is that it’s self-help and world-help. But it would destroy it if that title ever got attached to it. Then it would become explicitly therapeutic as opposed to accidentally therapeutic.
What has been one of your most rewarding experiences stemming from improv?
Every once in a while someone will say something like “I came to Chicago to visit, or on a family vacation or to check out improv and I saw one of your shows, or I really liked your show or it was the first show I saw and now I’m living here. I moved here to do this stuff.” I’m not saying they saw a show I did and that’s why, but that I was part of the community that made an impression strong enough on this person to move to a town to pursue a performance style that is almost a guaranteed dead-end. It’s great that they came here because they fell in love with it, not because they’re going to become an “improv star.” It doesn’t exist. I find that really rewarding.
I also find it really rewarding to play with people who were my heroes watching it. The generations are close enough together and if you stick with it long enough, you’ll eventually be able to play with everybody, including the people that made you want to do it.
Who are some of the people that you’ve been excited to play with?
When Just for Laughs came to Chicago, I got to play with Dave, Scott Adsit, Kevin Dorff and John Glaser. That was a real awesome experience for me. Kevin and Scott were two of the guys that made me want to pursue this.
Was that the first time you got to play with them?
I’ve gotten to do shows with Kevin before. I’ve gotten to play here and there with Scott, but I never got to play with John. Then to have Dave there, it was like a personal Mount Rushmore that came to life. Over time, I’ve gotten to play with Tina [Fey] and Rachel Dratch. Both of those ladies were heroes. Steph Weir, Rich Talarico. I was taught by Noah and now I get to play with him three times a week. That’s really rewarding that you eventually get to play with these people.
Is there any one thing that you most proud of in your career?
Sheer longevity, Kiley. Sheer longevity. I still get to play. I think I took my first class in ‘94 and it’s 18 years later and I still get to do six or seven improv shows a week. I’m pretty proud that I still get to play on a regular basis.
What advice would you impart to your younger self as an improviser?
Know that it’s a really good thing that it’ll take awhile to get halfway decent at it. That you can’t rush it and don’t try to rush it. You’ll come along at the pace you’re supposed to come along at. Don’t think of it as math. It’s music. It’s not a problem to be solved. It’s a song to be listened to.
I think I did do this, but I would remind myself of it: enjoy every step of it. Don’t look past where you are right now. It’ll cost you the pleasure of realizing that what’s happening right here, right now might be as good as it gets. Sometimes people are on a beginning team and they say they want to play every Friday night or whatever. Look around. This might be the best team you’re ever going to be on at the best point in your personal discovery that you’re ever going to feel. Don’t look past this right now because you haven’t been hired for a boat at Second City or for whatever reason. Just know when you’re sitting in a good thing.
Absolutely. Ok, now if you had to name three rules to improvise by, what would you say those three would be?
Rules don’t exist. Listen. Be kind.
If you could do it all over again…
Yes, I would!
Haha, ok, would you do anything differently?
I’m sure I would. I don’t know. I certainly have regrets and I could have been nicer sometimes or not said something here or there. As it is, it all turned out ok, so I probably would have just about done it the same way. I might have asked someone out that I didn’t, but otherwise it would just be personal stuff like that.
What are the great lessons from improv that you’ve learned that you could translate into life?
Hmmmm…I don’t know why this is stumping me, because I feel so strongly that the stuff about improvisation that we believe, helps in just about every facet of regular day life. I think one of the things is that your scene partner, and people in general, are telling you a lot of stuff all the time. If we pay attention, there’s a lot of information coming at us, about how they feel, about how they’re doing, what’s going on in their world if we just look and listen closely enough to hear it. I think we could be of more use to people if we paid closer attention.
Are there any specific places you look for inspiration when beginning a new project?
Sure, music does something for me. Imagining a cast and then what it would be really cool to see them do, if I was interested in directing. Otherwise, I think it happens to me accidentally. I don’t have a spring that I go to, I feel like I have to get hit by lightning.
Any favorite bands?
Van Morrison used to be my very favorite. I really like Soul Coughing. I’ve been listening to more OK, Go of late. I also kind of cherry pick. I think I have about 400 songs in my little listening thing…and it’s probably 340 different bands. And a lot of soul music. I listen to a lot of soul music.
You mentioned that Jack McBrayer is an inspiration of yours. I read an article saying that you’re also close friends with him. Have you ever entertained the idea of moving to New York and pursuing “greater things?”
I have not entertained that idea. But I don’t often entertain…(kidding). Chicago is my home and Holyoke, Massachusetts is my home. If I ever were to go back to the east coast, it would be to retire, to learn how to work wood and then to eventually be buried in the soil of the great state of Massachusetts.
Aww, so you’re good. You’re happy here?
I am doing my next big thing. Every improv show is my next big thing. I get to do it every week.
Despite what you may or may not say, you’ve had an incredibly successful career thus far, is there anything else you’re itching to do? Either within improv and comedy or life goals in general?
Dave and I want to run our own theatre. We’d like to do that. Hopefully, when Charna gets her new place, we’ll have our own theatre connected, but independent of iO. That would be really cool. I would like to do it really well. I’d like to be involved in somehow trying to make it excellent.
An improv venue or any specific niche?
The way we think about it is a place for all things groovy. Music, maybe old Marx Brothers movies, sketch shows, improv and anything else that’s really good and cool. It’d be nice to have a job when someone else doesn’t tell you when it’s over. Every other kind of gig you get someone else is like, “Ok, we’re done now,” “The show’s been cancelled” or “The run is over.” Ideally we’d decide when we’re done.
Outside of TJ and Dave, where are you currently performing?
I get to do Armando on Monday. On Tuesday, I get to do a couple of shows up at the Annoyance. Wednesday, I get to do a couple of shows at iO. Thursday, I get to play the Scene at iO. Fridays, I’ve been sitting in with Challenger. Here and there, a group called Almost Atlanta has been putting stuff up.
What other hobbies or interests do you have that occupy your time? Everyone knows you’re an improviser, what else?
I walk. I’m a walker. I watch and listen to a lot of sports and sports talk. Whatever the season is, with a specific interest in whatever comes out of New England or Massachusetts. I don’t do a lot; it’s really pathetic how much I just sit around. I’m in a big reading slump. I “work” for a half an hour on most weeknights. It sounds sickening, but it’s almost like, if I was a regular older person, I’d already be retired. I don’t do anything.
Now, I don’t want this to be an inappropriate or rude question, but I’m just curious how improvisers, such as yourself make a living?
If it weren’t for the Sonic commercials, I’d be destitute. Sonic commercials pay the bills. I am truly the luckiest person I know. The absolute luckiest person I know. I’ve gotten to make a living improvising. It is not wasted on me. There’s a crack in reality that I have fallen into and I don’t want anyone to find me.
What is the greatest insight you’ve discovered about life and comedy?
Oh my gosh. No pressure. I think that most things that are supposed to be funny on purpose aren’t funny at all. 90% of the things that are accidentally sad are kind of funny. Maybe that.
Any final comments?
One of the things I really like about improvisation is that whoever you are, you’ve done all the homework already. It’s not asking you for anything you aren’t already, it’s only asking for everything that you already are. I like that about it.
It’s also intimidating, in the sense that you have to be totally confident in yourself.
Or spend the rest of your time trying to get there. It’s going to be there for you. It’s not going to go away. I thinkthat’s one of the reasons some people like golf- you can still do it when you’re 80. This is like that; it’s not going to leave you. You’d have to leave it. So, for me, there’s this calm pleasure, that I’ll never be done as long as I keep on trying to get better at it. I’ll never get there. There’s is no final point of, “Whew, well I figured it out. I figured out improv. Done. What’s next?” It’s always going to be a little bit past you so you can spend the rest of your life chasing it and always have something to do.
T. J. Jagodowski is a comedian, actor, and improviser living in Chicago. He was born in Holyoke, Massachusetts. He performs throughout Chicago, but notably performs on a weekly basis with Dave Pasquesi in “TJ & Dave” at iO Theatre. He has performed at Second City, The Annoyance Theatre and also performs in New York at The Barrow Street Theatre. He has appeared in movies such as Stranger Than Fiction, The Ice Harvest, No Sleep Till Madison, and the television show, Prison Break. He is also recognizable from the Sonic Drive-In commercials.
Interview conducted on November 3, 2012.