Danielle Solzman: Thanks for joining us today. How are things going in the Windy City?
Steve Waltien: Excellent. Thank you. Full disclosure: I am writing this from NYC right now where I just completed a run of Improvised Shakespeare. I'll be back in Chicago tomorrow and I expect it to be excellent as I left it.
DS: When did you decide to go into improv and sketch comedy? When did you have your “Second City” moment? Or IO moment?
SW: I think I knew from a very young age that I wanted to be in comedy. I always thought of myself as a comedian as far back as I can remember- I just didn't know what would be the best outlet for that until I got to college. I attended Middlebury College in Vermont and the night I first saw the on-campus improv troupe (The Otter Nonsense Players) was probably the moment I knew I wanted to pursue something that looked like that. I auditioned and got into the group the following semester. After college, I looked around for ways to keep doing improv. Chicago seemed like the place to be. There were three great improv training centers that I knew about. I also wanted to broaden my horizons a bit. I grew up in Vermont and went to college there as well, so going to a city in the mid-west seemed like it'd be a great life experience even if the improv thing didn't work out.
DS: Similarly, what is your first memory of Second City and what would be your favorite?
SW: I think I had heard about Second City when I was growing up as the place where a lot of my favorite actors and comedians got their start. My first time seeing a Second City show was when the touring company came to do a show at Middlebury. A favorite Second City memory is hard. I've had a lot of different jobs in that building. I love the touring experience and the bond that forges with people. I was lucky to tour with a lot of different collections of people at Second City through my time understudying the touring company, actually being on one of the companies and many many road shows for Second City Communications- the corporate wing of the company. The friendships forged in those situations are my favorite thing about Second City.
DS: What was your improv training like? Is there any particular thing that an instructor said that has really stuck to you?
SW: At Middlebury we were pretty self-taught. We had read Truth in Comedy, but beyond that we were figuring it out on our own. By the time I got to Chicago, I was hungry for instruction. iO teachers like Liz Allen and TJ Jagodowski got to me early on in my training and forced me to be more of an actor in improv. I was more of an intellectual player when I started. I still probably rely too much on trying to be clever, but my Chicago training has helped me learn to play from my heart as well as my head. Liz Allen was my level one teacher at iO and she was very strict with me in trying to get me to react emotionally to my scene partners instead of being focused on getting laughs. In truth, I didn't realize until years later how right she was about that. Thanks, Liz.
DS: When did you join the Second City National Touring Company--and how long were you touring with them?
SW: I officially joined the touring company in February of 2009. But I had been understudying for about a year and a half before that. I ended up only actually being in the company for about six months. I left in the fall of 2009 to do my second season of Friday Night Tailgate.
DS: When you were promoted to the Mainstage, what was your initial reaction?
SW: I found out about a month ago on December 20th. I was surprised and thrilled. It’s an emotional thing to get a job that you’ve essentially been auditioning for for ten years. It was also very surreal because I was told I was not allowed to tell ANYONE until the public announcement which ended up being a full 24 hours later. During that time where I wasn’t allowed to tell anyone I started to wonder if I had imagined it.
DS: Last year, I saw you performing in It Takes a Ville down in Louisville. What did you think of the city and did the allergies bother you at all?
SW: The allergies weren’t too bad. I don’t know why. I have pretty severe allergies that come and go, but Louisville didn’t bother me too much. I really liked the city. I drank some great bourbon. It’s a great post-show drink. The one thing that surprised me was how cold it was. This was last January and for some reason I thought I was going to be walking around all the time. I don’t think I even brought a very heavy jacket. It ended up being very cold. As a result, I think I explored the city less than I expected to. I’d like to go back in the summer or spring and see what it’s like in those months. But I found it to be a beautiful city with a really great culture and great people. And the tuna steak sandwich at Ramsi’s Cafe on the World is the best sandwich I’ve ever had.
DS: You know how there was the song about building bridges? One of the current bridges closed...so Louisville is down to 2 working bridges.
SW: You need to build more bridges. Like the song says.
DS: How did that experience compare to touring the Big Ten colleges?
SW: It was pretty different- mostly because we got to stay in Louisville for five weeks and I was only ever in a Big Ten town for usually 3 or 4 days. It's nice to stay in one place for more than a few days because you can get a feel for what it's like to live there. But the Big Ten towns are great. And since I went to all of them twice, I did get to know them a bit. Speaking of sandwiches, the second best one ever is at Zingerman's deli in Ann Arbor, MI. Also I rarely got down time during Friday Night Tailgate. In Louisville I was able to enjoy free days once the show was up and running.
DS: How did you get involved with the Big Ten Friday Night Tailgate?
SW: My good friend and writing partner Jordan Klepper had auditioned for the show and shot a season of it in 2007. When the 2008 season came around, they were looking for a road partner for him. He recommended me and I auditioned and got the part.
DS: The Big Ten expanded their conference to 12. If they consider expanding to 13, would this mean that IO is going to field an athletic team since they practically sponsor the network, right?
SW: Ha! We did have a run of iO talent doing some great stuff there for a while. I think Mike Hall is the only one left. I think the network is starting to be less interested in comedy which is too bad.
DS: What can you tell me about the revue process? When do you expect the new revue to open?
SW: We haven't started yet, so my knowledge is not first-hand, but basically the new cast starts on night one performing the old show- in this case the current revue South Side of Heaven. While we're still doing the show every night, we're also rehearsing and pitching and improvising new scenes during the day. We'll try some of these out in the improv sets at night and then slowly integrate them into the show as new scenes take the place of old ones. This goes on for about 8-10 weeks and then we have an entirely new show. In our case, we'll start this process on January 24th. An opening date is not set yet, but I'm guessing it will be the first week of April.
DS: What are some of your favorite characters to perform as during a show?
SW: I don't have a lot of recurring characters. I like to try and make them all different in improv. I suppose I have some defaults. I really enjoy playing characters with heavy accents who misappropriate the english language. I think those are fun and easy to escape into. There's also a kind of poetry in the way they talk. I enjoy playing women and children too. It's fun to change the way you hold your body. But I also have worked to get good at playing a version of myself- which is harder than it sounds. In fact, it may be the hardest thing to do and still have faith that it's going to be interesting.
DS: What do you usually tell new improvisers when they are just starting out?
SW: Relax and don't force the humor. That part arrives naturally. Just listen and react to your partner. Try to be as honest as you can. Genuine is a more valuable currency than clever.
DS: Andy was quoted in the AP about having to sign an autograph for an audience member and was flattered when they said they can't wait to see him on SNL. Has this ever happened to you?
SW: Yes. I think this happens a lot because many people see SNL as the top of the mountain in the comedy world. It's a nice way of people saying "I think you'll go as far as you can." Which of course is always a great compliment to get.
DS: Do you ever get recognized for your work on Friday Night Tailgate?
SW: Rarely but sometimes. Usually in Big Ten towns if I happen to be there. During the two years I was on the show I would sometimes get recognized for it in airports but not much anymore.
DS: Thanks again for joining Chitown Improv Celebrity News. Is there anything else you would like to add?
SW: Thanks for having me!