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March 20, 2013

WICF Interviews Upright Citizens Brigade's Shannon O’Neill
by Raero - 0

by WICF contributor, Rachel Rosenthal

Shannon O'Neill is a veteran performer from the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre, a place she has called home for over twelve years. She can be seen every Friday night with "The Stepfathers", every Sunday night in UCB NY's longest running show, "ASSSSCAT 30000" and hosting her monthly talk show "Strangers Wanted" during which she hauls audience members onto the stage to be her announcer, her guests, and even her house band.  Outside of UCB she can be seen on "The Chris Gethard Show", in her web series "Shannon O'Neill is…" and on twitter @spotastic

Shannon O'Neill
Shannon O'Neill will appear onstage alongside  Rachel
Dratch and Horatio Sanz,  among others at WICF 2013
She was named one of "Three to Watch" by Time Out New York in March 2010. ARE YOU STILL WATCHING? 

Rachel: Hi Shannon! Thanks so much for agreeing to do this interview!  First off – it’s an honor. You are such a respected performer and teacher here in New York. How did you get your start?

Shannon: I went to Chicago on a school related trip while in college. As a fan of SNL, I made it my goal to check out Second City so I could see where so many SNL performers had come from. While there I saw “Paradigm Lost” a show with Rachel Dratch, Tina Fey, Scott Adsit, Kevin Dorff among the notable names. It blew me away, both the sketch and the improvised portion. I decided I wanted to try it. We didn’t have an improv group at my college, so I had to wait until I moved to NYC to work. March 2000 I mailed a $25 check to the UCB on 22nd street to place my name on a wait list. I took my first class in June 2000, fell in love and never left, and have since shared the UCB stage with Adsit, Dorff, and Dratch. I haven’t performed with Tina Fey….YET. 

Rachel: Any stand-out moments or stories (awkward or otherwise) from your early improv days?

Shannon: My very first day of class I got a laugh from having an honest truthful reaction in an improv exercise. I was just following directions, I was not even thinking about being funny, I wanted to do the exercise correctly. This laugh has stuck with me since. It was proof to myself that I could do it, so anytime I fucked a scene up, had a bad show, I remembered that moment. I still remember that moment, and I will still look back on it when I have a bad show.

Rachel: As opposed to other forms of comedy, why do you do improv? What do you love about it?

Shannon: I don’t have to prepare, I can say weird shit and my teammates have to support it. I can say things that I actually think in real life but can say them under the guise of a character. And team work. I truly enjoy the team work that improv needs. I was a jock in high school and it was so important to work together in order to win, or at the least improve from the last game. I genuinely get a thrill when I can set a teammate up for a joke, or when I get exactly what they were going for. It really is magic when you get on the same page. 

Rachel: Did you (do you) ever dabble in other types of comedy, like stand-up, storytelling, or sketch-writing?

Shannon: I had a one person show a few years ago called “Prison Freaks: A Talent Show”. It is exactly what it sounds like, a talent show at a prison, I played all the prisoners, but they were freaks, a sweet Cyclops named Polly that just happened to eat children and loved to dance, a guy with 33 eyeballs on his face that dabbled in stand-up etc.

I like to host shows and interact with the audience.  I have a variety show, “Ladies Night: Men Welcome” that I host with two wonderful performers Lydia Hensler and Morgan Grace Jarrett. We book talent, but let ourselves just go up on stage with little prepared and discover fun things in the moment.

I also have a talk show “Strangers Wanted with Shannon O’Neill.”  This involves me also preparing very little and I build my talk show with audience members, from the warm-up comic to the guests. It is dangerous, because I never know who I am going to convince to come up and participate. I have not had a dud yet though, everyone is interesting even if they don’t think they are.

I just did my first stand-up set a few weeks ago at UCB East’s show “Gentrify.” I plan on doing more and seeing where that takes me.

Rachel: That's awesome! So, everyone says, you have to write to make money. Do you think “a career in improv” exists? (‘Cause, um, that’d be great for me…)

Shannon: If you put your mind to it, you can make a career out of anything, but I think there would be major sacrifices in order to make it a career, whether it is being on the road constantly, performing for audiences that you have to adjust your style of play to please, or just do shows in your style that audiences don’t get.

Rachel: So, you run a few different female-focused shows at the UCB. For the folks not living in New York, can you tell us a little bit about them? There is The Lady Jam. And there is Ladies Night: Men Welcome. What are these shows? Who is invited and how does they work?

Shannon: The Lady Jam is a monthly improv jam for anyone that identifies as a Lady. The goal behind it is to have a fun judgment free zone for the ladies of the improv community to perform. We invite men to watch, I even have a token male each month. I LET that gentleman perform in one of the sets with all ladies.  But the part I really love is the dance party element. We dance at the top of the show and we dance between every set and than one final dance at the end. PARTY, JAM, DANCE!

Rachel: That sounds like so much fun! 

Shannon: And then Ladies Night is a variety show that the three of us (Morgan, Lydia, and myself) either book by directly asking someone to perform, or by ladies contacting us. We just wanted to provide a stage to highlight the talented woman of the city, we have musical acts, stand-ups, story tellers and even dance.

Rachel: You’ve also taught a ladies-only improv workshop at UCB (which I myself have taken!) The workshop description says it’s for “improvisers who just happen to be female.”  Does that mean the workshop is the same as any other? Why make it for ladies-only?

Shannon: I could teach that same exact workshop to any group of improvisers. But with all woman in the room there is instantly an atmosphere that makes everyone feel safer to take risks.  And then I run exercises that force the improvisers to make big choices in a judgment free low risk situation. 

Rachel: What do you focus on in a ladies-only class compared any other non gender-specific workshop? Are there things that you find women specifically need to work on?  Common problems that arise or “defaults” that women tend to play towards?

Shannon: The workshop is there to let these ladies know that they are improvisers. They are not female improvisers, they are improvisers. They can play any way they want. They don’t have to just be a wife or daughter, they don’t have to be the straight man, they can be the unusual, they can make big moves that solidify the pace of the piece they are improvising. It is really there to just prove what they are capable of that they maybe haven’t given themselves a chance to try. Not everyone taking the class needs this either, another part of the class is that I think its great for woman to meet fellow female improvisers, building a sub community within the larger one.

Rachel: Here Here! Okay, so between the “Lady Jam” and your ladies-only workshops, you clearly have a targeted interest in working with female comedians. What got you interested in that?

Shannon: My honest response is that when I came through classes nobody fucked with me. I wasn’t steam rolled in scenes, I knew from the beginning that I did not have to be a wife or secretary in every scene. I could play a male or an animal. I could play high status, low status. I could get physical and fling my body across the stage. I never felt a limitation because I never gave myself one. So I teach these workshops so that ladies will stop thinking they are limited because of their gender. Nobody is limited unless you let yourself be. 

Rachel: After a million ridiculous articles and constant media attention surrounding the “Are Women Funny?” or are they “as funny as men” question…  Do you think talking about it is important/helpful? Or do you find the conversations to be detrimental?

Shannon: Snooze.

The best way to get people to shut up is to SHOW not tell. So I just show show show show show.

Rachel: Agreed! Speaking of show... Anything you’re working on right now that you’d like to promote?

Shannon: Strangers Wanted is a pretty important project to me, I grew up watching Carson and Letterman. I am working for that to be a success, which is basically whoring myself out to get people in the seats and then hoping word of mouth works.

I like tweeting my brain thoughts, so feel free to follow me @spotastic

And I have a web series that came out last year, it is dormant now, but not dead.
You can just google “Shannon O’Neill is…”
Rachel: Shannon O’Neill ladies and gentlemen! Thanks so much for agreeing to do this interview!

You can catch Shannon performing at the Women in Comedy Festival on March 21st, with Horatio Sanz and Rachel Dratch and the UCB: Queens of Improv at the Wilbur Theatre.


Rachel Rosenthal is a performer living in New York City. She specializes in free-form improv comedy and currently performs weekly at The People's Improv Theater, as well as with the free-style rapping improv team, North Coast. Before moving to New York, Rachel performed in Boston for 9 years, most recently on the ImprovBoston Mainstage

Rachel is also a writer, and the founder of  She has worked the Women in Comedy Festival since its inception in 2009. To catch a show or learn more, check out

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