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August 7, 2013

Geeking Out with...Craig Cackowski (Part Two)
by Pamela Victor - 0

By Pam Victor

[“Geeking Out with…” is a series of interviews with well-known, highly experienced improvisers. It’s a chance to talk about stuff that might interest hardcore, improv dorkwads like Pam. The series can be found in full frontal geek out version on My Nephew is a Poodle and in pithier version on the Women in Comedy Festival blog. For behind-the-scenes action, ‘like’ the “Geeking Out with…” Facebook page.]

In Part One of Geeking Out with…Craig Cackowski, we talked about Craig’s early history and influences in improvisation. In this discussion, we get really, superduper geeky in the most tantalizingly, hardcore way.

If you'll be at the Detroit Improv Festival this weekend, you can catch Craig Cackowski and Rich Talarico perform and teachIf you’re in L.A most any week., you can see Craig Cackowski perform with Rich Talarico and Bob Dassie in Dasariski, a group which, according to the webpage, “is known for their ‘slow play’ style of longform improvisation, taking a single audience suggestion and creating a half-hour to hour-long piece of theater, focusing on creating believable characters and relationships, eschewing the cheap joke for the long-term payoff.” 

See? Tantalizing. But you ain’t see nothin’ yet. Strap in and enjoy…

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PAM: So when we left off, we were launching onto your mantra, "Choose to know." My notes from my week with you at last summer's iO intensive  say “Choose to know. Choose to know. Choose to know” all over them! Can you explain that concept, so we developing improvisers can begin to understand it in our bones?

Cackowski with kitten
[Photo courtesy of Craig Cackowski]

CRAIG:  It was  something we first discovered when we were taping and transcribing our Dasariski shows. We found that when we were improvising well, we were literally saying the phrase "I know!" a lot. So I adopted it into an exercise for my classes, basically replacing "Yes, and…" with "I know." Nothing too fancy, but it seems to make a huge difference. Because when people were saying "Yes, and…" I was getting a lot of scenes like:

"We need to clean the bathroom."

"Yes, and…we need to clean the kitchen too.”

Well, now you've just doubled your workload! You needed to clean one room and now you need to clean two! So it can amount to just listing things, or going on tangents of separate ideas. “I know” forces you to investigate what is already there and go deeper into it.

I push my students to assume familiarity with everything that is happening. It may be new to the improvisor, but the character already knows EVERYTHING.

PAM:  Can you give me an example you've seen or performed when "Choose to know" was employed well?

CRAIG:  My favorite example was from an old Dasariski show that was set in Canada. At one point, I said, "Have you seen Downtown Saskatoon lately?"

The gentlemen of Dasariski
[Photo courtesy of Craig Cackowski]
And Rich Talarico said, "That's my favorite show. I hope Edgar O' Grady wins the Blammy."

So we went from me just talking about the city Saskatoon to him deciding that it was a TV show that Edgar O' Grady was the star of it, and that the Blammy was the Canadian equivalent of the Emmy. This led to an entire show where we were just making things up about Canadian culture. Instead of 911, they dial 866, etc.

PAM:  Ha! That's great. I am SO looking forward to seeing you and Mr. Talarico at the Detroit Improv Festival!  

Similar to what you said a moment ago, I've heard you say, “The character doesn't have to know everything that the writer knows. You don't have to state the subtext.” I want to understand that idea better.

CRAIG:  In life, truth is the last resort. We say anything else to avoid saying how we really feel. But in improv scenes, people immediately blurt out their subtext and say how they feel about other characters. That's the writer's voice talking, not the character's. Once people's real feeling are out on the table, there's no more tension and subtlety to play, and it leads to negotiation and discussions of people's relationships - and nothing is less interesting.

Trust that because you're doing comedy, every relationship you will display is a dysfunctional one. But the characters don't have to realize the dysfunction or talk about it. It's your job as an improvisor to SHOW me dysfunction through action, and not to fix dysfunction through negotiation.

PAM:  I really am working on this subtle distinction right now, so this is very interesting. How do you balance this with “calling out the deal” of the scene. Our iO teacher Lyndsay Hailey also refers to "shooting the grandma," if that means anything to you. I think she's talking about not beating around the bush, just talking about killing grandma when you should up ‘n shoot the bitch. But I like the idea of incorporating this complexity you're talking about while at the same time “shooting the grandma.” (Though maybe these are two different matters...)

CRAIG:  Well, shooting grandma is GOOD, because it's action. Action is always good. I'd have to hear Lyndsay explaining her own metaphor; I don't want to garble it. But I do hate to see improvisors playing coy when they know something needs to happen. And I do think games or deals can be called out. Once. Now we know what we're playing with. But people bring up the problem and then want to keep discussing it and negotiating it, rather than SHOW it to the audience through action.

In a Harold scene, that action might be more gamey, like heightening for heightening's sake. Or in a TJ and Dave show, an ACTION might be waiting for the doctor to see you. It doesn't sound like what we think of as action, but it's still a recognizably human routine that you can play. If we know who their characters are and what their relationship is, then the laughs come from, How does Dave handle the waiting room as opposed to how TJ handles it? What do they talk about? What objects do they interact with? How do they engage the receptionist? What are their neuroses? I think this is cool, because they can be sitting still the whole time, but still playing an ACTION.

PAM:  I was dealing with something related to this issue just yesterday. My team really is deep into exploring very honest, character-based work, à la TJ & Dave who are my major influence right now. But we were driving to a short-form show, which was going to be very gamey, by design, and "louder, faster, funnier" in style. I know there is a way to blend both these skills sets, but I'm not able to verbalize it well yet.

CRAIG:  It's adjusting to the sprint vs. the marathon. They're both running, but they utilize different sets of muscles.

PAM:  Is there any way of doing a short-form show that would do justice to the spirit of the work of TJ & Dave?

CRAIG:  I view the first third of any scene or show as "Doing the work." Once you've done the work, then you can play. In an hour-long show, the first 20 minutes is the work. If you do the work, then everything should get easier as the show progresses.
In a three-minute scene, the first minute is the work, so you've got to get “who, what, where” out there, you've got to establish patterns of behavior that you can go back to, you've got to say yes to action. So the process is the same, but the pace is different.

But can you do a three-minute short-form scene beginning with a minute of still silence? Probably not, but you can still take a moment to regard each other and take a deep breath, rather than beginning with an explosion of words.

PAM:  You’re saying that the pace is different in a short scene only in that it’s compacted. Not sped up.

CRAIG:  Exactly.
Lucas Neff and Craig Cackowski of
The Better Half

PAM:  That's great. And helpful. And challenging to players launching into a short-form show or even a Harold.

CRAIG:  People feel that pressure and get spazzy, and then all of a sudden you're in a three-minute scene that's about 17 different things.

PAM:  Exactly. That's been driving me crazy lately.

CRAIG:  It's simplifying. One game. Make one thing important.

PAM:  What's your approach to game in the slowprov shows that you do?

CRAIG:  It's not a conscious approach, but it's juggling a lot of little games. For example, in a Dasariski show, I have a character game, Rich has a character game, Bob has a character game. Bob and I have a relationship game, Bob and Rich have a relationship game, Rich and I have a relationship game. There is probably a game in how we relate to our environment; there are larger story games probably as well.

But I say it's not a conscious approach because it's something I FEEL, and can then articulate after the show is over. It's not like I'm thinking, "What's the game of this character?" while I'm playing him.

 PAM:  I think I need to understand how you define game because you appear to have an expanded understanding of it than what people might be used to.

CRAIG:  Game is a pattern, a pattern of behavior. Establishing rules for how each character behaves, and sticking to those rules. In life, we change our behavior constantly to fit the circumstances we're in. In comedy, a character rigidly sticks to the same behavior despite the circumstances. That's his or her game. So in life I'm loud and obnoxious at a bar and quiet and respectful at a funeral. In comedy, you want to be the guy who is loud and obnoxious at a funeral, and in ALL situations.

PAM: This relates to your advice to "Follow comedy logic, not real life logic." Please say more about that approach to game because I'm pretty deep into a philosophy of perceiving comedy as merely a reflection of life. And I want to know what you mean by this approach to fixed behavior.

CRAIG:  Even the most complex, three-dimensional comic character is way simpler than people are in life. "Fair and balanced" is the stuff of 700-page novels and two and a half hour indie dramas. When we're doing comedy, we're tipping the scales and over-emphasizing one part of a character's behavior.

You have to find the unique logic of each world you create, some of which will closely resemble our world. That's when it gets most difficult, I think, when it SEEMS like it's our world - in which case, people try to get across by just doing and saying the things that they would do or say in real life - and thinking that's the honest or "real" response. I think improv teachers who say, "Just do what you would do!" are doing improvisors a disservice. You need to do what the CHARACTER would do.

PAM: When you perform Dasariski, which I understand is a beautiful, slowprov show, are you seeking out the comedy or just happening upon it? Are you alert to the game/pattern that you're creating and going to continue to hit? Or are you just exploring these characters' moments together?

CRAIG:  I'd like to think we skew more toward "just happening upon it." We hope the end result will be comedy. Improvisors should trust that comedy is a by-product of doing improv right. I think when we seek out the comedy, we sometimes find it, but it results in a shallower show.

A lot of it is trust and comfort. We each individually know we're funny. We know the group is funny collectively. But when we try to be funny, it often blows up in our face. You make what feels like the right move in the short term, but it screws you long term. So a lot of what we do is trial-and-error. We've done all the bullshit shows already so we're preprogrammed to avoid those hackier choices.

However, we still have new mistakes to make and learn from that we haven't made yet.

PAM:  Ha! That's the beauty of improvisation and why it keeps us by the short hairs.

So I'm not sure I follow how these two views are consistent and employable. If comedy logic is different than real-life logic, how can comedy be a by-product of doing improv right? I love both these ideas, and I want to use them both!

CRAIG:  You're right to question it!

PAM:  Phew. I felt like a dumbass asking for that clarification.

CRAIG:  In my case, years of doing short form, then Harold, then Second City helped me to think funny. For instance, it's easy for me to find the comic logic of any scene, rather than impose real-life logic on it. So it's an autonomic process at this point, unconscious behavior. Again, it's trial-and-error. My Terminator brain won't allow me to make the choices that are doomed to failure. So it's a trust that the funny will result.

I guess I should define what "doing improv right" means to me! Being in the moment, listening and reacting, choosing to know, adding specificity, committing, having a point of view, raising stakes, saying yes to action. Just do all those things at once and you'll be fine!

Craig and e.t.c. stage partners
Jack McBrayer, Bridget Kloss Dario, and TJ Jagodowski
[Photo from the vaults of Craig Cackowski] 
PAM:  Oh, easy-peasy! No problem. Ok, thanks. Now I just need 20 more years to practice those skills.

I know you're not saying that an improviser has to be on the Second City Mainstage to create that Terminator brain. But I think that getting in the reps is crucial.

CRAIG:  No, definitely not. I was lucky to have that opportunity at Second City. But, yes, it's all about the reps.

 PAM:  Right. We are told that our job is to make our scene partners look good. How can we make our partners important?

CRAIG:  Assume that your character either WANTS to be with your partners or HAS to be with your partners. That way, you won't treat them as an annoyance, an obstacle, or an adversary. Make your scene partner’s character familiar to you, so you can give them gifts. See the character, not the improvisor.

PAM:  Say that a different way because I like it, and I want to hear more. Interact with the character, you mean?

CRAIG:  Well, if a female improvisor is playing male, or an Asian improvisor is playing black, you need to see that and help make it real for the audience.

PAM:  Oh, sure. I see. Luckily, I always play bi-gendered, Afro-Asians, but yeah. I get it.

CRAIG:  If you want the audience to see an improvisor in flannel and Chuck Taylors as a beautiful princess in a gown and high heels, make them see that. It's our job to stimulate each other’s imaginations. And the audience's.

PAM:  “If you perform as if something is important, the audience assumes it is.” (That quote is you, by the way.)  Tell me how best to hyper-commit to the moment.

CRAIG: Oh, cool, Great quote, Craig.

Well, what are you waiting for? Don't wait for inspiration to strike you or to “find it organically." Why make the audience watch you warm up into the scene? Just decide that everything going on right now is meaningful and important. It's the "paranoid listening" thing that Del talked about. Every statement is fraught with meaning. Every gesture reveals character. Otherwise, you're just waiting around for the "real scene" to start, and you're wasting the audience's time.

The "you" of course is an imaginary improvisor, not you, Pam!

PAM:  Ha! More notes, a year later. I get it. Everyone’s a critic.

To pay you back, get ready for some more great quotes. You said, “Pronouns are the enemy of improv.” Which is related to your mantra, "Specificity begets specificity." Why is specificity so hard for improvisers?

CRAIG:  Because we're worried about coming up with "funny" specifics instead of…well…specific specifics. You never know what's going to unlock the imagination of your partner. Start filling in some of those blanks early. Then you and your partner can figure out how to make it funny, together. But scenes that start vague tend to stay vague.

 PAM:  It's interesting you bring that up because I've spent some time this summer examining Melissa McCarthy's work, like in The Heat. Her specificity is ASTOUNDING. But if you really listen, not every bit of it is comedy gold.

CRAIG:  Awesome, I haven't seen it yet. But that's a good observation of her.

PAM:  The brilliance of Ms. McCarthy is that she has an "on" button for specificity that never turns off. She's a machine. I am in awe of some of her work. I think she proves your point exactly. Sometimes, she's just saying specific stuff...which we find funny.

CRAIG:  We DO! We love specifics. Like I said, you never know what's going to resonate with people. But none of our life experiences are so unique. Something that resonates with us is probably going to resonate for someone else.

PAM:  We need to spend our final moments together talking about Craig Cackowski, the (award-winning!) teacher, because I think that’s a place where you really let your love of the craft shine. What have you learned most about improvisation since becoming a teacher?

CRAIG:  Only do scenes about things you care about. If you're bored with your own scene, how do you think the audience feels?
[Photo courtesy of Audrey Cackowski]

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If you are in Los Angeles, and you’d like to see Craig Cackowski’s work yourself (you lucky dog, you...oops, sorry Audrey!), 
once a month he plays in Dasariski (with Bob Dassie and Rich Talerico)  at UCB and in The Thrilling Adventure Hour at Largo, which you also can hear every week via podcast. At iO - West Theatre, his popular, talent-packed shows Quartet (with Bob Dassie, Tami Sagher, Jean Villepique, Stephnie Weir, and Jack McBrayer) and The Better Half (with Lucas Neff) are on hiatus right now, but coming back to soon. If you’re on the improv festival circuit, you’ll probably run into Craig sooner or later, and I recommend you take his workshops and see his shows. 
Whether or not you’re in LA or on the road, you can see Craig as a regular in Drunk History on Comedy Central every Tuesday at 10.

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Read Geeking Out with...Jazz Freddy
in which Craig Cackowski is quoted as saying,
 Jazz Freddy “demanded that critics look at it as a piece of theatre…I can't tell you how important that's taken a while, but I think Chicago critics finally give improv the respect it deserves when they review it, without using words like skits,’ ‘send-ups,’ ‘yuks,’ and, god forbid, ‘spoofmeisters.’" 
Catch up on past improv geek-a-thons:
Geeking Out with…Dave Pasquesi  of TJ and Dave
...David Razowsky of iO West
…with Joe Bill of BASSPROV
...Charna Halpern, co-founder of iO Theatre
...Susan Messing of Messing with a Friend
and many more!

And "like" the "Geeking Out with..." FACEBOOK PAGE please.

Pam Victor is the founding member of The Ha-Ha’s, and she produces The Happier Valley Comedy Show in western Massachusetts. Pam directed, produced and performed in the comic soap opera web series "Silent H, Deadly H." Pam also writes mostly humorous, mostly true essays and reviews of books, movies, and tea on her blog, "My Nephew is a Poodle." If you want to stay abreast of all the geek out action, like the “Geeking Out with…” Facebook page! And get it all at 


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