Charna Halpern, the Comedy Gatekeeper
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because the next Tina Fey or Seth Meyers will likely be chosen by this woman.
Charna Halpern has been the matriarch of the Chicago comedy scene since 1981. Her theater, called iO (formerly ImprovOlympic), was the training ground for many of today’s comedy superstars — from Amy Poehler to Tina Fey to “everyone at SNL” (Aidy Bryant, Cecily Strong, Vanessa Bayer, to name a few).
Halpern, who discovered comedy when she stumbled across some folks from the famed Second City improv group at a party in Chicago, founded iO because she wanted to see a different kind of humor onstage — one that emphasized teamwork and ensemble comedy.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Which means we can thank her for many of the ensemble-cast movies and TV shows that crack us up today. She and co-founder Del Close published the improv bible Truth in Comedy, now in its 13th printing, to document their new philosophy: Laughter comes from truth portrayed on stage. Next month she’ll open a huge new space for iO in Chicago, which will host double the number of shows.
[TV shows] want people who will say yes to each other’s ideas, and not ‘No, I want my idea being used.’ Here, they’re trained to say yes and work well together.
— Charna Halpern
The former partner of late comedy legend Close, Halpern got her start as a funnywoman on a country music radio show. But once inside the comedy scene, she grew frustrated at the lack of order in the way people taught comedy — so she started to pen some rules. And together, Halpern and Close created the mecca that is iO today.
Always say “YES, AND…” meaning, always agree, and add something to the discussion. For example, in an improvised scene with a partner, never say no. If you’re in a boat rowing down the river, you don’t say, “No, we’re folding laundry.” You say, “Yes, and we could really use a paddle instead of my arm.” It adds to the scene, humor can develop, and trust is established between scene partners. — Tina Fey on the “Yes, And” rule in Bossypants.
OZY caught up with the comedy queen to learn more about what it takes to hold the golden key to being funny. As she told us, “iO is like Mecca” (for comedy).
Let’s start with the good stuff: What does star quality look like at a young age? Did you just know some of your most famous alums would make it big?
I can usually tell, yes. I knew Mike Myers would be a star when I first met him. I knew Amy Poehler and Tina would be stars when I met them. I think that there’s something about a strong improviser that stands out. It’s someone who really hears everything and makes everything work. And gets a laugh not at your expense, but because they’re enveloping your idea. These people were so good at that.
And I have so many now that I see are going to be stars. What’s frustrating is sometimes the other people — like SNL — don’t see it. I’ve got a girl right now named Tara DeFrancisco. She’s the funniest woman in Chicago, and I venture to say North America. And you know, they haven’t taken her. I just cannot believe it.
You just never know what they’re looking for at the time. Sometimes they don’t need women; sometimes they’re looking for a writer; sometimes she’s not in the costume that they’re looking for right now. Who knows why?
At the same time, you kind of do know what’s going through the gatekeepers’ brains when they cast — because you kind of are the gatekeeper. Today, iO is one of the biggest launchpads for comedy out there. Why is that?
Talent scouts come here because they want people who are the best not only at writing and performing, but people who are easy to work with. People who follow our philosophies, which is to take care of each other, to treat each other as if we are all geniuses and poets, and to say yes to each other.
That whole ”say yes” thing is one of the key tenets of improv philosophy. And it’s not just good for getting laughs.
We just had somebody get hired for The Daily Show. Most of [Stephen] Colbert’s people are iO. And it’s because these places want people who will say yes to each other’s ideas, and not “No, I want my idea being used.” Here, they’re trained to say yes and work well together.
I mean, Mike Meyers got famous; Chris Farley got famous; and then suddenly people started saying, “Oh my god, Tina and Amy, what’s going on? They’re all coming from iO.”
I recently heard casting directors speaking at a meeting in LA, and they didn’t even know I was in the audience. People were asking about getting hired, and directors said, “My advice to you is to go to Chicago and train at iO. Because we give people a real look there. That’s where you really get good.”
Can you share some great stories of the early days of one of these stars?
When I first met Chris, I didn’t really like him, because he wouldn’t do the exercises in class. One day, he came to the show, and he was begging me to put him in the show. He was being very annoying. And I said to him, “OK, but if you go onstage tonight and fail, you’re never going to perform again in this town.”
Before he could even realize it was a threat, I remember him bounding on stage. And then he got on the stage and he was wonderful. When he came off the stage, he said to me, “Was that OK?” I said, “Yes. You were fantastic.” That night the audience fell in love with him, and I fell in love with him. And then in class he was wonderful, because he had proved to me what he needed to prove.”
You mentioned “working well together,” which might not make sense to some who don’t understand that improv is ensemble-based. You changed the way improv looked on stage — from getting a few people up there to ensembles. Why?
I was tired of the little games, and I thought, there has to be something more for improvisation. That’s when I ran into [the actor and improv guru] Del Close. He said he’d been working on something since the ’60s at a place called The Committee in San Francisco. If I wanted to close down my little game theater, we could create something that would change the face of improvisational comedy.
And then Del and I changed the face of comedy, by creating long-form improvisation.
Comedy back then — or improvisation back then — was more like Whose Line Is It Anyway? Little games that really were all about getting the laugh. No one considered it a real art form. Basically, ensemble work back then meant two people onstage while three people backstage were smoking a cigarette.
Del and I wanted to create a form where everyone was onstage. It was a true ensemble. You’re onstage the whole time, creating scenes that connect and weave together, so you’re really making something that’s similar to a play.
It’s not just about the laughs; it’s about the connections, and the callbacks, and how we raise the level together and create meaning. It became a hit. People love it. Think about it like war. We used to do battle with swords and shields, and now we have nuclear weapons.
One thing that sets you apart from other comedians is that you’ve actually run a business for many years. I’m curious if you could talk a bit about the business of running a comedy theater. What are the technicalities and the challenges?
Ay. There are a million challenges. Right now the money is all going into that new theater, which is a $7.5 million project. The money comes from classes; the money comes from the box office and the bar.
Where does it go? We pay our teachers. We pay some of the performers — some of the performers are new students who are getting wet behind the ears onstage and it’s part of their learning process. … [And we’ll be doing] 12 shows a night. Right now we have six shows a night, seven nights a week. No nights off.
What’s your advice for comedic aspirants?
First, get good. Really hone your craft. And then get an agent. Make yourself someone who can do a lot of different things. Maybe take an acting class too; take an audition class. Get well-rounded. And do other things. Read. Go to plays. See movies. Do things, so your life isn’t just improv. Because otherwise, you have nothing to talk about when you’re onstage.
What are the major audition clichés to avoid? What’s the worst stuff you see?
At one point, I saw 15 million Kristen Stewarts. I’m like, alright, everyone’s doing that. Let’s see some more unobvious choices.