I’m relatively confident TJ Jagodowski is the greatest improviser I will ever see. He seems absolutely comfortable on stage, sure of his characters and aware of his strength. I’ve seen him spin straw into gold. The audience loves him, almost from the first words out of his mouth.
I’ve never had a conversation with the guy. I feel like if I were to talk to him, it would approximate the old “Chris Farley Show” on SNL. “‘Member that time you initiated with that line that made everyone laugh? Thatwasawesome.”
I didn’t get a chance to have him as a teacher. But this guy puts on a clinic every time he walks on the stage.
In 2009, he sat down for a Q&A session at iO. Someone asked him what he thinks about when he walks on stage for a scene. His answers were telling.
1. Don’t Panic.
2. Make an emotional choice, a point of view so you’re safe, no matter what.
3. Remember how fortunate you are.
I’ve heard improvisers mention those first two before. I’ve never heard anyone cite the third. I think that’s part of what makes him special. He finds joy in discovery. It’s amazing to watch him as an idea forms on the sideline and he steps out to initiate it.
In the most recent Carl and the Passions show, Noah Gregoropoulos welcomed Bill Boehler into his greenhouse to get some aloe for some cuts on his face. Bill broke off part of the plant. TJ stepped out, gestured to where the plant was and said, “If you listen really closely, you would hear, ‘Oh my fucking God! My arm! You ripped off my fucking arm! It hurts!’” That started a pattern of inanimate objects thinking and speaking that slayed the audience every time out.
In the 2009 Q&A, TJ was asked about finding himself in a position of personal ignorance on stage, (i.e., If his character were forced to talk about a book TJ never read but the character was to have authored.)
TJ said you just have to let the character handle it as the character would. Don’t let the audience see you embarrassed for your own lack of knowledge on stage. Let the character do that. TJ suggested attacking it “wherever you find your confidence. Ignorance is okay, knowledge is okay, incompetence is okay. As soon as you get scared on stage, the audience gets scared.”
There’s fear popping up again. It’s reasonable to assume TJ gets scared or unnerved ever now and then. He is human after all. But he has enough confidence in his characters that the audience never detects it. In this article, he admits, “Every single time I have a show, it’s still nerve-racking.” And in this lengthy Chicago Reader profile, he discusses the anxieties that have prevented him from sure Hollywood stardom.
Think to yourself, if this man struggles so greatly with personal fear, how can he seem like a bird in flight during a show? It’s his characters. And it’s his ability to participate in the show with a curious mind. Many of his greatest moves from the sidelines seem to come from, “How can I illustrate thoughts or feelings?” I bet TJ is a big fan of the wavy lines coming off Spider-Man’s head whenever his spidey sense is tingling. It illustrates his thoughts simply and directly.
TJ is also a master of object work. When he makes improv coffee, he’ll grab a packet of sugar and shake it before he opens it. He also makes a point to put on and take off his seat belt when entering or exiting an improv car. He does this stuff without drawing attention to it, but it adds extraordinary depth to his scenes.
My friend Mark Logsdon once took a class with Dina Facklis where she revealed TJ’s “Seven Hooks for a Scene.” To his undying credit, Mark typed them up. I share them with you now.
Go into the scene…
1. Immediately after a huge event has happened, and be in the middle of reacting to this event.
Examples: You just got out of an elevator that has been out of order for 5 hours. You are standing outside a building where someone called in a bomb threat.
2. With a mantra or catchphrase.
Examples: “I’ve been there before.” “I guess that’s what they’re teaching kids these days.”
3. With a secret that directly affects your partner.
Examples: You cheated on a huge test that your partner just failed because it’s graded on a curve. You can’t stand your partner’s apartment because it smells like cat piss. (Please avoid “I’m secretly gay” and “I’m secretly in love with you.”)
4. With a large assumption about your scene partner.
Examples: I know you hate me right now, and… You need me to feel safe and protected.
5. With a physicality that has consumed your character.
Examples: You always point the toe of your right foot to the ground. You take a sip of water after everything you say.
6. In the middle of solving an obstacle.
Examples: “Oh, you just put this into lever A, and you have yourself a model airplane.” “And…there we are, got that splinter right out.”
7. With a hugely specific want from your scene partner.
Example: I want him to think that I really know my French wines. I want her to know that I’m putting in equal time with the kids after work.
Notice that all of these tips involve your emotional state or an emotional focus on your partner. Think TJ is going to initiate a straight-up transaction scene at a car dealership? Now, he might be at a car dealership, but the transaction would be the least important part of it. He’d try to impress his girlfriend by buying a car he couldn’t afford. Or he’d talk to the salesman because he’s lonely. Or he’d try to trade in a car with too many bad memories.
I should also mention that TJ appears to be a remarkable person off the stage as well. During the 2011 Chicago blizzard that essentially shut down the entire city, TJ and Dave Pasquesi still wanted to do their Wednesday night show at iO. Because they insisted on performing, it was the only show at the theater that night. And since there were no waitresses or interns, TJ and Dave picked up empty glasses, straightened chairs and cleaned up the joint after the show. Ask yourself if you would be willing to do that without grumbling. Humility is rare in showbiz.
TJ said he makes a point of remembering how fortunate he is when he steps on stage. The audience should feel the same way at the same moment.
To read what I learned from TJ in person, check out Boiling Point’s “Lessons from the Masters Volume 2.5: TJ Jagodowski.”
If you can’t make it to see TJ & Dave in person, rent “Trust Us, This Is All Made Up” from Netflix.