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BackRoom

Charna Halpern

The legendary improv instructor, 65, on Del Close, Tina Fey, and slow comedy

Illustration by Stavros Damos
Illustration: Stavros Damos

I always knew I was going to do something different. Even as a kid, I was always observing people.

When I was 10, I directed shows. I would use every kid on the block in them so that their parents would have to come, and I would charge a quarter. I paid kids to ride around on bikes to advertise the show.

I was living in Dixon and came to Chicago for a Second City party. There were all these people doing bits and goofing around, and I was joining them. Tim Kazurinsky said, “You’re really funny. You should be at Second City. I’m going to get you an audition.” I was like, “OK.” My audition was ridiculous. There was no way I should’ve been on that stage. It got to the point where I was so embarrassed, I even said, “Should I go on, or do you just want to hire me now?”

I took classes at Players Workshop, and at the end, I was given the position to direct the children’s shows at Second City with Jo Forsberg. I walked into the theater, the main stage. It was, like, 10 in the morning, and nobody was there. I walked around, and I thought, “This is going to be mine.” I just knew. So that’s why after I was done with the job, I said, “I’ve got to find a way to do this,” and decided to start this little theater at CrossCurrents.

So many improv tenets follow life. Stay in the moment. Stop worrying about planning. Once I began doing the improv thing, I realized I can’t bother planning my life. I’ve just got to see what opportunities open. The things that happen are far more interesting than anything I could’ve planned.

When I started the ImprovOlympic Theater, I knew I needed help. I was at a little coffee shop one day, and Del Close was there having coffee and a cigarette. He was the director of Second City, but he was frustrated. I went up to him and said, “Hey, how’d you like to make $200 and some pot?” I knew that would get him. He said, “What do I got to do?” And I said, “Just teach one three-hour class.” And he said, “Can I do anything I want?” And I said, “Yeah.” And he goes, “Can I invoke demons?” And I said, “Sure.”

Del gave me the ability to look at things differently. If there’s a scene we’re doing for a sketch show and I can’t fix it and make it work, I will often think, What would Del do? And it’s usually the opposite of what I would do, because he had such a strange way of thinking about things.

Improv is all about honesty, because we know when you’re lying. We feel it. And when you’re telling the truth, we relate.

I had to change the name from ImprovOlympic to iO because the International Olympic Committee sent a cease and desist letter. But I was glad: “ImprovOlympic” was cheesy.

Tina Fey and Amy Poehler met through me. I had them each in a separate class at iO. I made the improv teams, so I put together some guys who were funny, and I thought, I’m going to put these two girls together. They will wipe these guys clean. I could just tell they’d be perfect together.

People are afraid of silence. They have to talk and talk and say nothing. With comedy, you have to slow down and really think. I always teach that there’s action in thought. You don’t just blurt out some jokey thing. That’s what people think when they first take classes: “At Second City, you’ve got to be fast.” I’m like, “No, no, no. You’ve got to be slow.”

Things have gotten so dull for me ever since Del died. The first psychic I talked to after his death said Del wanted to know why I hadn’t yet smoked the joint he gave me.

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