Seth Weitberg moved to Chicago three days after he graduated from Duke in 2003, and he hasn’t stopped moving since. A talented writer, actor, comedian and improviser, Seth boldly goes wherever ambition and inspiration take him. I was lucky enough to snag 45 minutes of his day to have a wonderful conversation about Chicago comedy.
Where are you from originally?
Seth: Boston. Born in Boston, spent most of my life in Rhode Island. Went down to school in North Carolina, and then came here. I graduated on Sunday, drove here on Tuesday, started classes at iO on Thursday.
When did you start doing stand-up comedy?
Seth: Both. I did a little stand up in college, when I was living in Rhode Island. But then when I moved to Chicago, I started doing a little bit… I keep going into this pattern of like, I’ll do it for a while and then I’ll get a lot of stuff and I’m like, “Oooh, if I put this with this with that, I can do a one man show.”
And you’ve done several of those.
Seth: I’ve done three of those. Two times doing stand up led to that and then pretty much – a really good friend of mine is this guy named T.J. Miller who is a Chicago ex-pat. He’s an amazing, amazing stand-up comic. So, he was in town for the Just For Laughs Festival and I spent the week with him. And whenever I’m around him, I get really jazzed to get back and do it. So I’m starting to do more now.
Of all the different media in which you work, which do you find the most satisfying?
Seth: For me? Writing. I love the craft element of it. I love having an artifact when I’m done. And I love the labor and the grind of re-writing and re-drafting. I mean, I will always love improvising. I will always love the meticulousness and science of sketch comedy. But, I love writing scripts and writing jokes.
Have you ever considered writing a book of essays?
Seth: Yeah. If you looked on my computer, in my documents folder you would find a thousand, like, I don’t want to say “half-baked” because that sounds pejorative, but like, projects. I’m trying to actually sell [my blog] The Week in Dubuque right now as a book. But to answer your question, there’s a whole folder there of essays.
Do you find that you get writing material and writing ideas from improv? Or is that separate in your mind from writing?
Seth: Sometimes. They definitely don’t have to be [separate] nor should they be. I mean, at Second City that’s how we work a lot … You’re always making adjustments to the writing based on what you learn from audiences. I actually recall a surprising little from what I improvise on a typical Saturday, Sunday, Monday, Tuesday… I think part of the reason why it’s hard sometimes to make that translation is, the terms of the relationship between you and your audience when you’re improvising are so different than when you’re writing. The major one being: when you’re improvising, an audience has this understanding that they’re watching the act of creation and they give you an incredible amount of leeway that you don’t get when someone goes, “Oh this is what this person conceived, created, edited, and is delivering as exactly – this is exactly what they think it should be.” That transaction is so radically different. I mean what improv is great for, is jokes. Like, bits. And you know, I mean, you can get really great big picture ideas in there or great characters – you can find great characters that way. But I think for me at this point in time a lot of what I enjoy about improvising is that it’s a different process for me.
Your improv team Family Tree House Boat Accident presents a new form each Sunday night. How many forms have you performed so far?
How did you guys decide to do multiple forms as your form?
Seth: Before Barry was in it, this guy Jordan Klepper was in it and we all knew we wanted to do this show… In the few weeks before we were set to open, we kind of figured, “What do we want to do?” And we were all sort of at that point where we didn’t need another pick-up-game-improv-set and Jordan used to be a part of this group called American Dream, which included a handful of people that aren’t around here any more. And they were so talented that a lot of times people weren’t at shows. So, they kind of came up with this bit that like, different conglomerations of the American Dream would have a different name. So like: American Dreams presents “Thunderclaw!” And the joke was always, “And we do our signature form ______.” So like, they did one once I remember called “The Fart Machine” where they took a remote controlled fart machine and put it on stage and gave the remote to an audience member and then they just did an improv show around it, but that audience member could control [the machine]. So, from that experience Jordan had the idea of like, well, what if we kind of do that but systemized? What if we actually say we’re gonna make a new form every week and then somehow we got to the idea of well, what if we actually make it inspired by the previous week so that in some ways we’re actually creating an extension.
What have you learned about improv from doing a completely different form every week?
Seth: Hmm. That’s a great question. Well, it’s a no brainer that supporting others is a huge element of all the work. It is made so acute in this situation though, because its so clear to the three of us what the goal is. The goal is to make the form work. And to not only make it work, but to make it good… I’ve been recently reading to my classes from Freud – group psychology and analysis of the ego – and the thing I’ve been reading to them about [is] groups will naturally fall into animalistic tribal destruction, unless they have a goal they are focusing on. And you see it in improv, too. But sometimes, we’re doing a herald or we’re dong a montage, the goal is not exact. Here, it is so concrete. Its like, here’s this form. Let’s make this thing work. And so, the support becomes so unconditional that I think we succeed. The other thing I’ve learned? Its okay to change your expectation of how a show was supposed to go or what you’re supposed to do for the benefit of how to make it work… I’ve learned that pacing is far more important than I ever thought. We keep coming back to that in every form, that the pacing is so important so that you’re not just doing 2 minute scene. 2 minute scene. 2 minute scene. 2 minute scene. That’s really key.
How else do Freud and psychology relate to improv?
Seth: Freud would say groups will succeed beyond what any one individual could ever achieve on his own, so long as that group of individuals is rallied around some sort of reciprocal influence and common goal. “Reciprocal influence” being a phrase that really sings of Susan Messing to me – that idea that we have to affect each other on stage. So I think group dynamics are incredibly complicated … and I see it in varying degrees in my classes. The classes that are successful doing Heralds are the ones that understand that being a part of a group means a certain shedding of self. And also a shedding of instincts that come from a more, Freud would say, “primitive epoch”. That we have these instincts, that come from defensiveness and judgment, of survival, that don’t have any place in improvisation. That you actually have to return to a very juvenile place of – sense of play – where you’re willing to make yourself extremely vulnerable and trusting of others unconditionally. And um, when groups of people are able to do that they succeed. So, recently I’ve been reframing my thinking of improvisation. I used to think, “Oh, we have to teach groups how to work together.” Now I’ve actually sort of reframed it in the thinking that groups will – if you are a group, a true group, you can’t not succeed. You will be great. So, the challenge is actually not “How do we behave as a group?”, its “How do we be a group?” Like, “What do I have to do onstage to make myself a part of the group?” … True groups succeed. Unconditionally.
If you were to go back to your first arrival in Chicago 7 years ago, what advice would you give yourself?
Seth: A piece of advice I wish I had been able to give myself is don’t ever be a dick. ‘Cause I think I was a dick a few times, and you start to rub people the wrong way in Chicago, which is a very ensemble-based town, and you will find yourself working through some barriers at some point; whether its like, someone telling someone else not to hire you, or someone not asking you to be in a show, this or that. So, I think a lot of reasons I got where I was is because I was very ambitious, so I rubbed a few people the wrong way I think at times and so I wasn’t getting asked to do a ton of stuff when I was coming up. So, I just made my own projects. I just constantly made my own projects. I mean, I can pretty clearly trace my path through decisions… [Tim] Baltz and I were talking about this the other night. ‘Cause I think Tim is someone who masterfully has balanced being a wonderful, kind person with his ambition and been able to achieve incredible success balancing those things. And I think I have succeeded but with a little less tact. I think [another] thing is set goals. And set a lot of them. I can show you journals I have… I took notes compulsviely through every class, and I at one point was like, these are my goals. I wanna do this and this and this. And there was a point when I achieved everything on it and I was like, alright. New goals… You can’t plan any of it. You just have to be aspiring and trying to do these things. You know, I think the best advice is always like, well there’s no correct path. You just have to do the things that you’re excited to do and continue to work and accept failure as a necessary part of it. Because there’s a lot of failure and rejection along the way… I think the key thing is embracing everything for what it is, including being a student. Enjoy the development time. Enjoy the time to get better and take risks.
You can see Seth Weitberg perform every Saturday at 10pm in his new show Goodbye, Monster with Hans Holsen, and every Sunday night at 10:30 in Family Tree House Boat Accident, both at iO Chicago Theater.
Performers: Seth Weitberg