Craig Uhlir was the first improv teacher I had in Chicago, and I couldn’t have asked for a more positive welcome to the city. Not only does Craig teach at Second City and iO, but he performs every week with the improv teams Deep Schwa and Middle Age Comeback…in short, one talented mofo. My first memory of Craig is him yelling “Get up there, you boners!” to my Level 1 class as we sheepishly approached the stage. One year and four levels later, I sat down to pick his brain and learned that he too was once a sheepish student. He was also a giant hot dog for a short period of time.
First of all, it is Friday the 13th. Are you superstitious?
Oh, I am. I didn’t realize it was Friday the 13th. I’m very superstitious. If I have a bad show I don’t wear the shirt again for at least a year. I’ll remember I had a bad show. Sometimes the shirt – I don’t wear it any more. If we do something before a show, we try to do it every time. In Deep Schwa our thing is throwing rocks at an electrical breaker back in the alley. And if you don’t hit the breaker you can’t go inside and do the show. So we all have to sit there and wait ‘til your rock hits whatever it is. Then, Carlson and I have a couple things before Middle Age Comeback that we have to do. Like, he actually looks panicked if we don’t do it. And its really small little things. I can’t tell you – but warm up things. Athletes do the same thing. They have the ritual that they have to do. Or it feels off.
How many years have you been working with Jim Carlson?
Since 1995 I’ve known him. I met him in Level B at Second City and then we finished the program there together. Then I ended up on the team he was put on here [at iO], which was one of the best teams at the time. Then we started writing sketch shows together. We used to host the improv open mic jam here at iO in ‘97.
What do you think you’ve learned the most from 2-man improv shows?
If what I’m doing is from the last thing he just said or did, then its always right. There’s never a wrong way to improvise if my moment of creation is exactly leading from the last moment of creation. Then its good. But, when we skip that step, try to go outside of improv, it usually gets messy. Meaning, I attack him personally or something, it gets messy at times. Or not listening to him and trying to push an agenda in a scene. That’s typically our biggest problem. Or triumph. Our second fallback is we’re really physical and it really helps that we’re physical. So we have parts in our show that we get away with because we’re so physical. You know, no talking for a minute or so, but there’s so much action and fun going on you don’t realize, “Oh, they’re not talking very much.” And then the third thing I love about us – because that’s what you asked me [laughs] – is I truly feel because I don’t go dirty, I mean, we both swear like sailors but I don’t go dirty that often – that our show always works for every age group. Our show isn’t a certain demographic.
I do remember you saying for the first couple years you were improvising you never went blue.
Yeah – the Cosby rule, I didn’t swear for a long time. I really admire that I tried to get emotion or shock form the audience without just dropping an F-bomb. Its kind of interesting that I picked that route. I had other improvisers just brow beat me about it later, saying that there’s no way I’m in the moment or not thinking if I’m editing myself. And, I don’t know! ‘Cause, there’s paid gigs where you can not swear. I guess I’ve always been okay with that. Also, I wasn’t that good when I first started, so , I don’t know if there’s a direct correlation there [laughs].
How did you get started in improv?
I worked for gold coast hot dogs. I was a giant hot dog man. I was in a hot dog costume and my bosses used to tell me about Second City all the time. I finally just signed up and went there without really knowing what it was. I had watched the British version of “Whose Line is it Anyway?” on Comedy Central. That’s what I learned about improv in the early 90s.
Have you ever been in a play?
No, not really. I took an acting class at Harper before Second City – I was terrified of learning lines. Improv I found so comforting because there’s someone out there with me. I hated the lines. I hated telling a monologue. I hated being solo. I always found comfort in, “Oh there’s a group. I don’t have to do it alone.” You can see the way I teach reflects that a lot. Its everyone’s job; everyone take part.
Have you ever found yourself in an improv slump?
Yep. I liken it to those really wide, shallow steps, like going up to a courthouse. Where you’re on that step and it just takes forever to get across that step, and then you finally figure out whatever it is you’ve been dwelling on and you make it to the next step. And a couple steps in you’re back there again – there’s the new thing you’re dwelling on. So it never goes away. Never. Ask anybody. It never goes away. No matter what you focus on, there’s gonna be three things you’re dropping because you’re focusing on the one thing. Soon as you figure out that one thing, you have to switch and start learning the other thing. Because of that, you’ll start to drop the thing you just learned to focus on the new thing. So it never ends. It never ends. And you’re gonna always be in a new situation. So it’s really hard. What helped was when I had an improv buddy. When my peers saw my work and could talk to me about it. Sit and talk about the show in a productive way.
If you could go back in time, what sort of advice would you give yourself when you were a brand new improviser?
The people on stage aren’t judging me. I think that I felt that the people I was playing with, because I was already so inadequate and terrible, that I think I shot myself down through them before they even shot me down. I think I really had a chip on my shoulder that I was going to do it wrong. So because of that never did it. And because of that never learned how to do anything because I wasn’t trying anything. Stupid thing about improv, is that when you’re bad at it, you have to keep doing the thing you’re bad at. And the human condition is “When I’m bad at something, I stop doing it!” And improv you just have to constantly risk, try, and pretty much fail. As an early improviser success is rare. Failure is common.
When did that change?
Playing with people that would support me no matter what. People the people on my one team started getting better. The first team I was on – terrible. The second team I was on – Jack McBrayer was on and I was terrible on that team but he was great. There were a couple other people that were just great on that team. I was terrible. I barely did anything on that team. I got traded off that and got put on Deep Schwa. A few years into Deep Schwa, we all just started getting better. People around you start getting better, grow with you, that helps.
Performers: Craig Uhlir
Venue: iO Chicago Theater