Charna Halpern: Improvise a Comedy Empire
Charna Halpern is the co-founder of the iO Theater in Chicago, where many of the most loved contemporary comedians cut their teeth, including Steve Carell, Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, and many more.
Together with Del Close, Ms. Halpern helped to legitimize improvisational comedy as an artistic form, starting in the 1980s by creating the Harold, a self-contained long-form improv format now seen on stages all around the world. Her book “Truth in Comedy“, co-authored with Del Close and Kim “Howard” Johnson, is considered a bible for aspiring improvisers and comedians.
"I never set out to train all the stars. I never set out to have my own big theater. I want to continue inspiring people. I want people to enjoy this place the way they always did in the past."
— Charna Halpern
Photo: Andrew A. Nelles
Charna Halpern (guest): I never set out to be a big businesswoman. I never set out to train all the stars. I never set out to have my own big theater. I want to continue inspiring people. I want people to enjoy this place the way they always did in the past. Happy to work, we’re happy to have a stage, we’re happy to work together, share with each other and there was this love back then. I hope that’s still here, I want it to be here. Amy and Tina and Mike Myers and Chris Farley and Rachel Dratch and David Koechner and I’m just so amazed at how giving they were to each other, like everyone just kept handing the focus to each other. If you ever say anything to me, that’s the most important thing that I could ever hear from you, that you recognize it; because that’s what this place is all about.
Simone Salis (host): I am Simone Salis and this is Hoomans with today’s guests, Charna Halpern.
S. Salis: Charna Halpern is the co-founder of the iO theater in Chicago where many of the most loved contemporary comedians cut their teeth including David Koechner, Tina Fey, Mike Meyers, Amy Poehler and many more. Together with Del Close, Ms. Halpern helped to legitimize improvisational comedy as an artistic form starting in the 1980s by creating the Harold; a self-contained long-form improv format, now seen on stages all around the world. Her book ‘Truth in Comedy’ co-authored with Del Close and Kim Howard Johnson, is considered a Bible for aspiring improvisers and comedians with Miss Halpern trying to shift a performers attention from their own ego to empowering their stage partners. Her theatre is home to the most loved improvised shows in the world including TJ&Dave, The Harold, The improvised Shakespeare and the Armando. Charna, you created basically a comedy Empire. The iO now has 4 stages and classrooms filled up day and night, every day of the week. And what did you plan to do when you were a kid, a teenager? Did you plan to advise Lorne Michaels and mentor famous comedians? Was that your dream?
C. Halpern: No, I had no aspirations for theatre at all. Although, it’s funny, as a child, I was actually creating theater in my yard. So maybe I’m wrong; maybe it was just something I was doing for fun and I didn’t ever think it would be a future. But I would actually get the kids together on the block and we would do the can-can and I would put different people in different show… parts of the show. I remember the biggest cool… cool I had was getting Paul Anis, he’s actually now my manager in Hollywood which is really funny. But he was a high school boy at the time and he played the banjo so I got him to come. And I was about 10 and I got him to sing with me in front of my audience, ‘Daisy Daisy’; I don’t know if you know the song, “Daisy, Daisy…”
S. Salis: You were…
C. Halpern: That’s how… that was like a big thing for me because everyone thought I was really cute and he was a teenager. And then what I would do is I would charge the parents a quarter to get in, and of course they’re going to come see their kids in the show. So I would use everybody on the block and I would hire kids on bikes to ride around the neighborhood to say, “It’s show tonight at 8 o’clock.” So I was producing…
S. Salis: Yeah!
C. Halpern: … as a 10 year old, but I never really thought of it as a career. It was just a way to get some money. Everyone… it was just like a… at night, we’d all be on the street playing ball together. I mean, it was just the Good Humor man, the ice-cream man would come and park on our block and stay there forever. Because all the kids from around the neighborhood would come to Whipple Street, that’s where I lived, because that was…
S. Salis: It was business for him too.
C. Halpern: It was… yeah, it was great for him. But that was the place for all the kids to hang out them because that’s where all the kids were. So it was a great black so I took advantage of it and made some money and, you know? It was money for whatever I wanted it for; you know, candy, ice cream, whatever.
S. Salis: (Laughs). You were a business woman at 10.
C. Halpern: Yes, I was a businessman at 10. And those are the things you needed to do because your parents wouldn’t give you money to go buy unnecessary things. So, no… and then I was in… in college and I actually… I did have a theater minor because I had a speech major, but I was in education.
S. Salis: Okay.
C. Halpern: And I didn’t like the theater people very much I thought they were very affected…
S. Salis: Why?
C. Halpern: They were very affected. They thought they were stars already, you know, they were just very… they’re just very… yeah, something was very wrong with them all. And they really thought they were stars, you know, like the way they behaved. So, you know, I learned how to detect and I… I did have to be in some plays and things that I did do actually ended up being comedies by accident. Some stuff was my fault, sometimes it wasn’t. I didn’t think theatre was for me and I didn’t even dream of the fact that comedy might be for me. I taught… I taught in a school for juvenile delinquents for 3 years called the Heart of Mary High School. I was a board of that teacher so they got a grant from the Chicago Public Schools.
S. Salis: You grew up in Chicago, right?
C. Halpern: I grew up in Chicago; born and raised, yeah. So, yes, I was a Chicago Public School teacher in a special private school run by nuns, until my father got his first McDonald’s in Dixon, Illinois. And that was a big deal for Dixon Illinois because there was no fast food there at all. And I was there for the grand opening and the guy who was there for the radio station was interviewing people. And I thought he was kind of doing a bad job and I was goofing around and taking the mic and interviewing people because I wanted the grand opening to be good.
S. Salis: Of course!
C. Halpern: And then he just gave me the mic and sat down and let me do it because he certainly couldn’t care less.
S. Salis: Like, “You do the job.
C. Halpern: Yeah, it was his job, he’s like, “I don’t care about this stuff.” A few days later, I got a call from this… one of the head of the… its Janesville, Wisconsin the head of all the small market radio stations asking me if I wanted a job on the radio. And my first reply was, “No, I’m a schoolteacher. I can’t do anything else. I don’t know anything about radio.” And then when I went back to work, the nuns told me they lost the grant.
S. Salis: Oh!
C. Halpern: And that they were fighting for the grant. And they wanted me to stay with their salary from the Archdiocese which was like less than half what I was making now. And I might have stayed hadn’t I had this other opportunity. And I thought, “Well, maybe I can do something else. I’m going to try it. I’m not going to say no, I’m going to say yes,” even though I didn’t know about the power of ‘yes’.
S. Salis: You were already yessing.
C. Halpern: I was already yessing. And I did radio for a year and I loved it. I had a radio show but I didn’t like living at Dixon; I’m a city girl. And I came back here for a news writing test and I met Tim Kazurinsky, the Second City…
S. Salis: That’s in Second City, right?
C. Halpern: Mm-hmm, at party. It wasn’t at Second City but he was… he was already on Saturday Night Live, but it was a party that my sister’s… not my sister, my friend’s brother was having. And I met all these Second City people there. And I was goofing around, just doing bits with people and they were like, “You should be on stage. You should be doing this and we’re setting up an audition for you,” which I failed miserably because I didn’t even know what it was.
S. Salis: Did you take classes?
C. Halpern: But then I did. After I failed the audition I thought, “Well, what the hell is this?” Yeah, Second City Players Workshop.
S. Salis: Okay.
C. Halpern: There wasn’t anything else, it was just Second City. There was no iO, there was no anything.
S. Salis: How did the iO come to exist? The iO, again, it’s one of the biggest, one of the improv Meccas.
C. Halpern: Well, because I had just graduated Players Workshop and I was friends with Dan Castellaneta who’s the voice of Homer Simpson, and there was some very, very talented people. And we all had finished Players Workshop and had nowhere to play. And if you weren’t one of the 6 people at Second City, because it’s all there was, there wasn’t the EGC at the time, then you weren’t playing. So I thought, “Well, this is crazy. I’m going to start my own theater.” And at that time David Shepherd happened to be in town and he wrote something. I read about him in a book where he tried to do this thing called ImprovOlympic in Canada. But David’s kind of like scared and so things don’t really happen that well. So I thought, “Well, I could do that here! And I could have a team and Dan Castellaneta can have a team and I could make it happen!” So I went up to David and I said, “Hey, I could make this ImprovOlympic thing happen here.” He said, “Okay, let’s do it.” But then he made me do a whole bunch of other things too. Aand then I finally had to get rid of him because he drove me crazy; that’s a whole other podcast. And that’s how it started. Then after about a year of games, we would just little games it was…
S. Salis: That’s what improv was originally, right? Like the…
C. Halpern: Improv was like, “Who’s line is it anyway?” yeah.
S. Salis: Right, the short funny games that we see also in short form improv college contemporary.
C. Halpern: Yeah, yeah, yeah, that’s all it was. And I started… even it was commercially successful and the reason it was successful is because at first people didn’t even care about that; nobody was coming. But then I decided I had to find a way to get an audience to get publicity because, again, they only cared about Second City; nobody was writing about me. So I read in the paper that the police needed safety vests and they all had to pay for them themselves and they were very expensive. So I decided to do a benefit for the safety vest for police. I asked Second City if I could have their theater on a Monday night and then I went to all the media people; the weather-men, the people who were writing all the columns, big report… big, big writers, all the best people. And I asked them if I could train them as a media team called Media Rare, and they would do a benefit with some other groups. So I got together a team of police called Magnum Farce and I got a team of rabbis called the God Squad and they all competed against each other and everyone was writing about it. So all of a sudden, ImprovOlympic became a big deal and then these people kept playing. So I would… I had a team of psychologists, I started doing all these real teams; real identities. But the work wasn’t great, you know, so I was just getting really bored with it. So it was at that time, about a year later that I heard about Del Close and I thought, “Maybe he can show me what’s next with improv.” And so…
S. Salis: Do you have any memory of the first meeting with Del?
C. Halpern: Yes, it was a nightmare.
S. Salis: Why! (Laughs). There’s no way!
C. Halpern: Okay. Well, I had heard the Del was doing this show in an art gallery; it was Halloween. And this is, as I said to you, I was like, “I’ve got to talk this man and see if I could take this anywhere. I’m sick of the games, there’s got to be something more.” At that time I was also in tan with meditation.
S. Salis: Sure, yeah, yeah, which now is really expensive with classes.
C. Halpern: oh really?
S. Salis: They’ve changed a lot. But yeah, it was yes…
C. Halpern: Back then it wasn’t so bad. And they taught you to white light yourself before you meditate and protect yourself from demons and stuff. So I go to this art gallery and Halloween and there is Dell, for the first time I’ve ever seen him in witch’s robes with his magic wand, which I now have, and he’s got candles around him and he’s invoking these demons. And I was in front of all these people and I was horrified; it was so scary. And so I stood out of the room and watched. Then when it was over, I went up to him and I said, “You had a lot of nerve invoking demons in front of all these people and not protecting anyone.” He goes, “I protected the building!” I said, “You can’t do that!” and he said, “Yes, I can!” and I was like, “(sigh heavily)” and I walked away, you know? And he was just so mean to me and I walked out. And I… then I got back to where I was performing that night in Crosscurrents. So I thought, “I can’t believe I did this. I totally forgot why I went there and yelled at him and got in a fight with him. This is just horrible!” About a month later, he happened to be in Crosscurrents because there was a coffee… a little coffee lounge…
S. Salis: That was a play area, right? That’s where you originally perform.
C. Halpern: That’s where my shows were.
S. Salis: Okay.
C. Halpern: And so I saw him there and I… and then I was scared. I said, “Ugh! I still want to talk to him about what I what I want to do.” And somebody said, “You know, Del’s always high. He doesn’t remember people. He does remember people’s names. You could up to him, he’s never… it was a month ago, he’s not going to know you.” I said, “You’re right, he talked to so many people.” So I went to him and I figured, “I’ve got to get his attention right away,” so I said, “Hey, how would you like to make 200 bucks in some pot?” becasue I know he loves drugs. And he says, “Hmm, what have I got to do?” and I said, “Just teach one 3-hour improv class.” And he said, “Hmm, can I do anything I want?” and I said, “Yeah.” And he said, “Can I invoke demons?” and I was like, “Oh no, he remembers me!” And I said, “Sure, anything you want.” And I said, “Here is basically what’s going on,” and I told him how I’m really tired of these games. And he was just like, “Well, maybe you’re not a twit after all,” you know, I was like, “Thank you!” And then he came he taught a class and blew our minds. He just like… everything I learned the Players Workshop was wrong and I wanted to complain and get my money back, you know, because they would tell me things like, “Don’t tell Simone that he’s got a limp,” you know, “It’s a lay out, don’t give him any information. He will come up with his own information.” So in class, what I would say, “Well, I was told it was lying he goes it’s a gift to give information.”
“Jesus Christ! What did they teach you over there?” You know, the idea of agreeing, the idea of playing off the top of your intelligence and taking care of each other, these real things that we never thought of, you know? And… and we were humiliated! You know, because he’s like, “Why are you acting like a baby?”
“I’m playing a baby.”
S. Salis: (unclear) [13:10].
C. Halpern: He told us that even children were intelligent, you know, and so like you can still play off the top of intelligence. And… yeah, so afterwards we talked and he was very pleased to hear that I wasn’t happy with the games and that I thought something else…
S. Salis: You started to explore more outside…
C. Halpern: Yeah, because he wanted to. And Bernard Sahlins, well in Second City, was making millions. And so he… when Del wanted to change things there he said, “No thank you, Del, I’m doing just fine.” So to hear that somebody else wanted to do the same thing he wanted to do, he was very excited. He told me about the Harold. He said, “It’s something that I worked on in the 60s. Basically it’s unteachable and unplayable but maybe if I take some of your games and plug them into mine, it’d be like the peanut butter and chocolate coming together to make the candy bar. You know, we could come up with something.” And so we actually took what was this 2-hour piece and made it…
S. Salis: It originally was soon was so long…
C. Halpern: It was soon was so long because these didn’t come back. There was no opening 3 scenes in the game, it wasn’t that like that. That happened when he started with you with me because my favorite game was the time dash. So we really did kind of combine our stuff.
S. Salis: I am Simone Salis and this is Hoomans with today’s guests Charna Halpern, founder of the iconic improvisational theatre iO in Chicago.
How did Del change you as a person?
C. Halpern: Oh, in so many ways. I mean, he taught me how to look at things differently, how to not be upset about things. Because he just had such an unusual outlook things. Like I remember there was many, many years ago, for example, just to give a quick example, there was a group of people that band together with the owner of this club that we were renting to steal ImprovOlympic and… because they were the best team. And that they would just do their shows themselves and keep our audiences, it was just people who did not belong here with… and the owner of this club that just didn’t understand what this is about, you know? And they thought they were going to beat Second City and destroy Second City which was, you know, should not be a goal.
S. Salis: Of course, yes.
C. Halpern: So… so what had happened… you know, and I found out I was thrown out of my own place that I was renting. I was so sad because I thought these people were friends, you know? And Del said, “Oh but honey, isn’t it wonderful that we gave them something that they loved so much that they were willing to stab us in the back for it?”
S. Salis: (Laughs).
C. Halpern: You know, so he would just be able to do that to me all the time. I would just break down laughing hysterically. And… and he would just make everything so positive and wonderful. So I think he had that kind of an effect on me. He had an effect on me as a teacher. Sometimes I see a scene and I go, “Okay, I think this is what I would do to fix it,” and then I learned from Del, “Just go way out, way over here. Think totally different,” because he had such a different mind. So I would be able to go, “What would Del do?” And I would come up with some crazy idea like, “Here’s what is going to make this scene work.” And it’s never what I used when I originally thought it was going to be. And I told that to Del. He said, “I used to do that with Paul Sills. I used to kind of channel him and go, “What would Paul do here?’” And so I think he made me less fearful, he made me sure of what we have, you know? We have something amazing here that people will love and want and it’s…
S. Salis: How do you think you changed Del?
C. Halpern: How did I change Del? Just… just to help him learn how to live on this planet, because I’m pretty sure he’s not from this planet. I think they just dropped him off and said, “Here, you take care of him.” But, you know, like when I first met Del, he was living in a roach infested apartment. He had a stack of mail and I’m not exaggerating, it was like this whole size stage and it was all piled high because he never opened his mail. He had his money in a pot box
S. Salis: Oh!
C. Halpern: In a glass of pot. And I would say to him, you know, “Why do you have your money in a pot box?” he said, “Well, I can’t have a bank account.” And I’d say, “Why?
“Because if I had a bank account and I was walking by the lake and it fell in the water, I would never be able to get my money back.”
“That’s not true”
S. Salis: It doesn’t work like that; not necessarily.
C. Halpern: You know, so I helped him open a bank account. I got him out of that apartment. I helped him to learn that he could actually eat in his apartment because it… you can get a place that isn’t roach infested; I mean, roach infested. I mean, if you pulled out his dental floss, there’d be roaches. I mean, it was everywhere. Because Second City would enable him, make him go home and drink, you know, and not care about him. And that’s where he was living for years and years and years. And he had all these books so he thought he couldn’t move because it would be like moving a library. I said, “I will get people and we will pack up your books. You can observe everything we’re doing,” and I got a really nice place right across the street for me, which was… with a fireplace; it was just beautiful.
S. Salis: So he was one of these comedic geniuses…
C. Halpern: Who could not function.
S. Salis: Who could not function…
C. Halpern: Yeah, because he didn’t have a phone, because, if you watch the President on TV, he would get mad at something he said he would call and threatened his life and then he’d go to jail; so he can’t have a phone. I mean, these were all logical… so I was like, “Okay,” so people would call me and I would give you messages. But then I showed him like, “You can live in a nice clean place. You can actually cook, you don’t have to have roaches.” He used to sit at the edge of his mattress on the floor with a wrench and turned this old broken TV, turned the channel with this wrench. And that’s how he’d watch TV, sitting forward like this. So I got him, in the new place, a bed with a study pillow and a new TV with the remote. And he sat there with laying down with a remote control and he couldn’t believe it.
S. Salis: I heard there is a movie in the works.
C. Halpern: There is.
S. Salis: Can you tell me anything or..?
C. Halpern: I can’t tell you much because, you know, nothing signed and I don’t know what she wants to say. There is somebody big…
S. Salis: Okay.
C. Halpern: … who is writing a movie about me with some other people. It’s… it’s something I wrote first about Del and it’s being changed; and it’s… it’s now about me and Del. And…
S. Salis: So it’s in the works.
C. Halpern: And somebody very major is writing, producing and directing; it’s not production, it’s just being…
S. Salis: We’ll see what happens.
C. Halpern: We’ll see what happens. I’m told maybe a year or 2.
S. Salis: I’ve heard different stories about you giving shelter to needing improvisers sometimes…
C. Halpern: Yeah.
S. Salis: … for years. One of these people is Dave Pasquesi; he shared that. And I met another couple. But how do… how do you… it seems to be a recurring theme of you supporting these characters.
C. Halpern: You know, it’s people… I, first of all, saw that they were brilliant. And…
S. Salis: Mm-hmm and. Yeah, I don’t want to crowd your home now…
C. Halpern: No, no, no, no, no! And… and I absolutely love them and it just kind of happens. It’s not like anyone said, “Hey, can I live with you?” Dave was living out of his car. And a friend of ours was in the hospital, we both happened to be visiting her at the same time, and he was one of my top performers so he was on Baron’s Barracudas. And he asked her if he could take a shower in her hospital room and she said, “Oh, are you still living in your car?” and he said, “Yeah, I’m living in my car.” I was like, “What! Living in your car!” he said, “Yeah.” I said, “Well, Dave, I have a second bedroom. It’s a den with a pull-out couch. Just come with me,” he was like, “Really?” he goes, “I will be the chef.” He’s a good cook. He goes, “And that will be my payment to you,” I said, “Yeah, good!” So I had like a butler chefs, and we had a blast! We had a wonderful time! And then it happened years later that Adam McKay, who won the Oscar for Big Short, he was one of my top performers; he was in the family, big famous team. And one day his parents called him and said, “That’s it! We’ve given you a couple of years in Chicago, you’re not famous, you’re not making any money and we’re not supporting you anymore. You gotta come home.” And he came to my house with tears in his eyes to say goodbye. And I said, “You cannot leave,” he said, “Well, I don’t have any money, you know, I keep getting fired from jobs,” because he’s oversleeps. And he said, “I can’t stay,” I said, “Adam, you are going to be so big someday.” I said, “You stay with me, live with me, I have a pull-out couch. I guarantee you within the next year or 2, you’re not going to have any money problem.” And within a year, he was hired by Saturday Night Live.
S. Salis: Speaking of which, you are known to regularly select some performers to audition for Lorne Michaels.
C. Halpern: Yes, mm-hmm.
S. Salis: And in some occasions, we see them on SNL shortly after that.
C. Halpern: Very often. I have a very good record, usually to a year.
S. Salis: How does that happen? Like is there a specific season of the year like the Lorne Michaels seasons at the end of March, the Lorne Michael season happens and he calls and says, “Charna, I need 5 refresh ones,” and you line him up?
C. Halpern: Well, it’s a process; you’re mostly right. What happens is, he comes June or July.
S. Salis: Okay.
C. Halpern: And he doesn’t give me any notice and he always feels that…
S. Salis: He just appears! (Laughs).
C. Halpern: No, no, he’ll call me and say, “I’m coming this weekend.”
S. Salis: Okay.
C. Halpern: And it could be a Wednesday.
S. Salis: Okay.
C. Halpern: So I have learned to be prepared. Because the first time he did that to me, I was like up for 3 days straight, seeing people day and night, trying to figure out what to do.
S. Salis: Of course.
C. Halpern: And I thought, “Okay, that’s a good lesson.” So now what I do, and in fact I’ve just started…
S. Salis: You keep an ongoing list.
C. Halpern: I start every… now every Wednesday in March and April in May and June, I see 15 people every Wednesday night for the next few months. And then at the end of the auditions, which will probably be in early June, I go over all my notes and I pick the top 15 and then I sit and wait for Lorne to call. And then Lorne will call me and say, “You’re going to kill me but I’m coming in 2 days,” Then I’d go, “I’m ready!”
S. Salis: “I learned by now!” (Laughs).
C. Halpern: That’s exactly it. “(unclear) [23:07] I’m already ready.”
S. Salis: How did you get in touch the first time?
C. Halpern: He called me.
S. Salis: Oh, he called you and it was like, “I know what you’re doing and I would like you to… do you have any suggestions, ideas between..?”
C. Halpern: They’d just sit down and they’d say, “Put up the people you want me to see. Put up the people that you think are ready.” And because he’s hired Amy and Tina and Mike Myers and Chris Farrell and Rachel Dratch and David Koechner and in the little list goes…
S. Salis: I want a full list now. A full list would be impossible but it’s name dropping time. Let’s make a little of…
C. Halpern: Cecily Strong, those I just mentioned, Horatio.
S. Salis: Horatio Sanz.
C. Halpern: And I know I’m going to forget people. Chris Redd, Luke Null, Alex Moffett, those people all came from here just last year. He just flew somebody out this week but I can’t talk about it because…
S. Salis: Of course.
C. Halpern: … he hasn’t even coming here yet but it’s somebody he like last time so he flew her out again for some reason. He really trusts me now. It’s like… it seems like he always… if I say, “This is a really good writer. This is a really good performer,” you know, he’ll ask me opinions, you know, and then he flies people out and then he hires people. So I’m saying, every year, I have a very good track record. So he… he likes the iO training; he really does. And he said that because one time he said to me, it was the best compliment, “I have a lot of agents now that call me and go… because they all know…”
S. Salis: Of course.
C. Halpern: “They come here they want their clients up on stage and they aren’t people that I’ve worked with. So the agents will say, ‘Will you please put this guy? I’ve got this great guy, he’s so funny, he’s so wonderful,’ and they get mad because I say, ‘No.’” And I told Lorne… so I told him and I said, “These agents are calling me now. They think I’m the gateway to SNL. I don’t know what to do. Like I’m getting people mad at me.” And he shook his head ‘no’ he said, “No, you tell them I’m looking for the iO training.” A number of years ago where I had a group, my musical group, The Deltones…
S. Salis: And by the way, allow me to interrupt you for a second, because the very first time I visited in Chicago in my life was in 2011. I just landed here, the reason was to take some improv classes. And I was jet-lagged and my friend was living in Chicago told me like, “There is a show you need to see tonight.” And I came almost from the airport to the old iO, I sit down and I see The Deltones, with my even more broken English. (Laughs).
C. Halpern: (Laughs).
S. Salis: And I… at the end of the show, you know that feeling of somebody that has never seen something improvised before in their lives? It was that for me, plus it was this improvised musical. And I think Blaine…
C. Halpern: Swen.
S. Salis: It’s Blaine Swen, was on stage and I still remember a song about a sad clown that he sang 8 years ago. (Laughs).
C. Halpern: Isn’t that amazing? That’s what really affects you. There are things that certain people did that I can remember too to this day, but I can’t remember somebody’s name that I just met. But the Deltones auditioned for him. They were… you know, because we teach you to be giving to each other, to take care of each other. And I imagine that when people normally in other theaters an audition for Lorne, they’re like all grabbing that stage time. They want to be seen, they want to hog that stage time. And so like Lorne said to me, “I’m so amazed at how giving they were to each other. Like everyone just kept handing the focus to each other because that’s just so unusual from what I usually see. Usually they’re grabbing.” And I go, “You know what? If you ever say anything to me that’s the most important thing that I could ever hear from you, that you recognize it; because that’s what this place is all about.”
S. Salis: I am Simone Salis and this is Hoomans. You can listen again to this conversation on hoomans.org and subscribe for free on your favorite podcast app. Today’s guest is Charna Halpern, a businesswoman and co-creator of the long-form improvisational format, the Harold. You’re not exclusively a teacher, you’re not exclusively a writer, there is something that impresses me which is your ability as a businesswoman. I want to recognize that for a second because you took something that was existing on some level as short form games and, you know, even the ability to promote yourself with the firefighters and the police, you said earlier, with that charity event. And growing it up from a small group of people playing together and sharing… sharing ideas to this theater, I’m here, it’s at least 4 stages more with an event space. And how many thousands of students do you have?
C. Halpern: You know, I don’t know. I don’t know why but I’d have to tell you that you’re right. I mean, there was a time there was like 8 of us on stage and 5 people in the audience, you know? And every time somebody from the audience would join the class and then, you know, 4 people would never come back again. So from the outside begging people to come in, yes. So… (Laughs).
S. Salis: Because the point is, you’re successful in this field and it’s theater and it’s improvisation and it’s something that most people struggle with and are not able to… to sustain it; to sustain the art form or just to sustain it as a business. So what has been the successful business model for you with the iO and what allowed the iO to… to grow throughout all the years? What is the successful improv business model?
C. Halpern: Well, Adam McKay would tell you, because I’ve heard him say that I’m the most tenacious person he ever met; and I think that’s a big… one of the key things. I mean, so many people will start a theater and then give up because it doesn’t… it does take a long time, you know? I’ve… I was thrown out of like 14 different places and never did I say, “That’s it, I quit.” I was just always like, “Come on folks, we’ll find a new place.” And I think the reason is because I loved it. I loved it so much, I was doing it also… you know, I was an improviser, I didn’t want to stop. So it wasn’t like, “I’m going to…” I never set out to be a big businesswoman. I never set out to train all the stars. I never set out to have my own big theater, I just wanted to play. And I just wanted to have a place to do it and be the boss so that I could play as much as I want.
S. Salis: You are the sole, only owner of the iO so far?
C. Halpern: Yeah. It’s all been my own money, except I did take a loan for this building. But… and yeah, there were people who wanted to be partners and I just…
S. Salis: You never… why?
C. Halpern: Because I don’t… I want to make the decision.
S. Salis: You want to be in charge of the decisions and so far you proved to be pretty… working out pretty well.
C. Halpern: Right.
S. Salis: But, I mean, was it just shows sustaining you?
C. Halpern: No, it was the school.
S. Salis: The business model itself was the school.
C. Halpern: And, you know…and at first, like I said, I used to teach in living room when I first started ImprovOlympic doing games, you know, I would just throw… it would to bucks each, I’d throw the money in my drawer. And then one day, I opened my drawer and I had all this money and I thought, “Okay, there’s something… I’ve seen what’s going on here. This is where you make your money this… it’s the classes,” you know? And so that’s when… when I met Del, everyone had to study with Del. And then I slowly realized… and then actually Del said to me, “I want to be able to do other things,” because new people would always be coming in. So you’d have a bunch of new people and then a bunch of old people so Del would have to keep going back and making sure all these people could agree and connect and do all these things and then move on. And it… and he finally said to me, “You know what? You know what I’m doing now. You know how to do this. So I want you to run a different night because I want you to still take my classes. And a different night, I want you to teach all these things that I’ve been teaching. I don’t want to have to teach them anymore. I want to do new stuff, you know, so you make sure that they all agree. You make sure they know how to connect the ideas. You make sure… you make sure they could do scenes. You make sure they could even do a basic Harold. Then I’m going to go on and do all my crazy stuff that I never did.”
S. Salis: And explore and invent.
C. Halpern: Yeah, and do rituals, whatever it is he wanted to do. He goes, “But I want them to have a certain amount of knowledge before they get into my class,” so I said, “Okay, because I don’t want to yell at anyone for not agreeing.” He goes, “That’s gotta be second nature,” I said, “Okay.” So then I started my classes and then he had his classes and then more people were coming in and then suddenly I realized, “Oh my god! I have to teach a few more classes and Del has to teach a few more classes. Wait a minute? We gotta get another teacher in here.” And then suddenly, you know, the school was building and I was just, you know, it was where it was making money.
S. Salis: So you just… so di you like step by step..?
C. Halpern: Step by step, I was learning. I was learning as I went along, “This is… this is what’s happening.” And then suddenly I had more than one team; I had 2 teams, 3 teams. I needed, you know, more stage time, I was paying… I was paying more money to because now I needed a rent work nights, you know? But you had to do this or you got more people playing so I knew that people wanted to play and they had to kind of learn it first. So it was all kind of like working hand in hand. Then the audience would pay money to get in. But I was one-woman show. I mean, I would even… I would do the training center out of my kitchen.
S. Salis: Okay.
C. Halpern: I would… because I had no office. I would emcee the shows, after the audience proceeded and if some audience members were late, because I would also do the box office.
S. Salis: Okay.
C. Halpern: So people would walk in and didn’t pay, I’d say, “Just sit down, I’ll get to you in a minute.” (unclear) [32:02].. shows, go collect the money. I mean, I did everything. And then people would say to me, “Charna you’ve got to divide up some of the responsibilities. You can’t do this all.” And I didn’t have the money to hire people but people would help me in the box office and help… I did the lights. I did everything. I mean… then I took care of Del.
S. Salis: Well covering every role allows you to have a great picture to understand the great picture what it’s like then creating a business or something like that.
C. Halpern: Yeah.
S. Salis: But I feel like the successful businesses in this field are, you can count them almost on one hand. It’s you, the Second City, the UCB… And the UCB…
C. Halpern: And UCB came out of me; I helped. So, you know… I mean, they were… for a very long time, UCB was one of my shows upstairs, you know? And they used to be stickers all over my green room.
S. Salis: Are you a spiritual person?
C. Halpern: Yeah. I’m not religious.
S. Salis: Okay.
C. Halpern: I just believe in other things. I’ve had some strange experiences with Del, even after he died. You know, when Del died, I’ve always wanted to know, of course most people do, if there’s something on the other side. So I told Del, “Please come back and visit me if you can, you know, any way you can to let me know if there’s something else.” And he said, “Okay, I will.” And I think he did in many ways. And he also went to see Dave Pasquesi. Dave called me and said, “I have a question for you.” I said, “Yeah,”
“Did Del have a sebaceous cyst on his… on the back of his hand between his thumb and his forefinger?” I said, “Yeah. Why?” He goes, “Del visited me tonight and he said, ‘Goodbye my friend,’ and he shook my hand and I noticed the cyst, because I have one like it so I knew what it was.” He said, “So I thought that was pretty interesting.” So I said, “Oh, were you dreaming?” he said, “No, I wasn’t sleeping. He walked into my bedroom.” So now… and I’ve had many dreams with Del, you know? Here’s the thing, I live alone and so when Del died I said, “You know what? Don’t come to me if I’m alone, I’ll be very stern. But come to me some other way.”
S. Salis: Do like Lorne; call a few days, 2 or 3 days before.
C. Halpern: Because he’d notice I had somebody over, exactly. It’s like the second… the first or second day after he was dead I had a dream that was checking my voicemail, phone machine at that time, and it was, “Hello, this is me. This is very interesting, there’s some kind of a holdup; we’re here still. I get to see everything that’s going on. I get to say goodbye to people.” He said a few other things about things he saw happening at the theater, which were true. And then he said, “I know you know this is me… me, but I want you to know this is real; anon.” And so I woke up thinking, “It’s not a real; it’s not real, it’s just a dream.” But then I thought, “Well, what if it is how they contact you? You know, I don’t want to piss him off. Jesus! He told me to come back.” And then there were a number of dreams I had that, actually, if you read Howard Johnson’s book ‘Funniest Man in the Room’, he actually documents something that happened to us with his wife and me. I don’t know his wife, Laurie, but Del was friends with Laurie.
S. Salis: That also happened too…
C. Halpern: And I had a dream that Del was with me and he took me shopping first. And he said, “You could buy anything you want,” and I was like, “But I can’t, I don’t have any money,” and he said, “But what do you have?” and I said, “I don’t know.” And I walked outside and it was… there was a choir singing, “Hark the herald angels sing,” and he was laughing going, “Hee, hee, hee!” Then I drove him in the car to this building. And this building looked like a flat motel with a circle drive. And he said, “You can’t come in but I have to get out here,” I said, “Okay.” And then the next night, I had another dream I was in the car with him and I drove him to this same hotel… motel. It was like a… it was just this awful place. And he said, “They said you can come in tonight,” and I walked in. And he said, “I want to show you something,” and you show me the back of the building. And I saw all the trees and the sky everything looked like Earth but glossy, real shiny and glossy. He said. “Isn’t that cool?” I said, “Yeah.” And then he took me inside and it look like a YMCA like men walking around, just men with towels on and he had this awful little room with 3 beds and 3 desks that belong to other people in him. And I said, “This is where you are?” he said, “I’m only here temporarily,” which is what he said in that phone message, “I’m here temporarily.”
S. Salis: Okay, so he repeated the same…
C. Halpern: He repeated, he goes, “I’m only here temporarily to get to say goodbye to people.” I said, “Oh, okay,” you know, that was it. And then, gosh, about 6 or 7 months later, I got a call from Howard Johnson. And he said, “My wife Laurie has had this dream a few months ago and she telling me I have to call you because it’s just bothering her because Del asked her to tell you this in the dream.” I said, “What?” Because he… she had a dream that she was with Del in this really awful place, she said it looked like a YMCA and a terrible building. And she walked into the room with him and there was just all these men and this bunch of beds in one room. And she said, “This is where you are?” he said, “I’m just here to say goodbye to people. And please, please tell Charna you saw me here.” It took a while but she decided she had to tell me.
S. Salis: Of course.
C. Halpern: And I said, “Holy cow! That’s exactly my dream!” And I brought Mike on the phone, I said, “Did I not tell you that dream?” he said, “Yes you did!” So that’s why Howard wrote it because I have no what… Laurie would have no way of knowing. And he said to her, “Please be sure you tell Charna you saw me here,” so that’s pretty weird.
S. Salis: How do you frame… if you even try, sometimes, you know, we try to frame and to understand those phenomenons are those things that happen in our lives and we try to give it a meaning or something. But this is an event and I believe that you probably just took it and acknowledge that it happened in your life. But do you see it in a bigger picture? Like do you have a personal understanding or vision of God? I’m always interested in that because every person I’ve been talking to, they don’t necessarily see an anthropomorphic figure for God but they have… they have an understanding of force or something like that.
C. Halpern: I think there’s something greater than us. You know, I used to say that I didn’t believe in God but then it would always scare me when I said that. So I think I’m a little scared to say that; so I believe in something. And I also believe it’s a big force, something that we’re all connected to. I think there’s, you know, good people and bad people. I don’t know; I hope there’s something else beyond this life. I think that this life is such a miracle, there’s no reason why there can’t be another miracle.
S. Salis: Or this can be the miracle itself? (Laughs).
C. Halpern: Yeah, I don’t see why not. This is such a crazy thing that we’re even… we have this, you know, that we even exist.
S. Salis: I want to ask you one more question about your goals because David Pasquesi told me something a while ago. He was like, “At some points, you know, it’s it really important to just ask yourself what you want an answer honestly, without lying to yourself which is the easiest thing to do. And then start to…. you know, and sometimes the answer is like, ‘I want money,’ and that’s okay. And sometimes it’s like, ‘I want to become a better performer,’ and you need to take the first step and you start to do that.” What do you want now? What is your goal now? You’re an accomplished woman that created a successful business and is spreading a system of belief for performers, what is your goal now?
C. Halpern: Well… well, one of the reasons I wrote that movie was as I wanted our story told. Now, I love what I have. And I… and also I have to also preface this by saying, everything that I have, I never planned; and it’s like improvisation. I’m here because of some paths I followed. So I can tell you, “I want this,” but God knows what’s going to happen; something else wonderful could happen. My movie could happen, I might write another movie and, you know, who even think you do something like that? I would never think that just like I would never think I was going to write a book or have a theater like this or create some of the biggest stars in the world; you know, I would ever think that. So who knows what’s going to happen? What I would want though, I would like to eventually get a place, somewhere quiet with lots of land and rescue more doggies because; because that’s a big thing for me, I rescue dogs and I work with Animal Care and Control. Just a place where I can have lots of dogs; some dogs aren’t being killed. I want to continue inspiring people. I want people to enjoy this place the way they always did in the past: happy to work, we’re happy to have a stage, we’re happy to work together and share with each other. And there was this love back then; I hope that’s still, here I want it to be here.
S. Salis: I am going to just… just try to let, you know, that there is somewhere a little bit. Because I asked you for some advice on coming over and keep studying improvisation here in the United States and you were like, “I cannot specifically help you, but you can try one thing, you can try to ask to Thomas Middleditch,” and you gave me his contact. And he was just starting in Silicon Valley and… and his career was taking off and I was like, “He’s never going to be able to reply to me.” But I wrote him a long letter and he replied with like a pages long letter, taking the time and explaining how he actually ate Subway sandwiches every day, one per day, that was always food and the effort and the struggle that he put in; and Thomas taking the time with all this happening to give advice. So… and that touched me.
C. Halpern: That’s kind of cool.
S. Salis: I just want to thank you for being here with me and with everybody else listening today because you shared some important parts of your private life and all your projects and what you created through the decades.
C. Halpern: Thank you.
S. Salis: Thank you so much. Charna Halpern, today on Hoomans.
C. Halpern: Hey! I’ll be the crowd, “Yay!” (whistles).
S. Salis: (Laughs).