David Pasquesi: The Art of Paying Attention
David Pasquesi is one of the most experienced improvisers currently performing on stage. He is focused on exploring the moment together with the audience, and not just performing for the audience.
His Chicago and New York based show Tj&Dave—with his stage partner TJ Jagodowski—surprises hundreds every week not just because it’s funny, but for its honest search and discovery of connections that just a moment earlier did not exist. From The Second City to Hollywood, as an actor Dave has has performed for theatre, commercials, movies, and TV shows including Groundhog Day, God of Carnage, Strangers with Candy, Curb Your Enthusiasm, At Home with Amy Sedaris, and many different films directed by Harold Ramis. He was also part of the original group developing The Harold, the first long form improvisation conceived by Del Close in the ’80s and still performed at Charna Halpern’s iO Theater in Chicago. His recently published book, co-authored with Tj Jagodowski and Pam Victor, is Improvisation at the Speed of Life.
"I believe that improvisation is bigger than me. I believe improvisation is taking care of me. We are reacting, honestly, from moment to moment to moment; a story got told: not by us."
— David Pasquesi
Photo: Eleonora Briscoe / Improv Italia
David Pasquesi (guest): I’m not a religious person, it might be illusion; doesn’t matter to me. If it’s real or not, I believe it. I also believe in improvisation and I… I mean, I have that proof; I have the evidence of that. If I do this thing, and then this next thing, and then this next thing, everything else is taken care of and does not require my attention. So I believe that improvisation is bigger than me. I believe improvisation is taking care of me. If I do what I’m supposed to do, improvisation takes care of the rest. And it doesn’t make sense; it doesn’t make sense that there’s a narrative sewn up by the end of this. That doesn’t make sense! Because we weren’t doing that; we weren’t telling a story. We were reacting, honestly, from moment to moment to moment; a story got told: not by us.
Simone Salis (host): I’m Simone Salis and this is Hoomans, with today’s guest: David Pasquesi. David Pasquesi is an improviser who focuses on exploring the moment together with the audience and not just performing for the audience. His Chicago and New York based show, TJ&Dave, with his stage partner TJ Jagodowski, surprises hundreds every week not just because it’s funny, but for its honest search and discovery of connections that, just a moment earlier, did not exist. From the Second City to Hollywood, as an actor, Dave has performed for theater, commercials, and movies including Groundhog Day, God of Carnage, Strangers with Candy, At Home with Amy Sedaris and many different movies directed by Harold Ramis. Now, have you always planned this? To follow this path, to get where you are now?
D. Pasquesi: No, it was… no.
S. Salis: What did you plan to do?
D. Pasquesi: So I grew up in the suburbs, you know
S. Salis: Of Chicago.
D. Pasquesi: Of Chicago; suburbs of Chicago. My dad was a lawyer. My brothers went to college and then my… one brother went to law school, I was going to college. I just figured, that’s what you do; you go to… go to grad school, maybe, become a lawyer; that was it. That was… that was what you do. I’d never really thought about… I never… I never was in a play, never was in grade school or high school; I never was on a stage. In college, I never studied theater or anything like that. I ended up starting, taking an improv class when I was like a junior in college; not in school, outside of school. And that was… my teacher was Judy Morgan who was… used to work at The Second City. And she was fantastic and I really enjoyed. It I was by accident. My brother, Tom, who was in law school, was going to take a couple improv classes so he would be more comfortable in his, you know, moot court it’s called, where they do these trials where he has to be a lawyer. And he wanted to be more comfortable in front of people so he went to take some improv classes. And my mother… I was in college, I wasn’t living at home, she insisted that I go with my brother.
S. Salis: Why?
D. Pasquesi: Because she thought I’d like it. And also I was a bit of a, you know… I don’t know but if degenerate’s the right word, but it’s close to the right word. I’ve been kicked out of a school and…
S. Salis: So you were a degenerate child. And you were studying at Loyola, right?
D. Pasquesi: At this time now I’m at Loyola, yeah; Chicago.
S. Salis: Okay. And you were studying philosophy.
D. Pasquesi: Correct.
S. Salis: So your mom forced you to go to… not forced you, she…
D. Pasquesi: Yes, she did; to go with my brother to this improv class. It was the Players’ Workshop at Second City and it was at Wrightwood and Lincoln.
S. Salis: So you go to… to this improv workshop; the Players’ Workshop…
D. Pasquesi: And there was a group of 6 classes then; that was the whole program. And the 6th class was you study, you write your own material, and you perform it on stage at The Second City on a Sunday.
S. Salis: It was kind of a small version of a conservatory, how it is now, even though there was no such thing.
D. Pasquesi: There was no such thing. And Second City did not teach any classes; it was just a theater. There were no… there was no school, there were no classes. Occasionally, Del would do something on a weekend or Donny Depaulo. Those are the only 2 people that were teaching down there. There was no organized school of any kind. It was a thrill for me to… I would open my eyes to it. I’d never been to Second City. I had heard about it my whole life because I grew up near here. I knew about Nichols and May, I knew about… I’d… but I’d never been to Second City. So then I started; I took these classes. I really liked it from the very beginning.
S. Salis: How so?
D. Pasquesi: I was doing okay at it. I was looking around, I’m like, “I’m holding my own here at something that I have no experience in” and… and that was fun, I liked that.
S. Salis: Is that what made you think it could become your career?
D. Pasquesi: No… yeah! Right now that’s… that’s it! And then I’m back in school, you know?
S. Salis: Okay.
D. Pasquesi: But that was a fun thing and still never considering it as a possibility of something to do. It was just so, you know… that was a fun hobby or whatever.
S. Salis: Okay.
D. Pasquesi: Now… and those skills might come in useful and in the real world, right? And that’s how it was viewed by my folks too, right? That was never… so they were not… they would not think that that was a viable option for a…
S. Salis: Career.
D. Pasquesi: And then I started, I read… the first book I read was “Something Wonderful Right Away” by Jeff Sweet. And I’m reading that book and it’s the history of Second City and improvisation. And I’m reading it and I’m reading… reading, “Oh, there’s this cast at Second City.” And I knew all these guys, I… you know, I was a fan of comedy. I knew Brian Doyle-Murray, Harold Ramis, Joe Flaherty, John Belushi, Eugenie Ross Fleming and Judy Morgan. And I go, “Judy Morgan; that’s my teacher’s name!” And sure enough, that’s where… and I didn’t know; she never said that. But sure enough that was her. She was in one of those, you know… every once in a while through Second City, one of those casts comes along and that was…
S. Salis: Well, you ended up being one of those Second City casts yourself, right? Directed by Del?
D. Pasquesi: Right. It was… the cast was Holly Wartell, Judith Scott, Joe Les, Timmy Meadows, Chris Farley, Joel Murray and me.
S. Salis: Well, after almost 3 decades, are you still in touch? Are you still friends with any of those people?
D. Pasquesi: Joel… Joel and I have been friends for… we met in Rome.
S. Salis: Oh, okay.
D. Pasquesi: We met actually on the airplane over to Rome, going… we both went to school at Loyola, Rome; we… we started goofing off over there. I think we… we did a little talent show together.
S. Salis: Where?
D. Pasquesi: At the school.
S. Salis: At the school? Okay.
D. Pasquesi: Uh-huh. And we would also, on occasion, I’d juggle and he’d sing and we’d make a little bit of money or something.
S. Salis: In the street?
D. Pasquesi: In the street, yeah, and then we’d come home. And we’ve joked… Joel reminds me that we joked over there about, “Yeah, wouldn’t it be hilarious if we ended up…” but we didn’t know each other or anything, “Wouldn’t be hilarious if we both…” you know, “to go work at Second City?” “Yeah, that’ll never happen!” And then we come home and then we end up, the 2 of us. So I finish up school but while that’s happening, we stay in touch and we started performing a little bit. He brought me in. And then he got some information from his brother that Del was starting to teach again.
S. Salis: At the Second City, no?
D. Pasquesi: No, this is a place called Crosscurrents. It’s the organization that now we know as iO; it was Del and Sharna. And she… there was like theater games… and competition; and that’s what it was. But now, Del’s in there. We had nothing to do with the theater game part of it. Del’s just sh… is working with Charna and coming up with The Harold. So Joel and I go and we end up going to that. We have to audition to get into the class. And he says, “Okay great! We’ll take you; we’ll take you both.” And we… we were part of the group that he used to come up with The Harold.
S. Salis: Del Close is the person who turned long form improvisation into business in itself…
D. Pasquesi: …in itself, exactly.
S. Salis: Well, not just business, art; let’s call it art.
D. Pasquesi: Right, but that you would go… until that point, long form improvisation was often or most often just used as a ma… as a material generator that you would then find something within that…
S. Salis: …as a tool.
D. Pasquesi: …as a tool and then find something within that that you would then work on and hone, and then present that as the entertainment. That’s what improvisation… I think it still is an excellent use of improvisation. Del thought in addition to that, that improvisation can… can be good enough with regularity that you can depend upon it to be the entertainment. Bernie was… the suggestion was, “You can’t depend on it. You can’t charge people because it might be garbage,” you know? And it… and the truth is it might be, you know, it’s… it’s improv… if it’s truly improvised, it might be garbage.
S. Salis: So what you were a part of at the time was Del’s experiment to try to formalize some longer form of improvisation, also to make it reliable…
D. Pasquesi: Reliable, right.
S. Salis: … for a result to the audience to enjoy it.
D. Pasquesi: Right. And that was it. Where… to come up… I think that was the idea for him; was to come up with a structure that would make it more likely that there would be a, so-called, successful improvisation, right? You know, that it would be… that it would… that it would indeed explore this theme within a certain structure. Because a lot of times those long form improv…
S. Salis: Do you feel it worked?
D. Pasquesi: Oh, yeah!
S. Salis: Do you feel it worked as a..? Well, the Harold definitely worked. Because it started as a something in Chicago and now you can probably see it around the world as a structure itself and improvisation. But…
D. Pasquesi: It’s unbelievable. When we were on that tour that you helped us with, we went to… we did it workshops in… in Copenhagen and Vienna and people came in from Russia and Slovenia, every single person knew what a Harold was. And now we’re talking about 1984 or 5 or something like that, 20 people on the planet knew what a Harold was. And also the… this, you know, more legitimate acting schools see the value in improvisation as part of their students experience; which they didn’t use to. The buffoons of Second City is how we used to refer to ourselves.
S. Salis: Okay.
D. Pasquesi: But they were just carnies, right? They were viewed… we were viewed as… and we were also not stand ups. Stand ups, we didn’t… so it’s some weird middle ground. And… but also back then, improvisation was a… if you… if that was your interest and your pursuit, improvisation was a guaranteed dead end. So it attracted a certain kind of person.
S. Salis: … including yourself and your brother, at the time.
D. Pasquesi: Yes, exactly! And my bro… well, right. And if your… improvisation as a goal is a dead end; as a tool, it’s wonderful. Like, there was a lot of business folk, a lot of advertising people and stuff that would come to those classes. But somebody who just wanted to do improvisation without another career is just a fool. And that was me and that was Joel and that was all the guys that we started with. That’s… we just loved it! Eventually, Second City came. You know, like the possibility that we might get to work there, that was the only paying job at the time for someone with this set of skills.
S. Salis: You started to study with Del.
D. Pasquesi: Right.
S. Salis: And… and then you were performing their first incarnation of The Harolds regularly.
D. Pasquesi: Mm-hmm.
S. Salis: How was it structured? Was it… it was a longer Harold, right?
D. Pasquesi: It was longer, right. It was…. I think as I recall, we go about 40, 45 minutes, something like that, I think. That’s my recollection. And then one night I think Del said, “You guys are going to do this one in 25 minutes,” and we came down right at 25 minutes. Nobody had a clock on or anything. Like, we just… But so until the Harold, I think long form improvisation, the danger of it is they’d just be these meandering things that would be really cool transitions and transformations and interesting material but they didn’t ever feel like a who… a piece.
S. Salis: And there was no connection or glue in between those.
D. Pasquesi: And no resolution. And so that’s what I think one of the valuable things that the Harold does, we… it’s an exploration of a theme. It’s not merely this structure, it’s… it’s a way in which to… investigate and explore a particular topic or theme. And we’re going to do this through scenes, we’re going to do this through monologues, we’re going to do this through invented games, group activities. And then we allow improvisation to weave it together, we don’t have to do that, it’s going to do that itself. I remembered Del saying, “It doesn’t have to be wrapped up. It’s more… it’s not a pyramid, it’s more like the John Hancock building.” It’s… John Hancock building, it doesn’t reach a point but you know that if you would continue with those lines, it would get to a point.
S. Salis: How do you feel the transformation of improvisation went through in the past couple decades, for example? Because it feels to me that we are starting to approach a cult status for improv. You know, those terms that are repeated in the improv community like ‘Saying Yes And…’ or ‘Being in the Moment…’ lose meaning. There is people that repeat them, but do they actually try to embody them? That’s what I asked to myself. And is that happening with improvisation?
D. Pasquesi: I can’t… I know what you’re talking about and I suspect that you’re absolutely onto something, but I’m not really involved with it at that level anymore. So my experience with improvisation is still my only… my original experience, which is kind of ridiculously idealistic and untainted.
S. Salis: We’ll keep you as the original father.
D. Pasquesi: Thank you. Keep me ignorant. But I do see… I mean the, model the, the successful…improv theater model is to make money off the students, as students, and make money off the performers and never pay out… no money’s going out, ever; money’s only coming in. So that’s the model! We tried a theater not using that model and we failed. We could not keep the doors open. We poured money into that place and we were… all we did, all we were trying to do is do shows that performers got paid. And we weren’t a school and we weren’t a bar; we were just paying performers. And we couldn’t.
S. Salis: I’m Simone Salis and this Hoomans with today’s guest, David Pasquesi; improviser and actor from Groundhog Day, Angels and Demons and To Rome with Love.
S. Salis: When you were younger and you started improvisation with Del Close, a certain kind of people were attractive to this hippie community and everything.
D. Pasquesi: Yeah, almost zero ambition.
S. Salis: That was a requisite; like, you had to have zero ambition. If you had one, you couldn’t like…
D. Pasquesi: If you had any… if you have any ambition, you wouldn’t waste your time doing this.
S. Salis: Did Del have a test; an initiation?
D. Pasquesi: No. It’s like, if you showed up…
S. Salis: That was it; that was the only way.
D. Pasquesi: If you showed up, “Oh you have… you lack ambition; good.” So remember this is a group of people that has never seen a Harold. So we don’t know what it is we’re doing… and fine with it; fine with not knowing.
S. Salis: How did you find the audience to react at a Harold?
D. Pasquesi: So, they were… you know, that’s a huge part of it. And always, with improvisation, the audience is a huge part of it. We found that with TJ and Dave. The support of the audience, the patience of the audience let us do what we wanted to do. If they had, you know, been some audience somewhere else just, you know, scratching their heads or getting up and leaving or yawning, we wouldn’t have… So, I remember at the very beginning of Crosscurrents, we’re doing these Harolds and there was a competition aspect to it that Sharna had brought from the games. And so there would be 3 Harolds in a night and then the audience would vote who did the best job. Her point was that it might engage the audience a little more to feel like they’re participating more, other than just giving the original suggestion. And I remember my dad coming to see one of these earlier ones. And he said to me, “I know… now I understand. I know why you guys do that. But why do people come to see it?”
S. Salis: Maybe he got there on a bad night.
D. Pasquesi: No, no. I understand the… that’s perfect, you know, it’s a perfectly good question; “Why do people come to see it?” Because they’re getting something out of it too; they’re… they are… He’s looking at it as the traditional notion of, “I’m coming to be entertained by you, passively”. And that’s not what improvisation is; it requires the participation of the audience. Either in investment of their attention, at least, or in their suspension of disbelief or… it requires them to participate and lean in and wonder together where this is going, rather than just sitting back and, “Okay, so now it’s your turn to entertain me.”
S. Salis: In TJ and Dave, the improvise show that you performed for the past decade with TJ Jagodowski. Does the audience also have a central part?
D. Pasquesi: Absolutely! Well, it increases the pressure. It increases the possibility of humiliation. If we’re in a vacuum, we’re not going to humiliate ourselves. So it increases the importance of it. We don’t want to do poorly. We don’t want to… we feel a responsibility to these folks to live up to our end of the contract that we have with them, which is for us to behave honestly from moment to moment without any preconceived notions being… notions being shoehorned in. That’s what they’ve signed on for, right? That they’re going to come and watch something that is not made up. And that’s what they’ve signed on for. They’re willing to make that… take that risk of having wasted their money and their time. So if they’re willing to make that risk, we have to live up to that end of the agreement; which is that, we’re going to make this up. Without them, we don’t have to… there’s no contract.
S. Salis: Whoever comes to see TJ and Dave probably knows that it’s a different kind of improvisation that sometimes doesn’t maybe feel the pressure of the word ‘comedy’ as in improv comedy.
D. Pasquesi: Right. We don’t… we don’t ever say it’s comedy. We never talked about it as comedy; we’re going to improvise.
S. Salis: The idea that there is now about improv is the improv comedy that you would find in a college group or that kind of entertainment.
D. Pasquesi: Right, and often has been. Right. Often, there’s an understanding that improv is going to be comedy. And that’s why… one of the reasons that we don’t… we don’t abbreviate it; mm-hmm we don’t abbreviate it as improv. We talk about it, improv is improvisation.
S. Salis: How do you get in the moment? How do you focus exclusively on what you have in front of you and you turn off your brain? Do you have a way to turn off your brain and actually just focus on what’s happening with TJ?
D. Pasquesi: Well, I think that’s one of the things about the audience that’s helpful. I think what we were talking about earlier that the… with them there, it becomes more… it becomes more possible that this is going to go horribly wrong. So because of that, I need to pay attention to him to avoid humiliation. So the idea that I need to pay attention to the other person, the most important person is the other person, the idea, is self…you know, it’s self… self-preservation. Because all the information I need, you have. And also the… I have to trust that, that’s all that’s needed. And you know, I was just listening. Henry Kissinger was saying you had to be careful not to think things in his presence because he could tell what you were thinking. And just an ability to pay attention like that; and I think that’s the kind of thing that we’re doing. It’s not reading minds but you’re given a lot away by the way your eyes are moving, by… So I have to pay attention all that because I have to know what’s going on. That, I think, is the… the job of the improviser; is to pay attention and respond honestly moment to moment, and the rest of it will take care of itself. I have to have faith that my job is to know this moment so that I can respond honestly to it, I’m being clued. So physically I have to… there’s tiny adjustments that you make that I’m paying attention to. And by the way you’re looking at me, I learn all about me and then I have to trust that I’m right.
S. Salis: Alright, I will try to summarize, mostly for myself, just to see if I understood well. You find the stage to be a place where you are put under a positive kind of pressure from the audience.
D. Pasquesi: Yes.
S. Salis: But also forces you to live in the moment and pay attention to your partner and to discover what’s going on without any preconceived idea in that specific moment with a… So you do not walk on stage with an idea. Some improvisers do.
D. Pasquesi: And some improvisation requires that. What TJ and I do requires that you don’t do that. And… right. And something happens because the audience is there; something happens on stage in front of an audience, to my brain, that doesn’t happen anywhere else. What I liked about improvisation from the beginning, that’s it.
S. Salis: This is the kick that you get out of it.
D. Pasquesi: Something… my brain works differently when I’m on stage in front of people than any other time; and I like it.
S. Salis: And you find some freedom, I guess, in having to worry about nothing else but the…
D. Pasquesi: Oh, absolutely! I don’t have to worry about the checkbook. I don’t have to worry about, you know, the kids. And I have to worry about, you know, that the doors in the house need fixing. And I can’t!
S. Salis: Is there something peculiar through TJ on stage that allows you to do this process?
D. Pasquesi: Well, yeah. And it’s happened with other people before. Joel is another one; I get on stage with him, we know each other so well that it’s… we did a show now long ago and the 2 of us just got on stage and people thought it was a really good show or it could have just been a conversation. But we weren’t… it wasn’t… it wasn’t true, but we know each other so well that when the facts weren’t real but we know each other so well that we can behave totally naturally in any situation with one another. And I think that’s what I found with TJ. And it was we… you know, with Joel, I’ve known him for so long it’s understandable but with TJ, from day one we didn’t know each other and we were able to… I think because we’re both interested in paying attention like that and both believe… believe that improvisation can be this also.
S. Salis: Do you find that to happen in your life? Sometimes you have a chance to meet a person that you never met before and it’s not love, it’s not like love at first sight or something, but you realize that there is some kind of way to interact that is probably more productive and profound in empathy; like, it sounds like you have that with Joel Murray, Bill Murray’s brother, and his own person. We shall not define him…
D. Pasquesi: First of all… First of all, he’s Joel Murray; also Brian Doyle-Murray’s brother.
S. Salis: There are many siblings; many Murray siblings. But that… do you find that to happen and do you think it’s possible to learn to recognize that or is it just a retrospective like a justification that you in yourself..?
D. Pasquesi: Oh, no! We knew at that very beginning. It was like it was weird, “This seems unusual that we’re able to communicate this well.” And I think it’s only from paying attention that closely. And I used to say after the first year of our shows, “I know TJ… I’ve known TJ for exactly 52 hours,” you know? Because we didn’t really hang out much outside of that. We’d get together, we’d do these shows and for some reason we were able to communicate in a way that is unusual. Now we know each other, of course we…
S. Salis: I had a chance to see you before a show when you’re exploring a new space. As soon as you arrive in this beautiful theater, you… you start to walk around and take long strides because you’re what 6’3”?
D. Pasquesi: Mm-hmm.
S. Salis: They were very long stride.
D. Pasquesi: No, it’s just…
S. Salis: No, incredibly long strides! Just let me paint this picture of you almost flying from one side to the other of the stage. These… these ginormous strides!
D. Pasquesi: Superhuman.
S. Salis: Superhuman strides! You just started to walk around the space; around the perimeter. You walked for about 1 or 2 minutes without saying a word, in complete silence, through the stage, diagonally. Then you stopped and you say like, “This is beautiful! I feel it and I feel the energy of this space. It’s so beautiful!” How does that work? Well, how does the space influence your performance? What is your relationship with a space?
D. Pasquesi: It’s… yeah, it is. It’s, you know, discovering that too while… while it’s going on. It’s, you know, some people talk about, “Oh, I just block out the audience. The audience isn’t there,” that’s not true; the audience is there. That would be silly for you to think the audience isn’t there; that’s a lie. The audience is right there. I don’t have to pander to them. But I do recognize that they’re there and I… they give an awful lot to us. It’s a kind of… TJ talks about it as being a kind of a selfish relationship that we have with the audience; we’re taking a lot and we’re not giving anything back.
S. Salis: And you’re paying no tickets.
D. Pasquesi: Right.
S. Salis: They’re the ones paying the ticket.
D. Pasquesi: And so, like the audience, the space is also there. That… there is really that crack in the floor. There is really… when I look over TJ’s shoulder I see that the room back there. So that’s one of the reasons that I walk around; to get used to… I don’t want to be surprised by any of that stuff that I… that I’m… I’m not going to be… that I’m going to have to try to imagine isn’t there.
S. Salis: You also sometimes turn your back to the audience. And most teachers in theater and improv usually use the whip when… when an actor does that on stage. Did any teacher ever tell you that?
D. Pasquesi: To don’t do that?
S. Salis: To don’t do that.
D. Pasquesi: Oh gosh, yeah! All the time! That’s what teachers tell you, “Don’t turn your back to the audience”. But our show’s a little different in that, we don’t know how it’s going to be; we don’t have the luxury of blocking. Our belief is, “The responsibility of the actors to behave honestly.” And to behave honestly is not always a pretty stage picture; and that seems dishonest. For me to be talking to you, the both of us looking straight out, is unrealistic and also unhelpful. I need to get all my information from you. So I have to look at you all the time. I cannot afford to not be looking at you. And so we… that f**** up a stage picture sometimes; I’m going to have to have my back to the audience if I… if I have to be able to look at you the whole time. And that’s more important. That is far more important for me to look at you than for the audience to have to look at my ass. And you know what? It’s… lucky them.
S. Salis: Yeah, exactly! I’m going to guess that this is also the reason why you don’t announce names or facts with your lines during a conversation between your character and TJ’s. Like, “Please, could you pass me that glass of water, Mark?” which I would never say in real life.
D. Pasquesi: Right, it… right, weird not… and again, there were, you know, there’s different situations that call for different things. We… we have the luxury, TJ and I, and Joel and I, have the… in certain ways of improvising, you have the luxury of not having to get all that stuff out right away. “Tell me doctor, you said the results are in,” that lets everybody know everything right now. And some people think that that’s a good idea, right? That’s a good idea if we need to set up a joke. We need to know, I’m the patient, he’s the doctor and there’s going to be some results. And now we can give them some wacky results, and there’s our joke. That’s helpful for a joke; it’s not helpful for improvising. And even if I find out that I’m the patient and you’re the doctor and there are results, we’re in no better shape now; we still have to improvise. That’s not helpful! I still don’t know how I feel about my doctor and we still don’t know what my doctor thinks about me. I still don’t know how scared I am about these possible results; those are the important things. And I can have all those important things without any of the labels or facts. I can still be frightened about what you’re about to tell me and not have a doctor-patient relationship.
S. Salis: Is there anything that you want to explore intentionally on stage sometimes; like a feeling or something?
D. Pasquesi: Not that co… not that comes in before.
S. Salis: Okay.
D. Pasquesi: But yes, if something… something presents itself on stage, seemingly unrelated to what we’re talking about, but if all of a sudden I’m horribly anxious… I will definitely try to figure out what… what that’s about within the scene. Because that’s the paying attention that’s again, just paying attention; paying attention to everything, paying attention to me well.
S. Salis: I’m Simona Salas and this is Hiimans. You can listen again through this interview on hoomans.dot org and also subscribe through your favorite podcast there. Today’s hooman is David Pesquesi, a performer with almost 4 decades of improvisational theatre experience and also after in TV shows like Veep, Strangers with Candy, At Home with Amy Sedaris and much more.
What helped you the most to be and feel a better performer on stage when you were just starting?
D. Pasquesi: There’s no better teacher than being on stage in front of an audience. And an audience of a workshop is one thing, but if… but an audience of people who have paid to see you is a different thing; it’s… that’s better.
S. Salis: You told me once to look at what one wants from themselves in a specific moment. You say…
D. Pasquesi: Without judgment.
S. Salis: Without judgment, right.
D. Pasquesi: So, yeah, what… what do you want? What are you looking for? Right? What is it you want to do? Do you want to be… for instance, do you want to be on TV as an actor? Do you want to be on TV? Nothing wrong with that, but know what it is you want. Or do you want to do a play? Do you want to… do you want to become a better improviser? All those things are different. If I… if I’m pretending that I just want to be a better improviser and going about doing that but what I really want is to be on TV, I’m going to be dissatisfied, at best, and probably useless to those around me. But because I’m going to improv… I’m going to improv classes and I’m improvising on stage, what I really want is to not be here and so it’s miserable for me and for everybody else. I… if I want a job on TV, I should make sure I’m doing what I have to do to get to achieve that end. This doesn’t happen to be that. I remember talking to somebody one time and they said… I asked them that question and they said, “Oh, I want to be… I want to do a play on Broadway.” I’m like, “Well, you cannot be here in Chicago; that’s a physical impossibility. That’s stupid for you to be here if what you want is to be on stage on Broadway.”
S. Salis: So listen to what you want, have no judgment…
D. Pasquesi: No judgment on it!
S. Salis: … and then go to Broadway if you want to go to Broadway.
D. Pasquesi: That’s right!
S. Salis: So step number one: go to Broadway!
D. Pasquesi: Yeah! Right! Go to where it’s possible, right? And the same thing about television; if you want to be on television, how… you know, and also, how do you want to be on television?
S. Salis: Do you do that yourself?
D. Pasquesi: Always! And it changes all the time! Sometimes I… I always… I want to do a play. Okay, I should go about, take the steps to make sure that happens. I want to get a TV job. I want to get a film job. I want to… sometimes I need to make money. You know, sometimes that…
S. Salis: And no judgment with that!
D. Pasquesi: No judgments! That’s f***ing, you know, I happens! You know, that’s absolutely what need… what needs to happen right now. That’d be great if I could make money and I have fun.
S. Salis: If I want to make money and I’m an improviser, and I want to do both things at the same time…
D. Pasquesi: That’s silly! If what I really want us to make money and what I’m going about is improvising, that’s… that’s not helpful; it’s counterproductive.
S. Salis: What did you want when you were still in school? As soon as you started, what did you want in your early 20s when you were..?
D. Pasquesi: Wow! I didn’t know; I honestly didn’t know. When I first started improvising the stuff?
D. Pasquesi: For… did not know; didn’t know what I wanted.
S. Salis: What is the first thing that you realized you wanted?
D. Pasquesi: I want to be better at this like… improvisation, with Del. And then also I… like, I made a decision to stop the regular life.
S. Salis: What is the “regular life” for you?
D. Pasquesi: For me, it was a day job in like real-estate, and the notion of going on to business school. And I had applied to business schools and I was accepted to Kellogg in Northwestern. I just quit all of it and lived on my friend’s floor, started doing stand-up and going to class with Del. And that was… didn’t go over real well with my folks!
S. Salis: How did you feel about the decision to abandon the regular life? Were you… you were scared, right? Or uncertain, at least?
D. Pasquesi: I remember seeing a bum in the street; it was at the corner of North and Welles right by the… by the newsstand. And there was a guy… it was winter and there was a guy sleeping, literally sleeping, in the gutter. He was… and I… and I said to myself, “I… this is a… if I continue on this path, that is a real possibility.” And I said, “Okay.”
S. Salis: You are ready to accept that?
D. Pasquesi: I’m ready to accept that! But also, it was like, “I got to watch out because that is a real possibility.” So I find… I… without attention, that may well happen; so I have to… I have to watch out.
S. Salis: So now you live in a wonderful place in Old Town in Chicago. It wasn’t improvisation specifically to allow you to not end they’re.
D. Pasquesi: You’re talking about making money?
S. Salis: Yes, I’m talking about making money]! So sometimes, “I want money,” is not I want money, it’s “I need money”.
D. Pasquesi: Yeah, I need money! And I would love for it to be… I’d love to make my money by making really cool stuff. That’s not always the case.
S. Salis: I was… I was trying to be cryptic…
D. Pasquesi: Yeah, no, it’s not always the case.
S. Salis: … and use euphemisms about that.
D. Pasquesi: No, it’s not always the… I can’t… so I had an uncle who was a writer. He was a newspaperman for the Hearst papers here in Chicago and he was a crime guy. But he also wrote plays and he was a pretty wise man. And he said that, “What you do for your art and what you do for your bread and butter are not supposed to be the same thing. Those are separate and you should keep them separate because otherwise you start to resent them both.” So I make money and I do what it is that I love doing. Sometimes they’re close but they are not… they are not the same thing and they’re not supposed to be the same thing. I make income and I make what I love.
S. Salis: So improvisation is your love and… and what has been your income?
D. Pasquesi: Now, I’m real fortunate that I got… I used to get hired a lot to do voiceover.
S. Salis: Mm-hmm, commercials…
D. Pasquesi: Commercial voice-over, do the voice of radio and television commercials, and I am eternally grateful that I got to do that. And that was because I lived in Chicago. Chicago used to be a huge Center for post-production for commercial work.
S. Salis: And advertising in general, right?
D. Pasquesi: Right.
S. Salis: What do you want now?
D. Pasquesi: Hmm, uh… huh… I still love improvising; I’d like to do that more. But I like… I like working. I like working; that’s what I want to do. I want to work more; I like working. I like… out of each different kind, I really enjoy doing voiceover work. I enjoy doing TV stuff, I enjoy writing and shooting our own little stupid, you know, web series things. There’s another web series I’m working on, helping some folks with writing. And… and I enjoy all that.
S. Salis: What’s the name of that show?
D. Pasquesi: That is called Special Skills with Patrick Webb and Marina Squerciati; they’re wonderful. And the other… the other thing that we did was the Graveyard show…
D. Pasquesi: … with Krystal T and Ron Eliza ready.
S. Salis: And the music by Ike Rilley.
D. Pasquesi: Music by Ike Rilley! Ike Rilley’s fantastic! And there’s a show that I want to… that I’m trying to make with… with him!
S. Salis: What… what comedic references do you have? Like, do you have any comedian that you love?
D. Pasquesi: Yeah, the The Marx Brothers, Peter Sellers as an actor, Cheech and Chong. I just met Cheech a few weeks ago and it got me thinking. I’d like… so… I see your poster of Lenny Bruce. I… when I was a kid, I didn’t listen to Lenny Bruce, I didn’t listen to Carlin; I listened to Cheech and Chong and I… I just thought those guys were fantastic.
S. Salis: How was meeting him?
D. Pasquesi: I behaved like a fool; like a little… a giddy schoolgirl. It was great; he was great guy. But yeah, I think the Marx Brothers, Keaton and those guys… you know, they’re just… they’re… I enjoy Woody Allen… also your show, Sid Caesar and that gang. And again, that group of people, that writers room is f***ing unbelievable and that cast was great; Howard Morris, Carl Reiner and Imogene Coca and just fantastic! The… you know a huge influence of mine? The Second City and all the people that came before me.
S. Salis: You mentioned Nichols and May…
D. Pasquesi: Nichols and May, Alan Arkin, Mina Cobey, Del, Severin Darden, Howard, Fred Cass, just fantastic people. You know and then that other gang that I mentioned in the… in the 60s-70s, you know?
S. Salis: Do you still do stand-up?
D. Pasquesi: I do!
S. Salis: You do?!
D. Pasquesi: I do a little…
S. Salis: Where?!
D. Pasquesi: Well I was… I opened for Emo Philips at Zanies last… last August. And then I was just in Atlanta, I went up and did a little thing.
S. Salis: What themes do you like to touch with that?
D. Pasquesi: About… I really find that I talked quite a bit about f***ing.
S. Salis: You talk a lot about f***ing. Okay, we’ll leave it…
D. Pasquesi: No… and actually I did start to do a little bit about the…
S. Salis: Political?
D. Pasquesi: A little bit, yeah.
S. Salis: Do you feel that the past couple years pushed you towards experimenting and thinking more about like in sharing your thoughts about that?
D. Pasquesi: Well, it’s what I’m thinking about now, right? Which I didn’t use to. I’m used to be… you know, deliberately uninvolved. And, you know, that’s… isn’t possible anymore. And also because of things like, the reason I mentioned, your show shows, they never attacked an individual, right? They weren’t allowed to because of standards and practices. They were… there was regulations that you couldn’t talk about ‘Cardinal so-and-so’, you could just say ‘a cardinal’, right? And so you had to keep everything generic; which is, I think, more interesting. Bernie used to talk about that too. We don’t want… you know, we don’t want to have impersonations. We want to show that person at home.
S. Salis: Yeah, in a… in an everyday setup…
D. Pasquesi: Exactly!
S. Salis: … that allows us to bring him down or her down…
D. Pasquesi: Exactly!
S. Salis: … bring them down to a level that is the same as us.
D. Pasquesi: Right, and show a different side of him, right? Like, you know, he’s a… you know, real hard-ass; that’s all we know him as. And he’s just this, you know, frightened little boy; a frightened little boy.
S. Salis: Are you a spiritual person?
D. Pasquesi: I am a spiritual giant.
S. Salis: You’re a spiritual giant, not a person. Are you still human or..?
D. Pasquesi: I’m not a religious person.
S. Salis: Do you… did you grow up religious?
D. Pasquesi: I did; I grew up as a Catholic.
S. Salis: Roman Catholic.
D. Pasquesi: Yeah, I did a gr… went to Catholic grade school.
S. Salis: When did that stop? If you’re not a currently a religious person…
D. Pasquesi: As soon as I was able. And, you know, this… I also flirted with joining the seminary. And…
S. Salis: Well Loyola is a Jesuit school…
D. Pasquesi: Loyola is a Jesuit school.
S. Salis: … and you graduated there, right?
D. Pasquesi: I did. I… I have friends who are in the clergy and it’s just not… not something… that I see a benefit for me.
S. Salis: And what was step number 2? You decide that that is not for you as soon as you could which…
D. Pasquesi: Right. Then, you know, you co… you grew up in a certain religion, that shit’s in there deep. So that takes a while to get out; that’s in there deep! The… a real big one is that condemnation of… you know, of a Overlord; yeah, that I’m… that some Overlord hates what I am and what I’m doing.
D. Pasquesi: You know, there’s a cloud of, “Oh, I’m ne… I’m never living up to what I…” and it doesn’t even have to be horrible s***. It’s like, “Oh, I didn’t do enough today. Ugh!” you know?
S. Salis: Did you have any phase after abandoning that in which you decided to not care about it or that you rediscovered some… some sort of spirituality?
D. Pasquesi: I suppose. You know, I was always looking. I’d be studied philosophy in school and, you know, along with that religion. I enjoyed that too because I also took a lot of drugs and I found…
S. Salis: Let’s make a list.
D. Pasquesi: Yeah. I mean… but I also found some experiences within that, that I… were awfully pleasant and unexplainable! And so I think that there is, you know, the… it might be illusion; doesn’t matter to me. If it’s real or not, I believe it. That it… I like when I believe it. I’ve hanged around a lot of atheists; really f***ing vocal, fundamentalist atheists. And I can’t possibly prove anything. I also believe in improvisation and, I mean, I have that proof. I have the evidence of that. If I do this thing and then this next thing and then this next thing, everything else is taken care of and does not require my attention. So I believe that improvisation is bigger than me. I believe improvisation is taking care of me. If I do what I’m supposed to do, improvisation takes care of the rest. And it doesn’t make sense; doesn’t make sense that there’s a narrative sewn up by the end of this.That doesn’t make sense, because we weren’t doing that; we weren’t telling a story. We were reacting honestly for a moment to moment to moment. A story got told, not by us; the idea that we are both participants and passengers while we’re improvising.
D. Pasquesi: So… so , yeah.
S. Salis: So that’s this…
D. Pasquesi: It’s outside of us also.
S. Salis: Do you ever see yourself from outside when you’re improvising, like with a third eye?
D. Pasquesi: You know, you try, right? That’s what you’re told to do. That was one of Dels suggestions.
S. Salis: Oh was it?
D. Pasquesi: “Put an eye in the back of the room…”
S. Salis: Okay, I didn’t know that.
D. Pasquesi: “… always,” yeah. “While you’re improvising, I’m looking at you, I’m looking at me and then I’m looking at us. Because I need to know all of that; I need to know what this looks like.” But not often just like an out-of-body kind of thing. Once in a while… I mean, I remember… I still remember one occasion back when the early Harolds where that happened to me. Like, “Holy s***! I know what’s happening! I know what’s about to happen!” part of me is thinking that. “I know exactly what’s going to happen,” fascinating to me.
S. Salis: Yeah.
D. Pasquesi: And then it was true!
S. Salis: And what was your reaction to that… to this…?
D. Pasquesi: Just sheer delight. Just sheer delight; just… I imagine there was a ridiculous looking grin on my face.
S. Salis: Alright. Thank you Mr. David Pasquesi. It was delightful today.
D. Pasquesi (in Italian): Grazie tanto Simone.
Simone (in Italian): Prego moltissimo, grazie per aver partecipato. And this was because I’m Italian, in case you didn’t hear throughout the whole show.
S. Salis: David Pasquesi is one of the most experienced improvisers around who was also part of the original group developing The Harold; the first long form improvisation conceived by Del Close to be enjoyed by audiences as an enclosed structure. He’s on stage in New York and Chicago with TJ Jagodowski in their show, TJ and Dave, and you can also see him in VEEP on HBO and At Home with Amy Sedaris on truTV. His recently published book co-authored with TJ and Pam Victor is ‘Improvisation at the Speed of Life’.