Talking Del Close and the Early Days of Chicago Improv with SNL’s Alex Baze
This is the first in a series of columns and interviews in which I’ll examine improv comedy and how it affects the comedy scene in general. I’m saying “comedy scene” because even I don’t even know what I mean yet.
One thing I’m going to do is talk to comedians working for high profile shows/movies and seeing how improv affected their careers. This interview is with Alex Baze, the producer of Weekend Update for Saturday Night Live. In the early 1990s Baze was on the improv team The Victim’s Family at the ImprovOlympic in Chicago (today known as iO) along with Rachel Dratch, Adam McKay, and Miles Stroth.
Although he’d end up leaving improv behind in the mid-90s, Baze’s tenure at the Improv Olympic overlapped with one of the most fruitful periods of Chicago improv. Writers and performers for many shows and movies — in particular Conan O’Brien and Saturday Night Live — came from the improv groups of Chicago of that time.
What is your improv background?
I guess it starts with college where I was in a weekly sketch show called, “Comedy Corner.” This was at the University of Arizona. I got sucked into that through an acting class and did it all four years. No improv, it was all written sketch. Well, no intentional improv.
Supposedly, I don’t know if this is true, but “Comedy Corner” is supposed to be the oldest weekly comedy sketch show in the country, as far as universities go. It’s been running for thirty-some years now and a couple of people have come out of there. Pete Murrieta, he went on to be a head writer and executive producer for Wizards of Waverly Place. I think we graduated the same year and he went straight out to Chicago and I followed him out a year later after trying to teach high school for a year.
I took one level at Second City, signed up for level two and my check bounced. So they booted me, or they made me wait another go-round. I didn’t want to wait and somebody had told me about Improv Olympic and that was a good option, you could get more stage time there, it was less of an institution at the time. So I scooted over there, and found all of that to be true. I was on stage doing shows for audiences within a month and probably doing a couple shows a week. It was a lot of turnover, you would get on a team and it would blow up and everybody would go to a different team. I don’t remember how long it took for me to get involved with The Victim’s Family, which by the way I think was initially called In Lieu of Flowers…[Laughs]
In Lieu of Flowers?
Yeah. I don’t think that name even lasted two weeks; someone wisely decided Victim’s Family was a little punch-ier. And I remember it being: Rachel Dratch, Adam McKay, Miles Stroth, and me.
I did shows at Improv Olympic for three years solid and I just lived there. I did shows, I took classes, if I wasn’t doing a show I was hanging around watching somebody else do a show, I was just really immersed for a long time.
You were working with people, yourself included, who ended up being big players in the comedy world.
Absolutely. We were not aware of it at the time but there was certainly a confluence going on in Chicago at that time. Improv Olympic was really finding its methods and its voice. It was drawing a lot of people. Almost everybody who writes for Conan O’Brien was at Improv Olympic at the time I was. Brian Stack and Brian McCann and those guys. Andy Richter was around. Some of the people I work with at SNL came through shortly after I did.
Now all these people are doing these respected comedy things, but what did it feel like at that time?
At that time it sort of felt like we’re, forgive the expression, “making it up as we go along.” There was a lot of enthusiasm and not a great deal of focus. There were people who were doing shows at four or five different theaters and everybody knew everybody, everybody was drunk all the time, and everybody was fired up on Del Close. A lot of us took classes with him and he was a very inspirational dude who really walked the walk. And all we knew was that we really wanted to do it and we really wanted to be good at it and people just went after it with gusto. And I learned, I think when I was in LA, that what was going on in Chicago, that flavor of improv other people in other cities were calling Chicago Strong. [Laughs] It was like an improv flavor. What UCB does now is like a distilled version of that, like an Assscat show.
And what are the characteristics of that?
Just so rapid fire, big, powerful, fast. It wasn’t about slowly building a scene like Second City was teaching at the time, where you might get your first laugh three minutes into the scene. This was more about, “Give me the spot light, I got one!”
You seem like a pretty self-effacing, demystifying person in the way you’re describing things but the people who were studying improv during this time and who were studying with Del Close usually are sort of filled with the religion of it. Were you ever like that? Were you ever swept up?
Oh sure. I think we were rushing headlong into it, making a million mistakes and learning it really quickly and it think it’s having it in the rear view mirror now in a lot of years to think about it. Like I think the rush of embarrassment from all the mistakes kind of brings about this sort of self-effacing thing. Like, oh we weren’t geniuses. It wasn’t a bunch of comedy geniuses walking around. It was just a bunch of really enthusiastic people who learned the hard way and now are like, “Oh my god, can you believe all the mistakes we made?”
How did improv affect you?
For me personally it was huge. I grew up in a Roman Catholic household on military bases and there was one way to life your life, as far as I knew. And I went to college and I learned that there’s other viewpoints, but then going to Chicago I had never seen enthusiasm before, pretty much. And certainly not at that level. And you just get swept up into a community and you know there are, I wouldn’t say quite religious aspects to it, but certainly a “We’re all in this together” feeling. And the tenets of improv, the “Yes, And” that supporting other players instead of stealing the spotlight, all really informed a worldview that I did not grow up with. So it definitely changed me in huge ways.
How were you good as an improviser and how were you lacking?
I was probably on the low end of the scale as far as the courage went. It drew more courage out of me than I knew I had, but I was still pretty mid-level compared to some of these guys. I mean, being on stage with Adam McKay, it was like getting punched in the face in front of fifty people. [Laughs] It’s just non-stop, you know? The guy’s brilliant and he’s got a thundering voice, he’s a huge dude, so I didn’t have his courage but I gained more than I had before in my life.
What were your strengths? You got put with some good people so Charna Halpern (owner and artistic director of iO both at that time and now) must have thought you were top of the line.
Yeah, I think I was good at keeping one eye on the audience and I was very good at feeling what they were feeling. I was good at feeling like, “Oh, they feel like this scene has gone on too long” Or “They’re feeling like this has gotten too dirty” and I could move in and try to clean up what I thought they wanted. I was very empathic towards the audience when a lot of the performers would’ve been happy to do a three-hour show and fuck the audience. And I was very good at standing on the back line and noticing things. It’s funny, I was there at the same time as [Conan writer] Brian Stack and he and I got categorized together a lot because he and I were always the guys who noticed when some stupid improviser walked through the coffee table that we established earlier. Or noticing that there was a lamp on this side of the stage and we would go back to the lamp where everybody forgot the fucking lamp because they thought of a joke. We were very detail oriented and sort of the quieter guys.
What was good about being on The Victim’s Family?
Well the best thing about it was we were made a house team, which meant we got to perform more, and that was the best thing. That we could always expect to be on stage, whereas a lot of people had maybe one show a month or maybe once every six weeks, we were definitely up every week and if for some reason we wanted to do more we were welcomed to. So we just logged more hours I think. And like I said, just the three of us that were definitely in it for a while: Me, Adam McKay, and Rachel Dratch were so radically different from each other style wise I’m sure we all learned from each other. I learned to do a little bit of what Adam can do with ease.
So in terms of like, having courage and having a commanding presence?
Just being able to take some big swings here and there, which was not my best thing. I was like, “Oh maybe I can try that, it seems to be working for him.” Maybe I could pull some charm from Rachel Dratch and her ease with audiences and her ease on stage, I could pull from that.
Yeah she has a real poise and a natural comfort on stage.
Yeah there were many shows where after the show she was like, “I don’t think I said anything funny” and we were like, “Ummm yeah you got a lot of laughs, but yeah I think you’re right, I don’t think you made any jokes.” [Laughs] Whereas Adam was just a joke machine and I was somewhere in between. But it was great to be on stage. You definitely see a bunch of different styles when you’re in a school like that, but to be on stage with them and dealing with them I think it’s a lot easier to absorb what they’re doing and find your own version of it.
Yeah I see people on improv teams absorb each other’s powers a lot.
And sometimes to their detriment.
When you got to Chicago, what were the big improv groups that you watched and were like, “Holy shit these guys are good?”
Well it was Blue Velveeta at Improv Olympic. [Ed: Blue Velveeta was Kevin Dorff, Mitch Rouse, Jay Leggett, Susan Messing, Brendan Sullivan, Brian Blondell, Brian McCann, and Tommy Booker.] They were the one and only house team and they must have performed five nights a week. It was mindblowing. I had never seen improv and it was mind-blowing, like watching David Blaine do card tricks like, “How the fuck did they do that?”
This is late 1990 when I got there. It was Blue Velveeta and whatever was going on at Second City, usually the E.T.C. stage. I could not get into main stage, it was crazy, but you could always got to the E.T.C. stage and see what they were working on and that was equally amazing.
Was there a work ethic at all with The Victim’s Family? Were you guys rehearsing at all?
Yeah Charna had set it up so that every team had a coach. And our coach was Kevin Dorff. He was already kind of a mini hero and then he became our coach.
So that’s prestigious to get him as a coach within that world.
Yeah it is and he’s just really smart and talented and he is a teacher by nature, I think. So he was a great dude to be around and he had a great deal of enthusiasm about improv as an endgame as opposed to a stepping-stone. That was a big topic at the time, is improv an art form or is it a method by which you can write something. Is it a tool or is it a show?
And what did Kevin think?
Kevin was a big believer that it was a show and that you could perform improv as a piece of art.
What did you think?
I thought… he was right! That was Del’s thing too. Del sort of painted himself, I don’t know if this is true, but Del sort of painted himself as the first person to believe that it could be the endgame. And I guess it’s sort of hard to argue with him at this point.
Everybody mythologizes Del Close, what do you think when you hear that? Do you agree?
I do agree. He definitely walked the walk.
When you say he walked the walk you mean he definitely lived his life like an improviser or what?
He did. He was in his late 50s when I was taking classes from him and he had a shitty apartment and slept on a futon and all he ever did was hang around Improv Olympic, watching or teaching, never really performing. His classes were so insane. It was a three hour class and sometimes he would tell two people to get on stage and we would just do scenes for three hours and get notes from him and then sometimes he would come in and say, “Did I ever tell you the time that John Belushi and I did acid?” and he would just tell you stories for three hours and nobody would get on stage. You’d be like, “What the hell just happened?” But it was clear that he just had unfounded enthusiasm for this form and it was contagious. He was a charismatic guy.
If you’re stepping on stage in Del’s class to do a scene, what are you thinking you have to do?
You know it’s weird; you really had his implicit permission to fuck up and fail and fail and fail. So you felt no sense of pressure. What you had to do was agree. Somebody said, “Hi, I’m the mayor” and somebody else would go, “Hi, Mr. Mayor!” and that was it. [Laughs] All you had to do was agree and keep moving. And he would rarely stop and any time you would close the door on something, he would go nuts if you said no to something in a scene.
I guess Del always seemed like this scary figure to me, like this hard to please guy who wants to see magic happens and he inspired people so much that years after taking his classes they’re still talking about it. So I’m imagining thinking you have to blow him away with something.
I never felt that way. I never felt that kind of pressure in his classes. If you denied someone he would stop the scene but if you were good about it you’d do a little two-person scene for three minutes and then you would get the notes and he would always first tell you what was good.
The first 85% of the notes were always, “That was great that you did that, it was great that you came over there, I’m glad you sat down at that point.” And then he would finish with, “That other thing was terrible and you shouldn’t have done that, but you probably know that. And sit down, now two more people.” [Laughs] But you definitely felt that you had an overwhelming urge to please the guy but that had more to do with him being really charismatic and when you did please him it would just really pay off, he would go nuts with joy. That’s what you were after.
Do you remember doing any scene that he liked?
Not a scene but I remember one time we had a class, and of course you have a built in audience when you have a class, so we asked the audience for a suggestion and someone said, “Fork” really loud and someone else in the back said, “CIA” really quietly and I’m not sure if anybody heard it and we started doing our little opening about forks and everybody was talking about forks and I just at one point screamed, “Secret Bombings” really loud. Because I couldn’t believe that nobody had heard “CIA” and that delighted him to no end, which I’m not exactly sure why still but I think he was just glad somebody was paying attention and heard that person?
You also picked the more interesting suggestion.
I think so? That might have made him happy too. But he would not stop congratulating me for that.
When you watched Conan, especially like in the late-90s/early 2000s, it’s just like watching people you know, but just doing their stuff on television, right?
Oh yeah. I mean I was still in Chicago when Conan came and found Andy Richter and then hired up a bunch of Improv Olympic guys. I remember that being the first, “Oh shit, this is viable. You can move from this to a career.” And then shortly after that is when I think Adam McKay got hired to SNL. And that’s when I was like, “Oh we’re not just fucking around over here, this works.”
Did you go through any disillusionment with improv? I see that a lot with people who do that for a long time. They get so in that there’s a backlash and they’re like, “Oh it’s all bullshit. I was wrong.”
Not really. I certainly came around to realize that it wasn’t exactly for me when it came to the end game. It basically helped me figure out what I wanted to do. I knew I wanted to be in comedy, but I didn’t know what that meant really because I hadn’t seen much of it besides sitcoms. There’s no comedy troupe on an Army base. So it sort of taught me which way to go. Like I’m standing on the backline thinking to myself, “Oh that person should have said this, it would have been much better.” It was like oh, I’m standing here writing, I’m writing when I supposed to be focused on this audience. I slowly moved me into the right place. And I’m sure there are people who just get up there are like, “Alright improv, move me to the right place!” Because they can’t find it or figure it out. And I couldn’t give you a percentage but I’m sure there are a lot of people who shouldn’t be there and are just chasing the wrong thing. So I don’t blame improv for anyone’s disillusionment.
You first left Chicago for LA in 1993 or thereabouts. Why did you leave?
A friend of mine and I wrote a sketch show and we decided we were going to take it to LA for some reason. [Laughs] And that sort of unraveled…
Which friend, what show?
It was my buddy Scott Coopwood, who was not involved in improv. He was a serious actor, but I was pretty sure he was funny [laughs] but it’s still debatable. We wrote really post-collegiate, politically half-aware, really strident sketch show. It was like two and a half hours long, it was super preachy, you know looking back on it, it was pretty embarrassing. But at the time we were pretty sure it was good.
What was the name of your show?
The Absolute Truth.
The Absolute Truth?
Yeah, so that should give you an idea. [Laughs] We thought it was funny, “because of course there is no absolute truth!” Ha ha ha. But we never thought how that looked on posters. It also vaguely sounds religious, which I’m just now realizing.
Yeah, you sound like a fringe church trying to get people to come to your services.
Right. If learning from your mistakes is the way to go, we were boldly rushing out and making lots of mistakes. [Laughs] So it was very educational, but not until many years later when we could break it down with our grown up brains.
Were you done with improv forever at that point?
We were out in LA for like a year trying to get people interested, I guess. I wasn’t so into the business part of it but my buddy Scott was really trying to get famous off this thing. Oh the earthquake, the ’94 LA Earthquake happened and most of us just left town. You know, I had no stake in LA. I was like, “Oh this is bullshit, the earth doesn’t hold still, I’m not staying here.” [Laughs]
I really didn’t know what to do with myself so I went back to Chicago, thinking I was going to get back into the improv scene, and it was just an unrecognizable landscape when I got back. There were all these new people and it felt like they were 100 times better than we were. They were sharper and I just ended up never really getting back into it. I think I did a couple of shows here and there with some teams, but at that point I ended up focusing more on trying to make some money. It sort of petered out; I think my interests just switched to writing. I guess maybe I felt like I had learned everything I could from improv or maybe had stage fright, which was true. So I was like, “Alright maybe I’ll just go out to LA and try a get a comedy writing job.” So I was out there for nine years and then I finally got a job and it was in New York, and here I am. [Laughs]
You did it in the opposite order. You developed stage fright after performing for years.
Yeah I did. I’ve done one or two staged shows in the last year or so and it’s just the most terrifying thing in the world. I can’t even imagine how I used to do improv.
Yeah, it’s a strange phenomenon. I don’t know what happened. Being on stage just really does not interest me anymore.
What year did you start with SNL?
This is my eighth season so that would make it like 2003, I think? Yeah, right about then.
Did you have any big writing jobs before getting SNL?
No, I was waiting tables out in Louise’s on Larchmont in LA. Yeah I submitted packets but I was kind of lazy about it, I have to admit. I wasn’t chasing it very hard. I had an interview with MadTV and I remember that the guy who interviewed me was wearing leather pants and I thought, “Oh I’m not gonna get this job.” Which is probably great that I didn’t. But that didn’t work out. And finally Adam McKay, who encouraged me to submit to SNL, which I didn’t think I was ready for but he was like, “Yeah, submit,” so I have him to thank for actually making the move.
I would think that you actually had pretty good contacts.
Yeah I think it was that Catholic military upbringing that was like, “Don’t use contacts, make it on your own!” And I was like, “Oh right, it’s show business, there is no other way in.” [Laughs] Forgot about that.
How much of your current comedic voice was shaped by your time in improv? Or was it already in you? How much do you do you identify as a guy who learned what he is doing in Chicago?
60%? I think if you drag yourself from Arizona and move to Chicago and work shitty jobs so you can do this thing, there’s already something in you. And I knew there was value, as a child, in being funny because that was the only thing that broke the tension in the house, you know? Like, “Oh, this is a thing I can kinda do. So let me take it somewhere and see what I can do.” And then you get to Chicago and a lot of your pre-suppositions get shot down and other ones get installed. So yeah, 60%.
That seems like a reasonable number. Are you different from people who came strictly from stand up? Are you different from people who came directly from sketch? Does it give you some kind of priority or perspective that makes you different?
I think absolutely so. I think it’s the most cooperative way to do comedy. You have no material. The first thing you do is walk on stage and look into somebody else’s eyes and try to figure out what the fuck to do. So it did help me get better at working with people rather than working with them top down. You shared your successes and you shared your failures. Whereas stand up, I don’t know how people come up through stand up with just your audience as a sounding board. But I have to say it is interesting working at SNL because there’s people coming from stand up, people coming from sketch, every variety there is. And it’s interesting to work with people who have been stand ups since they were 19 and they bring such a different viewpoint. Only valuable. I find that if I get exhausted with anybody, it’s the people that I came up with. Like, “Yes, I’m familiar with Yes, And, I don’t need to hear that again.” [Laughs] I have that perspective I don’t need it. Let me talk to that guy who came up as a filmmaker, I don’t have that perspective.
Because your job is writing jokes. Your main currency is writing jokes.
Yeah, 150 jokes a week.
And that feels so opposite of a guy who has to build stuff organically on stage.
It is, but you still use the improv skills, you’re just doing it in your head now. But I think the main thing that I learned is how to work an audience. What they expect, what they hear when you say this, how long a sentence should be. All that kind of stuff serves me really well. It gives you a sense of rhythm. You got to field test dialogue with a live audience for years and years. As opposed to someone who’s just writing stuff and watching other people say it, you’ve felt it.
Or as opposed to people who come up from the Harvard Lampoon who have only ever written stuff that was meant to be read. They’ve never heard it out loud or an audience has never heard it out loud. I feel like that’s a huge advantage. Like I know that the audience will be distracted by that word in that sentence. Whereas someone else may not know that. If you say that word they may think something else is going on, so use this word. Little things like that I think certainly help a great deal.
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The Victim’s Family changed its name to simply The Family after one of its members, Rick Roman, died in a car accident. That was shortly before Baze went to Los Angeles the first time. The Family went on to become an even more prominent improv team in the Chicago scene. The main members of The Family were Matt Besser, Ali Farahnakian, Neil Flynn, Adam McKay, Ian Roberts and Miles Stroth.
Will Hines is an actor and writer at the UCB Theatre in New York.