How The Katydids Turned an Improv Group Into the New Sitcom ‘Teachers’
If you’ve had a chance to watch the pilot episode of Teachers, the new comedy coming to TV Land on January 13th, then you know what a treat we’re all in for. The sneak peak episode premiered after the MTV Music Awards in August and is now available on Hulu, Amazon, iTunes and just about anywhere you stream your TV. It’s not only a hilarious and, at times, dark look at the world of being an elementary school teacher, it’s groundbreaking. With executive Alison Brie (Community, Mad Men) backing them up, six improvisers from Chicago, the all female troupe The Katydids, produce, write, and star in the new series. I had a chance to go on set during filming and find out more about how these friends went from performing in the back of bars and small theaters to living their dream and having their own, wickedly funny show.
Tell me how this series came about, and the history of the Katydids.
Katy Colloton: The Katydids were formed by Caitlin (Barlow) and it started at a small theater. Our first show was at The Playground in Chicago. It was just supposed to be a one-off. We actually tried to submit to a show at iO and we got rejected, so we thought, “Why not just do one show and have fun.” We loved it so much we came together a month later and did a couple shows and thought, “You know what? Why don’t we do a run at Studio B.” So, it started really organically and gradually, just improv. Then the Studio B. run was doing so well, Charna [Halpern] offered us a slot at iO [formally Improv Olympic]. We thought, “If we’re going to have a show, we want to promote it.” We liked the idea of doing videos, kind of as a promotional tool. Move from that to doing more and more videos as kind of our main thing.
How long ago were The Katydids formed?
Caitlin Barlow: Seven years ago? I don’t think we know when our first show was.
Katie Thomas: Our first show, I think, was at the end of 2008, like December. Because, I feel like I found emails.
Cate Freedman: This is Freedman here… giving something that’s irrelevant. I think you’re off by one year, because I distinctly remember my boyfriend at the time when I first met you, and I definitely remember when that was. That was 2001.
They all break into laughter.
The videos you did weren’t likeTeachers or anything related to it?
Thomas: No. They were just one-offs, basically. The first three we did were a set of promo videos for the iO run, and then we started doing random ones. We did one about Wrigleyville being torn apart and turned into malls. We did a Beyonce one and we did an “Adults in Tiaras” that was a Toddlers in Tiaras rip off. Then we got together with Matt Miller to work on Teachers [the web series]. There had been another production company that we worked with for a short period that was putting together a pilot with us, that didn’t quite work out. At the time we had gone to Matt, because we all kind of knew him in different capacities and asked if he’d be interested in directing it. It wasn’t a good fit at the time, but he was like, “Maybe something later.” Then later, the idea of Teachers came about and it seemed like a better fit.
That’s so nice to hear. Because, we have these ideas and things we’re trying to do and you get a lot of “Not now” or “It’s not a good fit.” It can be discouraging. I think I speak for a lot of the Chicago comedy scene when I say you’re such a big inspiration, because you’re doing exactly what a lot of us hope to do.
Colloton: And I want to say this, because it’s something I’d just love to say. Technically, this is our dream job and our dream life, basically. And it happened out of a lot of rejection. If we hadn’t been cut from iO, and had the extra time, if I didn’t get Second City, and different things like that — you take all those as rejections, but if those hadn’t happened, we would never had made Teachers, and we wouldn’t have had the time to promote it so well. So, anytime a rejection happens, you have no idea. I just wanted to say that, because it’s crazy. You never know. You never know.
Given that this is your dream. I would love to hear what the best surprise of this has been. Also, what are the biggest challenges?
Katie O’Brien: I think some of the best surprises have been that we have been so fortunate. We have control over everything. TV Land has literally said, “Write what you want.” We were the only writers. “Whatever you think is funny.” They gave us so much freedom to create anything we wanted, which is unbelievable to hand to six people who had never done this before. I think another amazing part of it was getting to work with people like Ian Roberts and Jay [Martel], and Rob Corddry, and Rob Riggle, Alison Brie. Having these people be like, “This is great. We’ll do it!” I think that’s been really cool.
I think things that we didn’t expect or are difficult was that it’s been a lot of work, but it’s been great. But it’s been a lot of work to create this world.
More work than you expected?
O’Brien: I think. Yeah. It was definitely more work. Because, we’re producing it, writing it, and acting in it. So, your brain is kind of all over the place all the time, but it’s a great thing.
Kate Lambert: Yeah, we’re wearing a lot of different hats, so you do have to go into certain modes at some point. Like right now with the filming obviously we’re more in an acting thing, but then you do have to take a back seat when it’s not your scene or even when it is your scene, just to watch from a production standpoint and be able to give each other notes and to see things in the scene that could maybe make it better or to trim things. You’re constantly switching the gears.
Along those lines, what are the dynamics of the group? Do you have certain roles that you play? Did you have to have a big discussion about this at the beginning, “Here’s the dos and don’ts to keep us a symbiotic group”?
O’Brien: Yeah. We’ve always run on majority rules, so if a majority of the group feels one way, we always go that way. There’s no arguing. I think one thing that has given us a lot of longevity is our ability to fight for things that we think are important, but also back down and give in to the greater group. “Okay, four people believe this, two don’t. The two of us are going to back down.” We’ve always kind of worked that way, which I think has really helped us. But yeah, I think we all do wear different hats.
Tell me about these hats!
Thomas: What hats do we wear? Oh geez. We’ve never actually assigned “hats.”
Freeman: It’s so hard to assign hats, because each of us are very good at a bunch of different things, but what we’re good at, we’re specifically good at in such a specific way, that each of us has something different to offer. I think you can really see that reflected in the six teachers we play. We all created these characters. They could not possibly be anymore different from each other. I think that’s pretty rad, and awesome.
Thomas: When we first came together, it was for this show called “Radical Concept” at iO. The radical concept was that we’re all named Katie and apparently that wasn’t radical enough. But we got together to play and one of the first things I noticed is that we all improvised differently, but it somehow worked together. I feel like that could be a recipe for disaster and there was something that just worked with that, so that was really fortunate. The same thing applies to our personalities. Of course we have a lot of similarities and we’re friends, but I think we’re also all very different. We bring different energies or attitudes towards those different hats and it somehow works together.
Colloton: Yeah, I do feel like its kind of lucky. As we’ve gone through this process, some people are really good at big pictures and some people are really good at joke writing. It’s amazing that we had both. Same thing with editing. Some people were really specific about the notes, while others weren’t. As you go through the different casting, or logo, I have no idea how to choose a logo. By having six women, and everyone being smart, and educated, and knowing what they’re doing, inevitably there’s someone who kind of can take lead and say, “I really have a vision for this. I see this. I’ll lead on this.” So I think that’s really great. We didn’t plan that, but it’s been what’s made us work so well.
Barlow: For the Teachers project in particular, I feel like a role that I’ve played is that I actually was a teacher, so I really tried to bring my experiences to the project. It’s been really important to all of us that everything we write, we want teachers to watch and go, “Oh my god, that totally is a thing.” I feel really fortunate that I was a Chicago Public School teacher, so I think all of our writing is grounded in the actual teaching experience.
Thomas: We’re definitely fortunate to have that.
Tell me about where the inspiration came for each of your characters.
They bust into laughter.
Are they all just heightened versions of you?
Colloton: Technically we started the web series, because we wanted heightened versions of ourselves. Because, I play a heinous bitch, I would like to say, it’s gotten altered. Also, this isn’t true for all of us, but it’s kind of your worse. For me, [Ms.] Snap, I can tell you that I liked the idea of being wild. I can be wildly insecure and then usually react inappropriately out of it. When you heighten that enough, it becomes the mean girl bitch who’s just putting herself down to feel better about herself. The root of it was definitely just looking at yourself, “What’s something about myself I don’t necessarily love?”
Thomas: They’ve all definitely evolved into something bigger. We took one step in the web series and this was a bigger one. Because I think part of the concern is that the characters in the web series were maybe a little too similar. We needed to differentiate ourselves a little more, so we kind of took those weird quirks we developed for ourselves and blew them up a little more. Like my character is based on if fifteen year old Katie Thomas was as angsty as she thought she was and never let it go. In the web series I was angsty, but here I’m wearing so much black eye makeup and leather bracelets and it’s totally over the top. It was hard for me, because I was like, “I don’t want to be the pissed one in every episode,” but the show needed that. I think it’s cool how everyone’s stepped up and been able to let go of their own insecurity about their character and been a little more heinous than they want to be.
Lambert: I think the characters have definitely veered away to a different realm, which I think is good for writing purposes. It makes it easier to write for, especially if they’re heightened. Because, they’re just in another world. That’s what you have to have for a show like this, especially with six different characters.
Colloton: One of the coolest parts about the writing process for me, because we spent a couple months developing the web series, and then a couple months writing the pilot, is that we know these characters so well. By the time we sat down to write the series, any situation thrown out, whether it’s “Oh a PTA mom is going to put pressure on someone” or whatever, we would always go, “Snap would do that. [Mrs.] Cannon’s gonna do that.” There was no feeling it out anymore. You throw any scenario or reaction at us and we know every character’s immediate reaction, which was so cool that we’ve gotten to that point.
I hate asking this question, but I feel like it’d be a disservice to not, I’d love to hear your thoughts from your experience on the whole “Women in comedy” thing. This show is a big deal. I don’t know if there’s another show that has all women in all these positions.
Freedman: It’s a really exciting, phenomenal time to be a woman in comedy right now. I’m twenty-six years old. I started comedy very young and lied about my age, and tried to fit in with the adults and all that kind of stuff. Even when I did that ten years ago, I didn’t really know if I saw it as more than a dream that I could say in my own lifetime and in my own career, “It’s really exciting to be a woman.” It’s really special. I think my favorite part about this dream that we’ve all achieved together is that the six of us are women, and we’re friends and we’re doing it together. You’re right, there’s not another show that’s an all female ensemble that started the way we did, does exactly what we do, and does it to the depth that we do it. It’s an incredible, special honor. It’s so exciting. I think our biggest hope is that we just inspire more women to do this and hopefully that’s the case. If not… our bad.
What advice would you give to those who are still aspiring?
O’Brien: The one piece of advice I give to everyone is to always create your own stuff. I mean, I auditioned for Second City, and did a bunch of stuff and never got cast, ever. Yeah, you have to do your own stuff. One thing I always get frustrated with people is people who just wait for things to come to them. A lot of being in this business is creating opportunities and working really hard, and making sure that you create things that work for you, things that you enjoy doing.
Thomas: And be okay with failing. That whole rejection conversation earlier. Do stuff, and then look back later. I think it’s allowing yourself to fail a lot, so you can weed through all the failures and find the things that did work.
Colloton: The thing I always say is to create your own stuff, but then to also find your voice. Because the more you create for yourself, even if you don’t want to be a writer and you just want to be an actor, or you just want to be an improviser, but you don’t want to act, to me the more you create and put yourself out there, the more you’ll find your own voice. Once you know your voice, you’re golden. You can’t find it just waiting for other people to cast you in stuff. You can only do it, in my opinion, creating stuff for yourself. And you will. You will fail a hundred times.
O’Brien: You’ll be humiliated over and over onstage at The Playground, when nobody laughs at your five minutes.
Thomas: Or every commercial audition you ever do in Chicago. Been there! I didn’t get that Payless commercial, but it’s going to happen.
Colloton: I think I went out three or four times a week in Chicago and maybe booked one thing every two to three years, so I really failed.
Thomas: And that’s doing well.
O’Brien: The other thing I’d say is, we just did anything to get noticed. We did so many midnight shows, and shows for no people and solo five minute material. It was constantly doing stuff, because that is how you find your voice is just literally doing it a million times over. You get to this point of, “Fuck it. I don’t care anymore.”
Freedman: Something that is very important to remember, maybe I’m talking about Chicago, maybe I’m not, if someone tells you “No” and your heart tells you yes, fuck that person that told you no. We’re talking about auditioning for stuff or auditioning for certain world famous comedy theaters and such, and I think it’s really important to know that if a crazy, wizard scientist tells you no or tells you, “You’re not good at this” or “You’re not good at that,” you don’t have to listen to that. That is not true. I hope this is for people other than myself. You’re going to hear “no” a lot. Even if you’re like, “These people are probably right. I probably do suck a lot of doo-doo,” move forward. Continue on. Follow your heart and don’t give up. Make stuff with people and be kind to people. Just be decent and it will be okay.
O’Brien: Also, you will meet everybody twice. These are the people that are going to give you jobs. That’s why a community like Chicago is so important. The second you start iO, or Second City, or anywhere, UCB, Groundlings, you will work with these people way down the line. You never think you’ll meet them again, but you should always be kind. Because you’re going to see them again and they’re going to give you work. That’s how this works.
What did you do when you found out Teachers got picked up?
O’Brien: This is a great story. We had done the pilot. We knew that the last week of September we were going to find out if we were going to series or not. We had been told, I think on a Thursday that we’d find out. That Thursday came and went, and there was no call. They were like, “Oh we’ll let you know tomorrow.” Then Friday came and went, and there was no call. Monday we got this email that was like, “Can you talk at 11am or we can talk at 5pm.” It was like, 10:30am. We knew that this was “the call,” so we were like, “Uhh… we’re pretty sure we can talk at 11am.” So, everybody texted around and we couldn’t get a hold of Lambert.
Lambert: I had specifically said, “I am going to sleep as late as I can during the day to avoid waiting around.” I was like, “I’m going to sleep until 11:30am/noon.” So I had made that known.
O’Brien: It was a very smart strategy. We just hadn’t heard back from her. We were calling and emailing and texting friends, “Do you know where she is?”
Thomas: Where the fuck is Lambert?!
Colloton: I called her friend that I barely knew going, “Hi this is Katy Colloton. I just need to talk to Lambert IMMEDIATELY.” It was a psycho message.
O’Brien: We were freaked out. Caitlin and I drove over to Lambert’s house and we were banging on her apartment door, screaming, “We got the call!”
Lambert: By the way, this was all within ten minutes.
O’Brien: She finally came, so the three of us were together and everybody was on the phone. They said, “We’re picking you guys up.” I think everybody started crying.
Thomas: It was completely quiet, actually. Because, we all had it on mute. We do all these insane conference calls. We’re all in different places. There’s like fourteen people on a conference call. We just learned that every time we start to speak someone else speaks, so I think we were all on mute screaming.
O’Brien: Then he was like, because there was no response, “Are you excited?” and we’re all like, “Yes! Yes!” Then we all went to Beachwood Café and cried. We have photos from that when we first found out. We all have no makeup on. I think all of us are in basketball shorts and crying. Sobbing.
Freedman: Sobbing. Holding each other.
Thomas: The thing we kept saying was, “As soon as we find out if we’re going to series, we’re dropping everything and going to Vegas.”
O’Brien: Which we did!
Thomas: Five days later we went for a night and went to see “Thunder from Down Under,” an all male dance revue from Australia.