TJ Jagodowski and David Pasquesi first came into town from Chicago in 2003 to perform "TJ and Dave" at a couple of the local improv theaters, blowing away improv regulars and longtime performers alike with their two man show, the closest thing most people had seen to a legitimate, improvised one act play. For the last three and a half years, they've had a run at the Barrow Street Theater, where they've been able to draw theater crowds beyond the usual improv comedy variety. Their show has been described by a Chicago weekly as "an hour of subtle character development, verbal facility, and pantomimic agility that anticipates and plays off the audience's reactions" and by our own John Del Signore when he reviewed it as "a boldly imaginative high-wire act." This weekend they'll be performing it at the Barrow Friday through Sunday.
This weekend also finds the pair at 92Y Tribeca where they will be screening a documentary made about their Barrow Street show, "Trust Us, This Is All Made Up." The pair talked to us about the difficulty of bringing improv to film, why their style is the opposite of DIY and how their trips through town have a way or crossing paths with both drama and drag queens alike.
You guys come to town for the weekend every couple months to do your show. What's the adjustment to New York like?D: Well a couple of years ago, I got brought in to audition for a big shot filmmaker and it was a big thrill. A car came to get me at the airport. I'm feeling like I'm on top of the world. So at some point, I tell the driver, "You know what? It's a lovely day. I'm gonna go out and walk these extra couple blocks." I get out and I'm on top of the world and I stop to wait for the light. And there's a guy across from me in the passenger side of a work van. I'm just standing there and he's about three feet away from me. And he just says to me, "Nice nose. Fuck you." And off he drove. Makes me warm all over just thinking about it.
Do you both have families back in Chicago?D: I have the trappings of a family. I have a wife and two kids here in Chicago...that I live with. TJ: I am unwed, but I live with my brother in Chicago. The rest of my family is back in Massachusetts—in Holyoke, Mass. So they'll come visit. They'll take the train down and see the shows in New York usually. My mom literally loads up a van of 40 to 50 people—they'll load up a bus. My dad will cook up a bunch of snacks and they'll drive in during the day, all go out to eat in Little Italy, see the show and then go home. So these people ranging in age from 19 to 82 get back home at 4 in the morning and then drive home from the Holyoke Mall parking lot. They rally.
I've often thought TJ and Dave sounds like a fun buddy cop picture. Do you guys have a favorite buddy cop movie? D: They're not both cops, but if I had a favorite, it would be Midnight Run. TJ: Freebie and the Bean, I guess. James Caan, back in the '70s, one of the first supercop movies. "Hey, you guys. You gotta follow the book. I'd fire you except you're such great cops. Boy, you're mavericks. I've got the commissioner's foot up my ass. And the commissioner's got the mayor's foot up his ass. And the mayor's got the president up his ass." D: "This town's up to its armpits in dead supermodels!"
What's the greatest compliment you guys have ever received from another improviser? D: I stayed awake the whole time. TJ: I have a buddy now, Tim, who started coming to the show at the beginning of the Chicago run, so seven years ago now. And every once in a while, we'll recount a show pretty much top to bottom. So when he was touring with Second City, someone who was touring with him would say, "Oh my God, you don't know how often he would get in the van and recount the whole show for us on the drive." And to recap an hour-long improv show for people who didn't see had to be freakin' torture. But as an improviser who I respect so much, that he still has so much fondness and recall for that, that would be one of the highest.
D: And also really that improvisers and just folks I admire come and come back. They're not there out of duty, they're there cause they genuinely seem to enjoy themselves and there's a big compliment just in that. It's easy to get tired of improvisation when you're doing it and watching it and teaching it all the time. And they choose to watch our show and that's an honor.
Do you have any favorite improvisers here in New York? TJ: Most of my favorites have just recently left New York, but I love watching Kevin Dorff play. I love watching Scott Adsit and Brian Stack, Amy Poehler, (Jack) McBrayer. I knew the Chicago transfers a lot more than I know the New York folk. D: Lutz, Ali Farahnakian. Last time I saw him, he was doing a sketch show. He fuckin' cracks me up. TJ: Gethard—I like watching Chris Gethard a bunch.
What has led you to coming to New York to do this show on a regular basis versus doing in LA where it seems like it would be more pragmatic for your careers? D: Well, Los Angeles is a shithole. I don't think I'm letting the cat out of the bag on this one. Also, what's pragmatic and what's good for career doesn't often factor into our decision making. It's a horrible place. The crowds are not the same there. One of the things about New York audiences—this shows is heavily dependent on the participation, support and interest of an audience. And we find that here in Chicago and there in New York and don't find it in Los Angeles. The crowds are there for different reasons.
Have you guys ever considered taking the show on the road, touring with it? D; We have been around to different festivals to varying success. If people don't know what they're coming to, they're sadly disappointed. Especially at a comedy festival...especially at a comedy festival, especially at a comedy festival in another country just north of us in a theater off the beat and track when they're there to see stand-up and, say, we come out in the sweltering heat. TJ: "Theoretically"
Maybe they're there "just for laughs"...theoretically. D: And if they were to see us, they would sit there and stare, theoretically. TJ: What's French for "Just Not For Improv"?
Summer improv without an air conditioner is tough, man. Sometimes it seems like a competition between the performers and the audience as to who feels grosser. TJ: Even at our well-temperatured shows, it's a competition of who feels grosser. D: We usually do things that make us feel—well, make us all feel gross. TJ: But in all honesty about touring the show, I think both David and I feel too detached if we're away from Chicago for too long. I'm involved with other improv shows and David for work and the family, four weeks in a van sounds like a long time to be away. D: We do occasionally go somewhere to perform for a weekend. We've taken a dozen or so trips. TJ: As for what's good for career, I don't think we're savvy or motivated enough to seek out booking a bunch of venues. I think most of the time we've been places, it's been because someone's been nice enough to invite us. D: Yeah, maybe if they could all get it together and put a bunch in a row, in geographically successive places. TJ: And tell us how to drive there.
Funny, I think I bring up the road in search of some link between comedy and punk, the DIY nature of touring. And what you just described sounds like the antithesis of DIY. D: Which is basically our theory regarding improvisation as well—we don't have to do anything. TJ: We do YDFU—You Do it For Us.
Did you guys train with Del Close? TJ: I only had Del for a very short time. D: I did, for about five years. He directed me at Second City and we wrote a show together and performed it and performed as fellow actors in a play. Our show was called "Del and Dave in a Rehearsal for the Apocalypse." We did monologues and conversations and a little scene, told stories.
People love sharing crazy Del stories. Do you have any you could pass along? I think he was done with his craziness, the adventurous roller skating with a torch on his head in the sewers. I didn't do any of that with him. Just being around him was interesting. He was a smart guy.
As someone who knew him, do you feel like you've watched him become more of a myth over time? No—when he was around, he was a myth. I think it's wholly justified that he is always associated with long-form improvisation because it's his. For anyone doing long-form improvisation, they are the beneficiaries of his hard work and influence.
How did this documentary come about? TJ: Alex Karpovsky, a filmmaker in New York, was dragged to our show, does not care for and does not see much improvisation. Someone else who doesn't see much improv had seen our show and told him he should go see these guys. And he came with no other intention other than fulfilling an obligation. But then he did and he contacted us and asked us to make a documentary about it.
Was there any hesitation about filming improv and knowing how difficult it is to make that translate? TJ: Absolutely, that was most of the conversations that we had. Because people had expressed interest before and come in and shot it and it doesn't look good when you shoot improvisation conventionally. And he didn't. He brought in eight cameras and set em up all over. Some of em were manned and some of em were locked down. We know what shitty improv looks like on camera—I've been in plenty of it. He made it look very cinematic. It's still a live performance and there's no editing for content. But the way he moves around with the camera, I think it's interesting.
Did he just tape one show? TJ: In large part, the film is one performance. It's us walking around beforehand, getting ready for the show, one entire performance and then some talk after. D: It's like a concert film.
Did you guys think it was a good show? TJ: I think it's representative of the kinds of shows we do. It's one show out of...how many have we done? 500? But yeah, I think it's representative. D: He's a very good filmmaker and having watched other things Alex has made, he's got great ideas and he knows what he wants and he's got good ideas about how to get that. And on top of that, he's just a really nice fella as well. A talented man. TJ: We did what we do, but he did a great job.
TJ, I know you do you've been in those Sonic Drive-Thru commercials for years. They're finally opening one in our area after years of people saying, "Why do they air those commercials here?" Yeah, and they seem to take out their anger at me specifically. But this is interesting because my friend Maureen just called me yesterday and told me that there's one opening up in Michigan and my friend Karen called me last week and told me that there's one opening up outside of Boston. So I don't know if there's a big push northward or what. D: Now does that jive with their politics? TJ: Well I believe they call it not "the war of Northern Aggression" but "the war of Southern Discomfort."
Do you guys have a favorite "only in New York" story? TJ: A few years back, we used to walk past St. Vincent's Hospital on the way to work, from Chelsea down Seventh to the theater. What was it, gay pride weekend? D No, Halloween. TJ: Halloween, whatever. They're interchangeable. That emergency room now has tinted windows or blinds, but it used to just be like a fishbowl. And on Halloween night at around 2 a.m., the waiting room at St. Vincent's Hospital was just tremendous. D: We would walk by and play "Guess That Ailment." Stab wound. Poisoning. Domestic battery. TJ: Drama queen.
Drama queen's a chronic illness. TJ: Oh man, it's brutal. And apparently it needs emergency attention on occasion. Halloween certainly being one. Yeah, there's too much attention being spread elsewhere.
D: I used to work in Atlantic City and the girl I was dating who I'm now married to used to live at 82nd and Central Park West. And I used to get off at the Port Authority and walk up Eighth, twenty-something years ago. That was crazy. It was just great, insanity. Some lady, some lady-lookin' thing would come up to you and grab your...uhh, grab your joint and say, "You want a blow job?" And your response is always, "No thank you, sir." That doesn't happen to me elsewhere.
I don't think it happens here anymore. Eighth Avenue isn't Eighth Avenue anymore.