By: Ben Johnson
There’s a decent chance you’ve heard of iO. It’s that place in Chicago where all those famous people learned how to do comedy. Improv comedy. You know like the Chris Farleys and the Tina Feys and all the people from Saturday Night Live who didn’t come from LA’s Groundlings theater or from doing standup or from internet videos. It’s just, like, a place where a certain percentage of the general comedy population filters through, is a reason you may have heard of it. And also it is a going concern, and it benefits pretty fucking directly from telling you about how it’s the place where the famous people went to learn how to become rich and famous, so you may have heard of it because its owner, Charna Halpern, very much wants you to have heard of it. The building it was in is being torn down.
I spent irresponsibly huge swaths of my 20’s hanging out there, so this is turning into one of those “what does it all mean” things for me. It’s turning into one of those things for a lot of people. I hate those things. They bubble up from inside of you, like a flooding basement, and you go “no no no no not me,” but then because it’s an emotional response, you don’t really get to decide how much water you’ll get. It’s a force beyond your control. So then you go “okay, this is happening, this is a thing I need to process, I’ll say something on Facebook about it, but just not something embarrassing like everybody else, I’ll do a real good real one,” and then you do it and you look at it and you go “shit, that’s exactly embarrassing in the exact way I was trying to avoid.” And then you go back to replacing your emotional drywall, or whatever the basement flood analogy thing it is people do with their emotionally flooded basements.
Improv is embarrassing. You ever watch improv comedy? It’s embarrassing. You go “oh jeez oh man I hope this doesn’t suck, that would be embarrassing,” and then it sucks worse than anything you can imagine. Watching bad improv is like experiencing time in negative increments. It always seems like somebody should be able to go “no thanks” and it will just stop happening and that will be the best thing for everybody, but that apparently can’t happen. Sometimes improv doesn’t suck and you go “phew, that didn’t suck that much, but man, that was tense.” Sometimes, very rarely and increasingly very very rarely as you watch more of it, it moves beyond merely not sucking and becomes actually good. And about a hundredth of the actually good times are actually GREAT. And if you see one of those, it’s hard not to want to see more of them, and be around the people who do them, and maybe even do one and be one yourself. And so you go and you launch yourself into the great seething mass of embarrassing suck and you try to climb. Because you need to, for some reason. This need is embarrassing. You are 22 years old. You are embarrassing in the same ways all 22 year olds are. Plus, as an extra added layer of embarrassment, you are doing improv. Improv is the worst.
One of the additional ways improv is embarrassing is the culture of it. Improv, as a whole, is insecure. It’s like Ultimate Frisbee. If you’re the best athlete playing Ultimate Frisbee, you probably have all the same skills and abilities as a football player or a soccer player. People who play Ultimate are always like “how come there’s no Major League Ultimate Frisbee that people pay money for,” and it’s because the best Ultimate players are way less amazing than the best any other sport players. I WOULD pay money to see Billy Hamilton play Ultimate Frisbee. Unfortunately he’s busy playing centerfield for the Cincinnati Reds. That’s what improv is like. It’s all these people going back and forth between “there should be a Professional Ultimate Frisbee League” and “I think I’m good enough at Ultimate Frisbee to play centerfield for the Cincinnati Reds.” Improv is a hobby run amok. It’s a thing people enjoy doing which inflicts itself on audiences.
I’ve been lucky enough to improvise with some of the funniest people alive. I was in improv groups with Saturday Night Live cast members and ABC sitcom showrunners and Daily Show correspondents and screenwriters whose work has been produced by Relativity Media. I was on groups with crazy people and weird people who show up to your party too early and never leave and off-the-grid type people who don’t have a telephone and don’t mind and sleep in a sleeping bag on an unheated porch and live off 7-Eleven nachos for months at a time. I went to parties full of heterosexual naked men and got naked myself and had honest, unstrained, normal conversations with other naked heterosexual men, and we did this because naked men are funny. The Asian guy from Walking Dead has seen my penis.
Anyway, iO is closing. Not the business, but the physical building in Wrigleyville, Chicago that iO has been housed in for a while now. It’ll be razed to the ground and replaced with some kind of inhuman bajillion dollar hotel development for extreme Cubs fans. iO has been where it is for like, I don’t know, somewhere between 15 and 20 years. But its Clark Street location is and I guess was the best possible version of what it is. The new one is going to suck. I mean, technically, it’s going to be amazing and great, but it’s also going to suck the way all new things do.
Especially comedy venues. The ideal comedy venue, as is the case with Old iO, has a seating capacity grandfathered in from whoever was the fire marshal during the Coolidge Administration. You want to stack audiences on top of each other as uncomfortably as possible. That’s how laughter happens. It spreads like a communicable disease: most efficiently in closely-crowded communicable disease-like conditions. New comedy venues have too many fire safety regulations to contend with, such as “you need to prevent all these people from tripping over their chairs and dying in a big pile of burning chairs if anything bad happens,” so there’s no closeness. You might as well put the people in vibrating Sharper Image recliners. When was the last time you saw a person laugh in one of those things? Safety kills comedy. Liability insurance kills comedy. Real estate is killing comedy.
And more importantly, a brand new nice comedy venue especially doesn’t work with improv. Improv needs to feel like an adventure for everybody. It can’t just be entertainment. You need to go be led down a long steep stairway, around a dumpster, through a Laundromat, and into a 20’X20’ room with 9 people in it, and be scooped, ladled really, into an uncomfortable seat, and fed booze, and then some people come out and do something weird that surprises the hell out of you and you say “I’m alive now, and now no matter how much in the future I am bludgeoned by the dull enormity of functioning in society, I will always have proof of having been alive once as long as me and these nine other people are still breathing.” Improv at the old iO was like a road trip with six friends in a 1995 Mercury Tracer station wagon with broken air conditioning and a boombox for a stereo. At the time, it totally totally sucks because you’re sore and cramped and sweaty and Ryan’s being annoying and everybody keeps farting all the time, but you went because you wanted to and you got there and now it’s something you remember. The new place is going to be like a vacation in a brand new Escalade with every modern convenience so a sullen family of uptight WASPs can avoid connecting to each other. Probably. I mean I haven’t been.
I did improv in other places too. There were places which had set up some fairly rigorous formulas for what happens on stage and when, formulas which minimize the uncomfortable risk to an audience of catching the show on an off night where nothing works. Minimizing risk is the same thing as minimizing the role of talent in attempting the thing you are doing. It’s still nice if it works but you get bored easily. I’ve performed at places which had even less structure than iO, and done what I thought were great shows that I still think about and laugh, but nobody came to those because no structure means all risk and the percentages with improv just are not that high, and also maybe, definitely, I thought I was much funnier than I was. iO was always the place where talent went to experience and hone itself, not in a vacuum and not within a strict formula. It did so via fully embarrassing, fully risky improv, focused by the lens of some hippy dippy philosophical claptrap about “group mind” and given artificially high stakes by a sloppily arranged and often infuriating but weirdly effective bureaucratic power structure. It drew its power from the collective energies of an ever-replenishing army of other frightened, insecure 22 year olds. It was a ride. It was frightfully boring and long and uncomfortable and it smelled like farts and everybody was cranky and mean to each other, and our reward was night after night of fully embarrassing improv comedy. In retrospect none of that matters really, because we got to be together and do something, which is true no matter what because even if we were only pretending we were doing something, that is something in itself.
|The year I got a bullhorn at the Christmas gift swap and spent all night drunkenly heckling people in the bathroom.|
All of this is seeping up from some deep spring within me because Old iO closing is the real, true, final death knell to that phase of my life. Even after having walked away because of needing to get my life together and needing to have healthier priorities and needing to not spend two, three, seven nights a week doing embarrassing improv shows, there was this feeling that I could always go back. It’s a delusion, of course. Some weird fantasy that I’d snap my fingers and walk in and the whole building would be full of everybody I ever knew from within its walls, all cracking each other up, and everybody I was an asshole to forgives me, everybody sincerely appreciating each other, and there would be no improv show because finally we no longer need the pretense of doing improv for each other, and you’d just stand there and know you’d made it and you were funny and you were talented and you were part of something, and you’d just smile at each other like Mr. Miyagi and it would be the total best.
That could never and did not ever happen of course, although it got damn close a time or two. Time doesn’t work like that. People don’t work like that. Life doesn’t work like that. I know that. I have over the last few years gone back to the theater every once in a while and it’s weird and it sucks and I don’t know anybody and there’s nothing happening there but shitty improv and overloud moderately funnyish 22 year olds who haven’t learned how to calm down yet. It’s like taking a tourist trip to a 1995 Mercury Tracer full of somebody else’s farts. I know the fantasy version isn’t real and isn’t going to happen. But they’re tearing down the building. Now it’s REALLY not going to happen.
There’s still going to be an iO Theater. It’s going to be nice. All of those same improv things are going to happen in it. Waves and waves of 22 year old will crash endlessly at its shores, and they are going to suck at improv and be totally totally unforgivably embarrassing, and a few of them will become little Chris Farleys and Tina Feys, and you will have even more reason for hearing of iO. But I no longer have adequate energy to misplace there for this newfangled version of it to ever become the setting of my weird sirenlike utopian heaven fantasies. So something is ending. Some weird big fake important thing inside of me can’t happen anymore, and everybody else on Facebook is getting all sentimental about it, and I guess I am too because I can’t stop myself.
Goodbye and good luck, iO. May you always be somebody’s fart-reeking heaven of youth. I'm sorry I had the embarrassing urge to say all of this.