By Corey O’Day
For decades, Second City and “improv” have been basically synonymous. They are the masters of this special brand of sketch comedy that they like to describe as “performing comedy without a net.”
Second City has gathered an elite team of side-splitters to perform in their Improv All-Stars show at UP Comedy club in Old Town.
I had the pleasure of chatting with one of these comedians, Emily Walker, about her six years with Second City, her fortuitous induction into Improv All-Stars, and what it’s like to be a woman in this line of work.
A: Yeah, I did it like right off the bat. I came up here on my 21st birthday with my mom and auditioned for the Conservatory at Second City. Then like a month later, I got a letter in the mail and was like, “Oh, I guess I have to move there now!” I started classes immediately, but it took me about a year to figure things out and kind of find like-minded people to do stuff with.
Q: Have you always known that comedy is what you wanted to do?
A: I was pretty shy as a child, but I know that I’ve always wanted to do something on a stage. It wasn’t until I went to college and I was a theater major and I hated being in plays, but I was in my college improv troupe — that was like my saving grace. And then once they told me, “You can have a career in just this.” Oh my god, the whole world was totally open, and I was like, “Oh! Ok, yes. This is the thing.” I think I’ve probably had some of these abilities and qualities the whole time, but never knowing that there was like a title or something that it actually was.
Q: So you’ve been with Second City the whole time you’ve been in Chicago?
A: Yeah, taking classes. But I’ve been working for them for about two and a half years now. … There are a lot of student shows and a lot of opportunities for people through their training center to do shows and write shows and that stuff. So I did that for a while, and then I got hired to do cruise ships. … It was about 10 months, on and off. The contracts are four months long, so you’re out at sea for four months. It’s crazy.
Q: Oh wow, I bet. Thumbs up? Thumbs down?
A: I loved it. It’s not for everyone. I could never do it forever. Four months is just enough time where you’re like, “Ok, I’m ready to be on land now.”
Q: So is Improv All-Stars something that you auditioned for? Or did they draft you?
A: I actually got into doing it because they had a cast for it, and one of the guys didn’t show up right before the show. So one of my best friends, who is in it as well, called me like 30 minutes before the show and said, “Hey, if you can make it, you can come do the show.” So then I did it and they were like, “Oh, if you want to keep coming back, you can.” They recruit a lot of people who have toured before and people who have maybe done a stage (show) at Second City before, so it’s a nice group of people.
A: I like that it’s a rotating cast.
Q: Yeah, there are 16 people on the bill, so how often do you get on stage?
A: Usually at least like two or three times a month. I just got a call this morning and they were like, “We added one at 11 p.m. on Saturday, can you do it?” So, it all depends. But I like that because I tour with Second City right now, so it’s the same group of six of us that tour together all the time. I like this because I get to play with somebody that I’ve never done a show with before.
Q: What would you say is the most challenging part about the show?
A: We do what we call the “running order” of the show — the games that we play — the same each week. So, for me it’s a challenge to not rely on jokes or things that I know work very well in front of audiences. To try and keep games very fresh. Because otherwise I won’t have any fun. But a lot of times, like if an audience is not on board, then you’re like, “Alright, time to go into my back pocket and pull something out (laughs).”
Q: How would you describe Improv All-Stars to someone who hasn’t seen the show?
A: I would say that it is a good entryway into improv comedy. I think it’s a show that a lot of different types of audiences would enjoy. It’s energetic and very fun. It’s only an hour, and it’s different than a lot of the improv in Chicago because Chicago is very well known for long-form improvisation — longer scenes, fewer games, kind of like seeing a play. Which is also beautiful and I love doing long-form improvisation as well, but I think for somebody who is new to improv, something like this is a nice gateway into that world. Like, “Oh, they are making it up.” Because that’s the question we get all the time, and I’m like, “I promise. We did. I can’t memorize very well, that’s why I do improv.”
Q: So one of your best friends is in the show as well. And she’s the second half of your musical comedy duo, “Ding!” Tell me a little bit about that.
A: Yes. Chelsea Devantez. She also tours for Second City. We started out doing two-person stage shows where we would create our own music and sketches, and then that grew. In January we filmed a pilot that’s going to a couple festivals.
Q: Oh cool! How long have you gals been doing that?
A: Oh my gosh, like four years now. We met in classes at Improv Olympic. We went through that program together and realized that we had a … commonality of weirdness (laughs).
Q: I think that’s how the best friendships are formed, really. Do you think, as a woman on the comedy scene, that it’s different? Is there anything you feel like you have to do differently?
A: Well with this kind of newer generation of people, it’s not that much of an issue. But women who I’ve had as teachers who have been around forever, like this woman Susan Messing who’s been in Chicago for a very long time, they talk about how you were the only girl in class. Or you were the only girl on stage. But now I’m hearing people who are teachers who are like, “I had an improv class and it was all girls!” So, I’ve never felt like it was harder for me. The only thing I think you have to do is stick up for yourself in improv scenes a little bit more. Because it’s so easy for men to pin you as like, “the girlfriend” or “the slut,” (laughs) you know what I mean?
Q: Yeah, I feel like that happened in my college improv troupe all the time.
A: Yeah, all the time. Because it’s just like how their brains translate. For me, I like to play not very feminine characters, so that it kind of pushes that idea in a little bit more. But to be fair, I had a teacher tell me also, do not be afraid to be a woman on stage because they can’t do that. Boys can’t be a woman. So own that. Come out and rock being a woman. But also, don’t let that be the only thing you do.
Visit www.UpComedyClub.com for calendar and ticket information.