Making it Up: An interview with David Pasquesi, improv powerhouse, busy actor and show creator

A leading improviser and comic actor, David Pasquesi has appeared in films including “The Fugitive” and “Father of the Bride,” and Harold Ramis’ “Groundhog Day” and “Stuart Saves His Family.” His TV credits include “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” “Common Ground,” and “Strangers with Candy.”

Pasquesi has roles in two locally-shot features due out later this year: Ramis’ “Ice Harvest,” and former standup partner Jeff Garlin’s “I Want Someone to Eat Cheese With.” He’s also in the forthcoming film version of “Strangers with Candy.”

Pasquesi and Steppenwolf company member Tracy Letts premiere the trailer for their TV pilot “Cop Show” at the Chicago Short Comedy Video and Film Festival on July 28.

ReelChicago talked with Pasquesi about “Cop Show,” what makes for good improv, and a new improv-based feature he’s performing in.

ReelChicago: Tell me about “Cop Show.”
David Pasquesi: It’s a half hour Super 16mm comedy pilot about two tactical squad officers who don’t have uniforms and don’t have a beat. They are oddly erudite Chicago Police Officers. It’s about the way people actually speak to one another, we think.

It seems to me that it would be an excellent cable show. There’s a bit of language, the way that cops actually speak. It’s funny and a bit more realistically shot than most TV comedies. It’s got the look of a drama. It’s a spoof on a cop drama. I don’t disagree with the idea that it’s a cross between “Barney Miller” and “NYPD Blue,” but a little more twisted than either of them.

RC: How did “Cop Show” come about?
DP: Tracy and I met each other doing “Glengarry Glen Ross” at Steppenwolf. We hit it off. We did another play together at Steppenwolf, playing brothers in Richard Greenberg’s “The Dazzle.” We had a great time working with each other and we decided to try to come up with something for ourselves to do.

The other reason we did “Cop Show” was just to shoot something in Chicago, to try and get more work here so not everybody has to leave. There’s no reason to leave Chicago if you’re looking for great actors, and specifically comedic actors, there’s a deep bench here.

I’ve found that I work almost exclusively with and for friends. To spend all that time and effort with people you don’t like is not worth it. There’s no reason that one has to go outside of their friends and their town to find really talented competent responsible folk. We’re really lucky to have that in Chicago. It’s a great place to live.

I was just talking to Tim Kazurinsky [“About Last Night”] and we were saying, we don’t live in Chicago by accident. We live in Chicago because we’ve lived in Los Angeles, not because we haven’t ever lived there. We do what’s necessary so we can still live here. That was part of the reason for doing “Cop Show.”

RC: What are your prospects for the show?
DP: It’s currently available for sale. We’re trying to sell to the TV networks and cable channels. I was out in Los Angeles for a good part of the spring doing just that, and we’re continuing to do so.

People really like it, but they’re not putting it on the air yet. I don’t know what their real reaction is, but we seem to get positive feedback wherever it goes. Billy Peterson’s [“CSI”] company, High Horse, is shopping it around for us in Hollywood right now. He’s a Chicago guy.

We’d love to get it on the air so we can get to do more of them. We had a great time doing it.

RC: Who did you work with on “Cop Show?”
DP: Tracy Letts and I wrote and starred and executive produced. We got it made through Cop Show, LLC, a company Tracy and I created.

The directors were Steve and Leo, the comedy team Steve Rudnick and Leo Benvenuti [“Space Jam,” “The Santa Clause” I & II]. They’re screenwriters who used to live here. They’re both in California now. Most recently they wrote “Kicking & Screaming,” the Will Ferrell movie. But they’d never directed before.

Pete Biagi was the DP. Darryl Miller and Anwar Khuri produced. Everybody on it was great. It was so much fun.

Tracy and I starred. We had a great cast, folks we’ve known well for a few years. We had T.J. Jagodowski, Amy Morton, and Matt de Caro. Matt and Tracy and I were in “Glengarry Glen Ross” together at Steppenwolf and Amy directed that.

RC: You’re known for your improv work.
DP: I improvise with T.J. every Wednesday at Improv Olympic. We’ve been doing it for coming up on two and a half years with a couple breaks. When one of us is out of town working, Tracy fills in. We’re going to New York to perform in the Del Close Improv Marathon July 20-22.

I read in the Tribune Sunday that there’s no improvisation in the city of Chicago. [“Did the Compass point to the birth of Improv?” Chris Jones, July 10] I was shocked by that because that’s what I do.

They were saying that Chicago is supposedly the home of improv, yet there isn’t much here, which is untrue. There’s people like [Second City co-founder] Bernie Sahlins, who said he never believed improvisation is something you can charge for ? it’s a way to develop material, but not an end product. They’re right, in large part. But there are also some improvisers and shows around that are excellent. It’s not the same as sketch comedy.

Improv, when done well, is a wonderful thing. I also agree that it’s done poorly in a lot of places, but everything is done poorly somewhere. Just because something is written doesn’t mean it’s going to be any good. And just because it’s not written doesn’t mean its going to be any good, or any worse.

RC: What do you see as the key to good improv?
DP: The key, in my opinion, is when one person pays attention to the other person rather than performing for an audience. It’s impossible to do good improv when you’re trying to look good for the audience. That’s my understanding of one of the fundamentals that [improv pioneer] Del Close was talking about. It’s a tall order, but it’s what makes good improv. From an audience point of view, it’s honest, it’s probably funny, and it’s intriguing.

RC: How do improv and scripted work relate for you?
DP: Improv and scripted work are interconnected. They’re impossible to separate. We were doing a show recently with an excellent, experienced actor who had not been introduced to improv. When we brought him to a show his response was, ?that’s good for anyone. It’s an excellent exercise in listening.’

That’s the most important part of good improv, and it’s the most important part of any performance: listening to what the other person’s doing and reacting to it. There’s nothing to be afraid of if we don’t know what’s about to happen. That’s a great benefit of improvisation

RC: What are you doing next?
DP: T.J. and I are working on a film based on improvisation. It’s directed by Rich Talarico. He’s writing for “Saturday Night Live” and he’s a Second City alum.

T.J. and I are improvising a portion of the film and other groups are improvising other portions. We’re working on it for a couple months, separately. The only one who knows what the others are working on is the director.

We don’t know anything about what the other people are doing until we get together in August. Then we’ll finalize the story and probably perform the piece. Shooting is in the fall. We don’t have a title yet.

The other performer/improvisers are Peter Grosz, Dan Bakkedahl, Brad Morris, Holly Laurent, Pat O’Brien, Emily Wilson, Deb Downing, Jet Eveleth, and Damien Arnold. Charna Halpern at Improv Olympic helped put groups together.

[Commercial director] Leroy Koetz is the producer. He and Rich have worked together before making comedy shorts.

RC: What excites you about this new project?
DP: It seems like it’s something that hasn’t been done for a long time. John Cassavetes used to spend a lot of time improvising ? a lot of his films are improvisationally based. Christopher Guest uses improv in his films. But this is truly improvised from the inception. There are no constraints put on anybody to try to get a cohesive story out of it. That’s what’s interesting to me. Don’t get me wrong. I love going to work and knowing what I’m going to say, too.

The “Cop Show” trailer screens Thursday, July 28 at 7:30 p.m. at the Chicago Comedy Video and Film Festival at the Music Box Theatre, 3733 N. Southport. $10.

“Jagodowski and Pasquesi” runs Wednesdays at 11 p.m. at ImprovOlympic, 3541 N. Clark. $5.

Write Pasquesi c/o Cop Show, LLC, 1850 N. Clark St., Apt. 2806, Chicago, Ill. 60614.

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