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House lights down, music cranked up to eleven, the diffuse buzz of pre-show chatter zeroes in on the two figures taking the stage. TJ: boyish face and beady eyes, a blue-collar looseness to his hips. He stands stock-still downstage, hands cupped over his eyes, and surveys the audience, grinning like we’re in with him on a goofy prank. David: coiled, intense, muttering to himself, paces the stage, sizing it up like a tiger sizing up a fresh steak. TJ is softness, David all angles, an aquiline nose and a jaw of John Kerry proportions. When he moves, TJ leads with his jaunty hips; David leads with that chin.

TJ gives us a look like we have no idea what we’ve got ourselves in for. “This is David Pasquesi.” “This is TJ Jagodowski,” barks David, jumping on TJ’s cue. The pair leaves a moment for this news to sink in. Then TJ says, “Trust us, this is all made up.” Lights down.

Lights up. TJ and David stand there, each studying the other’s face intensely. The silence lasts for seconds but feels longer. Then one of them finally speaks.

That happens pretty much every Wednesday night between 10:35 p.m. and 10:40 p.m. at iO’s Mission Theater in Chicago. But what follows for the next fifty or so minutes is different every time. “TJ & Dave” is fully improvised, and one of the most celebrated improv shows in the country.

Since the advent of bebop, musical improvisation has won widespread acceptance in the West as an autonomous art form that isn’t just ancillary to the pre-written stuff (and it’s been accepted elsewhere for much longer: Indian classical music has always given a central place to improvisation). Theatrical improvisation is still fighting for that acceptance. The fact that “improv” is almost always followed by “comedy” suggests the place it has in the public imagination: an entertainment, a diversion, delightful or obnoxious, depending on your tastes—much like jazz in the first half-century of its existence. In “TJ & Dave,” the improv is never far from the comedy, but they’re not playing just for laughs.

Improv is a kind of theatrical trapeze act. To keep a scene alive, performers must continually throw themselves into the void, making choices that destabilize whatever they’ve already established. It takes courage and finesse to stay in the air, and even seasoned improvisers tend to keep individual scenes to under five minutes. Improvisers typically have the safety net of teammates in the wings, who rescue flailing scenes with edits that jump to a new set of characters, forward or backward in time or to another location.

TJ and David are improvisers’ improvisers, paring the form down to its austere basics. “TJ & Dave” presents a single hour-long story that unfolds in real time—no time jumps, no location jumps—and it’s just the two of them on stage. When a third character enters the mix, one of them simply steps into that role. Over the course of an average show, TJ and David create six or seven distinct characters, male and female, many of which are played by each performer at different times, with one-sided conversations sometimes unfolding with the empty space where we know an uninhabited character is standing. And instead of building their show from an initial audience suggestion—as almost all improv does—they open with their trademark “Trust us, this is all made up.”

The comedy of improv comes in a range of flavors, but it tends toward anarchic zaniness. Improv is spontaneous and it’s rough—no set or props beyond a couple chairs, everything else conjured out of thin air with mime or suggestion—and that can be liberating. Mention a handgun and you can be holding a handgun, mention Zimbabwe and you can move the scene to Zimbabwe, mention God and God can walk on stage and start handing out fortune cookies. Part of the fun is how unrestrained the play is: free association, childlike impulses, plain goofiness.

The comedy in “TJ & Dave” is more like Chekhov. Chekhov peoples his worlds with subtle clowns, characters so intensely themselves that their needs are a little more desperate than those of ordinary mortals, their loves a little more passionate, their despair a little closer to the surface. TJ and David create worlds whose intensity is heightened by their ephemerality. These desperate, eager, arrogant, kind, ugly characters flicker into being for an hour and then flicker out again, never to return.

The show starts cautiously. Especially at the top of a show, you can feel the intensity of their focus as TJ and David work to determine which of the infinite possible worlds they’ve found themselves in tonight. They stand there looking at each other in silence. Five seconds pass, ten. Chin tucked in, David looks nervous, maybe a little contrite. TJ’s patience is more controlled: he has the higher status here. Time for a first move.

TJ breaks the silence: “Are you gonna cry or are you gonna confess?”

This gets a big laugh. And it’s not the first laugh of the show because, really, it’s not the first move. As the silence at the top of the show stretches out, nervous giggles in the audience turn to full laughter. The suspense in a typical story comes from the fact that we, the audience, don’t know what’s going to happen next. Improv is doubly suspenseful, because we know that the performers don’t know what’s going to happen next either.

TJ is the mom, David is the son. After a tense minute of probing, the confession comes: “I stole some candy from Mr. White and he caught me and I lied about how it got in my pocket.” But it wasn’t really stealing, because, after all, it’s not stealing until you leave the store. And when Mr. White took the candy, the kid made a big stink about how Mr. White was stealing from him and… TJ/mom speaks in calm, measured tones, while David/son blurts out responses in machine-gun bursts, shoulders swaying with the ranginess of a boy growing into a man’s body. The battle lines come in to focus: the mom wants her son to apologize, and that’s the last thing he’s going to do. Both sides dig in their heels. The son has just mounted a spirited defense, and it looks as if his mom is finally going to give him a real tongue lashing when she breaks abruptly to an imaginary pot on an imaginary stove: “Now that spaghetti’s ruined.”

The audience erupts with laughter at this moment. This is hardly your standard laugh line. The sudden deflation of tension is a familiar move in comedy (Kant: “Laughter is an affectation arising from the sudden transformation of a strained expectation into nothing”), but in a scripted comedy this line would be lucky to earn a chuckle. This isn’t a funny-ha-ha moment but a moment of discovery that’s special to improv. In this moment, TJ effects an unexpected aspect shift, where the world we thought he and David were shaping breaks in and starts shaping them. It’s a reminder that we’re on a bare stage where nothing happens unless TJ or David makes it happen. TJ and David are the undisputed masters of the reality they are creating, and yet, in the midst of this world they have been articulating, something like reality impinges.

Compare another laugh line that’s become notorious in improv circles. Half a century ago, in the early days of Chicago’s Second City theater, improv legend Del Close took the stage with Joan Rivers. Rivers opened with: “I want a divorce!” Close responded: “But honey, what about the kids?” “We don’t have any kids!” Rivers snapped back. In this instance, it’s easier to see why she got a big laugh, but the story is a cautionary tale about how not to get laughs in improv. She snatched her laugh all right, but at the cost of killing the scene three lines in and making her scene partner look like an idiot.

Who’s in control here? Without question, it’s Rivers. She didn’t just steal the scene, she shut Close out of it. Close accepted her contribution that they were a married couple, but Rivers rejected his contribution that they had children. She already had the higher status, but she had to annihilate Close, negate his ability to make any meaningful contribution to the reality of the scene. Part of the humor here is that Rivers magnificently realized what every squabbling spouse fantasizes about: she claimed absolute power to bend his will to hers.

Asserting control over one’s circumstances comes with a drawback: it’s no fun. Exposing this dirty little secret is the special province of improv. To keep their stories alive, TJ and David have to relinquish the notion that the stories are actually theirs. Like masterful jazz musicians, who seem not to be playing their instruments so much as listening to them, TJ and David are less involved in creating their world than in attending to a world that’s somehow already there. The virtuosity of their performance rests in the acute attentiveness they give to the minutest details of this world and their untrammeled willingness to be led wherever their story takes them.

Comedy is about failure, not success. Watching everything go right for someone isn’t funny. What’s funny is the presumption that everything could go right for someone. If it looks like everything’s going right, that’s because you’re not looking closely enough. Comedy is what breaks out when you do.

Most of the comedy in “TJ & Dave” comes from drawing attention to things we could easily overlook. There’s nothing overtly funny about “Now that spaghetti’s ruined,” but it reminds us that reality is an ungainly beast that blunders through our lives. Good comedy is the mortal enemy of kitsch, tossing an overcooked pot of spaghetti at the notion that the world might conform to our tidy plans for it.

Most of us struggle to deny the necessity of failure. There’s something unreal about who we pretend to be much of the time: confident, flawless, walking cover letters. TJ and David’s characters wear their failures on their sleeves, and as a result they seem more human than we ourselves are. Their characters exist in a state of exquisite attentiveness to their inability to bend the world to their wills. When we meet Mr. White, it turns out he needs the kid’s help: the shop isn’t doing well and he needs to get a read on what kids like these days. But between the cracks of his chatter about the candy business bleeds the quiet desperation of a man who’s been left behind by time, who doesn’t understand the world he lives in, who’s afraid of the future. When he was a younger man, he had a thing for the kid’s mom. “Better man won.”

That line doesn’t get a laugh. This is a comedy where the pratfalls leave scars. But it’s part of a world created by performers who are supremely gifted in protecting one another and generously reckless in not protecting themselves. They create a world with characters who leave the door to their selves wide open and allow life to burst in and catch them with their pants down; characters who tell us, no, we don’t know what we’re doing, but let’s be honest, neither do you. Trust us.

Image credit: Still from TJ & Dave’s comedy special on Vimeo, by Stock Yard Films

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