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Radiolab Presents: TJ & Dave

Tuesday, April 02, 2013 - 05:00 PM

Improv comedy puts uncertainty on center stage -- performers usually start by asking the audience for a prompt, then they make up the details as they go. But two actors in Chicago are taking this idea to its absolute limit, and finding ways to navigate the unknown.

When TJ Jagodowski and Dave Pasquesi get on stage they introduce themselves, work the crowd a bit ... and then, the lights go off. And when the lights come back on, they're just standing there, staring at each other. The audience is waiting, wondering what's going to happen. And so are TJ and Dave. There are no audience suggestions to kick off the show, there’s no plan -- TJ and Dave begin each night as a complete blank, without even a glimmer of an idea about who they're going to be for the next hour, where they'll find themselves, or what might happen with all those eyes on them. And yet, so far without fail, an elaborate, operatic, two-person play filled with incredibly rich characters and situations emerges. In this short, Robert Krulwich and producer Sean Cole talk to TJ and Dave about stepping into the unknown, take a peek into one of their performances, and discover a very unusual strategy for dealing with the stress of having no idea what's going to happen: just assume it’s been happening all along. 


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Comments [37]

Donald Sosin from Lakeville CT

Staying in the moment doing improv in front of an audience is a great challenge when there's nothing planned, and these guys are fantastic. Now imagine being a pianist sitting the pit in a theater filled with about 800 silent film scholars at an international festival. The lights go down and the film starts, and the pianist (sometimes joined by two or three other musicians) play nonstop for 60-180 minutes. And none of us have seen the film before. We're in Italy and the film is a Chinese (or Russian, or Finnish or American or whatever) drama that has only recently been discovered in an archive and there hasn't been time to make a preview copy for the musicians to watch. So we are completely winging it. The catalogue notes aren't much help, because they only talk about the director's other films and how the film was discovered. I can't tell you how many films I have had to accompany under such circumstances. It's pretty freaky having to try to predict where the film will go and be an emotional tour guide for the audience, trying to remember what music I played for the shopkeeper 30 minutes ago, and now she seems to be turning into the love interest, except her boyfriend might be the guy who has been spying on the occupying army. And I'm trying to keep the style and harmonies and themes all woven together in the moment. Digital technology has reduced the numbers of times I and my colleagues have to accompany a film absolutely cold, as we now often get an advance copy of the film, but we are still called upon to do this from time to time, and in October for the past 10 years at Le Giornate del Cinema Muto in Pordenone, Italy, we have been training young pianists to play for films they have never seen. Analyzing their music, their thought processes make for lively discussions, and the audience members at these master classes come away with a deepened understanding of film and the issues involved in scoring. Maybe Radiolab would liike to do a program about this?

Apr. 23 2017 03:29 PM
gggallo from New York

In "normal" improv, audience input is a joke. "Name a room in the house" "name something you find in the backyard" "name a place" "name an occupation" Duh. To me, that is hardy input. "Wow, I'm an audience member and I just yelled out a color. Whoopie." If you watch enough improv, all the shows are basicially the same. Listening to the clips, these stories sound like nothing is happening/ going nowhere. As far as any Godotian flavor, let me tell ya, "Waiting for Godot" was not a first draft. And lots of things in daily life (forget long drawn out improv) have a Godotian flavor. That is what the play is about, Life. One major root of Improv was as a tool in training for actors and not an end product/performance. And hey, I just improv-ed this comment. Wow, take away the hyphen and ya got improved. That's really messed up.

Dec. 05 2014 08:51 AM
inlava from weston, florida

what is that song you guys played for the outro? such digital serenades.

Aug. 15 2014 01:06 PM
Random Commentor

To do improvisation, I believe you need to have great imagination and great skill. Not breaking character especially when something unexpected is happening constantly must be a great challenge. I wish that the podcast would have introduced a bit more into the history and complexity of improvisation. This would have lead, in my opinion, to a greater understanding of what these actors do and why they do it. It seems, that they go as far as to incorporate that spontaneity in their own lives as mentioned near the end. It's good advice too. Planning out your life is great but leaving a bit up to fate alleviates some of the stress that amounts over time. Improvisation can help in every day life.

Apr. 18 2014 06:55 PM
Michael from Los Angeles, CA

Really nice piece, but the background is lazy and wrong. What is "normal improv"? This piece implies that TJ&D are the only group performing longform improv, whereas everyone else (in the many popular schools/theatres) performs 'shortform' (ie "Whose Line..."). Overstating TJ&D's contribution to the foundation of improv detracts from their real genius - I guess in the same way that looking at a Picasso and saying "You know what's REALLY impressive is that he invented the paint". TJ and Dave are amazing because the exemplify the best of longform improv and exemplify the mediums freedom and flexibility - not because no one is doing anything similar. They are. It's just generally not nearly as good.

Aug. 10 2013 10:01 PM

@Ken Lyman- What you're expressing is a common dividing line in comedy. Half of the audience believes all comedy should be all funny all the time. The other half looks at comedy as a complete form. The end goal for both is a release, hopefully in the form of laughter, but the best comedians use all of the tools (tragedy, fear, embarassment, anger, and humor) to get us there. All humor, all the time, while legitimate, is just empty calories. What these guys do elevates it into an art form.

Aug. 07 2013 03:11 AM
Joel from Guam

The Schrödinger's cat of comedy! The quantum reality of nature expressed on a time/space scale we can properly observe and be entertained by. Marvelous! Dead cats in boxes--way less funny than these guys.

Jun. 27 2013 11:36 PM
Ken Lyman from The middle of nowhere

I can't help but wonder . . . what happens if the dialogue goes somewhere that is sad or angry or heartfelt? It must be difficult to try to be funny during that one hour. Or does the audience laugh because they are in a "comedy" environment, so everything is funny - even when it's not?

May. 27 2013 08:45 AM
J.O'Ly. from Seattle

SONG AT THE END: Juana Molina -- El Vestido

Special thanks to Sandra for writing out the lyrics.

May. 17 2013 06:00 PM
J.O'Ly. from Seattle

Yes, what is the name of the music in the end? Please.

May. 17 2013 05:51 PM
Tim Gakuo from charlotte nc

what is the name at the end of this podcast...

May. 06 2013 03:31 PM
Goob from NYC

To anybody looking for the artist at the end of the episode, her name is Juana Molina and there's actually a Radiolab short featuring her from a few years back!

Apr. 30 2013 08:04 PM

I'll add my voice to the others in the hope of getting a response: who did the music at the end?

Apr. 30 2013 01:14 PM
Rob from Seattle

Where can I find the attribution for the music used in these podcasts? Really liked the exit music from this episode!

Apr. 30 2013 12:38 PM
Meow Seo from Chicago, IL

Absolutely brilliant.

What a take on life, this art called improv, and a nice piece in general! I have also had the pleasure of seeing TJ & Dave live, and might I suggest, if one ever gets the chance to watch them live, to do so with immediacy.

Apr. 23 2013 02:26 PM
Bud F from California.

These guys are GREAT improvisors, there is no denying that. I've seen them live and they turn in amazing sets, in fact short snippets of performance heard on the podcast really don't do justice to their comedy genius. I understand the radio/podcast need to set up an episode as something unique and one-of-a-kind, but as any of the 1000s of improvisors out there will tell you - the structure of what these guys are doing (a 50 minute set, with NO audience input) doesn't make them one-of-a-kind and isn't at all unique (they just happen to do it very very well)... in fact this is the direction improv has been heading in for at least decade... toward 'long form' and away from the 'whose line is it anyway?" sort of short form 'games' that most people think of when they hear the word 'improv.'

Nearly ALL of the improv I have done in the past 10 years was this kind of "long form, no suggestions" stuff... with groups that have ranged in size from two to eleven performers (and yes, varied greatly in skill level.)

I'm not saying this to diss the two performers at the show, I just want your listeners to know that - if they liked what they heard, they don't have to hunt out TJ and Dave in order to find it. If there is an improv theater nearby, chances are someone is doing this kind of work, possibly very well.

Keep up the great show.

Apr. 16 2013 01:35 AM

Can someone identify who says, "It's a beautiful dare that is thing"? I'm thinking that it's either TJ or Dave, but I'm not sure which.

Apr. 13 2013 11:30 AM
Seanfen in MPLS from MPLS

Thanks radiolab for this great experience! I'm an improviser myself and this podcast made me swell with emotion much like the first time I saw TJ and Dave's "Trust Us" when it came out. A couple years ago I was lucky enough to have them in my city for our festival. Got in a class with them and saw both their shows. They truly are the current masters of their profession. I can't wait to share this with the MPLS improv community!

Apr. 11 2013 11:15 PM
Lyssa Crowe

As an amateur in student theater, I'm really glad to hear these guys explain their experience. I'm very much involved in improvisation, via speech, debate, and theater, and as soon as I begin to slip into what could loosely be described as "The Zone," I begin to not feel like myself, and often remember the events as if I were watching myself.

Their comment about "You wouldn't believe the crazy things this guy did on stage" hits it on the nose for me

Apr. 10 2013 08:28 PM
mariposatree from Chiang Mai, Thailand

Thanks Shazam. I love that song and am glad to learn of a wonderful new (at least for me) artist Juana Molina.

Apr. 09 2013 10:35 PM
Sam from Seattle, WA

This is such a great short!

When they describe the process of learning who/where/why they are, I get a feeling of resonance and euphoria. What a blessed friendship they have! I had these kinds of episodes several times with coworkers at a toy store. Somehow the setting was just right - a bunch of creative types getting paid to be exuberant and a bit foolish, we ended up riffing in some pretty exciting ways.

Those blank slate spells are fantastic when you can sustain them. Nowadays I can almost get there when I play "make believe" games with kids, but it's hard to keep them in the zone - kids tend to go "meta" and start trying to control the direction of the game.

Also, as you mentioned, it's great way to live life. Stress melts into comfort and joy when you trust that you're playing the part that has been already prepared for you.

Apr. 08 2013 06:03 PM
CKMLT from Canada

I recently started listening to the radiolab podcasts, and while I think the topics are great, for some reason all the podcasts I download have several instances where 5-25 seconds are repeated over. It will play something, then play that same thing over, and then continue on. This seems to happen at least a few times per podcast and it gets pretty annoying. I listen to several other podcasts, but radiolab seems to be the only one where it happens.

Apr. 07 2013 03:57 PM
mhm from a bar

cool show!
and awesome bass bump at some point, btw

Apr. 06 2013 11:21 AM
Paul Sypek from Farmington, CT

Sounds a little like quantum comedy a la Schrodinger's cat. All possibilities are present until you open the box.

Apr. 05 2013 11:41 PM
Jim Morrison

The piano at 9:12 is from the song 'I Know You Are But What Am I' by Mogwai.

Apr. 04 2013 09:30 AM
Royce Wood

I was going to write a comment on my friends Facebook link to this podcast, but it ballooned into a post on my blog:

Apr. 03 2013 08:21 PM
Jeremy from Dallas

Tyler, I was curious about the piano interlude too. My gut says the band is Mogwai. But as to the song, can't place it...

Apr. 03 2013 06:33 PM
BeauH from LA, CA

See also:
I'd love for Radiolab to do a whole episode on improv (comedy, jazz, art by committee, etc.).

Apr. 03 2013 06:03 PM

@Ben from NYC

It's actually called "El Vistado." Thanks Spotify!

Apr. 03 2013 02:14 PM
bob minder from wbur

sounds like waiting for godot.
as for 'are you sure,' as much as i liked the episode, i think you told just about the best story along these lines with the kurt godels section of Loops... with the barber's dilemma and liars paradox... or was it the barber's paradox and liar's dilemma, i'm just not sure!

Apr. 03 2013 12:20 PM
Tyler from Cambridge

There's a piano piece playing at about 9:12 in this podcast, anybody recognise it? I'm dying to know what it is!

Apr. 03 2013 11:02 AM
Ben from NYC

Shazam to the rescue! The closing song was "El Vestido" by Juana Molina. Enjoy!

Apr. 03 2013 10:28 AM
Ben from NYC

And I'm third: what was the song/artist on that last track? It was fantastic!

Apr. 03 2013 10:24 AM

I'm with Paul. What's the artist and song title of the last track? Love it and want to hear more.

Apr. 03 2013 10:15 AM
Paul Zak from san jose ca

What is the artist and album for the track ending this episode?

Thanks Paul

Apr. 03 2013 10:05 AM
kay schmitt from chicago

I have been going to the IO in chicago every Wed. nite at 11-- when they improvise for an hour--for the last 4 years and they are never "off". It is always a remarkable, original, funny, provocative, sometimes very poignant story that evolves. They have never done the same situation twice. They become people from all walks of life, become other ages, sexes, even other ethnicities. Because they are a bit older than many of the young people in improve, they have the ability to create more depth in a situation,making their 'play' much more interesting. It doesn't hurt that they are both extremely smart, well-read, and have great humanity. They also have tremendous senses of humor. It is the highlight of my week, Wed. at 11 pm. You can't get tickets unless you do so a week in advance...

Apr. 02 2013 09:32 PM

This has a savory Godotian flavor to it for sure - and what a great party game this can make!

I am curious as to the difference between "on" nights and "off" nights - they can't possibly do the same quality performance every time. I know they say that they just pick these stories floating out there in the dark, but I wonder what the yearly ratio is between, say, stories that are set in a recognizable present vs. more outlandish scenarios like pasts, futures, alternate histories, or other unorthodoxies like the space-time of fairy tales. Starting from zero is all fine and well...IF your scenario is some white-collar American dudes playing in a corporate softball game.

Apr. 02 2013 08:02 PM

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