Written by Rachael Drummond (Editor)
Images by Kevin McShane
“Tonight the whole audience saw the 8 foot monster onstage
but it’s only because of the 40 minutes
—Bob Dassithat went beforehand that it made any sense.” — Bob Dassi
Dassie is originally from Chicago where he studied with many improv luminaries including Del Close, toured with the Second City and co-created and performed in several long-form improvisation shows such as Trio and Quartet (at Improv Olympic) and Close Quarters (at Second City etc). He has appeared regularly in New York at the UCB hosted Del Close Marathon with Dasariski and his two-person show WeirDass (with his lovely wife, Stephanie Weir), ventured out to Edinburgh Festival Fringe with Baby Wants Candy and has appeared and taught at improv festivals around the globe.
Cackowski hails from the great state of Virgina, the Mother of Presidents, where he attended the venerable College of William and Mary. He first began improvising as a member of W. & M.’s troupe I.T., and moved to Chicago with a B.A. in Theatre, and an intent to become a serious actor. That quest was sidetracked after his first improv class with Charna Halpern at the Improv Olympic, and forever abandoned after studying for a year with the great Del Close, the guru of longform improv comedy. It was at iO Chicago that Craig first met and worked with Bob Dassie and Rich Talarico, in various groups and teams, including Mr. Blonde, Faulty Wiring, Baby Wants Candy, Close Quarters and The Armando Diaz Experience, Theatrical Movement and Hootenanny. Craig coached many teams in Chicago, including the long-running Frank Booth, and directed such shows as JTS Brown. Craig has taught for iO Chicago and iO West since 1995, and is the three-time winner of the Del Close Award for Excellence in Teaching.Craig also worked as an actor for The Second City in Chicago, touring the country (and Austria) with the National Touring Company, and appearing in and co-writing five revues on their Equity stages, including History Repaints Itself, Slaughterhouse 5, Cattle 0, and the Jeff-nominated The Revelation Will Not Be Televised. Craig has also worked as a director and teacher for Second City (currently on the staff of Second City LA) and sailed the high seas as a SC cast member on the Norwegian Gem.
Talarico took his first improv class from Stephen Colbert at Chicago’s Second City Theater in 1992. Rich went on to tour with Second City’s National Touring Company and later co-created five original sketch comedy revues for SC’s resident companies. While in Chicago, Rich was heavily involved at Improv Olympic (Now iO) under the direction of Charna Halpern and the late great, Del Close. Rich played on the house teams “Mr. Blonde” & “Faulty Wiring” understudied “Dynamite Fun Nest” with The Family and played with the early casts of the long running“Armando Diaz Experience, Theatrical Movement and Hootenanny.” Rich also co-created the long-form shows “Strap Heads”, “Trio”, “Close Quarters” and “Dasariski.” Also at Improv Olympic, Rich co-created and starred in the scripted shows “Hamlet The Musical” and “The Roof is on Fiddler.” Currently, Rich is a writer and co-producer for Comedy Central’s sketch hit, “Key & Peele” – having won the 2014 Peabody award.
Dasariski is a 3 man improv comedy team. Bob Dassie is the “D-A-S” of the three-names-in-one team. He can be seen most recently in the webseries, “Eleven Year Itch” with Stephanie Weir and in the movie “The Spoils of Babylon” with Tobey MacGuire. Rich Talaricho represents the “A-R-I” of the group. Rich is a writer and co-producer on Comedy Central’s “Key & Peele” which won the 2014 Peabody Award. Craig Cackowski is our “S-K-I” and can currently be seen playing many people throughout history on the Comedy Central show, “Drunk History.”
I sat down with them after their show on Tuesday, July 8th with a specific question for each of these seasoned improvisers. I gave my interview a “Newlywed Game” twist and asked them each others’ questions in an attempt to start a discussion and get the most poetic answers.
My first question, “What is group mind?” was for Bob. So I asked it to Rich. Rich chuckled and muttered, “Ah, I’m gonna fuck this up,” and they all laughed.
Then clearly and confidently he answered, “It’s sympathy from all members to bend for the common result.”
Bob nodded, eyebrows raised, “That’s pretty good!”
Rich continued, “That’s from the liner notes for Miles Davis’ ‘Kind of Blue,’ which I believe Bob would quote. Bill Evans, the piano player, talks about how group improvisation needs sympathy from every member to bend for the common result.”
Craig turned to Bob and asked, “When you put together Trio, which was the forerunner to Dasariski, which was the two of you and Stephanie (Weir, Bob’s wife) was that inspired by reading the kind of blue liner notes?”
Bob replied, “I had just gotten a remastered version of the Miles Davis cd, and I had just driven to Nashville to watch a 3 man improvised musical show with 3 musicians, it was the first time they’d performed live and I was in the front row watching it. The liner notes from Kind of Blue made me think about stage improvisation in conjunction with music improvisation. I played saxaphone and I was in jazz band so it was a natural connection but I’d never really considered the two worlds intertwined.”
My next question, “Why has improv become so huge? Why does it keep growing and growing?” was for Craig. So I asked it to Bob.
Bob squirmed a bit, “Well, I’ll push all my cynicalness down to completely go with Craig. I think Craig might say something along the lines of, ‘It’s theater of the heart and it is a very human exploration that perhaps now more than ever is needed beyond just the stage. The life lessons that we learn in improv spill out into the streets because it really is life lessons, not only theater lessons.’”
Craig nodded happily, “Yes! We’re so disconnected. The more we do most of our interaction online and on devices, listening– good listening in improv has always been impressive– but now, in 2014, you can blow someone’s mind by remembering a name from 30 seconds ago. That’s how short some people’s attention spans are. We’ve been doing this long enough that our listening is attuned for even longer arcs.”
Bob added, “If you look at everything artistic it can be replicated by computers. Animation, music, all of these art forms have been abducted by technology. I’m not saying technology is bad, because I love technology. What I will say is that live theater is the one thing that cannot be replicated. Because it’s people. Knock, knock.” They all laughed and knocked wood. “There’s an android built right now… It’s also the community and this surrogate family that develops in this community of improv. We’ve known people through this artform for 30 years!”
Rich balked, “Twenty something.”
Bob gave a shrug of acquiescence and went on, “Going on a strong 30 years. It is a way of slowing things down and trying to have real connections that I don’t think can be replicated. Improv seems to be manifesting itself and not everybody is gonna be fuckin famous with this stuff. 99% of us won’t. And a lot of people who go away from improv come back at some stage in life because it’s an unreplicateable thing.”
“The life lessons we learn in improv spill out into the streets.”
— Bob Dassi
To which Craig added, “In a movie if you needed an 8 foot tall, 400 pound boxer you’d create it with CGI very easily. There’s something about CGI that has made movie audiences lazy because we can now show anything and it’s like–” he donned a dazed, unimpressed look, “‘Well, there it is. There’s… anything.’ But for the audience to imagine that I’M that guy [in tonight’s show] it’s a collective use of our imagination and the audience’s imagination and we’re all working together to make me that guy.
Bob agreed, “Tonight the whole audience saw the 8 foot monster onstage but it’s only because of the 40 minutes that went beforehand that it made any sense. The audience is part of the group mind. Del used to say, ‘Treat your audience like kings and queens,’ and we treat them with respect. These shows, when we do them well, stay with people. We have people come up to us all the time and say, ‘I saw you in 1986 and you did that thing.’ It happens in all improv, not just our form, and I think that’s another reason people gravitate toward it.”
My last question, “How does improv help in your professional life, writing, acting and directing?” was for Rich. So I asked it to Craig.
Craig ribbed Rich, speaking as him with an exaggerated bravado, “Well, as a staff writer on ‘Key and Peele’” and they all cracked up. Then he turned serious, “I just know that Rich is a very collaborative artist in everything that he does. As far as I know Rich uses improv in all of his acting and writing and directing projects. He’s very much about just getting people who work well together who have fun with each other and just really hearing and valuing everyone’s contributions with the mentality that the whole trumps the individuals.”
Rich was grinning ear to ear. “I totally agree, that’s great.”
Bob added, “In 2001 nobody gave a fuck about improv in Los Angeles. And I know because that’s when I got here. Everyone was like, ‘You do what? I don’t care.’ And ironically now it’s required, it’s become so huge.”
Craig joked, “So many of our students are there unwillingly now,” and they all chuckled in recognition.
When I asked why agents and managers in L.A. insist their performers take improv class, Bob said, simply, “Improv is one of the tools that adds nicely to all the other existing tools. It really improves what is already there.”
I caught up with the crew after one of their shows to discuss further.
On Tuesday, July 8th, 2014, Bob, Rich and Craig did an hour long improvised show. Rich asked for a suggestion of a piece of art that has not yet been made. The suggestion was “The Orange Mouthpiece.” The men repeated the suggestion, the lights went down, and when the lights came back up we were in Sal’s boxing gym.
His only two fighters were Nicky, an untalented, single father who had never been in the ring and Marty, a good boxer who had lost his confidence. The previous owner’s face was tacked to the wall. His actual face. It had been punched off years ago in a great fight.
There was a mangy cat, Clementine, who got kicked out of the workout area by Sal. We learned of an upcoming fight against Martinez, a hulking, 8 foot, 400 pound boxer. We saw Nicky with his 14 year old son and their frustrated but sensitive landlord. We saw Marty with his chatty, distracted girlfriend. All of the characters were deep and conflicted and clear.
The three improvisers unfolded a story that built from Sal’s declining health, through Marty quitting boxing, to Nicky having to fight the epic battle against Martinez. Just when Nicky was about to get killed in the ring there was a meow from offstage. Bob as Nicky frantically kicked the cat, Clementine, and Craig as Martinez immediately grasped at his own face, fighting off an imaginary cat and letting his defenses down.
The underdog won. The lights went down. The audience left brimming with laughter and satisfaction, quoting the show and the characters they would remember for weeks and years to come. And no one will ever see that show again.
The final fight was performed with both boxers facing the audience, one on either side of the stage, a move referred to in improv as “space bending.” Craig and Bob were both looking straight out into the dark of the theater with the lights shining in their eyes but they seemed to know each other’s every move as well as if they’d been facing each other.
Craig Cackowski: With the boxing match at the end I think it’s better to do it space bending because there’s something about two guys fighting in profile, punches aren’t really gonna land, it looks lame. I also know Dassie’s peripheral vision is so good and his physicality is so good that if, as Martinez, I threw a couple of clear punches, he’s going to react. He’s so in tune with what I’m doing. (to Bob) It was fun doing those Bluto/Popeye moves, you bouncing off the ropes, delivering a haymaker, and then the cat!
“We don’t know where the show is going. The cat is a really cool through-line. Craig just had a little idea, I made it my thing, got rid of him, he came back, he wins the fight.
And that’s the group mind.”
— Bob Dassi
Rachael Drummond: (to Bob Dassie) Did you know that the cat went onto his face when you kicked it?
Bob Dassie: No, but it was one of those things where I was kicking it away and when I realized it was on his face I thought, “aw, that’s such a brilliant fuckin idea.” It was a great choice.
Rachael Drummond: Let me ask about another point in the show that seemed impossible. Nicky was talking to Marty and there was a mention of Marty having a girlfriend. And suddenly everyone was in motion. Craig entered, Bob exited and Rich sat down. How did you do it?
Bob Dassie: It is our directive and we had a structure in mind today to explore the 3 characters outside of the scene we are in. So we all saw the opportunity and said, ok, something’s happening.
Rachael Drummond: I have heard all of you talk about the patience of slow play and the courage it takes to not get laughs for a span of time and then get that big laugh that you’ve worked for. There was a point in the show when Marty was going to rip off his boxing gloves and storm out. But he couldn’t get the gloves off himself. After a moment of trying with his teeth, the other two joined in the slowest, most awkward tug of war to help him. Rich, when you walked off the stage after getting those gloves off, it was the most joyful, satisfying exit. Instantly everyone was falling out of their seat laughing.
Craig Cackowski: I had a feeling he was going to do that so I thought, let’s make this as long and difficult as possible.
Rachael Drummond: Let me ask about the cat. When did you know it was going to win the fight?
Rich Talaricho: Craig created the cat in the beginning of the show just as a detail. And we could’ve let that detail go. But we all kept holding onto it.
Craig Cackowski: Right, it was just part of my image of a rundown studio.
Rich Talaricho: Well, once we knew that that guy’s face was on the wall and Sal’s condition was so bloody and you were coughing up blood and we were your only two fighters. It also made sense for me to be the guy who lost his confidence. I think that’s an old Highway to Heaven episode. (all laugh) I thought, that’s another aspect of that world, sometimes boxers lose their confidence. And he got out of the business. I loved that when Craig goes, “if only I had another boxer.” (everyone cracks up) It was kinda cool. Then we knew Bob would have to fight him and the story kind of appeared by us not chasing the story.
Bob Dassie: We don’t know where the show is going. The cat is a really cool through-line. Craig just had a little idea, I made it my thing, got rid of him, he came back, he wins the fight. And that’s the group mind. We’re watching and recognizing everything. The cat winning the fight is surprising to us and to the audience. But it happens because it’s not forgotten and that’s what makes the impact.
Dasariski performs every Tuesday night at 10:30 at iO West.
For more info check out www.dasariski.com
Dasariski performs every Tuesday night at 10:30 at iO West.
For more info check out www.dasariski.com