Improvising skits and composing folk music with Tim Joyce

By , July 27, 2009 9:49 am

Funnyman and musician Tim Joyce

Funnyman and musician Tim Joyce

Tim Joyce, a Second City improv student and folk musician talks about his passion for performing.  Like the best musicians and comedians, Tim strives to keep learning, changing and improving his skills. When you have some free time, you should watch him perform at the Second City and catch a late night brewsky with him at the Old Town Ale House.

F: Many people enjoy comedy without ever trying it themselves. Based on your experience, what are the biggest differences between being on stage and sitting in the audience?

T: This is a tough question. I think the differences are far fewer than most people think. What really makes people laugh are the things that they can identify with. Most people know when things are funny, and funny stuff happens in our lives everyday. When you see someone on stage in a funny situation and you recognize it as something that has happened or could happen to you, it makes you laugh. The one big difference: as a performer, you are putting your self out there. You and your life experience can get laid out for everyone to see. If someone yells out “embarrassment” as a suggestion, you may likely have to deal with the time that you wet your pants in gym class in second grade. And there is the rub, you will have to deal with it in front of a bunch of strangers. (That didn’t happen to me though…)

F: What was your first routine like?

T: My real first stab at comedy was as a little kid. I would jam a globe under my t-shirt and pretend I was an uncle who had quite a large gut. People laughed. Turn about is fair play I guess, because now my nieces and nephews get to do the same thing to me. One of my more recent opportunities to perform in front of a non family audience was at the end of my first year at the Second City. There were definitely some nerves and the fear that I would screw something up, but as soon as I stepped out on the stage, I forgot I was nervous. You trust that your teammates will not let you down, and have to trust that you are being honest and make sure you are having fun, and things will work out.

F: How would you describe your comedic style?

T: I think that is always evolving, especially in improv. Currently, I think I am a slow burn type of guy. When it comes to improvisation, I find myself taking a lot of time to let things sink in. Not that I am slow on the uptake, but I might react with a facial expression or a movement of my body before anything comes out of my mouth. This might be out of necessity at this point in my training. I’m still learning. It would be nice to be one of those people who can say what seems like the right thing every single time. I think a lot of that comes with practice: The more you do it, the more comfortable you get. (At least I keep telling myself that.)

F: How do you learn in comedy class?

T: I think the key is listening. It sounds corny, and you hear it all the time, but you have to pay attention. I learn more from watching my classmates than any other way. Seeing how they succeed and how they fail is the best instruction. And I think failing is a huge part of improv. You have to be able to let yourself screw up, forget about it, and move on.

F: Do people always ask you tell jokes? How hard is it to improvise something funny on the fly?

T: “Tell me a joke” happens pretty often. But more often is “Do something funny,” or “Do an improv!” I try, in the nicest way possible, to explain to people that it is not a crazy-hands, toe-tappin’ cigar-in-the-mouth Vaudeville thing. I try to explain that it is more often the people you work with who make you funny. It is getting in a scene with them and connecting with them that gets the laughs, it is about people in the audience being able to recognize something you are doing as something they might do, or more likely something they have already done. I guess to answer the question: “On the fly” is what it is all about, but it feels most rewarding when you have a partner in crime who knows the ropes a little bit.  This answer doesn’t usually leave family members very satisfied at Thanksgiving though, and that is usually the time I pull a joke out of the old funny bag.

F: What do you think of the comedy scene here in Chicago, especially improv?

T: I think Chicago is an amazing and incredibly supportive place for improv. I have spent a lot of time in the music scene here in Chicago and I find them very similar: Two very supportive groups of people with a lot of overlap. On any given night in Chicago you have access to some of the most accomplished performers in their fields. You can see a musician at the Old Town School of Folk Music on one night and the next night they will be playing at a little club in Evanston. Or, you can see someone on the mainstage at Second City one week and then see them at the iO or The Annoyance the next week. All for not that much cash, really. Great for the audiences, not so great for the performers. But a testament to how much people love performing. (Pay: another sad but true similarity between music and improv.)

F: Second City has some pretty famous alums: can that be intimidating while taking classes at the Training Center? What do you want to do after you perfect your craft?

T: There is no doubt that history surrounds you at The Second City. There are reminders everywhere about all the other people who preceded you: old flyers, posters, paintings. even the people who are training you are part of that history.  It is intimidating at first, knowing that all these famous folks who came through the programs and performed at Second City. But as a student, the real solace is something I mentioned before: knowing they all failed at some point and kept plugging along. I don’t really have an end goal in mind at this point really. Right now, I just want to really continue plowing through to be able to get good at this. I don’t know if you can ever perfect the craft of improv either. It seems that even the best performers are always learning and changing and getting better, even the ones you think are already geniuses.

F: You also work at the Old Town School of Folk Music, a singular presence on the Chicago music scene. What distinguishes folk music (from classical or pop, for example)?

T: I think folk actually has a pretty expansive definition. People usually just think of the sixties folk revival most of the time, but I think it extends way beyond that.  A lot of musical genres have more folk in them than people realize. The points where musical genres overlap are what I find the most interesting and I like music and artist that are blurring those lines. For example, one thing that is exciting to me right now are the groups of younger classical musicians who are playing smaller group shows in venues that normally wouldn’t be for classical music, and not necessarily playing all classical pieces.

F: How does comedy relate to music, particularly folk music?

T: I think there is a real similarity on the learning level. You have to practice to improve. No one can just sit down and pick up a Banjo and play Bluegrass having never touched a banjo before. The same way that no one can jump up on stage and be an expert improviser from the get go. You need a little instruction and you need to practice. You need to learn the basics. In banjo, it is chord shapes, tunings, clawhammer style, Scruggs picking technique… In improv it is dialogue rules, how to react, how to move your body, how to listen and respond…  And then after you get the basics down, you can decide what you like, what you want to continue to use, and find out where you want to go from there.

F: Do you think folk music is becoming more popular with listeners and/or musicians?

T: I do. Even though I would love to expand the definition of folk, there are things that definitely fall into the folk category for many people. It seems like every time you turn around there is another band that has a fiddle player, or a ukulele, or a strange Appalachian instrument in it. I think that is a good thing.

F: What are your favorite places to go in the Old Town neighborhood? What do you think Old Town has to recommend it (above other Chicago neighborhoods)?

T: Ahhhh the Fudge Pot. One of my favorite places in Chicago. You can get chocolate shaped like anything there. I think Old Town is a great neighborhood because of it’s accessibility. Once you are there, you can spend the whole day in a few block radius. This would be mine: I am a bit of a food geek, so I’d hit the Spice House and Old Town Oil then grab Lunch and a smoothie at Fresh Choice, proceed to dessert at the Fudge pot, grab dinner at Trattoria Pizzeria Roma, Catch a show at the Second City, then hit the Old Town Ale house for a late night beer.

F: You said you also run a record label with friends… tell me more about that.

T: The label is called Contraphonic. Part of the label is a traditional record label with a roster of bands running the gamut from freaky folk music, to giant experimental jazz orchestras, to 70’s style pop music. The other part is a Chicago History based project called the Chicago Sound Series. There are two parts to that currently. Little Hell is a Series (currently 4 volumes) in which we have musicians compose short, e.p. length musical interpretations of historical people, places, or events related to Chicago. The second portion is called “ A Lot You Got to Holler.” The “Hollers” are very short studies/field recordings of things in and around Chicago. Those are free downloads on our site.

F: And, finally, please tell me how you manage to pursue all these diverse interests and find time to sleep!

T: It is difficult. But when you are lucky enough to be involved in things that really mean something to you, it makes it easier. The excitement and enjoyment I feel when I am about to head to a class at Second City, record with my band, or watch a show at the Hideout keeps me going. (Plus I have a very supportive wife.)

F: There is another comedian named Tim Joyce based in Chicago – also associated with Second city, no less! Have there been any embarrassing mix-ups between the two of you?

F: I get the occasional Facebook message for him, but nothing major. Wait, I’m not even sure it was the same Tim Joyce, but there was this time in college…(cue flashback music)… It was the final day of a History class I was taking. The day before the exam and the professor asked me to see him after class. He pulls a Chicago Tribune out of his desk drawer, looks me in the eye and says “I need to know if this is you” He slaps the Local section of the paper down on the desk and there is a giant photo of Barney the dinosaur. I begin to read the article and the first lines say something like: “ Every weekend local actor Tim Joyce dons his Barney suit to entertain kids on the North Shore of Chicago…” I vehemently denied it until he finally believed me. But before I left I asked if it would have affected my grade, and he said very honestly “Very likely, I can’t just overlook these kinds of things.”

F: Any other cool things we should know about you?

T: I am addicted to cooking Italian food. I am a rabid cookbook reader, not a big fan of roller coasters, I love visiting Montana, and I used to drive a school bus.

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