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Improv Wed Nov 14 2012
Whether it's through improv, sketch comedy or stand-up, Tara DeFrancisco has made her mark on Chicago's comedy scene. The Ohio native, named "Funniest Person in Chicago" by the Chicago Free Press and listed as "One to Watch" in Time Out Chicago, teaches improv and performs all around the Windy City at popular spots including ComedySportz and Second City. Currently, DeFrancisco can be seen as "Molly" in "Delusions of Grandeur," a "loosely scripted, Generation-Y" comedy series that airs on BLIP.TV.
Here, she talks about her love for improv, the impact of Internet television and the importance of nurturing Chicago's comedy and arts community.
You always knew you wanted to pursue a career in comedy; was there a particular show or a particular comedian that gave you the bug?
I knew from a pretty young age that I wanted to do comedy but I didn't have a specific kind of comedy that I watched or wanted to pursue. My brothers are older and they introduced me to "SNL," "SCTV," Monty Python, and things of that ilk. But I got a little "class clown-y" in my tween years and at that point, I started looking up to a lot of comedy heroes that everyone shares, you know, the "Gilda Radners," the "Bill Murrays" and people of that nature.
It looks like you were inspired by the legends...
I really loved Steve Martin and a lot of the other performers that were a generation or two above me. I watched a lot of stand up, too, but when I became a teenager, I really didn't know what the path was to getting into the kind of comedy I primarily do now, which is improvisation.
Did you know or have any idea where you would go to launch a career in improv?
Around the time I was in college, I heard that Chicago was sort of the mecca for improvisational study and there wasn't anything really like that at the time where I was from. It was just pretty hard to find at that point, so I made the move here after college--and sort of stumbled into it--and just hoped that I was right and that I was making the right move. It's one of those things I look back on now and think, "I can't believe I did that," because I had nothing. It wasn't like I had any idea that what I was doing was right.
What did you think of the improv scene once you actually arrived in Chicago?
Improvisation was sort of experiencing a big boom at the point--it was starting to become trendy. I came here around that point and started studying at iO and Second City and I got hired at Comedy Sportz--all three of them became my home pretty quickly and I performed at them for a long time. Improv caught fire with me because I realized all those people I looked up to started with that but you never hear about that unless you do it. No one knows what the path to becoming a sketch comedian is and now that people are learning that improv is very much a source, it's gotten bigger. At that point, I just took a risk. I just moved here and that's how it started.
You're quite known for your improv skills--what do you like best about this specific part of comedy?
I love it because I think as an adult, it's the closest you can get to a magic moment, where everything sort of falls into place. It's a connection; if you can experience a connection with a human being that's already amazing, but if you can have a comedic connection with another human being, that transcends things. Once you start doing improv, it sort of feels like a really super positive "happy drug"--you get really addicted to it. I know very few improvisers that start and walk away; you always sort of keep doing it forever.
Let's talk about the show "Delusions of Grandeur"--how did you hook up with Jake Sasseville and eventually become a main part of the cast?
I heard at first that they found me a long time ago through Second City and I then found out that maybe that was misinformation--that they had actually seen me through theater. One of the script supervisors saw me in an improvised musical called The DelTones and I think they recommended me, but from what I understand, I think the pilot had already been shot and they were looking for a few crucial roles that hadn't been filled yet. I got called randomly by a producer of the show and it kind of went from there. And when Jake and I met, it was the first day on set--the first day we started to shoot.
What did you think?
It was hilarious! As an improviser, it was awesome--it was walking into a thing not knowing very much, and being able to engage moment by moment in a show with very few parameters was amazing. Now as a sketch comedian, it was terrifying; it was funny to walk into a place and know that you had no script at all.
And through that, you wound up with one of the main characters, Molly. What was it like to find out you'd be playing one of the lead roles?
When I arrived on set the first day, I thought I was playing a different part, and then by the time make up and hair were done, I was playing a part I didn't even know I had. It was a constant adjustment but it was really easy and playful and fun. Everything you see is improvised for the most part, which is sort of what we'd call "structured improvisation." It's what "Curb Your Enthusiasm" does.
The show was originally slated to air on the ABC Family channel, but was pulled just a couple of weeks before it was to premiere. What were your thoughts when you heard that news?
First off, we don't really know much; the actors on the show don't know what happened behind close doors. We found out about it 2-3 days prior to it going on the air. Having gone through a lot on an interpersonal level, though, I mean, in comparison to anything like that, I was like, "Well, okay." Things change all the time in TV for sure, and I think that we all still had hopes that it was well done and that whatever it was for was what it was for. It's now on Blip.TV--and now that webisodes are so popular, that's not necessarily a bad way to go with a show like this.
There are indeed lots of successful and popular shows on the internet...
It's funny, Patton Oswalt said something like "Media is more controlled now than it ever has been and Hollywood is changing." The way it is now is that people now create their own content and people find them.
What's next for you?
Well, I do a lot of live theater--I'm pretty in love with it. I've had a couple of connections in other cities and I mean, you always want to keep doors open to things. Chicago is such a beautiful place but it's hard to really figure out what the next steps are and try to remain in a place where you want to build more work.
So is it that being an artist based in Chicago comes with challenges?
There's so much good art here--the theater, improv and music scene is so grand and wonderful that I think what we struggle with is how do we get ourselves to a sustainable point of living all the time. That's sort of where I am now. I teach, but I've been really lucky, though; I'm probably in a low percentage of people that makes their living solely off of this, but it's still a tough thing.
What do you think it will take to sustain the city's arts community?
I think in the cards next is how do we get more work here in Chicago or where do we go to bring light to Chicago; if I have to move to L.A. or New York, can I shine the light back on this city so that we can keep feeding it so that people don't feel like they have to leave? Chicago is the best; there's nothing that compares to the sense of community we have here. I think we can all stay here and keep fostering that spirit of the arts.