Jonny Waldes is a stage comedian with performances based out of Chapel Hill, NC at the DSI comedy club. At GTH, we have discovered that comedy in the Triangle is booming and we wanted a glimpse of the behind-the-scenes happenings when the comics and jokesters are off-stage. Comedy, we have found, is truly an art and it takes diligence and practice to succeed. We are so grateful to Jonny for opening up about his talent, inspiration, and the importance of teamwork when performing the art of improvisation.
GTH: Jonny, you have been performing comedy for four years. How did get involved with comedy and improvisation (improv) arts?
JW: I Googled “Comedy Classes.” I signed up for Long Form Improv Level 1 at ComedyWorx theater in Raleigh, taught by Dan Sipp. I had no idea what improv was. I remember in the first class being told, “no one can teach you to be funny, you are probably here because you are already funny and people have told you are funny, but I can teach you about improv.”
GTH: Tell us about your first time performing–what are some key events and details you remember from that performance?
JW: My first time performing was at ComedyWorx, in the Break Room. It was a show for new students. I remember being paralyzed on the sidelines of the stage incapable of taking that one step out on the stage to do my piece. What seemed really easy in front of my peers and teacher was mortifying to do in front of a live audience. Honestly leading up to my first performance, I was pretty sure I was just going to finish the courses of improv classes and leave it be. While I felt so defeated after my first performance, I was immediately hooked. I was determined to overcome my anxieties and be capable of doing anything on the stage.
JW: Performing a lot is the only way to become a good improviser. One time I tried to count and realized I’d been in over 100-something shows and now I have no idea how many I’ve been in. Improv is also rehearsed weekly, which a lot of people think is funny since improv is made up [on the spot]. Working with a lot of different people makes you better. You meet all kinds of talent and characters. You learn how to play to people’s strengths. You experience different people’s comfort level with humor and their artistic boundaries. I am incredibly lucky to get to perform, collaborate, travel, and be friends with these people. Some of the funniest things I have ever heard or seen were not in movies or on TV, but in front of my eyes performed by some of my best friends.
GTH: Will you be traveling for the Del Close Marathon in NYC this year?
JW: Yes, I have performed in the Del Close Marathon the last 3 years. All three years with Diversity Training, and this year with Capote Ugly as well. It is a blast. The Marathon is sponsered by the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater. It is the largest improv festival in the universe and it commemorates the late Del Close who pioneered the type of improv we perform today. Over 400 groups from around the world perform 24 hours a day throughout the weekend on 8 stages.
GTH: You have goals to become a TV writer. What are the differences between writing comedy and performing?
JW: I like to tell people my goal is to be a TV writer. When I turn on the TV I immediately start complaining that everything is so bad, and I could do a much better job. My wife indulges me to some degree but mostly just wants me to hush. Because I devote a lot of time to my comedy, I like to fantasize that I could achieve gainful employment in comedy. Unfortunately, I devote just about all my available time to unwritten improv comedy. Working on writing sketch and standup comedy are on my to-do list. And so is getting a black belt in karate. One thing that is interesting though, is that when you are performing improv you are literally writing a script, acting, directing and telling jokes all live to an audience. The really magical part is that this is a one-time epic story with dynamite characters you just had to be there to see, because improv comedy is one time only and gone forever.
GTH: You are a long form improviser– where you perform an extended improv play based off of an audience suggestion– correct? What is the appeal for performing long form rather than short form improv?
JW: I perform long and short form improv. Most improv nerds will extol the virtues of long form over short form as it is considered more of an art form and short form is derided as “parlor tricks” and “kid’s games.” The truth is a little more complicated because there are ways that both long and short form improv are hokey and ways that they are both fantastic performance art. The main difference is that in short form, a host or referee tells the audience what game is about to be played: they explain the game, ask for a suggestion, call out the improvisers, declare the start of the game let it go for a couple minutes and then call the end of the game. A lot of times there are two teams competing for laughs. In long form improv a group of people come on the stage and ask for one suggestion in then launch into series of scenes, and pretty much anything can happen for 15 to 60 minutes until the lights turn off. Most inexperienced audiences find short form improv to be more accessible. A lot of improvisers perfer long form. Yet I have met a bunch who prefer the straight forward and proven formula of making people laugh in short form shows. Really, excellent improvisers are great at both. And doing both makes you a better improviser.
GTH: What are some of the more memorable audience suggestions you have received?
JW: I have heard the suggestion spatula and blender both a dozen times. Likewise for “dildo.” Drunk adult audiences love giving that suggestion. The best dildo shows are when you do take the dildo but it doesn’t inspire a filthy show, you turn it around into a show about earth quakes or bullet trains or something.
GTH: You currently coach improv groups and would like to someday formally teach the improv art. Would you be willing to provide a few quick pointers for novice performers?
JW: Well practice, practice, practice. Watch a lot of shows. Find any opportunities you can to perform. Take classes. Attend workshops. Start a team with your friends. Don’t focus so much on trying to be funny. One of the biggest pointers I can give people is not to treat comedy as a competitive or adversarial environment. There is no such thing as “winning a scene” or “stealing a show” in a way that is positive. I have never been in a great show where everyone doesn’t do great. I have never been on a good team where everybody didn’t get along. You never get better by judging other people’s skill levels, or blaming a poor performance on your inability to revive the show from the failures of others. The only way to be great is to focus on how you can support everyone else, how to make them look better, recognize that should only be doing your equitable share of the work. Another big tip I have for improvisers is not to assume you can’t do something just because you have never seen it done. Try anything and everything!
GTH: On your profile for DSI it reads, “Jonny is very thankful to every single person he has been privileged to play with because they have taught him so much about how to be a better improviser and a better person.” Can you expand on how comedy (and the people involved) have made you a better person?
JW: Improv teaches you how to listen better. It teaches you to make yourself vulnerable. Walking out on stage with no lines requires a great deal of trust in your partners. It reminds me a lot of when I played football. “I have your back” is a constant reminder we all give eachother before shows. Like any team sport it teaches you that you are just one part of a unit that must work well together. It is humbling. Your most valuable asset towards your success is your reputation and the impression you make on people you perform with. No one likes to play with jerks, no matter how talented they are.
GTH: In your own words, how does comedy contribute to a creative community?
I think comedy is at the center of all creativity. Comedy is one of the most desired and sought after forms of entertainment and self expression. Specifically, improv comedy theater, as found by the late Del Close, just take a look at some of his students to get an idea of how influential it is.
See a show, speak with Jonny, or just sit back for some laughs at DSI Comedy Theater, Chapel Hill NC.
Links suggested by Jonny:
Here is a good piece on ComedyWorx’s 25th anniversary. It covers a lot of the history of improv in the triangle:
In May DSI theater moved to an awesome new venue on Franklin Street in Chapel Hill!