On paper, Charna Halpern is intimidating. Really intimidating. Through her partnership with Del Close, she co-founded ImprovOlympic, developed The Harold and helped launch the careers of everyone from Chris Farley to Matt Besser to Rachel Dratch. Oh, and she introduced Amy Poehler to Tina Fey.
In person, Halpern is a warm, Midwestern, cool aunt type. She drives a convertible, brings her dogs everywhere, and never hesitates to say exactly what’s on her mind. Her no-nonsense demeanor may make you forget she’s a kingmaker and a legend until she offhandedly mentions getting high with Del Close. Someone give this woman a reality show.
You got into improv when you were in college, right?
I did not. Well, yeah. I did. I was a double major in Speech and English and I was going into education and we had to do theatre as a part of that. We got to do some improv and I really liked it. I also had to do plays. My plays, a lot of times, I had things happened where they turned out to be comedy by accident. So I started to realize that I might like that better. But really I wasn’t going into that.
After college, I became a teacher and I was teaching juvenile delinquents. I was a teacher and I was doing that, and my grant fell through after three years. They couldn’t get another grant and they asked me to stay for a terrible amount of money. I would have, except at the same time I had just, as a fluke, was in Dixon [Illinois] where my father was starting his first McDonald’s. It was a big deal in the town. They had no fast food. So they were excited and they had this guy interviewing everyone, and he didn’t really care. He was this old man in this small town and his job was to interview people at McDonald’s. You can imagine how excited he was about it. I wanted it to be great for my dad so I took [the microphone] and started interviewing people and having fun and then they offered me a job! The radio station offered me a job. I started doing radio there for about a year and I came back [to Chicago] and started doing improv.
So you went to Second City?
I went to Second City Player’s Workshop. It was a different school. And they eventually took the name away from this woman Jo Forsberg who was really great and, yeah, it was OK. But, you know, there was no such thing as long form until I came on the scene with Del.
I studied with Paul Sills and I studied at Player’s Workshop, but we didn’t really learn all the secrets of the universe until I hooked up with Del Close. At that time I was doing ImprovOlympic. I’d read about it in something and thought it was wonderful right away. David Shepherd was doing it in Canada and couldn’t get it to happen in Chicago and it was my first big revelation. I thought, “I can do this. I have an improv troupe. Dan Castellaneta has an improv troupe.” I knew I could make this happen. I absolutely knew I could make this happen. I knew that this is what I would be doing. And for about a year, it was very successful but also very commercially successful because I had identity teams like a team of rabbis called The God Squad and a team of psychologists called Freudian Slip, so it was a lot of press but some of it was very cheesy too. And there were problems, like the rabbis couldn’t play on Fridays.
So I decided I wanted to make the work better, not just doing games. That there had to be something more than just the games. And there really wasn’t. It was just the games. And that’s when I met Del. I approached him to teach a class to make three hundred bucks and some pot. And he did and he opened the secrets of the universe to us, and I said to him, “You know, can we work together some more?” and he said “If you see something else for improvisation, then you’re somebody I want to work with. Because Bernie Sahlins is making millions at Second City so he doesn’t want to make any changes and I was working on something in the 60’s with The Committee called The Harold which is still unteachable and unplayable but if you want to close down your little workshop we can smush our things together and make this something that we can have on stage.” I was like, “Yes please! Let’s do that.” And it became so popular. You know, now everyone’s doing it all over the world. I’m going to Peru in a few weeks to teach in Lima. People want to do it everywhere.
How old were you when you met Del?
Um. I would say my twenties. It was 1981. And I’m gonna be sixty in June. So, a long time ago.
And how did you meet exactly?
It’s actually a funny story. I heard of Del and I thought maybe he was the guy who could help me. Cause I was kinda getting tired of the little games. Whose Line Is It Anyway type games. I heard he was doing a show at an art gallery with some of his students from Second City. And Del was a witch. He was Pagan. I went there one night and he had his robes on, and it was dark and it was Halloween so he made it really scary. He had his magic wand. At the time I was meditating. I was doing [Transcendental Meditation] and we were told you have to “white light” yourself before you meditate because demons will try to get you and you have to protect yourself and so you know, I was a new student and I was believing all that stuff.
So I go in there one night and he was evoking gods of the East and demons of the West and forgetting what my goal was, why I even came in the first place, I was so mad! He was so creepy. I went up to him and I was like, “You’ve got nerve evoking demons in front of all these people!” No one was protected. No one was white lighted. I knew so much, you know, I was at least a three-week student in meditation. And he said “I protected the building” and I said “You can’t do that!” and he was like “Yes I can!” and I just walked off in a huff. I went “Ugh, that’s not what my goal was at all.” So then about a month later I saw him at CrossCurrents, which is where I was performing. There was a big bar with a lobby and stuff like that.
So, um, he was across the room. Del had a reputation for never remembering anybody. He was always stoned. So I thought, “That was a month ago. He saw me in the dark. He’s not gonna remember me.” So I didn’t worry about it. I thought, “Now I’m going to do what I originally wanted to do.” So he’s sitting there and I walked up to him and I said “Hey, how’d you like to make two hundred bucks and some pot?” I knew he liked pot. He says “Um, what do I gotta do?” and I said “Just teach one three hour class.” I thought “I’ll see what I can steal from this guy” and he goes “Can I do anything I want?” I said “Yes” and he goes “Can I evoke demons?” I was like “Ugh, he knows me.” And said “Yeah, you can evoke demons.”
He did a class that night and he was amazing. He even showed me what he was doing, this thing called invocation, which is one of my favorite openings but not evoking demons at all. It’s a little bit of a classic possession but it’s still very, very cool. We talked afterwards and he said “Well, you’re not a twit after all if you want something more from improvisation. Yes, there is something beyond these games and we can work together if you’re willing to close down.” I was like “Yes, I will.”
So we were partners for nineteen years and it was the best experience in the world. It was so much fun. He taught us everything. We took some of my little games and made those openings. We kind of built The Harold out of his main ideas and some of my games. It worked out. Now people are just inventing stuff on the spot. It was the training wheels Harold at the time.
A lot of people say he was a misogynist. Obviously you were very close. What are your feelings on that reputation?
People say that. [Pause] Del didn’t like stupid people and he didn’t like people who wouldn’t challenge themselves. So a lot of women took it as “Oh, he’s misogynist” because he wouldn’t like a woman who took a scene and would go “Hi honey, I’m making lemonade.” He wanted — he believed long ago — he was more of a champion for women than many women. “Can’t you be a CEO? Can’t you be something else except for a housewife?” Maybe women took that wrong. You know, women ran his life. I ran his life. He was my partner and my best friend and he did what I told him to do. His agent was a woman named Elizabeth Geddes and he loved her. If you were a fool he didn’t have any patience for you. If you were intelligent he would like and respect you.
I don’t think he was really a misogynist. I think he was a curmudgeon. He was an amazing teacher. He was scary and he wanted to help you. There were times when if you didn’t respect the work and you didn’t respect the tempo that was his classroom, he might really get pissed off at you. But mostly he was a very good teacher and very supportive and very funny and if you just listened to him you would learn a lot. You could learn a lot of things.
So he was a curmudgeon, he was scary but he was brilliant. You know, this is a man who overcame so much. He was a junkie, he was an alcoholic, he was a cocaine addict, but through his witchcraft and his coven rituals he overcame all that. The only thing he couldn’t overcome is cigarettes. That’s what killed him. So keep that in mind. What is the most dangerous drug, ladies and gentlemen?
It kind of seems like you guys were opposites. What was your dynamic?
We had a lot of fun together. Del was funny. Smoking a joint with Del and sitting there, you’d laugh your ass off. You’d learn a lot too because he’d go “Oh, if you’re interested in that you’ve got to read this too. Before you read that, you have to read this.”
So we had fun. He was fun. He was fun. I mean, my life got significantly more boring after he died. But our dynamic was we knew how far to push each other and we knew when to give in. Del would say “I’m quitting iO because they learned how to do Harold and that was my goal. I’m done.” I’d be like “No, Del. We have so many things to do together and now we can go beyond that. That’s just crazy. This is who you are. You’re a great teacher. It’s your responsibility.” I would nag him about that. So we both knew when we had to give in to each other. He listened to logic and I did too.
Whenever we had problems, he would say something that was so funny and so logical and so right and it would just give me a new way to look at things. And he did that even with my directing and fixing scenes. There were times when I couldn’t fix a scene and I’d go “What would Del do?” and it always helped. I was able to access his thinking just by knowing him so well. That made me such a better teacher.
So he was very unique and very fun. Very funny man. Very, very smart and very funny. He knew anything. Somebody could come in here and talk about something and he would know about it because he’s read everything. He’s got books floor to ceiling. His hygiene habits were terrible and well, some of his logic. This is also why he needed me. I kinda saved his life in a way. I have a reputation for that.
I’d walk into his apartment when I first met him. He had books floor to ceiling but nothing anywhere else. It was filthy. Roaches everywhere. And he would just flick them off. This is how Second City let him live. They were enablers to him. In fact, when Bernie [Sahlins] would change scenes, Del would be upset and [Bernie] would just give him a bottle and he’d go pass out. I’d said to him “We gotta get you out of here. You have to get a real place.” So I got him a nice, clean place across from my house because didn’t have a phone and he said he didn’t have a phone because he’d go to jail. I was like, “What do you mean, you’ll go to jail?” and he said “Because if the president is on TV and he says something I don’t like, I’ll call and threaten his life and the police will come and get me and I’ll go to jail. So no phone.” I said, “Alright, well you need to be next to me so I can take your calls until I can convince you to get a phone.” Then eventually we worked on that. If something happened with the president, he’d call me first.
He had a pop box with all his money in it. He said “Well, I can’t have a bank account because if I walk along the beach and I fall in the water and my bank book gets wet I won’t be able to get my money.” And I was like “No. That’s not true.” I mean he was illogical about little, minor things but brilliant about other concepts.
You know, he had a broken TV set that he’d sit on the end of the bed and turn the channel with a wrench. And I got him a nice new apartment with a bed and a study pillow and a remote control and he was like “Oh my god, honey, this is amazing!” I mean I changed his life. He learned he could cook in his apartment. You didn’t have to go to a restaurant for every meal because you have roaches in your house. And his life slowly changed. And he used to be very unreliable so nobody would hire him as an actor. But I taught him how to be responsible and reliable and I helped manage him for a while then he started doing his own thing and he started getting lots of work in movies cause the reputation was that Close went sane. He used to be insane then Close went sane. He told me I changed his life and put his dream on stage. He saved my life. So, we saved each other’s lives. It was a great relationship.
There’s a lot of talk right now in the media about a lack of women in comedy. Why do you think women are less visible?
I don’t think that’s true and I keep hearing that from the press too. “Why are there so few women in comedy?” I mean, that’s not true. There’s great women in comedy, there’s great women on Saturday Night Live, there’s great women in stand-up, there are great women at the theatre. So that’s just not true anymore. There are amazing women here and a lot of women. Long ago, there wasn’t but now there are. And look at the women who are on top on TV. Amy Poehler has a TV show, Tina Fey has a TV show. Look at Kristen Wiig. You just can’t say there’s not women in comedy. Some of the best people are women.
What do you say to women who are discouraged?
The women who are discouraged see themselves as victims and they have to stop that. They say “Men steamroll me.” You just have to make good choices and not allow yourself to be steamrolled. Tina [Fey] and Amy [Poehler] were never steamrolled. They were never victims. You just have to make choices. I see women like Stephnie Weir. Someone when she was performing here said to her — a man said to her — “Honey, I brought some people home for dinner.” And she said “Well that’s fine, but I did ask you in front of people to please call me Madame President.”
So, you see, you can make choices for yourself. You don’t have to be the woman who makes dinner. She would also be willing to lose. She would. I remember another scene that her husband did with her before they were husband and wife and he said to her — he played a thirteen year old boy — he said “I took my bond money from my Bar Mitzvah and cashed it in so I could buy myself a prostitute” and he handed her the money and she said “You’re thirteen?” and he said “Yes” and she said “So am I!” It was the most heartbreaking, beautiful scene I ever saw in my life.
She was never a victim and that’s what I tell women. I don’t teach women how to improvise. I don’t teach men how to improvise. I teach players how to improvise. You have to make strong choices for yourself. There isn’t a way for women to play and men to play. You have to be equal and you have to make each other look good and you have to make strong choices for yourself. I’ve seen men get steamrolled just as I’ve seen women get steamrolled. You have to be out there, you have to be bold, you have to trust and be trusted. Stop being a victim. Just refuse.
Does it ever bother you that Second City gets so much credit for shaping comedians and creating the Chicago improv culture?
Yep. Yeah. [Pause] It’s my biggest frustration and many people in the press know it. Especially because there’s a lot of people in the press, not just in Chicago, who just don’t know shit. So someone could be here like Adam McKay for years and years and years and do one show with Second City and get hired for Saturday Night Live because I told them to go look at him and it’s “Second City’s Adam McKay” but now it’s happening less and less because people are just coming from here and not Second City. It is very frustrating. It’s not happening so much in Chicago because the press here knows me and they know the truth and they know what’s going on but there are people who don’t know anything. There was even a national story the other day about UCB.
Yeah, I saw that. On the Brian Williams show.
They were saying Adam McKay and Jack McBrayer were from there. No they’re not! And I’m not saying that UCB said that. The press doesn’t listen. They don’t care. They may have said they play there all the time. Because they do, they play there when they’re in New York City. And then they write that they’re from UCB. They’re showing pictures of Adam [McKay] and Horatio [Sans] and I’m like “What? No!” So it’s frustrating and there’s not much you can do about it. You can’t be a crazy lady calling the news.
It’s kind of ridiculous because people perform here every night on multiple teams all the time and then they maybe get one show on stage at Second City.
I know! It’s just the press being ignorant. I’ve had friends being interviewed like [David] Koechner will call me and Adam [McKay] they’ll say “Oh, I did a great interview. You’ll love it. I talk about my start at iO.” And then, because they don’t know what they’re doing, they’ll write “He started at an improv troupe in Chicago.” Because they don’t know what iO is. Adam will call me and be like “I told them iO!” and I’ll be like, “I know!” and I know he did. I know they did. Koechner won’t let that happen though. Koechner makes sure they write “iO, a Chicago improv theatre.” You can tell by the way the story is written that Koechner is emphatic that it’s iO.
I mean, Koechner. What a guy. When he was at Saturday Night Live, he called me one night and he said “Be sure to watch the show and stay ‘til the end.” And I go “Ok.” I watched the show and at the end he’s wearing an iO t-shirt which he took and he reversed because it’s iO on the back and he pointed and when they were all saying goodnight, he actually walked up to the camera and blocked everything out but the iO and I thought “He’s gonna get fired” and he eventually did. I don’t know if it’s because of that but I wouldn’t be surprised.
You know, Second City’s been around 50 years and I’ve been around 30. It’s hard. It’s hard to break in there. It’s just like what I tell the students. You just gotta love the work and forget about the rest or you’ll go crazy.
What would your advice be for people that want to start to do improv and people that are afraid to do improv?
Well, if you want to start to do improv I’d say come to iO because we give you opportunities. We give you an opportunity to come on stage and that’s why all those people like Tina [Fey] and Amy [Poehler] love iO. At Second City you do your classes and you get your t-shirt and you’re gone. iO gives you a chance to play and get good. I work with all the agents and tell them who’s good and who’s great. On sight they’ve signed people. I think iO is the place to be. We have the best teachers.
If you think that you want to [do improv] but you’re scared just take a Level One class. Sometimes people are afraid because they have the wrong idea of what it is. A lot of people think “I’m just not that quick. I’m not that witty.” I think “Good, because that’s not what I want.” We don’t want you to be witty. This isn’t about being funny. It’s about listening and saying yes to each other’s ideas and remembering and reconnecting the ideas. This is a real thinking mans game. Wit is foam on the beer. You blow it away. There’s nothing there. We don’t need it. We need real thinking and we don’t want you to try to be funny because the humor doesn’t come from you making jokes. The humor and the laughs come from the seriousness of the scene. We have to do good scene work. If it’s truthful for us, we share the same world.
People might be scared because they think they have to do things they really don’t have to do. I’m teaching you to be yourself. What would you do in real life? We’re asking you to bring real slices of life to the stage. Don’t try to be somebody else. It’s you with some extra stuff. That’s a character. How would you be if this happened to you? That’s all. If you found someone robbing your apartment and you walked in, what would you do? Don’t try to be jokey and say “Here, take all my things.” You’d have to talk to this person.
It’s all about communicating. It’s about listening. So [improv] is a great thing. I think [improv] should be taught in high schools. I think we’re saving our corner of the world because we’re teaching people to be better people. We’re making people listen and take care of each other and work as a group. So, I think everyone should have to do it. So I’d say to the scared people, just think of taking a class that makes you a better person. And that’s not scary.
Deidre Davis is a writer and waitress living in Chicago. She tumbls here and twitters here.