Craig Cackowski on ‘Trust Us With Your Life’ and Improv on TV

Craig Cackowski is a long-time improv performer, teacher and coach, and a well-regarded veteran of Chicago’s Second City and iO (Improv Olympic) theaters. Now residing in Los Angeles, he performs regularly in celebrated improv ensembles Quartet at iO West and Dasariski at UCB, as well as shows at Second City Hollywood. You might know him best as Officer Cackowski, the no-nonsense campus cop on NBC’s Community. This summer, you can see him as one of the guest performers in ABC’s new series Trust Us With Your Life, a Whose Line Is It, Anyway?-style show in which host Fred Willard interviews celebrities like Ricky Gervais and David Hasslehoff, and then improv actors – Wayne Brady, Colin Mochrie, Jonathan Mangum, and a rotating cast – perform short-form improv games based on the interviews. The series runs for eight episodes starting July 10 at 9 p.m.

I had a chance to sit down with Craig and talk to him about his experience working on the show, performing improv on stage versus television, and the prospects of a long-form improv TV show.

What is Trust Us With Your Life, and how did it come about?

Trust Us With Your Life is kind of like Whose Line Is It, Anyway? crossed with a talk show. It was created by Dan Patterson, who created Whose Line. He’s a Brit, and he works in London, so we shot the whole series in London. He’s working with a lot of the improvisers he’s worked with before – Wayne Brady, Colin Mochrie, Greg Proops, Brad Sherwood. Jonathan Mangum is one of the other regulars – he’s Wayne’s long-time improv partner. I was kind of the odd man out, in that nobody already knew me or had worked with me when I came in.

How did you come to be a part of it?

I think Dan Patterson saw me in a showcase in Second City [Hollywood] months before the taping of the shows. Sometime last year there was a showcase that Josh Funk put together that was a bunch of the Second City alums and teachers there. And I remember meeting Dan briefly afterwards – he was visiting from London – and I thought nothing of it. Then I got a call from my manager months later saying, “They’re trying to hire you for this ABC sketch show.” She called it sketch show for some reason, probably because she refuses to believe improv exists. (Laughs.)

So I arrived in London, jet lagged. My friend, Nicole Parker, was also doing it. She’s a Boom Chicago veteran who I’ve known through iO and Second City, and she was equally clueless as me as to why she was there. And literally after getting off the plane, and a long limo ride to the hotel, we were in a rehearsal, like, 15 minutes later, with Colin and Jonathan and Wayne and Fred Willard.

I didn’t realize rehearsals were part of the process. What were those like?

There were four days of rehearsals before we did the first taping. We rehearsed all week and then taped on the weekends. I was terrified the whole time that I was going to be fired, sent home. I couldn’t sleep already because of the jetlag and the nerves made it even worse. I don’t think I slept for three solid days in London. But the good thing is, we went out for drinks with the three main cast members, and myself and Nicole, after the first rehearsal, and Colin Mochrie was like, “This is how every Dan Patterson show goes. The rehearsals are terrifying. They’re shitty.” Because we’re basically trying out the structure of the games, and Dan is trying out different games to see how they would play. And because we had no celebrities there, we would have fake celebrities, so one of the interns would pretend to be Angelina Jolie or Keith Richards, and Fred would interview them, and they had stock answers that they were supposed to give. Then, we would improvise off their answers. That’s how we rehearsed.

But then Dan would sadistically make us do this Angelina thing like, five times, with the same game, with the same suggestion. And as an improviser, there’s just no way to bring something fresh when you’re hearing the same suggestions over and over. (Laughs.) So Colin would reassure us that this is how Whose Line had always gone, telling us, “Don’t worry, you’re doing great.”

Improv gets a lot of its magic from being in the moment. Did it ever grow stale having to do the same thing over and over?

The shoots themselves were pure improv. In the rehearsals, we would repeat a lot of the same games, just to practice that game, especially when it was new to one of the cast members. And new people kept coming in throughout the week. And then I guess Dan ran out of suggestions, because he would use the same setup, the same celebrities. We had to do this Angelina and Brad Pitt in Africa running from poachers scene over and over until there was just nothing funny about it anymore. (Laughs.)

I had always wondered about the Whose Line structure, having watched that show for years. I had heard that they shoot way more than they use, and I wondered, do they repeat games? Do they go back and punch up lines or anything? And it was interesting to see the taping, and nope, everything is purely improvised. Maybe once or twice we repeated a game, but we got brand new suggestions for it. We never repeated the same scene. So what you’ll see on TV is pretty much exactly how we did it in front of the studio audience that day.

What kind of games do you do after the interviews?

We would do a game where the celebrity told an anecdote to Fred, and then the improvisers will replay the anecdote, and begin to take liberties with it, and the celebrity has a bell and a horn – it’s kind of like “Take That Back,” in a way – where if they want us to change something, they honk the horn, if they want us to keep going in the vein that we’re in, they ring the bell. That’s one thing that they’ll do.

Jonathan, Wayne and Colin do this thing called Sideways Scene, where they’re on the floor, but the camera’s above them. That’s really cool. It looks like there are special effects going on. We’ll do Shrinking Scene, where you repeat the scene faster and faster. So, a lot of short-form standards. Musical games. I try to let Wayne sing as much as possible.

What was it like playing with people like Wayne, Brad, and Colin? Did you have to adjust your playing style at all?

For the most part, I played like I play, because, I mean, that’s all I got. (Laughs.) But one thing is that I’m a very verbal player. And I ended up getting to do two shows, one with Jack and Kelly Osbourne, and one with Florence Henderson, and I was much more comfortable the second time around, because I think I realized that, first of all, you got two minutes or less to do this game, there’s going to be four people in the game, every time, and you got to deliver the goods right away. So there’s no time for slow burns or callbacks to things from earlier. You got to deliver the funny, and explain who you are and why you’re there, and establish your role in the scene right away. So it’s kind of the polar opposite of what I do with Quartet and Dasariski, where we have an hour to develop a narrative-based show.

And the main thing I found is how physical those guys get right away. You can see it in the pictures. It’s full-body improv. And that makes sense, because it’s for camera, and it’s on TV, so immediately they’re flopping all around, and moving, and running, and jumping. So that’s what I tried to do more of, the second time around, is get a lot more physical. That was the main adjustment I had to make.

Obviously the show is all short-form, but did you ever find yourself drawing upon your training as a long-form improviser? Any principles that became relevant during the process?

It’s still just listening and reacting. You’re told by Fred ahead of time what your role is going to be. I usually was the third or fourth person in the scene, which means I had more time than anyone else to figure out what I was going to do. But still, I can’t get so locked into a choice that it negates everything that they’ve been doing, so it’s a lot of listening on the sidelines. And clarity. Gift giving and gift-receiving. Clarity of choices right away. There’s no time for a half-assed choice.

Was it pre-decided that you would be one of the walk-ons?

Yeah, and that’s partially for camera. The games are all kind of blocked out for camera. “This game will start out with Wayne and Jonathan, and then Colin enters, and then Craig enters.” And then we would get our suggestions from Fred Willard as to what characters we would be when we entered. So there is still some leeway of choices within that, but the structure of who would enter was always kind of mandated.

How directed is the show? I know on behind the scenes on Whose Line, Dan Patterson would sometimes walk out tell them to repeat a game. Is he pulling the strings or is it more performer-driven?

It’s pretty performer driven. We shot way more games than we’ll use and way more celebrity interviews than we’ll use. Sometimes it seemed like Fred was talking to them for what seemed like 10 or 15 minutes, mostly just to get the celebrity warmed up, and to get the audience warmed up as well. There were never any audience suggestions – everything came out of the celebrity interview. We would usually take the interview, without 10 games interspersed. And then at the end, Dan Patterson would come in and suggest a few different games to play. Usually more musical stuff. But other than that, he didn’t interfere very much during the taping.

What was your favorite moment from working on the show?

Apparently for the promo they’re using me as Ozzy Osbourne. I haven’t seen the promo yet – my mother kept calling to tell me she saw it during the NBA finals. And that was actually my first entrance in the show. I was just sweating buckets waiting to go in. I was so nervous. And Kelly and Jack Osbourne were the guests, and for the first scene, I remember Fred saying, “And Craig, you’ll come in as Ozzy.” And I was like, I don’t know if I have an Ozzy Osbourne. But I’m pretty familiar with him, I used to watch his show all the time, I’m a big fan of his music, so I think I can do it. And it got a big laugh. So I think getting over that first hurdle to know that I can get laughs like I do live on stage at iO or UCB or Second City, and doing it with these guys on TV – who I watched on TV – it’s still pretty much the same thing. So I think that assuaged some of my fears.

Many improvisers tend to think shows like Whose Line don’t give a good impression of what improv is. But without those shows, most people in the country wouldn’t think improv was anything more than stand up comedy. What do you think of the improv on TV as a representation of the improv community?

I’ve been doing improv for 23 years, and in the time that I’ve done it, it’s gone from, “Oh, you do stand up,” to “Oh, like Whose Line Is It, Anyway?” to “Oh, do you do stuff at iO or UCB?” The general public is much more familiar with it now. They’re making fun of improv on The Office and The Simpsons and Family Guy as improv in the theater, you know, taking an improv class or an improv corporate workshop. Those things have been mocked pretty regularly now. Pretty much everyone in America now has seen an improv show or taken a corporate workshop, or they have some basis in what it is, and Whose Line is a big part of that.

When I first heard the pitch for this show – anecdote inspired improv – I have to admit it sounded a bit like ASSSSCAT or the Armando Diaz. Do you think there could ever be long-form on TV?

That’s what I thought it would be at first too, when the show was first pitched to me, I was like, “Oh, that’s Armando, or ASSSSCAT.” UCB has done ASSSSCAT on TV a couple of times. I’ve always been of the mindset that improvisers should be on TV, and I think improv should be on TV in controlled conditions. I think the long-form that we know and love in front of live audiences is a beast of the live theater. And I understand why it hasn’t quite worked on TV and why networks are reluctant to pick it up. But you look at a show like Comedy Bang Bang or Portlandia – those shows work great. You just need to come up with a structure that’s TV-friendly and hire great people and let them roll. But in terms of the pure theatrical kind of improv, I think it works in the theater because it’s very much of its time and of the moment, and it’s based on the audience being there and watching it being made up before their eyes.

Do you think improv has crossed that tipping point and is now accepted viable, mainstream entertainment?

Yeah, I think it’s been accepted. The fact that it’s been mocked shows that it’s been accepted. We don’t have to explain what it is anymore. As far as I knew when I was in college, I was in one of the few college improv troupes. Now, every college has multiple improv troupes. High schools have improv troupes. Every city has some kind of improv community. And the big cities have dozens of improv theaters.

So what’s the next step for the improv community?

Because Chicago’s always been at the forefront of improv, that “second city” mentality – not Second City the theater, but that underdog complex – has always been tied in to improv. There is that humility you need as a performer. But I think we’re realizing that you need that mix of cocky-ness and humility, get it in perfect balance, to know that it’s not about you, but to also know that you have something to offer that’s unique that nobody else has to offer. I think UCB has already been heading this way. I just want improvisers to get more media savvy and industry savvy without compromising their principles as improvisers. I think slowly but surely the industry has been trained to understand what improv is and what people are bringing to the mix that makes them different from a non-improviser. I think we just need to keep stepping up our game.

Erik Voss is a writer and performer living in Los Angeles. He performs with his improv team The Cartel at the iO West Theater.

Craig Cackowski on ‘Trust Us With Your Life’ and […]