Getting the Call: Inside iO’s ‘SNL’ Auditions

The website called Monday night’s show at iO — a Chicago improv institution — a “special solo showcase,” but word-of-mouth said it was really an SNL audition.

On a wall leading into iO’s downstairs Cabaret Theater, there are pictures of famous people who either took classes or performed at iO during some point in time. I wanted to make a mental note of whose faces were outlined by the gold picture frames, but the energy in the theater was buzzing and the only picture I can remember is of Mike Myers and iO’s cofounder Charna Halpern.

In the Chicago improv scene, Charna Halpern is the Oracle. As the iO website states, “Halpern’s theaters are the meccas of training in the art of improvisation and act as a recruiting stop for television shows like Saturday Night Live, Late Night with Conan O’Brien, The Daily Show, The Colbert Report and MADtv.” She’s been teaching performers for over 25 years and is iO’s director. It makes sense that a showcase would happen here.

At first, I was worried that the details of the showcase would be super secretive and I wouldn’t be able to get much information on how people got in it — these types of things always feel mysterious. But I asked Halpern about the process of getting into this particular one (which had a specific call for male writers) and she told me:

It just started recently – in the past couple years – where Lorne started sending people twice a year. [For the showcase last Monday night] I got notice about four weeks ago that they were coming … I wanted people that I knew had stuff that didn’t get into the last audition, and I went to some of my top people who I know are ready … I did meet with people over the last few weeks. And then there were some people who heard that I was doing the booking, so they called me. I sat in a room full of people – I saw about 100 people. From there, I picked 15 – I wanted to give some people their shot before I get new people in there.

Current SNL featured player Cecily Strong had performed at the previous summer showcase. Putting together that showcase is a long process that sees a lot of performers. In the weeks leading up to it, Halpern holds weekly auditions.

I’m doing the same thing I’ve always done. What I do — I’m preparing for the summer, because [Lorne Michaels] always comes back in the summer, usually June or July. What I do is I’m going to start in a couple weeks, every Thursday night I’ll see 15 people in a showcase at my theater in front of an audience. I’ll take notes and give them notes and see who would be ready for the summer showcase. Out of those seven weeks, I will pick 15 people that will be in the [final] showcase. I get done, usually, a week or two before Lorne comes.That way I’m ready. A couple years ago when he started coming I’d get two weeks’ notice and I’d sit and watch like hundreds of people every day and night, and I drove myself nuts. This is the best way – plus I’m seeing people and their writing abilities and I can get people to put up shows.

During Monday night’s showcase, each performer — which included Tim Baltz, John Hartman and Connor Tillman — had five minutes stage time to do written bits (it’s important to note that these weren’t improvised sets). I assumed that there would be flashing lights meaning get off the stage but I never once saw a flicker. These performers had to have their set down, they had to be professional.  Halpern told me that:

The tight five is Lorne’s thing. It’s to make sure people know how to write for TV and that you can follow time… If you’re good, you can do a couple characters and you can get the gist of what the character’s doing, what the game is in the scene. Once he sees it, he doesn’t need to see you go on and on. The writers see it and think, ‘yeah I could write for that, yeah I could see how that character could go on and play that game. I could see how that could be a recurring character.’ You don’t have to do that same character for three minutes. They get it.

As the showcase went on I did my best not to look over at the “reserved” tables, where the presumed scouts (writers) were seated. The few times I did venture a sideways peek — they were only a few tables away — they seemed to be having a good time. Halpern told me:

If they are interested in [anyone in the showcase] they will probably tell Lorne and he may fly them out to New York. Last time I put up 15 people and Lorne invited eight out for drinks the next day, just to get to know the people, make sure there’s nobody crazy – when they’re at work every day for a week they don’t want someone who is going to stop the process because they’re insane. He wants to make sure people are normal and smart and easy to work with so he talks to people. And then out of those eight, he’ll flight out maybe three or four. When Lorne’s not here, we’ll see what happens. Sometimes they may say ‘do you have a writing packet.” It’s hard to say what they’ll do. They may ask for a writing packet, they may fly them out. It depends on if they’re interested in them as a writer or a performer.

As the night ended and the crowd left behind their mason jars (what the theater serves certain beers in), the thing that stood out most about every performer was: nobody sucked. I mean, really, they were funny — maybe not always howling-at-the-moon laughter for every joke but everything was solid, worked material.

Halpern says that taking classes is important to get to that point “because you’ll have a different level of what you think is funny when you are better trained.” This makes sense, you wouldn’t want to put up a performer who wasn’t ready, hadn’t tried out their bits and heard crickets on the not-so-great ones.

Even if a performer is hot right now, they have to bring a level of professionalism and maturity to their work that could take five or ten or who knows how many years to be ready for such a big opportunity.

Note: Other theaters, such as Second City and UCB, have similar showcase opportunities, but I am most familiar with the one at iO.

Tyler Gillespie is a writer living in Chicago. He tweets (kind-of a lot) here and sometimes updates his blog.

Getting the Call: Inside iO’s ‘SNL’ Auditions