For the last 15 years, T.J. Jagodowski and David Pasquesi of the comedy duo of T.J. & Dave have started their shows with the same, simple method. They walk out on stage, introduce each other and assure the crowd, "Trust us, this is all made up."
Some music plays, the lights come up and the two are either standing or sitting on stage with no script or storyline to protect them from the harsh judgment of an audience. All they have is their wits and each other. They don't even ask someone in the audience for a one-word suggestion, their favorite color or something they would bring with them if they had to spend a year in Antarctica to kick off an idea for a scene. They literally know just as much as the audience does about what will unfold on stage.
Anyone with the balls to stand under a spotlight knows that the silence in those first few moments after the lights go up and the realization that a quiet crowd is waiting for a reason to laugh can be one of the scariest experiences of their existence.
"When those lights first come up and I haven't really thought about it this way, so forgive me if this idea is half baked is there is a little bit of free fall there," Jagodowski says. "It's almost like when someone jumps out of a plane, there's a little bit of free fall and if you start freaking out, you're going to tumble and keep falling the rest of the way but if you trust that improvisation is going to start showing you what's already there, then there's some sense of being taken care enters into there."
The magic of any improv comedy group is watching how they tangle with or toss away those fears about the unknown and let the unfolding events create comedy that can't be written before they walk out on stage or recreated once they leave it. Every show is unique to the room and the moment. It exists in an ether that can't be bottled and inhaled ever again and TJ & Dave perform one of the purest improvised shows an audience can witness. T.J. & Dave will perform two such sold out shows this Friday and Saturday at the Dallas Comedy House as part of the 2015 Dallas Comedy Festival.
Jagodowski and Pasquesi's unique trust in the art and process of improvisation and each other have made them icons in the improv comedy community. Their long running Chicago show has been in a continuous run starting at The iO Theater and currently running at their own space called The Mission Theater. Their international reputation recently led them to publish a book about their technique and philosophies on improvising called Improvisation at the Speed of Life and star in an award winning documentary called Trust Us, This is All Made Up, a movie that's become required viewing for improvisational comedy classes and clinics. They even once got the rare and coveted "Colbert bump" from Second City alum and friend Stephen Colbert on The Colbert Report.
The show started as a way to perform a purely improvised show with an occasional guest joining the duo on stage, Jagodowski says.
"We figured we'll start playing and doing a show and we even had the idea early on where we'll have other people join us but first, let's get it to a point where it doesn't suck before we invite unwitting friends to be in a terrible show with us," he says. "We haven't gotten to the point where we've invited everybody yet."
The trust runs so deep between the pair that it makes their stage shows seem as though they have some kind of invisible umbilical cord connected between each others brains. Pasquesi says even he can't always explain how he and Jagodowski end up on the same page at the same time.
"We have similar beliefs not just in improv but also in some of the things that happen, " Pasquesi says. "Like the other night, there's a scene going on and we both stepped out and immediately assumed other characters in another scene and another location as though we were just going to this pre-determined place that we already knew where we were going but just the two of us knew. I don't know if there's an explanation for it but it's pretty neat. It's like we kind of know things that we can't know."
Part of reaching that plane of symbiotic existence is learning how to release the natural fear of what lies ahead and trust the other person as well as they trust themselves. Pasquesi says that relationship also exists between the audience and the two of them.
"We're with them. I think right at the beginning, the fear kind of goes away once the lights come up," Pasquesi said. "We've both been afraid. That doesn't help. We try not to pay any attention to that. What's going to happen is if we get afraid, we're going to do terrible stuff. That whole first part was just fucking useless and awful. I think the goal is not to let that fear motivate bad decisions."
Once the two get going and find a story, Jagodowski and Pasquesi can also end up playing six or seven characters each over the course of an entire show.
"We really want that night to determine everything," Jagodowski says. "If we end up having a similar voice or something like that, that will happen because we don't have a lot of voices. I know a lot of my women kind of sound the same but they are all different. They are all different people who are determined by what is needed that evening or determined by the show that night because we really like improvising."
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"It's always better when we just find out what it is," Pasquesi says. "It may look like he's playing that same woman that he did three weeks ago or i'm playing that same guy but that's just because that's what it might look like to you. We don't look at it that way. We look at it like this woman's name is Debora and this woman is related to him and these are the characteristics that have been mentioned about her. It is specific to that show and the only reason it might look like something we've done before is we're not good enough to distinguish a thousand women or a thousand guys or four."
In fact, their goal once they get on stage isn't even to find a joke or a reason to make an audience laugh. Jagodowski says it may not even happen.
"We don't promise the show is going to be good, we don't promise that the show is going to funny or entertaining," Jagodowski says, "but we do promise that the show is going to be improvised."
Get on the standby list for T.J. & Dave's two sold out shows this Friday and Saturday at the Dallas Comedy House as part of the 2015 Dallas Comedy Festival.