When comedy takes center stage in Chicago from June 17-21 for TBS Presents A “Very Funny” Festival: Just for Laughs Chicago, Jewish Chicago comedian Susan Messing will be at the ready with her unique brand of uncensored improv comedy.
The New Jersey native and Northwestern University graduate has been making Chicagoans laugh for more than 20 years at funny venues around Chicago. She is a founding member of the Annoyance Theatre, where she has created her own improv show “Messing with a Friend,” running every Thursday night for the past three years. She performs with Chicago’s iO Theatre, and creates and teaches curriculum for iO both here and in Los Angeles. And she wrote and performed in two main stage revues at Chicago’s Second City, and directed its National Touring Company.
Her daughter, Sofia Mia, a recent kindergarten graduate, is “very six, very ridiculous, and very awesome,” Messing says. So awesome, that she inspired her mother—a cussing fanatic—to install a “swear jar” in their home.
Messing will perform “Messing with a Friend” as part of the TBS Presents A “Very Funny” Festival: Just for Laughs Chicago, in two shows at the Annoyance Theatre on Thursday, June 18. For tickets, call the theatre at (773) 561-4665 or visit www.annoyanceproductions.com or www.justforlaughschicago.com.
Messing recently sat down for an interview with Oy!Chicago to talk laughs, Jewishness and swear words:
Oy!Chicago: What do you love about doing improv?
Susan Messing: “I’m in the Mecca [in Chicago] of improvisation, not just for the country but for the world. It works for me because I’ve been making up stuff all my life and I just didn’t know there was a name for it. So when I started doing it, I was like ‘Oh my God. This is like breathing.” If the [improv sketch] was awful, you’d never see your scene again and if it was wonderful, you’d never see your scene again. That’s the beauty and the horror of the beast.
How do your gigs at the Annoyance, iO, and The Second City vary from each other?
They draw from everything I’ve wanted to be and everything I’ve never wanted to be. I’m known for uncensored comedy—that’s where the Annoyance protects you. When I’m at Annoyance, I’m just playing. When I’m at Second City, I’m doing political and social satire. When I’m at iO, I’m doing teamwork and working with a group mind.
What can audiences expect from your show ‘Messing with a Friend?’
After 17-18 years of being an improviser…Part of me cannot believe I am so arrogant to do a show with my own name it. That’s so creepy because we’re all taught to work together. So if you do something on your own, it feels just wrong and odd. I’ve always been trying to be a good team member and play well with the other kids. Then, I said, ‘fuck it.’ I want to do what I want to do. Now I get to play with whomever I want. We get a suggestion and we just [play around].
Are you excited to perform for the ‘Just for Laughs’ festival?
I’m excited about it. [Many of the comedians] are doing stand up. I think that’s an awesome art and I have done stand up and enjoy it, but I really don’t like going off on my own. I get at least half of my show off of my friend. Why not just be inspired by what the hell’s right in front of you instead of making up something better?
What inspires your comedy?
I’m inspired in comedy by seeing a horrible episode of “Deadliest Catch.” The interesting thing is I do not watch comedy any more. Maybe there’s something about me where I don’t want to inadvertently take [other comedians’] shtick. I’m widely proud of my highly successful friends. I think “Judge Judy” is more interesting though. There are about 3,000 different kinds of stupid on that show a day…And “The Bachelorette?” Funny! I also like “Survivor,” because I like seeing how people can deal with subterfuge and lying while they are working as a team in order to win and to see when teamwork works and when it doesn’t.
What was your Jewish upbringing like?
I was raised Conservative and had a bat mitzvah. I feel like I’m sociologically and culturally Jewish. I just went back home to Short Hills, New Jersey for Pesach and looked through the Haggadah and we couldn’t have gone through it faster. The one thing that keeps me being a Jew is knowing and questioning the existence of God. That’s part and parcel for the course.
What are you teaching your daughter about her Jewish identity?
Based on Jewish law, Sofia is Jewish (Sofia’s father, who is divorced from Messing, is not Jewish). I feel like she should be taught some of the Jewish stuff….because I can see her trying to figure out what she believes. Even now, she’ll ask about Papa Bob, my dad, who is dead. So I tell her that he lives in the sky, he smiles, and he gets us good parking spots. I’m not really sure what our beliefs are on the after-life and all that good stuff. I don’t know why we put little boxes on our heads, I don’t know why we do what we do.
Are you working on swearing a little less now that you have a daughter who mimics your every word?
We have a swear jar at home. In the first two weeks of Sofia’s life, we had collected $94 at $0.25 a swear word. My child is not going to state school at this rate. I swear like a motherfucker.