Love to laugh? You're probably familiar with improvisational comedy, in which performers make up all of their scenes and jokes on the spot, unlike in traditional comedy films and stand-up routines.
With improv schools all over the country and hit shows like "Whose Line Is It Anyway?" on the air, improv comedians have been perfecting their craft and entertaining audiences for decades. In fact, many of pop culture's most beloved TV and movie stars — Amy Poehler, Tina Fey, Seth Meyers and Stephen Colbert, just to name a few — all started their careers in improv groups. And if you think you're funny, you may have even considered pursuing a career in improv yourself. After all, making people laugh for a living does seem like a dream job for many people.
So what is it really like to be an improv comedian? We asked David Ahearn, co-founder of improvisational comedy group Four Day Weekend, all about his job.
Business News Daily: What do you do?
David Ahearn: I am one of the co-founders and host of the longest-running show in the Southwest, Four Day Weekend. Four Day Weekend is a completely improvised comedy show in Fort Worth, Texas. Each unscripted show uses audience suggestions to create 90 minutes of content on the fly. In addition to our weekly Friday and Saturday performances, we also perform our live show around the world for corporations, deliver keynote addresses teaching the philosophy of "yes, and," [saying "yes, and" to further a scene is one of the basic tenets of improv comedy] and have a film and television arm [as well as] a five-level training center for aspiring students of improv.
BND: What made you want to pursue the industry you're in?
Ahearn: It required very little education.
BND: How did you get into your job?
Ahearn: I completely backed into it. My friends David Wilk, Frank Ford and Troy Grant asked me if I would be willing to host an improv show they were considering starting. At the time, I was performing stand-up comedy, and I had no interest in being part of an improv show. David was especially persistent by repeatedly asking me to join the cast, and after I continued to say "no" each time, he finally asked if I would be willing to at least take a cast head shot with them so that it would appear in the photo that there were enough people to make up an improv show. I reluctantly agreed to be in only the photo and that I wasn't interested in doing the show.
About a week prior to the premiere of the first show in February 1997, I called my friend Dave, and I asked when the first show was taking place. I said, "You know what? I think I am going to come see your first show." Without missing a beat, he said, "Well, you better; you're in it!" He then went on to explain to me that I was already in the head shot, so why not just try the show for six weeks, and at the end of six weeks, if I didn't like it, they would go another direction. Again, I reluctantly agreed, and as six weeks [were] nearing the end, a reporter from the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, Todd Camp, slipped into the show to write a review of the show, and he became an instant fan and one of our biggest allies.
The article was responsible for taking a show that would fill half its seats each Friday and Saturday to instantly selling out. [Dave] saw the potential in starting a show, and he completely hoodwinked me into being in the photo, knowing full well that, once in the photo, I would have to be in the show. I am forever grateful to my friend for that. Four Day Weekend has become the single greatest professional experience of my life.
BND: What do you like most about your job?
Ahearn: Meeting interesting people and traveling around the world. I have had the great opportunity through many of our corporate appearances to meet world leaders, sports icons, actors and some of the world’s top business leaders, all the while traveling to some of the most beautiful places in the world.
BND: What challenges do you face at your job?
BND: What's something people don't know about your job?
Ahearn: The art is in concealing the art. So many times, I have heard, "I always wanted to do what you do. I think I would be great at it." I have learned that if someone makes something look really easy, in reality, it's quite difficult. My job is to set the hooks, meaning I get enough information from the audience so that, eventually, the improvisers in the show can use it and mine the information for comedy gold. I till the land and plant the seeds, and they create the most amazing crops by watering and nurturing [them]. We literally can't succeed without each other. It is a beautiful symmetry of art that the audience takes for granted.
BND: What's the most interesting thing you've ever done at your job?
Ahearn: In January of 2011, we had the honor of being the keynote presenters at the Democratic Caucus of the United States House of Representatives. It was an unusual experience, because sitting right in the front row were the top leaders of the Democratic Party, staring back at us. All of the faces that you see on CNN, MSNBC and Meet the Press were sitting in the room, watching us deliver our "Yes, And" seminar.
After the afternoon keynote, we stuck around to have cocktails and dinner with the caucus with President Obama and Vice President Joe Biden in attendance. We spent a few minutes with the president and vice president while we took photos with them and exchanged pleasantries. It was a whirlwind affair that felt like a wedding day — lots of hand shaking and seeing faces that were recognizable and some that weren't.
When I left the party to call it a night, I walked to the elevator to return to my room. I pushed the button and waited for a moment before the doors opened and there stood two Capitol Police officers, the size of a Coke machine, ominously blocking the door. I said, "Oh, I will wait for the next elevator." The next thing I hear is this sweet woman's voice say, "Oh, it's OK, David, you can ride with us." The two Capitol Police officers stood down and parted, and there, standing with her husband Paul, was Nancy Pelosi. And for four floors, I got to talk about life [with] our very first female speaker of the House.
BND: Do you have any advice for others pursuing a similar career path?
Ahearn: Get exceptionally thick skin, and buy expensive booze — the cheap stuff will give you a headache.