Dead Curious had the opportunity to sit down and chat with one of Chicago’s most promising young comedians a few weeks ago. Josh Lanzet, a native New Yorker, is your prototypical modern Renaissance man – blessed with excellent comedic timing, acerbic wit, a strong singing voice (and absolutely no sense of shame), his self-deprecating demeanour tries to downplay immense potential. We caught up with him to get a better understanding of his background, what he’s working on now, and where to look for him next.
Dead Curious: So what’s going on with you these days? What are you working on?
Josh Lanzet: I’m working on a lot of stuff. It’s funny how the summers always seem to pile up the fastest. I’ve been performing with Cupid Has A Heart On – emphasis on the “T” – almost every Saturday night now since September. This show has been running in Chicago for 15 years now, and I love doing it. It’s coming into something that a lot of people put a lot of blood, sweat and tears into creating. I think about it a lot as I’m doing it – the basic idea that you need to respect something that other built up as a foundation.
Sunday nights I have the honour and distinct pleasure to be part of the Second City Training Center’s Musical House Ensemble. I’ve heard it referred to as an incubator team for musical improv at Second City. It’s one of the most challenging and exciting things I’m doing right now, as it’s always fun to look around you and be in awe of everyone you’re performing with.
And you know, the big thing on my plate is this web series I’m shooting called “Oh Henry!” which will be shooting for the next 8 months. It’s a wonderful web series about a young man who can’t hold a steady job, has commitment issues, and sleeps on his friend’s couch.
DC: So basically just like me, minus the lottery?
JL: Yeah (Laughs). They came to me and asked what I think about the character. I said: “I like him. I am like him.” The only difference is this character listens to classical music every day. I don’t really do that as much, I like it, but I don’t… There’s a line where the character is talking about one particular classical music piece he likes, and the director was like “Do you know this one?” – I’m like “Ah, must have missed that one. That Chopin! I didn’t listen to his full catalog yet, gotta get in there!”
DC: It sounds like you have a lot on your plate. What made you get started in comedy? I assume you have a day job, but what made you take this plunge into performance?
JL: It’s so funny – you hear a lot of stories from people. If you walk out on the street, I would imagine (unless you’re in Los Angeles), and you ask people what they wanted to be when they grew up, you’ll get so many diverse answers – but for some reason I’ve noticed a lot of people say veterinarian, which is neither here nor there, but I’ve noticed that. But you’ll find a lot of people who say veterinarian, or astronaut, or jazz flute player…
DC: Yeah, because they’re all Ron Burgundy?
JL: Yes, a lot of Ron Burgundys. He re-popularized jazz flute. But when I was a kid, the thing I wanted to do was to be a comedian… I knew how to spell that, so I wanted to be a comedian. What’s funny is that obviously as a kid, you don’t understand the full scope of something. You say you want to be an astronaut, and you don’t really know about the work that’s required to get there. But to me, there was something incredibly powerful about having your job be making people laugh and making people smile. Regardless of whether I was a kid or now, those are things I still believe in (pause). I was about to go on a major tangent, but I’ll spare you that.
But I always wanted to be a comedian, and I performed in a band for five or six years. Occasionally our time between songs was almost as long as the songs themselves. Without really knowing it, during high school and college I started doing standup routines in between. It’s probably not the best for a music show, but, I was doing a lot of that stuff. I ended up doing long form improvisational college during college at Wash U (Washington University in St. Louis) – that’s a whole other story of how people have never heard of that place. I knew it was something I really wanted to do.
After college I took a job in Minneapolis, and realized that the first thing I was thinking about was “where can I start doing comedy?” People talk about having to find hobbies after college that aren’t just drinking, but I knew what I wanted to do. I ended up studying at a place called The Brave New Workshop in Minneapolis, and I loved every second of it. It’s amazing when you find yourself looking forward to something the minute it ends, and count down the time until you can do it again. I knew I wanted to make the transition to doing comedy full time, and I started to look for any job that would allow me to live in Chicago, because this is the city where it all started. The people in our generation look at them (their predecessors) as icons, as from a standup realm there are different generations of heroes. But I think for the SNL people of the world – whether it’s the generation who started it, or the people who came up later – all these people trained at Second City, and iO (formerly Improv Olympic). The best trained at these places in Chicago. It’s the heart of where comedy lives. I came here to study and have been doing it ever since.
DC: Chicago seems to be the Babylon of modern American comedy. The birthplace of culture, where everyone is really hairy and obnoxious.
JL: Yeah, it’s a weird thing and I don’t understand it. I’m not very hairy as a person, and I bring the average hair length on arms and knuckles down in the community.
DC: Some anthropologist out there must have found the correlation between the thickness and coarseness of hair to the laugh per minute count.
JL: I’d like to see those results, I’m certain they are out there.
DC: What struck you most about the Minneapolis scene as compared to the Chicago scene? There’s a certain understanding of the differences in scale and scope, but what did you bring with you from Minneapolis?
JL: That’s a great question. Minneapolis has such an unbelievably supportive comedic community. You pack in all of this talent and all of this drive, and a willingness and urgency to open yourself up to the people around you. It’s such a powerful thing. There used to be just three areas of comedy workshops in Minneapolis (Brave New Workshop, Stevie Ray’s, ComedySportz), and a brilliant group of people. Jill Bernard and Butch Roy came together and created [Huge Theater] with the idea that it would be a place where performers could come hone their craft and be around each other. It probably has a fancier slogan, like “Have it your way”, but whatever. [Minneapolis] was an amazing place to begin my really serious training. The support and the caring overflows onto the stage, and you want your peers to succeed because they’re your friends. That’s not to say it doesn’t happen in Chicago, because it does, but that’s certainly something I brought over from Minneapolis. Love the people you perform with, and it translates into the performance. That’s the most fundamental thing that I learned in Minneapolis that I’ve tried to port over to my time in Chicago.
DC: You mentioned that you’ve done parts of your training at both Second City and iO (formerly Improv Olympic). What is the fundamental difference in style between those places, and what have you taken away from each one of those?
JL: This is going to sound so obnoxious, but I’m going to paraphrase one of my teachers here. She affected me immensely – not just in comedy, but in the way she carried herself and the person that she is after being in comedy for a long time. Her name is Rachael Mason, and she’s unbelievably talented, and an incredibly special part of the community. She once outlined the differences between three major comedy theatres in Chicago: Second City, iO, and the Annoyance Theater. She said it’s the Head, the Heart, and the X Factor.
At Second City, there is a format. There is a way you do scenes, and develop sketches and approach comedy. It’s wonderful, but it’s very heady, and you put a lot of thought into that process of understanding what a five point structure is in a scene. You try to hit all five points. You aim for that development, and turns, and escalations. On the opposite side, Rachael would say that iO is the Heart. In that moment, your job is to make something beautiful and real, and not worry about where you’re finding the money to pay the bills. The work you do at Second City is with the aim of creating sketch comedy material, and you improvise repeatedly to work towards that end goal. At iO, you’re creating it for that singular moment in time that is never going to happen again. iO is driven by improvisation for the most part.
As for the Annoyance Theater, I’m only in the third level, so don’t want to misspeak – but it’s so refreshing. Rachael called them the X Factor. I would say it’s similar to Minneapolis. People are just cheering you on and telling you to do something that will get your rocks off, that will make you happy.
DC: Everyone knows that Chicago is the leading light in this art form, but there seems to be something for everyone, and vibrant options. Going back to the projects you’re working on right now – tell me more about Oh Henry!
JL: Someone once told me that as a performer your job is to audition, and the side benefits are getting roles. You try to get into that mindset a little bit. I look at it almost like dating, as obnoxious as this may sound (laughs). You see a posting of a series or a show or a role, and you do the same things you do at a bar. You’re looking across the room, thinking it looks kind of good. Send an email, a headshot, maybe we’re perfect; maybe we’re not. So you audition for the role, and those are your dates, and next thing you know you’re moving in and are having kids.
I saw this posting at Second City about this guy that wins the lottery, and when I first saw it thought it sounded silly, but for the rest of the day I just kept thinking about it. A lot of the more popular series we watch are driven by relationships, but couched by a concept. So – Friends: great friendships, great group of people, but couched by the fact they live across the hall from each other. The League, one of my favourite shows right now: this group of friends who mess with each other, and couched by the idea that they’re all in a fantasy football league together. Cheers: couched by the idea they all hang out at the same bar. So I started thinking about this posting, and understood it was about a group of people, couched by the idea that this guy wins the lottery. And him winning the lottery is not the ultimate reason people come back to watch – they’ll come back to watch because you’re seeing the four performing characters building relationships with each other.
I went in for an audition, and really liked the people there. I scrutinized over the material, and got asked to a callback. I met some of the other people also in the running and liked them too… It’s one of those things when you don’t realize how well you’re doing until you keep getting called back and then realize it’s finally happening. Funny side note: I was performing at Second City, and someone approached me calling me by name – and you know, that’s kind of an odd experience, because I didn’t know this man, and I’m definitely not anyone that strangers just happen to know. Turns out it was one of the original creators for the character of Oh Henry!, and he mentioned he had seen all of my audition tapes. He said “when we saw you, you are nothing like what I pictured Henry to be. And watching your tapes, I realized that doesn’t matter.” I was relieved, but definitely double checked to make sure I had signed my contract (laughs). It was cool to hear.
DC: Yeah! I don’t know how familiar you are with the oeuvre of Nicholas Cage, but this show seems to be a spiritual successor to 1994′s It Could Happen to You, where Nicolas Cage promises to share the winnings of a lottery ticket with a waitress instead of a tip. That’s with Bridget Fonda, and one of my favourite movies as a child. I like to Get in the Cage myself.
JL: I love to Get in the Cage (laughs). I definitely did not expect you to go in that direction with that question. Spoiler alert – I feel like he falls in love with the waitress, right?
DC: I can’t give that away, but that’s a good instinct.
JL: I like to believe I’m well versed in the Canon of Cage, but I probably need to go back and enjoy that film.
DC: You should revisit that because he hadn’t started losing his hair yet, and it’s a pretty magical moment.
JL: Someone posted a graph, and it had four quadrants. North-South was “Brilliant” to “Silly” and East-West I think was “Serious” to “Funny” – I need to look it up again, but it was just a quadrant graph of Nicholas Cage. Anytime anyone asks me what movies I want to see, I should just send them a link to this graph.
DC: Yeah, I think if I were to work in the industry one of the questions I would ask at the end of my casting calls would be to list their favourite Nicolas Cage movies. If they didn’t mention National Treasure 2, then I don’t know if I could work with them, because that is a gem.
JL: Yeah, that’s how I know who to date. The opening question after she says her name is “Have you seen Wicker Man?” If she doesn’t immediately say yes, I’m up from the table (laughs).
To catch the rest of the interview, including Josh’s top Spotify picks, his thoughts on Syria, and why you should be watching “Happy Endings”, listen to the entire Soundcloud file embedded at the top of the page.