There have been a lot of people in this community who I’ve wanted to talk to for a while, whose ideas and stories I’ve wanted to hear more about. I’ve started interviewing some of those people with the intention of posting the interviews here, in my cleverly titled journal ‘improv interviews.’ If you have any questions or comments (or tips on how to get in touch with super-famous great improvisers), feel free to PM me. The first interview is with Armando Diaz. To quote Armando’s bio on the Magnet website, ‘Armando Diaz is widely regarded as one of the finest improv instructors in the country.’ He began his career in Chicago where he was involved with ‘the Armando Diaz Experience.’ He came to New York where he has been an instructor at the UCB, PIT, and Magnet Theaters. You’ll find the rest out in the interview. All racist diatribes have been removed. Josh: Where were you born? Armando: I was born in Harvey, IL in 1966. J: Is that a small town? A: It’s a south suburb of Chicago, like 30 miles south. J: What were some of the things you found funny when growing up? A: My Dad’s sense of humor was pretty silly. He was kind of a silly guy. My mom’s was pretty wicked. It was more when she was mad at us that she was hilarious. She would say something heated to us and it was pretty exaggerated and funny. I don’t think growing up I was exposed to a lot of comedy besides the tv. I guess growing up comedy was kind of a defense mechanism. But it wasn’t until later on, like in High School that I started to get interested in comedy seriously. J: How did you get interested in comedy at that time? A: Well, in High School, I became friends with Kevin Dorff [writer for Conan O’Brien and improviser]. I met him in, I think, Sophomore or Junior year. We were in the same Chemistry class. He was a total class clown. I was kind of a quiet guy. I was the kind of guy who would make jokes under my breath. Usually no one would hear them, but then Kevin would hear them and he thought they were funny, and he’d kind of joke back. Or repeat them and stuff. So he was kind of the first person who I connected with comedically. So then later on I had another class with him. And it was really kind of a bullshit class called Consumer Education, or something like that, Consumer Studies. One of those things that High School makes you do, because they think they’re going to prepare you for life or something. So we had this real terrible teacher, he was the gym teacher, who taught it. He was a real dick and hated us both. So we just pass notes and write comedy bits, put captions in our books. That was the first time I started wanting to do comedy. He was kind of a big fan of comedy already, like the National Lampoon, things like that. So he was kind of my introduction to it. J: How did you get involved in improv? A: Well, after High School I decided I was interested in film. So, I ended up going to film school. After about a year and a half, I ended up bumping into Kevin again. J: At the same school? A: No, Kevin had gone to U of I, and I had gone to Columbia College in Chicago. And Kevin had flunked out, was back in the city, living with his brother, working at a gas station… J: Really? A: Yeah. He worked at like an AMACO, QuickyMart, and was taking some classes at a Junior College, which was absurd because he was like a total AP student in High School. I just don’t think he was destined for academia. So, we run into each other. And I had taken an acting class as part of film school. If you wanted to be a director, they encouraged you that to study that, and in it we did a lot of improvisation. And Kevin’s sister had gone to see ImprovOlympic a couple times, and brought Kevin to it. So she suggested that Kevin should take a class, so we both decided ‘ok, we’ll take that class and check it out.’ J: So, you decided… this wasn’t all decided at that one meeting at the gas station? A: No, we started hanging out, and it just kind of came up. And I had the same idea of taking an improv class, because I had gone to sit in on a Player’s Workshop class at Second City, because I had a friend who was a fellow film student who was in it, who was like ‘yeah, you’re a pretty funny dude. You should come check out my class.’ And so for some reason Kevin and I both came up with the same decision at once. He suggested ImprovOlympic. I had seen Second City, so I decided to go try an ImprovOlympic class, and I liked ImprovOlympic a lot more, because you just got more into it. So we both just ended up taking that. J: How did you get ‘more into it’ at ImprovOlympic? A: Well, there’s Players Workshop and then there’s Second City. Player’s Workshop is kind of this separate entity that was kind of affiliated with Second City. It was really basic. It was the kind of thing where you’d just be working on object work for three hours, you know? Like this is a camera [mimes taking a picture], sweep the floor [mimes sweeping with a broom]. It was basic, but in Charna’s class the first day we were just in, doing scenes. That class was just exciting and just amazing. It’s the kind of thing like where you’re like ‘wow.’ We had discovered this really great secret. The funny thing about it was the first class we showed up to, we were supposed to show up to this bar, called the ‘Red Barron’ or the ‘Red Lion’ or something like that. The class was supposed to be at the back of the bar. It was this empty German bar. And the German bartender takes us to the back and says ‘well here’s the class.’ It was just this empty room with naked pictures shellacked all over the wall. There was just this kind of little plywood stage. And Charna didn’t show up. None of the other students showed up. It was just me and Kevin, and I was just like ‘Kevin, what kind of class is this?’ We waited for like half an hour and the bartender was like ‘phone call.’ And Charna said ‘yeah, we delayed the class one week.’ So, I was like ok. I’ll come back again. So the next week we actually had our first class and that was awesome. J: So, they didn’t have their own theater space? A: Oh no. J: What year was this? And what was ImprovOlympic like at the time? A: I think it was like 89. It was either 88, 89 when we took that first class. And they didn’t have a space. It was just Charna, Del, and another teacher Noah. And they had shows, in a bar, kind of like the Parkside [a bar with a performance space in New York] or whatever. So on Fridays and Saturdays like at 8 or something they’d do their shows, then there would be bands and stuff later. The bartender would let them do it, because they would get drinks. And Charna would teach class at rehearsal studios. It was actually mostly in the back of bars, because it was all free. So it was really fly by night. There was no space. And that lasted for maybe four or five years. The venues got better, because they got more students and more teams. And they could get a bigger bar with a bigger stage. And they would be there for longer periods of time. But there would always be that, we’ve been here nine months to a year, and ‘Uh-oh, we got kicked out. ImprovOlympic doesn’t exist for three or four months until they find another place.’ It was such a new thing, you know? Such an underground thing. It was just such a little cult. No one really knew too much about it. But everybody knew Del, and everybody wanted to study with Del. That was a big attraction. And when you went there it just seemed like most amazing thing in the world. It was just like a great discovery. And it was the only place the Harold was going on. It had awesome performers and stuff, but it wasn’t until Charna finally felt the confidence to get a space that ImprovOlympic became ImprovOlympic. Until then it was like, ‘we’re a bunch of losers. …We all really love this thing. Wouldn’t it be great if we could do something with it? Or if anyone got into Second City.’ The biggest deal was Second City hiring Tim Meadows, who had studied at ImprovOlympic. All of the sudden, there was kind of this legitimacy. A lot of it had to do with Del, because he directed Second City. He’d be like ‘you have to check out this guy Farley,’ which gave him an audition. And Farley got hired. And that just kind of really started to establish ImprovOlympic. J: So there were only three classes at the time? A: There three levels, level 1, level 2, and then Del’s level. J: And when did you start to get performing at ImprovOlympic? A: For some people it was like the fifth or sixth week of level one. J: They were put on a team? A: They would pluck them and have them sit-in sometimes with a group. It was pretty daring and reckless in a way, because they were still figuring out the Harold. Even the best teams still kind of derailed, and couldn’t get through a whole Harold. So some people would get put on sometimes in level 2. I didn’t get on a team until Del’s class, so that was comparatively late to everybody else. They didn’t really have a methodology to making up teams back then. They were kind of making it up as they went along. J: Who were some of the performers back then? A: Dave Koechner. Kevin Dorff. This guy Jay Leggit who was on ‘In Living Color.’ Mitch Rouse.