Before heading to Los Angeles to star in the Hulu series There’s… Johnny!, Daniel Strauss was climbing his way up the Chicago comedy ladder, one sketch at a time.
As a staple on the famed Second City Main Stage, Strauss made a name for himself for his neurotic, over-the-top characters and his consummate straight-man characters. It takes a great performer to standout, even when playing it straight, but years and years of training, late nights and months at sea shaped Strauss into the performer he is today.
I dug up an old, unpublished interview I did with Daniel Strauss in 2016 backstage at Second City where we discuss awful crowd suggestions, Joyce Sloan’s memorable advice and his love for professional wrestling.
Let’s start with how you first got involved in improv comedy. Was this something you always had an interest in?
I started in college—taking it really seriously in college. I was in an improv group. When I got to the University of Michigan, I was just going to school for regular theater, but I was always interested in comedy. So, I auditioned for one of the school improv groups and ended up really, really getting into it. The moment I realized it was something I really wanted to pursue was at the Dirty South Improv Festival in North Carolina and The Reckoning was there. I saw them do a Harold, which was just amazing. And it’s funny, because since I moved to Chicago, I’ve told that story and I’ve heard from other people at that show who remember this particular Harold, because the suggestion was palindrome, and they began it and ended it that same way. That’s when I was like, ‘Wow, you can really do some cool stuff with this art form.’ So, while I was in school, I interned at Second City in the office. After I graduated, I took classes at Second City and iO and eventually did a [cruise ship show]. And then I moved up from there.
The idea of performing on a cruise ship for months and months has always been interesting to me. What was that experience like for you?
I did four months on the Norwegian Jewel [cruise ship]. That was an experience. You gotta understand, this was a place people would go for a week, tops, and I had to live there for four months. So, you start to lose your mind. You tend to go a little crazy on that ship looking at the same sites every day and it gets to get to the point where a new group would come on, and you’ll think that you’re seeing the same people from last week. You think to yourself, ‘I think this guy’s been on this cruise for six months.’ Obviously, there was stuff about it that I really liked. I didn’t have cook a meal for myself for four months, which was cool. Of course, you start to get sick of the food, too. But, it’s tough to be away for that long.
There seems to be some misconceptions about improv for people unfamiliar with the craft where people think it’s just easy acting or all of it’s pre-planned. How do you respond to these misconceptions?
It’s funny, my mom, who still comes to my shows sometimes, she asks if I plan all of it. We don’t plan anything. We make it all up and you’d definitely know if it was planned. She’s gotten more savvy over the years watching it. But, once the shows open, we just come and do the show. I get here at 7:30, do the show and I’m home by 11 or so. But, in process [the writing of the show], we get in at 2 o’clock in the afternoon. We work until 6:30. Take an hour for dinner. And then we do the show and a set of new material and notes after each performance. So, that’s a long day. Sometimes when I’m sitting there getting notes on this stuff, I think, “Man, people just come here and think we just get on stage and fart it out and we’re done.” If you knew the amount of time and agonizing that goes into creating this stuff—we take it very, very seriously. In process, everyone really wants this thing to be the best thing it can be, which could be a great thing or a really, really difficult thing. Like in any collaborative thing, it’s like, “I have this idea and I have this idea. Well my ideas better. No, my idea’s better.” It’s about finding that compromise. The even more important compromise is finding what you think is funny, and what the audience thinks is funny and doing your best to always make sure those two things sync up. We have a very specific audience at Second City. There’s stuff that’ll play on this stage, that wouldn’t play anywhere else. You really have to find that middle ground, and that’s when I always feel the best, when I’m creating a joke that I feel is funny and the audience agrees.
Growing up, people have this glossy image of working in the entertainment industry, but once you’re finally a part of it, is it really everything you imagined as a kid?
The more you do it, the more disillusioned with it you become. The truth is, I’ve been incredibly fortunate. I came to Chicago and started doing improv with a goal of making it to the Main Stage at Second City, and now I’m here. In that regard, I would say that what I fantasized about as a kid has come true. I was never somebody who was like, “I gotta be on ‘SNL’ someday.” Truth be told, I didn’t even watch it that much. What ends up being more important is the things that you create that stay after you make them. Improv is nice and it’s fun and people laugh and you can create something that’s amazing, but once it’s done, it’s gone. So, if there’s anything that I now realize is different, because I was always like, “Oh, I’m gonna be an improviser and I’ll just figure it out from there,” that’s not enough. You have to be constantly creating and making things—scripts, videos, whatever—that will last so you can look and be like, “That is something I made.” In the end, that ends up being more of what defines you as a performer. In improv, I can tell you about a scene that I did tonight that I liked, but it won’t translate after tonight. If I told you I have this video that I made that’s really funny and I show you it and you laugh, then that’s a concrete thing you can have.
I’ve read a lot of interviews with comedians, and there’s always one specific mentor in their life they point to that really changed their career. Who was that person for you?
Joyce Sloane, who was the old producer emeritus at Second City who passed in 2011, was a really important person to me. She gave me the piece of advice that I tell people whenever someone asks me what piece of advice makes the most difference for me. She said, “Any time you get on stage, you get better.” I remember having a conversation about what I wanted to do and I would just say, “Well, I want to work here.” She’d tell me if I wanted that to happen, I’d have to get on stage to get better. That’s been really important to me, because there are just some nights where you just can’t, and it just doesn’t really work that well. That’s OK, though, because you learned something from it and you got better. I know, personally, I was a good improviser when I first came here. But, doing this every night of the week, there is no comparison. Everyone gets so sharp doing this and doing it constantly. So, she was a big mentor in my life.
A lot of performers at Second City started out working around the office as hosts or in the box office. Did you ever have a job in the building while you were dreaming about one day making in to the stage?
I worked in the box office [at Second City] for two years, so being around comedy was really inspiring—being able to see it and knowing what it feels like here. I remember the first night I went in as an understudy on the Main Stage on a Saturday night and that feeling of people coming on a Saturday night to see the show and you’re in it is a hell of a feeling. I think being a part of it and seeing it definitely has a big impact. It definitely had a huge impact on me. Of course, being around the building is fun, but to a point. Eventually, you get to a point where you’re like, “Ok, I don’t want to shovel shit anymore.” For me, in the box office I was like, “I don’t want to talk on the phone everyday and answer the same questions every day about what the difference between Main Stage and ETC is.” For a while, though, I really, really enjoyed it, just because I liked being around all of this comedy. I remember I used to coming to work, even in the box office, I would think, “Ok, even if this is all that I do here, I’m just happy that this building was a part of my life.” The good thing about the job is that you’re here. And honestly, people see you. They recognize you when you go into an audition, like, “Oh that guy used to work here.” There is a long list of people who have worked in “hospitality’” positions here, who have gone on to do other things.’
The crowds at improv shows always seem to yell out the most offensive or obvious crowd suggestions. How do you deal with a bad suggestion and does this ever negatively affect a scene?
Crowd suggestions can be tough because people just want to come in and yell whatever disgusting thing comes into their head at that moment at the stage. But, sometimes you get some good ones. These days, we get Trump every night of the week, for better or worse. It’s interesting, though. There are nights where you make something and you’re in the middle of it thinking, “Oh man, this is great. I wish I could just sit in this scene forever.” But then there are some nights where you’re just like, “Whoops.” But, you gotta just kind of play it out and see where it goes. There are nights when you’re in a scene and it’s like that part at the end of The Matrix. Neo gets shot and comes back, because he’s “The One.” And he looks at the agents and can see all the zeros and ones. That’s like for me, if I’m in a scene and I’m not just thinking anymore and it’s all happening and I’m organically acting, I feel like I can see the matrix. When you’re able to get to that point, it feels amazing. Then there are other nights where you’re just like, “Whoops. The audience hates this premise.”
It’s pretty well known that you’re a huge wrestling fan. Do you find any similarities between improv and wrestling?
It translates in very little ways. There are times when we come out for the set sometimes and I’ll do a Daniel Bryan “Yes” or skip off the stage like CM Punk. But, the way it connects more to me is when I was a touring actor. You would go to whatever small town you’re playing in that night. You tape the stage with glow-tape and tech the show. You perform and collect your hundred bucks, go to the hotel and go to sleep. I’ve talked to professional wrestlers about what they do, and they’ve agreed like, “Yeah, that sounds very similar.” It reminds me of the idea of wrestling territories. In the old days, they would have like Georgia Championship Wrestling and Memphis Championship Wrestling and they were all in different areas of the country. Then you’d have the [National Wrestling Alliance] National Champion who would travel around to all these territories and defend his title. So, what started happening was, when WWE and WCW started getting bigger, they started plucking their talent from their territories. Eventually, they put most of the territories out of business. But, if you look at Second City, [Upright Citizens Brigade] and Groundlings as territories, and the shows like SNL who pull people from those territories, that to me is very similar. I sometimes think of myself as being like a territory wrestler.
I’ve heard over the years, even if you don’t want to be an actor, improv is still a great skill to have under your belt. How has improvisation helped you in your everyday life aside from comedy?
It’s corny, but I think it’s made me a more positive person in the way that I talk to people and the way I try to listen to them. Certainly, in creative collaboration it helps. Because what usually happens is, you tend to think that you always have the best idea and always know how to do it correctly, but you might be wrong. Everybody has something different that’s going to speak to them. That’s why not everybody in the world has the same favorite band. And some people like bands where you’re like, “Man, I hate that band.” That doesn’t mean that’s a bad band. It just means that’s not your thing. So, a big thing I learned from improv was allowing me, when I collaborate with people, to just see where it goes. Admit that you might be wrong. And, if it turns out the idea is no good, you’ll both know. Nobody’s going to keep pushing for an idea that sucks.
When you’re giving advice to younger performers, what are some of the dos and don’ts of making it to the Main Stage?
It’s cliché to say, but you have to say yes. People misunderstand what that means a lot of time. It just means to agree to the basic circumstances of what is happening in the scene. If you agree to who you are and what’s going on in the scene, it’ll just make it a lot easier. It’s all just playing pretend. Remember to just have fun. You did it as a kid when nobody was watching, so now just do it as an adult. Don’t be afraid to look stupid. That’s like one of the biggest things I hear from new improvisers who say, “I don’t want to look dumb.” Well, you probably have to and you should every time. You’re supposed to look dumb. It’s comedy. You have to look like an idiot. And, be OK with the fact that you might not be good at it for a while. I remember I used to watch other good improvisers where I would think, “Is there a moment where a switch just flipped and they all of a sudden just knew how to do this?” The truth is, to just keep doing it, like Joyce Sloane said. It’s really true.