I would later give him shit for this. He had no memory of it and said that it did not sound like something he’d do. I agreed, but the fact that he did do it amused me. Because Jason was the kind of guy who, 99.9% of the time, would have waved me and all of my friends in. He was warm and generous and friendly, and he loved students. Still, I like thinking of him as that first impression I had: Jason R. Chin, the merciless, take-no-shit Ice Man with a cold, cold stare.
For me, getting cast in one of his shows with less than a year of stage-time was invaluable. Jason did not just take a chance on his young, eager charges. He treated us like he would any other improviser. His shows would often have vets with ten years of experience alongside a woman right then carving out her first few weeks. In rehearsals and notes after shows, he treated everyone the same. And what’s striking to me in retrospect, many of those young, eager improvisers he cast were not all that great. The ten-year vet would wind up sharing a scene with both the funniest improviser to come along in a year and someone who would never make a career, or even a long-term avocation, of it.
That does not mean that his casting was purely out of kindness or woefully indiscriminate. What drew him to us newbs was this: we were the ones excited not simply to hit the stage, but to show up for rehearsal and actually care. Joy was his main criterion. We were still excited, still in love with improv, still boring the hell out of our families and friends with detailed and inept retellings of improv shows that they had not seen and, by definition of improv, could never again see.
The vets he cast proved that. There was no hilarious-but-jaded guy in any of his shows, no one bitter that he was still stuck in Chicago performing for free (or, like in our show, paying the theater rent for the privilege), no one only interested in the next Second City audition or the next rung on the comedy ladder. Instead, he cast vets just like him—in my show they were Justin O’Connor and Jeff Griggs—experienced and hilarious performers who took their novice scene partners completely seriously as peers, and who still thought it was fun to show up for rehearsal.
Most improvisers who made the slow transition from newb to vet did not follow this example. Not even those of us who were cast in his shows. We moved on, looking only for other experienced performers to work with, for the people we deemed funny enough for our now high standards, and for our own next rungs on the ladder. And thus we wound up working with the people who Jason did not cast, and left wondering why a mere cold could be an excuse to miss another show. We even, at times, became the type of veteran Jason avoided. That was nowhere near as fun.
I loved rehearsals with Jason. The first hour was blown, with Jason regaling us with his wry inside scoop of the latest bullshit to go down at iO or Second City. Sometimes we’d gripe that we needed to work, but I often felt that that was work. Being privy to the gossip is what made you, eventually, one of the vets. We wanted to know the score, and Jason wanted to tell us.
As a performer, I want it on record that I thought he was the most under-rated improviser in the city. The last time I saw Jason perform was at an Armando at iO, a show that is full of the best improvisers from Chicago (and hence the world). He was the stand out player that night. He listened intently, responded emotionally, built the scene with object work and description--and did some killer bits.
No one is entitled to perform. Someone must allow us, and no matter how funny or talented you are, that permission to join other people on a stage is a gift. Jason of course liked the funny and the talented, but when he meted out his gifts, exceptional talent was just a bonus. What he wanted was drive, passion, eagerness, or just plain old joy to perform.
If I never said it, then I am saying it now: Jason, you waved me into the theater when my credentials were in short supply. I am forever grateful.
Photo above: Jason and I at the iO Christmas Party, mid-December 1999. I brought the gift exchange a Sinbad stand-up CD and a Fat Boys poster from their movie “Disorderlies.” (I was pure hip-hop then.) Spotting my inept wrapping job as I approached the Christmas Tree, (that’s a sock covering up the edge of the poster with athletic tape covering a hole in the heel), Jason called me onstage where he was MC-ing to show everyone how terrible it was.