Fred Willard’s ambivalent relationship with improv
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Though Fred Willard’s tenure with Second City’s Mainstage company was brief—the Ohio-born performer was there for all of 1965 before moving on—he represents the theater’s potential as a launching pad for a successful and enduring career in film and TV, with his parts in improv-heavy Christopher Guest mockumentaries perhaps most notable in his career. This weekend, Willard will return to his roots playing multiple roles in Second City’s 50th-anniversary festivities: performing in The Jeff Garlin Combo Platter show on Dec. 12, revisiting classic sketches from the theater’s archives also on Dec. 12, and helping close out the weekend on Dec. 13 with a panel on Second City’s early years. Before he came back to Chicago, The A.V. Club talked to Willard about his ambivalent relationship with improv, being typecast, and why he hates filming party scenes.
The A.V. Club: How does it feel to be marking the occasion of 50 years of Second City?
Fred Willard: Well when you think about it it’s a little bit scary—50 years. I’m wondering how many people are going to be there. I was at the 25th and there weren’t that many. Surprisingly fewer performers have passed away over the years. There’s a couple from the early days but a lot of people are going to be there and it should be a pretty full house. It’s like one big fraternity. It was so crowded. I took a picture and had to hold the camera up over my head to get a picture at the end, they had to have everyone on stage.
AVC: Anything you’re looking forward to bringing up in the panel you’ll be on?
FW: I said to my wife, “What the hell do I know about Second City in the '60s?” Then I realized I was there in the '60s. But it’s going to be Alan Arkin, Robert Klein, and me. It should be fun! I was in the company with Robert Klein and I love him. Bob, I call him. He was Bob back then but I guess there was some [Actors] Equity, someone else with that name. And I run into David Steinberg every once in a while. He’s directing out here now. And the other lady we were with [Mina Kolb] is in London and I think she’s coming over to be there so that should be fun.
AVC: Do you feel a rapport when working with other alumni, even if you didn’t come up through Mainstage together?
FW: Absolutely, even though the shows have changed a little bit. It used to be: introduce a sketch, do a sketch, introduce a sketch, do a sketch. Now there’s different kinds of callbacks and things. But you still feel very close to the people who are doing it. I think it’s the brightest comedy stage stuff. I’ve never been disappointed going to a show there. It’s always been very bright they bring the audience up to their level rather than go down to the audience’s level. Even though I don’t get a lot of the references [to] local Chicago politics, I can still enjoy it and see how bright it is.
AVC: Second City has always had a tough challenge pleasing two different audiences with its shows, striking a balance between local references for Chicagoans and keeping its satire broad enough for tourists.
FW: I never thought about that, but I like it if I hear a local reference. It’s almost like you’re in on a joke, even though you don’t get it—it’s all universal. We did some pretty local stuff when I was there, but I was in the old theater, which was a little further up on Wells Street. When I looked at the new theater years ago I said, “Aw, they’re never going to fill this.” But it’s packed now.
When I was there, there was almost no advertising. You went to Chicago you had to kind of figure out where Second City was and what time it was on. There might be a little ad someplace but now they’re making calls out at conventions and local party groups. They’re still reaching out but still keeping pretty good standards.
AVC: We interviewed Joe Flaherty recently and he mentioned losing interest in improv over the years. How has your relationship with improv changed since you left Chicago?
FW: I just got away from it entirely. I had never done it before I went to Second City. I was scared to death, I got there, I got on stage, and in doing it every night I found that I could kind hold my own, and then I was in the company. The audience would come to see us, and when you weren’t proving yourself every night, it came easy. When I left I didn’t do it and then just a couple years ago I started getting back into it. Improv has really grown—every place has an improv company now. There’s so many games and they’re almost like party games you’d play. Some of them are great fun and easy, and others just drive you nuts. They asked me to host some shows and jump in and it’s scary because in my case I’ve always been with a group that’s been working together. They always say, “Fred come on, it’ll be great you’ll have so much fun.” And I say, “Yeah we’ll see.” You usually do because the audience is pretty accepting, what you just don’t want to do is just hang back and do nothing, which I learned particularly when I was doing Christopher Guest movies. The first one I did was Waiting For Guffman and the very first day we had a scene and nobody said anything. I was with Catherine O’Hara and Eugene Levy and we just hadn’t worked together. All of a sudden I thought, “Someone’s gotta say something or we’re just going to look at each other.” So I just started talking and one thing led to another and another. So that’s what you gotta do is just get it out and start talking and not censor yourself and by the time you think this is just stupid the moments passed and you’re on another beat. So you gotta keep on your toes. It’s like prizefighting.
AVC: Do you go to see improv shows?
FW: No! I try to avoid it. I have friends who will say, “Oh you gotta come and see our show.” And the first thing I say is, “Is it sketch or improv?” I’ll go in a minute to see a sketch show. I love sketch; it’s my favorite form. But if it’s all improv, they’re either very good and it’s annoying how good they are and it makes you feel bad, or they’re not too good then you’re sweating for them. And you don’t want to sweat for them, see actors repeating each other’s lines.
AVC: But either way it’s uncomfortable.
FW: [Laughs.] It’s very uncomfortable. Second City will do an improv sketch in the middle. “Let’s have a place, lets have an idea.” And I just don’t like it, although they always pull it off—it’s always funny.
AVC: A lot of people here still think that everything Second City does is improvised. There’s still that notion here after 50 years.
FW: What amazes me, even though I was in it for a year and I know our sketches came out of improv, it amazes me when I see a show and I can’t believe that some of these sketches came out of improv.
When I was there we just had the main company and that was it. I went there with Robert Klein and a guy named Alex Canaan, who is now in the sporting goods business and probably doing as well or better than all of us. We took over a show that had been playing there. So we had a month or two to get our feet on the ground and then every night we’d improvise, and out of those sketches—maybe when you’d improvise a sketch we’d say on a suggestion a week later, we’d say, “Hey, let’s do that thing about the policeman chasing a horse down the street.” Then when it came time for the show, we’d put some finishing touches on it, but they all came from improv.
AVC: You’ve been in a wide variety of TV shows, everything from Roseanne to Tim And Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!. Which of these roles was the most unexpectedly challenging or rewarding?
FW: Roseanne was pretty scripted. Everybody Loves Raymond was very, very tightly scripted. Tim And Eric, I really forget, but I know that it was pretty easy—people had their heads stuck through a trough. I just watched that and I said, “Gee, that was funny.” They told us what to do and then it was like, “Go ahead and do it.” So some of my lines were ones I just made up on the spot. It was very laid-back, very easy, and we did it a couple of times and I don’t think I ever really was aware of meeting Tim and Eric.
And the last one I did they had me come in and I was making phone calls and trying to order pizza or something. And I asked them some questions, and they were very vague, it was, “Well, you know, we’ll piece it all together.” After about an hour: “Geez thanks so much, that was great.”
It wasn’t very laid out to me as to what I was doing. But, you know, the reason I did it was I did it once and then I had so many young people come up to me and say, “God, you were great on Tim And Eric!” And I’d never seen it, so next time I talked to my agent I said, “If Tim and Eric ever call again, tell them definitely I want to be on it because it seems to be a very hip show and young people like it.” So, they did call and I did another one.
AVC: You’ve mentioned in interviews not getting the roles you audition for. What sorts of things do you audition for?
FW: Well, nothing much anymore. Luckily I’m in a spot where I’ll get an offer for something, which is great. But I would definitely if it’s a nice role in a movie. I used to go in and audition and I remember going into Warner Bros. once quite a few years ago. I walked through the gate, and the guard said, “What are you here for?” and I said, “I’m reading for such and such.” And he said, “You still have to audition?” I said, “Not only do I have to audition, but they’re very quick to tell me why I didn’t get the part.”
AVC: But you must turn down a lot of work, too. What role would you never take?
FW: I’ll look through a script, and if there’s a lot of night shooting I tend not to want to do it. If there’s huge party scenes and I’ll go through a few pages and say “Well, at least I’m not in this,” then the last page my character walks in and says something, I say, “Uh oh, that’s going to be three days on the set sitting around drinking coffee at the craft-service table.” Unless it’s a great part. All in all if it’s a great part you’ll do it and I’ll say, “Well, I’m gonna be on the set for three days.”
AVC: Speaking of auditions, do you feel you’ve been typecast?
FW: Yeah. It’s not a bad typecast: the goofy guy.
AVC: It’s a sort of charming theatricality that’s also a bit ironic.
FW: Yeah, you got it pretty much there. They tend to see you in something and then want you to do something else that is just like it. The only time I kind of broke that, I did Lois & Clark: The New Adventures Of Superman. It was a sequence where the president got captured and they made a doppelgänger of the president who was kind of goofy. They were Second City people who were the producers and writers, and they told my agent, “Well, we know Fred can do the kind of goofy, but we’re not sure he can do be the straight president, kind of the Clinton-esque.” So I really got my back up and I called my agent and I said, “Goddammit, I insist that I go in and read.” And I did a great job and I got the part and I got to work with Tony Curtis.
AVC: You showed them.
FW: Yeah, and I was a little insulted that they’d think I couldn’t play a straight part.
AVC: What was the last Second City show you saw?
FW: I think I was there last summer.
AVC: How is it coming back and seeing something you helped shape?
FW: It’s wonderful. I know I’m going to enjoy it. My only criticism on the last one, they got a little bit, um, blue. When I was there everything had to be very PG.
AVC: Yeah, that’s changed.
FW: Then as it changed I would notice they’d get a little more—there’s a “fuck” and a “shit” in it, but it was integral to whatever they were doing. The last show, [it’s] like it was expected. It would get the easy laugh. That’s the only kind of criticism I had. It was still very bright and very wonderful. I was there with Mike Hagerty, who’s a good friend. And he was there, at Second City, years ago and he said, “Every sketch can’t end with ‘fuck’.” It’ll always get a laugh. I just hope they don’t get too lazy and try to pander to the lowest common denominator. Let the people get back on the bus talking about the sketches.
I was in Detroit several years ago and they had a company in Detroit and I was going into the second show and a group was coming out and they were saying, “Man, that was great.” One of them said, “I thought it was all going to be stand-up.” They didn’t even know what Second City was. And they were locals from Detroit and they were coming out and they loved the show; it was bright and funny. I just hope it stays that way.