Kay Cannon on the old iO: 'We were warming up in the alley next to dead rats'

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Kay Cannon hosts Laughs for Limbs at iO on Saturday, April 30. - ALEX J. BERLINER/UNIVERSAL PICTURES
  • Alex J. Berliner/Universal Pictures
  • Kay Cannon hosts Laughs for Limbs at iO on Saturday, April 30.

Kay Cannon has a history of working for strong women. The Chicago native started her comedy career at iO Theater with Charna Halpern; her first show-business job was writing on 30 Rock with Tina Fey. She wrote the script for Pitch Perfect and its Elizabeth Banks-directed sequel, Pitch Perfect 2, and is in the process of composing the story for the third installment of the franchise. Now she's the one in charge—she's the showrunner on the upcoming Netflix series Girlboss.

But before becoming the next great ladyboss, she's taking time to raise money for a cause close to her heart. On April 30, Cannon is returning to iO to host Laughs for Limbs, a benefit for the Steps of Faith Foundation, a nonprofit that provides prosthetics to amputees. And Cannon's funniest friends—including Katie Rich, Susan Messing, and TJ Jagodowksi—are coming out for it in droves to perform in Armando, one of iO's most famous long-form improv shows. (Word on the street is there's a raging afterparty for ticket holders.)

I called up Cannon to talk about her association with Steps of Faith, returning to Chicago, and strong female characters.

How did you get involved with the Steps of Faith Foundation?

Kay Cannon: It was over ten years ago now that my friend Billy Brimblecom—who is now the head of Steps of Faith Foundation—lost his leg to cancer. At the time, a prosthetic leg cost $60,000 and insurance only paid for half. A bunch of improvisers who were friends with Billy in Kansas City did a benefit where we did an improv show to raise the $30,000 for him to buy a prosthetic leg. It was just a personal quest to do this, and we did it. We raised the money and Billy got his leg. So when Billy then became attached to Steps of Faith Foundation, it was a no-brainer to do basically the same thing. I'm on the board at Steps of Faith, and I'm very passionate about raising this money to help people get prosthetics.

Steps of Faith celebrated [a three-year anniversary] on April 1. It got started by Dr. Rob Pittman, who is a doctor who can fit prosthetics. Billy very quickly got on board two years ago, and just last year I got involved. Billy came into town to do a storytelling benefit, and asked if I would tell a story, and while I was there I said to Billy, "I need to be a part of this and this is something I need to concentrate on because I just think so much good work is being done." After that show I was approved to be on the board.

The lineup for the benefit is stacked. How did you go about getting people involved with the show?

Irene Marquette is my assistant and is also a very good friend of mine—we've known each other through the Chicago improv community. Basically like when friends call up and ask, "Hey, will you do this show?" you don't get very many nos. It's all yeses. At one point Irene asked, "Should we cap the number of performers?" and I was like, "No!" [laughs]. Whoever can do it and wants to donate their time, it will be like a really big party.

Now that you've been away from Chicago for a while, what is it like when you go back for big shows like this?

It is so fun because it's like one of those friendships where you're away from them for years and when you see each other it's like you haven't been gone at all. It's just a nice, fun reunion. iO Theater feels like home. I'm from the area, I'm the sixth of seven kids, and my siblings and their kids are going to be there, and it's my mom's birthday, it's going to be great.

What's changed the most since you started in the city?

The biggest and most obvious change is the fact that iO is in a brand-new theater. That's quite a shift. I came up in the time when it was the one on Clark and you saw the whole theater as you walked in. If I were to start taking classes now, I would definitely be intimidated, because there are so many theaters within the iO complex, and there's a bar, and a restaurant—it's quite different. We were warming up in the alley next to dead rats [laughs]. Sometimes it does feel very similar, but a lot of people have moved from Chicago to LA, so when you walk into iO West I'm seeing a lot of people I improvised with in Chicago.

Like Tina Fey, who you then worked with on 30 Rock.

Yes!

And now you have your own show. Tell me about that.

It's called Girlboss and it's for Netflix—it will come out next year. Sophia Amoruso wrote a book called #Girlboss, and it's about her life going from nothing—being a broke and pissed-off-at-the-world Dumpster diver and shoplifter—to building this online fashion empire and becoming very successful in a short amount of time while being so young. It's a comedy. It's great. We've been writing for almost two months now. We're telling a great story, so hopefully the episodes will reflect that. In the room not only is Irene there, but I also have Brian Shortall and Karen Graci, two of my friends who I met through the Chicago improv world, on the writing staff. Right now we're in this kind of honeymoon period where it's just a lot of fun. We haven't actually cast Sophia yet, and we haven't started production yet, so we're basically just having fun.

All the projects you've worked on have a strong female lead. Was that a conscious decision or just happenstance?

It is a conscious decision on my part. Not at the beginning—at the beginning I was just thrilled to have a job and it just happened to be Tina Fey. When I took my overall deal for 20th Century Fox, I told them that I really wanted to work on New Girl. I love that show and I love those characters. With Girlboss specifically, yes. I feel a, maybe obligation is too strong of a word, but inside me there is this desire to try really hard to get stories out there that are female-inspired and driven. When I first was sent the book #Girlboss I immediately thought, yes, this is something I want to be a part of, it's just so important, I don't think there are enough stories like that out there. And Pitch Perfect, that became this bigger thing than I could have ever imagined, but I'm thrilled because it did show many, many actress being really funny and interesting and good, and showed that they can carry a franchise. I'm really proud of that.

How is showrunning on Girlboss different from working on 30 Rock or New Girl or even Pitch Perfect?

The biggest difference is that it's relentless, you never can come in and not be the boss [laughs]. On a smaller level, every day I make sure there's nothing in my teeth and there's not a booger hanging from my nose because there are 14 people staring at you all day long. But what is great is having agency over the story that you're telling. I love being in this position, and I'm with really great people that are very talented that will help make this story really funny and really great and worth telling. I've worked a long time under other people, and I'm a worker bee, and I have no problem with that, but there's something really great about being in this new position where, for better or worse, what you end up watching—though I really hope you like it!—at least I was able to have control over what you're seeing. 

Laughs for Limbs, 
Sat 4/30, 6 PM, iO Theater, 1501 N. Kingsbury, ioimprov.com/chicago, $25.


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