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Remembering John Michalski

The onetime Chicago improv teacher and performer never found great fame. But he embodied the art form at its purest.

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John Michalski in LA - COURTESY THE MICHALSKI FAMILY
  • Courtesy the Michalski family
  • John Michalski in LA

John Michalski died May 24. In a hospital in Santa Monica. Of cancer. He was 72. There’s a pretty good chance you don’t know his name. Or if you do, it’s a name you haven’t heard in a while. It’s been a few years since this native son lived and worked here.

There was a time when a lot of people knew his name, at least in the improv comedy world. He was one of the founding members of the Second City Training Center (along with Don DePollo, Michael Gellman, and his brother Jeff Michalski, among others). Before that he created the Improv Institute, which, like the ImprovOlympic, was a place devoted to pure improv, not what he called “re-prov,” the style of improv Second City did, in which improv was used as one of the means to write sketch comedy. 

He was a kind of improv guru—here and in LA where he moved first in the late 70s and later in the late 80s. And like all improv gurus, John Michalski had his star students—improvisers who worked with him and then went on to have careers at Second City and beyond (among them Rick Hall, Ron West, Evan Gore, and Peter Hulne). By all accounts he was a kind, giving, and perceptive teacher. Former student Ross Gottstein (famous in the 80s for his recurring role as the smiling helper in the Handy Andy TV commercials) told me he never saw Michalski raise his voice, throw a temper tantrum, or belittle a student who made a bonehead move in an improvisation. Which was a rare thing indeed in a world where revered improv teachers (think Del Close) regularly tore students a new one, and students just took it. But being a kind, giving, perceptive, good teacher does not guarantee you a place in the improv pantheon. Or get a theater or an improv festival named after you. 

Michalski’s quiet death reminded me of the evanescence of fame, and that the improv world is bound up in lots of paradoxes. Viola Spolin did not develop her theater games to create generations of eager comic actors yearning for a place in Second City or SNL or beyond. She developed them as a self-actualizing tool, to stimulate “creative expression in both children and adults, through self discovery and personal experiencing.” Improv was developed to foster a kind of personal liberation. “This shit could change the world,” is what the late Second City improv guru Martin de Maat once told me his aunt, Players Workshop founder Josephine Forsberg, told him she’d said to Spolin about her games. 

Yet every year all across the country thousands of people plunk down their money to take improv classes hoping to be the next Bill Murray, or Seth Meyers, or Tina Fey. They don’t care if this shit could change the world. They just want their fame. 

No one goes into improv planning to be the next forgotten somebody. No one dreams when they start improv classes they might end up being the guy who drops the names of more famous people they had classes with. “Oh, yeah, Jordan Peele was in my level one class. I once played freeze tag with Chris Farley. My improv team came in last at iO when we went up against the Northwestern college improv team David Schwimmer and Stephen Colbert were on.” (All things I could “brag” about if I wanted to—and I guess I just did.)

Here is another improv paradox: Improv is based on a set of selfless principles—agreement, ensemble work, collective action, group mind. Support your fellow players, work at the top of your intelligence, don’t go for the joke, stay in the moment, be here, be now. In fact, embedded in improv’s DNA is a kind of liberation theology, meant to free the performer and by extension the audience, the theater, and the society as a whole. 

Yet, people are drawn to improv to become famous. And to become famous you have to break all of the selfless principles that are supposedly at the heart of improv. This is illustrated well in Mike Birbiglia’s 2016 movie Don’t Think Twice. The movie is about a group of aging improvisers trying to keep it together in the face of career pressures, rising rents, and impinging adulthood. In that movie, Keegan-Michael Key plays the ensemble member who gets the shot at the big time, and how does he do it? He is good, of course, and he is a stage hog. The cliche repeated again and again in Sam Wasson’s celebrity-fawning 2017 book, Improv Nation, is that the secret of improv is that you support your partner on stage. What he doesn’t say, but Birbiglia does, is that you have to be a stage hog sometimes; otherwise the gatekeepers don’t see you, they don’t mention your name in reviews, they don’t ask to be your agent, they don’t invite you to audition for Second City or SNL or beyond.

John Michalski's badge as a park ranger in Santa Monica, CA; Michalski in later years - COURTESY THE MICHALSKI FAMILY
  • Courtesy the Michalski family
  • John Michalski's badge as a park ranger in Santa Monica, CA; Michalski in later years

By all accounts John Michalski was not a stage hog. He could have been. A former cop, with a handsome face and set focused eyes, he knew how to be physically imposing. His sister-in-law and fellow improviser Jane Morris remembers the first time she saw him and his future wife, Kate Kirkpatrick, at the Comedy Showcase on Diversey, that they reminded her of the Kennedys. And this strong physicality was not an act. Rick Hall remembers a time Michalski quickly broke up a parking-lot fight between two actors by putting one of them in a tight hold so swiftly, it took Hall’s breath away.

But Michalski, a true follower of Spolin-style improv, was on another plane, more interested in the work—and his students—than in fame. He learned to improvise at Forsberg’s Players Workshop, alongside others who became better known (among them Tim Kazurinsky, George Wendt, and Bill Murray), but Michalski learned Spolin’s deeper lessons—how to teach, how to transform. 

It dawns on me that there are two kinds of improvisers—the ones who love the work for the work’s sake and those who love the work, for sure, but also know how to use improv as a vehicle to bigger things (or at least know how to stand out). The same is true for improv teachers. Some just have a knack for standing out and getting credit for developing talent. They also create schools and gather followers. 

Michalski was cut from a different cloth. Yes, he taught a lot of improv: at Second City, at the Improv Institute, and a number of places in LA (the Groundlings, the Comedy Store, the National Lampoon Players). But he never became a Del Close or a Martin de Maat or Mick Napier (founder of the Annoyance). Part of it was a matter of circumstances. Michalski’s work in improv was strictly freelance. Michalski had a family to support—a wife and three children— so he always had day jobs to bring in a steady income. (A GoFundMe has been established to help his family with medical bills and other expenses.) He worked as a security guard, as a chauffeur, and, most recently, as a park ranger in Santa Monica, where, according to his brother Jeff, he was adept at “herding the homeless.” 

But Michalski never left improv behind. Among the papers he left behind was a short memoir that ends with this line: “I’ve found that people, myself included, don’t quit improvising . . . they just take a hiatus or two to interact with the rest of the world.”  v

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