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Shadow of a doubt

TJ Jagodowski is a local improv legend who's capable of great things. So what's he afraid of?

Photograph: Sarah Bonk
COCK-EYED OPTIMISM TJ looks forward to more improv.

For TJ Jagodowski, nearly every Wednesday night for the last five years has gone down the same way. Before TJ & Dave starts at 11pm, he waits backstage at iO with Dave Pasquesi as eager fans file in. “I Don’t Want What You Got (Goin’ On)” by the Ike Reilly Assassination blasts from the speakers, and the crowd hushes. When the last verse starts, the duo takes the stage; Jagodowski shields his eyes from the harsh stage lights and scans the audience, spotting familiar faces. He steps up as the song ends: “Thank you for coming. We promise everything you’re about to see is made up.” The lights go down, then up, followed by an hour of improv that, subverting the art form’s record of wild inconsistency, is brilliant almost every time.

The boyish, soft spoken Jagodowski, 36, makes it look so easy. In every one of his shows—he plays with Carl & the Passions at iO and with Chicagoland at the Annoyance—Jagodowski breezes through scenes like he’s rehearsed them for years, evoking humorous, three-dimensional characters and incredibly specific references, like at a recent show where he described the soft, textured walls of his bedroom as “like the inside of a shirt.” When I took his revered improv class at iO, Jagodowski’s technique, which he presumably uses himself, was to have us enter a scene, look at each other and…go from there.

This strategy is brave—most improvisers screw themselves with overthinking—even if its practitioner isn’t. “Every single time I have a show, it’s still nerve-racking,” Jagodowski admits. “There’s always an hour every Wednesday where I really wish I didn’t have a show later.”

His preshow anxieties, however, are nothing compared to the “two big monsters” he says plagued his past. He lost his younger brother when he was 21, and repeat marriage proposals were turned down by the woman he loved. Chicago improv was better to him—he moved here in 1993 from Massachusetts and quickly rose through the iO ranks, landing a coveted spot on Second City’s mainstage in ’98. But it wasn’t all smooth sailing. In 2001, something odd happened during an SC show.

“Physically, something was weird,” he recalls. “My vision got black. They thought it was vertigo, and that it’d be gone in six to eight weeks, but I have never been the same since. I have this sense inside of rocking back and forth, back and forth. I get uncoordinated, and things will appear odd—the sidewalk being high, like I’m wading through.”

Nothing that extreme ever recurred onstage, and doctors struggled to find a cause, but Jagodowski’s fear of another attack was too much. He left SC in 2002; since then he’s harbored a debilitating fear of the written word. “I avoid scripted things as much as I can. I think it taps one of the purest parts of what gets me anxious—there are right words and all the other ones are now wrong,” he says. “The person on set I fear the most is the script supervisor.”

In 2002, Saturday Night Live’s producers came through Chicago looking to replace Will Ferrell. Jagodowski knew that his anxieties would make it impossible to take the job, but wanted to improvise in the special audition show. He made it to the next round in New York, and had to be coaxed by fellow auditioners to attend. When the final challenge presented itself—a solo monologue as a handful of characters—he got out.

“It makes me sad sometimes,” confides Jagodowski about such lost opportunities. “Like, when I was at Second City, I felt so proud of my job—like I had this little secret. Even when I was out at the store buying rolls, I could think, You don’t know this, but for an hour and a half later tonight, I get to be pretty cool. If I could, I’d have spent a lifetime doing stage plays, and I can’t.”

Despite all that, Jagodowski has made a living from comedy through near-obsessive routine. He pulled off a small bit in 2006’s Stranger Than Fiction (shot in Chicago) by repeating his lines incessantly until they were instinctual. When he shoots commercials for the fast-food chain Sonic, the director has him riff on menu items for five hours. And there’s his TJ & Dave warm-up ritual, where he builds his confidence by locking eyes with audience members. They return his gaze every week, their support and good vibes no doubt easing Jagodowski into the fearlessness he demonstrates onstage. You get the feeling that were he to fall, the crowd would be there to pick him back up.

TJ joins Dave Wed 19 and December 26.

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