Daniel Strauss, of the Second City Mainstage, on improv, sketch comedy, & his latest role in "Panic on Cloud 9."
May 24, 2015
I’m originally from Washington, DC, but I’ve been living in the Midwest since 2003 (four years of school at the University of Michigan and eight years in Chicago). I moved to Chicago to study improv and sketch comedy and started working for Second City as an actor in 2010. I’m currently a member of their Mainstage cast.
First Entertainment Job
My first paid job was with a theater company called Deaf Access through the Bethesda Academy of Performing Arts (BAPA) in Bethesda, MD. As I recall, I got the audition by meeting the director of the program at the BAPA summer camp a year or two prior.
The cast was made up of both deaf and hearing high school kids, and the shows would be performed both orally and with sign language.
It was particularly challenging for me going in because I really knew very little ASL (my mom has worked in the deaf community her whole life so what little I did know was from her). But when you’re in a situation like that where you either learn the language or you can’t communicate. It’s amazing how quickly you can pick something like that up.
To this day it’s one of my favorite things I’ve done theatrically and I really learned a ton from it.
Comedically, my inspirations are all over the place. I grew up watching Mel Brooks, and to this day, his work is some of my absolute favorite. Spaceballs and The Producers are definitely two films that shaped a lot of my sense of humor and what I find funny. All of those old Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor movies are right up there for me as well.
In terms of newer stuff, I’m a big fan of Tom Scharpling and Jon Wurster from The Best Show, as well as Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim. Nathan Fielder’s show Nathan For You is among the funniest shows I’ve ever seen.
And in terms of improvisation and the art of the interview, I think you’d be hard pressed to find anyone better than Stephen Colbert.
His entire show was off the charts good, but his interviews always blew me away, how he found ways to ask smart questions, be so clearly well informed, and at the same time, utterly hilarious. He’s brilliant.
Second City revues are sketch comedy shows, so while they don’t have a single premise or idea, I would say the underlying theme in Panic is an attempt to make peace, or at least, confront head-on, the scary and terrifying things we as humans deal with every day.
There are a lot of “slice of life” scenes in the show, taking a very small moment and blowing it up to really explore what makes the people in the scene react the way they do. For example, there’s a scene where I play a high school guidance counselor trying to deal with a deaf student (played by John Hartman) who has been bullying other kids in the school.
It’s fun doing a scene like that too because I think it challenges the audience and their perception of what is okay to laugh about. A lot of the scenes are played very truthfully and honestly, which I think is a major strong point of the show.
Being on the Main Stage at Second City is, quite honestly, a dream come true. It is the reason that I moved here, so to have achieved that goal is something both humbling and overwhelming at the same time.
It’s hard to believe you’re on the same stage as so many people who have gone on to do such amazing things. The schedule can be grueling (8 shows a week), but I try to remind myself just how fortunate I am to have what I consider the best job in the world.
I think in entertainment, the more you can do, the better. That way, when that random last minute job opens up and somebody needs an event host who can also record voice overs, you can say, “hey, I’ve done both those things.” Or maybe it’s just me overcompensating for the fact that I was never a good enough singer or dancer to call myself a triple threat. Then again, let’s be honest, who doesn’t want a host who can record voice overs? That’s the hottest ticket in town right there.
In what ways do you challenge yourself as an artist?
I try to be constantly creating and always trying to improve upon what I’ve done previously.
We’re so fortunate to live in an era where you can have an idea in the morning, tape it in the afternoon, and have it live to the entire world by dinner.
I’m always thinking about new satirical and video ideas. In some ways I’m a perfectionist, but in other ways I try not to get in my own way. If you just obsess over something and never deem it ready for human consumption, then what’s the point?
Being less critical of what I’ve made, be that a sketch, video, song, whatever, is something I still struggle with. But challenging myself to always be creating something new and better than the last thing I made, that’s the goal.
Don’t worry so much about the future. Just keep doing what you’re doing, keep working hard, and putting in the time and good things will happen.
It’s hard for me to think of specific difficulties I’ve faced. I’d say it’s more the general frustration of sometimes feeling like you’re working your tail off and not much is coming from it.
But I think it’s just about sticking with it and as long as you’re doing work you’re proud of and making what you want to make, there’s really nothing else you can do.
Without question, I’ve been incredibly fortunate in my career up to this point and when I hit those rough spots, it’s just important to remember that everything takes time.
I’m on Twitter and have had some fun on there, although I’m pretty sure I have my association with Team Starkid to thank for virtually every follower I have.
It’s fun cracking jokes on there and whatnot although it’s hard to say if it’s really had any impact on my career. I also have a Tumblr where I post things like news and video. If nothing else, it’s an easy way to quickly, and with no web coding, get the word out about something.
Take us through a day at work.
Right now, since we’re running the show, a day at work is pretty simple. I show up around 7:30 PM, do the show, and go home. But while we’re writing the show, or “in process,” as it’s called at Second City, it’s a little more interesting.
On a weekday I’ll get up around 10:00 AM or so and get any rewrites from the previous night done, or work on a new scene pitch I might be bringing in that day. While a lot of our scenes come from working with a script, scenes at Second City are also often born through improvisation, so sometimes that just means beating out an idea in my head.
Rehearsal starts at 2:00 PM. Everyone brings in their ideas and we throw them up on stage. The director then gives everyone a running order (the order for the scenes) for both the show at the post show “set.” The set is when we try out newer scenes that may have only seen an audience once or twice, or in many cases, not at all.
After the show, we all stay for notes, get feedback from the director, and the next day it all starts again.
I would love to someday be working in film or television, either writing or acting.
I really like having something hot to drink while I write, be it coffee or tea. I’ll often listen to music, particularly if there’s a particular song the mood of which matches the scene I’m working on. Often, I like to try and work somewhere other than my own house, as it can be easier to focus (although with the internet, staying focused now seems tougher than ever).
With the basic idea I have, I’ll try and flush out a full scene, knowing it’s not anywhere near where I’d eventually like it to be. Then, I go back, read it over and make tweaks, anywhere from minor to major, until I have it closer to a place I want it. After that, it’s about what the other performers what to do with it and what they’re going to bring to the table.
2. I’d actually say getting hired to the touring company would probably be the second as well, a job I did for two years.
3. I got to do some shows with The Improvised Shakespeare Company before I got Mainstage that were easily my favorite improv shows I’ve done since moving to Chicago, largely thanks to the incredibly talented ensemble that makes up that show.
4. I’ve been lucky enough to do two shows with Team Starkid, Airport for Birds and 1 Night 2 Last 3 Ever at the Up Comedy Clubthat were an absolute blast since those are all such good friends of mine.
5. Being cast on my first Harold Team on iO was a really cool and validating moment too.
What is something about your career that you would like people to know that they might not?
Having a real life and doing this job is incredibly difficult and it doesn’t happen without incredible support. I’m fortunate enough to have very supportive parents and an eternally patient and wonderful wife who has helped me stay on track when I’ve heavily doubted myself.
If I didn’t have that support I’m not sure I could do what I do for a living.
I studied theatre at the University of Michigan, which is where I got my BFA. A lot of people say that you don’t need a degree in theatre to work in the industry, and while that may be true, the things I learned at Michigan have been completely invaluable and I believe have assisted me greatly in setting myself apart from the pack.
I also was fortunate enough to be in Ann Arbor when the Improv Inferno, a theater started by Dan Izzo and Sabrina Harper,was there.
I got to take classes from their instructors, which gave me have a better grasp on improv fundamentals that was super helpful upon getting to Chicago. I’m also a graduate of iO Theater improv program and the Second City Conservatory.
Joyce Sloane at the Second City was an incredibly important person to me and my development as a performer.
Joyce was the producer emeritus at Second City when I arrived there, and, aside from making me feel like I was a magician every time I helped her find the channel that had the Cubs game on. Joyce was just always someone I could talk to who I knew would be straight with me and not blow smoke up my ass.
I remember her asking me once what my goals were in Chicago. I told her I wanted to work as an actor for Second City (at the time, I was a box office employee).
“Well,” Joyce said. “Just keep getting on stage. Every time you get on stage, you get better.” I think about that every time I get on stage to this day.
Obviously, the Mainstage show takes up the majority of my time right now, as we have shows Tuesday-Sunday. But, as I said before, I’m always working on creating new videos and material.
I have a new Twitter account called Modern Goosebumps where I make titles for Goosebumps books that are all somehow based on modern institutions. You can follow that @moderngoosebump. No “s” at the end. It was too long.