Conversation with Paul Zuckerman

Paul ZuckermanComedy is stress relieving and universal, even if the subjects often aren't. Paul Zuckerman, artistic director and executive producer of Chicago City Limits, the New York City-based improv group (pictured above), knows that the best comedy comes from some of the worst times of political, economic, and social chaos. The group's newest show, MySpace or Yours, a study of just how ridiculous our fast-paced and technologically advanced society can be, will be at the Booth Playhouse on February 6 and 7.

Describe Chicago City Limits. How did it get started?
It started back in Chicago in the late seventies. It was a theater company that formed out of the workshops from Second City [the Chicago-based improv group]. We moved to New York City in the eighties, and now we're New York's longest-running show. The performance is broken up into two segments. One is an audience-based improvisation, and we also do sketch comedy, with social and political sketch comedy, that kind of thing.

What's the hardest part of doing improv?
I think it's listening. People say, How do you come up with things that quick? That's not that difficult. It's not really hard to find actors who can do that—it's hard to find people who can do that on stage. The best way we can work is not finding five of the funniest people, it's finding five people who work well together.

What's your advice for a new comedian just starting out?
Try to get as much stage time as you can. No matter how good you are, how funny you are, you're going to be much funnier after 500 shows than after five shows. What I suggest is to take workshops. Don't worry so much if this group is going to be the funniest one you can find. The real issue is to be ready when an opportunity arises.

What's your favorite part of your work?
The sense of discovery. I've been doing this a long time. We're coming up with our humor just about the same time that the audience is experiencing it. There's a book called Something Wonderful Right Away by Jeffrey Sweet. It's a history of the early days of Second City. There are a lot of people in it sharing their stories…all different. It's kind of like a basketball team that has set plays, but really relies on improvisation. You play off each other.

Is there pressure in your personal life to be funny?
No. I think if you put a lot of pressure on yourself, you'll fold. You've got to be playful, and that's the feeling you've got to bring on stage. You're not trying to make them laugh—you're just making them laugh by listening and paying attention.