This weekend the American improv community will lose one of my favorite performers. No one can perform like him and the fact is no one else ever will. As a fan of comedy and gleeful performance, my comedy loins will sorely miss Benjamin Michael Russell.
As a performer you have to look up to someone. By that I don’t mean someone that you want to copy, and hone yourself to be the second coming of. Nah, what I mean is that when you see this specific performer “do their thing” it does something to you. That “something” can sometimes feel like a shot of coffee. You get a kick of energy and want to get up and conquer the world. Maybe you see how they make choices on stage and you feel this click in your brain that just makes you say “yes!”. The most important thing it does to you is make you want to get up and create. Create scenes. Create sketches. Create entire shows. Create your own voice and your own spotlighted identity in the comedy world. Every artist has had a role model, their own shot of coffee that inspired them so much they couldn’t sit still.
Personally, since I’ve been in Chicago, there have been 3 performers that make me want to get up and be awesome early in my improv journey. The first and obvious one is T.J. Jagadowski. There are so many chances to catch him on stage and I’ve done that as much as I can. If you do improv, I don’t have to explain to why he has such an effect on me (while we’re on the subject, damn you Mullen’s for getting rid of Golden Tee, you’re robbing us all of some good T.J. stalking time after classes/rehearsals/shows). Week 2 of living in down the street from iO saw me going to a show called Cook County Social Club. I saw Brendan Jennings and nearly lost my mind. He had so much energy, but still articulated the dimensions of his characters well enough to make you believe him. I hadn’t even started classes yet, and I had zero idea what I was getting myself into but there I was, a scared broke kid in a new city looking up at the stage in the cabaret and thinking “That’s what I want”.
Months go by and I’m walking in late to my first rehearsal with my first indie improv team, “Moses”. I already felt out of place because everyone was clearly better than me, and guess what, that was exciting as shit. There was this one tiny looking guy that looked like a caricature. He was really good and hilarious but, “Jesus do you always keep having to do that accent in every scene”. This caricatured man in waxed jeans was Ben Russell. That accent was real. He had done pretty well as a comedian in Australia and had decided to come to Chicago and learn something new. We did a scene together where we were playing in a celebrity golf tournament together, and it opened a new door for me I guess. The way he does his characters and the way he goes about scenes is like my shot of coffee. Ben plays the most ridiculous things in such a believable way that you really believe he’s popped out from under a bridge in Sherwood Forest to challenge you with “Well, well, well, what do we have here? A couple of weary travelers?”. I LOVED watching him play, and I loved just picking his brain about comedy and how he goes about it. He seems to create comedy the same way we consume it, and that’s by just being captivated by the magic and fun of it. His comedy is actually a lot like magic. There’s a lot of showmanship to it, but instead of “slight of hand” it’s “slight of mind”. To this day I still don’t know how he does it. Now, he’s leaving and I’ll never know his secrets. While I didn’t get his secrets I was at least able to validate my own abilities.
Watching him from the audience I was able to be captivated by his every movement and get these feelings of wanting to create my own greatness. However, when I was fortunate enough to perform with him, the improviser I’ve always wanted to be would appear out of nowhere. All of these dumb thoughts I beat myself up with year after year about how I don’t contribute anything to a scene, or how I won’t make a Harold team, or Twisty, or Boom or that I might never make it didn’t. fucking. matter. What mattered was that I was getting to take the stage with an underrated genius. I was able to focus on a scene because all I wanted to do was make this guy laugh. I wanted to connect with that brilliance and see if I could make him break in a scene. When I was doing a good scene with Ben, for the duration of that scene I had made it. He’s one of my best friends and I’ve had some of the best times of my life just sitting around bullshitting and laughing the hardest I ever have with him, but every now and then I’d catch myself thinking, “Holy shit I’m hanging out with a fucking star”.
Since December 2012 I’ve seen 3 improvisors I greatly admire leave us. Brendan Jennings is off to the west coast to get the stardom he deserves, Nick Wieme is telling God he loved his choices, and Ben Russell is off to Oz. At least we still have TJ. That’s the way it works around here doesn’t it, though? A new class comes in and a new group of great performers move to the top for us to look up to. That new group has some great talent to be inspired by like Jasbir Singh Vazquez, Punam Patel, John Reynolds, Lee Barats, Sarah Shook, and Stacey Smith. I love watching them and they’re all a unique shot of inspirational coffee (at least for me).
But there’s just something different about Australian coffee. So I can’t help but feel a little bit sorry for the droves of new improvisors moving to the city who will never get to try the irreplaceable flavor or Ben Russell.