The last time Melissa Cathcart and Jay Olson performed improv comedy in Austin, things were quite different. The main game in town was ComedySportz – the short-form, rapid-fire fare you see on Whose Line Is It, Anyway? – there were less than five improv groups around (compared to the 30-plus now), and the Hideout Theater had just started putting on shows. The Chicago-based comedy duo is returning to Austin to perform a homecoming show Saturday, June 2, at the ColdTowne Theater – and they just found out they were accepted into Austin’s Out of Bounds Improv Festival and Miniature Golf Tournament.
That Other Paper Describe your improv experience in Austin.
Melissa Cathcart The Austin improv scene was a lot different back then. I did ComedySportz, and that was about it. No one was doing long-form improvisation in the city. There was only one other big improv group in town, Monks Night Out. They ran the Big Stinkin’ Improv Festivals which is where I got my first taste of long-form improvisation back in ’99.
Jay Olson I started performing with ComedySportz Austin in ’95 or ’96. ComedySportz was rocking its own theater with papa Les McGehee at the helm. We did loads of road shows all over Texas. A core of us were writing and filming lots of industrial videos and business theater. Whataburger video projects alone paid for our wedding, so that was nice. Thank you, Whataburger! It was really a great time for us. Monks Night Out, UT’s 90% Effective, and a nascent Well Hung Jury were around in those days. The Hideout had just come into existence toward the end of our time in Austin.
TOP What prompted the move to Chicago?
Melissa After seeing all these different groups from all over the world, I decided I wanted to learn more. So in the summer of ’99, I moved up to Chicago for the summer and took Level Two at the Annoyance [Theatre]. I was hooked. I had learned so much and that was from just one class! I knew I had to move back permanently. So at the end of the summer, I returned to Austin. Jay and I got married in February 2000 and moved to Chicago in April 2001.
Jay Ultimately we just wanted to know what else was out there. Both in comedy and life. We considered moving to LA (where a lot of our friends had gone) and Chicago. Chicago won because… I don’t know… After visiting both cities, Chicago just felt right. Chicago felt more different from Austin than LA did. So we were just pursuing new experiences for ourselves. We loved and still love Austin. And Chicago.
Melissa Don’t let Chicago hear you say that. Chicago can be possessive. Especially when it’s been drinking.
Jay Chicago is in a perpetual state of “having been drinking.”
TOP What improv festivals have you been to?
Jay Cathcart and Olson have been fortunate to rock the DC Comedy Fest, Toronto Improv Fest, Dirty South Improv Fest, Philadelphia Improv Fest, Chicago Sketch Fest, Seattle Improv Fest (as workshop instructors), and we’ll hit Providence Improv Fest and Out of Bounds this summer. With other projects we’ve hit all of the above plus Dublin Fringe, Amsterdam, Del Close Marathon in NYC, Chicago Improv Fest and, as Melissa mentioned, those early Big Stinkin’ festivals in Austin.
TOP The Austin comedy scene is growing rapidly and starting to get some national exposure. Are you tempted to move back and be a part of the movement?
Melissa We’re always tempted to come back – especially between November and April when Austin is so lovely and temperate. But Chicago always wins me back during the beautiful, green summers. It’s kind of like bad Lifetime movie. Chicago beats me up and makes me hide under layers of clothes for six months. Then right as I’m about to leave, Chicago goes, “Hey, Baby. Don’t go. I’ll change.” Then I stay even though I know it’s all a lie.
Jay We’re eager to be a part of Austin’s improv scene no matter where we live. How can we help?
Melissa Of course! I have a hammer and a mandolin. Tell me where you need me.
TOP Where do you guys perform in Chicago?
Melissa A lot of places. There is an abundance of training and performance opportunities in Chicago.
Jay The Playground Theater has provided a lot of opportunities for Cathcart and Olson, but we’ve been fortunate to play at many venues around Chicago. Melissa performs with pH Productions and The Playground member team Space Robbers. I perform with ComedySportz Chicago.
Melissa Those are our regular long standing commitments.
Jay Limited-run sketch and improv shows rise and fall all the time in Chicago. We’ve done a few we’re really proud of.
Melissa There’s Chairs, an improvised one-act play, and – although it, too, is long-standing – Dirty South Improv’s The Beatbox. Oh, and Jay just got put on an Improv Olympics team. Yay! I’m currently in Level 3 of the iO training center and I’m really enjoying it. My teachers have been fantastic.
Jay Yeah. We kind of do everything backwards, so we’re experiencing iO Theater much later in our Chicago careers than most folks. I’m not sure what took us so long, but it’s been fun.
TOP What’s up with these mosquitos?
Melissa Global. Warming.
Jay West Nile Virus.
Melissa And they’re dicks.
TOP Are you bringing a special format to your show at ColdTowne?
Melissa We have a constantly evolving format. We like to keep things loose and see where the characters go.
Jay Cathcart and Olson can be pretty different from show to show. We will have some characters. They will interact with each other. A couple of them will most assuredly have an argument of some sort. What else, Mel?
Melissa Jay will likely try to pimp me into rapping.
TOP What do you miss most about Austin?
Melissa Zilker Park, Mount Bonnell, Las Manitas, late nights at Taco Cabana and Whataburger.
Jay Don Walser, David Garza, Two Tons of Steel, Threadgill’s, and all of our old friends.
TOP You got into the Out of Bounds Improv Festival! Are you excited?
Melissa THRILLED! It’ll be great to see our old friends and how the Austin community has grown. pH Productions is doing OoB, too, and I cannot wait to show my hometown to my Chicago pals.
Jay Yes! We’ve had our eye on OoB for a while. We’re so glad to finally be able to come down for it. Our travel schedule has kept us away for Austin for a long while. Now we’re visiting twice this summer! Mini-golf, you guys! Let’s do this thang!