Inside With : John Lutz and Peter Grosz

In honor of the the last performance of  “2 Square” at The UCBT-NY, before Peter Grosz moves to the Sunset Strip–or somewhere near there–I spoke with former Colbert Report writer Grosz and his “2 Square,” partner in crime, 30 Rock’s John Lutz, about their beginnings, their motivations, and, for a brief moment, pizza. The interview was conducted individually through email, so keep in mind that John didn’t have the opportunity to retort. Enjoy!

When and where did you each start performing comedy?

John Lutz: I did a few plays in high school. The first big part I had was in “The Foreigner.”  For my audition, I had to tell the story of “The Three Little Pigs,” in gibberish.  It was really fun and I didn’t have to memorize any lines.

Peter Grosz: I started in college. Took classes at iO starting in April of 1995, then that fall I was cast in the Mee-Ow show, Northwestern’s sketch and improv show. From that point on, no other career option had a chance. Also, I had stopped paying attention in class.

What were you looking for when you began studying improvisation?

Lutz: I saw an improv set at Second City and it looked like the most fun you could ever have.  I wanted to learn how to be that funny right off the top of my head. Once I started, I thought I would be great at it right away. I was wrong. I found it very hard at first. I had to learn to do good improv and let the funny come, rather than trying for a quick laugh. Charna stopped me five or six times in my first scene because it was going so poorly.

Grosz: Attention. I really just wanted to be funny in front of an audience and had no idea what it took. I liked making jokes with my friends, and figured there wasn’t much of a difference. But I failed three times at my Mee-Ow auditions, so I asked someone how I could learn how to improvise. He told me to go to iO, and I realized there was way more to it than I thought.

When did you two first meet?

Lutz: I’m not 100% sure, but I think it was when I had to miss one of my level 3 classes and I sat in on the class Pete was in. I think Seth Meyers was also in that class.

Grosz: John (as he so rarely is) is right about that. It was in that class. Wow. I still can’t believe he got that right. I need to take a minute.

Did it take a while for you to hit it off creatively?

Lutz: We really didn’t work together until “JTS Brown,” which I joined after the group was already formed.  What was that… 1998? 1999? I was also Pete’s replacement in Greenco., a Second City Touring Company, and his understudy for his Second City ETC shows.  The universe just kept throwing us together. Pete weighs less than me, so I think the universe kept throwing him a little farther ahead.

Grosz: I remember liking him a lot in that class, and liking what he did onstage with Valhalla, but JTS was the first place that we really got a chance to work together. And the reason John can’t remember when the show ran is because we started rehearsing in the fall of 1998, and didn’t put up shows until the spring of 2000 for only 6 months. Yeah. 18 months for a 6 month run. It was a little ridiculous, but I think the results were worth it.

I know you were both in “JTS Brown.” Do you think that “2 Square” was more successful than “4 Square” and “JTS Brown” because of numbers, or experience? Does the intimacy of two players make it easier to stay on the same wavelength?

Lutz: Personally, “4 Square” was more successful than any of them.  “JTS Brown” had twelve or thirteen people in it, which was too many, in my opinion (all great performers, but just too many!).  “2 Square,” keeps you on your toes because it’s just the two of you.  But when all four of the squares are together, there is nothing like it.  We all bring something a little different. It really balances out the shows.  All four of us got together in LA a few months back and put a show up at the Second City space out there.  It was like we never stopped performing together.  The only thing that was different was that we all got a little winded doing our warm up.  We are old.

Grosz: “4 Square” is the most successful. “2 Square” is the most difficult and JTS was the most unpredictable. It was madness and genius, sometimes within the same show. But “4 Square” has the best chance of being really great and often was. A really tight, focused version of JTS – which was the reason for creating “4 Square” in the first place.

On a similar note, do you look at the different groups that you’ve performed in throughout the years together as evolutions of one another, or do you see them as different beasts?

Lutz: I was lucky to be a part of some amazing groups.  My first team, Valhalla, was together for six years, and seven of the original members were there the whole way through.  We found group mind together. That group made me the improviser I am now. Liz Allen was our coach, and she is just the best. She would always say, “I know you are funny people. Now show me you are good improvisers.” She made it all about the group. You can’t do improv alone. If I didn’t have Liz as my coach when I first started, I don’t think I would have been ready to do “JTS Brown” or “4 Square.”

Grosz: Only JTS and 4/2 Square are related. My performance is always evolving, though. For example, I only used to use simple tools in my object work, but now I’ve learned to master my opposable thumbs, and can mime quite complex tasks.

The show is very youthful and playful. Is that something that you strive for in your work, or does it come naturally along with the group trust?

Lutz: I think it’s because when I’m on stage, I feel like I’m 22 again. Also, it’s kind of fun to mess around and make Pete laugh.

Grosz: It’s the energy of having to keep a whole show going with just 2 or 3 or 4 people. But yes, it’s what we want to do as improvisers. TJ and Dave are only 2 people, and their show feels pretty different. That’s their choice.

I have to imagine that careers in writing sketch and cable news satire are very fun, but is the lack of structure make improvisation a freeing experience?

Lutz: The best part is it’s just for us and the audience. No producers. No network. No sponsors. It is very freeing.

Grosz: Improv is the freest thing you can do, in whatever art form you improvise in. And I agree with John about the structure of what it takes to make a TV show. There are so many demands and rules and impediments and the more you get used to them, the more you start creating knowing that they exist, and then you’re obviously way less free than you can be. You’re creating into a box. But it’s still a great job. Or was…

This is a brilliant form, and it works as well as any I’ve ever seen. Who are some of your mentors, inspirations, and which forms did you study in the creation of it?

Lutz: Once again, Liz Allen. Her ability to make you trust the group is amazing. Kevin Dorff. He was like a big brother when I was sitting on the bench at Second City. Mick Napier. Craig Cackowski. Stephanie Weir. Noah Gregoropoulos. All these people are great teachers and performers who I watched, took classes from, and at some point or another, asked advice from. The list is too huge. There are just so many.

Grosz: Mick Napier and Craig Cackowski were our directors for “JTS Brown” and they were hugely influential. Mick in setting us free, and Craig in zeroing in on what techniques would serve us best. Craig had also seen shows like “Ed,” “Lois Kaz,” and “Jazz Freddy,” and been in shows like “Close Quarters,” and the seminal “Cartilage Jones,” so he knew all about creating new forms. Then Jean Villepique (who is in the amazing group Switchboard) was really helpful in the creation of “4 Square.”

As someone who has only known him through myth and legend, was Del Close really the finest teacher that improv has seen?

Lutz: He taught my level five class at iO. He was a great teacher and director. The main thing I learned from him was to always be in the moment. I use that note every time I improvise.

Grosz: I didn’t get the full Del experience because I missed half the classes to go home to New York over the Christmas break. But yes, he was incredible. People of my generation got him between his prime and his revival right before his death, but he still constantly challenged everyone, and his mere presence kept you on your toes.

Although you both work, or in Peter’s case, worked, on atypical shows, did you initially go through the typical motions of a new TV writer, perfecting and shopping specs, and having writer’s assistant-y jobs? If so, what were those specs and who, if anyone, helped you to find those positions?

Lutz: I was very lucky. I got hired to work for SNL because some of the SNL producers came to Chicago and saw me perform in an improv show at Improv Olympic.  After they saw the show, they asked if I had a writing packet.  I threw together some scenes I had written for Second City, and mailed the packet to them.  Two weeks later, I was in New York writing for the show.

Grosz: I can’t give good advice here, either. I got a job on a pilot for Comedy Central in 2005 because the show’s creator was a Daily Show writer and he read my submission to The Daily Show. I got an agent from that pilot (which never aired), then got another job through that agent, then got Colbert. But I submitted to The Daily Show through a friend’s brother. So it’s not typical at all. I would advise people to take any and all avenues to try and reach success. John won’t admit this, but he loves it when people send him sketches they wrote in high school or at church camp. I recommend it.

Do you think that improv is a valuable skill to cultivate in any aspiring television writer?

Lutz: No. Just kidding. Maybe. Just kidding. No. Actually, yes. I’m using it right now.

Grosz: Definitely. Not only does improv help all writing by helping you understand dialogue and character from within the scene, but there is also a lot of verbal pitching and idea generation in all writing situations. Being comfortable coming up with ideas on the spot is always helpful.

Peter, I’ve done some snooping, to no avail, and I was wondering what sparked the upcoming move to LA?

Grosz: Nothing in particular. Especially not a murder that has the police befuddled and is as of yet unsolved. Definitely not that. And I want to perform and audition more.

Besides the normal nights of poor luck or form, was there ever an extended period of struggle or frustration within the craft of improv, or comedy, in general?

Lutz: Oh yeah. It never stops. It’s like a roller coaster. No matter how long you do it, you will have ups and downs. Three shows ago, both Pete and I felt like our show was flat and not as fun as they usually are.  Then, the past two were fun.  I’ll be due for a clunker in a few weeks.

Grosz: No. I’ve always been amazing.

Seriously though, the beginning is very hard. I had a lot of false moments of “realization,” in my early days when I was struggling to put a fine point on what improv was all about. One such “realization,” was when, after a scene that got laughs, I thought “it’s all about semantics” because the scene involved me and my partners disagreeing over some minutiae. Obviously, I couldn’t have been more wrong. I think it’s important to keep at it, and keep caring about it, and thinking about it, and keep making mistakes. Then you will eventually realize it’s not about semantics, it’s about dick jokes.

In your experience, what is the difference between the Chicago and the New York improv scenes?

Lutz: Chicago is more like “deep dish-style,” and New York is more like “thin crust-style.” ELABORATE.  (That’s actually a pizza analogy. You know, pizza?  You know pizza, right?  Well, in Chicago, the pizza – you do know pizza, don’t you? – is usually full of cheese, just like the improv.  And in New York, the pizza – gosh, this won’t make any sense if you don’t know what pizza is – is full of attitude.  So is the improv.  There do seem to be differences in the way people play in Chicago and New York, but good improv always gets a good response.  Also getting a good response?  Good pizza.)

Grosz: Well, when we lived in Chicago, John would never have made that ridiculous, strained analogy. In NY, I guess he thinks it’s OK. Basically, in Chicago, people tend to play “slower” and more deliberately, and in NY, they tend to play “faster” with more scenic tag outs and the like. Beyond that, it’s not worth going into. Too many exceptions to the rule.

At the last show, you went out with a scene by scene recap of the entire show. Is that something that you’ve done before, or even talked about?

Lutz: I don’t think we have ever done something exactly like that before.  We just follow where the show wants to take us.  In this case, it was Pete retelling the whole show through an imagined mob boss that only I could see.

Grosz: Never done before, and never talked about. That happened because the character doing the recapping was at first only recapping the events of his scene, but then I realized we were probably near the end of the show, so it’d be fun to recap the whole show. Sometimes in “4 Square” we’d find ourselves doing a bunch of callbacks in quick succession, but it was different.

What is the goal that JTS/4/2 Square tries to achieve by removing wipes, and how hard was it to successfully eliminate them?

Lutz: We didn’t want any tag outs or sweep edits.  We wanted to be so hyper-aware (something Craig Cackowski would always say). Anything that was new or different meant the scene had changed.  It meant that you had to pay attention the whole time, and, in doing that, you were on the same page, and paying attention to the group.  I can imagine it was pretty hard, but that was so long ago that I don’t really remember. I am still old.

Grosz: The goal is to have a more free-flowing show, and to allow connections between scenes to exist more fluidly. Achieving that goal isn’t that hard, in concept, you just have to commit to it onstage during a show. We rehearsed for a year and a half before “JTS Brown” so we could organically come up with the techniques we used, and get comfortable with them. But if a team or group wanted to eliminate sweep edits today, all it would take is everyone agreeing to it, and deciding what to do instead.

The brilliant thing about the work is that the characters are so in depth and so real that the laughter expands from just the punchlines to the tiniest facial expressions. As improvisers, do you tend to focus on the big picture (the structure, the format), or do you dive into the characters and see where that takes you?

Lutz: It’s both. My brain pops back and forth from character to form through the whole show.  When you land on characters that are fun to play it’s nice to stay with them a while, like the last two characters of our most recent show.  We played two thugs who try to have intelligent conversations with each other. Let’s see what these guys are about. But then, even in that scene, we popped back and forth to other realities, like the game show, or the imaginary boss. It’s really about paying attention to what is needed in that moment.

Grosz: With “2 Square,” we dive in right away with a long 5-10 minute scene. The thought there is – let’s do a good, grounded scene to start off and let the show get crazier as we go.

Personally, I move forward without thinking about the form for the first 20 minutes, and then see where we’re at and try and make connections or bring scenes back. There’s usually something to grab onto in an attempt to make the show and characters fold in on themselves. The challenge of the show – any long form show, really – is to allow yourself the freedom to delve into character, and still keep an eye out for the form. But the more you do whatever form your group does, the more comfortable everyone will be with this task.

What, in your opinion, is some of the best comedy of the last decade? Anything you’re particularly interested in today?

Lutz: I really like Parks and Recreation.  I love that half of the laughs come from jokes and the other half come from the characters. It’s the perfect combo.  I love the British Office. What else? As far as movies go, I really like Superbad.  There are a lot of good comedies out there right now.

Grosz: I like the Apatow school of comedy. It’s refreshingly character and reality based, and they let the actors improvise. These guys get studios to give them millions of dollars, and after setting up a good structure for themselves, they basically screw around and edit it into a good movie. Not a bad gig. I know I worked there, but I really think Colbert is amazing. He’s so damn good at what he does, and when the show was first on the air, it was something no one had seen before, and was it was really fun to watch. It is still great, but that first burst of about a year or so was something special. Like when Letterman first came on. I like 30 Rock and Parks and Rec, and I also really love The Office. The British version was a perfect thing preserved in amber, but the American one lives on, and I laugh really loud at every episode. Adult Swim is doing great things and it’s a terrific place for people with more off beat senses of humor to get to do TV shows. Stuff like that is really important. I’m excited for the second season of Delocated. Glaser is brilliant.

Do you think that “2 Square,” will ride again?

Lutz: Hopefully, “4 Square,” will ride again. With Pete moving to LA and the other two squares, Dan Bakkedahl and Rob Janas already living there, there should at least be a 3 Square.

Grosz: Never. As far as I’m concerned, when I move to LA, John Lutz will be dead to me. In fact, I don’t even know who that is. I do like the guy who plays Lutz on 30 Rock. Although why do they write him as a heavy guy? The dude lost 60 pounds – give him a freaking break.