It was just announced that Hollywood institution IOwest is closing. It was the west coast arm of the Chicago improv club that has been around for nearly twenty-five years. I was never an actual member of the IO community but it was a huge part of my time in Los Angeles and it feels weird that in just over ten days it will be no more.
Back in 2002, when I had only been in LA for a couple years, I became good friends and eventual roommates with my now best friend, Bill. When we lived together he was taking classes at the IOwest. If we didn’t have plans on a Saturday night, we would head up to Hollywood, drop ten bucks at the door, and would spend the next few hours laughing our asses off to a number of regular troupes. There was Beer Shark Mice, by far one of the best I’ve seen, notable for having Neil Flynn as a member, or as we would share with everyone at the time- the janitor from Scrubs. I remember the testosterone-fueled Red Shirt Freshmen, and my personal favorite, Tiny Hostages, where they improvised a movie complete with branching storylines, character arcs and the frequent “cut to.”
It was nothing for me to jump over to Hollywood on a Thursday night at 10pm (something that makes zero sense to me these days) to support my friend as his improve group fended off challengers in the Cage Match. Over the next several years, my typical second date was Fridays at the IO with Opening Night: The Improvised Musical, which is still running. Some nights there would only be five of us in the theater. Others we would have to cram together on the stairs, in direct violation of fire code I’m sure. I also tried to think of suggestions for when the audience was asked for it. If my suggestion was used, as it was numerous times, I took credit for the show, the one that sticks out in my mind the most is Lindsay Lohan the musical.
In 2003, I left my job to pursue a dream of working in film and one of my first projects was to shoot a series of shorts that I wrote. I held auditions at the IO, in a small room above the main stage. It was my first time backstage and I felt important. I had eleven parts in my shorts (that’s what she said?) and ten of them were filled by regular improv-ers. I never did anything with those shorts, even as some of my actors moved on to big things (one is a writer on Bob’s Burgers, another on Bojack Horseman, one guy has his own show on Amazon). I had such a great time working on them though, and marveled at some of the actor’s ability to capture the spirit of the characters and plot I wrote but improve it with more clever and exponentially funnier lines.
I also used my camera to record my friend’s shows. Sometimes they were great, and the audience laughter would drown out the words on stage. Sometimes it was an off night, but even a bad show could be entertaining. My roommate and I would spend the entire drive home analyzing the shows (whether it was his or one that we just watched).
Bill moved back to Chicago in 2005, but by then my friend John had started taking classes and I once again was on the periphery of the world, watching his shows, meeting his friends and hanging out afterwards having a beer or six and hoping that the bacon-wrapped hot dogs would be on the corner when I was ready to leave.
Whenever friends or family would visit, I would drag them up to Hollywood. It was a cheap evening. And a typically LA experience, especially with the proliferation of well-known actors that would pass through. Most SNL alums are from the improv world and a big chunk are IO specific alums. I’ve seen Amy Poehler on stage, Seth Meyers, two of the four Silverman sisters (Sarah and Laura, the funny ones). I enjoyed more seeing regular improv-ers pop up on commercials.
In the past few years my interest in Hollywood, driving up there and parking mostly, has waned, but I was at a show at the IO as recently as November. It wasn’t a second date, but third or fourth. I took my friend and his kid there last summer. It’s a bummer that we are losing the IO, even if only temporarily, and I hope I have the chance to see one last show before it’s shuttered completely. It’s like learning an old school closed, or a place of employment. I may not have had plans to go any time soon but I liked knowing it was there. And there will be a void with it gone.