I spent a cold Spring Sunday with Allyson Jaffe, the co-owner, manager, and prinicipal of the comedy school at the DC Improv. We met up over at the Caribou Coffee near the club. I was little upset that I had to wear a jacket that day. The planet is definitely taking its sweet time adjusting to the warmer weather. What’s the deal Earth? I put my recyclables in the blue bin. Let’s step it up! Anyway, the conversation I had with Allyson warmed my day.
Allyson, 32, came to DC from Queens, New York and studied visual media and theater at American University. She enjoyed being part of the performance world behind the scenes at the college, but shared that things were not going well with what she was studying. This fueled the motivation to perform stand up. “I figured the best way to get my foot in the door was to sling drinks at the Improv.” The motivation to pursue comedy sparked during her college days, but comedy was something that she enjoyed all her life. “I just loved it always, growing up. I’m still kind of a comedy geek when it comes to just the art. I just think it’s so important to laugh.” She was 19 when she applied to be a waitress and pursued an internship at the club her senior year. She worked during the day for her internship and then served food and beverages at night. Jaffe got into performing stand up during that time, but discovered that she did not want to become a stand up comedian. “I just did it for fun it was one of those things where humor in general helps you with things that are going on with your life”
Allyson graduated in 2000 and applied at the Improv again only this time she was hired to work in marketing and promotions. She may have found that performing was not her bag, but she found a passion to produce shows. “My big thing is you see a person walk into a show and you can tell they had a shitty day. Then you watch the show go on and it’s an hour and a half and you see that same person forget about all that stuff in their life for that hour and a half and laugh and then leave the club like ‘That was so much fun!’ They have this total new life to them. That’s been a really motivating thing for me just the ability to get people out of their life and problems and just laugh relax, and have fun.”
The story of how she became an owner really is proof that hard work pays off. She volunteered extra hours for a year to help start a second theater in Arlington. “It was exciting. I was involved with booking shows, coming up with marketing campaigns, helping them figure out how to do the lights right, how to organize the shows.” Unfortunately, the project wasn’t a success, and the theater closed down; however, Jaffe was offered the opportunity to be an owner of the Improv as a thank you for all the hard work she put into the theater in Arlington. The club may have closed down but the DC Improv gained a comedy school and a headmistress. Allyson met the future teacher of the improv class, Shawn Westfall, by booking his sketch troupe to perform at the Arlington theater for one of the shows there. Shawn was already teaching an improv class on his own at the time but asked Allyson if they wanted to start a class at the Improv.
As we sat and talked, two students that have taken the improv courses walked by the cafe. They stepped into the coffee shop briefly and chatted about their expieriences taking improv classes. They were really excited to share their positive opinion about the school. The Comedy School got its start in May of 2003. “I wanted people to come and take classes and feel like they are part of something. I really wanted to create a community of people.” Since 2003, more than 1,500 students have passed through the doors of the Improv for classes*.
Another project that Jaffe and the Comedy School have going on is The District’s Funniest College Finals that will be start on April 14. “When I was in college I wanted to stand up but didn’t have the balls to do it. I came up with idea eight years ago to do the funniest college competition. I know there’s more people like me that want to do it, but are scared to do it.” Allyson explained that she goes to each university and holds preliminary rounds to find the students that will be performing in the finals. “It’s just for fun! It’s interesting what the college kids want to talk about…partying..masturbating. You’re 18, you talk about what you know.”
*One of the students was me. I did the Five Minutes to Funny course with Chris Coccia. The experience was superb.