Story URL: http://news.medill.northwestern.edu/chicago/news.aspx?id=35241
Story Retrieval Date: 6/18/2013 10:48:33 PM CST
(Photo: Ben Seeder)
If Ben Seeder hadn’t started doing improv, he’d probably still be playing basketball.
“I played sports all through high school, mostly basketball. I even went to basketball camp,” said Seeder, who grew up in suburban LaGrange and dabbled in plenty of sports, from basketball to discus.
But Seeder, 23, hung up his hoop dreams after high school and began pursuing sketch and improvisational comedy while in college. Six year later, he may still be working a day job, but his comedy career is taking off.
He did extensive training at Chicago's Improv Olympic, locally known as i.O., and at the Second City Conservatory. In 2005 came a two-man sketch show, “Sandy Takes a Break,” that’s toured festivals across the country. His own one-man improv show, “Despondent Confrontation,” is currently running at i.O. This year he has fielded more than one interested phone call from Comedy Central cable station.
Beth Kligerman, director of talent at Second City, said, “Without naming names, his talent puts him in an elite group.”
Standing well over 6 feet, with a strong-shouldered build, Seeder looks like a former basketball star. But when the time came to think about college, he decided to enroll in DePaul University's communications program. A major draw for Seeder was DePaul's location in the heart of Chicago, near the city's improv scene.
Balancing college and a budding future in comedy wasn’t easy at first. Seeder struggled to get comfortable at DePaul as many of his other friends attended “big, fun schools” such as University of Wisconsin-Madison or University of Iowa, he said. His sophomore year was a turning point. He briefly considered transferring from DePaul, but with his improv classes going well, he ultimately decided to stay.
Seeder credits his parents with not only supporting his decision to pursue acting but also helping him develop his sense of humor and appreciation for the arts. His father, whom he calls "sharp and hilarious,'' is an attorney, and his mother is an artist.
“They never questioned me, or said, ‘Well, that’s nice that you like doing this, but when are you going to get a real job?’” Seeder said.
Seeder also found plenty of support at Improv Olympic. He and several other i.O. actors formed the improvisational group “Cougars,” one of approximately 30 improv teams at the theater. “Cougars” was almost instantaneously successful, quickly moving up the ranks to commandeer coveted regular Friday and Saturday night spots on i.O.’s schedule.
Charna Halpern, the artistic director and founder of Improv Olympic, said that watching “Cougars” perform is like “watching eight people fall down the stairs and all land on their feet. They may seem out of control, but they know exactly what they’re doing.”
Halpern credits the Cougars’ continued success to their good chemistry and confidence.
“After I first saw them," she said, "I walked up and said to them, ‘You guys are going to be very important to i.O.’ They were all screaming and cheering. Other i.O. staff said I shouldn’t have done that. They said, ‘Don’t get their hopes up. What if you cut them from the schedule?’ I said, ‘I know that I’m not going to do that.’”
Though enjoying life in “Cougars,” Seeder felt the pull to write a sketch comedy show of his own. He and fellow Cougar Chris Lee discussed the project and spent a year developing their two-man show, “Sandy Takes a Break." Seeder said that he and Lee weeded out several well-worn sketch gimmicks right away.They wanted to come up with something original, even unusual.
“We knew we didn’t want to do anything that referenced celebrities or relied on topical humor, like, ‘Hey, what’s the deal with the CTA?’” Seeder said.
Instead, drawing inspiration from some of their favorite scripted TV shows such as the British "Office," they crafted a show mainly driven by character interaction. In one scene, a teenage girl’s dad drives his daughter’s boyfriend home. In another, a news anchor is fired from his job.
“Sandy Takes a Break” debuted in 2005 at New York’s Fringe Festival, and Seeder and Lee took it to national festivals before settling into a run at Chicago’s Apollo Theater the following year. A performance of "Sandy Takes a Break'' at the San Francisco Comedy Festival caught the eye of a Comedy Central station executive. He invited Seeder and Lee to bring the show to Los Angeles’ Comedy Central stage in March. The station has posted snippets of March’s show on its Web site, and Seeder and Lee have a meeting scheduled with the Comedy Central executives later this month.
“You don’t know how excited to be," said Seeder, "because you don’t know what they might have in mind."
Seeder is also juggling weekly performances of “Despondent Confrontation” at i.O. on Friday nights. The show features Seeder playing a range of characters, from co-workers to new acquaintances, in one-sided conversations. He credited his mentor, Chicago improv actor David Pasquesi, with offering crucial advice about making these delicate situations work onstage.
“He always told me, ‘Don’t just pretend to have the conversation. Actually have it,’” Seeder said. “On the nights when the show goes really well, I’m actually having the conversation.”
Pasquesi, who plays one half of Chicago improv duo “T.J. and Dave,” said that Seeder is the only young actor he has mentored during his long career.
“He has the interest, which drove him to go ahead and make that initial awkward request,” Pasquesi said.
With experience in ensemble acting, one- and two-man shows and writing, Seeder is clear on what he wants next.
“I’d like to start doing this for a living,” he said. Seeder currently works for career prep giant Kaplan University Online during the week.
Norm Holly, the artistic director for Second City's Training Center who taught Seeder at Second City’s Conservatory, has high hopes for his former student.
“His attention to detail blows other people away,” Holly said. “He doesn’t try to be funny, which is a really unique quality. Everything he does is honest.”
Holly thinks Seeder will soon be a hot young star. “In general,” he said, “if I had to make a T-shirt about him, it would say, ‘Girls beware.’”