The Katydids first performed together eight years ago for a simple reason: all six women had variations on the same first name. Caitlin Barlow, Katy Colloton, Cate Freedman, Kate Lambert, Katie O’Brien, and Kathryn Renée Thomas started out as an improv group, then moved to sketch, then created the webseries Teachers, now a TV Land sitcom produced by Alison Brie (Community, Mad Men).
The group returned to Chicago for the show’s premiere last week, and I talked to them over lunch while they remained bundled in winter jackets and scarves—they’ve grown accustomed to warmer weather during their rise in LA. But worry not, these girls haven’t forgotten their Chicago roots. They talked about local comedy theaters, making a female-dominated TV show, and experimental Chicago comedy.
Did you all start at the same theater?
Thomas: We all took classes at iO, and we were going through it at about the same time, but a lot of us took classes at Second City, the Annoyance, performing all over town.
Freedman: I was thinking about it today and was getting very emotional thinking about our premiere at iO. Barlow and I actually met in [iO founder] Charna [Halpern]’s level-one [class] ten years ago this year. We’ve just had such a long beautiful relationship.
Colloton: iO is our home, but we have a relationship with almost every theater in Chicago. Our first show was at the Playground, our first run was at Studio Be [now MCL Chicago], and then we did a run at the Annoyance, we did a run at Second City’s Donny’s Skybox, we did a show at ComedySportz. We really did have show at every single theater.
So how did you decide to move from the stage to a webseries?
O’Brien: A really good friend of ours and director here in town, Matt Miller, essentially said to us, “Do you guys realize you all look like midwestern teachers?” We said, “Thank you so much, that’s the hottest thing we’ve ever been called.” I think he had heard in a podcast or a radio program that teaching was considered the most revered profession and simultaneously the most adulterous profession. He thought that was really interesting. So we wrote the webseries and an amazing production company here, Cap Gun Collective, helped us shoot it, and we put it out on the Web.
Thomas: I feel like we had prepared ourselves to do a really cool webseries because we started out with improv, then we did one sketch show, then when we got our first run at iO. It was a midnight Friday show, we started doing promo videos to promote the show, and those went really well. So we started doing one-off videos, and a lot of them went viral and did well, so we got a lot of practice under our belt. We learned a lot doing those, so it just felt like that next natural step.
How did that turn into the TV show?
Lambert: The webseries right away got some pretty good traction. We decided at that point to see if it could have a life on television. We were looking for an executive producer, and Alison Brie at that time was also looking to produce, so we met with her, and we just felt like it was such a great fit—we always say that she felt like the seventh Katydid. Then before we were even able to go and pitch it, TV Land called [our agents at] William Morris looking for a show that Teachers fit the bill for. So instead of going out and pitching it, we essentially had a digital pitch with the webseries, and they bought it.
Colloton: I think TV Land called looking for an all-female workplace comedy by unknowns, something edgy and new, and it’s like, “Well, well, well—we might have something for you.”
Lambert: It all worked out so wonderfully, and also TV Land has been so wonderful with preserving the nature of the webseries. They wanted us to stay true to the webseries and want us to go even further like, “Don’t restrain yourselves!” So we were able to expand the characters from the webseries, heighten them, and make them more defined so that they could have a life from a two-minute sketch to a half-hour narrative.
What was that transition like?
Freedman: It was a really great transition and a joyous one. When we wrapped the webseries and were cleaning up the school where we shot in Evanston, we already knew we wanted to do more of that together. We wanted to expand these characters, and moving into a 30-minute narrative was a godsend. We also got to do more with the kids and create stories that we really didn’t have time for in the webseries.
Barlow: We were really lucky to have two amazing show runners to make the transition from short videos to 20-minute narratives. We learned so much from them about story arc and how to have A-B-C plots.
Thomas: What was really cool was that we actually started writing this webseries four years ago this month, January 2012. We’ve been living with these characters for a really long time, and even when we started writing the pilot, in May of 2014, we had already been living with these characters for over two years. The structure was the hardest part, but we already knew these characters, so writing for them was easy and the world was already so well established.
O’Brien: I think our show—we’re just going to claim it—is the only show to ever be on television that is predominantly female. Our writers’ room was almost exclusively female except for our two show runners, Ian [Roberts] and Jay [Martel].
Thomas: We taught our show runners Ian and Jay a lot about women things. We really delighted in putting things in the script that they had to Google search like Diva Cups, DSLs, queefs. They learned a lot from us.
TV Land must be changing its style if they’re allowing DSLs and queefs on air. What was it like working with a network known for Cheers reruns?
Thomas: There was, of course, excitement when TV Land asked for our show because a network wanted the pilot. But at the same time it was like, “Wait, isn’t that just I Love Lucy reruns and The Kirstie Alley Show and these things that are a little more traditional, campy multicams? That just is not at all our voice. For me, anyway, I felt a little bit nervous. But they couldn’t have been cooler, so it was a really fun surprise.
Colloton: I grew up watching Nick at Nite [which became TV Land] and watching I Love Lucy. To now be on the network that a lot of us watched growing up and got comedic inspiration from, it is now very surreal.
So now that you’re all out in LA, what are the biggest differences you notice from Chicago? Besides the weather.
O’Brien: Chicago will always be home and is such a special place for performers and creatives, I don’t think we could have done this in any other city. LA, once you start performing, you’re seen by every casting director, you’re seen by all these people, and if you’re not good yet, you’re written off. You have to work that much harder. But in Chicago you can get really good and do weird stuff and do experimental stuff and be embraced for it.
Thomas: You really get to cut your teeth in Chicago. I’ve heard people in LA say, “Wow, Chicago improvisers and Chicago comedians are really hard-core and intense.”
Colloton: LA is a very competitive scene. One of the things that has really been a huge positive for us about the Chicago scene is that it’s not competitive—it’s ensemble based, it’s about supporting each other—and that’s going to breed better comedy and a space where people take more risks and feel safe finding their voice.
Speaking of ensembles, Teachers seems unique in that it’s a comedic ensemble, not a sketch show lead by one or two people.
Freedman: That’s been so celebrated. We always talk about how we think the success of the group is due to the unique voice of the group, and that’s a collective voice that really is only created by the six of us coming together.
Barlow: Squads are very big right now. We’re a squad. #SquadGoals.
Colloton: One of the things that I’m the most proud of is that there are six series-regular women characters. I think you can find a little of yourself in everyone—and a little bit of the people you hate in everyone.
So how does it feel to premiere your show in the city and the theater where you all started?
Lambert: We’ll have to wear waterproof mascara, I’m sure. It’s incredibly special that we’ll get to go to iO and be with the community that taught us so much. To be able to be with all those people who taught us and loved us and encouraged us and performed with us, it’s really profound and very moving to all of us.
Thomas: We’re screening the pilot, airing it as it airs, but we’re also going to show a bonus episode. Last year the improv community lost a very important person, Jason Chin, so we’re dedicating an episode to Jason. We even have a kid based on Jason, Jason C. When we were in New York we had a chance to meet his mother. I think that was my favorite part of the trip. And we got to go on the Kathie Lee & Hoda show. Meeting Mama Chin, she was unbelievable.
Barlow: This is not just ours. We are here because of this community, and Jason was so supportive. This wouldn’t have worked without how special the comedy community is.
Freedman: I look back at our time at iO, starting with those midnight shows, as one of the most formative periods. You cut your teeth and find out who you are as a performer and how you work with other people and what you can offer. I think that iO is a place that we owe a lot of credit to, and Charna Halpern as well—she directed us in our first sketch show, and that was a big inspiration to us to keep doing written material. Having our television show premiere there is indescribable.
It seems like you’re living the dream: a television show with all your best friends. What advice do you have for anyone looking to do the same thing?
O’Brien: A lot people go into comedy think that there’s a very prescriptive path, like, “I’m going to take classes at iO or Second City, and then I’m going to be on the main stage” or “I’m going to be on a Harold team,” and I think everybody’s path is different. A lot of us did not get hired by Second City and auditioned a lot—or we just didn’t make it. That was never a deterrent, like, “Oh, I’m done.” Never try to fit in a box because it just doesn’t work.
Colloton: It’s so important to make your own content over and over again. We did ten videos until one did well. It’s OK to fail. It’s OK that you don’t get cast. It’s OK to get rejected ten times over. Once you find what you do well and what you succeed at, other people will notice that. And if not, you’ll just have a great time doing it.
O’Brien: And we all read The Secret. That could have contributed.
Teachers, Wednesdays at 9:30 PM on TV Land