Arts » Comedy

What it takes to make it in improv

Q&A with Jon Barinholtz and Rob Belushi of the duo Sheldon, headliners at Crossroads Comedy


Jon Barinholtz
  • Jon Barinholtz
Between Jon Barinholtz and Rob Belushi the two have names like Parks and Recreation, Happy Endings and Dumb and Dumber Too under their belts. Both cut their teeth at in the Chicago improv powerhouses IO and Second City. After we got done talking about the places they wanted to stop at while in Indy (Working Man’s Friend and Patachou) and Rob’s condo that he really wants to sell, we moved back into their improv careers. Oh, and Rob shares about an unfortunate drunken mishap with a hotel breakfast bar.

NUVO: Jon, your brother preceded you at IO Chicago, correct?

Jon: He started IO when I was in seventh grade, actually. I remember me and my friends and I would go, like nerdy fat middle schoolers. I lived like walking distance to the theatre, so we would walk over there and watch improv. We thought it was really funny. We probably understood 10 percent of what we were seeing. That’s kind of how I got a love for improv — watching him at a young age.

NUVO: Anyone else in the family do comedy?

Jon: No but we have a very funny family I think. Both of our parents were theater majors at Ohio State — that’s how they met. Then you know, like responsible people, instead of pursuing performing they got real jobs and made a life for themselves. Which is very nice because it allowed my brother and I to be idiots (laughs).

NUVO: What about you Rob?

Rob: No.

NUVO: Lone wolf huh?

Rob: I just really wanted to branch out and do something different.

Jon: No one has ever done comedy in Rob’s family before (laughs).

(This is all VERY sarcastic. Rob’s uncle is John Belushi)

NUVO: What makes good improv to both of you?

Rob: I would even go so far as to say my family didn't even know good comedy until I introduced them to it.

RELATED: How Crossroads Comedy is starting off with diversity as a priority.

Jon: That’s a good question, Rob. What do you think makes good improv?

Rob: Probably agreement.

Jon: See, I disagree. (Rob laughs) No I totally agree. It’s about agreeing to create a world together and a scene with your partner. It’s tried and true to say “yes and” but that’s what it is. It’s agreeing to what you are establishing on stage.

Rob: I think to step that out one yard, I think trust really makes agreement easy. Even if your partner is branching off in a direction that you don’t understand or even agree with, you trust that it is going to be fine. Trust is the lubrication to agreement; the piston to agreement. It’s firing, it’s moving the show forward. And the thing that lubricates that piston is trust.


Rob just wanted to say the word lubricate a bunch of times.

Rob: The metaphor is rock solid.

Rob Belushi
  • Rob Belushi

NUVO: What was it like at IO?

Jon: IO was great. We both kind of jumped into the programs. I was doing all of the programs at the same time.

Rob: We did Annoyance together actually.

Yup. We did the program Annoyance Theater together. IO was great … there are three big ones in Chicago: Second City, IO and the Annoyance … I think of those three you learn something different at each one. Like at Second City you learn the formula for making a good comedy scene. Like A plus B equals laugh.

Rob: And how to turn that into a sketch.

Jon: Yes. It’s especially good for writers. With Annoyance you learn kind of how to fail, in that they let you try everything and they are just the opposite of judgmental. It’s a great place to be free and kind of find your voice. At IO I think you learn to really work as a team. You learn teamwork with the other people on stage that you are playing with. And how that’s so important to building a good scene and having a good show. Those powers combined create improv I think.

NUVO: What year was it that you were both there?

Rob: Jon was there in 1968. I was there in 2005.

Jon: No I was there in a…

Rob: You mad I beat you to that?

Jon: Yeah (laughs)

Rob: That’s Jon’s favorite thing. I am three week older than Jon and he likes to make a big deal about how old I am.

Jon: Replace weeks with years and multiply that by 36 forehead wrinkles.

Rob: No! That is so mean.

Jon: That’s true.

That’s my face.

Jon: We were there 2005, 2006 for classes*

*Jon did the summer program when he was 18 before college. Rob was an intern there before making house teams.They met while they were both on the night staff at Second City as hosts (seating people). “We were making pretty bad money but were watching the show every night,” according to Rob. They started their two man show in 2007 after making a dark comedy theater piece called This is Our Youth together.

NUVO: What is it about each other’s styles that makes you two click and work so well on stage?

Rob: Well Jon writes everything before he goes on stage and I am able to improvise directly from him.

Jon: (laughs) I don’t know. A big part of it is being in relationship with someone and being able to very quickly being able to cut down on the time of knowing where they are going with the next move … Even if you are the greatest improviser in the world and you are improvising with the other greatest improviser in the world and you haven’t met each other before there is still that unknown between the two of you. There is very little that is unknown between Rob and I, so it’s very easy. It’s almost like being with family but on stage…

Rob: Yeah, if I can add. I think there is a really nice relationship between anticipation and surprise. Like Jon was saying we kind of anticipate each other and there is a joy of leading each other somewhere that we like to watch them do stuff. Setting each other up and watching each other get weird. I also think like any relationship that is nine or 10 years in, where you haven’t been with anyone else, and taking each other for granted (Jon laughs) and then the bills become too much and you are fighting about money.

Jon: Rob is talking about his marriage now.

Rob: (laughs) Okay, anyway. The ability to surprise one another is the most fun that we have. I would say that 70 percent of this stuff that we do on stage is I am trying to heighten what he is doing, and he knows if does this I will get a little weird. And he puts me there, then he brings relief to that weirdness for the audience. But then there is a 30 percent thing of I had no idea you were about to do that and it was really fun. That surprise factor is what keeps things super fun for both of us …

NUVO: What’s the funniest situation that you have found yourselves in real life?

Jon: I mean there are so many. I am just trying to think of one that is appropriate for an article. (speaking to Rob.) The breakfast room?

Rob: Oh yeah, well what we find funny some people would find pretty horrifying.

Jon: I will tell a very quick story. Our first college gig ever, back in 2006 in like Lima, Ohio. We went out after the show and got pretty drunk. We went back to the Days Inn where we were staying … We got back late, like 5 o’clock in the morning and they already had the breakfast room set up. Like the little nook off the check-in area … You know, a nice room for breakfast for people who are passing through Lima, Ohio. And we went in there drunk … I look over and Rob is touching every item in there. Like he would pick up a bagel and throw it on the ground. And like knock over a cereal machine. And drink milk out of the spigot.

(Rob and I are laughing.)

There is just one employee there and she just goes in the other room, like “I can’t deal with these monsters.” We were with another buddy and we were all like “Rob come on, relax.” It was a big thing this poor room was trashed. And we get back to our hotel room like 30 minutes later and we are all laying down trying to get 30 minutes of sleep. And no one said anything, we are all kind of annoyed at Rob. He is in his own world, loving it. He finally breaks the silence and said “I would like to be the first to apologize for what happened in the breakfast room.”

I just couldn't be mad at him anymore. It implied that the rest of us had to apologize but really it was all him. That summed up those years. Very very funny.

Rob: I don’t drink anymore.

Go see Sheldon at Crossroads Comedy Festival
Theatre on the Square, 627 Massachusetts Ave
Oct. 16, 8 p.m.


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