Meet Jon Stewart’s new HBO show writer: Steve Waltien

The funny guy discusses Second City, his role in “Don’t Think Twice,” gender observations from improv scenes, and more

You have a part in Mike Birbiglia’s new movie, Don’t Think Twice. How would you describe the movie in three sentences?

Don’t Think Twice is the second movie written and directed by the great stand-up Mike Birbiglia. It’s about an improv group in New York City whose members are getting older and coming to terms with their different career trajectories and changing priorities. It’s an honest love letter to the improv community, warts and all.

How did you become involved with the film?

Mike had come to see The Improvised Shakespeare Company a few times and we became friends. He asked me to audition for the movie and was nice enough to cast me!

Any crazy stories from set?

I was only on set for 3 or 4 days, but it was such a fun set because of the hilarious and generous cast. Tami Sagher was in the first Second City Mainstage show I ever saw I and I have looked up to her ever since. I’ve also worked with Chris Gethard, Kate MiCucci and Keegan Michael-Key before, and they were so welcoming and really made me feel like a part of the movie even though my screen time was so small.

One advantage to knowing the director was that after my first day, Mike said to me “too bad you aren’t in town next week or I would put you in another scene.” I was like, “I can be in town!”

Did you always know that you wanted to be a performer and do comedy?

Pretty much. I think I went through a long period of time where I thought such a thing wasn’t realistic, so I thought about other careers but it was probably always the thing I really wanted most.

Who were some of your comedy heroes when you were growing up?

Woody Allen, Jerry Seinfeld, Dennis Miller, Monty Python, Kids in the Hall, the whole cast of SNL in the Dana Carvey/Mike Myers years, Eddie Murphy, Steve Martin, Philip Roth… I generally gravitated to overthinking neurotic types.

Do you think being funny is something that can be learned?

I think technique can be taught and honed and comedic voice can be sharpened and developed. I don’t think you can teach taste. Taste is subjective and all you can do is expose yourself to lots of things and see what inspires you.

In your experience, how do men and women approach an improv scene differently?

I think there are lots of exceptions to what I’m about to say and I hate to generalize but I do think women can naturally be better at playing scenes honestly not getting hung up on trying to be funny or sell their scene partner out for a joke. I think men have to work harder at that especially when they are starting out. Again, I’ve seen plenty of the opposite but typically women are less fearful of just being authentic on stage and that can lead to bull-headed men steam-rolling scenes and looking like idiots.

What were some of your favorite moments from performing at Second City?

I loved the camaraderie that formed backstage. My casts all felt very much like families because you saw each other every day and even on your worst days you were all in it together and thus, kind of bonded for life. It was fun to prank each other and find ways to keep the show fresh for each other during a long run. I also always loved the excitement at the beginning of the show. I loved listening to crowd come in and be filled with anticipation. That space is so filled with history and I still remember being a first-time audience member myself. When the lights went down at the beginning of the show it always felt like magic could be pulled out of thin air.

What do you miss about being on stage at Second City?

I miss that nighty performance outlet and I miss hanging out with those people. We were just so present in each other’s life and knew everything about what was going on with everyone. I have to remind myself to reach out to them because we don’t have that nightly check-in anymore. I love live performance and I think I was one of the people who reveled in being out there every night. I miss my quiet walks home after a great set when I could think about the unexpected things my friends had done and laugh to myself.

What is Improvised Shakespeare and how did it come about?

Improvised Shakespeare is a group that was started about 10 years ago by Blaine Swen. We improvise a full-length Elizabethan play based only on a made-up title we get from the audience and we use the styles, themes and language of William Shakespeare. Blaine started the group after having seen lots of short-form Shakespeare style games improvised on stage. He wondered if you could dig deeper into it and do a full-length play and really commit to the style instead of making fun of it. I think we’ve done that thanks to his vision.

What projects are on the horizon for you for the rest of 2016?

I just joined the writing staff for Jon Stewart’s new HBO project [the show debuts on HBO in fall 2016, likely sometime before the presidential election]. I’m very excited about that and it’s a thrill to be working with Jon who is someone I’ve looked up to for many years. He’s really the father of modern political satire in this country and I learn so much from him every day. That venture is pretty full-time right now, but I try to still perform as often as I can. I join The Improvised Shakespeare Company on tour whenever my schedule allows and I have been sitting in with the Harold team Airwolf at UCBeast on Saturday nights in NYC, which has been a blast.

What advice would you give to aspiring performers?

I think your gut is always your best barometer. Don’t try to be something you think other people want to see. Do the work you think is exciting and the kind of work you yourself would want to watch. We have very little control over the industry, but we have control over our own work. I’ve always been happier and more successful doing things that I was excited about than any moves I made because I thought they would impress someone else or get me ahead in some way.

Authenticity is always the most attractive quality in a performer.

ANNE McCARTHY is a contributing writer to The Telegraph, Ms. Magazine, Second City Network, Bonjour Paris, France Today, and more. She has a Masters in Creative Writing from the University of Westminster in London, and is a graduate of the Writing Program at Second City. She lives in New York City.