For our latest interview, we chatted with the talented (Ed. Note: and just very, very cool) Niccole Thurman of The Second City’s Let Them Eat Chaos about getting into comedy, addressing hot-button issues on stage, and picky eaters who say “I have a thing with textures.” In addition to her role as an actor/writer/improviser with The Second City, Niccole is a co-host of PBS’ Local USA, and a member of the sketch group It’s Megan.
You are incredibly talented as a comedian and performer. Have you always known you were going to live the life of a professionally funny human?
Why thank you! I don’t know if I’d say I always knew I wanted to live that life, as a comedian, but I know that performing and acting has always been something that I loved. When I was younger, I would perform in school plays and I always had a blast. It felt right to me to be in front of people, performing. It was a strange thing too, because I was very shy in real life, but when I was on stage I was super sure of myself, and so happy. I was also extremely bossy (laughs). There is a video of me from my pre-school production of Cinderella (I played the evil stepmother, thank you very much) and whenever anyone would miss a line or sing something wrong I would correct them loudly or roll my eyes. I knew what I was doing in the show and apparently I expected the same from my cast mates.
It’s a cute, kinda goofy story about me as a kid, but it’s why I do feel like I can now say that this is my profession. I take what I do very seriously, I work hard and always try to bring my A game. I think the first time it did really hit me that this was going to be my life was in high school. I sat with my drama teacher and I was just crying because all I wanted to do when I went to college was keep studying theatre (but I knew it was so stupid). She helped me to realize that I’ve always been on this path, and as unfortunate as it was…I was good at it, and it’s the one thing that I truly loved so….I’d have to find a way to do it for a living.
Do you think of yourself as just a performer, or just a writer, or both?
Well I had an interesting entry into comedy, one that I think is quite different from most of my colleagues. When I first started working with Second City I was an actress in Chicago. My goal was to just do straight theatre. I wanted to perform at Steppenwolf, or the Goodman. I wanted to like cry on stage and have buckets of blood thrown on me or something (that’s what they do at Steppenwolf, right? All dramatic plays end in buckets of blood being thrown on actors?).
So I started out thinking I’d be “just” a performer. I didn’t even consider myself an improviser. It terrified me! But I had encouragement from some wonderful people at The Second City to come to their general audition and even though I wasn’t trained in improv I felt comfortable doing it. I don’t think I was super great at it and I still have a lot to learn, but comedy and impov seemed to fit my personality and performance style. So now I have worked with Second City for years and have learned from working with some of the absolute best improvisers in the city.
I think the next challenge that has come out of this work for me is learning to translate the work into a written format. Many sketches at The Second City are developed through improv. A director will have a cast improvise together. Sometimes all at once, and sometimes just two or three people at a time. The assistant director or stage manager will record that improvised scene and the cast will then take the work they did in the room and transcribe it to write it into a funny sketch. I love that style of writing. I feel like I write best when I’m collaborating with other people. When I get to feel it out and talk it out in the room. It’s still tough for me to sit down and write a sketch because I’m newer to it and also self-doubt can get in the way. I’ll find myself nit-picking every word I write and then I pick at it until there’s nothing left! But writing is a very important skill for a comedian.
You should really know how to perform and write. It’s invaluable. You think about the great shows out there now like on Comedy Central — Amy Schumer, Broad City, Workaholics, Key and Peele….those people do both! They are performers and writers. They created their own material….these shows wouldn’t have existed had they JUST been performers.
So yes….I definitely consider myself more of a performer, but it is very important to me for that performance to include improvisation that begets writing. And it is also very important for me to continue to challenge myself as a writer by writing with friends, submitting writing packets to TV shows I have NO business writing for, etc. because the more I challenge myself and put my writing into practice, the less limited I will be in this work.
“We don’t need to play it safe, but we do need to play it smart.”
Second City training is cited in everything from business journals to special education op-eds as being extremely helpful for professionals in a variety of fields. Our own Managing Director Meghan Pressman talks about her SC training as something that helps her every day. What are some things that The Second City has taught you that helps with life offstage?
Well first off I absolutely love that I get to come to work and laugh. Like LAUGH. Really hard with some really stupid people. That’s my job. We wear dumb looking outfits and say stupid things and LAUGH. So I really have learned the value of laughter (this just got super saccharine but it’s true, so I’m cool with looking like a sappy nerd). I can be having a really bad day and feel super sorry for myself, but if I can find a way to smile or have a laugh with a friend it makes such a huge difference. Laughter is so very important. Every day.
Second City teaches workplace skills through comedy improv
On a cold afternoon, several mature, responsible, corporate professionals have gathered to take valuable steps toward…
I’ve also learned to legitimately not be afraid to fail and to just say yes to EVERYTHING. There is this basic phrase and if you’ve ever read anything about improv (or seen this Tina Fey article that I love) you know what I’m about to say. It’s “Yes, And.” It’s about saying yes to everything that is thrown at you and then building onto that. There’s just no better way to live your life. If you’re saying yes to everything you are guaranteed to have some amazing experiences and to live in a way that is brave and rewarding. Failure is always around the corner; you can fail at anything in life, but how can you even fail at something if you don’t try it? To me, saying no because you’re afraid of failing is like being a picky eater. You say “I don’t think I’ll like that” or “it looks weird, I’m freaked out” or “I have a thing about textures” and then you don’t eat it….you could be missing out on something really tasty! Why would you deprive yourself of something good, something different and exciting?? Eat it all! Say yes to all things in life and I promise the good experiences will outweigh the bad. And even if they’re bad experiences they’ll make for a badass story.
At Woolly, we really admire the way The Second City strives to be socially and politically conscious while maintaining irreverence and fun. We try to do the same thing. Do you find that the balance is difficult to achieve?
I find that it’s difficult, yeah. I think satire is hard. I think as a performer or writer you don’t want to be offensive, but you don’t want to be afraid to offend an audience, if that makes sense.
While we were creating this show a lot of very ugly, very sad things happened in this country as far as race and gun violence are concerned. We felt we would be doing our audience a disservice to ignore those issues. So we wanted to touch on them, we wanted to give them the gravity they deserved while still entertaining and making people laugh. This made for a tough process (what we call rehearsal), and we talked a LOT about how to do this. I think it is about finding that balance — learning to walk on the line and dip your toes in the “OH NO THEY DIDN’T” pool while still having a foot firmly planted on “OH I’M GLAD THEY DID” ground.
Some things happening in this country, in 2015, are absurd. Just absurd. And I think if you acknowledge that, you can find some humor in it. We just aim to do it thoughtfully, intelligently…and also daringly. We don’t need to play it safe, but we do need to play it smart. Then the audience can laugh at it, while thinking about it and knowing that we are playing to the top of our/their intelligence.
“It’s about saying yes to everything that is thrown at you and then building onto that.”
Of all the great work you’ve done in comedy, what makes you the most proud?
I really do believe that being able to work for The Second City is one of the things that makes me proud. It’s an amazing job! There are so many different kinds of shows and projects that I’ve gotten to do, places I’ve gotten to go, etc. It’s all thanks to Second City. I’ve had people come up to me after shows and say “this is my first time seeing a show at The Second City” and to think that the first show they saw was with me…that I was one of the performers, is just so special. I think that place inspires a lot of young comedians and writers. I love any possible role I get to play in their journey.
I also am very proud and excited about a sketch comedy group that I’ve formed with my friends and so I’m going to do a shameless plug — please check out It’s Megan on Funny or Die. I’m making some great videos with the funniest people I know and it’s just such a rewarding feeling to have creative control over projects. Adam (Peacock, from Let Them Eat Chaos) is also in the group so check out our funny videos! Both of these things make me very proud but I truly believe the thing that makes me the MOST proud is yet to come. I have big plans for myself so I’m not settled just yet. It’s always onward and upward for me. There will be more!
Get tickets to The Second City’s Let Them Eat Chaos, now through August 9 at Woolly! ticketing.woollymammoth.net