It’s a Saturday night at the perennially popular Hutch’s BBQ on Walnut Street, but the hottest thing in the joint isn’t the ribs or the sausages. Rather, it’s The Sauce — an improv-comedy team that has been drawing ever-growing audiences to the restaurant for weekly performances since veteran improv performer Bill Chott started leading shows there in December.
The Sauce’s shows are family-friendly because Chott has a sizable fan base among kids who watched him for four seasons as Mr. Laritate on The Disney Channel’s “The Wizards of Waverly Place.” And after the troupe performs a full show of scenes based on audience suggestions, they also host a post-show jam, during which attendees can jump on stage with them and attempt to work their own acts.
“Our success has been amazing, because it’s really relied on word of mouth,” says Chott, “But the beauty of improv is that everyone enjoys it because it makes them feel creative too, along with the performers.”
The Sauce’s shows mark an extra level of involvement by Chott at Hutch’s, building off his long-running classes there, held from 5 to 7 p.m. on Tuesday and Saturday nights. Known as The Improv Trick, his courses teach at three levels: Enter the Zone teaches the basics for introductory students; Character Zone enables students to improve their skills as characters; and Scene Work Zone focuses on crafting great scenes with fellow cast members.
Chott is generous with his pricing for classes, offering a free initial class to anyone who wants to determine whether improv is something they really feel a calling toward. He also allows students to pay one $200 fee for a four-week course, and repeat that level’s classes as many times as they want for free. The idea is that he’s charging one time for what he terms the “lifetime class,” and the students simply pay another $200 when they feel ready to advance to the next level.
“Everybody can do The Improv Trick, and I’ve never worked with people who just couldn’t do it,” says Chott. “I’ve worked with everyone from Special Olympics athletes to corporate folks who often aren’t seen as being creative. Then there are actors who come because they know they’ll get stage time for years out of the lifetime class.”
At 43, Chott has been on stage for at least half his life. A St. Louis native, he performed with the legendary improv theatrical powerhouse Second City in Chicago shortly after finishing college, then toured for a year with a road-troupe offshoot of the theater before being promoted to the Second City Mainstage, where he was discovered after just one short month in 1996 by the producers of the cult classic ABC sketch-comedy series, “The Dana Carvey Show.”
Teamed not only with the “Saturday Night Live” superstar but also with fellow Second City alums Steve Carell, Stephen Colbert, Jon Glaser and Robert Smigel as they were also launching their careers, Chott found himself excitedly working amid a creative atmosphere that was too explosively funny to last. The show’s wild vision — including a sketch in which Carvey squeezed milk from his nipples to feed cats — proved too extreme for ABC’s family audiences and was pulled after just eight weeks.
“The ratings weren’t so hot, and it was following ‘Home Improvement,’ so they tried to lump us in with the No. 1 family show on TV,” recalls Chott. “We were late-night entertainment in prime time, so we lost a lot of ratings. Dana was having health problems at the time and wasn’t interested in remounting it, even though Lorne Michaels swooped in with an offer to pick it up and move the show to the ‘Saturday Night Live’ stage at NBC’s Studio 8H during the week.”
While he was disheartened to see the Carvey show go, Chott is happy to report that the series was finally released recently on video and is available to order at Amazon.com. In the years since, he went on to do voices for Smigel’s “SNL” cartoons “The Ambiguously Gay Duo” and “The Ex-Presidents,” as well as playing the key role of Thomas in the controversial Johnny Knoxville comedy “The Ringer.”
Most recently, Chott has been scoring with audiences in a different kind of stage show, playing William Frawley’s character of Fred Mertz in live revivals of “I Love Lucy” at the Gateway Place Theater in Los Angeles. Playing off the laughter of the crowds at the critically acclaimed show has also kept him fresh as a teacher.
“People always ask me what the Improv Trick actually is, and I say it’s always about making the scene about the other person,” says Chott. “Asking ‘What am I not doing in a scene?’ and looking to pick up on the gift that’s already there to play against. People also always find that taking improv isn’t just a way to be funny, but a form of self-improvement, because it improves their social interaction when they realize they have to see how to listen closer to others in their everyday life as well.”
The Sauce performs at 7:30 p.m. Saturdays at Hutch’s BBQ, 390 E. Walnut St., Pasadena. Tickets are $5 in advance, $7 at the door. Visit theimprovtrick.com.