That one Time I Interviewed Jason Chin
I took a writing class from Jason when I first moved to the city. He is pretty big in Chicago sketch and improv, but he won’t tell you that. He’s also super nerdy. We were able to talk about Star Trek, American history, comic books, improv and even burlesque. I learned a number of things from our talk and listening back to the recording:
- At one time, Tina Fey wore overalls constantly.
- Del Close wrote a series of comic books called Wasteland.
- There was a time when Seinfeld wasn’t a thing.
- My voice sounds much more relaxed and appealing at 75% speed and like, half an octave lower.
- Jason Chin has been quietly standing on the cutting edge of nerd culture for quite a while.
As we walked up the stairs to find a quiet room to record the interview, we passed through the Del Close theatre, where a group of people milled around anxiously. Jason said hi to a few people as we passed though the room. The he laughed and said, “Those people are freaking out right now. Lorne Michaels is coming to the theatre today. Those people are auditioning.”
Jedi: A Musical Tour de Force and other Nerd Theatre
Jason is a freelance writer, performer and producer.
[I produce] generally nerd shows. It’s funny. I feel very old. I feel like the grandfather of every nerd show in Chicago because in 1996? 97? I did a show called Jedi: A Musical Tour de Force, which was a two and a half hour musical of the original Star Wars movies. That was before any of the prequels came out or were even in production . . . We did a Sunday afternoon, for kids. And then we did Friday at 8, Friday at 10:30, Saturdays at 8. And that ran for a good 6 months and then Lucas shut us down. I have a beautiful cease and desist.
He has it framed. Not surprisingly, Jason got this notice around the time the show started to get national press. I ask him if he was surprised at the time by the success of a “nerd” show.
At that time I was stunned . . . I didn’t think anyone was going to like it until the opening. Because we liked it and there were seventeen of us in one show, which was super dumb. Seventeen people was way too many. Like, if you had one line, you were in the cast, as opposed to doubling up, because it was just friends. It was just friends playing Star Wars and we happened to burst into song. We had the first line–we played it for the laugh—“But I was gonna go to Tosche Station!” and when everyone applauded and there was like a four minute applause, I was like, “Well, okay. They get it.” So then we settled in for a nice run.
The success of the show is even more remarkable considering it was in 1996, with no internet as we know it.
It was a lot of guerilla marketing, like we would go down to colleges and go to all the newspaper machines, pay for a newspaper, [not] take any out and put our flyers in all the newspapers and close them back up. And we would go to every bookstore possible and go to the science fiction section, take out every book and put our very small postcards inside each sci-fi book, particularly the Star Wars books.
I ask if this was his first foray into making nerd theatre.
No, the first improv show I ever did here was the awfully named Super Hero Society of America Presents Improv Crisis in Improv Earth.
Yeah, that is horrible.
Yeah. And it’s the worst review I’ve ever received.
Do you have that framed too?
You know I did, but one day—I had it on my wall in my apartment and I was hurriedly running to the Jedi show and a water pipe burst—like, a hundred degree water burst—almost hit my face and I dodged. As I moved, it hit exactly the wall where the review was and just destroyed the paper. It was boiling water and it just melted the paper. I was like, “God, just tell me to take it down. You literally destroyed the apartment to take down that review.”
We both agree that this is in line with God’s penchant for dramatic gestures.
Jason has been working in Chicago for 17 years. He moved here specifically to do improv and was encouraged by his teacher, Del Close, to direct a show. Del Close was also a huge nerd.
He wrote comic books for DC comics. He wrote a horror comic book called Wastelands. He collected comic books, loved comic books. He was in the comic book Marvels.
Well, the comic book is painted, so the—Alex Ross, who lives here in Illinois, was looking for models. And a friend of a friend knew Del Close and asked him to “play” the editor. So Del came in, posed for like five or six Polaroid’s and that is one of the most popular comic books ever created.
What kind of nerd is Jason Chin?
Oh boy . . . I would say probably a Star Trek nerd, more than Star Wars, which is funny because I did Star Wars musicals and people think, “Oh man, that guy, Chin loves Star Wars.”
Pfft. Star Wars has always been mainstream.
Yeah, exactly. It’s the most successful movie of all time. That’s weird . . . I like Star Trek a lot. Even when I was little, I mean like 8 or 9, I loved Star Trek.
So you were a really nerdy kid?
Oh yeah. I had no friends.
Because you were interested in weird stuff or, or vice versa?
It was both, I think. You know, I was the only Chinese kid for like, a hundred miles, which is weird because Flushing, NY is now called Little Asia. I mean, it’s almost 50% Asian now. We were the only Asian people there, growing up so that was weird. I didn’t have many friends. I was, I think, just born nerdy. I liked books and would watch TV all day. My mom would kick me out of the house because you can’t watch TV all day. So I would go to the library and read books all day. They closed at seven and then watch TV and go to sleep and repeat, every summer. So I guess a TV nerd first. A TV and book nerd.
Jason also loves American history, specifically the American revolution. The fourth of July is his favorite holiday. He dreams of doing a one man version of 1776. Have you noticed John Adams becoming more popular? Jason has, because Adams has been his favorite president and founding father for his whole life.
I’ve read every biography on him. But it wasn’t until recently, within the last five years that he became popular. And I’m like, “Ugh! Now John Adams has gone mainstream? Boo.”
I commiserated with a story of my decade old love of Betty White. Jason compares it to your best friend getting super rich and not really being able to just go to lunch with them any more. I ask if that’s happened to him.
I came here just before improv imploded, in that . . . I was assistant to the director at Second City for Jeff Richmond who is Tiny Fey’s husband. And I knew Tina because she was in classes with my roommate. Uh, so to watch Tiny Fey and all these people get picked up and move—I mean literally swept up into this thing–Tina was my friend. Jeff Richards was my friend. Amy Pohler was a friend. Rachel Dratch. I was assistant for one of her shows. Even more recently—just within two years—I taught Paul Britton and Vanessa Bayer–and as we were walking in here we saw ten people getting ready to audition. And I taught every single one of those people and that’s gonna be weird. I guess the biggest one is Tina. Like, she just went that fast. But in a way, it’s not surprising.
Turns out Tina Fey is nerdy too!
She’s super brainy. She’s a wonderful nerd. And Scott Adsit is a wonderful nerd as well and teaming them up on the main stage was brilliant. Their scenes were some of the most powerful, sad and funny scenes. And Tina did probably the biggest thing in Second City history, that no one really talks about is that when John Glaser was on the main stage who is the star of Delocated now—when he left to work for Conan O’Brien, they replaced him with Tina Fey. And to my knowledge, it was the only time—or at least the first time they replaced a man with a woman. And they said, “Leave the parts.” They didn’t change a thing. And she killed it. And that’s super important, I think. Of course, that gets drowned out, with everything else. And then she went on to be the first female head writer for SNL. She’s an icon for those things, I think.
Then he told me about this weird period of time when Tina Fey and Amy Pohler seemed to wear overalls everywhere. You can’t find overalls anymore, you know. Not like you used to. Anyway, Jason says girls in overalls look super cute but guys in overalls usually look like murders. He’s not wrong.
The Nerdiest Thing that Jason Chin Does
This is a secret. He does not publicize it, or even talk about it online. But he was willing to tell me. This is a Chicago Nerdlesque exclusive. Prepare yourself.
I have a blog called Holmes Sick, in which I review and critique non-cannon Sherlock Holmes stories. And it’s just for me. It’s because I read and collect non-cannon Sherlock Holmes stories, movies, TV shows. And I’ll watch all of them and read all of them. I have a pile of non-cannon Sherlock Holmes books.
Does non-cannon mean anything not written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle?
Pretty much. It’s funny, because at the end, he hated Sherlock Holmes. He’s like, “I’m tired of this character.” And someone wrote a play and was like, “Is it okay if I write this play? Is it okay if he get married? Is it okay if he dies?” And Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote, “Marry him, kill him, I do not give a fuck. I do not care. Do whatever you want.”
And now Sherlock Holmes is in the public domain and super popular.
How annoying is that?
I’m angrier because the BBC did a wonderful modern retelling and it is great. It is one of the best things I’ve ever seen regardless of my love for Sherlock Holmes. That Robert Downey Jr. movie is one of the worst movies, much less adaptations of anything. And now this CBS show is going to be horrific.
Come back tomorrow for part two of the interview. Jason and talks about self-producing vs. working with a company, one of his most successful shows, and what he’ll be working on next.