A COMEDY LESSON FROM “TEACHERS” STARS KATIE O’BRIEN & KATY COLLOTON

In honor of Teacher Appreciation Day, we wanted to express our gratitude for two of the funniest “teachers” on TV.  Katie O’Brien and Katy Colloton play Ms. Bennigan and Ms. Snap on TV Land’s hit comedy, Teachers—the show they co-star, co-write, and co-created with their comedy group The Katydids. The women have given viewers two glorious seasons of Teachers hilarity with a third on its way.  As fans eagerly await new episodes in the fall, what better way to keep the lessons coming than hear some of the comedy tips and tricks O’Brien and Colloton have picked up over the years? In this interview, Katie and Katy teach you about taking creative risks, finding your voice, and finding your people.

MC: When did you catch the comedy bug?

O’BRIEN: I got into comedy, I would say, probably in high school. I was always interested in comedy all growing up. I started exploring it more in high school when I went to see Second City in Chicago. I remember seeing a show there and being like, “Oh my gosh, this is what I want to do.” That’s when I first got the bug.

COLLOTON: I’ve been a huge comedy fan my whole life. I loved Lucille Ball, Phyllis Diller,  and Molly Shannon growing up. It wasn’t until after college when I moved to Chicago and saw a show a iO with T.J. Miller and Susan Messing, who are two improvisers in Chicago and are brilliant. I suddenly was like, “Oh my gosh, this is amazing! I want to do this.” I had been a fan my whole life but it had never dawned on me that I could potentially be funny.   

Did anyone or anything else inspire you both to pursue a career in comedy?

O’BRIEN: For me it was Christopher Guest. I know every line to every Christopher Guest movie. I just worshiped his films. I would watch them over, and over, and over again. He was a big influence on me growing up.

COLLOTON: For me there’s a lot. Christopher Guest is definitely one. The SNL cast of Molly Shannon, Cheri Oteri, Will Ferrell, Ana Gasteyer, and Chris Kattan. That cast, I would watch those shows when they would air, I would tape it, and then watch them on repeat over and over again all week until by the end of the week I knew every single sketch by heart. I think that definitely influenced my sketch comedy start.

O’BRIEN: This is funny. Recently, maybe a couple weeks ago, people were talking about their celebrity crushes and saying, “I have a crush on Ryan Gosling, I have a crush on Chris Pratt.” And Katy Colloton goes, “Oh mine is Chris Kattan!” We all were like, “What?! That’s your celebrity crush?” [O’Brien laughs]

COLLOTON: Okay but when I said that, I said he was my celebrity crush as a child [Colloton laughs]. Although I still do have so much affection and love for the man. But, yes Chris Kattan was my crush for a majority of my life. [Colloton laughs]

O’BRIEN: She didn’t clarify that. That was her real answer. [O’Brien and Colloton laugh] Chris Kattan on SNL in the 90s is Katy’s current celebrity crush. [Colloton laughs]

What training did you both do to help set you up for success?

COLLOTON: Well I was a theater major at Vanderbilt. I really got involved in all aspects of theater: directing, acting, and writing. I moved to Chicago and did an internship at the Goodman Theater, which is a wonderful theater there. While I was interning at the Goodman I discovered Second City and iO. I have a theater background but then I immediately dove into Second City and iO classes, where I trained. I definitely think Chicago is one of the best places to train for comedy. The Annoyance Theater has a great training program, as well. I did both the Second City training program and iO. I performed at pretty much any theater I could while I was taking classes just so I could get up and do it.

O’BRIEN: I was not a theater major. I was an English major and my goal was to go to law school. I was always doing comedy on the side and having the qualifier of, “Yeah but I will be going to law school.” I trained in Chicago. Nobody would cast me. I auditioned for Second City and never made it. I auditioned for a bunch of other stuff and never made it. My story was more like everyone being, “Please stop doing this. Please don’t do this.” I was like, “I’m going to do it.” I performed at iO. They were a really great training ground to find your voice and get really good at doing this. That’s how I got into it. 

How did you two join the Katydids? Did the group form all at once?

COLLOTON: We’re called the Katydids because our names all are some variation of “Katy.” Caitlin Barlow actually formed us about eight years ago. She just knew a bunch of girls named “Katy.” She thought it’d be funny to do a one-off show just for fun. She hates when we tell this, but technically at the time she had a vision that there was something great about a girl named Kate and that’s why she was asking us all to do a show. We give her a lot of grief for that because that’s an insane thing to have a vision. But technically she had a vision for this group, so we did one show in Chicago at the Playground Theater. It was supposed to just be that show and we were done, but we had so much fun we just continued to do it. Then we were offered a run at a theater in Chicago called Studio B, so we started doing a weekly show and it progressed from there. 

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Katy Colloton (left) and Katie O’Brien (second from left) with the Katydids

What were some essential things you both learned from season one of Teachers that you implemented into season two?

O’BRIEN: What we really learned was to trust our gut. Sometimes you come into this process and you don’t trust yourself because you’ve never done this before. You kind of rely on everyone around you to guide you. While that’s a really great thing—we’ve been lucky to have really great people around us. Our showrunners, Ian Roberts and Jay Martel, have been so valuable. We have a wonderful network. But one thing we learned from season one was to trust our gut. There were some things we wanted to do but as we went along and heard people’s opinions, we’d think, “Maybe we shouldn’t do this anymore.” But we really stressed this feeling of, “No I think this is really funny. I really want to do this.” When season one came out, we said, “For better or for worse this is our show. If it sinks, it sinks because of us. Not anybody else.” Season two we stuck with that [idea]. I think for me that was the most valuable thing that came out of season one.

COLLOTON: I would agree. It was, “Trust your voice.” Season one we would have a lot of ideas and sometimes second-guess ourselves just because we haven’t done this before. After season one we decided, “We know what our voice is, so we know what we want to do. Whether people respond to it, we can’t control that. But we know what we think is funny and what we want to do with our show.”

What’s the greatest advice you ever got from a teacher?

COLLOTON: I had a college professor tell me—it’s not eloquent because I can’t remember exactly what he said—but he basically said, “Don’t ever be afraid to put something out there because it’s okay to make a mistake.” At the time I was trying to write my first play ever. I was so scared of what people would think of it. He said, “It’s okay. It doesn’t have to be great. You just have to keep putting yourself out there until you find your voice and until people respond. It’s okay to fail.” I don’t know if that’s particularly eloquent or unique, but I remember at the time in my life that was something I always revisited. As a comedian, you always can doubt yourself about what you’re putting out there. But as long as you believe in it, that’s all that matters.

O’BRIEN: This is kind of dumb advice but I remember a college professor told me, “Always show up early and always stay late,” which has actually been great advice in this career. Basically, you should do whatever you can to be involved. Make sure you’re involved and doing everything you can. At the end of the day, make sure you’re the person where everyone says, “Oh my gosh, so and so knows what they’re doing. We can rely on them.” That’s been a great life-skill advice.

COLLOTON: That reminds me, I had a teacher in high school who said, “You always want to be the nicest person in the room.” You might not be the smartest, you might not be the most talented, but if you’re the nicest and supporting everyone and there for everyone else, you’re always going to ride with the group. That stuck with me.

O’BRIEN: Yeah Katy Colloton isn’t funny and she isn’t talented, but she’s so nice that we just feel bad. We feel so bad that we’re like, “Eh we’ll bring her along.”

COLLOTON: “Yeah we’ll bring her along!” [Colloton laughs]

Here’s a clip of Ms. Snap (Katy Colloton) and Ms. Bennigan (Katie O’Brien) giving some not so great advice in season two of Teachers

What about you two? What’s your advice for aspiring comedians, actors, people who want to run their own show and do everything?

COLLOTON: I always say two things: find your voice and find your people. I think O’Brien and I had similar experiences in Chicago. I wasn’t cast. I was repeatedly told, “No.” Everything I went for, I didn’t get. It was finding the people who made me laugh, the people who I had to work with and had so much fun working with, who kind of pushed me forward. I would always have a plan and the plan would never go how I wanted it to. But it didn’t matter because I had my people. It doesn’t matter how many people. I had a really talented writer-comedian friend, John Loos, who I did two-person shows with. I had the Katydids. So it didn’t matter if I didn’t get Second City or I didn’t get a callback for some audition. I could always do my show with John or I could do my Katydids show. It was through that I found my voice and confidence. Through that I think we started producing content that people wanted to see. So I think you have to find the people who you want to collaborate with and then you have to find your voice. We [the Katydids] did a million videos both separately and together before Teachers hit. You have to keep putting stuff out there until you figure out what you want to say.

O’BRIEN: My advice would be, don’t let people shape you. Just be yourself. That sounds so cheesy but for so much of my comedy career, I kept looking to other people for who I should be or how I should act or what kind of comedy I should be doing. It took me a really long time to realize, “No, I have my own voice. This is what it is and this is what I’m going to put out there.” I think when I accepted that and settled into it, I started to find recognition. Be true to who you are and don’t try to conform to what you think everyone else wants. ♦

You can catch up on seasons one and two of Teachers on tvland.com before the show returns with new episodes in the fall!  Happy Teacher Appreciation Day!

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