Sometimes rules aren’t fair. For example, in the world of music it is commonly accepted that songwriters actively pursue performing but in comedy it is the presumption that writers never (or rarely) participate in live comedy. The truth is that most writers take part in performing in some manner. It’s virtually impossible in comedy to write successfully without having been on the front lines and getting that immediate feedback of what plays well with a crowd and what does not. Canadian writer Jordan Roth has long been a live performer who has channeled his experiences into his writing. In addition to performances on Jimmy Kimmel Live and The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson, Jordan has been a highly recognizable part of the Chicago comedy community. Experience at theatres like iO (formerly the Improv Olympic), The Playground Theater, and The Annoyance, where he wrote and directed his show Live From a Studio Apartment It’s the Pathetic Loser Show, gave him the opportunity to develop his personal comedy perspective through performance, writing, and directing. While he has spent time in New York and LA, the romance of Chicago with its history of Second City and SNL alumni was the environment that allowed for Jordan’s discovery of his comic self without the omnipresence of the TV and movie industry. These days, major networks call on Roth for his talent. Taking his writing to new places, Roth has also become involved in the documentary film community with his own C-Rock as well as the documentary film anthology True New York. At heart, Jordan is a storyteller, whether it’s in front of the camera displaying his own ideas, writing them for others, or filming real life characters. Regardless of the method, he has a lot to say.
Anyone involved in comedy will tell you that it is a difficult road. The pull was undeniable for Roth. While the premise of “The Producers” might have been complex for most ten-year-olds, Jordan took to it immediately when his grandfather introduced him to it. Later it would be Conan O’Brien’s version of Late Night, Letterman, Seinfeld, Larry David, Woody Allen, and Mel Brooks who would inspire him. All of these unique voices carry a common thread of intelligence and humor tinged with absurdity, a trait also found in Roth’s style. The Chicago improv comedy scene enabled Jordan to channel his ideas into quick expression. Understanding what works and doing so quickly is a major asset to any writer and performer.
Comedy writer and actor Thomas Whittington experienced Roth’s talent up close and next to him onstage. Thomas comments, “Jordan is an ideal comedy writing partner because he can find the funny in pretty much anything. Many times I’ve watched him take a half-baked, ‘nothing’ premise and turn it into a sharp, surprising scene that makes me laugh hysterically. His sense of humor is a weird mix of cynicism and sweetness. He’s just a very gifted, very original voice. His ability to weave mistakes into the fabric of a show is amazing. So many times in improv, something unintentional happens; an actor misspeaks, or forgets something that had been established previously. If those things aren’t acknowledged by the performers, the audience starts to check out. Jordan not only acknowledges the mistakes, but he justifies them brilliantly, making his teammates look like they actually had this great idea all along. Performing with him, you feel taken care of in a way that’s rare.”
After Chicago, Jordan spent a great deal of his time in Los Angeles and New York City. These hubs of the comedy scene gave him numerous opportunities to exhibit his talent and gain notoriety as both a performer and a writer. Shows like ABC’s Jimmy Kimmel Live and CBS’s Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson provided Roth with face time but may have appeared more glamorous to the viewer than to performer. Jordan recalls, “On Ferguson, I performed in a number of sketches in front of the audience. For some reason, Craig often had myself and Bridger (Winegar), who’s now a writer on Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, do bits where we were scantily clad. One time we were bees. We wore black speedos and the makeup people painted our torsos and arms in black and yellow stripes. After the show the body paint wouldn’t come off…It was bad. We were in the showers at CBS very late, long after the taping, trying to remove the paint from our bodies. I think eventually we just gave up and went home, still striped.” These late night talk show appearances gave Jordan the opportunity to be on camera as well as put his well-honed improv chops to good use. He explains, “There was a lot of movement to play around. At Kimmel, there wasn’t much time to prepare for a pre-taped bit. You’d find out about your casting in these kind of bits the day before or even the day of. It’s a mix of your own instincts and the director’s. Generally, a director will let you go and then they’ll give you direction and guidance from there.” Jen Spyra, who came up with Jordan in Chicago’s comedy scene and has written for The New Yorker, McSweeney’s, and The Wall Street Journal, declares, “As writer on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, I’m lucky enough to work with some of the sharpest minds in comedy. I can confidently say that Jordan Roth still stands out as one of the most talented writers that I know. Jordan is that rare breed of writer; he’s as brilliantly funny as he is hardworking. Jordan’s original voice and dedication have separated him from the pack in every iteration of his career: from when we were starting out together doing improv and sketch in Chicago, to when we were graduate students in screenwriting at Northwestern and then working as post grads in LA. Jordan has always done exceptional work and everyone who gets to work with him turns into a superfan. I’ve always looked to his discipline with his writing as something to emulate. He’s the whole package.”
As with so many of his heroes, Jordan Roth is the somewhat cerebral, non pandering type of comedy writer and performer; somewhat self-conscious, emotional in his own way, and always in search of a unique perspective. Canada has given the world countless purveyors of comedy: writers, performers, producers. All of these creative types prove that there is something special that comes from our neighbors to the North. We are the recipients of the minds like Roth, the ones who can’t help but find a way to guide us into a laugh reveals as much about them as it does about us.