Detroit: It’s Worth The Risk

Interview / Sunday, January 14th, 2018

Written by Mark Talaga


Weeks ago I had the pleasure of sitting down with the director of the Planet Ant training center, Mike McGettigan, and he tells me this story:

“I went to Indonesia a couple years ago and I had a nine hour layover in Tokyo. I had never been to Tokyo before, never been to Indonesia, in fact, I’ve never been to Southeast Asia at all. My goal was to get completely lost in the subway and find my way out in nine hours. I wound up not getting any sleep on the plane ride in. But I started walking through the subway, taking random turns and going as far into the Tokyo subway as I could until I got completely lost. I couldn’t talk to anybody because there was not a single person that I ran into that spoke English. I started to feel a little scared and I was like ‘This is pretty cool.’ (Laughs)”

Pretty cool.  My gut says that if Mike were in Castaway he’d punt Wilson halfway across the island just to see if he could find it. 

Relying heavily on his ability to think on his feet, make human connections (despite a language and cultural barrier), and live in the moment without becoming overwhelmed by his impending travel plans, Mike was able to find his way back to the airport and make his flight.

Everything Mike did can be tied back to his work as an improv comedian; a craft he hones almost 24/7.

“I pretty much live, breathe, and sleep improv. Believe me, I wouldn’t have it any other way, I just love doing it.”

Mike flexes his improvisational muscles as a regular player on the Planet Ant home team. He then finds time around his performing schedule to create and teach some of the many classes that the Ant provides to up-and-coming improv students.  During the day, you can find Mike volunteering his time with the Detroit Creativity Project. The DCP is a non-profit organization that teaches improv skills to inner-city youth. 

In his free time, which I’m assuming only exists because Mike has the unique ability to bend the laws of space and time, Mike produces a web series (a mock-MTV reality show called The Ed & Moe Show), participates with a podcast group called the Erie Canal Theater, is participating in Chicago Sketch Fest, and has invented a craft beer that produces no hangover. I made that last one up, but you were with me there for a second.

Mike, in many ways, represents the Detroit comedy scene. Passion fuels the work and adversity isn’t enough to shut everything down.

Even when Second City Detroit closed its doors and many performers begin to plant new roots in New York, Chicago, and LA both Detroit and Mike stuck around to make art out of the ashes.

“I did feel kind of left behind at one point, but I had made the decision that I had wanted to stay in Detroit, though, I was kind of torn for a while.”

Coming to terms with a decision like that can be polarizing.  You may become resolute in your choice, but there is always the hypothetical loss of what could have been.

“I don’t know exactly what life would be like if I had gone to Chicago, worked my ass off, gotten on main stage, and gone through that entire gamut. In fact, I’ve had the experience of having my students go all the way through and do that whole thing and live in Chicago, too. It’s interesting to see where they’re at and how that worked for them.”

In the end, Mike could acknowledge the what-ifs while still accepting that he made the right choice for himself and his family.

“It was only then that I was able to pour myself into this community and be more focused on [Planet Ant] and at this point in my life I feel very, very, very happy and very lucky; incredibly lucky to be doing what I’m doing. I mean this is where I’m living my dream.”

Detroit has always been Mike’s home. Now, though, he resides in one of the most diverse cities in the country, Hamtramck.

Mike thrives on the diversity that Hamtramck offers.  Hamtramck is a mere two square miles in size where immigrants, speaking over 20 different languages, make up 44% of the population.

“That to me is one of the things that I absolutely love about this city. That and the weirdness of this town (laughs). I think it’s a weird town! But that’s something that I also feel love for. It just makes me feel comfortable. Weirdness and diversity.”

I started to pick up on a theme from Mike regarding his work, his fearlessness, and his hometown.  He feels safe.  He felt safe enough to Lewis & Clark his way through the Japanese subway system. He feels safe to create a career and a life that revolves around his love for making others laugh. He feels safe enough to commit to a city that is not yet considered a true heavy hitter in the comedy world.

The message here isn’t about being reckless, however. No one is advocating for you to dress your family in deer costumes to see how fast you can sprint across 696 at night.

It’s about how taking great risks involves first developing some level of safety. The improv skills that Mike has meticulously honed over the years were his safety net as he set out on his Japanese subway adventure.  It allowed him to be more comfortable which, in turn, allowed him to push himself to situations that created more discomfort.

“The more I push myself into the uncomfortable, the more I’m able to do what I want to do, which is create. And I want to build stories, want to make movies or plays or whatever.”

One of the ‘whatevers’ Mike told me about was his goal to bring an extreme improv show to Planet Ant. This version of improv introduces an element of abject danger to the performers. For example, the actors perform a scene while barefoot and the stage is covered in mouse traps.  The working title so far is Torture-prov. Since this is obviously a volunteer-based idea I was curious if Mike would be participating. He said, “Absolutely!”

Now I was curious.  Where was the limit for this guy? I asked Mike to give me a moonshot goal for how he was going to push himself to the next level. His answer was surprising.

“The moonshot for me it used to be more about myself but the moonshot now is more about the community. Trying to better us all and create a higher level of performance in this town. That’s what I want to do. I would love it if we got national attention for stuff. And we have a little bit, but I want us to be a highly respected area for this type of art.”

Like many Detroit comedians, Mike cared about the work, but mostly in the context of how it affected his community and fellow performers.

After nearly a decade spent living in Chicago, I’ve learned that Chicagoans have incredible pride and love for their city. If I had a nickel for every time I saw a Chicago flag tattoo on some dude’s bicep or a woman’s calf, I could finally afford to get my own.

Detroit, though, is just different.  Even when actors leave Detroit or have transcended to the next level in their careers, they are still firmly rooted in the restoration and revitalization of the city. Marc Evan Jackson created the DCP with his wife while living in LA.  Sam Richardson and Tim Robinson created the Detroiters TV show.  Tim Allen sexually excites possible tourists with his calm delivery of Pure Michigan. (Just me? Oh. Cool.)

Mike explains, “There are a greater percentage of people doing this work based on passion rather than doing it to get noticed. It feels more like trying to climb the ladder in other cities. I think that our smallness breeds a passion. I think that we have that going for us. We have a lot people really dedicated, doing it purely for the love. Not climbing a ladder.” 

Beyond passion, I believe the smallness Mike mentions creates ownership.  Those who perform in Detroit own that they are from Detroit and weave it into their work.  Many, I’m sure, still want the success and achievement that comes from making a name for themselves in bigger cities, but in the meantime Detroit comedians are hustling to create the best version of Detroit they can.

Mike encapsulates this point by describing his own role as a leader.

“Leadership is service. If you’re not focused on service as part of your leadership then you’re really looking to satisfy your own ego. I think that, to me, it’s very important that leadership stays focused on service and putting yourself in the trenches along with everyone else. Bringing everyone up together and helping to guide things in a direction that is for the betterment of all.”

But, Mike admits he needs help. He describes much of the leadership in Detroit as “de facto” and while he doesn’t judge that as either good or bad, he notices that these positions are bestowed upon those that have been around the longest.  Mike believes he needs to create a system where leadership is developed in the up-and-comers that already exist.

“I can’t do everything as much as I would love to. I have to do a lot of other things and keep my sanity and take breaks. But that’s one of the big things that I’m trying to do now is to push people into positions little by little. Get them more acclimated. Get them to understand that they have that leadership ability and give them more responsibility so they can in turn create that whole thing again.”

But in order to do that, he needs to create that initial foundation of safety before he pushes potential leaders into more senior roles. In fact, the first thing Mike did when he took over as director of training, was to create a student handbook that outlined what needs to happen if someone is feeling uncomfortable for his students and to develop a scholarship fund targeting students of color who love improv but would otherwise be unable to afford the classes.

While still a pilot program, Mike has so far targeted this scholarship towards a young woman in high school whose parents don’t see the point in her pursuing improv comedy. Mike met her while teaching for the DCP and saw that she loved performing.  He asked her if she’d like to take classes at Planet Ant for free and she jumped at the chance.  She is currently in her 3rd class and loving it.

Detroit, in my mind, has a clear mission statement. We succeed or fail together. When we rise up, we bring others with us and when we fail we never fail alone. Because in order to take the risks that are required to make Detroit a comedic entity unto itself, there needs to be an infrastructure of safety and a focus on building up the talent that already exists.

Mike told me one of his goals for 2018 was to “get enough people working, doing what I’m doing, to create some breathing room so I can say, “What’s next?”

Planet Ant Shows and Tickets are available here

Mike McGettigan, Director of the Planet Ant Training Center

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