Written By: Mark Talaga
When I created Inside Detroit Comedy, I had one goal in mind: meet with and interview the strongest comedic minds that Metro Detroit has to offer. That’s how I found Pj Jacokes, co-owner of Go Comedy! Improv Theater, who generously offered his time for us to meet. Sitting with Pj felt like sitting with an old friend. There was a depth to Jacokes that belied his easy-going nature; a complexity that I soon discovered held an enormous insight into the landscape of Detroit’s comedy scene.
Jacokes has been the co-owner of Go Comedy! Improv Theater for the past nine years, since the club first opened. However, Go Comedy! was not Pj’s first foray into improv comedy. His career—though not a career at the time—started when he was playing bass guitar in his band Olupus. Jacokes wanted to combat the discomfort he felt when he was on stage. He wanted to find a better way to deal than staring down at his shoes. Pushing himself outside of his comfort zone, he signed up for a Second City Detroit improv class.
“I very quickly fell in love with it. I did all the Second City Classes. After that, I got hired as an understudy the day after my last class… and I never stopped.”
Jacokes not only never stopped, he began to give back to students by working as an instructor at Second City Detroit for a decade. However, when the theater decided to make the move to the suburbs and to stop relying on local talent, Pj left.
This left Jacokes disillusioned with the entire notion of continuing comedy as a career and he made moves to reestablish himself in marketing. But before he could walk away from comedy completely, a former student of his reached out and asked if Pj, along with two other co-founders, would be interested in helping start their own comedy club. Jacokes agreed, and in 2008—11 short months after that initial meeting—Go Comedy! Improv Theater opened its doors.
The Detroit comedy scene then suffered a couple devastating blows: Second City Detroit closed its doors, and Improv Inferno (another comedy staple) followed soon after.
After the closing of Second City, Jacokes recalls, “People left at that point to either Chicago or came over to Go [Comedy].”
After recently celebrating their ninth anniversary, Go Comedy is no longer looking back at the wreckage of a declining comedy scene, but is instead enjoying the fruits of Detroit’s burgeoning comedic talent pool.
“We’re in a weird place. There’s now four or five improv theaters in town. There’s so much going on, but it’s all so new. [Planet] Ant has only recently gotten a farm team. They’ve hired 19 people. Pointless [Brewery & Theatre] in Ann Arbor has hired another 22 people. There are a lot of people getting opportunity right now.”
Go Comedy themselves have hired 19. While this sounds like positive growth, Jacokes is quick to identify the inherent problem.
“Collectively, the work isn’t as good as it could be because everyone’s spread super thin.”
A far cry from where Detroit was when two major comedy contributors closed.
“For the longest time, and I think the impetus for not leaving for Chicago, was you were always a giant fish in a small pond. There were maybe 30 people that did this regularly. Even where Second City was concerned, Second City Detroit would write three shows a year and Second City Chicago would write maybe one. There was always opportunity [here] to do more and get more experience. For the first time, the community is so large I don’t think anyone knows what to do with it.”
It was at this point in the interview that everything changed.
I asked Jacokes what role he wanted to play during this time of transition for Detroit’s performers and comedians.
There was an odd pause. Pj, up until this point, had been effortlessly telling me his story, the story of Go Comedy, and the problems in the comedic landscape as he sees them. Now, though, he was holding back.
“(Laughing) I’m trying to say this in a way that doesn’t come across as arrogant.”
The thing is, I don’t know if Pj Jacokes has an arrogant bone in his body. Sure, as an improv performer and a comedian you have a tendency to draw attention to yourself, but with Jacokes it was clear that his heart for performance is focused on the craft itself, the audience who is watching, the improvisers he works with, and so on. If he himself is on that list at all, he is very near the bottom.
“I want to be Moses, man! I want to lead everyone across the desert. There’s so much talent and I love this city and I love its people and I want everyone to do their best work.”
These words rush out of him as we both laugh because, while it’s a statement that could be labeled bombastic, it came across as utterly honest and vulnerable. Jacokes, hearkening back to his days as a bassist, is struggling to not stare at his shoes, but to instead look into the proverbial audience and give them a focal point. To be a beacon guiding the deep resevoir of Detroit talent on their journey. Helping them to decide whether comedy is a hobby or a calling.
“I feel like we’re at a point where the community needs to decide if they are a professional performer or a hobbyist. There’s nothing wrong with either one, but I think people need to say ‘this is what I want from this.’ This was a hobby before it was my profession. But there’s a casualness to it that you shouldn’t have to pay to see. From the customer’s point of view, if I’m dropping $20 then it damn well better be someone working their butt off. If it’s $5 at a coffee shop? Well, let’s try some things out (Laughs).”
He goes on to explain that people who do this work for fun should still have that opportunity, but to be clear on where they are performing, on which stage, and whether that combination respects them and their audience.
Jacokes wants performers to ask themselves these probing questions. And for those that answer firmly in the positive that, yes, this is more than a hobby, he wants them to know they have a seat at the table with Go Comedy.
“That would be the goal,” Jacokes says when asked if Go Comedy is pushing to have the serious folk come to them.
Taking comedy seriously in Detroit is not a new concept by any means. Professional actors and comedians like Keegan Michael Key (Key & Peele), Tim Robinson & Sam Richardson (Detroiters), Marc Evan Jackson (Brooklyn 99), Maribeth Monroe (Workaholics), Larry Joe Campbell (According to Jim), and many other have forged their craft on Detroit stages.
Beyond the challenge of creating the right fit for the performers and the venues, is the difficulty of spreading the word.
Jacokes elaborates, “I mean, we’ve been here for 9 years and there are still people in Ferndale who say, ‘Oh, I’ve never heard of you,’ and I’m like ‘How?’. The library is right there, city hall is right there, you can’t be involved in the city without being within a foot of us. We’re trying to figure out, as a mom and pop shop, how to compete with all the clutter out there.”
So let’s say you draw the attention of the masses? Who is that ideal audience member that walks through the doors of Go Comedy? Jacokes has one word that immediately comes to mind:
“Someone curious. Someone who is open to something new and willing to give it a shot because we win those people over.”
Though it seems a daunting task to simultaneously juggle the needs of the audience, performer, and club owner all in the midst of a city undergoing a renaissance, Jacokes is able to refocus himself by adhering to the tenets that Go Comedy was built on: integrity, inspiration, and innovation. The “three I’s” are so important to Pj that he has them tattooed on the inside of his forearm.
“Finding the way to carry everyone through is important to me. You can’t make everyone happy and it took me 9 years to learn that, but I think that this is about unity. The base ideas of improv, to me, are also the base ideas of living your life. It’s about working together, accepting what other people provide and having each other’s backs.”
“Comedy or not, I think if you live your life by those three principles, you’re going to do OK. And this is a world where we push to make that OK. That is my goal: to lift as many people up as we can, give them a voice and a stage and help them to be the best selves wherever they are. I like little things (laughs).”
Little things. Like parting the Red Sea and leading your people home.
Be sure to come out every Saturday for the All-star Showdown, a game-show style improv show.
Come out to Go Comedy! Improv Theater for their 9th annual Christmas sketch show: The Last Magi a Star Wars themed performance.