Making It Up As She Goes Along
For comedy writer Tami Sagher, improvisation offers rules for art and life.
By Elizabeth Station | Photography By Shawn Brackbill
If Tami Sagher performed her life as a series of improvised scenes—and the first suggestion shouted from the audience was “Durkheim”—the opening might go something like this. Sagher, AB'95, is a second-year student in the College. Her SOSC class is reading The Elementary Forms of Religious Life, Émile Durkheim's classic study of religion as social practice. For research, the professor sends students out to observe the rituals and totems of social groups.
“Some people went to Quaker meetings or fraternities,” says Sagher. “I went and observed Off-Off Campus, the improv group, mainly because I secretly wanted to hang out with them and do that.” Sagher is a mathematics major and “never a cool kid,” so writing and performing with the cool kids feels like a big reach. But a few months later, at a friend's urging, she auditions and gets in.
Jump to the next scenes: Sagher, now a fourth-year, still plans to be a mathematician, but she's sneaking off to Second City on the Jeffrey Express for improv and sketch classes. She lands a paying gig with a comedy theater in Amsterdam and leaves the College, one Civ credit shy of graduation. In the span of a year she returns to Chicago, finishes school, joins an all-female ensemble called Jane at ImprovOlympic, and gets hired at Second City. Later, she learns to drive in two weeks so she can move to Los Angeles and write for television. She tells stories on This American Life, plays a waitress on Curb Your Enthusiasm, and coauthors a MADtv sketch—in 2005—about a feminine hygiene product called the iPad.
After six years in L.A., Sagher heads to New York to write for the hit comedy series 30 Rock. She performs every weekend at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre (UCB) with actors and writers from Saturday Night Live, The Office, and other television and Broadway shows. She gets a dog and a place in Brooklyn, in a neighborhood that reminds her of Chicago. And in a recent interview—remembering that opening scene—she brings the conversation back to Durkheim.
Improv can seem like a free-for-all, but like any art form, it has rules. Rule #1 is to play to the top of your intelligence and assume that your audience is as smart as you are. Growing up in Hyde Park in a family of scientists, Sagher always operated with that premise. Her mother, Daphna, was an assistant professor in molecular genetics and cell biology at the University. Her father, Yoram, PhD'67, was a professor of mathematics at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Sagher's older brother Oren, MD'87, became a neurosurgeon and her sister Miriam, AB'89, PhD'97, MD'01, is a dermatologist. “It sounds like a joke,” Sagher laughs. “They're incredible.”
Given her family background and teenage love affair with mathematics, Sagher expected to follow a similar path. At 16, she had earned enough credits to skip her last year at Kenwood High School—where she had auditioned for plays but never got in—and enrolled at the University on a scholarship. Once she joined Off-Off Campus and began to write sketches, take classes, and see improv around town, Sagher's plans started to shift. She only abandoned math for comedy after a mighty struggle. In Tales from Math Camp, a funny and poignant solo show she performed in Los Angeles and Chicago, she chronicled the end of the affair (see sidebar).
Sagher's Israeli immigrant parents initially opposed her career choice, worrying that a life in the theater would be impractical. Yet in many ways, they encouraged it. “They have great senses of humor,” Sagher says of her mom and dad, who love comedy and took their youngest daughter to shows at Second City, before she was old enough to get the jokes. “My mom used to lie about her hearing so we could sit way up front.” When Sagher got her first paying comedy gig at 21—and when as a Second City ensemble member she was able to score VIP seating for her parents—they came around, she smiles.
Now, when Sagher performs improv at the UCB, she sometimes glimpses kids in the audience with their parents. “I always have a soft spot in my heart for them because that's who I was. Unless,” she deadpans, “we're making horrible, inappropriate jokes.”