Photography by: Zeke Hanson
By: Anna Hanson
We usually focus on up and comers or artists who are still in the thick of it, but we’ve been extremely fortunate to cover a couple three legends in their own right. This is one such occasion. We know Joel Murray from Dharma and Greg, Shameless and Madmen just to name a few but he’s also from the legendary epoch of Chicago Improv in the 80s.
We all know someone (or a couple three dozen) that has performed improv at some point and we’ve all seen enough SNL episodes to understand the universal wince of pain when we see it miss the mark. Good improv is a delight and a rarity. You know it when you see it and it’s usually second nature for veteran performers.
Joel Murray grew up as the youngest of nine children in Wilmette, Illinois. If you have older siblings yourself, you know that’s a lot of boobytraps and iminent doom to navigate. He even credits his childhood as being more tenuous than the vast uncertainty of improv, citing his five older brothers stepping in to provide “a slap on the back of the head” when needed.
“My father died when I was young. We weren’t crazy volatile but there were some fist fights here and there. Generally we were social beings and I think that’s a big thing with big families. You learn to deal with people and you learn some social skills. Improv isn’t so volatile….now. It might have been back in the day when we thought we were the meanest street gang in Chicago. You have to weed those people out. You don’t want people in a group that you have to travel with for half the year if they’re constantly confrontational.”
As the youngest, Joel credits his other siblings as having taught him many lessons just by observing their own successes and failures.
“It’s just a thing you do when you’re the youngest, you see what they got caught doing and what really ticks off your mother and unless you’re a total idiot you learn some things.”
It’s difficult to imagine growing up with eight other siblings (Lord of the Flies comes to mind), but it’s nice to hear things like this. Sometimes when you’re chatting with someone new you get the sense that they’ve spent a lot of time in true chaos and therefore are impossible to fluster. Anyone who pulls through the mayhem of eight older siblings, but also credits them with imparting any level of knowledge and wisdom is someone with a worldview that values patience. Joel has rivers of it.
“My whole life I’ve learned from my older siblings. That’s one of the beauties of being the youngest. Well, that and getting all the good hand-me-downs.”
When Joel got hired to do a sitcom called Grand (starring Bonnie Hunt, John Randolph, John Neville, and Pamela Reed) it was a great opportunity, but moved him away from Chicago and The Second City stage. It was a crazy time (but, like a good crazy) for Murray, he got engaged, married, had a kid, moved to LA, left The Second City, and was cast as a series regular - all in about six months.
He shares a moment that reflected this rapid transition, “I was on a plane and the woman next to me was taking a Cosmo stress test. I was looking at it over her shoulder and I had everything except for ‘starting menopause’ for the most stressful things in life. I don’t know how those tests work, but I think I passed.”
Having worked and toured all over for decades his heart still belongs to Chicago (just not the weather part of it).
“It’s still the greatest city in the world with the worst weather. I’m kind of scheming to figure out a way to live there during baseball season only. That’s when the weather is pretty good. Chicago is also all about social skills. You walk into a bar in Chicago and the guy next to you at the bar is going to talk to you. Everyone says in LA you sit down and the guy next to you at the bar won’t say a word. In New York that guy is going to argue with you and in Boston...well you’re gonna fight that motherfucker. In Chicago you’re going to end up buying that guy a drink or vice versa. It’s just a social town. People are nice and they’ve got something to say. I love that about it. When I left in ‘89 we were talking about “super rats” and now there’s flowers everywhere. It’s just so darn pretty!”
Improv Olympic is a very popular improv theater for training and performance in Chicago. And apparently the International Olympic Committee actually made them change their name because of the confusion. Who knew. (Lots of people. Lots of people knew.) The iO was started by Del Close (and others) in 1981 and many of the comedians and performers we love today came through that theater in the 80s. It was the SNL incubator.
Between Second City and the iO you can trace almost any comedian that led you through your formative years to their origin in the fair city of Chicago. Bonnie Hunt, Chris Farley, Joan Cusack, Steve Carrell, and Tim Meadows are a handful of names to come through the ranks of such establishments. One thing about improv is that a lot (like a lot) of people do it, but not a lot of people do a lot of it. Usually it’s a class here and there, but Joel did *gestures to everything* all of the improv.
He also says things like, “We started the iO before” and that can be read as “I was there in the beginning” but it’s actually him just throwing away the fact that he. Is. a founding. member. He’s sneaky that way.
“We started the iO before I was in the Second City. Del Close had been teaching class and he suddenly got the group of forces together that he thought should be on stage. So we were doing the iO, we’d take class two nights a week, and then we would perform three nights a week. We had another improv group called Harold Be Thy Name and we performed another night of the week, so it was six nights a week that I was doing improv. Del got me an agent and I went on my first audition and I got One Crazy Summer (1986). I left for two months and right before I left, Joyce (Sloane), the matriarch of Second City, came and saw our show. We had about 80 people and she said, “hire them all, why have these guys doing this somewhere else?” So she hired all of us and when I came back from filming One Crazy Summer, all of my people were working somewhere else and I no longer had a group. She eventually called me into her office and said, “no no no, you’re hired too!” That’s when I started touring with their touring company and many of the guys I had worked with and we kind of worked our way up through the ranks. We had kind of a coup, we brought Del Close back to The Second City (who had been famously fired at one point) to direct us when we got to the Main Stage. He handpicked a company which included Timmy Meadows, Chris Farley, Dave Pasquesi (Veep), Joe Liss (According to Jim), Holly Wortell (Return to Me), Judith Scott (Santa Clause) and me. It was kind of a new guard. It was a new way of doing things but we did stick to the old format, we stuck to the encapsulated scene style that The Second City had always been known for, but we put our own take on it. It was great. This was a long winded answer.”
Despite loving Chicago dearly, he moved to California for work. The thing about Joel is that he’s quietly been in…everything. A decade of back-to-back sitcoms, over 250 episodes of shows we know and love like, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Grey’s Anatomy, Shameless, Lodge 49, The Big Bang Theory, Shrink, Mad Men, It’s Always Sunny, Desperate Housewives, Criminal Minds, all of the CSI’s, and Blossom. His first series regular was for Dharma and Greg and his voice brims with gratitude when he talks about it.
“Yeah, that was a good one. I live in the house Dharma built. That was a game changer financially and it was really fun. The parents on the show, they’re like where I am right now, they were just so happy to have a regular high paying gig like that at that point in their career. So everybody was happy to be there. I used to drop my kids off at school, go hit a bucket of golf balls at Rancho Park, go to work, and come back and pick up the kids from school. That’s how short our day was. My whole world was like a five block square.”
“I had a Dodge Durango for five years, and then I sold it with 12,000 miles on it. I hadn’t gone anywhere in five years! It was magical that way. I bought a house, added onto it twice. I bought a little house on a big lot and filled it with kids. (4 kids)”
He speaks of his work very fondly. Joel played Eddie Jackson (husband to Joan Cusack's character) in the first season of the American version of Shameless, and it seemed like a difficult role to play as a dad. But we mustn’t forget who we were dealing with, and again we hear him sidestep the potentially messy parts and focus on the stability of what he learned from his childhood.
“I thought that was a wonderful show, but I’m partial. I really liked the first season. My wife and I joke because we’re both from families with nine kids. She doesn’t like the show because it’s too close to home. The milkman used to hire Murray kids to deliver the milk so he could just sit in the milk truck and smoke. He’d give us a quarter to run milk to doors, but what he didn’t know was that there were other Murray kids stealing milk out of the back of his truck. He never finished a day with chocolate milk left over. I’ve known Joan Cusack since we used to improvise together way back in 1984. Yeah. Shameless was a blast.”
Joel was on site for the genesis of the Chicago comedy scene. He and his crew, excuse me, troupe helped to shape it into the land of opportunity for performers of all kinds. His career has spanned many-a-genre and it all started with improv. Although improv is typically thought of in terms of “comedy,” that’s not always the case.
“When I first started at The Second City, I left and did a Mamet play. Joyce Sloane used to let me kind of come and go because she thought that I was rounding myself out as an actor and she was right. I’ve always enjoyed doing different things. I write, direct, act, and do voice overs too. If you throw enough lines in the water you’re bound to catch something and I’ve never wanted to limit myself in that. I’m also that guy that can’t say ‘no.’ I’ve offered to do so many student films. My sons are breaking into the industry and I do stuff for them and their friends, so I’m not the most discerning actor in the world.”
Murray still performs improv and tours with Whose Live Is It Anyway? After cutting his teeth in improv it’s still what he’s drawn to. Some of his siblings also did improv but when asked if they ever perform together these days, Joel promptly said,
“Noooooo. No. I think it scares the hell out of some of them now. My brother Brian was a brilliant improviser, I don’t think he’d get up to perform these days. Billy was a very good improviser, but I don’t think he has any urge to get up and do this kind of thing either. We did a Best of Second City show years ago at the Kilkenny Comedy Festival where we did the best scenes from when Brian, Bill and I were in the Second City and it was all scripted. There might have been a game thrown in there somewhere, but that was scripted stuff every night.”
We couldn’t help but wonder if there was any constructive feedback happening in this family of performers and when we asked we were met with a very final answer which felt all too relatable.
Bleeds: As sibling actors do you guys ever give each other notes?
JM: No. Just behind their backs.
Acting in shows, popping up in movies, and performing live across the country keeps Joel pretty busy. But not too busy to host a beloved annual family golf tournament.
(In 2020) We had our 19th Annual Murray Brothers Caddyshack Golf Tournament. It’s like nothing else. It’s really fun! The music is fantastic. We’ve helped out quite a bit down there in St. Augustine with the money we’ve raised. We were originally strong-armed by these nuns who came in when we were viewing the empty location and talking about what we were gonna do. These nuns walked in and said, ‘We heard you boys are Catholics...what are you going to do for us?’ It felt like a mob thing. Right away we said, ‘Well we could have a golf tournament and give you all of the proceeds?’ We gave it to them for the first ten years before we managed to switch off to other charities. We’ve spread it out quite a bit now.”
Switching nimbly from task to task, show to show, topic to topic, without skipping a beat, Joel Murray continually reveals himself to be the master of improv, both on stage and off.
On a personal note, we believe Joel should consider a one-man show, but don’t tell him we said that.