Charna Halpern started her influential Chicago comedy business in 1981, offering classes for $15 from her living room. She's credited with launching the careers of stars like Amy Poehler, Tina Fey, and Seth Meyers, and each year sends about 15 performers to audition for NBC's Saturday Night Live.
In 2014, Halpern -- who the New York Times recently dubbed the "hidden architect of modern comedy" -- built a $7 million comedy club that focuses on long-form improv. Its biggest source of revenue is a series of 8-week long courses that costs $285 per person, with roughly 1,000 students enrolled at a time.
In an interview with Inc., Halpern discussed her greatest challenges in growing iO into a profitable business -- from battling the International Olympics Committee, to being evicted from restaurant properties, to having famous students crash on her sofa to save money.
--As told to Zoë Henry.
I approached Del Close [the comedian] back in 1983 because I thought there had to be something more for long-form improvisation in comedy. Improv, unlike stand-up, is a sport: You're clapping and cheering because you want the performers to succeed. There are multiple people onstage at a time, creating scenes that start to interconnect.
In the beginning, it was really hard to get audiences to come to my shows. I made maybe $50 per week. I would pay rent to the venue [bars,] and they would throw me out when audiences weren't drinking enough. I got kicked out of 14 different places, and we moved the set around in a pickup truck. At the time, I had a rescue dog called Newton, who would bring home leftover meat from the prime rib place at the end of my block. I would watch him eat prime rib, while I was surviving on brown rice and beans. One of my early students, Adam McKay [who went on to direct the Oscar-winning movie The Big Short] was sleeping on my couch for six months, because he wasn't making enough money to continue performing.
So in 1995, I borrowed $3,000 dollars to rent out my own space on Clark Street. I had panic attacks thinking: "How am I going to pay for this?" But as soon as we opened the doors, and we had our own sign -- it started to work. I opened two theaters, two bars, and a couple of classrooms in a great neighborhood. I was making enough money from the box office to hire an accountant and some bartenders. Suddenly, people were taking classes because they wanted to be on stage.
It wasn't easy. After a few years, the rent on the location went up to $26,000 per month, up from $3,000. Then my business partner, Del Close, died in 1999. It was hard to find a replacement to teach the advanced classes, but my biggest challenge was emotional: 'Will people feel like our guru is gone?' I was afraid people would leave. But they didn't.
I've been lucky, because brilliant people have become attached to my theater. Most of the cast of Saturday Night Live got their start at iO. Amy Poehler and Tina Fey were with me for years. Every year, the casting director at SNL auditions 15 of my best students, but usually only 1 or 2 make it.
In 2014, I bought my own 40,000-square foot building. It was a $7 million project, and I took out a small business loan to finance it. The business has tripled in the last three years, and we're profitable.
There are still challenges, though. I just got my property tax bill, which went up from $30,000 to $190,000, and that's going to put me in default. Plus, the sewer system in Chicago is so inadequate that when it rains, all the water backs up into my building. I had to close last weekend and I lost hundreds of thousands of dollars. Back in 2001, the International Olympics Committee read about my business -- which was previously called "Improv Olympics" -- and they told me that I had to change the name because it was causing confusion. They were threatening to sue me. (There's no confusion. Nobody thought they were coming to see the Olympics.)
In the old days, nobody would ever hire an improviser. Now they say your resume is stronger if you have experience with improv, because it's basically writing on your feet.
I didn't have a big business plan. It was more that I loved the work of doing improv, and wanted to keep doing it.