By Kristi Evans

Every time Devin Dugan ’96 BS takes the stage at the ImprovCity club he co-founded in Orange County, California, classic comedy greats who paved the way for performers like him are watching from the balcony. W.C. Fields is always positioned next to his My Little Chickadee co-star Mae West, and Charlie Chaplin remains silent—as he was in his films—alongside Laurel & Hardy. Humorous heavy hitters George Burns, Jackie Gleason, Marilyn Monroe and the Marx Brothers are also among the regulars.

Okay, they obviously are not present in human form, but rather as vintage chalkware figurines. And the balcony is actually an elevated shelf they’re displayed on that is situated above the club’s front windows and door. Dugan began collecting the pieces while growing up in Green Bay, Wisconsin, long before he had any aspirations to enter the business.

As a child, Dugan routinely watched the weekend morning lineup of black-and-white comedy TV shows and movies, from The Little Rascals and Three Stooges to Blondie and Dagwood. He enjoyed cracking jokes, writing humorous material and interacting with his “very funny” grandpa, who once gave Dugan a cassette tape of an Abbott & Costello radio show that featured the famous “Who’s on First” routine.

“I consider the old vaudeville comedians my idols because they taught me the importance of the audience,” he said. “There’s no art if you don’t have people who come to watch and appreciate it. Red Skelton would stand outside the theater door for two to three hours after every show to personally thank those who attended. That really stuck with me. We fashioned our club with that in mind, trying to set the tone of being a fun and welcoming atmosphere for the audience so they have a great experience.

“I’ve been doing improv for approaching three decades now and I still love performing— certainly not for the money, but because I just enjoy making people laugh."

"So many times people have come up to me with stories about how I made their day or even changed their life. It’s very rewarding. With the bad news and divisiveness out there, comedy is definitely needed as a bonding agent, but the world needs a sense of humor. If people remember how to take a joke and learn to laugh at themselves, it can ease the tension.” ImprovCity is located in downtown Tustin, a city of 80,000 that ranks No. 1 in California and 12th nationwide in Fortune magazine’s 25 Best Places to Live for Families. Appropriately, the club offers PG-13 content at an affordable price to attract families to the early shows Thursday-Sunday. The later shows are uncensored. There are also numerous classes offered throughout the year for adults and kids, including Hip Hop for Improvisers. ImprovCity is the largest and most successful club in Orange County. The Los Angeles Times named it Best Comedy/ Improv Club in Southern California. But the troupe had a very humble beginning.

“We started as a group of 11 in a little dance studio garage in March 2009,” Dugan explained. “By that July, we realized we weren’t bad. We performed one show for friends and family, then another. Pretty soon we were doing monthly shows, which turned into two times a month and then every weekend. It just snowballed. I never planned to run my own improv group; I just wanted to perform. We moved to a few other locations, including above a bowling alley, before landing here. When Covid hit, lots of clubs closed down, especially in LA, but the venues in Orange County are still standing.”

As the ImprovCity doors opened in advance of a Sunday night show, Dugan suggested we move the interview from the house seats to the back of the building. He proceeded through a black curtain-covered doorway and past a small concession area toward a wall of autographed photos of celebrities from within and beyond the comedy realm. Henry Winkler, who found fame as Fonzie on Happy Days, signed “Devin is powerful.” Chef Guy Fieri wrote “Keep cookin’.” Another wall is completely covered with framed comedy movie posters ranging from Ma and Pa Kettle to Harold Lloyd’s Pistols for Breakfast to the Bob Hope-Bing Crosby feature Road to Utopia.

We settled into Dugan’s small office, where a lone chalkware figure of Jack Benny holding a violin sits atop the desk. In an adjoining room, members of the house team who would perform the short-form segments to open the show were warming up with improvised rhyming songs. The long-form piece performed later in the evening would feature the Coffee Break duo of Dugan as an undervalued Piggly Wiggly employee and Jeffrey Hammerstein, a founding member of ImprovCity, as his manager.

"Doing comedy requires two things: a level of confidence so you’re not afraid of looking stupid; and an acceptance that you’re going to fail sometimes and that’s okay,” said Dugan, who is also the club’s artistic director."

“You’re kind of a professional amateur with improv. Each show is like your first because you have no idea what’s going to happen, from suggestions the audience makes to what comes out of the other performers’ mouths. Unlike standup, which is doing the same routine night after night, this is unpredictable and different every time. That’s why I love it.

Improv can seem intimidating to some, including this author, who performed in plays and musicals years ago but shuddered at the thought of doing unscripted comedy before an audience. When the house team requested a volunteer that night and no hands went up, a colleague encouraged me to take the stage. I soon found myself immersed in a sketch about the Tinder dating app, interacting with cast members who would make a “pitch” to pique my interest and I could swipe right to learn more or left for “No thanks.” I confronted a subtle fear, but those with social anxiety can benefit from improv training because it promotes better tolerance of uncertainty, according to research published by NMU assistant professor of social work Peter Felsman.

Prior to pursuing his vocation, Dugan’s only foray into entertainment occurred during his student years at Northern. He served as a DJ at events and played drums in two bands that performed at fraternity parties and various Marquette venues: Propane Moses and Midnight Texas. After earning his degree in political science with a pre-law emphasis, Dugan planned to attend law school. But over that summer, he decided it wouldn’t be the right career fit and was determined to give comedy a try. He toured the Midwest doing standup and improv before moving to Los Angeles, the mecca for both. Dugan chuckled at the memory of crashing on a floor at the home of a third cousin he’d never met before—on a dog bed sandwiched between two black labs—until he became established. He performed with numerous troupes across the country, including The National Comedy Theatre, The Second City Hollywood and ComedySportz before launching ImprovCity.

Dugan has dabbled in other creative pursuits in recent years. He has written three feature-length screenplays— No One Will Know Me, Rodeo Rock Record Shop and The Secret Bloodline—that have won awards at international film festivals. His production company, ImprovCity Films, has created an award-winning documentary and several short films. One that Dugan wrote and directed, Nifty Fifties: Sledgehammer & Muck, Private Investigators, won Best Comedy Short at the 2021 Fantastic Indie Festival of Los Angeles and Best Comedy Film at the 2021 Nevada Short Film Festival.

He has acted as well. In the movie Too Hip for the Room, about a struggling comic who passed on a TV show that became a Seinfeld-type hit, he played the guy who ended up getting the part. Dugan was also the creative mastermind behind the novelty book Improvisers Drawing Stick Figures and has written for Nostalgia Digest magazine.

It seems hard to believe that a young boy so inspired by comedians that he was compelled to collect figurines of them did not publicly demonstrate his own comic potential earlier, perhaps in theater productions at Green Bay Preble High School. Dugan was not voted class clown his senior year, either, but he was voted “Most Lucky.” That turned out to be spot-on prophetic.

“I’m so grateful that I’ve been able to make a career out of this. You might say I got lucky through a series of fortunate events. I credit a lot of my success to the interactions at Northern and the stories generated there. I even used one in my standup act, but it’s not appropriate to share for this,” he laughed.

“It’s kind of funny how I ended up at Northern. I was playing video games with one of my best friends when his dad, who graduated from there, opened the door and asked if we figured out where we were going to college. We both replied ‘No’ and he said, ‘I’m going to send applications for you to NMU!’ We ended up enrolling. It was four of the best years of my life, and from that experience, I have been able to make this incredible life for myself in the arts and entertainment world. I’ve been blessed.”


Devin Dugan

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