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"Ninety percent of the people who saw him do it literally thought he was the real deal," remembers Ringer director Barry Blaustein. "[The auditions] had gotten kind of tiring, and we had seen so many people, and when Bill came in, we were like, 'Oh, man, we got one! This could work, this could work!'"
Chott has a shameless penchant for going all the way for a laugh. Legion are the tales of him walking down Michigan or Fifth avenues shirtless; standing in the wings of a theater sticking straws up his nose; feigning gay sex loud enough that a road-trip hotel roommate would wake up horrified.
"This was a kid," points out his sister, Mary Roth, "who, when we'd go to a funeral, would stand in the hallway singing, 'Every body, needs some body to love!'"
Rich Talarico remembers the regular Second City bit that opened with a handful of men standing in the buff, covering their genitals with musical instruments and singing a song called "Naked." Not only did Chott eschew a prop in favor of his bare hands, observes Talarico, but, "We were backstage, all nervously covering ourselves — crammed into this little spot, waiting to go out — and Bill would be swinging himself around, trying to make us laugh."
Adds Talarico: "The show was never really over for him."
That said, colleagues are quick to point out that on the job, Chott is no scene hog. "When actors improvise it's a lot of, 'Look at me, look at what I can do,' and they don't stay within the scene, or they blow out the scene," observes Blaustein, Ringer director. "Bill was never that way. He was incredibly generous. And he could have blown people away."
Producer Laurie Taylor-Williams, whose brother John Taylor has Down syndrome and acted in The Ringer with Chott, says, "I think that movie worked because of Bill and Knoxville. Bill was one of the few people who dealt with John and the other mentally challenged actors on a peer basis. There was nothing patronizing about it. And he would hold improv classes for these guys right on the set. He'd take them aside and work with them for two whole hours. Nobody else did that."
Theresa Masters, a long-time local actor and a teacher at the Improv Trick, says, "I always use this word to describe Bill: magnanimous."
Chott says a giving mentality is fundamental to improv. "A standup personality can create a moment, get a joke and move on to a new moment, because they're just one mind. An improviser is making up a moment with another person. He can't ditch things for a quick laugh. The most important thing in improv is to be able to say — without saying it literally — 'I'm accepting exactly what you just said and adding a little bit of information to it.' The humor comes from being human."
Chott likes to tell a famous cautionary tale of a Second City performance in which Joan Rivers played a wife whose husband came home one night and carried on about how successful their children were, after which Rivers spouted, "But, honey, we don't have any kids!" Says Chott: "It gets a really big laugh. But she wiped out everything he'd just built up.
"Improv is not about yourself. It's about giving gifts and recognizing the gifts that are around you, seeing that every word out of someone's mouth, every scratch of their nose, is unconsciously telling you something about their character. You have to look for the gift, and add to it. Once you start doing that in scene work, you start doing it in life."
As a teacher Chott tries to pass on the tools he learned from years of training with the best, beginning with his first improv instructor, Stephen Colbert. "From the first day of class, it was evident he was the sort of teacher who'd jump into a scene to help it play better," says Chott, who shares Colbert's love of chewing over current events with students after class.
Interest in the Improv Trick has waxed and waned. Chott says his frequent trips to LA haven't helped. But the school seems to have hit its stride this year with the arrival of Pruter, a New Mexico native who's had nine lives in theater. The Stagematch has been running weekly at the Stable since June; two new Friday-night shows debuted last month at the West End Grill and Pub; and on Tuesdays improv fans can catch a long-form evening at the Trick's Cherokee Street studio.
Typically offered in six- or eight-week installments, the Tricksters' workshops run the gamut, with courses for novices, veterans, teens and kids as young as eight. Chott also offers specialized one-offs: Audition Tricks & Tips, say, or Freestyle Rapping. He now has six fellow instructors on the roster, most of whom teach standup and sketch comedy.
A newcomer to an intro-to-improv class might find herself among a motley crew that includes a factory worker from Cape Girardeau, a west-county waiter and a corporate honcho or two.