The class clown. In middle school, voted “most likely to use mashed potatoes for comedy instead of eating.” Jesse Suphan has always been the funny guy who loves to make people laugh. After catching a touring show of Second City and getting his ticket upgraded from the cheap seats to the front row, he was picked from the audience to help out with the show’s final number and realized improvisational comedy was what he was meant to do.
“You could make up comedy on the spot and you could do it while singing?” he says of that fateful night. “I felt, in that moment, that the universe had walked right up to me and kissed me on the face and said, ‘THIS IS WHAT YOU WERE BORN TO DO!’ And then left without paying for her portion of dinner. I was in.”
Suphan, 34, lives in the Otay Ranch area of Chula Vista, and serves as theater producer and assistant artistic director of Finest City Improv, a local improvisational theater and school. He also co-chaired Impride, a recent two-day LGBT improv festival to celebrate improv comedians in the LGBT community. He took some time to talk about his work in improv and with Finest City and how comedy helped him navigate significant loss in his own life.
Tell us about Finest City Improv.
The owner, Amy Lisewski, was traveling to Los Angeles regularly to attend classes at Second City and iO West. She recognized a need in San Diego for a long-form, improv theater and school. So, Finest City was founded in 2011 as a way to entertain, inspire and bring joy and laughter to the community of San Diego. We really strive to create joy in the lives of the people in our community. As a teacher, I have had many people tell me, “Improv had changed my life for the better.” I never get tired of hearing it. Whether it was people with social anxiety who found a way to cope, people wanting to find a community of friends that are supportive, or people like me who were dealing with a personal loss and building a new life here in San Diego.
Impride is a two-day festival with performances by improv comedians from around the country. This came about because, as a gay person, I have always felt completely welcomed and included in the community of improv. I wanted a way to celebrate that. I wanted a way to reach out to the LGBT community of San Diego and let them know that they could experience the same joy that I have.
Why did you want to do an improv comedy show during Pride?
As a member of the gay community, I know how much we value comedy. It’s therapeutic. Wit is an art form. I wanted to bring improv comedy to the LGBT community and let them know this is a place for us. There was no better time for it than Pride, and the festival is a benefit to support San Diego Pride’s youth arts charities.
What I love about Chula Vista …
When I first moved to San Diego, I lived in North Park and let me tell you, the parking was vicious. I felt like the parking police had a personal vendetta against me. I sold out and moved to a suburban area where I can park in a garage, have air conditioning, and a dish washer. The Lyfts are a little more expensive, but the trade-off is worth it. There is also a movie theater three blocks from my house that has a bar and is never busy after 9 p.m.
You believe improv is a good method for self-expression, specifically for the LGBT community? Why?
Improv is all about self-improvement and growth. Being the best you, you can be. As a gay person who grew up in the South, I can’t tell you how important it is and what it means to have a community that makes you feel safe. This is how I felt about going to gay bars in my early 20s. I’d found a place where I was safe and I could be myself. Improv took that one step further for me. I not only felt safe, and that I could be myself, I also found a place where I was made a better version of myself. I have turned the (anatomical) jokes I would make at the bar into a career.
You’ve said that, “… we create more joy in people’s lives and in today’s political climate, that is more important than ever.” People can probably guess, but tell us about why it’s important to you to create joy through improv, particularly in this current political climate?
I think that right now, a lot of people are feeling like their voice is not being heard. Some people are feeling the pressure of this chaotic political climate. When you walk in our doors, you have an opportunity to leave that behind for a minute. Whether you are having a drink at our bar, laughing at one of our shows, or challenging yourself in one of our classes, you are a part of our community and you are an important part of our community. Do I sound like a cult leader?
When you think about the word “pride,” what does it mean to you?
To me, pride means to appreciate your own self-worth, remember the road that got us here, and don’t lose sight of the road in front of us. Being LGBT, we face a certain set of challenges in our lives. There are a lot of voices telling you that you are not worthy of love, respect, and even life. Pride is so important because our voices have to be louder than all of those. Not for them to hear, but for us to hear. We have to inspire each other.
Do you feel proud?
I feel extremely proud. I feel like I have reached a point in my life where not only am I secure enough with who I am, but strong enough to help others along their way.
I am also really proud because I saw a shih tzu outside Hillcrest Brewing Company yesterday and I did not try and steal it.
What has your work in improv comedy taught you about yourself?
I am going to share a sad but uplifting story. At the end of 2012, the love of my life passed away, followed by one of my best friends a week later in a car crash. After just one more week, my sister died. My life kind of just stopped and I was a wreck. I tried everything from therapy to simply locking myself away from the world. All to no avail. I moved to San Diego to get a fresh start and to get away from the memories. When I arrived, I struggled with social anxiety and had a lot of trouble making new friends and letting down my walls. It was tough at first, but after a few months I found not just my old self, but a better version of myself. I applied the principles of improv to my life and I was able to tap into my core and really heal. Improv has been the best therapy/life coach/pill a person like me could have asked for. Improv taught me that I was strong enough to handle anything.
What is the best advice you’ve ever received?
My improv guru, Celeste Pechous, says to “exist in this moment.” It works for improv and your daily life. I’m from Arkansas where Bill Clinton was governor for a long time. People would always say how charismatic he is. I always took note of that because being that charismatic is a skill I have always admired. He mentioned once in an interview that when he is speaking to someone, he gives them 100 percent of his attention. I try and remember that when I am interacting with someone. I try and give them 100 percent of my attention. That really has stuck with me.
What is one thing people would be surprised to find out about you?
I am a huge “The X-Files” fan. I have loved it since I was a little kid, staying up late to watch it on Sunday nights. I have a couple framed posters in my guest room and one copy of a credit card receipt from David Duchovny from when he was at a restaurant I worked at. It does not have any personal information on it, so please don’t sue me, David. When they announced that they were coming back, I cried very large, gentleman tears.
Describe your ideal San Diego weekend.
Oh, the perfect weekend would be going out to Pecs in North Park after performing in shows, and perhaps attending an after-party. They have pool parties at the Lafayette Hotel on the weekends, so that is always the perfect daytime weekend activity. Brunch! I feel like, to really enjoy San Diego, you have to give in to brunch culture. Day drinking, breakfast food, neglecting your evening plans because of having too many mimosas. I am Southern and I love cooking for people and providing that Southern hospitality. I love a Sunday family dinner where my friends can come over, eat, drink and laugh. That would be the perfect San Diego weekend.