They could be telling Cecily Strong’s story at iO Theater in Wrigleyville for years to come.
The “Saturday Night Live” cast member wasn’t the obvious choice to follow in the footsteps of Tina Fey and Amy Poehler — who also performed at iO, formerly Improv Olympic — when show creator Lorne Michaels came to Chicago last summer looking for new talent. In fact, Strong had planned on skipping the annual auditions for the NBC sketch comedy series and had accepted that she might spend the rest of her life struggling to make ends meet.
“I was touring Wisconsin (with Second City), working the box office (at iO), babysitting and just being poor,” Strong said over the phone last week about where she was this time last year. “I was living in Old Town in a small artist studio loft across from Second City. I was just happy to be performing and working in a place I really liked. And if that meant being poor forever, I was OK with that. Everybody wants ‘SNL,’ but I wouldn’t say it out loud. It seemed so impossible. I wasn’t going to audition. I didn’t know if I was ready and didn’t want to blow my chances. But (Charna Halpern) pushed me.”
Halpern, co-founder of iO, was nearing the end of her annual search for potential “Saturday Night Live” cast members — which involves watching 15 improv actors audition every Thursday for six to eight weeks to determine who she will trot out in front of Michaels — when she happened to see Strong working the iO box office on her way out one night last June.
“I asked her, ‘Why haven’t you signed up for the showcase to be considered for Lorne?’” Halpern said. “She said, ‘I don’t think I’m ready yet. I have some stuff but it’s not fully written yet.’ I said ‘Let me give you a slot and see what you can do.’ If I hadn’t passed by the box office that night, she might still be answering phones.”
Strong auditioned for Halpern, and then Michaels weeks later. After that, there were meetings and more auditions, and then a screen test. Oh, and crying. Lots of crying.
“I cried a lot,” Strong said of the audition process. “I cry all the time. Ask anyone. But I was so excited to be so close. It was something I’d dreamed about.”
Strong wasn’t allowed to tell anyone when “SNL” invited her to New York in August to give her the news in person because of the secrecy surrounding the search. Now, the Oak-Park-raised Strong is living there and coming off a first season in which she appeared in sketches with guest hosts Anne Hathaway and Justin Timberlake. On Thursday she kicked off the first of five performances in three nights with fellow “SNL” newcomers Tim Robinson and Aidy Bryant at Up Comedy Club, as part of the TBS Just For Laughs Chicago festival.
In her “SNL” debut in September, she played a Latina “Get Out the Vote” volunteer who repeatedly tells her boyfriend to stop tickling her, which might explain why much of the Internet incorrectly believes she is Latina. (She said she got the idea, in part, from watching girls who weren’t Latina get tickled at North Riverside Park Mall in North Riverside).
“My debut was so calm for me,” Strong said. “I think I was still in shock of seeing my dreams come true. It’s like I wasn’t even there for it. I wasn’t worried about anything yet. My anxiety hit me like a ton of bricks weeks later, probably because the shock was wearing off. My brain started working again and I remembered what I was doing, which is terrifying. I was like, ‘Whoa, I’m a klutz. What if I fall or sneeze or burp?’”
Her most popular character has been The Girl You Wish You Hadn't Started a Conversation With at a Party. Strong played the character — who incoherently rambles about the world’s problems while periodically checking her iPhone — during her audition for Halpern and Michaels. Why does she feel the character has caught on?
“I think some day someone will put it in better words than I can, but it has to do with social media and everyone feeling like they are important and have a voice,” Strong said. “I knew people like that in high school in my philosophy class. I wanted to tell them, ‘You’re not a philosopher just because you’re in a philosophy class.’”
Strong attended Oak Park and River Forest High School in Oak Park and then transferred to the Chicago Academy for the Arts her senior year. Her parents, who are divorced, both still live in Oak Park. This week’s hometown shows, titled “Knuckleheads,” will be an opportunity for Strong to try out new sketches in front of old friends.
(Robinson and Bryant, like Strong, are iO and Second City alums. Bryant graduated from Columbia College.)
“It’s a little bit of sketches we’ve written and a bunch of improv,” said Strong of what to expect from the show. “Just some character stuff we’ll be trying out in front of the friendly, hometown audience.”
Speaking of her hometown, how would Strong’s family and friends describe her?
“I think of myself as kind of a hippy,” Strong said. “Everyone around me says that’s not the impression they get. They think I’m sassy. Apparently I think I’m nicer than I really am.”
When: 8 p.m. and 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday
Where: Up Comedy Club, 230 W. North Ave.
Tickets: $25, upcomedyclub.com