Interview: Three Layer Cake's Dan Bazaldua, Nick Mestad, and John O'Toole

Tonight is the final performance of Three Layer Cake, which mashes up a trio of solo sketch performances from Chicago-based writer/performers Dan Bazaldua, Nick Mestad, and John O'Toole. It's a great showcase of eclectic, engaging solo shows that you should make a point to check out if you haven't yet had the chance! The show's at 10:30pm, at iO's beautiful Del Close Theatre. I had the pleasure of talking to all three of the layers of cake in advance of tonight's show. Read that below!

The Steamroller: How did the three of you come together on this show?

Nick Mestad: The idea germinated out of talks Dan Bazaldua and I found ourselves having after improv shows. We were both fans of each other's solo material and improv and thought it would be fun to write and put up our shows together. And we were also both huge fans of John O'Toole's work, so the idea grew from there.

Dan Bazaldua: I had wanted to do some more solo stuff after doing a show at CIC last year. I think Nick and John are both good performers as well as funny, and I feel like a lot of shows feature one or the other. They're just dudes I like seeing onstage and off.

John O'Toole: At the iO Christmas party Dan told me it was a go, and I was super pumped for it.

TS: What is it about the form of solo sketch that you're drawn to?
John: For me, the idea of doing solo material seemed terrifying and a huge challenge, and it was. I wanted to challenge myself and see if it was something I could do, and it turned out to be something I really enjoy.

When I first started doing it, I was basically doing short bits. But the best thing about doing solo material is that it gets you writing a lot. After a while I had a lot of bits and got the idea of turning them into an actual show.

Dan: There's an ownership you have over it. You're the writer and the performer. If it's good it's all on you, and if it's garbage, it's all on you.

Nick: It's a challenge to write and perform something all on your own and presents challenges you don't find when performing in a group. The fact that everyone is watching you for 25 to 30 minutes straight forces you to teat your range and variety as a performer. You want enough texture in the show from scene to scene for the audience to invest themselves more and more as the show goes on.

Also, from an experimental standpoint, solo sketch is extremely informative: you're the constant, the sketchs are variables, if one thing gets a laugh and another doesn't, you know what needs to be fixed.

TS: I like the idea that for these three solo performances, for whatever show's going on at the time, the other two performers pop up in small supporting roles when necessary, giving it a sort of mashup feel between ensemble and solo sketch. What was the inspiration behind that?
John: That was actually Charna's idea. She wanted to sort of meld the shows together. Jo Scott and Farrell Walsh did something like that in their joined solo shows a couple years ago. Both great shows.

Dan: There are those little moments in solo stuff where you find yourself saying, "If only there were this character to flesh this out a little more." This show allows us to do that. Nick and John are so funny that it was fun to imagine them coloring in the worlds of these characters.

Nick: That came out of wanting to to take advantage of the fact that I'm in a show with the other two. I've been a fan of Dan and John's stuff for awhile, and it felt too good an opportunity to pass up.

We also really liked how that tied the three show's together, and unified us behind the night as a whole.

I also have to give a lot of credit to my director, Kevin Knickerbocker. John and I have the pleasure of improvising with him on Meridian at iO, and he's a guy whose instincts and knowledge about comedy are uncanny. Without him, Critic's Say You'll Love It would not be what it is.

TS: Tell me your favorite thing about each of the three shows (yours included!)
Dan: Johnny's coach on crutches gets me every time. Specifically when he's yelling "DE-FENSE, DE-FENSE." I love Nick's creativity in the audio bits. I love listening to the movie trailers and the badass biker's internal monologue about finding his mom attractive is just hilarious. I've really liked playing the basketball sportscaster over-pitching Sprite at halftime, it's simple and dumb.

Nick: My favorite part of John's show is his closing scene which features him as a disheveled island cast away who wlaks in on his wife cheating on him. His wife and her suitor are a pineapple and banana. It's a sketch that perfectly encapsulates what's great about John: a complete cartoonish-ness underscored by a big, beating heart.

Dan's show has a three person scene in which John and I play nephews trying to teach Dan, our retired-mobster uncle, how to play a charades-like iPhone game. Dan is so at home in that character, he's improvised tangents in that scene each week, each one funnier than the last. He shoots from the hip and will always surprise you. I've seen the show three times now, and each time I watch his I feel like it's new and daring.

In Critics Say You'll Love It, I have a soft spot for the four minutes where we leave the stage and one of the bentwood improv chairs does a full standup set. One of my favorite things to watch is silly stuff that's performed with integrity, and a chair performing standup is that to me.

John: My favorite thing about Dan's are his monologues because they're all true and about growing up in Chicago. He tells this story one week about how his dad was mistaken for Andrew Cunanan, the serial killer who murdered Versace (that's all I'll say about it), and I was backstage dying. My favorite thing about Nick's show is his voice over in the intro of his show; it hilarious. Don't want to give too much away. I guess the thing I like about my show most is the connectedness of the characters.