Lessons from Chicago help Second City alums play teachers on ‘A.P. Bio’
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Chicago improv alums and “A.P. Bio” co-stars Mary Sohn and Jean Villepique don’t seem offended by the suggestion that they don’t have to do much acting to embody a pair of taunting teachers.
“I think that’s really fair,” Sohn said, laughing. “Jean and I knew each other from before, and we’ve always had this kind of teasey relationship. And with Lyric [Lewis, who plays another teacher], I never thought that I would like connect that quickly with a stranger. She felt like an old friend right away.
“So you’re right. Most of that is just us clowning.”
On the new NBC sitcom, Villepique and Sohn portray Michelle and Mary, respectively, who along with Stef (Lewis) rule the teachers’ lounge at the show’s Whitlock High School with a winning combination of sarcasm and (a little) sweetness.
“They run the school, I think,” Villepique said. “I would love to sit through one of their classes.”
“A.P. Bio,” which returns Sunday immediately following the Winter Olympics closing ceremony (and then moves to its regular 8:30 p.m. Thursday time slot), was created by fellow Chicago improv alum Mike O’Brien. It stars Glenn Howerton as Jack Griffin, a disgraced Harvard philosophy scholar who is reduced to teaching Advanced Placement biology in Toledo, Ohio.
To Jack, teaching his class of honor roll students is just a means to an end: getting revenge on his nemesis, another philosophy professor who got the Stanford job he wanted.
Jack believes he is smarter than everyone at the school, from put-upon Principal Durbin (Patton Oswalt) to the trio of teachers who, upon meeting Jack and his inflated ego, make him their target. Jack is now in their world, and they own him — along with Durbin and anyone else who crosses their paths.
“We don’t buy into the cynicism or the coolness of Harvard,” Villepique said. “We are just, like, ‘OK, pass the mozzarella sticks.’ We don’t care.”
O’Brien has said that he based the three teachers on his two sisters and their friends, who when he was growing up used to belittle him so masterfully he would often come back for more.
He also might have been thinking of the nickname Sohn gave him years ago when they were touring for The Second City out of Chicago.
“His name was Lil’ Spesh, which was short for Little Special after we saw him bring this little-kid pillow with him into the [touring] van,” Sohn recalled. “He’s very fun to make fun of because he loves it, too.”
O’Brien also worked with Villepique in Chicago. He was an assistant director on “Red Scare,” her final show at the Second City mainstage in 2004. (The “A.P. Bio” writers’ room has more Chicago veterans, including Shelly Gossman and Charlie McCrackin, who also plays Coach Novak on the show.)
After graduating from the University of Illinois-Chicago, Sohn worked nights at “the Bubba Gump Shrimp Company on the world-famous Navy Pier,” as she calls it.
“I really loved the independence I had then,” the Champagne native said. “I was taking classes at Second City and joining different groups like Sirens, which is an all-female group that is still performing to this day.”
Villepique remembered working at and being a patron of Uncommon Ground in Lincoln Park and Northside Bar & Grill in Wicker Park.
“I guess I hung out where I worked all the time,” she said, adding that what she misses most about Chicago is the water. “In L.A. we get spoiled with the weather, and I just miss the season change in the spring in Chicago, and having everyone go out to the lakefront.”
They both remember hanging out at the “usual” Second City actor spots: Corcoran’s Grill & Pub on Wells Street and Old Town Ale House on North Avenue.
“I think we went there every night,” Villepique said of the Ale House. “I was just saying to somebody, ‘If I had all the money I spent on beer and cabs when I worked at Second City, I’d be rich.’ ”
Their Chicago experiences — even the ones that didn’t involve drinking — helped shape how they work today. During their time in the city’s improv scene, they learned to stay humble and trust their own instincts while being open to other ideas.
Sohn added that it was “huge” for her to realize that others in Chicago saw value in her. “I feel like I really was seen for what I had to offer, and I know not everyone gets that opportunity.”
O’Brien continues to operate with those values as showrunner on “A.P. Bio,” the actresses said.
“He always says to us, ‘Everyone on this show has earned that spot,’ ” Sohn said. “I can’t even express what that means to me.”
Read more about what’s coming up for teachers Mary and Michelle at tvshowpatrol.com.