Known for his roles in “Big Bang Theory,” “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt,” “The Good Wife,” “The Practice” and “Law and Order,” Jason Kravits returns to his Rockville roots on Saturday, June 8. The actor will bring his cabaret-improv comedy show, “Off the Top,” to AMP by Strathmore, not far from the neighborhood where he grew up.
“I spend at least an hour before the show panicking,” he said. “I’ve been doing this for five years, must’ve done the show 80 times, and every time I walk out onstage, I say to myself: ‘This is the dumbest idea you ever thought of. You’re going out onstage by yourself and you have no idea what you’re gonna say, how is this going to work?
“Then I go out onstage and the adrenalin kicks in.”
And that’s all Kravits needs. Seasoned by decades in show business, he has opted to do a kind of solo improv show that starts with suggestions from the audience that he plucks out of a bowl and uses to create a musical biographical parody about a fictional character — on the spot. He has played to audiences around the world, from New York City, where he lives, to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and beyond. Every show is unique, and audience driven, a combination of parody, cabaret and improv that tests the skills that took Kravits from Derwood to Hollywood.
“The audience is watching you cross the bridge on a wire,” he said. “There is no net.” But Kravits comes prepared with a general show arc, a wide musical repertoire and a zeal for gently parodying artists from Sinatra to Sondheim. It gives him a rare opportunity to have the spotlight to himself.
“I’ve only been a character actor,” said Kravits, whose face evokes a general response of, ‘Oh yeah, that guy!’ due to his TV ubiquitousness. “I wanted to do something where I’m the lead in the show — I want to sing the ballad! This has been the story of my life.”
The story began in the Derwood neighborhood of Rockville, where Kravits did theater at Col. Zadok Magruder High School before heading to the University of Maryland, College Park for a bachelor of arts degree in theater. “When I got to Maryland, I was there on a theater scholarship,” he said. “I was excited to do it all: I wanted to do Shakespeare, Moliere. I wanted to be a fully trained actor.”
As a kid, Kravits had “liked anything that involved parody, whether it was Mel Brooks or Allan Sherman. I grew up loving the movie ‘Spinal Tap’ — and ‘Young Frankenstein.’ That’s what a lot of my comedy has been.” At UMD in 1986, he was a co-founding member of Erasable Inc., the improv group that still performs on the steps of McKeldin Library every Friday afternoon.
“I look back on it in shock that it still exists,” laughed Kravits — he laughs a lot. “We enjoyed it: getting out in front of people, trying to meet girls, getting to show off. The fact that people kept doing it over the years? I couldn’t be more surprised!”
Also surprising was Kravits’ eventual television success. “My plan was to do theater in Washington, D.C.,” he recalled. “I didn’t have grand dreams of moving to Hollywood or New York. I just wanted to keep doing theater; I liked performing, playing characters.”
He landed a job with Round House Theatre’s program for Young Audiences, and with the now-defunct Washington Jewish Theatre at the Bender JCC in Rockville. After six years, he was a company member at Round House and Wooly Mammoth and working at the Shakespeare Theatre — working steadily.
When a colleague suggested he go to New York, Kravits was tempted. “I was 28 years old,” the actor remembered. “He said, ‘If you don’t go now, when are you gonna go?’ and I thought, ‘Wow, that’s a good question.’”
Kravits’ brother had moved to New York, so he had some family there. “I decided it was time to make the move,” he said. “So I moved up — and immediately stopped working!”
Soon he got some commercials, which allowed him to get by financially. He got an agent, and joined a writer-actor performing collective called A Rumble in the Red Room. The group required members to perform original work every week; after four years, he had developed the material for a two-man show with his friend Joel Jones, who had also moved from D.C. “That ended up going out to the comedy festivals and it got a lot of attention there,” he said. “That brought me to L.A., which brought me to TV — or brought TV to me.”
Ironically, Kravits’ first TV job was not on a comedy but a drama, “The Practice.” “I was this mean lawyer for two years,” he laughed. “So I was really very quiet about my comedy. I wanted to be a standard dramatic actor for that moment.”
Of course, he was a dramatic actor, as well as a comic actor, an improv actor and a musical theater actor. And next Saturday night at AMP, Kravits will pull all the strands together for a hometown crowd when he performs “Off the Top.” After that, he will be off to dates in Europe with the show, which rounds up the musical, dramatic, comedic and improvisational aspects of his personality in a completely different experience every time.
“I always just wanted to do it all,” mused Kravits. “I wanted to be the guy who was doing television and movies and musicals and comedy and my own material and whatever presents itself. I want to be that — do all the pieces as a performer.
“This life takes you, in a way,” he added. “You make certain choices, but life takes you and it’s never really predictable…it’s improvised.”
“Off the Top” with Jason Kravits starts at 8 p.m. Saturday, June 8, at AMP by Strathmore, 11810 Grand Park Ave., North Bethesda. Tickets range from $25 to $45. Call 301-581-5100 or visit www.ampbystrathmore.com.