Longtime Chicago improv actor and teacher Jason R. Chin died suddenly Thursday night. Chin was 46.
Improv Olympic founder Charna Halpern passed along the devastating news overnight. “I am heart broken. Our Jason Chin passed away,” Halpern wrote to friends. “He was a wonderful friend and a huge part of iO. I miss him already and cant believe this has really happened.” Fellow longtime Chicago improv comedian performer/teacher Miles Stroth added: Cause is not known yet. This just happened. Sadly, it is real. Fuck.”
The Cook County medical examiner’s report Friday said Chin had died from heart disease. He was discovered in his apartment Thursday night after he’d failed to show up at iO to teach one of his classes.
Chin was iO Chicago’s Associate Artistic Director, and previously its Director of the Training Center for eight years. He coached, directed or managed many Harold teams and sketch shows over the past dozen-plus years. Among his creations, the long-running weekly Saturday night hit show, Whirled News Tonight — an improvised satire team which includes current The Daily Show correspondent Jordan Klepper among its alums.
Chin also created and began directing “Dinner for Six” back in 2000 at The Playground. As he recalled on his blog in 2012: “Dinner for Six is one of my favorite all-time shows. The premise is simple; three couples have a dinner, we (and the improvisers) discover the connections and emotional strands between them and then they improvise. No other characters, no walk-ons, no tag-outs, just a mix of relationship scenes. It was, I recall, a direct reaction to the wave (at the time) of chaotic, almost nihilistic improvisation.”
Jason Robert Chin grew up in Flushing, Queens, and had an early break in show business on the top comedy on TV, appearing in the first-season episode of The Cosby Show, “Theo and the Joint,” in February 1985.
After college, Chin found himself in Champaign, Ill., and he was driving up to Chicago on the weekends to watch his buddy perform in Second City shows with Tina Fey, Steve Carell and Stephen Colbert. He talked about this in 2011 for the documentary Whether the Weather in 2011.
He moved to Chicago in 1995 just in time to start taking classes at the brand-new Improv Olympic. As iO Chicago prepared to move last year to a new location, Chin reminisced about the original venues at 3541 N. Clark St., just down the block from Wrigley Field. He recalled taking classes first with Halpern, then with Stroth, and eventually Del Close. “Those classes changed my life!” Chin said.
Chin also became an iO fixture, mopping and sweeping on Mondays when he took classes with Close. “That began a personal tradition for me; I would sweep and mop before my team shows and I still do before Whirled News Tonight,” he wrote last summer. Within months: “I began doing a lot of shows at iO and before each “big show” (usually a Halloween show or something based on Star Wars) I would sand, paint and lacquer the Del Close Theater stage. I did that two or three times. After the shows or classes (usually about 10pm back then) and I would stay and work till 3 or 4am. I know that stage pretty well.”
He knew iO’s Training Center better than anyone, too, becoming its first full-time director after convincing Halpern, Close and others of the need to become more business-minded.
Chin coached the Harold team Deep Schwa for 13 years, and also still performed himself with The Armando Diaz Experience. And just this week, Chin was promoting the penultimate episode of a webseries he’s in, “Day Drinking,” via Awkward Starship.
Some of the reactions that began flooding Facebook overnight from the many comedians who have worked with or under Chin over the past two decades…
Zheryk Badugu (iO): “Oh man, what? He was always had some wisdom to lay down on us. It feels like just last week he was showing us how to approach new forms.”
Ali Reza Farahnakian (who performed at iO and Second City in the 1990s before becoming an original member of the UCB, writing for SNL, and then in 2002 founding The PIT in NYC): “He was a true believer, a soldier in the army of Improv, A student of the craft, he was a scholar and a gentlemen. I kept up with him through his posts and it seemed like he was in a great place. He will be missed my many. Thoughts and prayers to his family and all who knew him. My Condolences.”
Rebecca Drysdale (former Second City performer, current writer for Key & Peele): “All my love and condolences to everyone at iO who worked with and knew Jason. He was such a good guy who gave so much goodness to the community. Such tragic news.”
Laura Krafft (iO/Second City alum, former writer for The Colbert Report, The Crazy Ones): “So saddened to hear about the passing of Jason R. Chin. He was an exceptionally lovely guy. A great teacher and an even greater man. He loved the Chicago improv world almost as much as the world of Chicago improv loved him. He will be sorely missed. This world needs its Jason Chins.”
Craig Cackowski (recurring roles in Community and Drunk History): “I am truly shocked and beyond saddened to hear of the passing of my friend Jason R. Chin. So many great conversations, and arguments, about improv. So many late nights playing hearts and poker. So much joy taking the stage of the iO Chicago theater. More than just about anyone I can think of, Jason poured his heart and soul into the iO, supporting and inspiring generations of improvisors. Much love to Charna Halpern and all my cherished Chicago friends, I know you are grieving and of us at the iO WEST share your grief. R.I.P.”
Halpern wrote that iO planned to host friends and loved ones Friday night to “meet and raise a glass to Jason,” with a special Armando performance in his honor on Monday.
Other formal and informal memorials will be planned, too.
Chin’s reach was felt around the world, teaching improv not only in Chicago but also in the Philippines, Australia and England. His students have moved on to gigs in Hollywood and New York City.
As you fly from our lake shores
and say goodbye to old friends
may you enjoy as many smiles
as you created here.
May your new home
contain all the dreams you’re chasing.
May your new home
come to realize what we know;
That you’re great,
That you’re hilarious,
That you’re better than any one city.
Come back to us
when you’re homesick
Come back to us
to brag and be a famous dick
Come back to us
Come back to us.
Your home, Your friends, Your theaters
will still be here.
Good luck, fare well
they’re lucky to have you.
Chin also wrote a book if you’re interested in still learning from him. It’s called “Longform Improvisation and the Art of Zen.”
Talk about screwing around, here’s an ironic Tweet Chin posted this New Year’s Eve:
When I was in high school I made plans to fake my own death and start all over. I'm sorry I failed you, Robert Chang…. or did I?
— Jason R. Chin (@JasonChinFTW) December 31, 2014
We can only hope it’d look something like this: