The battle against indifference is heavily weighted toward indifference. So many creative upstarts are poised along the outskirts of public opinion, desperate to make a name for themselves, it can be hard to tell them apart. Before one group of Chicago comedians even started making a name for themselves, though, a common name made them.
Years ago, Caitlyn Barlow noticed a trend among the female talent in Chicago’s Improv scene: a lot of women involved in it had very similar names. As a lark, she brought all of them (and their variations on the name "Kate") together, accidentally creating The Katydids. What started as a one-off performance has since culminated in a low-key comedy empire that includes Teachers, a new show on TV Land, along with a pilot deal at NBC, and an optioned feature screenplay. None of it would have happened, though, if The Katydids hadn’t been as talented at branding themselves as they are at being funny.
"Not everyone even knew each other," Katy Colloton says. "We shook hands the first time on the night we did a show together."
Some of them hailed from Improv Olympics, others were Second City acolytes. All shared a similar sensibility, though. Assembled, Avengers-style, Barlow and Colloton found that the disparate members of this ramshackle sextet, which was filled out by Cate Freedman, Kathryn Renee Thomas, Kate Lambert, and Katie O’Brien, had chemistry right away.
"We always love to reminisce about the final scene in our first show," Freedman says. "Caitlin Barlow initiated the scene by doing synchronized swimming and immediately we knew that it was this NuvaRing commercial that was big at the time. And we all jumped in and did it together and we knew we had something special."
The fact that every Katherine-derivative onstage knew the commercial and its goofy dancing by heart heralded a big chromosomal shift from the improv groups each had previously belonged to. They were all so used to being the token female in their group (or one of two or three) that this sudden all-woman dynamic was jarring.
"I think all of us felt a change when we started performing together," Colloton says. "It was kind of the first group we felt 100% safe in. You could go out, make a fool of yourself and if the audience didn't laugh, all five girls would jump on stage and do it with you, they’d have your back."
After a couple of one-offs and a run of shows, The iO theater’s co-founder offered the then-nameless group a regular gig. That was the moment they officially christened themselves The Katydids, and decided to get serious about getting the name out into the world.
It started with some basic promotional efforts, the same ideas our grandparents were all doing to promote their improv teams. The Katydids made posters and postcards and distributed them in strategic places around Chicago where they knew comedy fans might see them. They designed the posters with bright colors and glossy photos brimming with insane hairdos, and prominently spotlit the mysterious Katydids name. The group slowly began to draw crowds.
Although Katy Colloton was a marketing director of a small theater at the time, and spearheaded many promotional ideas, Kate Lambert was the first Katydid to suggest making a video. A year into performing together, the group launched a steady stream of videos and watched more and more people find their live show. It wasn’t until the group had been regularly making videos for four years that they decided to create a web series together.
"The idea for us to play teachers came from our very good friend, Matt Miller, who is an extremely talented director in Chicago," Colloton says. "We knew we wanted to work with Matt on something and Matt wanted to work with us on something. So he came to us basically saying that ‘Did you know that you all look like teachers?’ And we were like ‘Okay, thanks, I guess?’"
"And at the same time," Freedman adds. "Matt had just heard on NPR that teaching was one of the most revered professions in this country but also one of the most adulterous. That seemed like such a fascinating area to explore. I mean, we do look like teachers; like we’d be very sweet. But then we also have a dark, dark sense of humor underneath it and that's kind of our brand. It's great to produce something that you actually fit the description of, versus trying to play people you would never actually look like in real life."
The Katydids worked for six months writing and producing 24 webisodes of Teachers. They also spent a lot of time working on a rollout strategy that would reach a broader audience than the short sketches they’d been making for years. Rather than just targeting underground comedy fans, The Katydids also went after the real-life counterparts of the characters they were portraying. Each week they sent out a webisode and a mini press release—Wednesdays at 1pm, prime social media real estate—to dozens of educational blogs. It turned out teachers liked the show. Others did too.
Shortly into the web series’ run, The Onion asked to see more of the unreleased episodes and then selected their favorites to host on their own channel. Traffic swelled. Not long after that, talent agency supreme William Morris contacted the group, inquired about packaging and selling Teachers as a TV show.
"Obviously, we all freaked out," Freedman says. "And then we waited six months."
Eventually, William Morris connected The Katydids with Allison Brie, who went on to executive produce the show. They were all right in the middle of working together on putting a pitch together when TV Land contacted WME looking for an edgy all-female workplace comedy that would serve as the network’s gender-flipped version of Workaholics. Things moved fast after that. WME sent over the web series and a treatment for how it might work as a half-hour comedy, and TV Land offered the group a pilot the next day. They never even had to pitch.
"TV Land offered us right from the start that we could be executive producers, writers, and actors; they just wanted to buy this and make it with us," Colloton says. "If we pitched it, I don't know we would've ever gotten that deal anywhere else."
With the help of Key and Peele show runners Jay Martel and Ian Roberts, The Katydids translated the single-serving tone of the webseries into a sustainable half-hour show. The personalities each member of the group had created for herself were made even more distinct, with great care not to overlap any similar traits. The resulting series fulfills the promise of the image the group had been working to create for years. It has an off-kilter female point of view, with a dark side and plenty of bite. Also, Caitlin Barlow’s experience as an elementary school teacher in Chicago keeps The Katydids loaded with additional lived-in material.
Aside from the show, which premiered on January 13 and airs Wednesdays at 10:30, members of The Katydids have sold a pilot to NBC that they would write and executive produce, and a feature screenplay that the group would potentially star in. The group is vague about what to expect from either project right now, but judging from their track record, The Katydids will find a way to make us all expect what they want us to expect, loud and clear, when the time is right.