Katy, Katie, Caitlin, Katy, Kathryn, Kate. It’s not coincidence that the six co-creators and lead actors in TVLand’s hilarious new sitcom Teachers basically share a name. They formed a comedy troupe in Chicago when Caitlin Barlow noticed how many Kate’s were among their improv comedy classes. Calling themselves the Katydids, they played what was supposed to be a one-off show and then just stuck together, performing both improv and sketch-comedy and eventually filming videos for the Internet.
“Some of us literally shook hands that night performing our first show,” says Kate Lambert. “And then we performed together. t was such a good chemistry. Everyone got along so well onstage and off. And it just felt really special. And that’s why we decided to continue with it.”
“It was an exciting time,” adds Katy O’Brien, “because improv is such an unstable career. It’s such a beautiful art form but there isn’t really a place for it to make money. I feel like for me personally, finding this group was such a turning point, because it was finding people exactly like you with the same interests. But what also was so cool is that we’re all totally different, we have different styles of comedy. All six of us have a different comedic sense of humor, and we feel like that’s why the group works because when you blend it together you get a little bit of everything. So people when they watch our stuff, we get a wide ranging audience.”
Barlow is the only member of the troupe who worked as a teacher after earning a masters of bilingual education from DePaul University. She taught fourth grade in the Chicago Public School System while performing improv and sketch comedy in the city. She borrowed heavily from that experience when creating the web series Teachers with her fellow Katydids.
“There’s a lot that goes on that I don’t think has ever really been explored on TV,” she says. “Like there’s inter-teacher politics and you, you’re trying to get your life figured out and you’re molding these students’ early lives and it’s a lot of pressure.”
The six comedians created their own characters—basically heightened versions of themselves, says Barlow—and turned them in to short sketches for the web. Barlow plays Ms. Cannon, a hippie activist who gets rid of gender stereotypes on the bathroom doors in the series pilot. Lambert’s Ms. Watson is still broken-hearted from a breakup that happened more than a year earlier and is constantly reminding her young class how painful life can be. O’Brien is the completely naive Ms. Bennigan, who awkwardly crushes on her worst student’s recently widowed father. They’re joined by Katy Colloton as the self-absorbed Ms. Snap, Cate Freedman as the laid-back Ms. Feldman and Kathryn Renée Thomas as former goth Mrs. Adler.
Soon after they hired an agent for the web series, they got a meeting with TVLand, who was looking for female comedy writers and performers. The words “dream come true” kept coming up as I talked to the six comedians, especially when they referred to their producing partners on the show—Alison Brie and Key & Peele showrunners Ian Roberts and Jay Martel.
“I think our biggest challenge was definitely learning how to do a narrative in [the half-hour format],” says Thomas, “because our narratives were two minutes and more of a sketch. When you watch our show, it’s not a sketch comedy show, but I feel like you almost get a sketch feeling when you watch it.”
They collaborated on the scripts, breaking off into groups of two to write and then bringing those storylines all together in a first draft, which they’d then work on as a group. When it came time to shoot, they couldn’t believe the guest stars that they’d been able to bring in—actors like Rob Riggle, Alison Brie, Lacey Chabert and Rob Corddry.
“We’re nobodies,” Freedman says with a laugh. “We were just like this comedy group in Chicago and to have all these people who we admire and who we look up to come to our show, it’s really a dream come true. And they’re just so wonderful to work and easy to play off of because they’re such seasoned veterans of comedy.”
“It was wonderful to work with [Corddry] because I’ve been a huge fan of his for so long that I had to control myself on set,” says Colloton. “Like I just felt like the first scene that we shot, I was really giggly. Cause it was just so cool to work with him. But he’s such a professional. It was such a wonderful experience.”
In the end, though, what you see on screen is very much the comedy that the Katydids set out to make. “For better or for worse, sink or swim, this our show, it’s our voice, and it 100-percent turned out to be our vision, so we feel very lucky to have captured that and created it,” says O’Brien. “We feel so lucky that TV Land basically said, ‘do not change this. Just take what you already have and make it into a show.’ And so it’s very much us. And that’s something we’re very proud of.”
Teachers airs Wednesdays at 10:30 EST on TV Land.