Jon Carr wants to talk about the future of Dad’s Garage—and comedy in Atlanta

After stepping down from Chicago’s biggest comedy theater, the new executive producer at Dad’s Garage is focused on making Atlanta the next big comedy city

Jon Carr Dad's Garage
Jon Carr backstage at Dad’s Garage

Photograph by Brinson + Banks

Comedy people tell the best stories. This is particularly true in Chicago, the city whose theaters, especially The Second City, have launched some of the greatest American comedians in history, from John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd to Steve Carell, Tina Fey, and Amy Poehler. No one loved hearing stories about these legends more than Jon Carr, who arrived in Chicago in November 2020 as The Second City’s freshly minted executive producer. But Carr had been in the city only a few months when he began to notice how often the stories he heard there focused on things that had already happened.

“People love to tell you, ‘I used to get brunch with Tina Fey every week,’ and you’re like, Wow, that’s incredible,” Carr says. “But I realized, I never heard people talk about being excited for what is happening in the future.”

Carr spent 14 months helming the world’s most famous comedy theater. And then he left.

He returned to Atlanta, rejoining Dad’s Garage, the company that launched his own comedy career and where he now serves as executive producer. He’d learned a great deal in his time at The Second City, but one lesson most of all: After working to uphold a legacy established yesterday, Carr realized he wanted to build a new one for tomorrow.

“What I love about Atlanta is that everyone’s always talking about the future,” he says. “We’re this big little city with this underdog mentality, but we have all these big ideas. I want to help us create our own voice.”

The impressive career that sent Jon Carr up the ranks at Dad’s Garage to the top of The Second City began with a handful of puppets in a church basement. Born in Los Angeles, Carr and his brother spent the bulk of their youth traveling the country with their parents performing children’s ministry shows, which featured puppets, clowns, and magic—“all biblically centered,” Carr says.

“That experience was actually a big asset for us as performers now,” says Raymond Carr, Jon’s younger brother, who’s now a professional puppeteer and freelance artist. “The adult service would go on for hours and hours, so my parents and my brother and I would have to basically keep our [children’s] show going however we could.” It proved to be excellent training for what they later learned was called improv.

Jon Carr joined his family in Atlanta in 2004, after his parents were hired by a local megachurch. Hoping to meet new friends—and curious about opportunities beyond the church—he and Raymond discovered the Center for Puppetry Arts and Dad’s Garage.
Before long, they were spending most of their time volunteering at the theaters; both brothers eventually left the church to pursue careers in the arts. Raymond followed his passion for puppets, going on to become a resident puppeteer at Puppetry Arts and then joining the Jim Henson Company as a freelance puppeteer. Jon, for his part, fell in love with comedy at Dad’s. “I’m still friends with people who were in my first improv class,” Carr says. “It’s one of those things that genuinely connects you to other people.”

He advanced his career there, becoming a main cast performer and then joining full-time as marketing director. Dad’s Garage proved an ideal playground for him: Launched in 1995 by a gaggle of Florida State University graduates who wanted to make avant-garde theater, Dad’s grew into Atlanta’s premier improv comedy venue while retaining its penchant for weird scripted work. In 2018, the theater produced Black Nerd, a comedic play Carr wrote about his unconventional upbringing, which won a Suzi Bass Award for Best Playwriting.
Charting the path of a Black kid who knew every word to “Singin’ in the Rain,” Black Nerd wasn’t exactly a mainstream concept—and the fact that Dad’s Garage embraced it thoroughly gave Carr confidence that his work, and his voice, had a home there.

When it came to diversity, Carr says, Dad’s Garage invested early: “They didn’t just wait for things to kind of blow up.” Comedy theaters have a long history of operating as clubhouses for straight White men, and Dad’s, in its early years, was no exception. Carr credits Kevin Gillese, who joined the theater as artistic director in 2010, with embracing diversity as a genuine goal. “It wasn’t diversifying for presentation; it was diversifying to have quality performers,” Carr says.

Still, Carr marked plenty of firsts for Dad’s: In addition to being the first Black main cast member, he helped create Dark Side of the Room, the theater’s first all-Black improv troupe. When Gillese departed in 2020, Carr replaced him as artistic director—not just the first Black artistic director at Dad’s but one of precious few nationwide. “There were, like, three people of color running comedy theaters in America,” he says.

Carr had been in the role only a few months, helping pivot Dad’s to online shows during the pandemic shutdown, when The Second City announced it was hiring a new executive producer, with promises to hire a person of color. Carr applied on a lark, figuring he’d get kicked out after a round or two. “I thought, Well, maybe I’ll network, meet some people,” he recalls.

He didn’t expect to actually get the job.

In June 2020, after the murder of George Floyd led to a national racial justice uprising, Dad’s Garage made renewed commitments to racial diversity. So did all the other theaters in the country, but it became clear that some had not preempted the blowup. When The Second City began issuing public statements supporting the Black Lives Matter movement, dozens of Black performers came forward with alarming stories about their time at the theater, depicting an entrenched culture of racism. The Second City published an apology, the longtime executive producer resigned, and leadership vowed to “tear it all down and begin again.” Carr’s hiring was intended to be a step toward making amends.

Jon Carr Dad's Garage
Carr spent 14 months in Chicago before he returned to Atlanta and eventually his home turf at Dad’s Garage.

Photograph by Brinson + Banks

In some ways, it was a dream job: helming the company that created modern improv and sketch comedy, just when it seemed ready to embrace a more inclusive vision of the art form. But the longer he stayed in the role, the more Carr found himself thinking of his comedy home back in Atlanta. “I really wanted to do new things,” he says, “and push the envelope on what we consider comedy.”

He navigated The Second City through a difficult period, reopening the theater for in-person shows after pandemic closures and helping secure scholarship opportunities for performers of color. But a few months after he arrived, the company was sold to a private equity firm, and he realized that his vision for change was not aligned with that of his new bosses. “I loved the job,” he says, adding diplomatically, “I felt I wasn’t really super helpful with the direction [the new owners] wanted to go in.” In February 2022, he stepped down from The Second City.

He worked remotely for the Lawrenceville-based Aurora Theatre for a year before returning to Atlanta for good in 2023. Dad’s Garage, eager to have him back, created the executive producer position for Carr to develop performance programming and special events at the theater.

He stepped into the role in January and hit the ground running. This spring, he debuted BlackGround, an improv-driven comedy show that features an all-Black cast and imagines what the Black people were doing in classic films like Indiana Jones and Star Wars, whose protagonists are almost all White. Eventually, he plans to build a training program around the show, as well as a touring version, bringing in both new performers and audiences who wouldn’t otherwise be drawn to improv comedy.

Jon Carr Dad's Garage

BlackGround cast, from left: Markis Gallashaw, Leslie Johnson, Joshua Quinn, Maged Roushdi, Jon Carr

Photograph by Casey Gardner Ford

“If this can work, then we can create other shows that target different groups, whether it’s the Asian community, the LGBTQ+ community, or others,” he says. “We can start building this work that is based on cultivating the talent but also cultivating the audiences.”

Atlanta is ripe to become the future of American comedy, Carr argues, because the city’s diverse talent isn’t a future goal but a present fact. “Atlanta is a diversity showcase,” he laughs. “You don’t have to do anything else—it’s just about creating the pipeline for more diverse talent to be onstage.”

He sees his role at Dad’s as building the infrastructure that showcases this talent to the world, drawing interest from comedy heavy hitters like Saturday Night Live. “SNL auditions in Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, because they have this reputation for great talent,” Carr explains. “We want to be that next place.”

For the team at Dad’s Garage, that future feels like it’s drawing closer. “This city is primed for a [creative] explosion,” says Tim Stoltenberg, artistic director at Dad’s Garage. “We want Dad’s to be a pillar in this community, to make Atlanta as renowned as those other cities.”

He calls Carr an ideal leader for this transformational moment: “His producer mind is so good at taking an idea and making it happen,” he says. “But he’s still got improv in his heart, so he can pivot at the last moment to make it really work.”

Carr is still happy to talk about yesterday; like most comedy people, he’s got plenty of stories up his sleeve. But he’ll never get tired of talking about tomorrow. “So many theaters in America right now are looking around for what the future looks like,” he says. “That’s where I want to be. I want to be able to say, ‘I can tell you what the future of theater is. Watch what we’re doing.’”

This article appears in our June 2024 issue.