Dion Flynn’s path to the world of acting was nothing short of improvisational.
The actor and comedian is known for his many appearances on “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon” as well as his improv expertise. Flynn, who was called one of Oprah Magazine’s “favorite creative thinkers,” will be giving an improv workshop at Mopco on Saturday. Shortly before that, on Thursday, he’ll be delivering the SUNY Schenectady commencement speech.
It’s a far cry from where the actor started. Growing up, he remembers singing for his mom using a plunger in place of a microphone in their Detroit home.
“There was another profound moment when I moved to Maryland and got a stepfather. My mom [and stepfather] took me to this church and these guys were up front wearing overalls and doing this country comedy routine and I said ‘Oh my gosh, that’s what I want to do. They’re getting all the attention, they’re having fun, I want to do that,’” Flynn said.
However, Flynn had a rough start. As a teenager, he ran away from home and joined the army, which he served in from 1988-92.
“I quit high school and ran away from home when I was 17 and I got my GED. So I didn’t think that college was for me and I was feeling self-conscious about that,” Flynn said. Yet, his girlfriend at the time pushed him to try it out.
“I started calling some colleges [in the Capital Region] and there was nobody greeting me on the phone. I called SUNY Schenectady and this woman was extremely warm and inviting,” Flynn said, “It made all the difference in the world and I went there for three semesters.”
Human connection means a lot to Flynn, not only because improv is his specialty, but because of how much the people he’s met in his life have impacted his career. Even from his time studying at the University at Albany.
“When I was in undergrad somebody had put up a flier for a local television comedy show and they were looking for young people to be in it. I’m fresh out of the army and into theater stuff so I auditioned and I got in. There were 10 other actors that got in from the area and one of those actors was James Thomas Fallon and that’s where he and I became friends,” Flynn said.
Then, when he attended the New York University Tisch School of the Arts for his graduate degree, he became best friends with classmate Josh Radnor, who is now known for “How I Met Your Mother.”
Well before anyone on the internet started saying that Fallon and Radnor looked alike, Flynn said that he was always telling Radnor that ‘he looked a lot like my friend Jimmy.”
Those two friendships have lasted decades and led to countless hilarious moments on air and on stage.
Flynn and Radnor started “Clanging with Josh and Dion,” back in 2012, though they’ve been clanging since college.
“We started doing this crazy word game and we’ve been doing it for 20 years. It’s like verbal jazz. You say a phrase or a word and you sculpt it a little bit and send it back to your buddy changed. Then he sculpts it and sends it back to you,” Flynn said.
When they first started playing the game in college, it was a way for Flynn to simply talk with Radnor and other friends.
“It’s been very important to me. I’m sober for 22 years and when I was first coming out of my addictive phase, I emerged with almost no skills in terms of communicating with people. Clanging was great because it gave me a chance to communicate with a friend in a creative way that didn’t involve all my [baggage],” Flynn said.
Dealing with those issues, along with a few psychological issues that were a result of his childhood, kept Flynn out of show business for a while. Though he’s done improv since 2005 where he started with the Peoples Improv Theater in NYC, he didn’t work too much on-screen until 2011.
“I had been in therapy at the veterans hospital, I’d been in recovery and I was finishing my last day of therapy at the veterans hospital just to deal with all these issues that were left over from childhood and that were stopping me from being able to work well and easily with other people. I was finished and my friend Josh texted,” Flynn said.
Radnor was going to be on Fallon’s show and asked if Flynn wanted him to pass along a greeting. Instead, Flynn asked to join Radnor.
As soon as Fallon saw him, he asked his producer to get Flynn on the show. In 2011, Flynn started appearing on “Late Night with Jimmy Fallon.”
“I would be an anchorman or a funny guy on a dating show and then all of a sudden, somebody looked at me and said ‘You kinda look like Obama,’” Flynn said.
That led to one of his most popular characters or “spots” on the show.
“I’ve been on Jimmy’s shows, over 100 times as a result of saying yes,” Flynn said.
Sometimes, he gets a few days notice when they want him to appear or have an idea for a character, other times they ask him to perform only a few hours in advance.
“The show has been incredible for me. By being on the “Tonight Show” as Barack Obama, I started to get asked to do appearances at corporations and private functions. I even got asked to do a deathbed Obama appearance,” Flynn said.
He’s also been able to work with corporations giving comedy and improv workshops. Flynn conducts Improv Recovery Workshops and Two-Prov workshops, which he’ll be teaching at Mopco on Saturday. It’ll focus on the art of creating spontaneous theater with a single partner.
It runs from 1-4 p.m. and is open to the public. Tickets are $91. For more info visit mopco.org.