A few years after graduating from Midlakes High School and earning a degree in food service management, Joe Liss found himself outside Chicago’s famed Second City peering through a window for a phone number or any information on taking an improv theatre class.
The Windy City was a long way from his childhood home in Clifton Spring and even further from SUNY Cobleskill, where he earned a degree in restaurant management, but Liss who graduated from Midlakes in 1978 was about to make his first big step into the comedy profession.
Anyone who knew Liss at Midlakes might have predicted he would end up trying sketch comedy. He brought "the house down" along with Eric Donohue (’78) and Mike Hample (’79) to win the Sophomore Talent show by dressing up and lip-syncing a Natalie Cole song.
He also performed in plays and musicals at Midlakes, working with the school’s venerable theatre director Keith Childs. His comedic sensibility was formed at a young age; he couldn’t get enough of a record album his father picked up, “The Wonderful World of Jonathan Winters,” and loved the antics of Robin Williams, Cheech & Chong, Monty Python’s Flying Circus, and National Lampoon Magazine. It also didn’t hurt that Liss was the youngest of seven children always vying for attention.
Taking improv classes at the Second City was the start. But success didn’t happen right away.
"Unfortunately, my first audition ... I didn’t get cast, but I got a nice letter." Liss said from his home in Oakland, Calif. during a telephone interview. "You sort of lick your wounds but you don’t give up. You find another way in. You keep working at it with more classes and workshops, but don’t quit your day job because you still have to live and pay rent."
That other way showed itself two years later when the future voice of Homer Simpson, Dan Castellaneta, told Liss they were auditioning again at Second City. This time he was cast and did a seven-year stint with the troupe that saw him writing and performing alongside such actors as Mike Myers, Bonnie Hunt, Chris Farley, and Tim Meadows.
Liss married in 1993 and moved out to Los Angeles to pursue more acting and writing work.
He found success at both: roles in sitcoms and producing segments for comedy talk shows. He then partnered with a fellow Chicago comedy writer and the two of them were hired to write for the sitcom, 3rd Rock From the Sun. That lead to more writing work from My Life is a Sitcom to the adult animation series Drawn Together. But while doing TV work, he still performed with comedy groups and in a variety of theatre productions.
Liss's credits are longer than his current Pandemic hair style which is even longer than when he was at Midlakes. He played the “Shoe Thief” in HBO’s Curb Your Enthusiasm, “The Chicken Guy” in Wayne’s Word II, the "Guy in Bar" in Major League, the “Ticket Taker” in Curly Sue, “Hoover” in That '80s Show, and performed alongside Cheers' George Wendt in the play Wild Men, an off-Broadway production. And most recently on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.
These days Liss is based in Oakland, CA and works in the improvisational theatre community. He currently performs in a duo called Liss n’ Sams who, before the pandemic, were headlining in improv festivals around the country.
Liss often returns to the Finger Lakes to visit family and perform, including The Bicycle Men, a critically acclaimed musical comedy he co-wrote and has performed at the KeyBank Rochester Fringe Festival as well as in the United States and United Kingdom.
"You have to be prepared," said Liss, when asked about the advice he’d give Midlakes students. "Be flexible. Be willing to take a risk. Opportunities can happen anytime and if you don’t seize it, are you going to be thinking about it like: 'Should of, could of, would of?' You don’t want to have that in your vocabulary. No regrets. If you let yourself, you can get very bitter and kick yourself. You can’t do that otherwise you are going to tear yourself up."