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Originally published August 6, 2011 at 4:11 PM | Page modified August 8, 2011 at 3:46 PM

Sex-crimes cop by day, improv artist by night

Kyle Kizzier pursues two roles unlikely to be found in tandem: He works as a sex-crimes detective for the Seattle Police Department while also being one of the city's finest improv performers.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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Last month, late on a Friday night, Kyle Kizzier appeared on stage in the University District, where, at the audience's suggestion, he pretended to be a penguin mascot, telling a story about a dirty lampshade.

That same night he became a unicorn with golden hoofs. And he spun a tale, a la Dr. Seuss, about a tree and a "Squiggly-smoosh."

Kizzier is one of the Seattle's best improv performers, a man willing to take the wildest proffer and roll with it.

"For a couple of hours a night, I'm able to get up on a stage and jump around like an 8-year-old," Kizzier says. "Improv for me is almost like therapy. It's physical. It's immediate. And when it's done, it's done. It's a way to clear your head."

For Kizzier, that's important. Earlier the same day, before going on stage, he went to work at the Seattle Police Department's headquarters on Fifth Avenue, where he reviewed a report of a child being assaulted and spoke with a woman who said she had been raped.

Kizzier works as a detective in the Sexual Assault & Child Abuse Unit, one of the department's most demanding.

His twin pursuits — sex-crimes detective, improv funnyman — sound like the kind of mashup only an improv audience could come up with.

Only in his case, it's real.

Short prompts, long answers

A few years ago, Kizzier interviewed a 31-year-old man suspected of raping his 8-year-old daughter.

"Absurd," the man said, at the outset. "I love my kids."

For detectives, interviewing can be an art. And the most important part may be what's left unsaid. When Kizzier's interviews are transcribed, the most striking feature is how long the answers and how short the prompts. The suspect goes on and on, while Kizzier says: "Um-hum." "OK." "And then what happened?"

"I started noticing rashes on my girls," the man told Kizzier. "And I always check my girls out."

"I'm sorry," Kizzier said. "What do you mean by 'check them out'? "

Kizzier credits improv for his interrogation style. In the game "Day in the Life," a cast member interviews someone in the audience, collecting details about the person's day that can be spun into a funny scene. Kizzier learned that leading questions — "And then you ate breakfast, right?" — got him nowhere. The rich material came from asking, "And then what happened?"

And with improv, few skills trump listening and observing. Cast members build on what the other performers do, alert to lines or actions that could shift the story. (These are called offers.) Kizzier's theater colleagues call him the best listener in their company.

Trying to explain "check my girls out," the suspect rambled, describing how he distinguished good touching from bad — "to the point to where I, I showed her. And she's like, 'Well' — she knew I had a penis because she has taken showers and baths with me."

"Um-hum," Kizzier said.

While interviewing, Kizzier looks for something, anything, he can come back to later. His approach is friendly, even empathetic. If the suspect keeps talking, the detective stays in the game. And Kizzier has learned: People who do wrong don't see themselves as bad, just misunderstood.

"You strike me as a very caring, loving father," Kizzier told the suspect. "I mean, you didn't plan to do anything like — like this, did you? ... Sometimes things just get the better of you. ... I think that you're just a guy who made, made a mistake."

Teamwork helps. When the suspect described taking a shower, then applying lotion to his daughter, a fellow detective, Donna Stangeland, asked: "Is it possible there was an accidental touching? Did the towel get dropped off?"

"No," the man said.

But the detectives kept asking. And for two hours, he kept talking.

"Maybe she felt my penis on her bum from — through the towel."

"Is that what happened?" Kizzier asked.

"I, I believe, maybe that's, that's what happened."

Then the man went further.

"I normally get a — at about a certain time of the day ... every time at 1 o'clock I get an erection. I don't know why. ... It just happens."

In improv, one performer accepts another's offer and runs with it. (This is called "yes, and.") For Kizzier, this was an opportunity for "yes, and."

"Can I share something stupid with you? Mine's like at 10:30 in the morning," Kizzier said. "So I mean, it's not an unusual thing."

"Yeah, it's normal," the suspect said. "I think now — the time that this actually happened, it was about that time."

By interview's end, the man still had not confessed. But the detectives had something almost as good. "A ridiculous story is the second best thing to a confession," Kizzier says.

Prosecutors filed charges, and the case went to trial. Kizzier, testifying, was asked about "10:30 in the morning," and explained that he'd just made it up. "I never thought in my life I'd be on the stand discussing my erection schedule," he would say later.

The jury convicted the man of first-degree child rape, and he was sentenced to 15 years to life.

Afterward, the 8-year-old girl gave Kizzier a green piece of paper on which she'd drawn a heart and written: "Thank You!"

From actor to cop

Kizzier grew up in a small town in the middle of Nebraska.

At the time, he didn't much care for police officers. "I thought they were all hired cowboys with nothing better to do than hassle people." But then he got to know one — his tae kwon do instructor — and his opinion changed.

Kizzier remained in Nebraska for college, drinking Foster's Lager, playing Dungeons & Dragons and displaying skill with a tarot deck. He started as a criminal-justice major but ended up with a theater degree. Then it was on to Eau Claire, Wis., and the Fanny Hill, a bed-and-breakfast that also offered shows. "I did about a year and a half of really bad dinner theater," Kizzier says.

Forget Shakespeare. Kizzier was doing "Natalie Needs a Nightie," juggling a dual role that required him to keep changing in and out of cowboy boots.

He moved on to Chicago, giving improv a go. In a city celebrated for the form, he spent five years at ComedySportz, working his way up to director. Then, tired of scrambling for temp jobs to support his theater work, he shifted back to criminal justice. He applied to the Chicago and Seattle police departments and was accepted by both. He elected to go West: "I figured I'd have a longer life expectancy as a Seattle officer."

Starting in 1995, he worked patrol, mostly in Capitol Hill. Nine years later, he became a sex-crimes detective. He drinks good scotch and is known to wear a kilt. (He even wore one while doing the Columbia Center climb for charity — 69 flights, 1,311 steps, $1,000 raised.) At work he favors a trench coat and, on occasion, a fedora.

"I've been called Inspector Gadget," he says.

Now 45, he's married with three kids. But with all his demands, he has stayed committed to improv, devoting time on evenings and weekends.

Haiku Shakespeare

Last month, late on another Friday night, Kizzier and four other members of Jet City Improv played "Death by Story," a game where players take quick-fire turns concocting a story, picking up the thread mid-sentence or even mid-syllable.

Hesitate, and you're out.

Jet City, an adventurous outfit founded in 1992, had a good crowd — about 70 people, mostly young, buzzing with energy.

In "Death by Story," each player's contribution to the yarn comes with a twist, courtesy of a suggestion from the audience. Kizzier asked for a literary influence.

"Haiku," someone said.

"Romeo and Juliet," someone else said.

Kizzier paused. Then he said, "I'll combine them."

Haiku requires counting syllables — five, seven, five. Lauren Domino, a cast member directing that night's game, saw Kizzier keeping tabs with his fingers, wedging the Capulets into three-line verse.

"I don't know many improvisers who have the guts to take on a challenge like that," Domino says. "I could see his fingers moving, but he was still making sense."

With improv, Kizzier's mindset is: "You absolutely have to check your ego at the door. You can't be afraid to fail, and you absolutely cannot try to be funny." By that he means: Commit to your character. Don't tell jokes. Let relationships and tension drive the humor. If you joke, you're winking at the audience. Wink, and you blow the scene.

Improv has its own etiquette and vocabulary. Joking is called gagging, and gagging is bad — along with blocking, mugging, waffling and wimping. Offering, accepting and heightening? Those are good.

"Kyle is a master of what he does," says Andrew McMasters, one of Jet City's co-founders. "When Kyle gives you an offer on stage, I feel like you can physically see it coming at you."

That night, the cast did a family scene — Kizzier the father, Domino the mother, Jed Thompson the son. When the story threatened to drift, Kizzier told Thompson, "I know what you two have been plotting," and the scene took off, weaving intrigue and laughs.

"An offer like that, other improvisers on the stage consider that a gift — thank you, thank you," Thompson says.

Another of Kizzier's offers — "You're not like you used to be," he told Domino — led to an immediate flashback: the two, meeting at a dance, while Thompson makes a background sound that's part crying, part bleating.

"I have a baby from a previous marriage," Domino tells Kizzier.

"Thank God," Kizzier says. "I thought it was a goat."

Kizzier, stung by his wife's treachery, tells her at one point: "Nothing to look forward to now but murder-suicide. Or at least half of that."

Offstage, Jet City's cast members, three dozen or so, hold a host of different jobs, from mathematician to bartender. Kizzier is the only cop. But that's something he tends to keep to himself. Most of the cast probably doesn't even know, the troupe's leaders say.

Sometimes, Kizzier's day job sets him apart from his fellow improvisers. Once, in rehearsal, he watched a scene in which a grandfather invited his granddaughter onto his lap, stroked her hair and talked of how pretty she was. To the other cast members, this was a tender moment. To Kizzier, it was the grooming behavior of a pedophile.

'Hey, Tucker'

"Kyle does not back down from any absurdity that comes onto stage," says McMasters, the Jet City co-founder.

The same could be said of Kizzier's police work. There's a story that illustrates this — only, there's a hitch. The Seattle Times is a family newspaper. We can't use certain words. So for this story we'll do a word swap: Tucker for a word that rhymes with Tucker.

Nine years ago, on a September afternoon, Kizzier was patrolling Broadway in Capitol Hill when he saw a couple arguing with a young woman in front of Dick's Drive-In. The woman was holding a dog.

Kizzier stopped and inquired. The couple said the dog was theirs. The woman said the dog was hers.

Kizzier pulled the couple aside and quizzed them. Dog's name? Britney. Identifying marks? A nick in its left ear, a mole by one eye, some seepage from an infection.

Then he approached the young woman. What's the dog's name?

Tucker, she said.

Kizzier paused, taking this in.

Really, he said. You named your dog Tucker.

Yes.

Kizzier inspected the dog. He saw the nick, the mole, the mucus. But to remove any doubt of ownership, he conducted a test. He asked a man with no claim to the dog to hold her. Then Kizzier stepped away and began calling.

Hey, Tucker.

Hey, Tucker.

Come here, Tucker.

The dog did not come. "It just looks at me funny," Kizzier says.

So Kizzier tried "Hey, Britney" — and the dog ran right over.

After this, the young woman admitted taking the dog. Kizzier returned Britney to the couple — and wrote up a report that became a favorite among his superiors. To this day, whenever Assistant Chief Jim Pugel sees Kizzier, he can't help but bring up Hey, Tucker.

On Broadway

On television, cop shows have become a staple. Kizzier favors "Reno 911!," the mockumentary of a sheriff's department in which actors take outlandish situations and improvise.

"That's probably the most realistic cop show I've seen," Kizzier says. "I swear, I've been on every one of those calls."

There was the woman, high on meth, in an abandoned doorway on Broadway, jumping and yelling, telling Kizzier: "There's a bomb inside me. If I stop dancing, it's going to explode."

Len Carver, a Seattle police detective and former patrol partner of Kizzier's, recounts a burglary-in-progress call. When the two officers arrived, they discovered the door was still open. In hopes of flushing the burglars, Carver yelled: Canine unit! Canine unit! Come out now or the dog comes in.

"And then Kyle lets go with a bark — and it's realistic, I kid you not," Carver says. "Moments later we hear people saying, 'We're coming out! we're coming out!' "

On bike patrol, Kizzier arrested a woman, high on crack, at the old Jack in the Box on Broadway. Crack addicts have a tendency to grab hold of one thought — and one thought only — and not let go.

Why are you arresting me? she asked. We have a warrant, Kizzier said. Why are you arresting me? she asked. Kizzier explained the warrant. Why are you arresting me?

When a patrol car pulled up, Kizzier tried a new tack. Channeling Darth Vader, he told the woman: "You are part of the rebel alliance and a traitor. Take her away."

"It cut through the fog," he says, "and she got in the car."

A man, also on Broadway, told Kizzier he'd been bitten by a golden retriever tied to a light pole. Kizzier tried to read the dog's tags, but whenever he got close, the dog snarled.

Kizzier called Animal Control. And then he waited. As he stood there, people kept insisting on approaching the dog, cooing, oh, how cute — even though Kizzier warned them not to, even though he told them, look, he bites. Each time the dog snarled and snapped — but then someone else would come along, and the scene would repeat.

"I couldn't decide if it was love of a golden retriever, the Seattleite's desire to find good in all, or a determination to disbelieve anything an officer tells them," Kizzier says.

Michelle Griesheimer, another of Kizzier's former patrol partners, says: "He always made work a blast. For a cop, if you don't make light of certain situations, the stress will get to you. Kyle's way of getting away from all the ugliness is his comedy. And he's damn good at it."

Nothing is simple

In the Sexual Assault & Child Abuse Unit, detectives deal with people who have been violated. They deal with families split and at war. And they wade through a lot of cases where allegations have been manufactured — for advantage, perhaps, in a child-custody battle, or to spare someone embarrassment.

"Nothing here is simple," Sgt. Dick Welch says.

Kizzier's colleagues praise how he handles the challenges. "He doesn't get rattled," Welch says. "He's someone I'd feel comfortable giving any case to."

Kizzier's first big case was Curtis Thompson, a serial rapist — and a murderer — who poured bleach on one victim's genitals in an effort to destroy DNA evidence. "There are monsters in this world, and he is one of them," Kizzier says.

For Kizzier, cases with kids took a toll. "It was probably a year, a year and a half, before I stopped seeing my children's faces superimposed on victims. It was very hard."

This year, Kizzier investigated a 16-year-old's rape allegation against UW basketball player Venoy Overton.

Kizzier interviewed people there that night — Overton, the teenager, friends of both — and uncovered a litany of bad choices, but nothing that amounted to rape.

The unit's detectives have an unofficial mantra: Don't get emotionally involved in more than one case a year. The weight becomes too much.

For Kizzier, one such case involved a pharmacist who secretly videotaped friends in his guest bedroom and planted a spy camera in a neighbor's bathroom.

After capturing images, the pharmacist doctored them, making it appear he was having sex with the women.

"The audacity of it, the betrayal of trust, the steps he took to conceal it. I really got wrapped up in that case. It was very hard for me to let that one go when it was done."

Just as some members of Jet City don't know Kizzier is a detective, some detectives find it surprising he's in theater.

"He's a very hardworking guy, very quiet, very unassuming," Detective Susan DiTusa says. "I would have never guessed he had this other side to him."

'This is not a joke'

One time, Kizzier's two worlds collided.

In winter 1995, he was working as a uniformed officer when there was a bomb threat in the Belltown neighborhood. To protect the public, police cordoned off the surrounding blocks.

At the time, Jet City was in the same neighborhood, on Blanchard Street. Kizzier was assigned to stand a half-block from the theater and direct people away from danger.

A couple women, on their way to the theater, saw Kizzier — and recognized him from his work as a performer.

"One of them says, 'Wait a minute, it's that guy from Jet City. They're playing a joke on us.' "

When they tried to pass, Kizzier found himself in an unlikely position for someone who has done years of improv. He insisted there was nothing funny going on.

He told them, "No. Really. I'm an officer. You can't go by." They persisted.

So he told them, "We didn't rent a patrol car and a uniform for this." He told them, "Ladies, please, this is not a joke."

In the end, the women did as he asked.

But walking away, they must have wondered.

Ken Armstrong: 206-464-3730 or karmstrong@seattletimes.com

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