The Practical Theatre Co. Part Two

THRILLS & GLORY: THE BRIEF, BLESSED HISTORY OF THE PRACTICAL THEATRE CO.

Part Two: Saturday Night Live Comes to Piper’s Alley

When my wife Victoria and I take the stage on June 10th at PUSH Lounge in Woodland Hills for our first preview performance of “The Vic & Paul Show” — it will have been 28 years since the improvisational comedy of The Practical Theatre Company made national headlines in 1982. As Victoria and I get back to doing what we love most, it’s a good time to look back on the heady days when all we wanted to do was make people laugh – and the pursuit of that simple goal changed all our lives.

Bolstered by grants from the Illinois and Evanston Arts Councils, 1982 was going to be a good year for The Practical Theatre Company. As fate would have it, ‘82 would prove to be an epic year. As the cast of the PTC’s new improvisational comedy revue, The Brothers Bubba, assembled for rehearsals at the John Lennon Auditorium in February of that year, the weather was freezing outside, the mood was warm and upbeat inside – and nobody had a clue what was coming.

The biggest problem that Brad Hall, Gary Kroeger, Rush Pearson, Jane Muller and I faced at that time was an inability to find lederhosen – which we thought would be the perfect apparel for our publicity photos. But despite our plaintive calls, not even the German and Swiss consulates in Chicago were any help in our quest to dress like the Von Trapp Family. Alas, there was no Internet or E-bay back then. Your fingers had to do a lot of exhausting non-digital walking.

Looking back on those momentous days of ‘82, each month seemed like a long, long time. It’s strange how four months can pass nowadays without anything of real significance happening — but the four-month period from the opening of The Brothers Bubba on April 1, 1982 through the opening weeks of The Golden 50th Anniversary Jubilee in late July and early August — were week-by-week, and month-by-month, a brief but revolutionary time. Art was made. People laughed. Lives were changed. And it was good.

Anyone studying business management learns that dealing with sudden success is one of the biggest challenges for a young company — and nobody involved with The Practical Theatre Company went anywhere near a business school. We didn’t know that managing the rate of your small company’s growth was critical, and that coping with good fortune is as problematic as struggling against bad luck. We were young and funny and idealistic – and we had a lot to learn. 1982 would prove the start of an education in The Business of Entertainment 101.

On April Fools Day 1982, The Brothers Bubba opened at the John Lennon Auditorium and ran for six weeks, breaking all PTC attendance records. 1,314 adventurous, comedy-loving souls crammed into our Howard Street shoebox, and we pulled in $5,743. The reviews were good, too. Less than two years out of college, playing to those sold-out houses in our own tiny storefront theatre felt like victory. We were as successful as we could have imagined. And it was just the beginning.

Sheldon, Alan Arkin, Dick Christiansen (Tribune), and Bernie Sahlins.

With The Brothers Bubba a hit, our comedy guru, Sheldon Patinkin, hipped his old friend, Second City founder Bernard Sahlins, to what was happening on Howard Street. Within weeks, we were in talks with Bernie to open a new cabaret in Piper’s Alley behind Second City in the space formerly occupied by the Paul Sills Story Theatre.

Paul Sills was a legendary figure in the history of improvisational theatre: a Compass Players founder and son of Viola Spolin, the woman who authored the seminal book, Improvisation for the Theater. In 1959, Paul Sills and Bernie Sahlins opened The Second City. We were thrilled and dazzled to be even tangentially connected to figures associated with such rich and fundamental modern comedy history.

We reached an agreement with Bernie Sahlins to turn the old Paul Sills Story Theatre into a cabaret space for PTC comedy revues, served by The Second City’s bar. John Lennon Auditorium architect, Louis DiCrescenzo, designed a wonderful 150-seat theatre – and the PTC’s Piper’s Alley Theatre at North and Wells was ready to open in the summer of 1982. We planned to open this new cabaret with our latest improvisational comedy revue, The Golden 50th Anniversary Jubliee — a collection of our best sketches and songs performed by Brad Hall, Gary Kroeger, Julia Louis-Dreyfus and this author.

Meanwhile, we had a season underway at the John Lennon Auditorium on Howard Street – and while the Piper’s Alley Theatre was being built – my original play, Song of the Snells (a swashbuckling Shakespearean parody, written in faux iambic pentameter), opened on May 20, 1982 and played for five weeks on Howard Street.

Song of the Snells was nominated for several Joseph Jefferson Awards, but that success was just an inkling of the PTC’s critical and popular breakthrough to come.

A breakthrough that would be national in scope.

On July 28, 1982, The Practical Theatre Company opened The Golden 50th Anniversary Jubilee at the brand new Piper’s Alley Theatre behind Second City. A collection of the our greatest hits and some new material, The Golden Jubilee was directed by Sheldon Patinkin, and earned rave reviews. The Chicago Reader proclaimed, “Practical Makes Perfect.”

It would have run for a lot more than 6 weeks at Piper’s Alley if it weren’t for the intervention of the great Tim Kazurinsky, a Second City veteran and Saturday Night Live cast member.

I have no idea how it came to pass – maybe Sheldon Patinkin was involved — but I do know that Tim Kazurinsky came to Piper’s Alley and saw The Golden Jubilee. Tim must have liked what he saw, and he must have talked to his producers at Saturday Night Live, Dick Ebersol and Bob Tischler.

Within a month after we opened, both Ebersol and Tischler came to Chicago to see our show. They came, they saw, and they immediately hired all four of us to write and perform for NBC’S late night comedy institution. Lightning struck. We had been “discovered”.

It was a crazy summer after that. Brad and I tried to manage our looming transition to New York and SNL even as the PTC’s second season on Howard Street moved forward. Two days after The Golden Jubilee opened at Piper’s Alley, we opened another improv comedy revue, No Restroom for the Wicked, at the JLA on Howard Street. No Restroom ran for three weeks, starring John Goodrich, Rod MacLachlan, Ross Salinger, Rob Chaskin, and Catherine Martineau.

A month later, in late August, I can remember painting the set for our Howard Street production of Bertolt Brecht’s In the Jungle of Cities in between interviews with The Associated Press and The Illinois Entertainer about our SNL hiring.

In the Jungle of Cities (starring Herb Metzler and Bill Dick) opened on August 27. By then, our Piper’s Alley Theatre was dark and the cast of The Golden Jubilee was in New York preparing for our SNL debut.

From a personal standpoint, my experience at SNL was, like “A Tale of Two Cities”, the best and worst of times. It was an undeniable honor to be elevated as a writer for the foremost comedy show of the era. But it wasn’t a whole lot of fun.

To put our Saturday Night Live experience — and the pressure we felt — in perspective, it’s important to know that when we came to SNL, it had only been on the air for seven years. We arrived at 30 Rock  just three years after John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd left the Not Ready for Prime Time Players.

For four young comedians from Northwestern University who had enjoyed absolute autonomy onstage at the PTC — and who were used to the generous, supportive, and beneficent guidance of Sheldon Patinkin – the constraints of the big time TV process at SNL were not easy to deal with.

I was particularly ambivalent about my role at SNL.

For one thing, unlike Brad, Julia and Gary, I was hired as a writer, not as a performer. The SNL executives said I’d get a chance to perform. But despite the fact that Tim Kazurinsky and other writers — especially my Golden Jubilee cast mates —  wrote roles for me in sketches week after week and month after month, I only played some minor roles. I was honored to perform in a sketch with one of my all-time comedy heroes, Sid Caesar, and as a writer, I got a lot of sketches on the air — including one with another pair of comic heroes, The Smothers Brothers. But I was an unhappy young man during most of my stint at Saturday Night Live.

During most breaks in our SNL schedule, Brad and I were back on Howard Street, helping to keep the PTC’s 1982 season alive and thriving. On October 21, we opened a full length Attack Theatre production entitled, Kablooey: a satirical look at the nuclear arms race, directed by Terry McCabe. (Remember, Ronald Reagan was in the White House.) And on November 26, the PTC’s first all-female improvisational comedy revue took the JLA stage.

A Cast of Squirrels Before Swine was the first mainstage  show by The Practical Women, founded a year earlier by PTC co-founder, Angela Murphy. Squirrels Before Swine featured Angela, Isabella Hoffman, Lynn Baber, Sandy Snyder and Eileen Getz — and it’s 13-week run was the PTC’s longest to date.

On New Years weekend, as 1982 became 1983, Brad, Julia, Gary and I brought The Golden Jubilee back to Piper’s Alley for a triumphant, sold-out weekend of shows. We also taped an Emmy-winning TV version of the show for Chicago’s PBS station, WTTW. Rush Pearson joined us in the cast of The Practical Theatre Company Meets Godzilla. Rush, of course, played Godzilla.

While all this was going on, plans for our next PTC comedy revue at Piper’s Alley ran into a power struggle for control of the cabaret space we’d established in partnership with Bernie Sahlins. Now that we’d put it on the map with the success of The Golden 50th Jubilee and our stunning ascension to SNL, our Piper’s Alley theatre was coveted by Second City’s improvisational comedy classes and touring companies. But despite the contention of Second City’s brass that the PTC could not survive without the four cast members that went to SNL, we put together a great cast for our next Piper’s Alley revue, and Brad and I shuttled back and forth between NYC and Chicago to provide direction. It was well worth our effort.

Megafun opened at Piper’s Alley on March 24, 1983 to universally great reviews and became the PTC’s longest-running, most successful show to date — running for 19 weeks and earning more than $65,000 at the box office.  Among the cast were Jeff Lupetin, Lynn Anderson, Tom Virtue, Richard Kind and Victoria Zielinski – a lovely and gifted comedienne who would loom large in my professional and personal future.

Megafun was an even bigger hit than The Golden 50th Jubilee, which hadn’t really had a chance to run, caught short when SNL swooped in and carried us all off. To have followed up our breakthrough national success with another big critical and popular hit firmly established The Practical Theatre Company. And for that brief moment in time, The PTC was arguably the preeminent comedy company in Chicago and the nation — momentarily eclipsing the legendary Second City. It was our high-water mark. But we were artists and comedians, not businessmen. Megafun consolidated a comedy beachhead we could not hold for long.

Victoria (bottom center) and the cast of Megafun, including Richard Kind (left), Jane Muller, Tom Virtue, Lynn Andersen, Jeff Lupetin and Jamie Baron.

11 Comments

Filed under Art, History

11 responses to “The Practical Theatre Co. Part Two

  1. Fat Dave

    Heady times indeed. I remember taking a meeting with Bernie along with Rob Mendel to try to work out our sharing of the Piper Alley’s space(You and Brad were in NY, so we were deputized for the occasion) Bernie was shocked that we would try to continue Practical without you guys, was somewhat dismissive in general, made several dumb obvious jokes about me being nicknamed Fat Dave, impressed me as a guy who would sell out his own mother, and probably had. It also planted in my head an idea I still somewhat believe to this day-that he set it up for SNL to grab you, so as to get you out of town and destroy the up and coming competition.

    At one point in this meeting, when it was brought up that we were promised the use of Piper’s Alley, Bernie asked if we had that on a contract somewhere. I said no but there was a handshake and oral agreement in place.

    Ooops.

    Thus proving the total truth of the old show biz axiom-An oral contract isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on. I think Louie B Mayer said that.

    Bernie certainly seconded that emotion.

    As it turned out, even though we had a huge hit with Megafun, we had to perform at 7! to allow the Second City touring company to perform at 9. Megafun should have been going up at 8, and again at 10:30 or 11, because we could easily have sold out two shows a night.

    Not that I’m bitter about all that or anything….

  2. Emilia

    AHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH

  3. Dude! Cast of Squirrels you left out the HIGH-LARIOUS Sandy
    Snyder! Who is now the mother of teenage triplets. And still working with Lifeline Theatre.

    Otherwise, wow. The memories. The photos. The posters. The insanity. I remember it well, though not nearly as well as you do.

  4. PS – I swear to god a few weeks ago I saw Yvette on a commercial. She’s got to be 80 by now, no?

  5. Herb Metzler

    Thanks for setting down the record…heady times indeed. I remember particularly the folks back in Chicago setting up a TV on the JLA stage to watch your SNL debut. Small correction: I didn’t star in JUNGLE but had the dubious and questionable honor of directing it, while thoroughly enjoying working alongside you and the wonderful cast of SNELLS. BTW, that poster for MEGAFUN (and maybe JUNGLE?) was inked by Paul Guinan, now a graphic novelist of some note. Sorry to have to miss you and Vic: break legs, you two!

    • Thanks for filling in some gaps, Herb. I knew there was another great artist working with us for a while — he even did a season brochure for us with a fabulous superhero. Nice to know the name: Paul Guinan. I think he also did the “Citizen Stumpick” poster in 1981.

  6. Ben

    Very interesting post! I’m a big fan of SNL with kind of a scholarly interest in the overlooked seasons and it’s nice to see something online by one of the writers during that time. I noticed in one of the articles that the televangelist sketch and “Handsome Men With Big Noses” were PTC bits.

    Just out of curiousity, which sketches did you write or appear in?

    • Hey, Ben! Funny you should ask…

      I actually appeared as Jesus in the first PTC (“People Twisting Christ”) sketch on the first episode of the 1982-83 season. My song, “Jesus is My Keeper” got cut in dress rehearsal, so on air all viewers saw was my long-haired back at the organ. (Can you imagine getting away with that kind of Religious Right satire today?)

      I had a hand in writing a lot of things that Brad Hall, Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Gary Kroeger appeared in, including the televangelist sketches (which were, as you noted, originally PTC bits, as was “Handsome Men With BIg Noses”), the black & white WW2 sketch, “Little Whorehouse on the Prairie” with Robert Blake, a sketch in which Tommy Smothers appeared as Johnny Carson, a sketch in which Gary Kroeger got beaten up by his wife (Mary Gross), and many others. I also appeared in a sketch with my TV comedy hero, Sid Caesar. I played his butler in a silent movie sketch. Mostly writing with my partner Brad Hall, I wrote 22 sketches that made it to air in the 82-83 season.

      SNL was a marvelous, if often frustrating, adventure.

      • Ben

        Thanks for the reply!

        I remember all the sketches you listed except for the “Little Whorehouse on the Prairie” one (never actually saw the complete live Blake show, just the edited same season repeat version)…it’s actually so rare a sketch, the main episode guides online (SNL Archives, Saturday Net) either don’t have it listed or don’t have a description for it.

      • The full title was “Best Little Whorehouse on the Prairie”. Joe Piscopo played the Merlin Olsen preacher character. I collaborated with Blake on it. He loved the idea of tweaking Michael Landon. I wasn’t particularly proud of writing a sketch that cast the girls in the ensemble as prostitutes (a tired, cliche’ role for women in comedy) but it got laughs. The title itself was really the best joke in the sketch, playing off the hit Broadway show and movie.

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