I have been in love with the improvisational comedy revue format for more than 45 years. Improv comedy has been the guiding light of my life.
Most recently, I collaborated as a writer, performer and director of my 23rd comedy revue – celebrating 40 years of Practical Theatre Company comedy with “Big Holiday Bag O’ Fun” at Studio5 in Evanston, Illinois — ringing in New Year’s 2020 with music and laughter.
I’m still as passionate as ever about developing comedic situations and characters, polishing and performing sketches, and eliciting laughs from an intelligent and discerning audience.
It’s how I’m wired.
My comedy-loving father, Pete Barrosse, was born in New Orleans in 1927. Dad gifted me with a keen appreciation for the history of silent film comedy, vaudeville, stand-up comedy — and sketch comedy giants like Red Skelton, George Burns, Milton Berle, Carl Reiner, Imogene Coca and the great Sid Caesar.
Sid Caesar was the King of TV Comedy — the comedic force of nature behind Your Show of Shows, the seminal TV sketch revue that paved the way for great TV comedy revues like That Was The Week That Was, The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, The Carol Burnett Show– and, in my adult years, Saturday Night Live, In Loving Color, Mad TV, Chappelle’s Show and Key & Peele.
Jumping ahead for a moment — in 1983 I got a chance to work with Sid Caesar and The Smothers Brothers on Saturday Night Live. How crazy is that?
But going back two decades to 1964, I remember my mom staying up after work to take notes on each episode of the edgy, erudite TV comedy revue That Was The Week That Was— because dad was working the night shift at Reliable Spring in Cleveland.
I was just 8 years old, but I recall staying up late with my mom as we watched the show each week, and she took notes on TW3 for my dad.
Pete and Mary loved TW3.
Of course, it was all largely above my childish head – especially musical director Tom Leher’s cutting-edge songs.
Check out the cast and writers for TW3: Buck Henry, Paul Sand, Comden & Green, Henry Morgan, Alan Alda, Elaine May, Mike Nichols, etc.
I was just a child, but I was absorbing the very best of satiric comedy. And I knew my parents thought it was important. Comedy was important. Laughter was important. Lesson learned.
That Was The Week That Was didn’t last long on U.S. network television – but 11 years later, I got my chance to join in the sketch comedy game. And my authentic life began.
Before I knew anything about The Compass Players, Second City, The Committee – or any of my improvisational comedy antecedents, I was cast in my first sketch comedy revue in the summer of 1975.
My high school theatre director Mary Ann Zampino asked me, a callow high school junior, to join her hip, funny, and far more sophisticated friends to join the cast of an adult cabaret sketch show called Goodtimes.
How much older were my cast mates? Five years? Ten? I had no idea.
Musical director Paul Novosel was talented and visionary, but I had no clue how old he was.
He was the musical director and keyboard whiz for my junior year high school musical, Li’l Abner– and Paul and Zamp liked my turn as Marryin’ Sam enough to cast me in their 1975 summer cabaret comedy revue, Goodtimes.
Goodtimes director Jane Van Bergen was the only woman who ever directed me in a comedy revue. Our three man and three woman cast was the most gender-balanced in a comedy revue I’ve ever been in.
Goodtimes was cutting-edge — before I knew where the cutting-edge was!
But these folks were so damn cool – and so funny! And they treated me like a peer. It was a magical experience and it changed my life. Performing sketches, crafting funny characters – and getting laughs from a sophisticated audience (with adult cocktails in hand) was an intoxicating experience.
It would take several years for me to get back to the main thing: cabaret comedy.
When I arrived as a freshman at Northwestern University in the fall of ‘76, I planned to make my mark in the legit theatre. I saw myself as a dramatic actor. My goal was a career in regional theatre — perhaps a role in the repertory company of The Cleveland Playhouse.
Then I saw the 1977 Mee-Ow Show highlights in McCormick Auditorium.
I had no idea Mee-Ow wasn’t a long tradition at NU. In fact, just two years earlier, The Mee-Ow Show began as a subversive reaction to the old-fashioned, student-written musical comedy revue, The Waa-Mu Show. It was a variety show that encompassed music, dance, comedy — even a laser light show, I believe.
Mee-Ow was then revamped and re-directed by cast members Bill Nuss and Dusty Kay (‘76) as a sketch comedy review — taking its inspiration from The Second City, Kentucky Fried Theatreand Monty Python.
The show I saw featured the best bits from the 1977 Mee-Ow Show, North by Northwestern: a show written and performed by Jeff Lupetin, Betsy Fink, Kyle Heffner, Stewart Figa and others. It was so damn funny. It was so damn cool. It was inspirational.
The Mee-Ow Show was now my goal.
But I had no idea where The Mee-Ow Show would lead.
5 responses to “My Life in Sketch Comedy: Part #1”
Sewell note, especially about remembering your high school teacher’s name. Makes those of us who taught high school warm. I do like the path you trace, and the importance you give it. Thanks for posting.
Love this – and looking forward to the rest!
Great walk down memory lane. I forgot your dad worked at Reliable Spring. (Same factory as my cousin’s grandma. She worked day shift) Anyway, hope mom’s well. Wouldn’t mind catching up if you’re so inclined.j
I think I saw 3 or 4 Mee-Ow shows, and I interviewed with Dana Olsen to produce the film sketches my senior year (’79-’80). Dana’s go-ahead gave me the chance to not only just be a fan of some of the greatest comedy sketches I’d ever seen, but to be a small part of it all. It was a thrill and a privilege to be able to work with Dana and Paul, not to mention John Goodrich, Kenny Marks, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Rush Pearson, Rod McGlachlan (wrong spelling?) and the rest of the cast.
I’ve heard that Mee-Ow is still being produced, but that it can’t compare to the glory days of it in the 1970’s. The casts then were extremely knowledgeable and hip beyond their years. These were just college students, but those sketches were as good as anything on that new show called Saturday Night Live.
I continued to make films for The Practical Theater Company in the early 1980’s, and some of them were actually pretty good. They wouldn’t have been nearly as good without Rush and Paul and Brad Hall and Julia L-D and
Gary Kroeger collaborating.
Paul and I and the Mee-Ow casts all understood the importance of laughter–NOW MORE THAN EVER!! I read a Charles Bukowski quote recently about the swarm of boring people out there (back then and even more now). I run across too many people who aren’t even looking to have a laugh at the madness out there. I guess we laugh so that we don’t cry, as they say.
I’ve been a volunteer radio programmer with a weekly show on WORT-FM Madison (Guilty Pleasures) for over 31 years, but it’s only in the last year I realized I should feature a comedian or comedy troupe every week, so that’s what I do. (Jim Gaffigan this past Wednesday night. Playlists are on Spinitron,com) It was partly prompted by doing a little work for Wisconsin Public Radio, which is great, but it’s not funny. Laughter is too important to leave out of anything.
Thanks to Paul and Rush and Dana and Brad and Julia for also not leaving the laughter out of anything.
Back during those college days, the Mee-Ow Show was the funniest thing going. I never missed an opportunity to catch several shows when the new revue launched, or miss it’s rebooting during New Student Week. It was — and remains in my memory — as among the best comedy I’ve seen, certainly as good as ANYTHING produced in those days (and there was some good comedy then). What a great privilege to get to work with these folks in my post-college days, continuing until the present. And my memory doesn’t fail me: having seen the “Big Holiday Bag O’Fun” revue Paul mentions was like being a kid again on Christmas morning, re-opening some of the best gifts I’ve ever received — the gifts of laughter. Kudos!