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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.
So, here are the folks who will be enshrined in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame class of 2020:
I’ve argued for the The Doobie Brothers in the past — so, right on! Go, Doobie Brothers! And I love Nine Inch Nails (for inspiring Johnny Cash alone), the Notorious B.I.G. (a seminal hip-hop godfather) and T. Tex (so much love for Marc Bolan’s groovy, grungy, proto-New Wave guitar sound) “Get It On”, etc., though he had only a few giant Top-40 hits.
But Whitney Houston and Depeche Mode? Really? Rock & Roll?
Did Whitney Houston — as prodigious a vocal instrument as she possessed — record a single rock and roll track? Did she chart a single rock & roll single? Did she ever rock?
How in the hell is Whitney Houston a member of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame?
Let’s put it this way. Is Ella Fitzgerald in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame? Ella won 13 Grammy awards and sold over 40 million albums — but she was a jazz singer — not a rock & roll singer. She’s not in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.
Soulful, bluesy, risk-taking jazz singer Billie Holiday is in the Hall as a bold and fearless, raw and soulful early influence — but slick, pop-oriented Whitney Houston hardly qualifies. Especially when more deserving rockers have been, once again, overlooked.
There is a national shame and outrage that I must address here and now…
I’m a Cleveland boy, and the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame is a shining jewel on my hometown lakefront — but that only makes such an injustice a more personal matter.
Tommy James & The Shondells have been waiting since 1991 to get a call from the Hall. For 29 years, they’ve had to endure the enshrinement of acts like Abba, Kiss and Whitney in an institution supposedly devoted to rock and roll – while the band that gave garage bands worldwide rock classics like “Mony Mony” and “Hanky Panky” is continually and criminally passed over.
How can it be that overproduced purveyors of techno pop-rock (Depeche Mode) and pure, chart-topping pop (Whitney Houston) win out over the inspired 60’s rockers who put “I Think We’re Alone Now” and “Crimson and Clover” down on vinyl?
At the 2014 Hall of Fame induction ceremony, Rage Against the Machine’s lead guitarist Tom Morello – a man whose shredding virtuosity and politics I admire – made a convincing case for why Kiss had a rightful place in the Rock Hall. But while Kiss may have blazed a trail for visual and musical bombast and pyro in arena rock – their sound and fury signify nothing like the string of hits that Tommy James and his band delivered in the late 1960s.
Besides their two #1 hit single in the U.S. – “Hanky Panky” in ’66 and “Crimson and Clover” in ’69 — Tommy James & The Shondells charted twelve other Top 40 hits, including five in the top ten. Remember a platter entitled “Crystal Blue Persuasion”?
How about 14 Top 40 hits during the greatest period in rock and roll radio history? All while competing with The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Who, The Kinks, Creedence Clearwater Revival, James Brown, Sly & The Family Stone – and those Motown artists cranking out classics in Hitsville, USA.
All of those great rockers are in the Hall of Fame — so, why not Tommy James & The Shondells?
And I don’t want to hear that Tommy James was “bubblegum”. Please. When was the last time you listened to “Mony Mony” or “Draggin the Line”? Guitars. Groove. Harmony. Drive. Horns. Hooks. Lots and lots of classic rock and roll hooks.
Tommy James & The Shondells should go into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fames very next class or the whole institution is a sham.
I can wait no longer.
I’m just going to enshrine Tommy James & The Shondells here and now.
I’m announcing The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Class of 2021 must include Tommy James & The Shondells — Eligible since 1991. And now about…
The Monkees — Eligible since 1991
The Monkees should be in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Hell, The Beatles respected The Monkees – so why should anyone else deny their undeniable greatness?
Morons who I have little patience for say The Monkees were a fabricated band – “The Pre-Fab Four” — surrounded by studio musicians. I know for a fact that The Beach Boys, The Mamas & The Papas, and others in the Hall of Fame were backed by the very same group of studio cats: the Wrecking Crew. So, what? I said I wasn’t gonna argue.
At their peak in ‘67, The Monkees outsold The Beatles and Rolling Stones combined. 12 Top-40 hits, three #1 hits — and a TV show that brought melodic, witty, well-written and beautifully sung rock and roll music (and surprisingly subversive comedy) into homes across America.
“Last Train to Clarksville,” “I’m a Believer,” “Daydream Believer,” “Pleasant Valley Sunday” and “(I’m Not Your) Steppin’ Stone”. That’s just five.
And now I’m really not gonna argue any more.
The Rock N Roll Trio — Eligible since 1981
“Rock Billy Boogie”, “Rock Therapy”, “Train Kept A-Rollin”, “Honey Hush”, “Tear It Up” – Johnny Burnette and the Rock & Roll Trio served up fundamental, elemental, essential rock and roll.
Sorry, Depeche Mode, this is rock and roll with real, gritty, driving heart and soul. I don’t give a damn what hits they had or where they charted. When I need rock therapy — they give it to me.
They should be in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.
When I first wrote the history of The Practical Theatre for this blog, I finished by saying, “The Practical Theatre in Chicago in the 1980’s — that was Brigadoon: a magical place that existed for a brief time and vanished. And I got the girl.”
That was true. I did get the girl. And because I emerged from that life-changing experience with Victoria Zielinski as my wife and collaborator, the Practical Theatre was ultimately due for a renaissance.
Alas, the PTC revival would take more than two decades.
The PTC had to wait as Vic and I raised our three wonderful daughters: Maura, Emilia and Eva. But by 2010, the year of our 20th wedding anniversary, with our girls old enough to spare their parents for a few hours a day — Vic and I began to consider whether we were still comedians who had something to say.
We decided it was time to bring the Practical Theatre back. Thus was born “The Vic & Paul Show.”
Inspired by the classic work of Mike Nichols and Elaine May, Vic and I began improvising extended comic scenes in our kitchen, including…
There were times when our improvisations were so lively, so passionate, and so LOUD – that our girls would rush downstairs to see if we were okay. Were we really fighting? Arguing? Drunk?
They’d never seen us performing comedy sketches.
We polished our routines, edited our scripts, and wrote some songs. A Practical Theatre revue had to include music. That meant involving our long-time music director, Steve Rashid. We booked a series of shows in a tiny local bar called Push Lounge in Woodland Hills, California.
That leap of faith launched a tour that took “The Vic & Paul Show” to Chicago’s Prop Theatre and Mayne Stage in Rogers Park, to Cleveland’s 14thStreet Theatre — and iO West in Hollywood.
After that, we renewed a collaboration with our fellow Northwestern graduate and Mee-Ow Show alum, Dana Olsen, starting with Mr. Olsen’s Neighborhood at The Wilmette Theatre in 2012 — followed by “Mr. Olsen’s New Year’s Rockin’ Neighborhood” at 27 Live in 2013.
Then, Vic and Dana and I spent a solid year writing new material for “The Vic & Paul & Dana Show.” We were delighted that Steve Rashid and Rockin’ Ronny Crawford joined us for a Hollywood run at iO West in November 2015.
That show in LA revived a PTC comedy tradition that launched North Shore runs of “Mr. Olsen’s Holiday Party” in 2016, “Mr. Olsen’s Champagne Celebration” the following year and “PTC Radio Theatre On The Air” in 2018 – all staged at Bea and Steve Rashid’s fabulous Studio5 theatre in Evanston.
The Practical Theatre is alive and well at Studio5.
The PTC’s “Big Holiday Bag O’ Fun!” is the latest comedic chapter in a very funny history.
“Big Holiday Bag O’ Fun!” is a compendium of The Practical Theatre’s funniest sketches, dating from our “Mee-Ow Show” days at Northwestern University to “Bag O’ Fun” – our first improvisational comedy revue staged in the summer of 1980 at Evanston’s Noyes Cultural Arts Center – through “The Vic & Paul & Dana Show”.
Plus a few new bits written right up to opening night.
Brigadoon is back.
See you at Studio5!
If you haven’t gotten your tickets yet for The Practical Theatre Company’s Big Holiday Bag O’ Fun at Studio5 in Evanston, Illinois — now’s the time!
Tickets are going fast — so don’t delay.
It’s going to be the best party of the year. After an arduous political and social slog like we’ve all experienced in the past 12 months — we can all use a big, blow-out party with great music, free-spirited laughs, and a great big, bag o’ fun!
Get your tickets now at: http://www.studio5dance/calendar
In the summer of 1980, The Practical Theatre opened it’s first improvisational comedy revue — “Bag O’ Fun”— at The Noyes Cultural Arts Center in Evanston.
Now, four decades later, The PTC returns to Evanston for a concert celebration of classic Practical comedy – featuring grown-up laughs, great live music – anda well-stocked bar!
Playing their third holiday run at Studio5 in three years, writer-performers Victoria Zielinski, Paul Barrosse and Dana Olsen anchor a “Big Holiday Bag O’ Fun”– with music by jazz maestro Steve Rashid and his Studio5 All-Stars.
Saturday Night Live veteran Gary Kroeger and Evanston’s own Rockin’ Ronny Crawford set the beat for a bright young supporting cast: recording artist Eva B. Ross, Giggle Break’s Daniel Rashid, VEEP writer and stand-up comic Emilia Barrosse — and newcomer Reilly Anspaugh!
“Big Holiday Bag O’ Fun” combines classic Practical Theatre comedy sketches, newsworthy satire, and music better than you can imagine — with Don Stiernberg on every stringed instrument known to man, and Rockin’ Ronny Crawford on all things percussion.
Come and party before the show, sipping cocktails and anticipating the fun in the warmth and comfort of the North Shore’s most intimate performance venue — located at Dempster & Dodge in Evanston.Shows run December 28-31.
There’s a cash bar for all shows. Doors open for cocktails at 7:30. Showtime is 8:00. Except, that is, for New Year’s. The New Year’s Eve show starts at 9:00.
It’s gonna be a “Big Holiday Bag O’ Fun”.