Tag Archives: Saturday Night Live

30 Years Ago…

We measure our lives in years, but we experience life moment to moment. Some moments in time are more memorable than others. Some are unforgettable. And yet, even our most remarkable moments become generalized in our memories. Years later, we no longer see them in sharp focus. What we remember becomes wrapped in gauze: kept warm and fuzzy.

And then sometimes, even after three busy, event-filled decades, something can stir the memory of a special time in your life and you relive a moment you thought you remembered well — but hadn’t really seen clearly for a long, long while.

Recently, my good friend and college roommate Rob Mendel brought a wonderful moment in time back to life when he posted a vivid series of photographs he took in and around The Practical Theatre on Howard Street in Evanston, on the northern border of Chicago, in the winter of 1981-82.

The halcyon moment in time that Rob captured with his camera was charged with a mix of creativity and youthful energy that would ultimately – in just six more months – change our lives in an unexpected and dramatic way.

It would be, perhaps, too precious to say that Robbie caught us in the last relatively innocent and naïve moment of our young adult lives. But he did.

Asked for his recollections of how he came to take this trove of photos, Rob replied, “I can hardly remember! It was after traveling back to Evanston from Texas on the Big O with Rush, I think. “Beggars Holiday” was in rehearsal. We took publicity shots for that. But am I mixing it up?”

Not really. Beggar’s Holiday opened at The PTC’s John Lennon Auditorium at 703 Howard Street on November 28, 1981 – so Rob’s publicity photos must have been taken in early November, soon after we (The Sturdy Beggars) got back from our muddy stint at The Texas Renaissance Festival.

“The Rockmes were rehearsing, I had my camera with me. I took pix of the Beggars in Texas and again in Evanston.”

Now, here Rob’s memory begins to fade.

Rob’s photos of The PTC’s house band Riffmaster & The Rockme Foundation in rehearsal at the JLA were clearly taken after Beggar’s Holiday closed and our 1982 season opener, the improvisational comedy revue The Brothers Bubba, was in rehearsal.

You can tell because I’ve shaved my beggar beard.

So, Rob’s photos of the Rockmes in rehearsal must have been taken in the first months of 1982 – exactly 30 years ago!

The band was formed late in the spring of ’81, and had been playing together less than a year when these shots were snapped.

Looking at the eager, earnest, passionate (and hairy) young garage band that Rob got on film that day in the winter of ’82 – it’s deeply satisfying to know that the Rockme adventure has continued.

In fact, the band shown in these pics is the same group of guys that still manage to reunite and rock together to this day.

Next gig? June 8th in Portola Valley, California. The beat goes on…

“Mo was two. I took her to the playground a couple of times… Used to chant, “She’s still a baby!” and she’d respond, “I’m not a baby!” She was the cutest thing!”

Okay, these photos just melt my heart. My daughter Maura was, indeed, the cutest thing. Little Mo was less than two years old at the time. (She turned two on July 3rd, 1982.) Rob snapped her in the lobby of The John Lennon Auditorium – with the “Build-a-Bear” that my mom made for her.Rob also shot this portrait of Maura in the lobby of the JLA with her Godfather Rush Pearson.And with Uncle Brad Hall, our mascot Sri Abdul Aziz, and Godfather Rush.Here’s the delightful toddler Maura with her dad a few doors west up Howard Street from the JLA at the legendary Cottage Restaurant, a classic diner. We’re waiting for old Bob to serve us a couple “chezzies” and a “shooker”. (Six months later, a UPI reporter would interview the cast of The Golden Jubilee at The Cottage to get the story of our sudden, shocking ascent to Saturday Night Live.)

Robbie’s camera also found us in rehearsal for The Brothers Bubba.

In this photo, Gary Kroeger, Jane Muller, your author, Rush Pearson and Brad Hall are rehearsing the musical number, “Macaroni & Cheese.”

In these photos, Brad and I are perfecting our impression of Simon and Garfunkel performing “The Boxer” — another sketch from The Bothers Bubba. 

 The Bothers Bubba opened at The JLA on April 1, 1982 and became the PTC’s biggest hit yet, playing to sold-out houses that demonstrated our 42-seat storefront was too small to contain our rapidly growing success.

Events were moving quickly, success was advancing swiftly, and as Bob Dylan said, the times they were a-changing. 

 Less than half a year after Rob’s photos were taken, the Practical Theatre Company, in partnership with Bernie Sahlins, owner of The Second City, opened our new cabaret theatre space at Piper’s Alley with The Golden 50th Anniversary Jubilee — a collection of our best sketches and songs performed by Brad Hall, Gary Kroeger, Julia Louis-Dreyfus and your humble author.

Robbie Mendel’s camera caught the spirit and drama of an unsuspecting cast of characters doing what they love – with no idea of what was to come.

“I remember that I had bought a camera, because the rental house I was working at in Hollywood had a bunch of guys who mentored me to get a camera and learn how to take pictures properly. I was using B&W for publicity pix for the Beggars, I believe, and that’s why they are not in color.”

Who cares about color? The classic black and white format adds to the drama of these memories: a glorious moment in time – just half a year before our lives were transformed — captured so indelibly by Robbie Mendel’s camera.

“When I returned to Hollywood, I landed my PA job on the TV movie with Susan St. James and I laid a publicity packet about PTC on Dick Ebersol there, but I think the PTC got on his radar separately, also. These pix preceded all of that, eh?”

That’s Rob Mendel for you. I never knew (or maybe I’d forgotten) that Robbie had hipped Saturday Night Live Executive Producer Dick Ebersol to The Practical Theatre just months before The Golden Jubilee opened at Piper’s Alley.It’s another intriguing brick in the wonderwall of that seminal moment in our lives.

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“The Vic & Paul Show” Comes Home to Chicago!

From PUSH to PROP: A Homecoming.

Last summer, “The Vic & Paul Show” ended it’s debut run at PUSH Lounge in Woodland Hills with a sold-out show on the evening of Sunday June 27, 2010.  For a fun yet fleeting moment, adult cabaret comedy flourished in the western end of the San Fernando Valley of Los Angeles.

Our final performance at PUSH capped a wonderful three weeks for this author and his very funny wife, Victoria Zielinski. It had been 23 years since we’d done a comedy revue together — and we were gratified and encouraged by the steady parade of great friends, fellow Northwestern alums, co-workers, and enlightened comedy lovers that made their way to Woodland Hills’ faux French Quarter on Ventura Boulevard to share some laughs and enjoy a drink with us.

Closing night at PUSH was an emotional, celebratory evening. But that closing night was just the beginning of our return to the comedy stage – and one year later, we’re taking “The Vic & Paul Show” to Chicago.

This summer, from June 9-12, “The Vic & Paul Show” will play a special engagement at The Prop Theatre, one of Chicago’s great theatre institutions, run by our longtime friends and theatrical visionaries, Scott Vehill and Stefan Brun. It’s altogether fitting that Victoria and I should make our theatrical return to Chicago on the Prop stage.

Scotty and Stefan founded The Prop as a storefront theatre back in 1981 at the same time that The Practical Theatre Company was starting its first season in our own storefront at 703 Howard Street. The Practical and The Prop worked and partied together — and The Prop provided us PTC nomads with a temporary home. A friend in need is a friend indeed.

In 1986, The PTC’s John Lennon Auditorium on Howard Street was closed and our Piper’s Alley cabaret space had become the home of Second City touring companies. So, Scotty and Stefan offered us their space on Clybourn Avenue (a former machine shop) to rehearse “Art Ruth & Trudy”, which opened at Club Victoria on Broadway near Belmont and became The Practical Theatre’s longest-running comedy revue.

Scott Vehill and Brad Hall in the Prop lobby.

Since their early years on Clybourn, The Prop has moved to 3504 North Elston Avenue, a few blocks south of Addison – where Sthey keep two theatre spaces booked with the best in avant-garde, Brechtian, experimental and adventurous theatre, comedy and performance art.

Brad and Stefan Brun in the Prop space.

And now, The Prop will host “The Vic & Paul Show”. We couldn’t be happier to be welcomed once again into the Prop playhouse.

We’ll be joined once again by our brilliant musical director, Chicago area Emmy-winner Steve Rashid, who will accompany us on keyboards and perform his own brand of satirical songwriting. The show was directed by another Chicago native, Shelly Goldstein.

We'll turn this space into a groovy cabaret in June.

There will be one preview performance at 8:00 on Thursday, June 9th. Tickets for this preview show are $10.00.

Our opening night performance is at 8:00 on Friday June 10th. ($20.00 a ticket), followed by a show at 8:00 on Saturday June 11th ($20.00 a ticket), a matinee show at 2:00 on Sunday, June 12th ($15.00 a ticket), and a show at 7:00 on Sunday ($20.00 ticket).

For Reservations go to: http://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/169351

Cash & checks only at the door.

The Prop’s phone number is 773 539 7838. And you can check out their website at: www.propthtr.org.

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Practical Theatre: The Last Laugh

I’ve finally wrapped up my four-part personal history of The Practical Theatre Co. To read the final chapter of the Practical Theatre story click here — or click on the graphic above. You can also find a link to all four chapters under “Landmarks” on the right hand side of the home page.

It only took me two decades to finish this project — so please enjoy!

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Mid-Term Madness: The Top Ten

With the continuing misadventures of the Tea Party candidates, Election Season 2010 has, despite the efforts of Saturday Night Live and The Daily Show, entered the realm of Beyond Satire.

Radical policy positions that would have seemed extreme in any other election year – such as abolishing the Department of Education, ending Social Security, and requiring victims of rape and incest to give birth to their attackers’ progeny – are no longer confined to the far right wing of GOP politics. Given the Tea Party’s success in GOP primaries, it appears that anti-government dogma, anti-immigrant hysteria and Taliban-like anti-female and anti-gay social conservatism may become central planks in the mainstream Republican Party platform in 2012.

Of course, there’s also an undercurrent of creeping fascism — which is really creepy — but let’s stick with the outright crazy stuff for the moment. After all, even the more sane, sophisticated and relatively humorless right wing ideologues and corporate robber barons have to be stunned by the pageant of unskilled, unfettered, uneducated and unhinged campaigning on display in the run up to November 2, 2010.

In many states across the country, political aspirants with scant experience in public service who would have been considered fringe candidates in the past (if not the lunatic fringe) are now making national headlines on the campaign trail, in debates, and on the Sunday talk shows.

You’ve got to laugh to keep from crying.

Here, then, are some of the biggest jokes of the 2010 election. There have been so many wacky (actually quite scary) moments involving today’s kooky crop of candidates that it’s time to round up Mid-Term Madness: The Top Ten.

1. Aqua Buddha

Kentucky Senate candidate Rand Paul, a Republican darling of the Tea Party movement, had already raised eyebrows with many of his extreme anti-government positions, borne of his passion for novelist Ayn Rand’s everybody-for-themselves Objectivist philosophy. But if wanting to do away with public schools and Social Security didn’t brand Rand Paul a fringe candidate, what would Kentuckians make of accusations that, when he was in college, Rand Paul tied a woman up and forced her to bow down before the “Aqua Buddha”? (Which sounds, to me, a lot like some sort of exotic bong.)

The candidate’s still-anonymous accuser said he “took me out to this creek and made me worship Aqua Buddha.”

She added that the whole thing was so “weird” that she ended relations with Paul and his friends. But will Kentucky voters end their weird relationship with Rand Paul? In 2010, who can say?

2. “I’m Not A Witch”

Christine O’Donnell, Delaware’s Republican nominee and Sarah Palin’s endorsed Tea Party candidate for Joe Biden’s Senate seat, spent a lot of the 1990’s as a chirpy, sexy, conservative talking head on TV shows like Bill Maher’s Politically Incorrect. As a result, Mr. Maher had a lot of video clips with which to torture O’Donnell’s candidacy, including her prudish crusade against masturbation and her startling admission that she “dabbled in witchcraft” while in high school.

The facts that O’Donnell has no real qualifications for high office, has lied about her education bona fides (no, she didn’t attend Cambridge) and can’t recall a single Supreme Court decision haven’t dampened her Tea Party support – but the witchcraft thing pricked the deaf ears of even the lowest-information Delaware voters.

As a result, O’Donnell had to spend good money on a statewide television ad to declare, “I’m not a witch.” (President Nixon must have been chuckling in his grave.) But the craziest part of the ad is when O’Donnell says, “I am you.”  Oh really, Christine? I don’t think so.

3. The SS Candidate

How to win friends and influence people?

Well, for one thing, don’t go around proudly dressed as in a Nazi uniform.

That’s what Republican Congressional nominee Rich Iott, whose district lies in my home state of Ohio, should have known. But, then again, parading around as a Nazi is such a good time, right?

Mr. Iott is a military history and reenactment buff who likes to parade around in a German Waffen SS uniform. (That’s Rich Iott dressed in Nazi drag in the picture at left. He’s the guy second from right. Far right, that is.) Candidate Iott also likes to participate in Nazi re-enactments. So, what’s wrong with that?

After all, Iott says his interest in Nazi Germany is historical and he doesn’t subscribe to Nazism – and some on the right wing have defended him, arguing that Iott also attends Civil War re-enactments in a Union army uniform.

The problem is that the Waffen SS were a particularly evil bunch of murderous rat bastards.

Unlike the conscripted citizen soldiers of the regular German Army (or Wehrmacht), the Waffen SS were a volunteer arm of the Nazi Party that enthusiastically committed countless war crimes and atrocities, including their prominent role in the slaughter of Jews and other “undesirables.” That should make Rich Iott undesirable as a Congressman from my home state. But will it?

Above is a photo of Rich in his jaunty Nazi cap, third from the right (wing).

4. Mr. Green (Does Not) Go To Washington

No state can outdo South Carolina for crazy. But what happened in the 2010 Democratic primary was absolutely nuts. Somehow, an unemployed 32-year-old Army veteran named Alvin Greene with no campaign funds, no posters and no website defeated a well-funded former judge and state legislator, Vic Rawl, for the right to oppose the incumbent GOP Senator Jim DeMint, another Tea Party darling. The mainstream media ignored the possibility of electronic vote tampering and dirty tricks leading to Greene’s election – but they couldn’t ignore how spectacularly unsuited and unprepared Greene was to campaign for, much less hold, a high office.

And if it wasn’t strange enough that a guy with no political experience, unemployed for nine months, somehow paid a $10,400 filing fee and all his other campaign expenses from his own personal funds – the sad, self-defeating saga of Alvin Greene got more bizarre when a Richland County grand jury indicted him for disseminating, procuring or promoting obscenity (a felony) as well as a misdemeanor charge of communicating obscene materials to a person without consent.

According to prosecutors, Greene approached a female student in a University of South Carolina computer lab, showed her some obscene photos online, then talked about going to her dorm room. When a reporter from a local TV station pressed Greene to elaborate on the indictment, the accidental candidate told the reporter to “leave [his] property” and “go away.” Unlike Jim DeMint, I wish this whole sorry example of political dysfunction (and dog whistle race baiting) would go away.

5. Headless Bodies in the Arizona Desert

Batty, blustering Arizona Governor Jan Brewer’s erratic reelection campaign has earned her two spots on this list. Brewer’s relentless demagoguery on the immigration issue and her support for Arizona Senate Bill 1070 (the “show me your papers” law) have made her a darling of the right in that troubled border state, despite the fact that she’s several bricks shy of a load. In fact, in her zeal to portray the threat from illegal immigration in as dire a light as possible, Brewer finally lost her head.

As Dana Milbank wrote in the July 11th edition of The Washington Post, “The Arizona governor, seemingly determined to repel every last tourist dollar from her pariah state, has sounded a new alarm about border violence. ‘Our law enforcement agencies have found bodies in the desert either buried or just lying out there that have been beheaded.’” She also mentioned “beheadings” on Fox News. (One can only imagine the cutting, incisive follow up questions from her Fox interlocutor.)  Two months later, with no evidence of any headless bodies littering the Arizona desert, and no law enforcement officials willing to back her claims, Governor Brewer conceded she “misspoke” when she claimed that headless bodies were found in her state’s desert. But her half-hearted semi-apologia came only after her Democratic opponent decapitated Brewer over her headless nonsense in their gubernatorial debate. And how did she handle the issue with the press immediately after the debate? You gotta see it to believe it.

6. Jan Brewer’s (Very) Long Pause

Jan Brewers absolutely stunning (actually, stunned) opening statement in the Arizona Gubernatorial Debate on September 1st must also be seen to be believed.

Only in wacky, way-out Elections Season 2010 could a politician possibly survive turning in a performance like this on a televised debate.

7. Carl Paladino

The New York Republican Party had planned to run former U.S. Representative Rick Lazio to become the Republican candidate for New York governor in the race against Democrat Andrew Cuomo, the son of the revered former Governor Mario Cuomo. Instead, thanks to the Tea Party’s clout in the NY primary, they got little-known businessman Carl Paladino.  According to Dick Brennan in The Queens Courier, “Paladino has been dubbed by some as ‘Crazy Carl,’ but the reality is that Paladino is crazy like a fox. Nobody can figure out his strategy, so why not just call him a nut? In fact, the multimillionaire from Buffalo is following a plan, and sticking to it with great discipline.It’s easy to see the first part of his program: hit and run politics, guerilla war, throw your bombs and run for cover. By bombs we mean politically incorrect statements, the more outrageous the better.”

Among the rhetorical bombs tossed by Paladino are his claims that students are being “brainwashed” into believing that the gay lifestyle is a valid option. (This from a guy whose son is the landlord for two gay bars.) Out of the blue, Paladino criticized the media for not asking completely unfounded questions about Cuomo’s marital fidelity. (Crazy Carl claimed to have evidence, but revealed none.) And then there’s Paladino’s penchant for off-color e-mails, like the video he sent to friends of Africans dancing in traditional dress that was titled “Obama Inauguration Rehearsal” – and the video he forwarded of a woman having sex with a horse. The Tea Party doesn’t seem to have the most vigorous vetting process, does it?

8. Sharron Angle

Did I mention that The Tea Party doesn’t seem to have the most vigorous vetting process?

Of all the Senate Democrats in trouble this election season, Harry Reid of Nevada looked like a soft target for the GOP this fall. Nevada’s economy has been devastated by the housing crisis and Harry Reid is, well, Harry Reid. A decent, stalwart, western Democrat – but not the most charismatic or inspirational politician one could hope for. (As a Californian, I see Harry as the Gray Davis of Nevada.) But, once again, The Tea Party insurgents blew up the GOP’s hope for an easy victory by nominating the most spectacularly unqualified, un-muzzled, and unbelievably obtuse candidate to contend against Reid: Sharron Angle, an ultra-right former member of the Nevada state legislature.

Daniel Kurtzman has listed “The 10 Most Ridiculous Sharron Angle Quotes (So Far)” at About.com (and you should check them all out.) They don’t even include her recent suggestion that many of the Hispanic high school kids she was speaking to looked Asian to her. But here’s just a few…

“People ask me, ‘What are you going to do to develop jobs in your state?’ Well, that’s not my job as a U.S. senator.”

“The Federal Department of Education should be eliminated. The Department of Education is unconstitutional and should not be involved in education, at any level.”

And she said this to explain why she opposes abortion — even in cases of rape or incest. “I think that two wrongs don’t make a right. And I have been in the situation of counseling young girls, not 13 but 15, who have had very at risk, difficult pregnancies. And my counsel was to look for some alternatives, which they did. And they found that they had made what was really a lemon situation into lemonade.” Only amid the madness of Mid-Terms 2010 could such a fringe nutcase become Nevada’s junior Senator.

9. Joe Miller or Joe Stalin?

Ah, Alaska! The state the just keeps giving to satirists, cynics and those awaiting signs that the end of the world is upon us. Now the Tea Party voters of Alaska, with the endorsement of no less an authority on wacko, vacuous, right wing politics than Sarah Palin, have given us Joe Miller: he of the permanent five o’clock shadow – and shadowy ideas about how to govern our country. But you’d think that a candidate representing the party of St. Ronald Reagan, who famously stood before the Berlin Wall and uttered the words, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” would be loathe to show admiration for Joe Stalin’s infamous Cold War barrier to freedom. Alas, in 2010, any strange thing is possible.

In fact, at a town hall meeting, GOP Senate candidate Joe Miller praised East Germany as a model for how the U.S. might defend its borders. According to Joe (that’s Miller, not Stalin, though I can understand the confusion), “East Germany was very, very able to reduce the flow,” of cross-border traffic. “Now, obviously, other things there were involved,” Miller conceded, but… “We have the capacity, as a great nation, obviously, to secure our border. If East Germany could, we could.”

Of course, awful visions of barbed wire, machine guns and Checkpoint Charlie aside, Joe Miller fails to understand that the Berlin Wall was built to keep East Germans in – not to keep illegal immigrants out.

Can being such a wacko keep Joe Miller out of the Senate?

Let’s hope so.

A guy like Miller almost makes me want to write in M..u..r..k..o..w..s..k..i. Then again, now that this is a three-way race, the Democrat, former Sitka mayor Scott McAdams, just might sneak in. Provided Joe doesn’t build that wall to keep him out.

10. Sarah Palin as Tea Party Kingmaker

That’s all you need to know about the lunacy of Election 2010. A know-nothing former pageant princess, ex-mayor of a tiny town, failed Governor, failed Vice Presidential candidate and a woman who quit her job working for the people of Alaska to line her pockets at Fox News, TLC and anywhere they’ll pay her big bucks to speak – is somehow a Tea Party kingmaker, capable up upsetting the mainstream GOP applecart. It’s actually fun to watch. Just imagine how the relationship between Mitch McConnell and John McCain is going lately.

Thanks, Senator McCain. If you hadn’t chosen Sarah Palin as your running mate, the GOP might have had a good chance of taking the Senate in 2010. So you could say all this mid-term madness started with McCain.

No nutty deed goes unpunished. Especially in this election season.

And now, the dream GOP/Teas Party ticket for 2012…

Now, that would be truly beyond satire. (Oh, but we’d have to try, wouldn’t we?)

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More Thrills & Glory…

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

Part Three: A Tale of Two Spaces

To read the latest chapter in my personal history of The Practical Theatre Company, click here.

After you’ve read our ancient history, you can check out video clips of far more recent PTC-style comedy if you click here.

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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.

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Julia Gets Her Star!

Julia Louis-Dreyfus — our friend and fellow Northwestern, Mee-Ow Show, and Practical Theatre Company alum – is getting her star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame on Tuesday, May 4, 2010.

Now that Julia is a certified Hollywood legend, let us recall a couple of comic steps that Julia took along her path to greater comedy glory.

There was the 1980 Mee-Ow Show, Ten Against the Empire, which is where I met Julia and first worked with her.

Then, there was the Practical Theatre Company’s 1981 improvisational comedy revue, Scubba Hey! On this show, Julia met her future husband, my good buddy and partner in the PTC, Brad Hall.

The cast of "Scubba Hey": The author, Brad Hall, Julia, Rush Pearson (1981)

And then there was The Practical Theatre Company’s Golden 50th Anniversary Jubilee, a collection of the PTC’s greatest hits, which played at the Piper’s Alley Theatre in Chicago, attracted the attention of Saturday Night Live – and the rest is, of course, history.

"The Golden 50th Jubilee" cast: Brad, Gary Kroeger, Julia, the author (1982)

And now, after her classic, long-running sitcoms Seinfeld and The New Adventures of Old Christine — and more Emmys and awards than you can shake a stick at – Julia’s getting her star on the Walk of Fame alongside such show biz legends as John Barrymore, Clark Gable, Elvis Presley, Lucille Ball and Rin Tin Tin.

Congratulations, Julia! The best is yet to come…

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