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Friday Free-For-All

PhotobucketWonder Woman discovered a dead body! But she didn't fly it away in her invisible jet.

Sean Flannery is sharing his ridiculous job interview stories with ABC. "I interviewed with the wrong department at a huge insurance company because I didn't remember the name of my HR recruiter," says Sean Flannery, who's now a software developer for a Chicago advertising firm.

New York's Improv Everywhere would like to be a television show, but perhaps the spirit of their public happenings is not "mean enough" for today's viewing audiences.

Chicago comedian Hannibal is next up at bat on Comedy Central's Live at Gotham:

Sarah Haskins' latest "Target Women" video, which she was shooting this week while we interviewed her:


CIF: Children of a Lesser God and JTS Brown

(This post represents the tail end of the Bastion's Chicago Improv Festival coverage. What a week!)

It's been ten years since the celebrated JTS Brown last performed, which is coincidentally the amount of time needed to produce a barrel of the group's namesake whiskey. The group headlined the CIF Mainstage last Saturday night, with Children of a Lesser God opening as a tasty aperitif.

PhotobucketThe women of Children (pictured at right) took a suggestion of "Zimbabwe", and from there crafted a show that was sharp, silly, borderline incestuous, international, and most importantly, funny. Although the 330+ seat Lakeshore Theater is a far cry from the more intimate Del Close Theater at iO, the performers quickly took charge of their space. From a family who sat in on an adult party hotline to a pair of Canadian prop comics whose only gag seemed to involve using chairs as over-sized phones to a group of Peace Corps workers and their Zimbabwean counterparts, the performers brought life to one of the most dysfunctional collections of characters you'll find on an improv stage. The Bastion has already popped an enormous improv boner for these ladies in the past, and will continue to do so as the ladies perform every Sunday night at iO (3541 N. Clark).

JTS Brown has taken on somewhat of a legendary status among improv circles. (Believe it or not, they're under the radar of the public consciousness so much that there we can't find any stock photos of them or links to plug into this article.) The form is still taught in the iO curriculum and stories still circulate of how the group rehearsed three times a week for ten months before they ever even performed at iO. The group boasts an impressive roster of alumni and many of them gathered on Saturday for a night of truly exciting improv.

The suggestion for the show was "practice" and Peter Grosz (now a writer for "The Colbert Report") began the group's signature shape-shifting opening monologue. A bitter third-grade drama teacher was created as each team member took a turn embodying the character. He ranted that perhaps the best way to get to Carnegie Hall wasn't to "practice, practice, practice" but instead to network. He lectured to the young cast of "A Christmas Carol" about the politics of theatre and about the possibility of winding up working in dinner theatre. As the monologue progressed each player would take a place somewhere in the theatre and mirror the mannerisms of whoever was delivering the monologue. When the last player took to the stage the monologue crescendoed, and the entire group joined in, segueing into the first scene.

JTS Brown differed from most improv as there was no "back line" and instead the players waited in the wings. There were no traditional sweep edits, and instead scenes transformed-usually into new ones, but often times they organically lent themselves to earlier situations. Cast members weren't limited to playing characters, there was also a great deal of playing environment and other embellishments. A recurring joke sprung from a moment when two players had to demonstrate various acts of lovemaking on top of a third cast member playing a sofa. Players could also assume the role that another improvisor was playing, interrogate a character to gather information that could progress a scene, or "telescope", which would focus in on a particular object in the scene. Early in the show local favorite TJ Jagodowski telescoped in on a love letter that had been lost in the senseless (but hilarious) murder of a mailman. That letter would later play an integral part of the show as it inspired further action, including the comical failed suicide attempts of its intended recipient.

The group was incredibly playful and deft at picking up on patterns. Seemingly simple games such as John Lutz's "1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8-9-10-11-12" singsong were heightened eventually leading to a sophisticated series of World War II themed play. History was hilariously turned upside-down multiple times, specifically in a spontaneous roaring twenties dance party that took place in the 1930s while a Misshapes-esque DJ worked the turntables. The opening monologue also had a great influence over the piece, as the audience not only got to see part of the production of "A Christmas Carol" (with a brilliant transition where the three ghosts that visited scrooge became the "Big Three" of World War II), but they also got to see what dinner theatre would be like as performed by that same cast of third graders. The show came full circle as Grosz came out to end with the drama teacher's monologue. JTS Brown was an amazing show from start to finish, thanks to the players who were terrific across the board. Let's hope they don't make us wait another ten years to see them again!


More CIF: 3 Square, Barinholtz and Belushi

PhotobucketThis busy reporter took some time out this weekend to go see what all of this improv hubbub was about. Usually, I don’t see anything if Will Smith isn't in it but I went to two shows at The Chicago Improv Festival last weekend.

Friday night I saw Chicago comedy vet and Colbert Report writer Peter Grosz, Saturday Night Live's John Lutz, and Rob Janas (pictured at right) perform together at iO. Here is a summary of highlights: excellent improv in a packed theater, the lights/power went out, the show went on even though the power was intermittent, these guys were so pro they made it seem planned. I also talked to them after the show.

Lutz and Janas both agreed to say this to me: “Chicago is the best place for improv, even when the power goes out.”

After talking to those two I thought I should meet Peter so my friend Kate James from Schadenfreude (name drop!) offered to introduce me and I jumped at the chance.

I told Grosz what Lutz and Janas said to me and Grosz responded with this, “I thought Jutz was a professional writer.” I should’ve given Grosz my card so he could see this professional writing. But I think he was kidding.

PhotobucketSaturday Night I saw Rob Belushi and Jon Barinholtz (pictured at right) at Donny’s Skybox. These guys have great chemistry and energy and packed the place out. No power problems at Second City.

I didn’t have an in with these guys, and they’re not on TV so I didn’t stick around to talk. Just kidding, I did and they thought I was just a regular audience member so I told them I would give them a bad write up then they came running behind me trying to get an interview and I told them it was too late. None of that really happened. I did go to the show and enjoy it though, and I didn’t stick around because I had to go, to the bathroom, just for number one.

There you have it folks, news from the front lines at Chicago Improv Festival. Sweat, darkness, and laughter. Mostly, I’ll remember the laughter. No, wait, I’ll probably remember talking to people that have been on TV.

-–Tammy Connors


Inside With: Sarah Haskins

PhotobucketA friend of ours recently directed our attention to some funny online videos featuring the wit and familiar face of a Chicago comedian, Sarah Haskins, who has recently relocated to L.A. Then we saw that she'd written something funny in the Tribune. Then another friend noticed a little love letter to her on Salon, and people across the blogosphere are saying "put Sarah Haskins on the Daily Show!" People on the CIN board saw her videos and reminisced about enjoying seeing her do improv and sketch, one of them going so far as to say "Haskins is the smartest person I ever met. She should be on the Daily Show, this is only further proof." We thought we'd take the opportunity to track Sarah down and chat with her a bit.

You are probably aware that you're a Girl Crush on Salon's Broadsheet, where they call for your immediate hiring on the Daily Show because they dig your comedy videos mocking yogurt ads and other stupid stuff directed at women. They say "Who is Sarah Haskins? Good question. Google doesn't turn up much ... even though she has become the toast of the feminist blogosphere after just two outings."

So who is Sarah Haskins? Harvard grad, and Chicago comedy alum (we saw you perform at Comedy Sportz years ago, before we actually moved to Chicago ourselves, and we remember you being very quick and funny)...can you fill in some blanks for us?

I thought it was funny they asked "Who's Sarah Haskins?" What? You never saw a midnight show at iO in ’02?

They got it pretty right: Harvard- Second City-LA. The part that is described as "Second City" however, lasted six years, with most of those years doing non-Second City work, and was fundamental to my learning about comedy and getting better at it.

Freshman year of college I saw a show at Second City called "The Psychopath Not Taken." I loved it –I was doing improv at the time at school with a great group called IGP - and Psychopath expanded my sense of what comedy could do. It was funny, smart, and important.

I'm from Chicago, so I did my research and realized that was the place to go to learn and start a career.

In Chicago I worked with a number of groups in sketch and improv, like many people do, and each show taught me a lot: Chairs, Whirled News Tonight, American Dream Striking Out. I had very talented, motivated peers.

I directed later on and really liked it. I am a structure person - I find shaping a show very appealing. The Late Night Late Show is one of the absolute highlights. We had an incredible cast, a very collaborative process (I like the Sesame Street words: cooperation, ensemble, support) and everyone committed an insane amount of time to the show. We had a lot of good comedy fights over things like "WHERE SHOULD THE SHARK SIT? WHERE?"

I also directed The Enthusiasticals, Hey You Millionaires and BoxCo.

Then I toured with Second City for about two and a half years with Mighty Mighty Blue Co......and here.

IMDB says you're a comedy writer in Los Angeles - what are you up to out there, and how did you find opportunities?

I'm on IMDB? My next door neighbor from growing up worked for Current for a few years and let me know about the job at infoMania when it opened up. So, I applied. I've been in LA about eight months.

What's the story behind the videos? Are you writing them? Who are your collaborators? What do you hope they will do for you? Are there more in the works?

The videos on the internet are part of a larger show called infoMania that airs on a channel called Current. Most people have only heard of Current because Al Gore started it. Current is a young network geared at a young, media literate, socially aware demographic.

infoMania is actually a half hour show, produced by the network that airs every Thursday night. It’s a half hour of comedy and commentary on the ridiculous amount of media in our lives. Current is on Comcast in Chicago. Channel 107. Watch it and be part of our extremely elite (small) audience.

I write the videos by myself but with input from other writers and producers at the show - especially Brett Erlich, Mark Ganek and our EP Jeff Plunkett. Dylan Osborn, a very talented editor, helped create the entire concept.

There will be a new video on Thursday. It's on politics. That tends to enrage people this year, so we'll see if the internet is as friendly as it has been. And hopefully, I will end up doing lots of different kinds of segments for infoMania.

What are your ultimate goals with your comedy career?

Ultimate goals? Nobel Prize for Literature. Failing that, I would like a long career where I do a lot of different things. I look at the careers of people like Mike Nichols, Tina Fey, and Steve Martin - they've all done great work in a number of roles and mediums. I hope to make a few good things. If I’m lucky, they will also have something to say – an ambition that was certainly instilled in me by the Chicago scene. And books. Anyway, I think that’s hard to do. And might mainly happen by accident.

What kind of shoot were you on today?

I was shooting the Target Women that will come out Thursday night. We have a pretty tight turnaround.

What did you learn and enjoy most about directing BoxCo, Hey You Millionaires, and so on?

I probably learned a pretty basic lesson: being a good director means listening to what your cast wants to do, helping them clarify that, and ensuring that their ideas are presented in the best possible light. Sketch directing and improv directing is, at least for me, a democratic process. Everyone contributes and hopefully the best ideas win.

I had a lot of fun playing with their ideas.

Do you consider yourself a feminist, and if so, what does that mean to you, and what role do you think it plays in your comedy?

Yes, I’m a feminist. It is an extension of my lifelong war against pantyhose.

To me it means that as women we are individuals before we are gendered people and that we’re not defined by our gender except in the ways we chose to appropriate that definition.

We’re in a weird generation, right? Our Moms were forced to grapple with that definition more immediately, and I think it’s changed as we’ve grown up. The core issue "how do I fight bias against me because of my gender" is still there but has gotten more complicated and wrapped into all kinds of identity issues about how you present yourself as a woman and I pretty much think it's your choice and fuck pantyhose. So, hence my answer above.

I think all comedians bring their experience and perspective to comment on the world and I am a woman, so that gets involved.

Who are your favorite comedians, besides the ones you mentioned? Are there any you saw when you were young that made a strong impression on you? Who today makes you laugh out loud?

The Office(s). Eddie Izzard. All British people. Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart. Mike Nichols and Elaine May’s sketches. Amy Poehler. Paul Rudd. The movie “Noises Off.”

Young? Sesame Street. I still love the Muppets. And the Muppet movies. And the way Muppets walk. I would read Erma Bombeck at my Grandma’s during the summers and thought it was so funny. Calvin and Hobbes. “The Love Guru” is going to ruin this answer, but I loved Mike Myers.

Last thing I saw that made me laugh really hard was Hot Fuzz. And McSweeneys Joke Book of Book Jokes. It’s hysterical. Fun for nerds!

Do you have friends in California who are also from the Chicago comedy scene?

Yes! There’s a lot of people out here. Jeremy Sosenko, who was involved with the Late Night Late Show, American Dream and The Dollar Store is writing out here. Many recent Second City alumni: Molly Erdman, Matt Craig, Rebecca Allen, Brian Gallivan are all pretty recent arrivals.

Do you think you would enjoy writing for the Daily Show?

I love the Daily Show. infoMania was started by Madeline Smithberg one of the creators of the Daily Show. I am proud of our show.

-- Elizabeth McQuern


New Video Wednesday

Robert Buscemi at the Rooftop Aspen Comedy Festival:

Finger Flicks Episode - "Convenience Store":

Finger Flicks Episode - "Subway":

Think Tank: "Rise and Fall:"

Rise and Fall

Tim and Micah, "Video Shenanigans":

TJ Miller at Chicago Underground Comedy June 3, 2008: