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Monday
Jul242006

This One's For the Children - at the Apollo Theater

Photobucket - Video and Image Hosting (With apologies to New Kids on the Block, of course.) The Apollo Theater will host a stand-up comedy show tonight (July 24) to benefit Children's Memorial Hospital. The show will feature Ricky Carmona, Sapna Kumar, Hannibal Buress, Joselyn Hughes, and Bill Cruz. Call 773- 935-6100.

Monday
Jul242006

The Bastion Is In Two Places At Once

Photobucket - Video and Image HostingWe're like Schrodinger's cat, sort of. Last Friday, July 22, The Bastion managed to be in two places at once, seeing several acts, and chatting up lots of fun Chicago comedy folks. And if you can believe it, both events had something else in common as well - burlesque. How did that happen? Beats us. Let's just say that Michelle L'Amour bills herself as "The Ass That Goes Pow," and she's branded herself well.

One half of us was at the Spitfire girls' second show, the SpitFire Comedy Power Hour, at the Cornservatory on Lincoln, where there were laughs a'plenty in between the enticing kinetic offerings of Michelle L'Amour's students, the Star and Garter Burlesque Dancers. (Comedy pix here, and burlesque pix here.)

Photobucket - Video and Image HostingHost Renee Gauthier inspired chuckles when she mirrored the audience's gawking expressions after the gyrations of the first Star and Garter booty shaker. Hannah Gansen and her Yamaha keyboard took the audience on a musical journey with her absurd ballads of toenail disgust and lost love. Allison Leber amused with her intimate narrative of camel toe, and roller skating misadventures. Kara Buller kept up the pace with her portrayal of 'sex-aholic, rage-aholic, pick-up truck-aholic' JT Munson, and Joselyn Hughes stunned with her hilarious self-shot comedy videos. Can't wait to see what other surprises are in store from this coterie of hilarity and feminine fabulosity.

Several of SpitFire's stand-up peers were in attendance, including Mike Bridenstine, Brady Novak, Mike Holmes, Ricky Carmona, Mike Olson, James Fritz, Tony Sam, Bill Cruz, Tony Blanco, and Ken Arnett, with special guest appearances by Mike D. of Red Bar Radio and Jordan Vogt-Roberts (auteur of the Blerds video series).

Photobucket - Video and Image HostingThe other half of us was at the Gallery Cabaret for Schadenfreude's July Rent Party. We finally got to say hello to Marz and the Pimprov boys, who provided a visual delight as we approached the club. There's just something really beautiful about five guys kitted out in full-on pimp gear hanging out on a corner in preppy Bucktown. Call us mischievous, but we were sort of hoping that passersby with no knowledge of that night's show would innocently wander by, just so we could see the looks on their faces.

We also got to chat with stand-up Andy Ross, who has stuck to his challenging summertime commitment to his facial hair, and is not, in fact, sporting the "I just drank milk out of a barrel" look. He and Claire Zulkey, the big-time Chicago blogger and writer who performed a monologue that night, encouraged us to come out to the FunnyHaHa show on August 1. Also onstage was Deb Downing-Grosz, creating a bit of comedy magic with her guitar.

Photobucket - Video and Image HostingThere was also time for a "how do you do" with The Pajama Men, also known as longtime friends and collaborators Shenoah Allen and Marc Chavez, who won the 2005 Edinburgh Fringe Festival Double Act Award, and got snagged by a scout from Second City to come to Chicago and do their unique magic at the Steppenwolf Garage Theater. We bugged them with questions about their hard-to-describe act (not quite stand-up, not quite sketch), and made them promise to e-mail us so we could interview them good 'n' proper.

Photobucket - Video and Image HostingAnd, of course, there was the usual inspired ridiculousness of Schadenfreude, including a one-man rendition of Perry Farrell's life in three minutes, inspired by the troupe's upcoming appearance at Lollapalooza.

It was, need we say, a fabulous Friday night for comedy in Chicago.

Friday
Jul212006

Neo-Futurists Throw Benefit For WLUW FM

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From our friends at Gapers Block:

On Sunday, July 23, the Neo-Futurists are staging a special performance of Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind (at 7), and throwing an all-day benefit for WLUW FM, a progressive radio station "committed to social justice and independent thought and expression and to giving a voice to those who too often go unheard."

There will be live jazz and instrumental bands, and you can spend $15 to hang out all day, or pay the regular price for the Too Much Light performance. Call 773-275-5255.

Friday
Jul212006

Inside With: Charna Halpern, Comedy "Warrior Mother Goddess"

Charna Halpern founded i.O. in 1981, with assistance from the late Del Close beginning in 1984. Since then the i.O. Theater has thrived as a comedy training center and performance venue, and shaped generations of talent that now populate the airwaves and movie screens. Some of Charna's best known former students include Vince Vaughn, Jon Favreau, Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Mike Myers, the late Chris Farley, Rachel Dratch, Tim Meadows, and Seth Meyers. Charna believes that "the funniest people in the world come from Chicago," and thinks there's something special about Chicago that allows comedy to blossom here. In her interview with The Bastion, Charna catches us up on new media and festival developments at i.O., explains how improv concepts can open even non-professionals up to more of life's possibilities, and tells us that she literally saved Del Close's life not once, not twice, but several times.

Photobucket - Video and Image Hostingi.O. is a respectable 25 years old, yet is still vital and fresh. What's new and exciting at i.O. this season? We hear there are all kinds of cool new media projects evolving there.

Wow, word gets around quickly. Yes, lots of cool things are happening. First, our DVD from the 25th Anniversary Show at The Chicago Theater is being released by New Wave Media this August. i.O. just started a podcast that features our top talent. We are developing some TV shows and have come under the wing of Brillstein-Grey, who are some wonderful people. They recognize the amount of talent here and have been very receptive to our ideas. We are also working on getting more film shorts on our website so that it becomes even more of a fun place to visit. And, I have written a movie about me and Del that some of my very talented friends are doing a second draft on.

The iO West Improv Festival is really growing. The fourth one was last month in LA - can you share some impressions of that experience?

Photobucket - Video and Image HostingI am extremely proud of this festival, and much of the credit has to go to my i.O. West producer, James Grace. It has grown to the point where we may have to add another theater next year for some of it, including the closing night. The entertainment industry has recognized this fest as the place to be. One of my favorite things about the festival is that we are able to give awards to those who we feel have helped open doors for improvisation and made the world see that this is an art form to take seriously. The fact that these successful stars show up and are actually honored to receive The Del Close Award from i.O. because they respect what i.O. has done and what the award represents is what touches me the most. The first year we honored Curb Your Enthusiasm. After that it was Shelley Berman, then Fred Willard. This year we honored Harry Shearer, and the award was presented to him, on our behalf, by Eric Idle. It blew me away to have Eric Idle talking about i.O. and improvisation in his speech - not to mention watching him hang out in the green room. So, my impression is that this fest is bringing artists of all levels together. And at the risk of making this too long of an answer, I am also touched when so many students in L.A. tell me how they love i.O. and are so grateful to me for bringing this type of community out there.

Almost everyone we're getting to know in the comedy scene here tells us that the best show going is "The Armando Diaz Experience." Can you explain its appeal?

The Armando Diaz Theatrical Experience and Hootenanny” is actually the full name of this show, but few people know that, for some reason. Another detail few people know is how the show came to be. They think Armando Diaz created it and that's not true at all. Adam McKay (writer and director of Anchorman and the soon-to-be-released Talladega Nights), Del, David Koechner and I came up with the show concept - that we have a show that is led by one person instead of a whole team. The original concept was, can one monologist inspire and even lead the piece? This monologist is to have the power to replay a scene, narrate a different take on the scene, and do whatever he wanted to the players in the show. And he/she would have the responsibility to pull it together at the end to bring a moral to the show - to pull together the ideas and explain the point of view these scenes were leading up to. It was the opposite of a Harold, where it was the group responsibility, rather one person's responsibility to say - "so here is what we are saying.” And since so many people were working for Second City as well, we would have the show on Monday so all of our buddies could come back and play with us. In trying to decide on a name, Adam had the idea to name it after his friend, Armando Diaz, and to let him do the monologues for awhile. I asked Adam why he wanted to do that, as Armando wasn't even performing here and he replied, "Let's see if we can make this show so popular that Armando becomes a household name because of the show title." It was part joke and part experiment. We all agreed, and the rest is history. As to your question, which I bet you think I've forgotten by now, I think the appeal in Chicago is still the fact that folks who are now working at Second City and other venues, including TV, miss playing here because they don't really get to improvise in the way we do at i.O. If they are writing for TV, they come home on breaks because they miss the whole scene and are pretty much "jonesing.” The audience knows that all these folks are getting together once a week to have fun, and they don't want to miss it. And I think it's the same in L.A. and even at UCB. In L.A., the top performers can't be on teams anymore as they are working - so they come to reunite in an Armando. The i.O. alumni in New York want to play and get in touch with that side of their abilities and the audience wants to see that. (They call it A.S.S.C.A.T. at UCB, but they aren't fooling anyone.)

Is it gratifying to know that lots of people who have studied at i.O. have gone on to big things - Amy Poehler and Tina Fey behind the desk of SNL's "Weekend Update," for example?

Photobucket - Video and Image HostingIt's more than just gratifying...how can I describe it? I have seen these folks working their tails off for years and honing their craft. They would go to classes, rehearsals, shows. They'd audition, they'd coach, they'd teach, they'd write shows. They loved i.O. and believed in our ideals. They struggled, they shopped at thrift stores for clothes - they never complained. They loved the work. It's all they ever wanted to do. After years of struggling, their talents were finally appreciated and they were given career opportunities to do the only thing they ever wanted to do. I go through a range of emotions when my people are successful. I feel grateful to be able to help them get to where they are and pride that they are showing the incredible talents they have honed here. I feel relief because I know they are going to be ok and that they have found their way. And I feel incredible love because every one of them gives back and makes sure people know of this special place where people cherish each other to succeed on stage. And last but not least, it is confirmation that I am definitely doing something right. Not only have my people become writers and performers on SNL, MadTV, The Daily Show, The Colbert Report and Late Night With Conan O'Brien - they are also writing and directing movies - Jon Favreau, Adam McKay, Mike Myers, Tina Fey, Andy Dick, and The UCB, who made Martin & Orloff, which I enjoyed. And they all say they use everything they have learned here in their work.

At the same time, countless people who have learned improv with you take those skills and concepts back into totally different kinds of work. What are some of the valuable things that people who don't enter a career in comedy learn from improv and use to enhance their lives?

Those that are not going into the entertainment field are definitely learning valuable skills for their own use. I always say we are saving our corner of the world here because folks are learning the art of agreement. They have learned that life is more interesting when you say "yes." They have learned how to take these skills to work to create more collaborative work environments and they themselves have developed deeper listening skills and spontaneity. They are braver, and as Chris Farley said in my first book, “they can run their fastest and jump their highest."

What do you think is unique about Chicago's culture that has allowed improv to thrive here?

What is unique about our culture? Well first, I think Chicagoans are unique. They are very supportive audiences and they are proud of the fact that the funniest people in the world come from Chicago. They are eager to come out of their comfortable homes to support the stars of tomorrow. The weathermen can warn us on TV that it will be 40 degrees below with the wind chill factor and that folks should not go out unless they have to, and we will still have a full house at i.O. You can't tell Chicagoans that they can't go out. And because traditionally, the funniest people have come from Chicago, funny people from other cities who want to do this kind of work, flock here to "make the scene" as Del would say. So the culture grows and thrives. Most importantly, in Chicago, we take the time to get good. It has been thought of as "the laboratory" for a long time. In L.A. I have been told by casting agents that they will be more interested in an actor if they were trained at i.O. in Chicago because they know that person really worked to get good.

Truth in Comedy, the 1994 book you wrote with Del Close, is thought of as the "improv bible." Matt Besser has referred to Del Close as the "Jesus of improv." Lots of people call i.O. a "mecca." Would you like to go on record as claiming a religious figure for yourself? Perhaps Durga, the Hindu warrior mother goddess?

Photobucket - Video and Image HostingOh, I love that title you suggested. Del used to call me "The Goddess" as well. But that's because I saved his life numerous times. After months of arguing, I convinced him to move out of the filthy apartment he had lived in for years across the street from Second City. I found him a new place by my house and moved him out. The week after he moved, the boiler underneath his old apartment blew up and the whole place burned down. He would have been killed - or at least his cats would have died. And all of his first edition books, which were quite a valuable collection, would have been destroyed. A year later, I decided that instead of working straight through to our next class session, I would give Del a night off, and the two of us would take in a movie. I canceled class. When we came home that night, the entire block was filled with fire trucks. The building burned down and the fire started outside our door, which was the only exit. We would have all been killed had we been in class. There were other times I saved him as well, so I was definitely considered by Del to be a Goddess. So I will accept that title with pride. And it does take a Mother Warrior to keep up the fight for all in this community. ONWARD AND UPWARD, FELLOW WARRIORS.

Okay, back to the real question now. You have written a new book, "Art by Committee: A Guide to Advanced Improvisation." The accompanying DVD features performed examples of the exercises and instructions from the text, as well as performances and interviews by some of your best-known alumni, including the Upright Citizens Brigade, Tina Fey, Rachel Dratch, Stephnie Weir, Tim Meadows, and Andy Dick. Does the book expound on things you've observed and learned since writing the first one?

Photobucket - Video and Image HostingThe new book takes things further. I insisted that I would not rewrite anything from my first book, so it's important to read Truth In Comedy first. There were so many things that have come up since that book was written. I have had questions about so many things, like what advice do I give to woman in improvisation, etc. And I have noticed over the years,that although I dealt with the importance of agreement, many folks were confused by what that meant. Many advanced people would come to i.O. from Second City and think that agreement meant they had to say YES to everything. They didn't understand that agreement was between the actors - not the characters. Whenever I would explain away the confusion, they were always amazed and relieved because they were continually sacrificing their integrity on stage. I thought it would be a good idea to expound on some of these ideas and help to strengthen the concepts we built long ago regarding team work. Also, I have received so many calls over the years from folks who still couldn't figure out long form because they hadn't ever seen a Harold. I did a book signing at the Chicago improv festival this year, and 70 people in a row thanked me for putting a DVD in the book. "FINALLY," they all said. "Now we can show this to our troupes so they can see what the hell this is supposed to look like." That was a major part of the reason for doing this book.

-Elizabeth McQuern

Friday
Jul212006

Friday Linky Roundup - Shows A'Plenty

Photobucket - Video and Image HostingScrappy upstarts Doppelganger are putting on "V is For Vacation" at midnight Friday in Donny's Skybox at Second City. Tense tales of Chicago vacation woes, in funny form.

Whirled News Tonight's show "Newspeak" is on at IO on Saturday at 8 in the Del Close Theater. Much mockery of modern newsmedia is forecast.

Schadenfreude's Rent Party is tonight at 9 at the Gallery Cabaret. Brilliant comedy not enough of a draw for you? One word: burlesque. One phrase: "The Ass That Goes Pow."

The Edge Comedy Showcase will be at Pressure Cafe at 8:30 on Saturday. Stand-up! Espresso! Billiards?

Don't Spit the Water will splash you good Saturday at 10:30 at the Playground Theater. Splash you good, we say!

Photobucket - Video and Image HostingThe Spitfire Coalition of (all-female) sizzlin' stand-up sillies is throwing their second show, the Spitfire Comedy Power Hour, tonight at 8 at the Cornservatory. Also featured will be the Star and Garter burlesque gals. Burlesque? Are we seeing a pattern here?

If you find yourself sitting around this weekend and whining that there's nothing fun to do, well, just remember, it's not The Bastion's fault.

-Elizabeth McQuern