Monthly Archives: May 2014

That’s a Wrap!

…It was forty years ago this week that Monty Python finished principal photography on MONTY PYTHON AND THE HOLY GRAIL. The final day of filming was May 31, 1974, when they shot the Constitutional Peasants scene. Eric Idle had already left the location. They only had enough film left for one master shot, with no re-takes. Here’s how it turned out.

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Summoning up fire without flint or tinder…

Continuing our 40th anniversary celebration of Monty Python and the Holy Grail. It was four decades ago, on May 29, 1974, that Tim the Enchanter’s encounter with King Arthur’s k-niggets was filmed. It was a particularly harrowing experience for John Cleese, who had to deal with malfunctioning fireworks while standing on a rocky crag in the wind for much longer than he had expected. It was made worse by windy conditions that caught his cloak and tried to pitch him over the edge. Fortunately, the enchantments prevailed. Enjoy.

How Mick Napier almost killed me…

Mick Napier, as many know, is the founder of The Annoyance Theatre, which has just re-opened at its space at Clark and Belmont in Chicago, a stoned throw away from the one-time site of Crosscurrents Cabaret, where so many of us started out.

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I had been studying and performing at Crosscurrents for a while when Mick Napier came along in the mid-to-late 80s. We were all working with Del Close and Charna Halpern, who had started the ImprovOlympic not long before that. My team, the Baron’s Barracudas, was the first house team of what later became the iO, and Mick moved up through the ranks quickly.

I remember coaching one of Mick’s early teams. I also remember directing a show called “Children’s Hospital” ay nearby Sheffield’s (which is one of the few places that’s still there today), which also featured Andy Dick, among others. And Mick was one of the few non-Baron’s Barracudas (Rich Laible was the other one) to appear in “Honor Finnegan vs. the Brain of the Galaxy,” the first scripted show directed by Del after he left Second City.

Mick eventually approached me about a new project he was doing for a new theatre he was creating. He called it Metraform, and he was going to stage an ambitious, messy show he was calling “Splatter Theatre,” in the upstairs space. He wanted me to present, between acts, what we lovingly referred to as “Meat Puppets.”

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It was a subtle as it sounds. I was the host, a Frazier Thomas figure to pieces of raw meat that were manipulated from below by my puppeteers (who included, if I remember correctly, Dave Pasquesi and Tim Meadows. Wonder whatever became of them?…). The storylines, as they were, usually involved some sort of infidelity between a chicken, a pork chop, and whatever other cuts of meat happened to be on sale that day. They all ended violently.

It was one of my more dangerous shows. Every night before the show, I would have to prepare the various meats (and thaw out the whole chicken–for some reason, the chicken was always at least partially frozen). The water upstairs at Crosscurrents was always as cold as the chicken, so I could never truly disinfect my hands, and salmonella was a real possibility. After each show, I tried to get to the water before the “Splatter Theatre” cast. They were all covered with chocolate syrup dyed red to look like blood, so I didn’t blame them for wanting to clean up. But I was trying to ward off salmonella, so we all jostled with each other for access to the icy water. I guess it was a draw. They got clean, and I didn’t get salmonella.

And now, many years later, after decades of success doing it his way, The Annoyance Theatre has re-launched. I don’t know what they’re going to be doing, but I know it’ll always be worth checking out. So even though you’re undoubtedly uncomfortable about all of the attention you’re getting, deal with it, Mick. It’s what comes of doing things your own way for so long. And long may you annoy.

The IBM Machine…

Avery Schreiber was a very funny actor and improviser that, despite his many talents, ultimately became best-known for his snack food commercials. But he served a tenure at The Committee and Second City, and also teamed very successfully with Jack Burns and, as Burns and Schreiber, even had their own network TV series one summer.
He was also a friend of Del Close, who is no stranger to followers of this blog. While at Second City in the early 1960s, they developed a scene in which Schreiber played a computer (then better known to audiences as an IBM Machine). Del would get a question from the audience, then feed it into Schreiber’s machine. Avery would then go into various gyrations as he tried to come up with an answer. Finally, he would spit out the answer by way of an invisible tape that Del would pull out of his mouth, and Del would then read the answer to the audience.
This generally got a great laugh from the audience and the audience was always very impressed with Avery. Of course, the person asking the question was the one who did all of the work and had to come up with the funny response, but it was a great bit.
(Avery did the human computer bit with other people over the years, most notably Jack Burns.) Here’s a clip of Close and Schreiber, disguised as a Second City documentary…

Many years ago, I found myself doing some work in the comic book field, doing a little scripting and a lot of marketing. My old pal Mike Gold got me involved with DC Comics, as he did with so many other Chicagoans, and I did a fair amount of promotional writing. It was then that I first encountered Bob Wayne, who was relatively new in the marketing department. Image

Our paths crossed often over the years and we became friends who usually saw each other a couple times a year, which often involved comic book conventions. Bob was a Python fan and had a similar sense of humor, so we got along fine. Of course, I suspect Bob’s most memorable encounter with me was when he and Mike Carlin joined John Cleese and I for lunch one day when we were discussing Superman: True Brit, the graphic novel I was to write with John.

ImageThe years went by and the comic book landscape gradually changed, as it always does. The Mikes are gone. Most of my friends at DC left or or transferred to other areas. Bob Wayne was the one constant, I always figured they’d have to carry him out in a Bat-box.
That’s why I was so shocked to hear that Bob has, at last, announced his retirement. After 28 years. Twenty-eight years! That’s a lifetime–probably several lifetimes–for the comic book industry. I’m still a little shocked, but happy for Bob. And, I’m sure he’ll have a nice retirement with endless stacks of comic reading to keep him busy. Congratulations and enjoy, Bob!

The End

Forty years ago this week, May 25, 1974, Monty Python filmed the final battle scene for MONTY PYTHON AND THE HOLY GRAIL. They hired a surprisingly small number of Scottish University students for four pounds per day, and placed the camera to make them look like multitudes.

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Mick’s Annoyance…

Folks in the Chicago area who appreciate comedy and improvisation are outrageously lucky to have so many great opportunities to see first-rate work. The three pillars of Chicago improvisation, Second City, the iO, and the Annoyance Theatre, are all brilliant in their own slight different ways (there are many others, of course, such as Dave Sinker’s Comedy Shrine in the suburbs, which deserves a column all its own). Second City is the best known though it does less improvisation than the other two. The iO is the home of longform, and near and dear to my heart thanks to the work of Del Close and Charna Halpern. I was with the iO (then the ImprovOlympic) at nearly the beginning. I was involved with the Annoyance (then Metraform) before the beginning. The latter two are going to be opening up in brand new spaces this summer, and both are worth much more space than I have to devote to them at the moment. But, I saw this very nice article in this weekend’s Chicago Tribune about the Annoyance in general and Mick Napier in particular, so I thought I’d pass it along. I am a huge fan of Mick, and am particularly delighted that he’s become an institution, and am even more delighted that I know how uncomfortable he undoubtedly is at that particular thought. Don’t fight it, Mick. Just enjoy, and keep on doing what you’re doing.

Mother’s Day

What could be more appropriate on this Mother’s Day that a young woman becoming a mother? This was written by John Cleese and Graham Chapman, the latter bringing his experience as a qualified medical doctor to the writing room.
I wasn’t around for much of the filming of MEANING OF LIFE, but I was here for most of this. I think Graham was particularly proud of this scene, having seen this attitude all too often by medical professionals and hospital administrators, and was very pleased to take them down a notch. Happy Mother’s Day!