Tag Archives: Charna Halpern

My pal Homer

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Honored to join the ranks of The Simpsons pop culture references last night!

Thanks for the shout-out, Homer (and the whole Simpsons gang)!

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Goodbio iO

Time out from Python for more comedy.

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This is the last week of the iO Theatre at its North Clark Street location, before it opens in August at its new-and-improved four-stages-no-waiting location by North Avenue and Clybourn.

It’s hard for me to be too pained by its passing (particularly because the new one is going to be so cool).

I already lost my first iO, though we called it the Improv Olympic back then, and I hardly even noticed at the time.

Crosscurrents Cabaret was just north of Belmont on Wilton, and that’s where it all started. When the Baron’s Barracudas wound up their run, I didn’t see as much of it for a while. But the iO has always wandered a bit, even when I was taking classes at Crosscurrents. It’s now been on North Clark for decades, where it has housed classrooms, stages featuring some of the best improvisation anywhere, and well as the earthly remains of Del Close. In recent years I’ve reconnected and begun teaching again, and I can see why so many are so sad to be losing it.

A few years back, I remember Dave Pasquesi pointing out a huge construction site on Wilton near Belmont. It was all gone, every scrap, and I was surprised at how little affected I was.

So I can only tell you this–I’ve lost the iO before, and it’s not about the location, it’s about the work. The iO always comes back bigger and better than before, and I have every confidence that this will be the case this time. Good work, Charna. See you at the new digs, Del.

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.

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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.

The Funniest One in the Room…

And even though that’s also the title of my book, it’s a particularly appropriate day to recycle it.

ImageIt was 15 years ago today, March 4, 1999, that Del Close left us. His official last words: “I’m tired of being the funniest one in the room.”

He was just five days short of his 65th birthday, way too young to leave us without imparting more of his improvisational wisdom, and sharing his genius with yet another generation of performers.

Of course, Del never thought he would live anywhere near as long as he did, and anyone who knew him in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s might agree. (Much later in life, he encountered one of his cronies from that period, and began rattling off his list of performing and directing accomplishments. The man gasped “My God, Del–you’ve gone sane!”)

He left behind a legacy that anyone would envy.

The Improv Olympic, now the iO, turns out hundreds of students every year, thanks to Charna carrying on his dream of “Theatre of the Heart.” Whether they know it or not, everyone that climbs on a stage and improvises today probably owes a debt of gratitude to Del. His students are on stage, screen, and television, and establish their own theatres across the country and around the world. And for those of us who knew him and were lucky enough to be his friend, he left us with memories. 

Improv Mafia

I spent Saturday afternoon workshopping the Improv Mafia, the improv group at Illinois State University, an old dog trying to teach these kids some new tricks. Fortunately, everything old is new again, eventually, and I kept remembering tricks and exercises from many years ago that seemed to work pretty well. I also, in the spirit of Del Close, made up a few exercises that I though would be beneficial to them (though we only had time to work on a couple of them–time flies when you’re improvising).

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Next Saturday are the finals for the College Improv Tournament, which is organized by my old pal Jonathan Pitts (here’s the info). The top 16 college improv teams in the U.S. will be competing for the national championship in Chicago. These are the regional champions who have advanced from the over 100 teams that competed across the country.

Many years ago, Del and Charna Halpern organized what may have been the first college improv tournament. If I remember correctly, there were three teams competing–the Yale Purple Crayon, and two Chicago-area teams. And now, there are hundreds of college teams alone, competing for a real national championship for the seventh year in a row. 

Good luck to all the improvisers. And if the Improv Mafia wins, and I try to claim as much credit as possible, just ignore me.

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Farley

It’s hard to imagine what a 49-year-old Chris Farley would be doing right now. Movies, of course. Naturally, SNL would have wanted to bring him back as their Toronto Mayor Rob Ford. So many things… But we’ll never know, because we lost Chris on this date in 1997. It’s hard to believe he’s been gone 16 years, despite the best efforts of so many friends who tried to help him. 

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My own favorite memories of him were when we were both part of the whole Chicago improv scene in the late ’80s, when everyone knew each other, closed the neighborhood bars after the shows, and crashed at each others’ places. It was an amazing scene, one that hasn’t been written about much yet, but eventually will be. (How could it not, with the talent that went through during that era?)

We had all heard about this kid from Wisconsin, the one that idolized Belushi and wanted to study with Belushi’s favorite director, but we hadn’t seen him perform. He had started taking classes with Del and Charna, but they kept insisting that he wasn’t ready to perform yet. Of course, this only made him want it all the more. Finally, they decided he was ready. I seem to recall that Del tipped some of us off, that we might want to catch this kid and his first time on a Chicago stage. Del did NOT say this sort of thing, ever, so when he told us that night, we made a point of watching.

I think we later came to accept the metaphor: Farley attacked the stage, with an intensity that blew us away. His was raw and unpolished talent, but he blew us away. Del later told him “You’re like one of those guys that the Vikings used to strap to the prow of their ships when they’re going into battle.” And he was right.

Of course, the more he studied, the more disciplined and professional he became, but I’ll never forget that first night. Miss you, Chris.