Tag Archives: Chicago

Happy Birthday Graham

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Been a little while since I’ve posted. Sorry. In the past month, I’ve had one graduation, the holidays, getting the kid ready for a move and a new job, and getting ready for another Cleese trip, not to mention my 103-year old Aunt Betty passing away unexpectedly.

But this would have been Graham Chapman’s 76 birthday, and that’s always worth a thought. Graham was an active member of Python for 20 years, and a considerably less active Python for 28 years now. It took nothing less than death to slow him down, and even then, he’s still been popping up in places like the O2 show, and making an ash of himself in various reunions. In fact, one thing that Graham never was, was inactive, and I’m glad that trend continues.

I’ll start posting more regularly as I travel with Mr. C this month. If you’re in the Northeast or parts of the Midwestern US, keep watching–John Cleese is coming your way. And in keeping with our theme, he’ll doubtless have lots to say about Graham.

 

Cleese on Grail

Grail B&W1

Looks like it’s okay to announce this now.

If you’re disappointed because your part of America didn’t have a chance to see Eric and John last year and this year. you’re still out of luck. But if you’ve always wanted to see Monty Python and the Holy Grail presented by John, with a full discussion of the film and audience Q&A, you’re in luck. During the month of January, there will be lots and lots of opportunities. Only three have been announced so far, but there will be more. Honest.

14 January – Providence Performing Arts Centre, Rhode Island.  Tickets are on-sale NOW, right here.

20 January – The Hanover Theatre for the Performing Arts, Maine.  You can access the PRE-SALE tickets using the password: GRAIL here. Pre-sale ends Monday 10 October at 10pm.

 
22 January – The Chicago Theatre, Chicago.  Tickets are on-sale NOW, right, here.  

Coconuts and Pythons…

I just realized that this is a rather significant week for me as a Monty Python fan.

It was 39 years ago, on June 8, 1975, that I drove to Carnegie Theatre, accompanied by my pal Steve Wolf, for the Chicago premiere of Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

It was also the first–but hardly the last time–that I would be up close and personal with a Python.

Graham Chapman and Terry Jones were appearing in person at the theatre, so there was no way I would miss it. We were there several hours early, and were rather close to the front of the line. The theatre was giving out free coconuts to the first few hundred people in line, and we didn’t want to miss out. I also wanted to make sure I would be as close to Graham Chapman and Terry Jones as possible.

When they opened the theatre, we grabbed our coconuts and rushed to the front row. Perfect seats for seeing the two Pythons up close (although not necessarily the best seats for watching the movie, as we soon found out).

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The theatre manager came out and introduced Graham and Terry, who came out to riotous cheers and applause, talked to us a bit, and then took a few questions. I came forward and presented the two of them with a pair of carved coconuts to commemorate their Chicago visit (which, although I never asked, I’m sure were immediately deposited in the dumpster behind the theatre).

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It didn’t matter. Steve snapped a picture of me with the two of them, and I was delighted (though in retrospect, I’d have foregone the knotted handkerchief I was wearing). Nevertheless, it would be, as they say, the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

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.

Too Silly…

Graham Colonel… It was about this time of year in 1981 that Graham Chapman came through town.

I was living near Chicago, but hadn’t seen Graham for several months, not since Monty Python Live at the Hollywood Bowl shows had ended the previous fall. But Graham let me know that he was going to be in Chicago, promoting A Liar’s Autobiography, and it would be nice to get together. I agreed, and we made arrangements to meet.

Although I’d seen Graham and Terry Jones back in 1975, at the Carnegie Theatre when they were promoting Monty Python and the Holy Grail, this was the first time since then that Graham and I would be able to meet on my home turf, and I’d be able to show him around the city. In other words, it was a rare treat.

He had a full slate of interviews, and I seem to recall listening to one of them on the radio as I drove into the city. I picked him up mid-afternoon, and I might have even driven him to his last few appointments, and then we sat down and caught up.

He showed me the schedule the publicist had given him to see which of the remaining interviews were the most important. He also seemed a bit anxious about an event scheduled for that evening. It was at Facets, a Chicago film society, featuring a screening of Monty Python and the Holy Grail, followed by what was described as a talk by Graham Chapman.

“I didn’t know I was supposed to say anything,” worried Graham. I didn’t blame him. Unlike his onscreen persona, Graham was normally shy and quiet, and this seemed quite a bit to handle without a lot of advance preparation.

We talked about it further, and I tried to calm his fears. “Why don’t you just do a question and answer thing?” I suggested to him. “That should be a lot easier. Besides, they’re going to love whatever you do.” He seemed a little more comfortable at the idea of just answering questions, and I further comforted him by pointing out that Facets wasn’t that big of a place, and there probably wouldn’t be too many people. “And if there are, they probably won’t ask too many questions,” I lied.

“Yes, I suppose,” he said, wanting to believe me and a bit cheered. “That should be all right.”

The subject didn’t come up again until we pulled up at Facets that evening. Facets wasn’t that large, but the fans managed to pack themselves in every available inch. They weren’t laughing at Holy Grail as much as they were cheering, and when the film ended, Graham took his place in front of the crowd.

“Does anyone have any questions?” he asked in front of the whooping multitude. I was probably the only one who didn’t try to ask a question, but I did laugh–and cheer–along with his answers. The hosts had asked earlier if they could audiotape the session, and I told them I was sure it would be fine. About 45 minutes later, the host thanked the crowd, and Graham and I were whisked away. Even Graham was in a buoyant mood, and the rest of the evening, Graham asked me a few questions, and we relived some of the funnier moments.

I had almost forgotten about it when, a few months later, I got a call from Graham out of the blue. “Do you know if they taped that thing at the film society?” he asked. I told him I thought so, and asked if he wanted a copy of the tape. “That would be great! Thanks Howard.”

I contacted Facets, and they were happy to supply a copy of the tape, which I sent along to Graham. It was only later that I found out why he wanted it.

It seemed that someone had contacted Graham about doing a lecture tour, but Graham wanted to listen to the tape first. He was happy with it, and then sent it along to the promoter, who was delighted, as it made it very easy to get bookings for Graham.

And so, for the rest of the ’80s, Graham would go out on tour whenever he was low on cash. Which was not terribly uncommon for Graham. But it had an unexpected benefit for me as well. Whenever he toured, he tended to go through Chicago quite a bit. And, having just moved into the city itself, it meant that I was able to visit with Graham surprisingly often. We spent so much time together that would otherwise have been impossible, with more adventures than I’d ever hoped for. And thanks to the lecture tours, he saw me improvise, we went to a high school party, and my mother did his laundry. And much, much more…

The Harold

 

Beginning improvisers often assume that The Harold, the long form improvisation developed at The Committee and refined by Del Close in Chicago, was named for Harold Ramis.

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I point out that it isn’t true, and The Committee was performing Harolds before Harold Ramis joined Second City (the detailed story is in my Del biography The Funniest One in the Room).

But maybe it should be. And that’s the way I’m going to start thinking of it.

Snapshots of Harold

A few years ago, one of the classic Second City casts was going to reunite for a one-night-only performance. I asked a few of them about doing an article about the reunion, but a couple of them were reluctant. Harold Ramis was not one of them. I asked whether he thought there was a fear of failure after being off-stage for so long, but he assured me that wasn’t the case, at least with him. “I’ve failed way too many times,” he told me with a laugh. “I’m failed on a national level. I’ve failed on a worldwide level!”

We both laughed that day. I thought about reassuring him of his many successes, but I knew it wasn’t necessary. He already knew about them, and besides, the failures were funnier.

The list of Harold Ramis’s professional successes is long and well-known. It’s worth noting, however, what an all-around great guy he was personally; if he could do anything for you, he would. 

I certainly did not know him well, although our paths crossed a few times. I interviewed him for STARLOG magazine (when he directed Multiplicity–one of his lesser efforts). He helped me when I was writing The Funniest One in the Room (my Del Close biography).

He was in the midst of his publicity tour, promoting Analyze This!, when he got word that his director and friend Del Close was dying. He immediately flew back to Chicago and attended the now-famous “living wake” for Del the night before Del passed away. A very classy guy.

ImageAnd at the Second City 50th Anniversary in 2009, he gladly posed for a photo with my Ghostbusters-loving son.

I didn’t know he was ill, but I was very happy to hear that Bill Murray had been by to visit. The two of them had been estranged for many years, but it’s nice to know that they managed to put it aside when it counted the most.

And it should also be noted that Harold was a Chicago guy (admittedly, by way of the North Shore). But when he became successful, he didn’t pack up and move to L.A. Instead, he kept an office and a home in Chicago.

This is a huge loss to comedy, to Chicago, and to everyone that was ever lucky enough to know him. Rest in peace, Harold.