Honored to join the ranks of The Simpsons pop culture references last night!
Thanks for the shout-out, Homer (and the whole Simpsons gang)!
Honored to join the ranks of The Simpsons pop culture references last night!
Thanks for the shout-out, Homer (and the whole Simpsons gang)!
A couple of hours ago, I glanced at the Chicago Tribune’s weekly obituaries and noticed that of Theodore J. Flicker. I thought to myself “Not many of the founding fathers of improv are left. Thank goodness we still have Sheldon…”
And now, we don’t.
If one were making a list of the most beloved figures in Chicago improv, Sheldon would be right up there, and deservedly so. His lineage goes way back to the Playwright’s Theatre Club, which was the forerunner of the Compass Players, which was the forerunner of Second City.
I’ll leave it to others to tell about his lengthy history and contributions to Chicago theatre (which included authoring The Second City book). Instead, I’ll tell a little about my first experience with Sheldon.
I was writing my biography of Del Close, The Funniest One in the Room, a while back, interviewing everyone I could find. But I hadn’t interviewed Sheldon. Everyone had warned me that the two of them hadn’t…well, they hadn’t been the best of friends. I was reluctant to look him up because I didn’t want to hear a lot of Del bashing. But finally, after dozens of people had told me to “Call Sheldon!”, I relented.
We set up a time to talk, and I prepared for the inevitable Del-bashing. Which never came.
Sheldon couldn’t have possibly been nicer. It’s true, he told me, Del never liked him, but he never knew why. And he went on to tell me story after story of his experiences with the man–possibly the only person in Chicago–who didn’t like him. In fact, at one point it was Sheldon’s job to haul Del from what the latter called “the nut house” to Second City, and back again. Yet he couldn’t have been nicer about it. By the time he had finished, I was horrified and embarrassed that Del had abused this wonderful gentleman so badly.
And after that, I was a first-class fan of Sheldon. We didn’t see each other often, but I’m tickled to say that he was a fan of my writing, and even turned up at a Columbia College panel on Del a couple of years ago. He was looking forward to my book on The Committee, and I am further horrified to note that I still haven’t finished it. But I will. Somewhere, Sheldon is waiting to read it.
The national tributes that have gone out with Joan Rivers’ passing have not made much of the fact that she was once a Second City performer. Of course, neither did she.
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…
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.
It’s been a very bad month for improvisation and comedy in general. Now comes word that the great Fred Kaz, Second City’s legendary jazzman, has passed away. Many were aware that the time was drawing near for the 8 1/2 fingered piano man, but it’s still a huge loss. Fred was an institution when I first started studying there, and remained so even after he retired in the late 80s. I didn’t know him well, just enough to say hi whenever I ran into him, but he was very generous with his time when I was writing my Del Close biography. And an interesting coincidence: until I read his obituary, I didn’t realize that Fred and Del were born just a week apart back in 1934. The world of improvisation doesn’t have many icons left, so it hurts even more to lose one of Fred’s stature.
A mutual friend who preferred to remain anonymous wrote something that I thought should be passed along, so here it is. Good night, Captain.
What Would Fred Want?
It was 80 years ago, March 9, 1934, that Del Close was born in Manhattan, Kansas. During the nearly 65 years he was with us, he taught us, directed us, appalled and entertained us, amazed and enraged us, enlightened us, and, most of all, made the world a better place for his having been here.
Del could be a walking contradiction, capable of surprising even those closest to him. He was a contrarian, a philosophy that informed much of his work and his life. He was also one of the few true geniuses I’ve ever known, with the ability to process information and observations and present them in new ways.
His life story has taken on legendary proportions, in part because Del believed that legends were often more truthful than facts. He was traveled the country with Dr. Dracula’s Den of Living Nightmares, knew L. Ron Hubbard before Scientology, appeared in The Blob remake, cavorted with the Merry Pranksters, used aversion therapy to recover from alcoholism, kicked a cocaine habit with the help of a coven of witches, became a very talented stage and film actor, helped to develop and became the greatest champion of long form improvisation, and bequeathed his skull to the Goodman Theatre for their productions of Hamlet.
Del directed John Belushi, Bill Murray, Harold Ramis, John Candy, Chris Farley, Tina Fey, Mike Myers, Amy Poehler, Stephen Colbert, and many others. He was co-creator of the Harold, director for Second City, San Francisco’s The Committee, and the ImprovOlympic (now iO), and “house metaphysician” for Saturday Night Live. His students went on to found the Groundlings in Los Angeles, the Upright Citizens Brigade in both New York and Los Angeles, and the Annoyance Theatre in Chicago.
I researched all the claims and rumors about his life while I was writing his biography The Funniest One in the Room. And although I discovered were some exaggerations and fictions, I learned that the most unbelievable stories were the true ones.
His ashes, along with a few photos and other memorabilia, are on display at the iO Chicago, and I’m sure he’ll be making the move when the iO moves to a new building later this year. Stop by and say hello. Del would like that.
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.
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.
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.
And 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.
Before the Python reunion floodgates were opened a couple of weeks ago, I mentioned that I was working on a book on The Committee, the legendary San Francisco Improvisational Theatre. It’s a fascinating story about a theatre that should be remembered and celebrated, if only for a couple of reasons.
First of all, it was Ground Zero for the San Francisco counter-culture during the ’60s, and the San Francisco counter-culture was, arguably, Ground Zero for what we all know today as the ’60s. As one of them put it, “The Sixties walked through our door.” If you hung out in San Francisco at all during that era and had any interest in the music scene or counter-cultural events, you likely spent a little time at The Committee. And if you did, you may have rubbed elbows with Lenny Bruce, or the Byrds, or the Jefferson Airplane. Because none of the hotels he stayed at had a piano, Bob Dylan used to stop by in the afternoons to practice playing piano. The Grateful Dead played their first gig there, when they were known as The Warlocks.
And that only scratches the surface, and doesn’t delve into any of the political figures or the social events of that time.
The second reason that improvisers today ought to remember it is because The Committee gave birth to The Harold and longform improvisation. There’s a lot of misinformation out there, but I was able to track down the real story and speak to many of those involved. The details are in my book The Funniest One in the Room: the Lives and Legends of Del Close. The Committee made a couple of attempts at a longer montage format, but it was after Alan Myerson, Del Close, and Bill Mathieu, conducting separate workshops, got together and compared notes, that they began working with The Committee members to develop what they later named The Harold.
There’s a lot more to the story, of course. Del brought The Harold back to Chicago with him and the world of improvisation was never the same–but it all started at The Committee.
I mention this not because my own book on The Committee is finished (don’t I wish), but because there is also another Committee project under way. Jamie Wright and Sam Shaw, who do a terrific job running the San Francisco Improv Fest, are working on a documentary film telling the story of The Committee as this, their 50th anniversary year, draws to a close. They’re interviewing as many folks as they can for this very worthwhile project, and they ran a successful Kickstarter campaign not long ago. Even though that has ended, I’m sure they wouldn’t mind if other folks decided to support them as well. Their Facebook page is here, and you can learn lots more about it. BTW, we’re not competing with my book. We’re working together and pooling resources so that they can turn out the best film, and I can turn out the best book possible about The Committee. Not because we owe them–but because they’ve earned it.
You must be logged in to post a comment.