By Nina Metz
Rachel Dratch, who begins her seventh season on “Saturday Night Live” this fall, remembers an especially heinous Chicago performance in 1991 at Wrigleyville’s I.O. Theater, the nightspot known until recently as the ImprovOlympic.
“It was a New Year’s Eve show,” she says, “where the guys in the audience were dragged there by their dates, and you could tell they were like, ‘Oh my God, what have I walked into?’” Things quickly went downhill from there. “We asked for an audience suggestion and somebody shouted out ‘AIDS.’
“And this,” she adds dryly, “was before you could do those crazy AIDS jokes.” The show was one of the worst in her career. “Imagine spending your New Year’s Eve hearing people improvising about AIDS. It was nothing short of disaster.”
Of course, you could look at it another way. Those in the audience that night were lucky enough to see a struggling performer before she hit it big. Like Dratch, many of today’s most prominent comedic actors spent their salad days in Chicago honing their improv chops at I.O.
Fellow “SNL” cast member Amy Poehler recalls, “Being really poor. Lots of drinking. Lots of weed. Lots of shows that you thought were changing your life. I remember Tina Fey wrote a play about Catherine the Great fucking a horse and I thought, ‘That lady is hot stuff, I wanna know her.’”
Ten years later, Poehler and Fey paired up as mock co-anchors on “SNL”’s “Weekend Update.” That’s some trajectory. And it all began in Chicago.
In celebration of I.O.’s twenty-fifth anniversary and its place in comedy history, some of its most famous alumni, including Dratch, Poehler, Mike Myers, Andy Dick and Andy Richter, return for a sold-out, star-studded blowout this weekend at the Chicago Theater.
But rather than dwell on days of improv and sketch comedy past, this might be a good time to assess the current scene. Is Chicago still the place to see future household names? The general consensus: Yes, and we’re on an uptick. But first, the bad news.
The obvious barometer, “Saturday Night Live,” remains—for better or for worse—the highest-profile employer of local actors. If the lineup over the past few seasons is any indication, however, Chicago’s reputation as a hotbed of new talent has been going through a dry patch.
“It is cyclical in nature,” says Second City producer Kelly Leonard. “There are periods where a bunch of people seem to hit the radar screen, and times when they don’t.”
Nobody’s saying the current batch of local performers is any less skillful or funny than their predecessors. But they have yet to reach critical mass. So, it’s been a little quiet around here lately.
And yet the city must continually churn out new stars if it is to remain the nation’s top training ground for comedy. And let’s face it, local audiences thrill in being among the first to see sketch and improv actors on the rise.
Which leads us back to “SNL.” From the beginning the show has been “a kind of movie-star machine,” as the Chicago Tribune’s Michael Wilmington noted in a recent assessment of Bill Murray’s career. Regardless of the show’s quality, its clout is hard to ignore.
The Chicago names dominating the past two seasons have all been nineties-era performers: Dratch, Fey, Poehler and Horatio Sanz. It hasn’t been a complete drought. A few local actors snagged writing jobs on the show, including Jason Sudeikis, who was bumped up to featured player last May.
But “SNL” hasn’t added a repertory player (the show’s parlance for its main ensemble) from Chicago since 2002 with the addition of Fred Armisen.
That could be changing, though. Executive producer Lorne Michaels was in town this past June looking for new talent. Typically, Michaels sends an assistant or head writer on these scouting trips, so read into it what you will. We’ll know more when the season premieres October 1.
This much is certain: Local pride depends on new names getting their shot at stardom.
I.O.’s Charna Halpern sees it differently. “What we’re concerned about,” she says, “is people getting work, not becoming stars.”
And increasingly, there are more options for actors who don’t catch a break on “SNL.”
“Once upon a time there was only ‘SNL’ and ‘SCTV,’” says Jonathan Pitts, executive director of the Chicago Improv Festival. “Now, with cable, there are so many shows. It’s hard to look at any TV comedy right now and throw a stick at it and not hit someone from Chicago.”
As for the “SNL” barometer, Pitts thinks it’s bogus. “You could say the Steppenwolf hasn’t produced a new household name in years, too,” he counters. “Not to say ‘Saturday Night Live’ isn’t the equivalent of the New York Yankees, but you’re completely overlooking everything else out there: ‘MADtv,’ ‘The Daily Show,’ Conan O’Brien, MTV and VH1.”
It’s an argument that’s gaining steam. The New York Times, profiling Steve Carell’s growing status in Hollywood, pointed out, “As with ‘Saturday Night Live’ in decades past, it is only natural that film and television executives would be looking to ‘Daily Show’ performers as potential new stars.”
Carell and Stephen Colbert, who both logged stage time at Second City, helped define “The Daily Show”’s satiric tone. So it should come as no surprise that yet another recent Second City alum, Dan Bakkedahl, has just been added to “The Daily Show” roster as a correspondent. (Before he leaves for the gig in New York, you can catch Bakkedahl for one last performance midnight on Friday at the I.O.)
Chances are we’ll be seeing more Chicago faces on Comedy Central in the future. According to “The Daily Show” executive producer Ben Karlin, quoted in the same New York Times article, “It’s a very natural progression that a show like ours would be a platform to showcase young undiscovered people…Hopefully, we find good people, we have them for as long as we can and then we try to find the next person. And, believe me, we’re on the hunt.” That can only mean good things for Chicago actors.
Start digging and yet more success stories come to light. “MADtv,” which has a sizable Chicago cast—including Stephanie Weir and Keegan-Michael Key, who is pulling double duty as host of “The Planet’s Funniest Animals” on Animal Planet—just hired Frank Caeti, a John Belushi-esque performer from ComedySportz. Caeti spent the past year on stage at the Second City e.t.c., and will have his national debut on “MADtv”’s eleventh season opener in September.
Second City veteran Andy Cobb has a recurring role on the animated series, “The Family Guy.” And over on MTV, former Second City director Josh Funk is a writer, improv coach and performer on the network’s hip-hop take on the form, “Nick Cannon Presents Wild ‘n Out.” The new show also stars former Chicagoans Nyima Funk (wife of Josh, and a major standout in 2002’s “Curious George Goes to War” at Second City e.t.c.) and Rasika Mathur (who did several runs with the local sketch group Stir-Friday Night!).
In terms of what’s happening here and now, the improv team getting the most buzz is a group Halpern matched up three years ago called The Reckoning, which performs long-form improv Tuesday and Saturday nights at the I.O. Theater. They are particularly adept at tying various storylines together by the end of each show.
“Hands down they are the best in Chicago,” says Pitts. “There are a lot of people in that group that are going to hit.” See them while you still can—reportedly, “SNL”’s Michaels was impressed by the performers on this team, as well as those in I.O.’s news-themed improv show, “Whirled News Tonight.”
Another longtime favorite is “TJ & Dave,” the crackerjack long-form improv set featuring TJ Jagodowski and David Pasquesi Wednesday nights at I.O. Among improv connoisseurs, this is the show to see. Individually, each performer has been at this for a long time; together they have a remarkable ease within the unscripted format. As another bonus, neither actor seems eager to leave Chicago for greener pastures.
Around town, the schedules are full at venues such as ComedySportz (known primarily for short-form improv), The Playground and the Improv Kitchen (where improv meets TV). Other groups, such as pH Productions, have a whole series of weekly shows that range in theme, and this month, FuzzyCo is back with the Neutrino Project, its improv-movie crossbreed.
Ask Second City’s Leonard about the state of Chicago comedy and he’ll tell you the scene is going through a renaissance. In the past, he says, too many performers concentrated on “doing their bits and working on their packets for ‘SNL.’” In Leonard’s view, that wasn’t always a good thing.
“A few years ago, [Second City alum] Alan Arkin came in to do an improv workshop,” he says, “and at the end of it he was irate. He was like, ‘Every time you got to a moment of truth, you edited it.’ And the cast was like, ‘Eh, he’s cranky.’ The cast we have now is like, ‘Get him back here! It’s Alan-fucking-Arkin! If he’s got something to say, we want to hear it.’
“We’re in a really strange place, politically,” Leonard continues, “and there’s an intense dissatisfaction with the current leadership. The result is that people are less concerned with one-liners than they are with creating meaningful moments on stage.”
Pitts acknowledges the current scene is lacking an equivalent of a Mike Myers or a Bill Murray but, he says, “Some of these people in Chicago right now are going to become the next generation of household names.”
Likely candidates include Maribeth Monroe, a zany, dark-haired performer with a Louise Brooks bob, currently seen in “Red Scare” on Second City’s mainstage; and Ithamar Enriquez, an actor with a killer sense of the deadpan, who you can catch in Second City e.t.c.’s “From Fear to Eternity.”
Leonard agrees. “The generation right now that’s been performing together for the past two or three years, these are the people you’re going to start hearing about.”
One of those might very well be Rebecca Drysdale, who blew everyone away at this year’s U.S. Comedy Arts Festival in Aspen. Her solo performance prompted fest organizers to create a new category, the Breakout Award, in recognition of her talent.
She recently left the cast of “From Fear to Eternity” to pursue opportunities outside of Chicago. According to Pitts, “She’s gonna be the next Amy Sedaris—that stature of a singular female performer.”
For some actors, leaving Chicago invariably means abandoning a regular connection to improv. Andy Richter, for one, was more than happy to walk away.
“Many improv people have vehemently disagreed with me about this,” he says, “but I think there’s an inherent apology that hangs in the air that’s basically like, ‘Cut us some slack. We’re just making it up as we go along.’ It’s one of the things that will always hamper improv, because you’re asking a lot of an audience. I personally like seeing people create things, but there’s a lot of people out there who couldn’t give a shit.”
Nonetheless, Richter will be among the performers at I.O.’s reunion show on Saturday, albeit somewhat begrudgingly. “Getting on stage is work, especially as you get older. But I’ve always been that way. I’m the guy who’s like, ‘Can’t we just go out and have drinks and make each other laugh in private?’”
Despite all this professed reluctance, Richter took part in an upcoming televised version of “ASSSSCAT,” the hugely popular long-form improv show performed Sunday nights at the Upright Citizens Brigade theaters in New York and Los Angeles. New York’s UCB, launched by former local performers, has become something of a Manhattan outpost of Chicago’s improv scene.The TV special, which also stars Dratch, Fey, Sanz and UCB co-founder Poehler, airs on Bravo September 7.
Though plenty of actors gladly ditch improv performances once their careers allow it, there are just as many who become, in Richter’s words, “hardcore improv junkies with thousand-yard stares.” He’s referring specifically to the folks at UCB.
“We want to extend our adolescence as long as we can,” Poehler says. “I.O., Upright Citizens Brigade and ‘SNL’ have enabled me to do that.” She’s not kidding. Poehler performs at least once a week at UCB, if not more.
“I hope to do it for the rest of my life,” she says. “It helps keep me real. It’s not a means to an end for me. It is an end.”
Couldn’t snag a ticket to the main event? Catch the all-stars Friday night at I.O.’s home base in Wrigleyville. The schedule includes performances by former and current “Saturday Night Live” cast members Rachel Dratch, Tim Meadows and Amy Poehler (along with her fellow UCB pals), as well as Andy Dick, Neil Flynn (“Scrubs”) and Andy Richter. All tickets are $15 per show, (773)880-0199.