POST-OP WEEK 92
week of November 1
We came out of the Second City training program, the seven of us, so we figured it made sense to do a Second City type show. Find a stage, open with a song, throw in some short blackout scenes, a running gag, a longer, more serious skit. Viola! Instant stardom. Everyone’s doing it... There was this empty building--- might’ve been a theater at one time, maybe a church. The Chicago Comedy Showcase. I think Mike got us a weekend there. They paid us a $100 or two. They had a big proscenium stage and church pews as audience seats. The flirty gay couple ran the place. It was on Wrightwood under the El. We became fairly regular there. The audiences were small but at least there were audiences. And they paid us anyway.
So, like the old Mickey Rooney movies we put on a show:
“Hugh Beaumont’s Big Top” we called it (we were into recycling even back then). It had a lot of skits we came up with in class plus a new song about a promotional game the Sun-Times was running called Wingo, sung to the tune of The Lion Sleeps Tonight. I sang it. Dave’s wife Linda “ran lights” for us--- we actually had lights, see, just like a real-life stage show. She ran them until she was tired of us telling her when she did them wrong, she was late for a blackout or whatever. I don’t blame her!
There were other groups all trying to do the same thing at the same time. Bonnie Hunt performed in an improv group called An Impulsive Thing. They played bars and storefronts along Clark Street in Wrigleyville. There was a guy named Evan who went to L.A., too. I think he writes cartoons. They seemed slick by comparison to us. Bonnie needed to be the center of attention and the rest of her group obliged. There was a second woman in her group named Holly who you’d see pop up here and there on whatever failed sitcom Bonnie was trying. I haven’t checked to see if she’s working on Bonnie’s talk show.
Some other guys we knew, some who had taken classes with us, had another group called All You Can Eat. They put up a show in The Theater Building. We didn’t know how they did it or who was paying for it, all we knew was: they were doing a comedy show in a theater; they were pro-fessional!! It turns out one of the guys, came to Chicago from New York. His dad is an orthodontist and, I’m not kidding you, is said to be the “father of modern cosmetic dentistry.” Seriously. He invented tooth-bonding. So, rumor was, Rob and his group had some money backing him up. We didn’t know this at the time, of course, we thought that whole theater thing was kind of like a lemonade stand. Couple o’ bucks and some wacky suit coats and you’ve got yourself a show...
We finally went to see it one night and pretty much smiled through the whole thing. There was one funny skit at the end. I don’t think I’m being prejudiced; it was only okay. Nothing great. But one of the guys had a small part in an Al Franken movie that was in town and talked Al into coming to see it. This got a few cast members from the show, legend has it, auditions at Saturday Night Live. This lead to Rob getting a writer’s gig on the show (I think, maybe, one of the other guys got on, too, I couldn’t tell you). He went on to be Conan’s executive producer and to performing Triumph, the Insult Comedy Dog. He’s made movies and other TV shows, too over the years.
I seem to remember the group going on without Rob for a while. I think they did a show at some small room in the Lyric Opera House--- I wanna say: It’s a Dog’s Life. I saw that one too. It was a play sort of, more than a comedy review.
There was a guy named Ken Campbell, who went from there to our radio show to Second City to a Fox sitcom to small parts in movies (he played Max the driller who got blown up in Armageddon) to another sitcom and now I hear his voice in commercials playing a Mini-Wheat and whatnot. There was a guy named Bob Odenkirk who went from there to Second City to our radio show to SNL to The Ben Stiller Show to the cult hit: Mr. Show to directing straight to DVD movies and commercials. A guy named Tom Gianas came from there to our radio show to directing Second City to directing various cable TV shows and specials. He was also Sarah Silverman’s boyfriend for a while.
POST-OP WEEK 93
week of November 8
So we put up a show at The Theater Building, too--- Wabbit Season (after the old Bugs Bunny/Daffy Duck routine). It hemorrhaged money for about five weeks, I think, until we closed it. The house had about 200 seats. I think our maximum audience was around 10, 12. Mike got his mom to ask a “friend” of hers, a rich “friend,” to give us $5000. Just give it to us. We canceled most shows because no one showed up at all.
But, you know, that didn’t stop us. You’d think it would’ve. But all that experience did was teach us that maybe we didn’t have a theater show. Maybe we had a small show that audiences needed to “discover.” So, somehow, we talked Joe Keefe, the owner of Keefe’s Bar in Wrigleyville, to let us do our comedy show there on weekends. (I’m not sure who knew him.) We also put something up back at the Players Workshop. More people saw us but it was never huge.
Somewhere around the Comedy Showcase, we lost Holly. She’d have other things to do on weekends than to perform in front of two people who wandered in off the street. She’d be stuck in traffic, on her way home from Wisconsin and we’d be waiting for her to show up backstage. We sat in a bar one night and asked her, “confronted” maybe, about her enthusiasm toward this comedy thing and she told us that maybe she wasn’t quite as motivated as we were, so she quit. Mike was pissed. He thought we were forcing her out somehow. But she seemed okay with it.
We had auditions for a replacement. Imagine that. This dinky little comedy troupe who bombed at the Theater Building and most everywhere else had the guts to hold auditions. But, you know, we got people, women, showed up.
We picked this little woman named Denise who continually wanted to do emotional scenes, which was fine. But she’d bring in scenes called “Mother/Daughter” and there was only one woman in the group, her, so needless to say she was frustrated. We got together at her house, in the basement. She couldn’t go to Dave’s because she was violently allergic to cats and Dave had, like, 4 of them. She would, in fact, start to sneeze around Dave’s sweater if it had enough cat fur on it. Tim used to do this little “routine” at Denise’s house where he continually talked about girl germs and only walked on certain floor tiles on his way to the bathroom--- stuff like that. We laughed it off. Denise? Not so much. She quit fairly quickly.
We got together at my house once or twice, drove all the way out to the suburbs, and crowded into my little closet studio to record sketches for what ended up as three ½ hour “radio” shows that we called The Armstrong Mutual Cigar Hour. I guess the thought was to use them as a demo to get a show somewhere. Hm, a comedy group with a radio show... Where’d I hear THAT one before? (The Uncle Mikie guys and I did a 1-hour demo called The After Midnight, All-Night Rap Session on W.E.E.D. that, I think, we used as a demo) (I was so blatantly obvious)
Denise was in some of AMCH and so was my not yet wife, Anne.
We took a few of those recorded bits and songs and I sent them around to the wacky morning and afternoon DJs in the city. Steve Dahl, Terry Hemmert, who was doing mornings on WXRT and had played a couple Uncle Mikie bits, and a new guy named Jonathon Brandmeier. Johnny had a semi-open door policy of accepting tapes from listeners. The first bit he played of ours was a parody of the latenight “sex chat” radio show that was popular at the time. Our version was called “Funny Talk”--- a guy, Mike, called our host, Anne, to ask about his comedy timing. He was rushing the punchline, so his wife wasn’t getting the joke. Get it?
The second bit, or maybe Funny Talk was 2nd and this one was 1st. Anyway, the other one of the first bits he played was me singing the “Wingo” song. Mike had a cousin who could play music. And Mike drove him over to my basement where we set up his keyboard. He was pretty good at picking up what the music needed to be and then playing it. He was a bit cranky most of the time and short tempered. He was blind, too. So I always thought that we put up with his pissy attitude a lot more than we would’ve if he could see and we were paying him. We only used him a couple of times...
I put a phone number on the tapes I had been sending Johnny, Dave’s phone number, so he called Dave on the air to chat and say nice things after he played our second bit. After that, I stopped sending tapes to all the other DJs in Chicago and concentrated on Brandmeier. After that, we’d get together once or twice a week to record in my basement, when we weren’t still trying to “make it” as Theater Gods. I’d listen to the Johnny’s show every morning (the other guys did a little but some of them didn’t like Johnny at all) during my day job shooting tabletop photos of toilet seats and doorknobs. Then I’d relay what Johnny was doing, who he called that day, what bits he was playing, etc. We’d do things that meshed with his stuff or skits about current events.
We did it for free, he never paid us for anything. We did it for the joy of hearing ourselves on the radio and he’d let us mention our theater show once in a while. That wore thin after a while.
POST-OP WEEK 94
week of November 15
We replaced Denise with a woman named Sandy who was taller and pretty (I’ve got to say). She didn’t bring in 2-woman scenes, in fact, she never brought in anything that I remember. She just did the scenes that were there. I think, though, she was completely lost around the Duck Logic guys.
We changed our group promo photo so many times by this point because of the rotating women: 1st the shot with Lindsey and Holly, then we just had Holly, then Denise. I finally set up a shot that we could use no matter what. I was a photographer at a studio in the city back then. I guess I must’ve known the strain I was putting on my relationship there (they were mad that I’d be on the phone (no cells back in those days) calling Brandmeier or some other comedy deal.) One Saturday I got all the guys to come over for a photo shoot. I think I might’ve actually asked permission for that one, asked my boss if I could shoot something. Anyway, I set up the big, white background, strobe lights, and a camera. Got my assistant to get behind the camera and snap pictures of us for an hour or so... This is the promo shot we ended up with.
The couch and the chair were from some Sears shoot we had just done at the studio. The window frame I brought from home. I’m not sure why I went to all the trouble to do special effects but at the time, I thought it’d be fun. So the “falling” beer cans are attached by wire to the chair, they never moved. The “spilling” popcorn is hot-glued to a sheet of clear plastic (with a few on fishing line) so they were always in that position, too. The old black and white TV set is from my sister’s house. I thought it was kitchy, but it also served as the place we’d put the women’s headshots... Yeah, we rotated females so quickly, that we’d just drop in whoever was in the group at the time.
Eventually, Sandy left, too, and that time we didn’t replace her. We decided that maybe we didn’t need to have women in the group at all, so we stopped trying. Then all we did was drop in another picture of us (that’s the version you see, there) in the TV set. So it was us with us. No ego there.
Trivia: I’m holding “Gravity’s Rainbow,” a book I’ve never read but Tim has, upside down... Tim’s wearing a Brandmeier t-shirt, though he always said he hated the guy. And Dave’s hiding a big cast/brace on his left arm behind the TV set because he had just broken his wrist in a car accident and didn’t want the photo to forever have a picture of him in a cast (good idea!). (In all his poses, he’s hiding it behind the couch, wherever.)
After that, whenever we needed a woman for anything--- radio bits or the cable TV show we did for a while, Anne played “our woman.” She’d be doing some stage show at night and would come home around 11:30 and I’d have her record something. She was a fairly popular character on Johnny’s show called Edie, the Breakfast Fairy. It was done in that style of a 50s grade school nutrition film. She’d sing a little song and introduce some breakfast item that was thought to be good back then, but is now considered bad. For example, the first one was sausage: “Hello, boys and girls,” she’d say, sweetly. “I’m Edie, the Breakfast Fairy with your daily diet calendar. Today’s food is: mmmm, sausage.”
Then she’d sing:
Sausage is a good food, eat it every single day.
Sausage is a good food, makes your troubles go away.
Sausage is a good food, eat it yes you can.
So make a piece of sausage part of your breakfast plan...
Then she’d say: “Good morning Mr. Sausage, can you tell the boys and girls what you’re made of?” Mr. Sausage, me, would answer: “Why sure Edie... I’m made of fats, pig gunk, spices to make me smell good, AND the government limits the amount of rat hairs I can contain. You can make me into links, patties, or slabs. Sausage is a good food AND it’s easy to make...”
“Thank you Mr. Sausage,” Anne would finish. “And remember boys and girls... you are what you eat.”
Tim wrote that first one and a few others after that--- Mr. Eggs, Pancakes, maybe. Eventually, though, he got tired of writing them, so other people took over.
Anne played a couple of our other running characters even though she didn’t like hanging out with us and never sat in to write anything. She sang some of our songs, too. She always got a credit on the radio show every week. But, otherwise, it was just us guys... Duck Logic.
POST-OP WEEK 95
week of November 22
My first day of sixth grade, in a new school, with a hundred or so new kids around, was a bit scary, but I think I was handling it all right. When it was time for lunch, I got in the loooong line (it was spaghetti day!!) with my lunch money, and waited to go in the little doorway where the lunch ladies doled out the food. I was in the middle, somewhere, standing next to a boy from my old school, Jon Jansky, I think. He started messing around, pushing me or something, so much so that a teacher came up to us to make us stop. The teacher told us we were causing trouble, pulled me out of the line, and made me go to the very end of it--- as a punishment. I’m pretty sure the entire school was in that spaghetti day line, or at least the whole sixth grade.
At any rate, it was a long time until I got my lunch. I chugged along at the tail end of the line eventually getting through the doorway and into the steamy room full of lunch ladies who slapped down a glop of noodles for me. I finally got my food, sat down and ate it by myself. The whole ordeal took so long that by the time I was done and out the door for recess, the bell rang and we all had to go inside again.
That experience made me never eat another cafeteria lunch the next three years of grade school and four years of high school. I brought my lunch in a bag until high school and then by junior or senior year, I remember, not eating lunch (or if I did, it’d be chips or fries or an ice cream bar).
I don’t know, a bit extreme?
My dad was an auxiliary cop in our little suburban town. Every other week or so he’d ride along with a regular cop while they answered calls concerning barking dogs or kids who played their stereo too loud. And he got to carry a gun, a .357 Magnum, the chrome python with the extra wide trigger and the custom black handgrip with a place to rest your thumb.
I don’t know if he did it much. It never seemed special because I think the neighbor down the street was one, too. I don’t believe he every arrested anyone. But he got to drink with the rest of the cops on their off hours!
All I know is when I started driving, I couldn’t get a ticket. Because the reigning sergeant was one of my dad’s drinking buddies and the reigning lieutenant (who later became chief) hoisted a few shots of Crown Royal with dear ol’ pop once in a while, I’d always get a pass if I got stopped in a speed trap or if I made an illegal U-turn.
I had a New Years’ Eve party one year, I was in high school, all the underage kids “partying” down in my basement, wall to wall, beers in hand and I looked over the crowd to see the sergeant’s blue shirt coming down the stairs. The other kids saw him, too, and started to figure out how to jump out the tiny, basement windows we had that were up near the ceiling. I ran over to intercept him because he was just there to say Happy New Year to my dad and have a few snorts. I took him upstairs so the kids could continue to party.
I also think this might’ve been why my dad didn’t get arrested to time he and his brother were drinking at the kitchen table and they shot a hole through the window and into the garage across the yard… They were bending the ol’ elbow one night, they’d had quite a few. They were passing a gun back and forth, admiring it like “men do.” Each time, they swore later, they opened the chamber and check to see that it wasn’t loaded. Or so they said. Because my uncle held it out in front of him at arm’s length, aiming it. Not at anyone, but at some far-off spot in the garage. The gun was just in front of my dad’s head because he was sitting at his usual spot, in the chair next to him. My uncle pulled the trigger and BLAM!
My dad would say next that they shut all the lights out in the house and hid behind the kitchen drapes. A cop car slowly pulled past, checking out the complaint of gunfire in our sleepy little town not doubt. (There’s some kind of stipulation to the law that says if a policeman can see into your house, especially if they can see you, they can find probable cause to come in and search. So the trick is to shut all the lights off, so they can’t see in and then they can’t touch you… Or something like that, I think…)
When my dad put in a good word for a cousin of mine, he got on the force… And I had another free ticket in town. (I call him my cousin, but he’s really my mom’s cousin’s daughter’s husband, so that makes him my second cousin-in-law once removed? or something like that.) As my dad’s influence waned with local law enforcement, my cousin’s grew. Soon, all I had to do was mention his name to get out of a speeding ticket.
Don’t get me wrong; I didn’t abuse it. I didn’t purposely zip around town at any speed I wanted to because I knew I’d get off the hook. I was a fairly good boy. But it was our own get out of jail free card.
(My brother-in-law, on the other hand, drove his nice, suped up ’64 Corvette into a tree and left it there one night when he was out driving after having a few drinks. When the cops came to our house to investigate, my dad, drunk too, came to the door and told them he was driving. And, I guess, somehow that made it all better… and no one was arrested.)
Eventually, after I moved away and rarely came back, my cousin rose to the level of lieutenant chief (or assistant chief or deputy chief, I don’t know what they called it, exactly) and now he’s retired. I don’t know if my little sister, who still lives there, uses her get out of jail free card now, but I could check.
POST-OP WEEK 96
week of November 29
I got into building remote controlled model airplanes for a while. The weird thing was--- I liked to build them but not fly them. In fact, now that I think about it, I never flew one. I found a model I liked--- a seaplane design ---sent away for the plans, got all the raw materials and started building. The seaplane was so we could takeoff from the lake by our summer home in La Crosse, Wisconsin.
It was a big plane, six-foot wingspan, big horse and a half engine on top (normal RC planes were about ½ a horse or so), blue with a white under belly. I’d cut out the ribs, the spars for inside the wing, connect the controls with linkages to the rudder, ailerons, throttle. Make the body, cover the whole thing in this plastic coat stuff they had. Make the whole plane, but never fly it. My brother-in-law would fly it.
I’m not sure what that says about me. Maybe I didn’t want to wreck what I spent so much time building? I know a lot of kids first learning to fly RC get one of those “trainer,” planes that come apart when they crash, so they withstand all the beating they get. But I didn’t get one of those. I’d build intricate model rockets and launch those. And a lot of those crashed…
I put the remote control transmitter together, too. A Heathkit, they called it. And the receiver and the servos (the motors that actually moved the control surfaces of the plane.) I guess it was cheaper to assemble everything yourself, but man--- it was circuit board, a bag of transistors and some instructions and you were on our own. I’d sit at the old kitchen table we had in the basement and solder. Sometimes my dad would sit with me, toasted. I guess he thought he could be of some help. When I finally got it all together I turned it on and nothing worked. We had to send it away to Heathkit and they figured out that I had flipped a few diodes the wrong way around.
I don’t know, I let my brother-in-law fly it. I mean, he was good. Taking off from the water is tricky and he could do it. He never crashed it either. Okay, his dad built a really nice Piper Cub that he crashed into three or four pieces. But not the seaplane. I’d start the big engine by flipping the propeller with my fingers (sometimes getting smacked when it started and came around under power) and place it in the lake.
I started another model, a Cessna, that I never finished. I’m thinking I stopped working on it right around the time I started dating girls. It was a more intricate, but what I built looked really good. I still have it, in the basement. Anne keeps wanting me to throw it away, but I won’t.
diary continues December, 2010...