POST-OP WEEK 88
week of October 4
I took a “semester” of classes at The Player’s Workshop of the Second City downtown. I’m thinking it was right after I had graduated from college while I was messing around with my old theater buddies with the Uncle Mikey’s Clubhouse radio show. I remember taking a girl to see one of the main stage reviews. I had never been there before, I’m not sure how I even heard about them. I know I rarely went downtown, so driving all the way from my cushy white bread suburb to Old Town with a girl just for a date, was adventurous.
The Second City itself didn’t have classes back then; they hadn’t figured out that money stream yet. And none of the other “training centers” had popped up yet either. No Improv Olympic, no Comedy Sportz, no Upright Citizens Brigade. So The Player’s Workshop was it. A “semester” was 8 weeks long. It was, like, a 100-something, $150. per semester. 5 to 6 semesters and you put on a “graduation show.” They started teaching us simple stuff, then worked their way up.
I took the 1st 8 weeks in their beat-up, three-floor converted house on Lincoln avenue, then stopped for some reason.
A couple of years later, I went back. (Probably after Uncle Mikey went off the air and we stopped doing anything anymore, we broke up, whatever you want to call it.) When I signed up, the lady in charge insisted I start over and re-take session #1, because it had been so long. I insisted that that wasn’t fair. I had done level #1, I should be allowed to pick up where I left off. She caved pretty quickly and put me in the Thursday night 2nd session class.
There were 12, 15 people in the class, men and women, almost even, at different levels of talent (what did I know about talent back then?) and motivation. There was one ad exec whose company was sending her, I think, to get better at presenting. There were a couple of people who thought it’d be FUN to have something to do on Thursday nights. There were a few people who might’ve been there as therapy.
There was a guy named Mike and his friend Jim who had gotten some training in improv from Jim Belushi at College of DuPage, a junior college, who figured this was the next step. There was a guy named Tim who had done a comedy radio show down at SIU. A guy with really long hair and a beard who insisted we call him David, so he spelled it Dave-id. There was Lindsey, a woman, an artist who, I think worked as a teacher and the ad exec named Holly. And there was me.
They had all been together during their first 8 weeks, so I was the New Guy.
We did the usual stuff: randomly walked around on stage as the teacher talked us through that night’s lesson. We did theater exercises--- mirror your acting partner, improv games: speak only in questions, play all 5 characters in a scene you make up (5 Through A Door, they called it). “Object Work:” pour pretend juice, drive a fake car, open non-existent windows.
There were a few odd people in the class and a few people who never wanted to “move on.” But then there were people who began to gravitate toward each other. After class each week, it was understood that we’d have a few drinks at a place a couple of doors down called the Deja Vu, the Vu, for short. I can’t say that everyone went all the time. My feeling is that the group started thinning out as the weeks went by.
It didn’t seem so at the time, but thinking back, I think it might’ve been our core group sort of excluding the ones we didn’t like, didn’t want. At the time, I wasn’t paying much attention to who wasn’t there, just to who was. I don’t know how conscious I was of getting in or forming a new comedy group but slowly it was obvious that that’s what was happening.
Mike seemed to be “in charge.” At least, he put off this sort of charisma, this disheveled confidence, so people were drawn to him. Jim was his cocky sidekick; he always seemed like he knew something you didn’t know. He liked to snicker. Dave-id was just there, automatically, hanging with Mike and Jim. Even though they had only met a few months earlier, it was like they were childhood buds. At least that’s how The New Guy saw it.
Tim was like the other three’s mascot, their pet funny man. Tim showed up to class high sometimes. He dropped acid just before class one night and did these weird scenes about crossed-eyed ducks. He’d take on a character, say, a cement contractor who specialized in basements, all night at the Vu, just cuz. So, I guess, he was fun to keep around.
Week after week, session after session, we took classes. They’d tell us to be “in” the scene, don’t worry about telling jokes or being funny but we’d be funny anyway. A lot of the other students, I’d have to say, weren’t so much. We weren’t openly rude to the rest of the class, but I know we had an attitude.
I hung with Mike and Jim and Dave-id and Tim during class and at the Vu. It felt like an uneasy connection at first. Mike was automatically thought of as the leader. When he and Jim talked about their old group (The Construction Company)(they had a radio show, too--- at COD that was syndicated in Sitka, Alaska), he was the leader, too. One night at the bar, after class, I flatout asked the bunch if they were thinking about forming a comedy group, could I be in it, too? Mike chuckled, I remember. Said something like: “sure, okay.” And I think that might’ve been when he handed me a quarter and told me to play a song on the jukebox: “yeah, here. Why don’t you go pick out a song...”
[Things played out a bit differently as time went on... More about that as the story unfolds.]
POST-OP WEEK 89
week of October 11
One night a woman sat in on our regular Thursday night. She took classes, too, on Wednesdays but she missed one of her classes so she was in ours to make it up. Her name was Anne (my future wife!). I wouldn’t call it love at first sight. She did a few scenes, with Mike, I think, maybe Dave-id. She came out with us to the Vu after. That was about it. A few weeks later, I had to make up a class on a Wednesday night. I think Anne and I did a scene together with another guy. But that was about it.
As Anne tells the story, she hung around with us, on and off for several months. Our whole class was in the children’s show on the Second City main stage. Anne worked at the box office and wiped down tables, etc. Before and after the show, she says, she tagged along as we hung out in Old Town, having lunch or whatever. She said she was sending out “signals” that she liked me and that I was the reason she was hanging with us. But I didn’t pick up on any of them... [We didn’t start dating until at least a year later.]
Months before our big grad show, Mike, Jim, Dave-id, Tim, and I formed a comedy group with two women from class: Holly, the ad exec and Lindsey, the artist and started having “rehearsals” in the grimy basement storage area downstairs from Lindsey’s apartment in the city.
There was a guy named Greg who wanted to be in our group, and someone named Neil. But somehow, without really talking about it, we excluded them and didn’t let them in. Greg called me one day and asked if I wanted to come over to his house and “hang out.” Out of guilt maybe, I don’t know, I said okay and drove all the way to the north side to Greg’s house and we hung out. It was awkward, to say the least. There weren’t any gay vibes going on, we just hung out. I couldn’t tell you what we did. There might’ve been talk about the comedy group, come to think of it.
One night we sat around in Lindsey’s basement and tried to come up with the name for our new group. We took out a dictionary, thumbed through the pages, stopped, and pointed at “Relentless,” then at “Platypus.” Hm, no. Dave-id liked “Hugh Beaumont’s Big Top.” (Hugh was the dad on Leave It To Beaver.) Holly liked “Top Shelf.” Somebody said “The Dinette Set.” I thought it might be funny to call ourselves “TBD” because then we’d show up on every bar’s schedule whenever they didn’t have a band or group lined up yet--- we’d be all over town! In the end we settled on “Duck Logic.” I couldn’t tell you exactly why. We tried out all the names; I started announcing us like the emcee at a comedy club. “Ladies and Gentlemen, put your hands together for--- Relentless Platypus!!” Naw. “Let’s have a big round of applause for--- Top Shelf!!” Eeeyick!! In the end we went with Duck Logic, of course. It was an okay name, I guess, though it still gave us trouble sometimes. Jim drew up a cartoon duck wearing sunglasses that Dave-id refined and he became our logo.**
We took scenes we came up with in class and turned them into skits we could perform on stage. We’d run them over and over. I brought my photo equipment over one night: portable strobe lights and a backdrop, and we did publicity shots. We had a booking, somewhere--- I think it might’ve been this local, late night TV show. Channel 26 maybe, channel 60. A couple of days before this first gig, Lindsey quit. She didn’t think we were actually serious about performing live at places; that was beyond her scope. Of course, this meant the photo we just took, and made copies of, was obsolete already. (We’d run into this repeatedly when it came to women in our group and also our promo shot.)
We started performing places around the city before we graduated the Players Workshop and after. (We had a gig the day after our grad show!) We thought theaters made sense at first, so we went that route. There was a place (I think it was next to the el’ on Wrightwood) with church pews for seating. They had a fair amount of people who’d just come in to see a show, so we wouldn’t have to bring our own audience--- which we didn’t really have. One of us, probably Mike talked the manager into booking there. We were getting paid for these gigs but decided to keep at least some of the money in a “kitty” for any expenses the group incurred--- photos, fliers, props, stuff like that. Because Mike was the “leader,” he kept the cash with him.
We performed at this Wrightwood place quite frequently so we ended up hanging out with the owner and the manager (a gay couple). The manager was drunk most of the time and was sort of “flirting” with me. Mike and Jim thought that was funny and thought we could maybe get somewhere at the place if I flirted back. “Go on, Walter, go ahead and talk to your new boyfriend.” Etc etc etc ha ha ha...
We stuck with Mike as our leader for a while. He’d come to us and say he was approached for a gig but he’d turn them down because he thought it wasn’t right for us. You know, without talking to the “us” involved... We also found out he was spending the group’s collected “kitty” whenever he needed some cash for beer or a pizza. Mike’s wife took the money (that Mike kept wadded up in a jar) and gave it to Jim to give back to us, telling him it’d be safer if Mike couldn’t get to it.
They gave the money to me, no discussion, and I opened a corporate checking account with a tax ID number and our little duck logo on every check. I also took over booking us--- with a vote for each booking that came in.
**P.S. Other names choices floated around before we settled on Duck Logic: Guilt by Association, Medium Rare, and Phasers On Stun...
POST-OP WEEK 90
week of October 18
They put on a show for children in the Second City space, at 10 o’clock on Sunday mornings. I always thought it was a weird place for a kiddie show, with the smell of 30 years of stale beer and old cigarettes. (My kind of place, though, huh?) They didn’t charge much, which was good because it was an all-student cast. They recruited us from our improv classes after we got up one night in the workshop and sang for them--- their shows all had music of some kind!
We ran from the beginning of February to the middle of April 15th...
They did different shows at different times, rotating between a list. I’d be willing to bet that all their shows had lots of characters, big and small to accommodate their large classes and varying talent levels. They called ours “Critters and Creatures.” It consisted of three short stories, all public domain, held together by a narrator--- in our case a dorky guy from our class named Fred who dressed up like Frankenstein’s monster for some unknown reason. (Okay, he was tall.) (But he went all out--- bolts on his neck, stitches on his wrists.) There was the Mark Twain story: “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County,” “Beauty and the Beast,” and a little known Grimm’s fairytale called: “Jorinde and Joringel.”
The instructor cast who they cast from the people that auditioned--- everybody got a part of some kind (hence: Frankenstein). They put Mike in the role of the Mark Twain-like narrator of the Frog story. I’m pretty sure it was because he couldn’t sing--- not a note. He warned them at the audition, I was there. He told them that he was completely unable to carry a tune of any kind. But they made him try anyway and he did. It was so bad, it was funny and he thought so, too.
I’m pretty sure he wasn’t happy about getting the frog story because it wasn’t much of a part, there wasn’t room for much comedy and the rest of the characters around him were the odd people who might’ve been in class for therapy. They played the non-speaking frogs because that was about as much as they could handle.
ASIDE: Mike convinced himself that he had this “thing” that made people like him without actually having to do anything, like actually telling a joke or saying something funny. And to a certain extent, that was true. Half the time he could get away with saying, “Yeah, that’s what I’m talking about!” or “You’re telling me!” and it’d get a laugh. Maybe it was the way he bugged out his eyes or the goofy faces he’d make. I know there was a part of him that thought he was the next John Belushi. (His lack of substance really came out when he was Joe, the Love Potato our big, breakout character on the radio, where you actually had to SAY something instead of “whoa!” or “yeah!”)
So Mike got stuck in that skit and they assigned the part of The Beast (in Beauty and the Beast) to Jim. Jim’s “Beauty” was a woman named Kitty who I started “dating” right around that time. I put quotes in there because we didn’t actually go out much. Kitty was pretty, tall, brunette with a slight Southern accent. She was the only child and her parents were only children, too (so they had very small Thanksgiving dinners). She was an art therapist and the recently divorced wife of a member of Chicago’s pro soccer team. It was a messy divorce she made it seem: he was cheating on her with the secretary from the front office of the team.
I think the beginning of the end for us as a “couple” was when I went to an exhibition of her art. She and a bunch of her fellow art therapists painted, so they got a room at some college to show it off. I’d bet the art their patients created was dark and weird and full of inner meanings nagging at the poor painter’s mind that they might not even be aware of. Theirs, on the other hand, were right out in the open--- one woman did two, side-by-side self-portraits: a prim and proper, nicely dressed self on the left/a tarted-up, trampy broad in her underwear self on the right. Hm, I wonder what she’s saying with THAT one.
I think it was when Kitty showed me her painting that it probably started to unravel. She had painted a triptych in sequence: 1. A beautiful rose centered in the frame. A menacing snake can be seen just entering. 2. The same rose, beautiful. The snake is now curling around the stem, moving menacingly up toward the flower. 3. Rose, same. Snake has wrapped itself around the flower, now, too… We’re standing there, Kitty and me, admiring her work when she asks: “So... what do you think it symbolizes?” I looked at her for a quick second and said: “You’re the rose and the snake’s your ex-husband, strangling you...” Yeah, that went over real well.
[Also, come to think of it, one day at her apartment, she showed me that she had cleared out the bottom drawer of her dresser in her bedroom, all happy and proud. “So you can keep some of your clothes here when you stay overnight.” I said something brusque, like I’m not going keep anything in there. I only found out later the significance of the “drawer stage” of a relationship. Oh well.]
But I digress...
Kitty played Beauty to Jim’s Beast. So Dave-id, Tim, Holly, Lindsey, and I were in the last story, the Grimm’s fairytale. In every case, they gave us the basic outline and then told us to improvise around it. Mike and Jim didn’t stray too much from a regular story for kids, but Dave-id and I went for it. Dave-id played Joringel like Dudley Do-Right in a Mountie’s outfit. Lindsey was a floppy, kind of hippie chick as Jorinde. Holly, the ad exec, played a fairy godmother in the same story. I played a wicked Warlock in a tux jacket and tails with a top hat and a Skeletor t-shirt. Tim played my nebbishy henchman like Igor meets medieval court jester.
We rehearsed a basic story but each week we’d add a gag or change a scene. We threw in Letterman impressions for the parents; we threw Frisbees into the audience, never the same show twice. Our last show we did an elaborate bit with a camera (I put a spell on Dave-id and take a picture of it cuz I’m so proud. At one point in the show I pass the camera to him, secretly, so that later when I’m foiled he can take the camera out again and take a picture of me!! Whoo! Hoo!) At one point, our director lamented: “I liked those jokes you did last week, how come you don’t do those anymore?” We liked to change things. She never told us to go back to doing them. I always thought: you’re the director, MAKE us do those scenes again. But she never did.
Oh, and I got to sing my little Warlock song. I guess I have an okay voice, so I’m told; I did the song like a vaudevillian, but I always had trouble jumping into the beginning of the thing. There was a piano player off to the side for accompaniment; Carol, like all the Second City shows had, and she’d play my intro. But like a guy who... can’t... quite... get on... the merry-go-round... I’d keep missing it. I’d be okay with tempo and stuff once I started singing; it was gettin’ in there that I had trouble with. It got to be a joke. She ended up riffing some sort of brrrum-pum-pum-pum-pum, rummm-pum-pum-pum-pum intro until I jumped in on my own and started singing. Then she’d play the actual tune. It seemed to work out. It was something about how misunderstood I was as a warlock: “I’m creepy, yucky... You’re unlucky...” is all I can remember of it.
We didn’t get paid, of course--- it was part of our “training.” But we got to perform on the actual Second City stage, that was cool. And hang out backstage which was really grungy with props and costumes thrown everywhere and old beat-up furniture. It was that way on purpose. They’d have us go out to the lobby (you know, where the bar was!) and sign autographs for the kiddies, like we were stars or something. It was a fun show to do and the instructors told us once that it was one of their “best sellers.”
POST-OP WEEK 91
week of October 25
Just before the grad show something else happened: Second City held auditions.
The teachers at the Players Workshop recommended Mike, of course, to the powers that be at the theater and Dave-id. They both knew the other one had been called, but they weren’t talking to the rest of us about it. I don’t remember exactly how I got in, I think I just cold-called them and got myself an audition time. (I knew some agents, maybe they helped?) When I told the other two I had gotten in, they looked surprised.
Mike thought he was a shoo-in, I know it. That whoa! Heeey! Stage presence... Dave-id shrugged, what the heck. I wasn’t exactly sure why I was there. Acting was never my strong suit. Radio acting, maybe, the kind where no one can see you and you’re reading from a script. I always thought I was okay at improv, so I went in thinking that. I spent a year doing improv every week, this would be just one more comedy set...
A group of about 10 or 12 of us sat around in the bentwood chairs in the audience of the club. There were different call times, so Mike and Dave-id weren’t there with me. One by one they asked us about ourselves. They interviewed us while we stood on stage under the lights. They told me I looked like Paul McCartney (it was probably my hair at the time). They asked if I’d be willing to give up Duck Logic if I got a job with them. I was surprised the big Second City guys knew about little ol’ Duck Logic. I told them yes, no problem.
One of the other people in my audition group was a guy from my class named Fred. Fred played the Frankenstein’s monster in our kid’s show. Fred was very tall and always wore turtleneck sweaters. Big glasses; he did this kind of comb-over thing with his hair, even though I don’t think he was balding. Fred thought of himself as an actor and voiceover genius. He’d tell you all about it if you asked. And even if you didn’t. He could do over 200 impressions; it said so on his resume. Looking back, Fred probably wasn’t the worst actor in the world. He wasn’t, certainly the funniest. But he was okay as a straightman. But after almost a year with this guy in class, we’d built up some “opinions” about him.
Anyway--- the rest of the audition is going to be us doing skits. So they pair us up like they do in class--- you “number-off.” You’re in the big group and the “teacher” points at someone to start, saying: “Count of by ____.” (Whatever number will divide the class evenly--- 5, 6 groups of 2 or 3 or whatever. You go around the group counting out loud: “1, 2, 3, 4, etc” Everyone who said 1 is in a scene together, 2s together and so on.) The first time, no problem, I get paired up with someone, do the skit, it was okay. The second (and last) time, I broke the cardinal rule of numbering... See, the trick is: if you DON’T want to be in a scene with someone and they’re numbering-off, you have to sit next to them. Even if you can’t stand the guy, if you sit next to them when you number-off you’ll be 4 and he’ll be 5, so you won’t be together. But I didn’t remember that one right then and ended up in a scene with Fred.
Now, what you’re supposed to do in this situation, they tell you, is “use it.” I’ve done it before... You’re pissed on your way to the theater, but instead of trying to forget it, get over it, you “use it,” you do your first scene or two pissed. (Not ranting, but angrier than the night before when you were happy on your way to the theater.) Ah, but I didn’t use it. I let it get to me and I got into an argument on stage--- a cardinal sin. The scene turned into a “no, I didn’t, you did...” “No, I didn’t...” “Uh-huh...” “Nuh-huh...” Yeah, great. Now, I don’t know if I would’ve gotten a part in one of Second City’s many, many troupes, travelling companies or whatever and it was all Fred’s fault that I didn’t. In all reality, I probably wouldn’t’ve gotten one; I’m terrible at auditions. But arguing with Fred sure didn’t help. Yeah, ho, hey Mike didn’t get in either and neither did Dave-id. So we were all back in Duck Logic.
TO BE CONTINUED
diary continues November, 2010...