Monday, April 30, 2007

Buff My Helmet

Okay, I ride a bike and I wear a helmet. I don't consider myself a bike geek - sorry, no genitalia-in-relief bike shorts - but I do follow the rules of the road.

If you ride a bike in Chicago and you don't wear a helmet, stop reading. I can't help you. It takes a special kind of stupid to look at the traffic and the concrete and the comparatively extreme softness of your own brain container and think, "Nah - I'll take my chances." There is nothing I can say that will change your mind. Gravity, inertia and your face inserted into gravel will be the only persuader.

If you do wear a helmet, then, please, read on. There's hope for you. You're smarter than the average bike-riding bear (they don't wear helmets, either). But that doesn't leave you off the hook. I hope nobody finds themselves in any of the following categories, but, if you do, please consider this "friendly" advice.

- If you wear your helmet like it's a jaunty chapeau or on the back of your skull like an industrial-strength yarmulke, you're an idiot. You're thwarting the purpose of the helmet by trying to wear it in a way that looks cool. Bike helmets are not designed to look cool. They are designed to keep your egg from crackin'. Wear it properly. Flat on the top of your head and only a room for a finger or two between the strap and your neck. It should be snug, but not constricting.

- If you have your helmet attached to your handle bars or your backpack while riding, what the hell are you thinking? Are you telling the world, "I'm smart, but not THAT smart!" Are you going to try to whip it on your head as you're flipping over your handle bars? You have it, you bought it, now wear it.

- If you wear a helmet, leave the iPod at home or in your backpack. Don't plug your ears with music while riding. You're less likely to hear approaching cars, but you also won't hear other bikers coming up behind you. Bad enough we have to deal with the swaying roller-bladers and their iPods, we don't need the likes of you swerving your two-wheeler into us. To ride a bike safely in the city, you have to be hyper-aware of your surroundings. You can't do that while jamming to your Sweet Summer Jams featuring Foghat mix.

- If you wear a helmet, and your jamming Au natural to the environment, be considerate.

For example...

- Don't buzz other bikers or pedestrians. As you approach another biker that you are about to pass, let them know you are there. A simple, friendly "On your left" is enough. Unless you're on the right, then, you know... And that's another thing, as on a multi-lane highway in your car, favor the right so others can pass your more easily.

- Slow down at crosswalks and be ready to stop. It's okay to stop your bike. Really, it is. It seems some bikers feel they have defeated the purpose of riding their bike if they actually stop and put a foot or two to the ground. A bike has brakes for a reason. Don't roll into the intersection. Cars don't want to hit you, but they will if they have to. Especially be careful and considerate at crosswalks along the Lakeshore path, sometimes cars get backed up. It's okay to stop and let them through. Not all them. Just a few. Don't want them to get the wrong idea.

- If you're riding on the streets, follow the flow of traffic and honor stop signs and traffic lights. Being on a bike doesn't entitle you to ignore them. It's actually the law, but, really, it's just the smart thing to do.

- If you're over thirteen, stop riding your bike on the sidewalk. You're scaring people. Unless it's part of your paper route, get off and walk your bike or get back on the road.

- If you're riding with a friend, be careful about riding in pairs. Especially along the Lakeshore path, you're taking up a lot of space. And if it's busy, that means another biker has to move into the on-coming lane to pass you. I know you're probably having a very nice conversation, but better to ride single file.

- If you're riding at night, have a front and tail light. This is for the benefit of cars, pedestrians and other bike riders. It's amazing how invisible someone on their bike can be at night. And there's no engine to give you away. So, I recommend proper lighting and saying "Vroom-Vroom" a lot.

- Pace yourself according to how fast everyone else is moving. This is especially true along the lake. If it's crowded and things are slow, slow down. Better to be careful than cause an eight-stroller pile-up. I know his is counter to getting a good workout. If that's why you're riding, ride during less populated times, like late at night, early morning, mid-morning or mid-afternoon of a weekday. Better to slow down during peak times than to continue your workout at a physical rehab center.

The City of Chicago is very pro-bicycle and we should take every advantage of it. Unfortunately, with the influx of bikers comes an influx of unsafe bikers. Don't be one of them. Be kind. Be safe.

Check out the City of Chicago's website, Great place for information on routes and safety. And definitely check out my friends at, a great organization to get involved in and to support. They sponsor several really cool bike tours during the summer.

Sunday, April 29, 2007

The Semi-Hard Truth About Viagra

So, I teach part-time at Columbia College. There are very few benefits except for built-in raises and tuition remission. I can take classes for free - only having to pay for books and fees. The only stipulation is that I can only take as many classes as I taught the previous semester. I taught two classes in the fall, so this spring I am taking two classes - Contemporary European Nationalism and Ethnic Conflict and The Biology of Human Sexuality. The biology class is interesting, but not nearly as interesting as I expected. Our teacher, Arthur, is a nice guy, good-hearted, but scattered and likes to talk.... a lot. If he ever gave an exam on his family and philosophy, I would ace it. You never quite know what to study for with exams and I get the sense he doesn't quite know because he hasn't put the exam together yet and is making it up as he goes. It hasn't been a waste of time, though. Not at all. There's a lot of interaction and I have learned a few things about my junk that I didn't know. My prostate creates semen which is the transport system for sperm and not the sperm itself. And I got to see how female parts are all mapped out. Man, there's a lot going on there!

One of the major assignments in biology is to do a presentation. Arthur told us yesterday that it would count as our final exam. Again, this is an example of him changing things at the last minute, but as far as a grade goes, it worked in my favor. Arthur encouraged us to do our presentation in whatever medium we felt the most comfortable. Most students do Power Point. Me interacting with Power Point is like the monkey in 2001. So, I decided to write a sketch. It was risky. I didn't know if my brand of comedy was going to go over well in a Saturday afternoon biology class. Most everyone in it is either a film or theater major, so I had a good shot. I got four actors from my Comedy Workshop class and an actor from one of my Writing 5 shows to help me out. I paid them in donuts. I gave them their scripts at noon and we performed the sketch as a staged reading at 1pm. They kicked butt. We got a great response and I'm pretty sure I got an "A." It's funny, in high school and college, I did not care about grades. Not at all. I think because I'm a teacher and the classes are free, I'm a little more obsessed with doing well. And, it's like a do over. I had fun in college and high school and learned a lot, but wish I had thrown myself more into getting good grades.

The piece is called "The Semi-Hard Truth About Viagra: An After Work Special." It's educational and chock full of dick jokes. There is a flaw in the piece. It's written as a staged reading. The generic stage directions become a narrator's voice halfway through. I knew I would be reading the stage directions and flipped it into narrator mode to wrap up the story more quickly. Plus, I wanted in on the fun. If I were to rewrite it for the stage or video, I would simply add a narrator.

(I will post my written work here from time-to-time. If I ever post anything anyone is interested in using, just ask me about it in the comment section.)

Here it is....

Written by Joe Janes

Gerald, 40’s – Gabe Trulson
Bob, 50’s – Jon Cohen
Dr. Grebnak, 40’s – Spike Maguire
Hugh Hefner, 80’s – Tony Torres
Tina, 40’s – Kate Lambert
DJ – Spike Maguire
Old Widow Kravitz – Kate Lambert
Mr. Kravitz – Jon Cohen
Mitzi – Tony Torres

(Lights up on Gerald sitting at his desk in his office. He is looking through file folders and checking his watch. Bob pokes his head in the door.)

Hey, Stud. Working late?

Um, yeah. Bob. I am. How about you?

Nope. On my way home to bang my wife.


Sure. Probably more than once, too. Unless there’s something good on television.

But, how?

Gee, Gerald, isn’t that territory your dad should have covered with you?

No, I mean. You’re over 50. I’m over 40 and I’m sitting here trying to find work to do so I don’t have to go home and face the fact that… face the fact…

That Mr. Stiffy ain’t so stiff anymore?


The ol’ cock don’t crow like it used to?

Something like that-

That your penis has that not-so-hard feeling?

That’s it, exactly. Bob, what’s wrong with me? My wife is attractive.

Your wife is hot. Hot-hot-hot.

Then what is it?

You’re not 18 anymore, Gerald. That little pig between your legs doesn’t snuff for truffles like it used to. According to the book, Maximize Your Vitality & Potency for Men Over 40 by Jonathan V. Wright, M.D. and Lane Lenard, Ph.D., as a man ages, the man will have less interest in sex, he will have sex less frequently and sex is less enjoyable for a male experiencing lower testosterone symptoms. Sexual frequency averages 3-4 times a week for the typical man in his twenties, declines to once a week or so in his fifties and to 1-2 times a month in his late seventies.

One to two times a month. I’d like to get up to that level.

Along with low sex drive, impotence increases with age and the related lower testosterone levels. Nearly 10% of males over 50 and 40% of males over 70 have impotence problems. The only thing wrong with you is that you’re older

I’ve seen that happen to other guys. I never thought it would happen to me. But, wait, you’re older than me. Do you really still do it with your wife?

And how. I often dip my pen in her inkwell. Although, the ink ain’t as wet as it used to be. But that’s a different presentation.

How do you do it? What’s your secret?

I get a little help.

You mean, like an intern?

No, no. I get help from science. I take Viagra.

Viagra? I heard Viagra was for losers.

Do I seem like a loser to you?

I guess not.

Besides, all the cool executives take Viagra.

But aren’t there harmful side effects?

Um, yeah, if you call having an erection for over four hours harmful.

Four hours?

It can happen. But the only thing its harmful to is other people. Almost poked a guy’s eye out at Starbucks once.

Gee, do you have any on you?

Sorry, Pal. Keep them at home. Here’s my doctor’s card. Just swing by. You don’t need an appointment.


Yeah. He works out of his car.

Thanks, Bob. I’ll let you know how it goes tonight.

You won’t have to. I’ll just look for the grin on your face in the morning. Good night, Stud.

(Bob exits as Gerald looks at business card. Lights fade. Lights up on Dr. Grebnak refusing to give an older man in his 80’s wearing silk pajamas, a robe and thick eye glasses, more Viagra.)

Please, doctor. Please. It’s not for me, it’s for my five girlfriends.

Your girlfriends left you long ago, Hef. Get up. Stop humping my tires. Have some dignity.

I can’t help it. Doc. I need more Viagra. It’s the only thing that will straighten me out.

Dammit, man. I told you to ease up on it. Look at you, now. You’re a drooling idiot.

(Hugh starts humping a parking meter.)


Just get the hell out of here, Hef. I’m trying to run a business here.

(Gerald enters.)

Are you Dr. Grebnak?

(Hugh starts humping Gerald’s leg.)

A woman! A woman! Ugh! Ugh ! Ugh!

What the-?

DR. GREBNAK(swatting Hugh with a newspaper)
Bad, Hef! Bad! Get off the poor man! Now, go!

(Hugh yelps and runs off.)

What was his problem?

Blind as a bat. It’s from the Viagra. He was an abuser.

You can abuse Viagra?

If it’s a drug, it can be abused. He took so much he built up a tolerance to it. His body needed more and more Viagra until it didn’t respond to it anymore. Viagra abusers may develop health conditions; including exhaustion, sleep deprivation, chafed, sore, swollen, and red genitalia; and strained groin muscles. Now, he’s just messed up in the head. He gets the urges, but can’t do anything about it.

Why can’t he do anything about it?

His junk is all beat up. It’s soft. Poor man couldn’t penetrate soup. What can I do for you?

I wanted to get some Viagra, but now I’m not so sure.

Aw, you’ll be all right. Hef just couldn’t handle it. You look like you can handle it. You’re man, enough, aren’t you?

Man enough for Viagra? Yeah, sure. But. Maybe I should try something else, like Cialis.

They both work they same way, except Cialis stays in your system longer. Viagra is for the man who knows he’s going to get some and you look like you know.

Yeah, I do. How does Viagra work?

Viagra tablets contain the active ingredient sildenafil, which works by preventing the action of a chemical in the body called PDE 5.

An erection is produced via a complex chain of events, involving signals from the nervous system and the release of chemical messengers within the tissues of the penis. One of these chemical messengers is called cyclic GMP.

Cyclic GMP causes the blood vessels in the penis to widen by relaxing a thin layer of muscle found in the blood vessel walls. This allows more blood to enter the penis, which ultimately results in the penis becoming rigid and erect.

Cyclic GMP is normally broken down by another chemical in the body called PDE 5. Sildenafil works by preventing the action of PDE 5, thus stopping the breakdown of cyclic GMP. This means that the blood vessels are kept dilated for longer, improving blood flow to the penis and maintaining an erection. (Gerald is yawning.) You still with me?

Hunh? Oh, yeah. You just lost me there a little bit.

Here you go.

(Dr. Grebnak tosses Gerald a small packet.)

How much do I owe you?

Nothing. Free sample. You come back after you fire off that rocket, and then we’ll talk price. Take one now. By the time you get home, you’ll be ready to rock…and roll.

GERALD (takes one)

(We hear a car crash offstage and a painful yelp from Hugh.)

What was that?

I think Hef just tried to hump a Hummer.

(Lights out. Lights up on Gerald’s wife Tina. She is lighting candles in their living room. She turns on a CD of Celine Dion music. Gerald enters.)

Hi, Honey. Gosh, it sure is dark in here.

I know. I turned the lights down.

Oh, whew! I thought maybe I was going blind.

I’m just trying to set the mood. You know, it’s been awhile.

Yeah, I know. Hey, look, I know this is crazy, but I was thinking about trying Viagra.

Viagra? Honey, don’t be silly. We don’t need science to make love. We just need each other.

Yeah. I guess you’re right.

Why, Gerald, are you aroused?

Oh, hey, look at that. Must be the Celine Dion.

(Gerald and Tina make wild, passionate monkey love.)

Oh, Gerald! You haven’t been this ways since you were eighteen!

Yeah! Pretty cool, eh?

What’s gotten in to you?

I love you? …I guess.

(Tina and Gerald fall asleep in each other’s arms…smiling. Gerald awakes in the middle of the night. Tina fast asleep and his Oscar Meyer in search of a new bun. Gerald immediately goes to see Dr. Grebnak.)

Dr. Grebnak, I need more Viagra.

How much more?

How much are they?

Ten bucks a pop.

Give me a hundred.

Here you go! Remember, pace yourself. You don’t want to end up like Hef.

(Gerald didn’t listen. He began to pop those little blue pills like they were candy from a penis pez dispenser. He began to hump everything in sight. His neighbor, the Old Widow Kravitz.)

Oh, my!

(Mr. Kravitz, the man Mrs. Kravitz pretended was dead.)

Oh, my!

(The Kravitz’ pet schnauzer, Mitzi.)

Roh, my!

(Due to the graphic nature of what happened next, we can’t show you, we can only tell you. Gerald put his penile plank in anything that would take it. Mailboxes, vending machines, VCR slots, bottles of Gatorade. Gerald passed out in a playground near his home. He awoke to children dancing around his penis like it was a May Pole. The police arrested him for indecent exposure, but not without first complimenting him on his impressive erection. They had to move the camera back to take his mugshot in profile. They released him on bail to the custody of his loving wife.)

Oh, Gerald. How could you?

I just wanted to make you happy, Tina.

You have a problem, Gerald.

I know. I know. I don’t know what to do.

I found some people who can help.

(Tina takes Gerald by the hand and they walk off. Lights fade. Lights come up on an empty room with chairs in it. Seated are Bob and Hef.)

Bob? Hugh Hefner? What are you doing here?

Well, Gerald. We realized we had a problem.

We’re Viagraholics.

Viagra had taken over my life.

I was taking it all the time. Even when I was alone.

But when I took Viagra, I felt like a man.

There are other ways, Gerald. I’ve discovered that a healthy diet and exercise, like yoga, can work wonders.

I’ve learned to take my time. Savor the moment of touching my wife. Breathing techniques, help, too. Thanks to my tantra classes.

That all sounds great.

I bought some ginkgo biloba which helps memory and blood flow.

That way I’ll remember to have sex! You’re so thoughtful, Honey.

And I signed us up for classes in erotic massage, Gerald. I think that will help spice things up.

That sounds wonderful. So, what do we do at these Viagraholics meetings. Should I get up and talk about my experiences.

I’d rather you didn’t.

Well, I think I learned a valuable lesson here. I learned that-

Shhh, Gerald. The show’s about to start.


(At that moment, the lights dim and throbbing house music kicks in.)

Another alternative to get the blood flowing down to the nether regions –


Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the stage the exotic stylings of our number one dancer…


Old Widow Kravitz!


(The End. Lights fade.)

Saturday, April 28, 2007

How To Ruin Date Night

My schedule is pretty crazy and it flies in the face of my girlfriend's normal schedule. We make sure that once a week, at the very least, we have a date night. Last night's date night was a simple dinner at home and watch a movie. We decided to watch Cache, a very intriguing and unconventional French noir - unconventional in that it doesn't use a soundtrack and often has long scenes done in one take from a still camera.

I have seasonal allergies. And I hate to take allergy medicine. It takes care of the symptoms, but usually leaves me feeling pretty loopy. Yesterday afternoon, though, the sneezing and runny nose was just too much. Certainly not an attractive asset to Date Night. SO, I scrounged through the medicine cabinet and found some allergy medicine from last year, some Walgreen's knock off. Checked the expiration date - good til December '07 - and took the last one.

Things were all good. Julie came home. We whipped up a dinner and then watched The Daily Show and The Colbert Report together. I felt myself getting very sleepy, in spite of the non-drowsy medicine. Maybe I didn't get enough caffeine. I stuck pretty close to home all day and hadn't had anything since some white tea that morning. Surely that was it. Julie made tea for us and we settled in to watch Cache. Half an hour in, I could barely keep my eyes open. I told Julie about the Wal-Fed I took and she said that we don't have any non-drowsy medicine. It's an antihistamine. Guaranteed to knock me on my butt. And it did. I went to bed at 9pm while Julie finished the movie.

I woke up at 11pm or so, wide awake and with an upset stomach. Julie was already in bed and my stirring woke her. We chatted for a moment. She liked the movie. but erased it from the DVR because she thought I didn't like it. That it bored me. It didn't bore me. I was on drugs. I got up to sit up for awhile. I was going to work on the computer, but both cats had commandeered my chair. Yes - cats napping affects my work. So, I turned on the TV and found Cache was playing. I turned to it and it was exactly at the point where I stopped watching. So, I stayed up. Date Night having been effectively killed, I was going to accomplished something positive!

MOM UPDATE: She's home! Doing well. The surgery was minor and won't affect her regular routine. Yeah!

Friday, April 27, 2007

Blind Donkey Hopscoth

Mom Update: They catheterized her heart yesterday. All the by-passes she received four years ago collapsed. They put five stents in. Apparently, this is a fairly common and comparatively minor procedure. They used local anesthetic. She may be back home sometime today. Yeah, Mom!


WNEP Theater has been indelibly linked with dadaism and it's my fault.

In the fetal days of WNEP, before it was WNEP, I experimented with what I was then calling "performance comedy." Somewhere around 1992 or 1993. Without really being able to articulate it, I was trying to deconstruct typical sketch comedy into finding humor in the moments of odd performance art-type pieces. I think I described it as Sesame Street for adults. Even did a short show called "Floyd and Meme" with Don Hall, Jimmy Rhoades and Meme Meket. It was fun, but didn't develop into anything.

In 1995, I became an understudy for a popular Chicago show called KLOWN: Prick Us and We Burst. The show was created by Joel Jeske, Kevin Sherman, Bruce Green and Dave "Otto" Schmidt. While in and of itself it was a brilliantly, dark, evil piece of work, it also had a life off the stage. The guys billed themselves as a European clown troop. They did interviews in costume and always spoke in German accents. They promoted a whole fictionalized history for themselves, the company and the great director who silently directed them with hand gestures from a room outside the theater and never watched them perform. The show was messy, bloody, violent and fun as hell to perform. We all had to develop our own unique Klown persona - I was Hugo Klopicht - who tended to all his personal hygiene needs with a straight razor, only ate oranges and played ukulele. During the rehearsal process, Joel began to talk to me about the origins of the Klown show and Dada. After Klown: Prick Us... closed, he and I began to work on a series of Dada pieces. He took the lead, introducing me to sound poems and simultaneous poems. He came up with the name Soiree Dada. We performed our first show as a duo in the back room of Sheffield's at an open mic night. For any hardcore Soiree Dada fans, that's where the infamous "Number 7" premiered.

After that show, Joel brought two more people in - Circus-Szalewski and Bob Wilson. Circus had been another understudy of the Klown show. I'm not sure how Joel knew Bob except that Bob was also a part of WNEP. I began to write Dada pieces like a mofo. Some of my favorites being "Death Eating Celery," "Dead Men Don't Talk" and "The Frog Prince." Writing Dada pieces opened up a valve in my head. I love to write Dada. There's no wrong way to write a Dada piece. You can let utter nonsense flow out of your head, you can bang on your computer keyboard upside down, you can let your cat walk across your keyboard, you can cut pictures and words out of magazines and books and paste them willy-nilly on paper.

We ran Soiree Dada over the summer of 1996 performing at a few different venues. Joel was having internal issues with the boys from Klown, so this was developed as a co-production between them and WNEP.

I'll spare you the true Dada history lesson about the gang at Cabaret Voltare. But in embracing Dada, I began to embrace the time period from which it sprang forth, after World War I. I began to listen to music and watch films from that era - especially Buster Keaton films. It criss-crossed in my mind with one of my other favorite art forms, Vaudeville. I began to write the seeds of a play that would become Metaluna and the Amazing Science of the Mind Revue - sort of a Dada five ring circus. It was very successful for WNEP and very successful for me. We performed it at the old Annoyance Theater space in Wrigleyville on Sunday and Monday nights. Mick Napier was working with Second City at the time on Paradigm Lost - to me, the best show to ever come out of Second City. Mick caught bits and pieces of Metaluna and then next thing we knew, people from Second City and the mainstage began to show up in our audience. Critics loved the show and The Reader posted it as one of the best of the year for 1996. I don't remember the exact dates, but I believe we opened in November of 1996 and ran into early 1997. It led to me being hired by Second City. I was riding pretty high and since then, WNEP has been forever linked with Dada.

So, here I am twelve years out from Klown: Prick Us and We Burst and developing another Dada show, SOIREE DADA: Blinde Essel Hopse with WNEP. It's huge. There's nine of us in the cast with Don Hall directing assisted by Steve Lund and Bob Fisher. And I'm having a blast writing material for it. What I learned from creating Soiree Dada and Metaluna, is that the world is your orchestra. Listen for the music everywhere, bring it in and spit it back out. My favorite piece so far was cobbled together from bits and pieces of a book called A Small Corner of Hell: Dispatches from Chechnya by Anna Politkovskaya - a journalist believed to have been assassinated by the Putin regime in retaliation for her honest, straight forward reporting on the war in Chechnya. The book is quite an eye-opener to the state of things in Russia and how civilians are the real victims of all wars. There was a chapter about her meeting a newlywed couple that lived in a bombed out flat. With the war going on around them, this sweet crippled couple lived like they walked out of a 1950's American sitcom.

Here's the poem I wrote:

Ihre Küche by Dada Mondo Yippeeeeeee (v2)

You keep your rooster and hen salt and pepper shakers in a jar made for cookies.

The rooster is dusted with ground pepper.

The hen is crusted with iodized salt.

Their corks are dried and split.

They can no longer contain themselves.

You keep your comb in the ice box.

Your oven is full of twigs and broken wishes.

Your pots and pans are just symbols of your struggle for a better life.

You have an unusually high regard for your sink, but only tooth paste for your pipes.

Your trousers don’t mean a thing.

They’re just a figment of your imagination.

I am ashamed to cry for you in your presence. So, I don’t.

Thursday, April 26, 2007


There's some bug going around the students at Columbia and I think I've got it. Been very achy and nauseated-y. SO, today's blog will just be a mini-recap of Wednesday. Wednesday, like Mondays, tend to be long days. In addition to my Columbia schedule during the day, I have WNEP Dada rehearsals at night.

MOM UPDATE - The doctors have delayed catheterizing her heart. Apparently, it's an exploratory procedure to see if she needs more stuff done. What they did do is put a stent in one of her carotid arteries. I spoke to her in the afternoon after the operation and she sounded fine. Although, I think during her stay, they have taken her off her Alzheimer's medicine. She didn't remember speaking to me the day before nor did she recall having the operation on her neck earlier in the day. She's very aware that she has Alzheimer's. When my brother reminded her she already had that operation, her response was simply, "Oh, okay."

IMPROV 1 - The semester is winding up at Columbia, which means I'm going into overdrive to have a lasting valuable impact on my students. I wasn't quite sure what to do today and I picked up Jimmy Carrane and Liz Allen's book Improvising Better for inspiration. It's a great book. Very pragmatic. Especially sound advice for improvisers on and off the stage. There's section entitled The Improv Committee Resides in Your Head. It addresses improvisers who tend to be performing for someone other than themselves or their scene partners, like trying too hard to make the audience like them or playing to other "cool" improvisers in the audience. The advice to the improviser who does this is to simply serve your scene partner. Be in service to your scene partner. That was my focus for the class. We did three person scenes and I saw the best work I've seen out of this class. They were listening to one another, taking gifts and building on them with emotional investments, they were wanting something important from one another. They were working together and discovering things together. I saw some very interesting scenes, like a guy who invites his ex-girlfriend over to watch a Jimmy Buffet concert at Wrigley Field from his rooftop and she brings a friend because she knows he's just trying to rekindle their failed relationship. There was also the scene where a couple is celebrating their anniversary by going spelunking in a cave and the husband brings along his best friend who's more than just his best friend. Really cool stuff. Thank you Jimmy and Liz! If you are at all serious about improv, or at least tell people you are, prove it and check out their book.

COMEDY WORKSHOP - These guys are brilliant. They have really exceeded my expectations of a group of college students putting together a sketch revue. Smart, funny, vulgar, ridiculous, cruel and silly. And there are dancing vegetarian zombies! The name of the show is "Savage Breast." They will be performing for one night only at Donny's Skybox at 7pm. The show is free. Come early to get a seat. There are some real rock stars in this group that you will hear from again in the future.

DADA WORKSHOP - Always a gas. We're in writing sessions, right now. I love writing Dada material because you can't do it wrong. It's very freeing. Writing a Dada poem or scene is like collaging the universe. I've been churning out a lot of material. My only disappointment is that we ran out of time and didn't get to it all. It's much more fun to read the pieces with a group.

Sorry, I haven't figured out how to embed YouTube videos in my blog, yet. The following appalls me for three reasons; Celine Dion, American Idol and the appropriation of a dead guy's image without his consent. However, it's really fickin' cool! Check it out!

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Lest We Forget

So, my mom is in the hospital.

In the summer of 2003, while my older brother was going through a second divorce and my younger brother was trying to figure out his life post-Air Force, my mother had a heart attack. She underwent triple by-pass surgery. My mom is a tiny woman, a few inches away from official dwarfdom. The thought of her being on an operating table with her chest split open with rib spreaders is devastating to me. Since the operation, she hasn't been the same.
She is very forgetful and will often recount the same story more than once in a conversation. The doctors strongly suspect she has Alzheimer's. I say "suspect," because apparently they can't determine Alzheimer's until after you've died from it. Her sister died of Alzheimer's about two years ago.

There is a plus side to this. When I am home for Christmas, every night is Christmas Eve to her and every morning is Christmas morning. Her condition seems to have brought out a nurturing, maturity from my brothers. I used to regard them as chain-smoking alcoholics who were just riding out the rest of their lives. Not very responsible. For example, when my mother had her heart attack, my sister and I didn't find out about it until a few days later. We gave them hell for that, too. Through caring for my mom, they have grown a bit. I'm more than a little jealous of their relationship with each other and with my mom.

Overnight Monday, she had a small heat attack. I say "small" like it's cute or something. It's certainly not as serious. My brothers, incidentally, called me early in the day and throughout with updates. I spoke with Mom yesterday and she sounded in as good a shape as usual. The doctors are going to catheterize her heart (basically, inserting a small plastic tube into the aorta) and, if need be, do something similar to open up the flow one of the carotid arteries in her neck.

My brothers assure me that it's not going to be a big deal, but still...

With this in the back of my brain, I had a rehearsal last night with a group I'm directing called OLD. (They really need another name, I think. Most of them are in their 40's. One guy is in his 50's. They certainly don't seem old to me.) It's a nice, little show with some really strong songwork - they have literally been working their butts off on a Stomp-like piece. It's been refreshing for me to work with a group of people who are my peers in age. They get my references! My only regret, if I may have one before the show even opens, is not pushing them harder to deal with more mature themes in their scenes. Their songs do a good job of representing the points-of-view of life as seen from someone past the 40 year marker. The scenes are fun, but mostly don't deal with that unique perspective of staring down the last half of your life. Thoughts about mortality, retirement, health, fulfilment on almost every level, all seem amplified in my brain.

In spite of all that's rolling around my cranium, I like my life. I'm not doing it the way my parents did. I'm having fun, in a great relationship, doing my best to take care of myself and others, challenging myself through education and creativity.

There's a line in one of OLD's songs that goes "Old ain't what it used to be, old is what we say it be." I think this is true. And when I think of my mom in the hospital, dealing with her illnesses, it makes me appreciate her, my family and my life here in Chicago even more. I ain't dead, yet. And I ain't old.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Mainly, I Teach...

Mondays tend to be long days for me.

Every week day, I get up at six am, feed the cats (Houdini and Oona), check e-mail, read, see my girlfriend off as she leaves for work, write and prepare for the day. On Mondays, I teach two classes in the afternoon at Columbia and then teach a class in the evening at Second City. I have been teaching at Second City since 1997 and at Columbia since 2004. This is my main source of income. I love teaching, but it has its frustrations as a life support system. I only get paid when I teach. When we're on break or vacation, I'm not getting paid. There's no salary, no health benefits. And if a class gets cancelled because there wasn't enough students enrolled, tough cookies. Doesn't matter that I cleared my schedule or planned for that money. It's gone. Columbia does give you a $100 consolation prize. I think that's to cover the cost of the booze or low-grade drugs you'll need to forget that you're now out a few thousand bucks.

When school's in session at Columbia, I usually teach two classes that meet twice a week. At Second City, I'm usually scheduled for two classes. I would love to teach more at both institutions. For the money? Yep. But also because, I LOVE teaching and have compiled enough experience to be able to handle the workload.

At Columbia, I'm part-time faculty. Most everyone there is part-time faculty. It's how they keep tuition costs low. That means they can't really throw more classes my way without having to answer to someone somewhere about making me full-time. At Second City, I'm considered a Guest Artist, which is beyond me. It's the lowest rung on the faculty ladder there. I used to be a Core Faculty Member, which I enjoyed. Unfortunately, during my time as the Artistic Director of ComedySportz, I wasn't able to maintain my Core Faculty duties, so I was, justifiably and with my agreement, bumped down. Then, of course, about two months later I left CSz. It's going on a year, now, since I left and I still haven't been able to get bumped back up at Second City. The advantages to being Core Faculty is that you are guaranteed three classes a term and are first up for workshops and intensives.

So, why do I put up with such a shaky income stream?

I love to teach.

In the spring of 1997, I was hired into The Second City National Touring Company. About a day later, I got a call from Martin DeMaat asking if I would like to teach improv classes.

"Um, why me?"

"Gut feeling. I think you'd be good at it."

"When would I start?"

"Tomorrow night."

"What do I do? What do I say?"

"It's the first class. Just run them through some basic 2-3 person scenes. You'll know what to say."

And he was right. I was surprised to discover that once I got in the room and started to work with them, I did know what to say. It was like every teacher I ever admired was whispering in my ear. I saw my words have a positive impact on how improvisers performed in scenes. I saw people light up.

I haven't found anything better. I direct, I write, I act, but mainly, I teach.

Wow - that last sentence made me gag. I love the other stuff, too. Probably as much. Sometimes more. Out of all the possible sources of income for me as an artist, teaching has been the most consistent. Teaching pays most of the bills. And I'm happy to be doing what I love.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Putting Together a Running Order for a One-Act Sketch Revue

Today, I am putting together the final running order for Savage Breast as well as putting the final touches on The Couch of Comedy's Baaaaadaaaaasssss Revue and OLD's Sketch Khakis. It reminded me of an article I wrote a few years ago where I compiled my philosophies for putting an RO together. Here it is, slightly amended.

This piece specifically addresses the typical revue done in Chicago, which is usually only 30-50 minutes long. Only Second City tends to do revues in two acts.

The information is culled from over twenty years of working in improv and sketch comedy. There are similarities in philosophy in what I present here in Second City’s Improv Almanac and Bernie Sahlin’s book on creating revues. I recommend you read them. I also think the best teacher is doing shows, applying the theories and seeing them in action.

Often, I will see a show where I like the cast, I like some of the material, and the show just doesn’t work. I leave saying polite things, but there’s no excitement at having just shared something special. There’s something missing. I think the audience feels this, too, but probably has an even tougher time pinning down why. The actors may just chalk it up to a tough night or an unresponsive crowd.

Many times, the problem lies in the order of the material. Many groups focus on the individual scenes of a show and forget about the show itself. Or, I’ve seen them focus so much on style and transitions, that they forget to focus on the content and flow of the show. Essentially, what they perform is a comedy recital, not a revue.


“Let’s establish who the performers are and then surprise them with what else they can do.” – Paul Sills

In every relationship, there’s a deal going on – often unspoken – on what the two people expect from one another. I’ll be the guy you can go have a beer with when your boss is pissing you off and you be the guy I go to when I need a good laugh.

There’s this notion that the audience needs to be warmed-up, like they’re athletes getting ready for a workout. It’s not so much that they need to warm up, but need to be allowed the chance to warm up to you. They need to get a chance to meet you and like you. Then they can relax and really enjoy themselves. If they aren’t sold on you, it’s that uphill battle, again.

In a revue, the audience is looking to strike a relationship deal with the ensemble.

A show, like a scene, can be broken down into a beginning, middle and an end. In a scene, it’s important to establish with an audience the who, what and where so they can be in on action. The same goes for the whole show. In the first few minutes, if not seconds, of a show, the audience is looking to strike a deal with you. They want to know who you are, what you’re about, and that you care about them. They want to be your partner on this journey. They want to be assured that they have spent their time and money well. If you don’t gain their confidence at the start, you may have an uphill battle. Or you go through the show thinking, “we’ll get them with the next scene, that always kills.” You’ll never feel like you’re on sure ground with them. After the show, you may go on to blame the lack of rapport on things like the space, the tech, the time of day, the audience itself. Those have some validity, but what’s certain is that they never got on board with you.

Audiences want to laugh. They showed up, didn’t they? They are looking for opportunities. But they see and judge everything, especially in the beginning of a show. I have, on several occasions, turned to someone next to me in an audience after less than a minute and whispered “we’re in trouble.” And we were. How did I know? I look at several factors, so does the audience, but they may not be as cognizant of it… Did the show start on time or close to it? Are the performers any good? Do I like them? Are they trying too hard or not hard enough? Do they have confidence in the material? Is the material any good? Do I know what the hell is going on? Do I care?

Do I like them and do I care are probably the most important. At the start of a show, I’m looking to see if I want to invest in what’s happening on stage. If it’s coming across as amateur night, and totally lacking on all counts, then I’d rather be spending that hour at the dentist’s.

The sketch revue didn’t just happen. It’s roots can be traced to early Broadway and Vaudeville. It was honed in the early part of the century and when revues started to fade on Broadway, big musicals came storming in. Musicals stole from revues and are structured like them. They tend to start off with big, friendly numbers that introduce us to the main characters and the world they live in. If we don’t like them, it’s going to be a long night. That’s why the opening number also tends to be very upbeat.


The first three scenes of your show are the most important.

The first scene, the opener, is your first introduction of the cast to the audience. It’s important that the players are all well represented and portray characters that aren’t too far off the mark of their own personality. This is where you strike a deal with the audience saying this is who we are, get to know us, we’ll take care of you. Other key components of an opener is that it’s high energy, well staged and well executed. Many shows open with a song. This is smart, as long as the song is also upbeat, uses the whole cast, and is performed well. A sloppy song up front will have an alienating affect on the audience. You’re better off going with a high energy ensemble scene than a song if your company isn’t up to the musical task.

The second scene should be something quieter, more intimate. Even a monologue or someone directly addressing the audience could go here. The idea is to explode on stage to kick up the energy in the room and then to focus the audience’s energy with something softer. A two person relationship scene is common in this slot.

The third scene is another opportunity to meet the ensemble, but here, more extreme characters can be brought into play. Since the audience already has a sense of who you are, they’re now ready to happily follow along with you with your oddball character wearing the fake beard and rainbow fright wig.

I have also seen variations on this where the opening is essentially a series of very short scenes or black outs. Or where the first two scenes are high energy ensemble pieces. They worked well, too and set the appropriate tone of the show with the audience.

The first third of your show is where you want to plant strong, accessible material. Accessible material is the more conventional stuff that people can relate to. That doesn’t mean this is where you put “airplane food, men leaving toilet seats up” stuff. Don’t pander. Don’t put in anything that doesn’t represent your style. But do put in the best of what you do that’s the easiest to grasp. This is where you are building trust with the audience.


Right in the middle of your show is a good place to put another cast scene. This should be very different from the opener, but also upbeat. It can be another song or an ensemble piece that uses the whole space. It’s another opportunity for the audience to connect with your group as a group. And it’s an opportunity for you to give them another jolt of energy to carry them through to the end. You can also look at this as an opportunity to raise the stakes, as you would in a scene, and put in a cast scene that really showcases the talents of the group. Here, in a cast scene in the middle of the show, it’s less important that everyone be represented as equally as in the opener.


Two-thirds of the way into your show is a good place to put riskier material. Now that the audience knows you, loves you and trusts you, they’re more willing to go along with you on trickier stuff. This is a good place for hot topic issues that might turn off some people or for the weird surreal Dada stuff that you really love to do. This is a good place for any scene that breaks typical theatrical conventions. Deconstruction scenes are good here. Now you’ve gained the confidence of the audience, even if it’s not their cup of tea, they’ll go along with you to see where you are going. And, in their mind, if they don’t like the scene where you eat ketchup out of straw while a ballerina in a leather jacket punches a newborn calf, they know they’ve liked your other stuff and will wait to see what’s next.


The last third is where you really want to leave them with a lasting impression. This is where you put the best material. The scene right before your closer should be the funniest scene you have in your arsenal. This is often called the “runner” or “run out.” I don’t know why. Perhaps it’s because it really picks up steam and runs you into your closer.

The closer – like the opener, should be full of energy and be well performed. It’s another slot where many groups will put a song. It’s important that the closer have a satisfying conclusion. It’s the closer for a reason. You want the audience to feel complete. The whole cast should, again, be represented. That doesn’t necessarily mean equally. The closer should be more theatrical than the opener. This is where you pull out all the stops.

Things to LOOKOUT! For

- CONTENT – Unless you’re gunning for a theme, have a variety of material. Not just in content, but form and style, too. Unless you’re a two-person group, a series of two-persons scenes will get tiresome. Even if you are a two-person group, you need to vary the form of the pieces and the dynamics of the relationship. Otherwise, you’re just doing the same two-person scene over and over, again. Or you’re doing stand-up. We get it, that guy’s smart and the other one’s dumb. Move on!

- If you do have a few pieces that are similar, you may not have to ditch all but one. If you have three pieces that deal with proposing marriage, or seeing a doctor, you can put them all together in a suite of scenes. But make sure they each have a distinct take on going to the doctor or on popping the question. There might also be a way to connect them. Maybe the doctor character can all be the same guy. In that case, spread them out.

- Typically, avoid ending a scene and starting a scene with the same person. Unless that person is playing the same character, you want to wipe the slate clean. If the person left on happens to have a great range and a fresh style, this is not so much a problem. But if it’s a performer who, although competent, is limited, you’ll want to avoid relying on them so heavily.

- Don’t keep actors hanging out on stage too long or abandon them backstage. Use an actor two or three times in a row at the most and then keep them out of at least one scene. When you do keep someone out on stage, make sure they are not the lead character in all their scenes. Don’t keep anyone out of more than two or three scenes in a row. The audience wants to keep in touch with the people they met in the beginning.


When putting a show together, first develop a generous amount of material and then select those scenes with which your revue cannot do without. They are your strongest scenes. They are also the most definitive of your company’s unique voice. They are the ones everyone is in most agreement about. These are your cornerstones. Now, you can build a show around then. Material developed from this point can be geared towards what’s already there – thematically, stylistically, and in content, including possibly expanding or recurring characters. Every successful revue creates a world in which the audience wants to live, or least spend time in. Your set pieces help structure that world and the other scenes, including transitions, help put muscle and flesh on that world.

In ensembles, there will be some people stronger than others when it comes to performance skill. Try to keep the casting as balanced as possible, but if someone doesn't have a lot of range, it's not a crime to use them a little less than the performer with a wider range. Just make sure everyone gets their moment or two to really shine.





















Sunday, April 22, 2007

Baby Steps

This is my first post. I haven't told anyone about my blog yet. I'm still trying to find my bloggy sea legs and my bloggy sea voice. The main focus of my life is Chicago theater. Particularly, the development of sketch comedy material through writing and improvisation. I teach writing and improvisation at Columbia College and The Second City. I staged my first sketch revue in the fourth grade. At this moment, I am directing a group called OLD in their second sketch revue, two Second City Training Center Writing 5 shows, and a group at Columbia called Savage Breast as part of a class called Comedy Workshop. I am writing material for the next WNEP dada show called Blind Donkey Hopscotch. I am prepping the launch of a Thursday night writing group called RoboWriters as a part of a theater company in New York called Robot vs Dinosaur. Soon, I will be participating in a 24-Hour Play project at Columbia as an actor. I am also in classes at Columbia finishing the degree I started back in 1980. The classes are Contemporary European Nationalism and Ethnic Conflict (it has rocked my world) and The Biology of Human Sexuality (it has not rocked my world).

This blog will mostly focus on my experiences in developing works for the stage. Hopefully, sharing what I've learned
through my failures and victories and helping others improve their work.

Your comments, questions and suggestion are welcome.