Monday, August 18, 2008

Giants walk among us

The stars are shining in Chicago lately, even during the daytime.

For many years I've felt like Forrest Gump or Leonard Zelig, continually bumping into well-known actors, athletes, politicians and other people who generally fall into the "we know who they are, but they don't know us" category.

Sometimes this happens in places you'd expect it (when you go to Aspen for the HBO Comedy Festival, running into famous comedians in the airport or at your hotel is not a big surprise), but it also happens with some regularity as I just live my life.

Take the last few weeks, for example:

1. I sat down to dinner at the Athenian Room in Lincoln Park a few hours after a Cubs day game at Wrigley Field. I looked up and there was Kerry Wood at the next table with his wife and kids. 

2.  Last Wednesday afternoon I was walking through downtown Evanston and bumped into Tim Kazurinsky, Second City and Saturday Night Live alum and Evanston dad.

3. On Friday evening, after dinner with some friends at the Pizza Art Cafe in Ravenswood Manor, I jumped on my bike and hadn't ridden 200 feet when I ran into Kevin Dorff, Second City alum and longtime writer/performer for one of my favorite TV shows, Late Night with Conan O'Brien.

Kerry Wood I don't know so I didn't bother him. Tim and Kevin I know a little bit (they each addressed me by name) so I enjoyed a friendly chat with each of them.

Tim starred at Second City in the 1970s with the likes of John Belushi, Bill Murray, Harold Ramis and George Wendt. These days he works as a screenwriter, banging out funny scripts for TV and the movies from his office in downtown Evanston. Tim is a warm and hilarious guy who's been around the comedy block a thousand times and has a story to tell for each trip.

Kevin was in town because the Conan show is on hiatus due to NBC's coverage of the Summer Olympics. He's a true Chicagoan, a South Side Irish kid who made good at Second City and moved on to the big time but still loves this city and gets back here whenever he can.

Oddly enough, this was not the first time that a Conan show Summer Olympics hiatus played a part in my running into one of their writers around Chicago. During the 2004 Summer Games in Athens, I was enjoying an al fresco lunch at a popular Italian restaurant around the block from my Lake Forest office when Brian Stack and his wife, Miriam Tolan Stack, Second City alums both, were seated at a nearby table. They were enjoying the Olympic break, bringing their daughters for a visit to their grandparents.

Brian performed at IO and Second City with Kevin, and they're now stablemates on Conan's all-star comedy writing team. He started his comedy career performing with Chris Farley at the Ark Theater in Madison, Wisconsin. After they moved to Chicago, Brian was a roommate of Noah Gregoropoulos, the improv guru and resident genius who still teaches at IO. Less comedically, our moms are friends in the Lake Forest garden club.

Casual Conan viewers might know their faces: Brian plays 1930s crooner Artie Kendall, the fast-talking traveling salesman and The Interrupter, and Kevin often appears as Jesus Christ, a porn star and the angry bartender at Joe's. But in Chicago comedy circles, they're as big as Kobe and LeBron are to NBA geeks, and also known by one name (say "Stack" or "Dorff" to a few thousand Chicagoans and they'll know who you mean).

The purpose of this story is not to drop names but (i) to share the latest chapter of my Zelig-like life and (ii) to alert you, my faithful readership, to the fact that Kevin Dorff will be performing at the Armando Diaz show tonight at the IO Theater.

To hardcore local comedy enthusiasts, this is a minor cause for celebration. In the Chicago comedy hierarchy, where many are called but few are chosen, getting hired by Second City and promoted to their ETC theater or Mainstage is a big deal. Those rare talents who make the jump to careers in comedy are generally excellent comedy writers and skilled improvisers. When they return to town, it's part vacation, part family reunion and part special guest appearances at Chicago comedy shows.

"Armando," as the kids call it, is already the top improv show in town, a Monday night showcase for Chicago's best and brightest improvisers akin to the ASSSSCAT show at the UCB Theater in New York. A beloved favorite for years now, it only gets better in the summertime or around the holidays, when IO and/or Second City alums like Stack, Dorff, Tina Fey, Scott Adsit, Jack McBrayer, Rachel Dratch, Horatio Sanz, Seth Meyers and Amy Poehler blow through town for a return visit. Those shows are like when your uncle Eric Clapton sits in with your garage band for a night.

Between Dorff and the already excellent regular cast, tonight's show is as guaranteed to be hilarious as any improv show can be. Don't say I didn't warn you.

1 comment:

John C. said...

I was at last week's Armando. Pretty great stuff.