In just a few short days, if you’re in the right place at the right time, a rare comedy portal will open and you’ll have a chance to step through it. That’s the vision I had as I spoke with Paul Barrosse. I saw a capsule filled with laughter, raucous originality, comedians, music, and Saturday Night Live alums. I saw it as it launched from its pad on Howard Street in the early 1980’s and came towards us, rocketing through the decades, picking up speed as it barreled towards its destination: the end of 2019. On December 28, the capsule and its passengers will arrive, punching through the time-space continuum and touching down at Studio5 in Evanston where they will dock through New Year’s Eve.
What on earth inspired that image? Well, I had Paul Barrosse on the phone and he was telling me extraordinary stories about The Practical Theatre Company which he launched with Brad Hall in 1979 while they were juniors at Northwestern University. A short year later, they had a storefront theater on Howard Street which they christened “The John Lennon Auditorium” and, which, according to the book Ensemble by Mark Larson, they painted partially with their butts – and that was not even barely the most groundbreaking thing that they did.
The Practical Theatre by then included fellow Northwestern students Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Rush Pearson, Gary Kroeger, Dana Olsen, and Reid Branson. They caught the attention of Chicago comedy super gurus Sheldon Patinkin and Bernie Sahlins, who became fans and mentors and offered the Practical Theatre prime real estate adjacent to Second City in Piper’s Alley.
As Paul writes in his blog, the Practical Theatre became known as an “explosion of passion, creativity, and controlled insanity. We were friends, classmates, artists, clowns, and concerned citizens bound together in one wacky, wild and inspired tribe. Our motto was ‘Art is Good’ — not ‘Art is Profitable or Easy or Painless.’”
One night at Piper’s Alley, Saturday Night Live producers Dick Ebersol and Bob Tischler sat in the audience at The Practical Theatre’s archly named “Golden 50th Anniversary Jubilee.” The next day, every Jubilee cast member had an offer to join Saturday Night Live.
Paul, Brad, Julia and Gary headed off to New York. Paul and Brad returned to Chicago on breaks, not wanting to relinquish the treasure they’d created. In the years that followed, the Practical Theatre also featured Richard Kind, Isabella Hoffmann, Megan Mullally and Victoria Zielinski (the lawyer, writer and comedian who would become Paul’s wife).
In 1988, the Practical Theatre disbanded and its members dispersed but none of them forgot the halcyon days when their ingenuity and renown reverberated through Chicago and the nation. Now those days are back, or more accurately, they’re back for four days.
From December 28 through December 31 at Studio5, Paul, Victoria, Dana and Gary will star in the classic and updated “Big Holiday Bag O’ Fun,” which harkens back to the Practical Theatre’s very first revue “Bag O’ Fun.” There will be a stellar supporting cast including recording artist Eva B. Ross, Daniel Rashid, Veep writer and stand-up Emilia Barrosse, Reilly Anspaugh (who is also Roma Downey’s daughter), Evanston’s Rockin’ Ronny Crawford, and jazz vocalist Paul Marinaro.
When the last show wraps on New Year’s Eve, the Practical Theatre folks won’t step back through the portal and disappear. Paul says that night’s audience will be in for a bonus treat. “We’ll clear things out and have a dance floor for about an hour-and-a-half. We’ll be singing some rock and roll and some standards and some jazz. It’s going to be a dance party with hors d’oeuvres and champagne, and it’s going to be a hoot.”
Paul kindly spoke with me about what made the Practical Theatre Company unique and how to light up the sky in a crowded comic universe.
IN THE BEGINNING
Teme: How did you decide to go to Northwestern? How did the magic of The Practical Theatre begin?
Paul: I went to see the college guidance counselor during my junior year at Cleveland Central Catholic High School. I wanted to be in theater. He said, “There are two places. You could either go to Carnegie Mellon or Northwestern.” That’s the way he put it, like those are the only two options in the world. I wasn’t even aware of Northwestern, but Chicago appealed to me more than Pittsburgh.
My freshman year, I saw what they call “Mee-Ow Highlights,” [Northwestern’s] sketch revue. I thought, “Wow. That’s something I’d really like to do.” I started doing the “Mee-Ow,” and that became my favorite thing at Northwestern.
Late in junior year, my roommate Brad Hall and I decided to form a theater company. We were both writing plays and needed a place where we could produce our own work. Our teachers at Northwestern impressed upon us that if you want to perform, or certainly if you want to write, then you’ve got to produce your own stuff. Don’t wait around for anybody else to give you the green light.
It happened to be a time in Chicago where there was a boom in storefront theater. We just happened into that moment. We were in a strange little outpost on Howard Street and actually built a 42-seat theater. Nothing was going on much on Howard Street. Robert Falls had Wisdom Bridge down on the other end of Howard Street, but up where we were, it was a wig store and a liquor store. But we did our quirky, offbeat work, and it attracted an audience, and among those audience members was a guy named Sheldon Patinkin.
He embraced our work and became a mentor for the rest of my life. He introduced us to Bernie Sahlins. There was a space behind Second City that was the Paul Sills Story Theater. When Paul Sills closed up shop, Bernie invited us to make something out of that space. So the guy that designed the John Lennon Auditorium – the 42-seat theater on Howard Street – designed this 150-seat cabaret space, which exists to this day as the Second City ETC.
The first show we did there was a greatest hits of the two-and-a-half years of revues we’d done up to that point, which we jokingly called the “50th Golden Jubilee to celebrate our 50th year in show business.” That show was open for about six weeks. Then, Saturday Night Live came calling. So, that changed things pretty radically for us, of course.
Teme: How did you decide on the name Practical Theatre?
Paul: We were originally called Attack Theatre, and were more of an agitprop, street theater group. But we attracted some board members who thought that “Attack Theatre” might not be the easiest title to raise money around. So the “Practical Theatre” was a practical move.
Teme: I read that it was important to Practical Theater to have strong female voices at a time when that was not a priority in comedy.
Paul: We were pretty lefty and progressive, and we had talented women. At the time, and to this day sketch comedy can be a real boys club. There were times where we had at least one revue, “Thrills & Glory,” that was all men. We also developed a group called “Practical Women” that staged a couple of all-female comedy revues. That was not being done in the early ’80s anywhere else.
Teme: When you met Julia Louis-Dreyfus she was a freshman and you were seniors. I remember back in college there wasn’t much interaction between seniors and freshmen. What bonded you?
Paul: We were in the “Mee-Ow Show” my senior year. She was just a freshman, but she had a real spark, and she also really stood up for herself. It’s very difficult in a comedy revue where you’re writing and developing material, and there are eight or nine people in the cast, to get things written, and to develop characters for yourself. She was just very, very good.
I remember she and this other guy working on a sketch, and I came into the room, and she threw me out because she didn’t want this overbearing senior walking in and telling her what to do. She brought that approach to the Practical Theatre, too. Just stood her ground, stood up for herself, developed very, very sharp characters, and did well elbowing her way into the boys club and standing on her own two feet. That’s what it took in those days. You had to battle, and she had the moxie to do it. I think that stood her in good stead when she got to SNL. SNL is also a wrestling match to get air time and to develop material.
THE POWER OF VISION AND DRIVE
Teme: I was thinking back to my senior year in college. I had senioritis. I was asking for extensions on my papers and crying in the dean’s office. What in your life experience contributed to your vision for the theater, the confidence to get it done and the drive to chart really bold territory at such a young age?
Paul: My mother was a school teacher and my father, among many things, was an artist. Although he didn’t work as an artist, he was constantly drawing around the house. I knew that I was interested in theater fairly early. My parents always took me. But we were working class. I knew that I was going to have to work hard and be focused. I wasn’t so much thinking about making money. I just wanted to do good work, to have fun and make some kind of living at it.
I knew it was not going to be easy. [At Practical Theatre], we were just so focused on doing it ourselves and getting launched. I was also working at a printing company doing typesetting. I was doing whatever I could during the day and knocking myself out at night.
I knew nothing was going to get handed to me, and I wasn’t going to wait around for somebody to give me a leg up because I knew that that would be rare. If I developed my own stuff and started a little bit of fire, it might actually catch. It’s all down to luck, talent and timing. All three have to come together in order to have that kind of magic happen, and we were lucky that it did.
Teme: You had great vision for such young people.
Paul: We would joke about that, too. We said that our goal was “to change popular culture and scientific method.” On some level, we really believed it. We believed that we were doing something unique and different. We were taking the sketch form and adding crazy dance and a lot of music. Second City wasn’t doing that at the time. They also weren’t as physical. We found a niche for ourselves.
WHAT MAKES PRACTICAL THEATRE UNIQUE?
Teme: What characterizes a work by Practical Theatre?
Paul: Absolute, total commitment to a premise and even to the ridiculous, but you take it completely seriously and give yourself one hundred percent to it. If we were going to play a set of bowling pins, then we really committed to being bowling pins.
We didn’t just go onstage and improvise. We improvised to develop the material and then we rehearsed it within an inch of its life. Then we could go out and have fun because we had confidence that we had honed the material.
Before the Practical Theatre Company, we would do improvisational games onstage at bars, but that always struck me as scattershot. It could be good one night and bad the next. We knew that we had to be consistent night after night in order to sell tickets and put people in the seats, so we worked hard at it. Still do.
SHELDON PATINKIN’S BEST ADVICE!
Teme: What was the best advice that you got from Sheldon Patinkin?
Paul: The best advice I got from Sheldon Patinkin was, “What are you getting at in this sketch? What is your goal?” He was always focused on that. Also, to be focused on your characters from sketch to sketch so that they don’t all seem the same. He challenged us always to go deep. He loved the absurd. He encouraged us to play inanimate objects and bring them to life. He always gave great notes. He was a genius about running order. He also knew exactly where to cut. Editing is a huge part of this. All these sketches start out a little too long, and then you edit them until you get to just the gold.
Teme: What is your favorite story from the Practical Theatre years?
Paul: Rush Pearson and I were standing onstage wearing these crazy blue fright wigs. As we would often do, we were arguing some arcane point of comedy at a very high decibel and with great passion. We had completely forgotten that we were wearing these crazy fright wigs, which made it look even more ridiculous. A friend of mine who I didn’t see all that often was coming in from New York, and that was the moment he showed up at the theater. He thought, “WHO is Paul screaming at in a blue fright wig?” I realized at that moment how we would forget where we were and it became all about the comic point we’re trying to make. That moment summed up our passion and commitment and the general insanity that ensued.
SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE
Teme: I’d love to hear about the moment when the Saturday Night Live producers came to town and hired you, Brad Hall, Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Gary Kroeger.
Paul: That moment is a bit of a blur. We knew that they were going to be there. SNL was only seven years old at that point. It wasn’t yet an institution. All I remember is the next day, going to some hotel downtown to meet with them, and Dick Ebersol and Bob Tischler saying they wanted to hire the four of us. We were out of our minds, but it was also a sticky wicket because we had just opened this show and it had been so well reviewed. On opening night, Brad and I told each other, “This is the high point of our lives. It doesn’t get better than this,” having your own 150-seat cabaret behind Second City, and packing it night after night. Now, you’re going to go off to New York, and you’re leaving that behind. So, we always tried to keep one foot in Chicago and in the Practical Theatre, which meant that on all of our breaks, Brad and I were usually coming back.
Teme: How did the Saturday Night Live experience compare with The Practical Theatre?
Paul: It was completely different. At the Practical Theatre Company, if we thought something was funny, we’d put it onstage. At SNL, we’d have to go through a series of gatekeepers. We lost all control. I got twenty-two sketches on the air, so I was relatively successful. But it was definitely a frustrating experience. I was used to working with Sheldon Patinkin who really listened and really got it. I didn’t feel that way about the [SNL] director who took great pride in the fact that his friends would tell him that the show didn’t look live. And I thought, “Hmm. That’s not the best thing” because what’s nice about SNL is the rough edges and the fact that something could go wrong and you’re working without a net.
It was not the greatest experience for me, I would have to say, but I’m glad I did it. I got to work with the Smothers Brothers and Sid Caesar, one of my comic heroes. But I wasn’t used to taking orders. I wasn’t used to being told what was funny and what wasn’t. I wasn’t used to somebody editing my material for me. I learned a lot. I tell young producers all the time, “Don’t fight a battle every day. Pick your hill to die on, but don’t constantly bang your head against the wall.” You also have to be able to collaborate.
Teme: What was it like to work with Sid Caesar?
Paul: When the executive producer asked for ideas for hosts, I said Sid Caesar right away. Initially, the thought was, “No.” His time had passed. But Sid wrote a book that year called Where Have I Been? and that put him on the map again for a moment. So, the executive producers went ahead. For me, it was great because Sid wanted to rehearse the sketches. He wanted to rehearse before we did the camera blocking because usually all there’s time for is camera blocking. But Sid wanted to work the way that he’d always worked. It irked some cast members because they weren’t used to doing that, but the ones who came out of Second City or The Practical Theatre Company, we loved it because, of course, we got more time with Sid. He was so precise, and generous to us. The Smothers Brothers were wonderful, too. The director wouldn’t even listen to them. So he’s not going to listen to me!
Teme: What is your favorite story from Saturday Night Live?
Paul: Robert Blake was host one week. I was always a huge Baretta fan, and Blake and I got along, so I wound up writing quite a bit with him. He had an ax to grind about Michael Landon. He thought that Michael Landon was holier-than-thou. So we wrote a sketch together called “The Best Little Whorehouse on the Prairie.”
I knew it was funny. It was a can’t-miss premise, and it was a chance for him to play Michael Landon. The idea that Michael Landon was pimping his daughters was distressing to me, but the sketch was a big hit, and the executive producers were really happy with it. I was thinking, “I just wrote a sketch that now the three women on the cast are going to have to be walking around in underwear.” I wasn’t entirely proud of myself, but it was a funny sketch, I have to admit.
Teme: Practical Theatre members have talked about having “Chicago DNA.” How would you define “Chicago DNA”?
Paul: In Los Angeles, people go to auditions, and they’re waiting in trailers to read a side for some movie. But when we were in our early 20s, we were staging our own stuff. There’s a bit of that in Los Angeles, but there’s an audience for it in Chicago. That’s the other part of the Chicago DNA: the audience. They really appreciate sketch. It’s such a tradition in Chicago, and the audience comes in excited to see a show. They’re smart. They get the jokes. They’re there with you. It’s not a “show me” kind of thing. They’re there to have fun with you and make it a party. I think that also has to do with how brutally cold it is in Chicago. People love to be in a warm space in the winter with a drink in their hand being entertained.
We used to do a sketch in [the show] “Art, Ruth & Trudy” called “Let’s talk about Chicago.” It was a sketch that you could only do in Chicago because it was two people wanting to talk about nothing but Chicago. My wife Victoria played a Polish woman who had this very heroic story about escaping the Soviet Union. We could care less. We just wanted to talk about Chicago.
Teme: What things about Chicago have you brought forward with you in your career and in life in general?
Paul: It’s the do-it-yourself thing. Don’t wait around. You’re the master of your own destiny, and it’s going to be blue collar, and it’s going to be hard work. People in Chicago aren’t afraid of hard work. They’re not afraid of the weather. They’re not afraid of walking into a building where they have to hold onto a rope because the wind is going to drive them into the Chicago River.
IMPROV IN LOVE AND LIFE
Teme: What are the benefits of bringing an improv perspective to a marriage?
Paul: The most important thing in a comedy sketch is to be good at listening. My wife continues to try to hone my listening skills every damn day, and she’s right to do it. But it’s really listening and doing your best to be generous with each other and to try to be positive, and if you’re going to have something critical to say, say it in the least destructive way possible. You’ve got to work together. If you want things to improve, if that’s your goal, then you’ve got to be nice to each other. You can be passionate, but be nice.
Teme: What question has no one asked you that would be a great question?
Paul: The most important is, “How important has Victoria Zielinski been to making your life worthwhile?” That’s a question nobody’s asked me, and I would be able to go on for hours about that. It is rare to have somebody who is your comic partner and your partner in life. I’m an extremely lucky man. She has as much to do with resurrecting The Practical Theatre Company as I did because in 1986, “Art, Ruth & Trudy” put us back on the map. In 2010, when our daughters finally got old enough that they didn’t need us every second of the day, she and I wrote a show called “The Vic and Paul Show” that got it all restarted.
YOU ARE INVITED TO USHER IN 2020 WITH THE PRACTICAL THEATRE COMPANY
Teme: How did you decide to bring The Practical Theatre back to Chicago for New Year’s?
Paul: I was inspired by Mark Larson’s book [Ensemble: An Oral History of Chicago Theater]. The book is a celebration of Chicago theater history. It got me thinking about all this great, old material that we have and how to give it life again with a comedic retrospective that echoes the book. Then, of course, we’ll weave in new material because we always deal with events of the day.
Teme: How would you describe the show?
Paul: It is a blend of classic Practical Theatre sketches and songs with more contemporary material. It’s very musical and that takes advantage of Steve Rashid and the marvelous musicians that he always has. We’re bringing in Rockin’ Ronnie Crawford. He was our 18-year-old drummer back in the days of Practical Theatre Company. He’s still one of the finest drummers you’re ever going to see. There are going to be physical sketches. There’s going to be clog dancing for radio. So, you can’t miss that. It’s going to be very, very different.
The opening and closing numbers are adapted from the opening and closing of the very first comedy revue that we did. There’ll be at least one sketch from just about every comedy revue that we ever did. There’s a sketch called “Shroud of Turin.” If anybody remembers that, they’ll have a good time seeing it again. We’ll skewer Trump a little bit. We have to. That’s in our DNA. We’re resurrecting a sketch called “Extinct Smokers.” I can’t say too much or I’ll give it away.
Teme: What will the audience experience and what do you hope they’ll leave with for the New Year? I can already tell that the show will be fueling people with positive energy to go into the New Year and erasing any bad energy of 2019.
Paul: Exactly. You hit it on the head. The audience will experience more laughs than they’ve probably had in a year that has been very difficult to laugh at. It will be an opportunity to have fun and enjoy music by some very great players. You won’t see a show like this anywhere else – that, I will guarantee. Our motto at the Practical Theatre Company was, “Art is good.” We want the audience to walk away feeling that they got to hang out with their funny friends again and got a dose of funny art that made them feel good and that it was a good time had by all. That’s what’s most important.
The Practical Theatre Company’s “Big Holiday Bag O’ Fun” is at Studio5, 1934 Dempster St., Evanston, on Saturday, December 28 – Monday, December 30 at 8:00 p.m. and on Tuesday, December 31 at 9:00 p.m. On New Year’s Eve, stay for an after-party with the cast to ring in the New Year. Tickets and details here.
Paul Barrosse’s blog is here.
More about Mark Larson’s Ensemble: An Oral History of Chicago Theater here.