It’s Time to Celebrate “Vic & Paul & Dana’s Post-Pandemic Revue”: A Q&A with Dana Olsen


If you spot Dana Olsen playing with his grandson at a North Shore park, know that you are not looking at just any grandpa. Dana’s comedy partners Victoria Zielinski and Paul Barrosse describe him as a “tall Nord” and “as fine a comedy writer as there ever was.” If you’ve laughed in any year since 1980, chances are you know Dana’s work.

Dana, Victoria and Paul met as Northwestern undergrads in the late 1970s. They became friends and improv players together. As a student, Dana impressed legendary TV and film creator Garry Marshall who spent time at the school as a visiting artist. The day after graduation, Dana joined him in the writing room at Laverne & Shirley. Dana would go on to write iconic works like The Burbs with Tom Hanks and George of the Jungle with Brendan Fraser, which became a top ten box office earner. He also created Nickelodeon’s long-running series Henry Danger. Dana moved back to Evanston to raise his family and continued to delight audiences with critically acclaimed live shows like Mr. Olsen’s Neighborhood.

In 2021, Dana, Victoria and Paul reunited to create Vic & Paul & Dana’s Post-Pandemic Revue. They planned to debut the production exactly one year ago. The pandemic had other ideas. Several crew members contracted Covid and the production was shut down. Audiences never got to see what the three had cooked up. This year, Dana, Victoria and Paul look forward to revealing their revised and updated creation at Evanston’s Studio5 on December 29-31 and January 4-7, with a special New Year’s Eve edition. They describe the Revue as “a smart comedy cocktail, mixing music, variety, and vaudeville — stirring in everything from marriage to cancel culture, whoopee cushions, conspiracy theories, Greek gods, William Shakespeare and more.” The show features music by Emmy Award winning musician and composer Steve Rashid who owns Studio5 with his wife Béa.

Last year at this time, just before Covid canceled the show, I spoke with Dana about his storied life in comedy. That conversation is here. This year, we caught up on life and what’s happening behind the scenes at the Revue. I also asked Dana a question that Victoria and Paul proposed. I was a bit apprehensive about asking it, but okay, I did. Thank goodness, Dana is a hilarious great sport and these three talented comedians, who make Northwestern and Chicago proud, all love each other like family.


Teme: How has the last year been? What were the milestones?

Dana: The biggest milestone was that Paul and Vic moved back here from L.A. Our thoughts of establishing a more constant presence and visibility on the theater scene are now more of a reality. We definitely want to see if we can expand.

Teme: Is working together in person different than Zoom?

Dana: It is. Paul and I were pretty good at bouncing script changes back and forth over long distance. But it’s been invaluable just to be in the same room with Paul and Vic and pick up on nuances that may not come through on a Zoom call. And we can go out and look for props and costumes together, which we try to hold to a minimum. Although our friend Gary Kroeger always says, “No prop is too large.”

Teme: What’s the largest prop that you’ve found?

Dana: I don’t want to give away everything. We are doing a baseball sketch, and Paul came up with a gigantic Fred Flintstone-scale baseball bat. It’s been fun poking around together. But my God, it feels like we’ve been rehearsing this show forever because there’s a whole show’s worth of material that we’ve never before gotten up in front of an audience. We’re really excited to finally debut this stuff in front of a live audience.

Teme: Where do you go prop shopping?

Dana: Lost Eras on Howard Street has absolutely everything. I went with Paul one day. I said, “Hey, I’m looking for an old vintage suitcase that could stand in for a Willy Loman style salesman’s product case.” And he goes, “Oh yeah, come down here.” So I follow him down in the basement and he points me to a corner of this gigantic space. He says, “They’re all down there. Don’t get lost and holler if you need help.” I found the perfect one. They’re super interesting people and they have everything.

Teme: What is a typical day like for you?

Dana: I always like to tinker with the scripts as long as we have time and look for new jokes and new lines. I’m a perfectionist. I usually spend a couple hours in the morning doing that. I have an 18-month-old grandson. I spend a lot of time with him.

Then I try to get some exercise and I’m scrambling in my brain to reestablish some long-term projects that I’ve had on hold. I’m slowing down. I’m essentially retired from the movie business. I can’t chase that anymore, nor am I interested in it. So I’m working on sketch material for our show and on longer term projects. I have a comedic novel I’ve been working on. I’ll probably go back to that after the first of the year with some regularity.


Teme: When you’re punching up a script or looking for more jokes, how do you get into that brain space? What is your advice for others?

Dana: For me, almost the opposite is the issue. It’s tough for me to get out of the brain space. I’m always thinking about the material. I lie awake at night and I’ll leap out of bed and write down a new joke. Nothing is ever finished for me until we put it on the stage.

I hear everything in my head a certain way, and Paul and I are usually in sync. All the stuff really does come alive when you revisit it and it always gets better. My advice is don’t be afraid to go back into it as many times as is available to you because tomorrow might be the day you think of the perfect ending. Several of our sketches are in draft ten or twelve. We have a sketch in the show that’s on draft number twenty-two.

Some of those drafts are just like, “Yeah, I tweaked the line. I fixed some punctuation.” But mostly there are improvements. We’re never satisfied. I’m never satisfied. Paul might be a little easier to satisfy than I am, but Paul also wears the producer’s hat. He’s a very talented and organized producer in terms of setting out a schedule and what has to be done because he’s spent years producing television and he knows exactly how to do that. I’m happy to let him do that because that is not where I am talented. But I do take a very proprietary interest in the actual sketch material.


Teme: How have the cool things you’ve done all the way from Northwestern until now impacted your comedy and this upcoming show?

Dana: I learned early during my gig on Laverne & Shirley that you have to be willing to let stuff go. Once it hits the floor and the actors have it and the director has it, the rest of the writing staff has it, you can kiss a lot of your babies goodbye. I was never one of those guys who said, “No, you can’t change my words.”

The fun for me is in the collaboration. That’s what’s so much fun about working with Paul and Vic. Paul and I started out doing sketch comedy together when we were twenty at Northwestern. We’ve always had an easy time collaborating. We’re both interested in a lot of the same things and a lot of the same things make us laugh. And Vic, too. We all have very, very similar senses of humor.

I can’t anticipate what the audience will find amusing, so whatever makes us laugh, that’s what we’re going with. That’s really the only bar to use when you’re writing.

The other thing I learned is that in movies, you have a lot more time. I’m happy to take my time and go over and over things, especially if I’m writing a screenplay on spec. I am not in a hurry. I want every page to read the way I hear it and the way that I think is the best way to tell it. Obviously, television was not like that at all. Nickelodeon’s Henry Danger was practically a sausage factory. We had to crank it out, twenty episodes in nine months. Coming out of features, that was a big adjustment for me.

Teme: Do you have a favorite story from that period?

Dana: The best experience I had developing a feature script was when I sold George of the Jungle to Disney. Originally, I had written a spec comedy screenplay that was a Tarzan parody. The name of it was Gorilla Boy. Tt was the Tarzan story told from Jane’s point of view. This spoiled American girl goes on safari and gets into a predicament with a lion attack. This ape man saves her and she ends up moving in with him and falling in love. 

I had a new agent at the time. I gave it to him and he said, “I think this is pretty funny. I’m going to take it to Disney.” I knew that Disney had acquired the rights to the Jay Ward/Bill Scott cartoon, George of the Jungle. There was another writer attached and it was going into development. So I said, “I don’t know that that’s going to be a great place.” But my agent, in his great wisdom said, “Well, maybe they’ll pay us to take it off the market.”

So he took it to Disney. They bought it and then they put me on George of the Jungle and they put the other writer on something else. I wrote six drafts. This was in the mid ’90s when Disney was taking a lot of heat for being controlling and meddlesome. And I got to tell you, I thought they were great. They were organized and on top of it. Every draft I handed in, they had notes promptly and usually they were pretty good. Or I could tell them if I didn’t think it was funny and they would listen.

I really think that was the funniest script I ever wrote. It got Brendan Fraser on board. And then of course, later in the process, I had to let go and they brought in somebody else, which is just the nature of the beast. A lot of my favorite gags that I wrote did not make the final picture, which again, that’s the nature of the game. But I sure had a great time writing that. And the movie did a lot better than anybody expected. It was a big hit. It was a top ten earner the year it came out. Brendan Fraser was terrific in it and Leslie Mann was adorable. So that was a really fun experience. I really enjoyed working with them.


Teme: I don’t want to ask you to give too much away, but what can you tell me about Vic & Paul & Dana’s Post-Pandemic Revue?

Dana: Since we’re older than the average cast that’s doing sketch comedy these days, we have our own perspectives on the cultural zeitgeist. We’re addressing woke culture. We’re looking at cancel culture. We’re dealing with age with a sense of humor. Although don’t tell Victoria I said that.

We touch on some old television show references and also some contemporary ones. We have sketches on prominent days in comedy history. We get into the Bible a little bit. We get into Shakespeare a little bit. We get into mythology. We pay homage to some classic comedy routines. Steve [Rashid] has got some great new songs.

I don’t like to get terribly political. Paul and Vic are much more political than I am. You can’t really ignore it, certainly in the environment that we’re in now. So we touch on it, but with a sense of humor. I don’t care who you voted for. It doesn’t make a difference to me. I just want you to have a good time.

Teme: What will the audience take away?

Dana: That there are still people doing classic style sketch comedy. And that the worse things look, the more there is to laugh at. I don’t know about you, but I can’t watch the news anymore. It’s a constant drone of disease and war and despicable individuals cheating each other and stealing. From a warped perspective, that’s all very rich comedy material, but it also gives us an excuse to spend two hours not going to the dark place and just laughing about it. I think that’s healthy.

Teme: What do you love about performing sketch comedy?

Dana: We were talking about this the other night at rehearsal. I’ve always been after laughs. I’m the youngest in my family. I had two older sisters that were five and eight years older than me. Most of the people that I know that were the youngest in their family were the clowns because it’s a way to get attention. By the time you come along, your parents are like, “Go play in the dirt. Whatever.”

I was always goofing off. I remember the first time I was on stage. It was fifth grade. My elementary school had a talent show. That was the year I started playing the trumpet. I got together a couple of my pals and we did a comedy musical sketch as nine-year-old Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass. I remember getting laughs and going, “Oh, that’s fun!”

In high school, I was in charge of the writing staff for the high school variety show. That’s where I found myself. My first two years of high school, I didn’t know what the hell I was doing. I was not very happy. But then I found the variety show and that led to going to Northwestern and falling in with improv. It’s always been what I’ve liked doing best.

Teme: How has your comedy changed over time?

Dana: I don’t let myself get away with some of the cheap stuff that I let myself get away with in the early years. Like The ‘Burbs for example. Oh man, I would like to have another shot at that. I’m not a lazy writer anymore. I was a lazy writer when I was younger because it came easy to me. I took a lot of things for granted. So hopefully I’ve matured. I think my skills are as sharp as they’ve ever been.

Teme: What would you change about The Burbs? That movie seems pretty perfect.

Dana: We never got the ending quite right. That’s what I’d like to get another shot at. George [of the Jungle] did pretty well even though there are a couple of gags that I thought were golden that they ended up not shooting. There are a lot of things I think back to like that.  

I realize now what it takes to get a feature-length screenplay written. The odds of getting a screenplay even read are so extreme. It’s a different game now. I’m not interested in playing it anymore. And I don’t have to. I’m working as hard as I feel like working right now, and this show that I do with Vic and Paul and Steve is the perfect platform for that.

It’s very liberating. I don’t have to fight the battles anymore. It’s also scary getting to be here. I don’t want to hear “no” anymore. I just don’t. I’m just not interested in doing that anymore. And hell, we have plenty of time left to do a lot of fun stuff, so that’s what we’re planning on.


Teme: My last question is usually, “Is there any question you would like me to ask you?” When I asked that to Victoria and Paul they said, “Ask Dana if the three of us were in a rowboat that could only hold two people, what would you do?”

Dana: Did they answer it?

Teme: Well, now that you mention it, no.

Dana: I have a sneaking suspicion who would be going if it was me, Paul and Vic. Well, the funny thing about working with the two of them is that they’re married. So they’re talking to each other all the time when I’m not there. And I can talk to my wife, but she’s not in the show.

Teme: I know. It gives them a two-thirds majority.

Dana: Exactly. But we’ve been working together for so long now. The dynamic is pretty much set and I’m very comfortable with it. I don’t let the two of them beat me up. I’ll definitely speak up and give them my opinion. But I am up against pillow talk, let’s face it.

Teme: I can tell that the dynamics between you all are ingenious, and the chemistry seems amazing.

Dana: It’s a lot of fun. We’re very close. We’re family.

Teme: That’s great for comedy too.

Dana: It is. We’ve got so much experience together that if something blows up on stage, one or the other of us knows how to rescue it. Paul is really the engine that gets all this shit done. If it was left up to me, nothing would happen. I would just rewrite the sketches from now until doomsday. Paul is really the one who gets the stuff together. And Victoria is also incredibly motivated and very, very smart. We’re a good team.

Steve Rashid is amazing. He is the hardest working guy I know. He may be the smartest person I know and certainly one of the most talented musicians I’ve ever known. Paul comes up with these ideas for musical numbers. He’ll admit that he does this – he writes these dense, very wordy lyrics that sometimes don’t make any rhythmic sense at all. Steve will figure out a way to put it to music. It’s just astonishing.

Steve knows every musician in town. He puts together a great band every year. Our great buddy Ronny Crawford is coming in to play drums for the first weekend from San Francisco. And Don Steirnberg plays every string instrument imaginable. He is one of the premier mandolin players in the world and a great jazz guitarist as well. Jim Cox has played bass for us for a couple years. The band is fabulous and that makes a huge difference.

Teme: I feel like the audience will get to see a musical and comic synergy that you literally could not see anywhere else in the world.  Absolutely anything else we should include?

Dana: No. I’m still wrapping my head around why Paul and Vic asked that rowboat question. Well, I’ll make something up, so next time I see them I can tell them I told you something. I’ll make up something to shock them.  But really, we’re all a great team and there are no limitations. There’s nothing that we can’t do.


Vic & Paul & Dana’s Post Pandemic Revue is December 29- December 31, 2022 and January 4-7, 2023 at Studio5 Performing Arts Center, 1934 Dempster Street, Evanston IL. Purchase tickets here.

In 2021, Dana was kind enough to speak with me about his life in comedy here.

Interview with Vic and Paul here.

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