PHOTO: DANA OLSEN, VICTORIA ZIELINSKI, PAUL BARROSSE
The legendary Practical Theatre Company will present the world premiere of Vic & Paul & Dana’s Post-Pandemic Revue at Studio5 in Evanston from December 29-31 and January 4-7 with a special New Year’s Eve edition. The sketch comedy and music extravaganza stars Victoria Zielinski, Dana Olsen and Practical Theatre founder Paul Barrosse with music by Emmy Award winning composer Steve Rashid.
The show was set to debut exactly one year ago. When several crew members came down with Covid, all performances had to be scrapped. Paul and Victoria, who are husband and wife, flew home to Los Angeles. Over 2022, they Zoomed with Dana who lives in Evanston and kept creating. This year, with everybody vaxxed and boosted, the highly anticipated show will go on.
Back in the late ‘70s, Paul, Victoria and Dana were Northwestern undergrads dreaming of making an impact in the arts. They were part of a remarkable cohort of funny, talented NU students who would transform American entertainment.
During his junior year, Paul founded the Practical Theatre Company with his roommate Brad Hall. They were soon joined by more Northwestern friends, including Gary Kroeger and Julia Louis-Dreyfus. The troupe went from Noyes Cultural Arts Center in Evanston to a storefront on Howard Street. Second City owner Bernie Sahlins and longtime Second City director Sheldon Patinkin soon heard about the popular upstarts and offered them a space in Piper’s Alley behind Second City.
The Practical Theatre moved to Piper’s Alley and were six weeks into their first comedy revue in that space when Saturday Night Live came calling. The SNL producers scooped up Paul, Brad, Gary and Julia literally overnight. But the Practical show still went on at Piper’s Alley, and the PTC’s next revue in that space featured Victoria, Jamie Baron, and Richard Kind, among others. Meanwhile, Dana was becoming an established writer in Hollywood, having been recruited straight out of college by Laverne & Shirley creator Garry Marshall. Dana would go on to write iconic films like The Burbs starring Tom Hanks and George of the Jungle with Brendan Fraser.
In 2010, Victoria, Paul and Dana reunited, often collaborating on projects long distance. This past year everything changed when Paul and Victoria moved back to Evanston. The Post-Pandemic Revue became even stronger and funnier with the three living within walking distance of each other, intensely rehearsing, writing, composing and apparently enjoying a bit of bourbon in each other’s living rooms. The result is “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.”
Paul and Victoria kindly spoke with me about their life, comedy, and what it takes to create a Post-Pandemic Revue. Speaking with them is like sitting on stage watching the funniest, most original of humans trade zings about life as they complete each other’s sentences in a way that is uncannily psychic. I had an equally fun and interesting conversation with Dana here (and when Paul and Victoria came up with a delicate question for me to ask Dana, he answered it).
Teme: How was 2022?
Paul: It was a crazy year. We got back from the holidays not having done the show, which just felt odd. We immediately determined that we were going to do it again and went back to work. In the meantime, we sold our house and moved to Chicago in June even though we hadn’t yet bought a place.
Victoria: Let me just tell you, he’s making it sound cheerful. It was hell on Earth. To pack up a house we’ve been living in for twenty-two years that was full of shit and then at our age to move to Chicago without a place to stay and couch-surf for three months …
Paul: Luckily, we hung out with Steve and Béa Rashid for a few weeks and Dana Olsen and his wife Linda, but living out of a suitcase for two and a half months felt like a vaudeville act. We finally moved into our house middle of September. It’s been great because we were rehearsing these shows by Zoom and now we can rehearse in person, so that makes a big difference.
Victoria: It’s like being back in college. We’re within walking distance of our collaborators. They’re coming over and ringing the doorbell at odd times and it’s really fun. As much as we love Los Angeles, we embrace being in Chicago. It’s a palpable sense of comedy and community and family. That’s why we’re back! We’ve only been in our house since September 14th. We were maniacs. Thank God, Paul is Hercules because he was able to unpack 75,000 boxes in an hour and a half.
Teme: I’m so happy you’re back. In fact, Paul, I saw your performance at the storytelling event “Do Tell” at Studio5 in Evanston in September.
Paul: I’d never done that before. I told a true story about how I almost killed two of my all-time favorite vaudeville heroes.
Victoria: He almost killed George Burns.
Paul: In the early nineties, George Burns and I were both working on the first floor of Hollywood Center Studios. He was close to one hundred years old. He had an office across from the bathroom. I was a producer in my mid-thirties and I was always in a hurry. And I go up to the bathroom door, and I shove the bathroom door open because I’m in a great hurry, and I missed George Burns’ head by an inch. He was looking down, and a little tuft of his hair kind of floats up from the breeze, and he looks up at me and he goes, “Hiya, kid,” and walked out the door. And I thought, “Another inch, and I would’ve killed him.”
A couple weeks later, I was driving through the Trousdale neighborhood, above the Beverly Hills Hotel. Like an idiot, I was reading the box scores as I was driving uphill because that’s what you do, right?
Teme: Right. As people do.
Paul: You hold your steering wheel kind of with your knees while you’re reading the paper, right?
Victoria: Well, that’s not what responsible people do.
Paul: But some people do who are idiots at that age, and as I’m coming up to the crest of a hill of a street called Carla Ridge, I catch in my eye that there’s somebody who’s jogging across the street. I slam on the brakes, and Sid Caesar’s crossing the street in front of my car. I thought, “Okay, if I’d gotten away with killing George Burns and a few months later I had run over Sid Caesar … I don’t think that I would’ve gotten away with it.
Teme: What about Chicago drew you back here?
Paul: In Chicago, there is an appetite for intelligent, literate comedy. We’ve already gone to see a couple plays since we’ve been here, because …
Victoria: … there’s an edgier, more open theater scene. The subjects are more interesting and abstruse in a way, and not that we’re so highbrow –
Paul: Well, highbrow enough to use the word “abstruse.”
Victoria: Okay, screw you, but the point is that audiences just seem more willing to embrace the experience of comedy and theater. In Los Angeles, they’re sort of like, “I could have done that. Call my agent!” It’s more of a business competitive thing. Here it’s a labor of love, and we can feel it in the audience. We love our friends in L.A. We had a blast there. You can go into the mountains. You can be in the most beautiful place in the world, but …
Paul: …. you will have to drive an hour to get anywhere.
Teme: What are your favorite things to do now that you’re here?
Paul: Victoria likes to shop. I don’t like to shop. I shop because I must.
Victoria: My favorite store is Macy’s, and I just get a happy feeling when I go in –
Paul: … although, we are a little bit bewildered by the size and scope of Old Orchard because-
Victoria: … we can’t figure out where we are.
Paul: We kind of know one corner of it. If we do not enter by way of Julio’s Mexican restaurant, we will always be lost.
Victoria: There was a tragic moment a week ago when I went to the Jewel and I can’t even tell you where it was because I still don’t have the lay of the land. I went in, and I was just wearing a vest and a sweater. I came out, and the temperature had dropped fifty degrees, and I completely lost my mind and forgot where my car was. I was frantically going up and down the aisle thinking, “I’m going to freeze to death.” Everybody was trying to help, but that kind of stuff just doesn’t happen in L.A.
Paul: And we like to go for walks in the neighborhood and especially down by the lake and down by the Northwestern campus because Evanston’s a walking town. Los Angeles is not a great town for walking around.
Victoria: In L.A., you have hiking in the mountains, but not running into people on the street on Central Avenue while you’re drinking your coffee, or Toni at the liquor store who’s very interesting. We of course know all the proprietors at the local liquor store as we searched for the perfect bourbon.
THE POST-PANDEMIC REVUE IS A LIFELINE IN THIS ROCKY WORLD
Teme: What is a typical day for you?
Victoria: I taught English at a private independent school in L.A. for fourteen years. I love to teach, and I’ve taken on several of my former students from California as private tutoring students, so I get the chance to work one-on-one. The only problem is that they’re on Pacific Time, and I’m on Central Standard, so from about five to eight or nine o’clock lately, it’s been a constant conversation about Othello and various things. I also consult on college personal statements.
Paul: I pretty much do what I’ve been doing, especially since the pandemic when all of my work as a television writer and producer has been remote. I do a lot of documentary work, reality documentary, and true crime. I get called in basically as a show doctor.
Victoria: One of the inspirations for the [Post-Pandemic] Revue is everybody’s reckoning with how miserable things have gotten over the last two years. In our show, we connect with the audience in a direct way, like breaking the fourth wall, and allow the audience to understand that we understand you’ve been suffering, and just want to have a few laughs. The show gives us a forum to express our frustration and our celebration of life, notwithstanding its misery.
Paul: I did my first comedy revue in 1975. I’ve been performing in this form since then. Victoria has been performing since the early eighties. Now we’re actually starting to have real fun with the form itself and with the very notion of doing a comedy revue. We’re playing with how it’s built and how we relate to the audience. We’ve had fun doing a radio show version of it, sometimes doing more of a reader’s theater version of it. This is very, very much a kind of vaudeville presentation of it.
Victoria: An homage to vaudeville performers, as well. I don’t know how many sixty-something performers are out there doing comedy shows. There’s a good reason for that. It’s relentlessly challenging and difficult.
And what’s the upside? It’s not like we’re looking to get rich and famous, but we were remembering what it was like to be doing [iconic Practical Theatre show] Art, Ruth & Trudy at the Briar Street. And we’re thinking about how we saw Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca at Briar Street. They were in their seventies.
I was working at the Chicago Theatre when Red Skelton was booked to do a show there. Red was in his mid-seventies and Paul and I were tasked with picking him up at the airport and riding along with him to his hotel –
Paul: … to keep him company.
Victoria: We took him back to the Ambassador East, and he invited us up to his room, and we were all jumping on his bed playing games. We did consider him to be rather ancient. And I thought, well, in a few years, we’ll be jumping on the bed at the Ambassador East, and hopefully some young comics will be inspired by us.
Paul: We certainly saw that these old troopers were still doing it at that age, and we actually don’t feel particularly old. It takes us a little longer to get up off the floor, but-
Victoria: … we’re never going to do “Flying Drunks” again.
Paul: Probably not. But I might do the “Flying Drunks.”
Victoria: I’m not doing the “Flying Drunks.”
Teme: Sorry, the flying what?
Victoria: We did a sketch in our early show, Art, Ruth & Trudy where we played three drunks who were trapeze artists and –
Paul: … acrobats
Victoria: There was all kinds of physical comedy. We were flying on a rope and drunk, and you thought we were going to kill ourselves, but we were managing to do it, and I had the black and blue marks to show for it, but it was really fun. Just when you thought we were really going to blow it, the “Flying Drunks” would do something magnificent.
Paul: Well, nowadays, people might think, “Oh, it’s not funny, these people being so drunk.”
Victoria: I know. We’re dealing with cancel culture in our upcoming show as well and the way in which we’re reckoning with the limitations on the subject matters for comedy.
SHHHHH – A SNEAK PREVIEW!
Teme: I don’t want to ask you to give anything away, but what can you say about the show?
Paul: The bulk of the show is sketches that we prepared for last year’s show. I’d say that’s about sixty percent of the show, and we augment that with a few classics that the North Shore audience hasn’t seen for a while, but we’re constantly tweaking them. These things are always-
Victoria: … evolving –
Paul: … and being updated, and the whole thing is for us to know them so cold that when we perform them, we can have some improvisation, too.
Victoria: I think without giving anything away, I can tell you that one of my favorite sketches is a discussion between faculty members in the math department about the subjects that are no longer allowed under certain modern considerations. You would think that the math department would be immune, but it is not, and it goes in a very funny direction.
Teme: What do you love about performing sketch comedy?
Paul: When you do a play, and you’re playing one character, you’re that character for two and a half hours and it’s the same story. I love that. But with sketch comedy, you have the joy of playing twenty different characters. Also, we just like writing these little five minute adventures which always must have a surprise. We always try to keep in mind the things that the great Sheldon Patinkin taught us, which is know your target –
Victoria: Commit yourself entirely.
Paul: Make sure that there’s a twist, and make sure that there’s a strong ending –
Victoria: … and a surprise ending. We’re of course influenced by the early Second City, but for me, Nichols and May is what inspired us to continue. Some of our early couple sketches were directly influenced by Nichols and May. I love a smart, funny conversation that exposes neuroses and truth that everybody identifies with, the truths of human relationships. And certainly the Chicago audience understands the premise of improv. This is really not improv; it’s based on improvisations, but they’re very tightly scripted. Some of our sketches –
Paul: … will have-
Victoria: … eighteen drafts.
Paul: There will be opportunities for improv throughout. Once you rehearse a sketch so that it is tight, then any mistake you make is an opportunity for fun and improvisation because you know how to get back to it.
When Vic and I started, again, it was very much a Nichols and May model. Then when we brought Dana into it, it kind of became more of a kind of Rat Pack-y 1962 kind of feel, layered with a heavy dose of vaudeville shtick, including the music. As usual, we have some of the finest musicians.
Victoria: Steve Rashid, we are so damn blessed to have that genius in our living room two nights a week. And Ronny Crawford is the best drummer in the world. Steve is the person who’s writing the music as we torture him and modify the sketches. Last night, we made him transpose a song into four different keys before we could finally decide which sounded the least bad. He’s so kind and patient and funny and adorable.
Paul, Dana, and I are together five nights a week, and it’ll be more as we get closer to the show. In the old days when we were in L.A., it was via Zoom. But it’s hard to play music via Zoom because there’s a-
Paul: … delay.
Victoria: But now, we get the joy of seeing one another, and of course, there’s the obligatory bourbon after.
Teme: Speaking of Nichols and May, you are also an important part of Chicago comedy history. If I go to Second City, I’m just an audience person, but you’re part of the fabric of this comedy scene forever. What does that feel like?
Paul: We were going to meet some Practical Theatre friends that we hadn’t seen for a while at a bar on Howard Street. As we were walking down the street, we saw that the city had a display about Howard Street which included the Practical Theatre logo and history of it being founded in 1981 on Howard Street.
So I went into the bar where all my friends were, saying, “Come on, you got to check this out.” It is rewarding, and it’s fun to be back in that milieu. We have not been back to the theater space behind Second City, which I would love to go back and –
Victoria: … we will just as soon as we get this sucker up.
Paul: It was our designer who designed that space.
Victoria: Not many people know that it was called the “P.T.C.”, not the “E.T.C.”. It was designed and built by Louis Di Crescenzo and the Practical Theatre Company.
Paul: We were doing so well on Howard Street and we were packing them in, especially for our comedy revues. There’s only forty-two seats there.
Victoria: It’s not difficult to pack them in at forty-two.
Paul: Right, and Sheldon had been coming out and working with us, and I’m sure he talked to Bernie. There was a space behind Second City that was the Paul Sills’ Story Theatre. And when Paul Sills gave it up, I remember Bernie inviting me and Brad over to have us look at the space.
Victoria: And what condition was it in when you went over there?
Paul: It was a big, empty-
Victoria: …. room. There were a couple of brooms and a couple of buckets in there.
Paul: It was a big, empty, black box space.
Victoria: And the great Louis Di Crescenzo designed that beautiful space and –
Paul: .. turned it into an elegant cabaret. The first show we did there was the Golden 50th Jubilee. Six weeks after it opened, we were all at SNL. We were saying, “We’re going to put a new show in here.”
I remember Bernie saying, “It’s not going to transfer. It’s not like you can find another group like you guys.” And of course, we did, because Megafun ran forever. Victoria was in that.
Victoria: And then Babalooney –
Paul: … which went to off Broadway.
DANA HASN’T HEARD THIS YET
Victoria: We should say something nice about Dana.
Victoria: Wait, can you think of anything?
Paul: He’s taller than we are.
Victoria: He is tall.
Paul: He’s blonde, and we’re not.
Victoria: We love him.
Paul: He is as fine a comedy writer as-
Victoria: … as ever there was.
Paul: I’m a situation guy and a character guy. He’s a joke writer. It’s a good combination.
Victoria: We’ll have a sketch all laid out, and Dana will take it home, and then suddenly there will be three or four punchy jokes in it.
Teme: Is there any question you would like someone to ask you, and how would you answer it?
Paul: “How do you look so damn good at your age?”
Victoria: Are you talking to Dana later?
Teme: Yes, I’m talking to him later this morning.
Victoria: Well, the question to ask Dana is, “Don’t you feel that Victoria is funnier than Paul?”
Paul: Ask him, “If you were in a life raft with Victoria and Paul, and only two of you could survive, who would you throw off the life raft?”
Victoria: I know he’ll say, “I’d jump overboard.”
THE LIFE-SAVING POWER OF COMEDY
Teme: How does comedy align with your purpose in life?
Paul: From the time that I was very young, I considered myself a comedian. It’s always been in my soul. My father was a big vaudeville fan. He raised me on all the great early comics. As a kid in school, I was always the one who got in trouble for talking during class or for making the remark. When I got to Northwestern and into the comedy revues, I was able to channel that and it made a big difference.
Victoria: He doesn’t have any question about it. His identity is so firmly intact. For me, I’m a depressive more like Chicken Little or Cassandra. And for me, finding the joke or the irony or the satire in the human condition is a little bit like therapy and gives me a moment to… I don’t want to paint myself as too dark, but I have a tendency to be –
Paul: We call her Cassandra.
Victoria: I tend to worry about what evil things might occur. Comedy and this revue help me to celebrate the human condition rather than to sort of lament it all the time.
Teme: I love that and completely relate.
Paul: When Victoria sees a room with a pile of manure, she does not for a moment wonder if there might be a pony nearby.
Victoria: Yeah, unfortunately.
Teme: I hear you. If I saw a room with manure, I’d be like, “Who the hell’s going to clean this up?”
Victoria: Exactly. “This is a freaking mess. How did it get here? What’s going on? What’s wrong with the system?”
Paul: I think, “This could be useful fertilizer.”
Victoria: That describes our contrasting personalities and relationship to a “T.” We’ve been able to sustain ourselves by just making each other laugh.
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.
Interview with Dana Olsen here.
Paul and Vic were also kind enough to speak with me here and here about Practical Theatre Company’s famous, groundbreaking history from Northwestern to Saturday Night Live and beyond.
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