About 18 months ago, I attempted to go see the SNL audition showcase at iO Chicago and failed. When I heard that another one would be held in mid-January, I made sure to prepare. Once again I had an inside track, but this time I was better prepared. To explain: when I didn't pass my Conservatory Level 3 audition in December (don't worry, I'll try again in February), I decided to take Level 5 over again at iO. Oddly enough, my assigned teacher is Charna Halpern, the last surviving founding business partner of iO as well as the unofficial matriarch of long-form Chicago improv. Charna promoted the showcase right before class, and she had final say on who would audition for the SNL producers. The first time around I found out through the grapevine; this time I was privy to some inside information (at least, for the moment). As a longtime fan of the show, I was calm and collected on the outside but squealing like a little girl on the inside.
My greatest concern about the audition was not whether I'd get in or not, but the timing. The SNL showcase is normally held in late July, in preparation for the coming TV season. Holding auditions in January threw two red flags in my mind: first, it meant that new featured players would likely be added towards the end of the season; second, it was fair to assume that the current cast, consistent since 2006 or so but clearly long in the tooth, was facing some overdue turnover. In other words, several longtime stars of the show --if you want names, your guess is as good as mine-- were likely leaving for greener pastures in the Spring.
After arriving too late last time, I planned on arriving in line around 6:30 or so (the showcase started at 8). When I found out that the crowd waiting outside iO was already fifty strong by 6 o'clock, I beelined to the theater. The Del Close (upstairs) Theater at iO seats about 150, so timing was crucial. Without having to explain myself... I finally got in! Knowing that the showcase normally draws a humongous crowd, the iO interns packed the DCT rafters, than used every folding chair they could find to seat the overflow. The situation screamed "fire hazard" but I was just happy to be there.
At the insistence of my fellow SNL fanatics, I made sure to take notes. I knew beforehand that Lorne Michaels did not fly out to Chicago, and though it was speculated that Steve Higgins and/or Seth Meyers would take his place, the auditors were comprised of two associate producers and three writers. I was under the impression that ten actors would give their all to the show's auditors; instead, 17 made Charna's cut. Of this talented group only a couple outright bombed, but everyone else came out with pistols blazing and the audience rolling in the aisles. Of that group here are my picks to click, the seven actors that have probably already stamped their ticket to 30 Rock, that I hope you'll remember in the near-future:
- CHRISTINE TAWFIK: Reminds me a lot of Nasim Pedrad. Introduced two great characters, an old British lady and an Egyptian film critic. Does an outstanding impression of Penelope Cruz --looks like her, too-- though her Jodie Foster was merely okay.
- GREG HESS: A member of famed Cook County Social Club, one of the top improv teams in Chicago. Looks like a nerdy Brad Hall. Does impressions and voices like a dynamo.
- BRETT ELAM: Fun fact: his older sister Erica was my first improv teacher, and his kid brother Scott is also on the Chicago scene. Did great impressions of Eminem recording a car commercial and Dane Cook waiting for a bus. Versatile and clever in a Bill Hader kind of way.
- ROSS KIMBALL: Another fun fact: Ross is from Naperville, IL, the same hometown as Paul Brittain. Tall, handsome glass of water. Really nice guy. Played Ben Roethlisberger, Clint Eastwood, a spazzy tour guide, and a clueless stepdad.
- JET EVELETH: Fan favorite at iO. First auditioned for SNL in July 2010. Disappears into characters. Take Amy Poehler and Kristen Wiig's best qualities and put it in a 5'4" body, and that's Jet. Did one long scene involving an awkward little girl trying to grab/hug her pet cat.
- KATE O'BRIEN: One of three members of The Katydids (another notable local group) to audition. Short, spunky, energetic blonde. Imitated Madonna and Gywneth Paltrow. Played a motormouth Louisiana native and a little girl drinking soda for the first time.
- LYNDSAY HAILEY: Another fan favorite, and a former teacher of mine. Plays crazy in a good way. Imitated Sarah Palin imitating Tina Fey. The strongest outright "actress" in the audition. Opened with a hardcore rap and closed with a Ke$ha/Rihanna parody.
So what happens from here? Well, this is only the first stage; those that get summoned to New York audition again for Lorne and his inner circle, and of the hundred-odd improvisers, actors, and comedians that audition in Chicago, NYC, and LA at any given time only a handful either join the cast or are hired as writers. Also, this wasn't the only audition in Chicago; a group of twelve also put their best foot forward at the Annoyance Theatre one night later. However, the iO audition carries more weight, as Brittain and Vanessa Bayer (the two Chicagoans that made it last time) were both cherry-picked by Charna. The overall experience was thrilling, and even if no one from that magical night makes the cut the actors that auditioned have the stories of a lifetime. For two hours on a bitterly cold Chicago night, everyone was a star.
+ Did John King have a right to ask Newt Gingrich about his marital infidelities? Yes. Was it necessary to ask that as the leadoff question in the South Carolina debate last week? No. Though I rarely take the former Speaker's side on most issues, he had every right to give King an earful. Promoting yourself as a "family values" candidate yet proposing an open marriage to your cancer-stricken wife is certainly a matter of contention, but reversing unemployment and strengthening the economy are much more substantial concerns. The GOP is already distrustful of the mainstream media, and this did not help matters.
+ Merlin Media, the radio conglomerate that I've been ranting about since last summer, is at it again. "News FM," the news/talk format they launched in Chicago, makes no secret of their desire of the college-educated female demographic. "The Loop," the other station they own in the market, has staged a giveaway for free breast implants. Is it just me, or is that one heck of a double standard?
Next week: the year in music, 1967.