Sunday, July 20, 2014

Farewell, 3541 N. Clark

In the wee hours of Sunday, July 20th the famed iO (formerly Improv Olympic) theater in Chicago shuttered its doors on 3541 N. Clark, its home since the mid-1980s. It was the concluding chapter in a 4 1/2 year struggle to keep the theater in its Wrigleyville space. Ultimately, the growth of the Chicago improv scene in the past decade, as well as plans to turn the area directly south of Wrigley Field into a massive retail space, spearheaded the move to a new, larger space on 1501 N. Kingsbury, a mile and a half west of Second City. Though this onetime garment factory will not be with us for much longer, its place in Chicago theater history is irreplaceable: scores of comedians, improvisors, and actors learned their craft and performed here, making their way to SNL, MADtv, and even movie stardom. For a lot of regulars on the Chicago improv scene (including myself), it was like a second home.

If the Second City Training Center was the first chapter of my improv story, than iO physically and peripherally dominates the rest of the book. The first show I saw at iO was The DelTones in March 2010; I tagged along with four or five other Level E classmates for some group bonding. Little did I know that three of the performers that night (Tara DeFrancisco, Lyndsay Hailey, and Craig Uhlir) would later become my instructors, or that less than a year later I would be interning at iO on Saturday nights.

On April 30th, 2010 --five days after my first Level 1 class with Tara D-- I was unceremoniously replaced at my job. An almost Sisyphean job search, paired with financial woes and family health issues, made for a very trying summer. For a while, my weekly commute from Downers Grove to Wrigleyville was my only reason to wake up in the morning. As my radio dreams faded, improv class became a badly needed creative outlet as well as my catharsis. This was when I first truly experienced the close-knit improv community and its positive, cream-rises-to-the-top mindset. Eventually, I started taking writing classes at iO and participating in Lyndsay's Hangover Clinic on Saturday mornings. The myriad free shows I attended between 2010 and 2012 were both entertainment and an education. In spite of my personal struggles, for the first time in years, I felt like I was flourishing at something.

Fast forward to August 2011. It was the last night of 5B shows, and after our last set we all headed up to the Annex for pizza and beer. Overall, I thought our seven week run went well, though I thought my overall performance was merely okay. (It also helped that was in a level that was deep with improv talent, as 19 of us would eventually play on Harold teams at one point or another.) One of my teammates, a very diminutive young woman, stood on the chair next to mine to remind everyone that she was hosting a wrap party at her coach house in Roscoe Village. When someone asked for an address, I yelled out the directions I had memorized earlier that day: "Take the Red Line to Belmont, than get on the 77 bus west to Wellington..."

At that very moment, the entire room started chanting "Stu-S-A." I was gobsmacked, blushing, and at a complete loss for words. After a solid minute of cheering and chanting, and I stood up and took a bow, not realizing I hadn't even removed the satchel off my shoulder. I have never received an ovation that like that before or since. I couldn't work up the nerve to say thank you until I posted on Facebook the next day. It's not clear who started the chant; I assume it was the aforementioned girl, though I guess I'll never know now. I still get people from those classes saying "Stu-S-A" from time to time.

With that said, I will be leaving a treasure trove of memories at 3541 N. Clark, and I wish iO Chicago nothing but the best as they move from Wrigleyville to Kingsbury and Blackhawk. My sincere thanks to my instructors Tara D, Kate Duffy, Barry Hite, the incomparable Lyndsay Hailey, Lisa Linke, Craig Uhlir, Noah Gregoupoulos, Charna Halpern, and Nate Herman for their sage wisdom and encouragement, and to all the people I met and encountered in the House That Del Built.


Saturday, July 19, 2014

Seasons of Love: "The Simpsons," Season Five (1993-94)

I'm not sure which is more staggering: that "The Simpsons" was in its creative peak 20 years ago, or that the show is still chugging along, breaking one TV record after another as it survives into its 26th season. Sometimes I imagine an alternate universe where "The Simpsons" ended its run around 2002 or so, made two theatrical movies inbetween, and a revival series is now available for streaming on Netflix. We can spend days dwelling upon the show's current state of mediocrity and how it became a victim of its own longevity, but you can find plenty of articles and discussion board rants elsewhere on the internet. (Given its age, it's amazing that they've kept the original cast intact, and they're still crackerjack.) This is "Seasons of Love," and I want to accentuate the positive.

On paper, Season Five should not have been the The Simpsons' greatest year. The writing staff was in transition, with the remaining charter members of the scribes' room heading for greener pastures either after 1992-93 or during 1993-94. At least one episode (the Sideshow Bob vehicle "Cape Feare") was a holdover from Season Four, and it was the last season in which most of the episodes aired out of production order. One staff writer, Conan O'Brien, learned he was chosen to host a late night talk show and abruptly walked out on his contract midway through the production year. The number of guest stars increased, and one episode featured a principal character going into outer space (more on that later). It was the last season the show aired on Thursday nights, before a short-lived attempt to make the show more family-friendly without overhauling the show's general concept. If you were wondering why some of the 1994-95 episodes seem a little blander than the surrounding seasons, now you know why.

With that said, Seasons Four and Five are two of my desert island DVD sets, and all 22 episodes rank from very good to outstanding. Whittling down my list to five was tricky, so I broke a self-imposed rule and included a "best of the rest" list below. I look forward to your thoughts, if not necessarily the inevitable whining about the current state of the show.

Five Favorites:

"Homer's Barbershop Quartet" (episode 1, 82nd overall). The mythology surrounding The Beatles is skewed mercilessly in this charming season premiere. Writer Jeff Martin is a die-hard Beatles fan and it shows, and George Harrison has a brief but crucial cameo. Arguably the first TV show to do an '80s flashback (or three), Homer's small-time singing group hits the big time with a fluke hit song, but success takes its toll on his young family.

"Cape Feare" (episode 2, 83rd overall). Not only the best Sideshow Bob episode, but a showcase for recurring guest star Kelsey Grammar. Arguably Springfield's most erudite sociopath, Bob's parole forces the Simpsons --who had foiled his plots twice before-- to join the Witness Protection Program. The rake gag, originally written as time filler, is so stupid it's brilliant.

"Rosebud" (episode 4, 85th overall). "Citizen Kane" is the basis, if not necessarily the backbone, of an episode that focuses largely on Mr. Burns. After four years of one-dimensional villainry, we finally learn his backstory: his long-lost teddy bear Bobo represents his youthful innocence, and after the stuffed animal somehow lands in Maggie's arms, Burns schemes to get his beloved toy back.

"Deep Space Homer" (episode 15, 96th overall). This could have been a "jump the shark" moment, but despite the out-there premise the core of the story is Homer's dignity and the family dynamic. A series of coincidences turns Homer into NASA's first "everyman" astronaut, and his gross incompetence threatens to turn his first life achievement into chaos. The scene with the ants is a riot.

"Sweet Seymour Skinner's Baadasssss Song" (episode 19, 100th overall). This milestone episode could have been an extravaganza, but instead the writers chose to focus on the then-underutilized Principal Skinner. When Bart's irresponsibility gets Skinner fired, our guilt-ridden fourth-grader follows up with his nemesis, and an unlikely friendship develops. This is a profound, relationship-based episode, but not without its laugh out loud moments (Groundskeeper Willie in the vents, the Kwik-E-Mart gas station).

Best of the Rest: "Homer Goes to College" (episode 3), "Treehouse of Horror IV" (episode 5), "Homer and Apu" (episode 13).

Your thoughts?


Saturday, July 5, 2014

The War on 44

Earlier this week, the New York Post in conjunction with Quinnipiac University ranked the best and worst U.S. presidents since World War II. Of the 12 men that have held the office since Franklin Roosevelt's sudden passing in 1945, the unscientific poll ranked Barack Obama as the worst of the dozen. The choice wasn't a landslide; combined, the last two presidents earned 61% of the "worst president" vote, with Richard Nixon a distant third.

In late 2008, I wrote a two-part essay grading the George W. Bush administration. It was part retrospective and part moratorium, written three weeks before our 43rd president was to leave public life and well after any impact could be made to alter the legacy of his flawed presidency. I did not anticipate writing a similar essay about Barack Obama until December 2016 or January 2017, when our current Commander in Chief is expected to hand over the reins and segue into private life. Rest assured, 2 1/2 years from now I will write a similar essay in structure if not necessarily tone, and as far as I'm concerned that missive is only two-thirds written.

In all honesty, I've grown to accept the Obama administration for the mixed bag that it has truly become. I feel that for the near-constant criticism he has faced in the last 18 months, maybe half of the vitriol is justified. The progress he has made in support of energy regulation and LGBT rights certainly maintains his credibility in liberal social circles. Obama's steady hand in bolstering the economy and gradually creating job growth in the wake of the 2008-09 recession --without much help from a polarized Congress, mind you-- has been overlooked by the partisan fight over health care reform, questions about domestic privacy, and his aloof approach to foreign policy. At this time, Obama will rank in the middle of the pack, if not slightly below the average. If Martin Van Buren, Franklin Pierce, and James Buchanan have taught us anything, there have been far more incompetant leaders in our nation's 238-year history. If you want to rank just the presidents that won reelection, it's hard to argue that Obama was worse than the rudderless, scandal-plagued 8 year stint of Ulysses S. Grant. Or the aforementioned Tricky Dick. Or, if I dare suggest it, Bush 43.

It would be easy for me to dismiss this poll as meaningless, but at the same time hindsight is 20/20. As I stated not quite six years ago, we can't really analyze the legacy of a president until he's been out of office for a few years. If this poll were taken eight years ago, those surveyed would have chosen Bush 43 by a sizable margin. On top of that, Bush 43 and Obama are the first two presidents whose administrations were fully ingrained in the internet era, where anyone can say anything within the alleged anonymity of modern technology, and trolls and haters can repeat the same meme ad nauseum. The president's flaws have been magnified, every apparant blunder scrutinized to infinity.

It feels weird defending someone I have mixed feelings about. At the same time, the only people that are declaring President Obama a failure are the same critics that wished he would crash and burn six years ago. They take something that wasn't totally his fault --a Solyndra here, a Benghazi there-- and feast on it like ribs at a street festival. Most of the issues he has faced in office --immigration, Iraq, gun control-- are still lingering from past administrations. I voted for Obama in 2008, not because of the naive optimism that swooned my peers, but simply because he appeared to be the stronger of the two candidates. Begrudgingly, I did the same thing in 2012. The legacy of our 44th president is a hodgepodge, but also still up for interpretation, and not beyond repair. I just hate to imagine what the next guy will be up against.

Other notes:

+ I'm sure some of you might have noticed the name change above. After nearly two years of inconsistent blogging --about three entries a month-- it didn't make sense to call this "Stu's Weekly Updates" anymore. As much as I love the challenge of writing a new blog entry once a week, my hectic schedule simply doesn't permit it anymore. I'm not going anywhere, I'm just accepting my current reality.

Next Week: my third "Seasons of Love" TV essay.