Sunday, January 31, 2016


My career in the radio industry ended in April 2010. During my time in radio, I noticed an unspoken yet obvious pattern of gender bias; with the exception of my college radio station at Illinois State, the overwhelming majority of my former co-workers were white males, and the on-air talent was 80 to 90% male. Less then a year after I was replaced I wrote “Pushing Air,” a comedy pilot based loosely on my experiences in the industry. One of the protagonists in my pilot was Rachel, the marketing director of a cluster of stations owned by a media conglomerate in a major Midwestern city. Rachel was the voice of reason, but stifled by an overbearing programming director; she was overworked, underpaid, under-appreciated, and because of a weak economy, stuck in a job that was beneath her tremendous skillset. That is not to say that Rachel was alone or isolated. The men in the office were frat boys with type-A personalities. The handful of women that were in the office were all just as miserable as she was. A culture of sexual harassment was implied but not directly addressed.

I didn’t write these characters to be one-dimensional ciphers, but a circumstantiated representation of how radio treats women. Programming that is marketed toward women are two parts awkward and condescending, and the majority of female on-air talent work in formats that cater to men with expendable incomes. For example, a female personality on a typical classic rock station has to look, sound and dress like an extra from “Coyote Ugly,” whether she really lives the lifestyle or not. (There’s also a culture of ageism toward women, but that’s another rant for another time.) At least one Chicago radio station has used breast augmentation as a contest prize, and another has an annual “rock girl” contest in which the winner and finalists model for a cheesecake wall calendar. The majority of radio executives would read this and argue that finding a role for women in their medium is “tricky,” and somehow defer the blame to the realities of industry consolidation.  In reality, however they’re not making an effort. I would have relished the opportunity to do anything that would have changed the “good ol’ boy” aesthetic that permeates to this day.

I thought about “Pushing Air” and my decade-plus in radio when a controversy erupted last week regarding comments made by iO co-founder Charna Halpern. In case you missed it: a few months ago, she had mentioned on Facebook that several female performers had been harassed by a manager at iO West in Los Angeles. They were afraid to say anything to Halpern for fear of being denied opportunities, or worse yet kicked out of the improv venue. She had hired a counselor at iO West, stated her lack of tolerance for sexual harassment, and name-checked iO alum Amy Poehler. Evidently, whatever she put into place was insufficient, as she posted on social media again to address the situation. In this case, the perpetrator was mentioned by name, and she gave him the shadow of a doubt. To Halpern, this accuser was a woman who “(likes) to either cause trouble or get revenge or just want attention so they make up stories… she claims I just put her off and offered her free classes.” Halpern said she would never handle such a situation in such a shallow way, adding “it’s people like this who make it difficult when a woman really has a problem-- we need to take this issue seriously and not spread lies because you didn’t make a team or for whatever reason you are angry.”

Halpern’s comments were perceived as aloof and self-serving, as if her primary objective was to protect her theaters, her employees, and her company, Yes And Productions. The response to these comments was fast-building and outraged, and rightfully so. Julia Weiss, a Chicago-based comedian/playwright and a performer at iO, delivered one of the first rebuttals: “It is unbelievably rare for women to make up stories like this to get ‘attention’ or ‘revenge.’ Perpetuating that narrative is what makes people dismiss women when they voice their experiences with harassment and abuse… while I respect that you’re taking this seriously and putting policies in place to protect women, posting something like this doesn’t foster a sense of comfort in people dealing with these issues.”

The majority of the nearly 200 comments that followed shared Weiss’ sentiments, and eventually Halpern deleted her post. The businesswoman was more concerned with the integrity of her employees, and the overwhelming rebuke was justified. There has always been an undercurrent of sexual harassment and misogyny in the improv community, especially in Chicago. Even if you weren’t directly affected, to say that the abuse has been overplayed or even non-existent is foolish and reprehensible. Halpern’s post begat a dialogue that mushroomed in size and volume on social media throughout the week. Some called for the men of the community to support and defend their female colleagues. Others shared stories of being harassed at Second City, iO, and even out of town improv festivals. One common thread in the conversation was that instructors let male students touch female students inappropriately without ramifications. Until recent years, the steps that Second City and other venues have taken to stop this have been mostly saber-rattling.

At the very least, I hope this worthy and insightful dialogue continues growing. A change in culture is badly needed, and the sooner the better. If I see any inappropriate behavior, I will gladly call it out. If you’re in a bad spot and you want to talk, I will listen. I have no justification for my own inaction, whether it was at a radio station six years ago or at an improv venue now. The number of women that make up stories of harassment and assault are a tiny minority. This is a real problem.

I’ve been a member of the Chicago improv community for going on seven years now. When the radio chapter of my life ended and I struggled to move on to something else, improv became my reason to wake up in the morning. I have always treated my classmates and teammates as equals. There are a number of bad apples within the community, not to mention a long history of misogyny, and my gut instinct was to not exacerbate the problem, but to treat my peers with dignity and respect. It’s one thing to be daring and politically incorrect, but another to disrespect your colleagues and collaborators. Improv used to be a boys’ club, and now the boys need to take accountability for their own actions. We have the power to stop this.

Friday, January 22, 2016

A Death in the Family

This past Monday evening, my father died after three-year, on-and-off battle with lymphoma. When he entered hospice on January 8th, my immediate family assumed that he would stick around until February. When I visited him the day before his passing, he was weak and breathing heavily but it didn't seem like his demise was imminent. Early the next morning, the hospice service called to let us know he was on an oxygen machine, and our mental prognosis shrank from weeks to days. I went to work, and about an hour or so after lunch I received a text from my sister. I called her back, and she told me it was now a matter of hours. I ended up leaving work early --it was a temp job, and the likely need for bereavement leave ended the assignment a few days early-- so I could be by my father's side. We all said our last words, and since I was the latecomer I opted to go last. I remained at the nursing home hospice from 3:15pm to about 8 o'clock, and somewhere around 5 a family friend picked up dinner for me. I went home that evening to get some tasks done; when my family got the inevitable phone call around 11:20 that night, we ran back to his room to watch my father's corpse be carried and wheeled away to the mortician.

In the end, the father's mind remained relatively sharp; it was his body that ultimately failed him. This was a man who was prone to making assumptions, partially because he had a slippery-slope mindset and partially because my sister and I hated having to explain things to him. I visited my father the day before he entered hospice, and he seemed to think he was going home. I was keenly aware that he wasn't going back to our house; he was more or less confined to a wheelchair, and we weren't going to retrofit his home with ramps. My mother was doing most of the heavy lifting figuratively and literally, even after having bypass surgery last February; she was exhausted, and was ready and willing to let someone else handle my increasingly feeble father. When he was moved from the third floor of the facility to the second, he was livid; either he was annoyed that his family had completely deferred his care to the nursing home, or he had transitioned from denial to anger in Kubler-Ross' five stages of death. Yes, it was more cost-effective, but there was only so much we could do at that point.

Even though I've talked extensively about my family health issues on this blog, I really hadn't said much on social media; just a handful of allusions and that's it. A select handful of friends knew the whole story about my parents' respective medical woes, and I only explained what was going on when it became too unwieldy to circumvent the truth. On the day my father died, I folded my hand; I summarized everything that had transpired since March 2013, and explained to friends and acquaintances why I had been so elusive and under the radar in the last couple of years. What I didn't expect, however was the unconditional love and support I received from my peers; people I had seen in almost a decade offered heartfelt condolences, and I was overwhelmed with texts, emails, and messages. I was, and still am, at a complete loss for words, and I can't begin to describe how grateful I was for everyone's kindness.

Even though my father passed away four days before I wrote this blog post, the wake and burial have not been held yet. My Aunt Kay, my father's last remaining immediate family member, was in Oklahoma over the holidays to visit her long-distance boyfriend near Tulsa. My mother, sister, and I are still confused as to why she didn't get back to Illinois in time to say goodbye to her older brother; her excuse for now was that her boyfriend has health issues and doesn't have any family, an alibi that we only partially believe. Hopefully the drama will subside when my father is memorialized this weekend.

Miss you, Dad.

KEN DEWITT ALLARD - 10/22/37-1/18/16


Saturday, January 9, 2016

The Year in TV, 2015

As TV Club put it so eloquently a few weeks ago, we have achieved "peak TV." Not only is it impossible to watch every TV show you hear about, it's now possible that your list of favorite current TV shows will bear no resemblance to your friends'. It also occured to me that the number of network shows I watch has dropped axiomatically; most of the shows I watched five or six years ago have either depreciated in quality or have faded into the sunset. (Not SNL, which is starting to find a groove after that awkward cast transition two seasons ago.) Juggling that with the surplus of options on basic cable, premium cable, and streaming serves only to cut further into the entertainment pie that ABC, CBS, and NBC domineered just three short decades ago. If you only have a converter box or subscribe to Hulu or Netflix without owning a TV, then your list is going to look vastly different from mine.

Here's my top five for 2015:

1. The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, Netflix. Tonal issues aside, this might have been the most revelatory new comedy of the year. A 29-year-old woman (played with positive gusto by Ellie Kemper) escapes an Ariel Castro-meets-Warren Jeffs scenario and creates a new life in New York City.  It doesn't work as a "hangout" or "workplace" or even "family" sitcom nor wants to do so; it's a witty comedy about a woman reinventing herself and the makeshift group of people that support her along the way. Memorable Episodes: "Kimmy Goes Outside!" (pilot), "Kimmy Goes to School!," "Kimmy Goes to Court!"

2. Mad Men, AMC. The admen of Sterling Cooper & Associates --er, uh, McCann Erickson-- entered the 1970s in one piece but not worse for wear. The cultural changes and personal strife they battled in the previous decade (and 6 1/2 seasons) completely altered the lives of everyone in the agency, from the aging rascal Roger Sterling to hapless short-timers like Mathis. At its core, however this was the story of how Don Draper found peace within himself. Memorable Episodes: the final half-season only had seven episodes, all of which were exquisite, but "Lost Horizon" was probably the true masterpiece of the bunch.

3. Broad City, Comedy Central. The dynamic duo of Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson were not deterred by hype or lofty expections, and even if the show went down a peg or two from last year's list, season two goes toe-to-toe with the highest peaks of season one. Casting Susie Essman as Ilana's mother was a brilliant move. Memorable Episodes: "In Heat," "Knockoffs," "Coat Check"

4. Bob's Burgers, Fox. If it isn't broken, don't fix it. That old saying rings true for the continuing low-scale misadventures of the Belcher clan, who are now halfway through Season 6 and just keep doing whatever they've been doing since the beginning. That's not to say there wasn't growth or progress: Tina finally got over Jimmy Jr., and Bob isn't as much of a sad-sack as he used to be. Memorable Episodes: "Hawk and Chick," "Sliding Bobs," "Nice-Capades"

5. The Last Man on Earth, Fox. Speaking of ambitious, arguably the most off-kilter show on network television right now is a showcase for the unique comedy talents of SNL alum Will Forte. Equally bleak and uproarious, LMOE is the story of an immature also-ran (played by Forte) who somehow becomes of the last survivors of a virus, piecing together a new life in the unforgiving Arizona desert. Memorable Episodes: "Alive in Tucson," "Screw The Moon," "Silent Night"

Honorable Mentions: Childrens Hospital, Cartoon Network; Adventure Time, Cartoon Network; Review, Comedy Central.

Also, my five favorite TV moments:

1. Alcides Escobar's inside-the-park home run, Game 1, 2015 World Series. Were you expecting me to pick non-Royals related for my top pick? I could've chosen the Astros falling apart in Game 4 of the ALDS or the Mets' various bullpen failures, but the first Fall Classic inside-the-park tater since 1929, on the first pitch the Royals saw in the series, takes the cake. The Mets were behind the 8-ball literally the entire series.

2. Stephen Colbert interviews Joe Biden, The Late Show. The defining interview of Colbert's career arrived a mere three days after he took the reins of CBS' flagship late night talk show. As much as people wanted Vice President Biden to run for president, it was obvious from this deeply personal sitdown that his heart was somewhere else.

3. The "12 Angry Men" parody, Inside Amy Schumer. Paul Giamatti earned an Emmy nomination in this homage to the play and movie, a riotous rebuke of anyone who has criticized Schumer as being too portly or unattractive to carry a sketch comedy show. Schumer barely appears in this episode, but the roster of guest stars (Vincent Kartheiser, Dennis Quaid, and John Hawkes, among others) more then makes up for her off-camera seething.

4. David Letterman bids farewell, The Late Show. A talk show icon for not quite 35 years (a few months in daytime, then over 33 years in late night), Dave combined surrealism with realism and shattered the perception of the always cheerful host. After 5 1/2 weeks of greeting old friends and favorite guests, a decidedly unsentimental Dave gave the audience an earnest "thank you and good night" as a clip montage set to Foo Fighters' "Everlong" played him out.

5. "Meet Your Second Wife," Saturday Night Live. The best sketch of the calendar year somehow waited until the Christmas show. Hosted by Helen Walsh (co-host Amy Poehler) and "Tina Fey" (co-host Tina Fey), three unsuspecting contestants meet their trophy wives many years before their marriage. (A close second place goes to the alien abduction sketch from Gosling/Bridges.)

I'm still behind on my DVR, but I look forward to what 2016 offers on the small screen.