A Madman Leads Me Astray
OPEN ON: EXTERIOR, CHICAGO STREET, FEBRUARY 1983
A young ME is walking, determinedly, down Wells Street on the Near North Side of Chicago—a lively strip of bars, restaurants, and porn emporiums. The brutal wind whips, cold enough to hurt your face and your feelings. White snow blankets the street, gray slush devouring the edges. I’m twenty and on my fourth year of college. The great maw of my future looms. It looms like a maniac. Enough with the looming! At this point I’ve been writing and performing comedy, mostly on the radio, at Southern Illinois University with my madcap friend Tim Thomas, the first of many comedy partners to come, and after months—years, really, of writing short comic satires and curiosities, I am wondering: How does it work?
“It” being showbiz. Hollywood. A career making television, movies, what have you. Seriously, what have you? I’ll take anything. It’s all such a blind guess at this point, it all seems so impossible, knowing what to aim for, what to commit to, where to step next. Nasty gray slush and potholes abound; in fact, forget what I said about white snow blanketing streets. There’s no white to be seen—it’s all gray, all foreboding.
A few months before that, I was sitting in an empty classroom in Carbondale, Illinois, writing bits for my weekly radio comedy show, The Prime Time Special. Tim and I had a theme each week, but really it was just random “comedy” indulgence. I would write bits, type a few up, we’d record them, then we’d riff live on the radio for an audience of no one. But, at some point while filling pages with comical jottings for the show, it occurred to me that this is what a comedy writer does for a living: fills the page, gets some laughs, fills another page. I’d been doing this kind of stuff since my early teens. First doing my comedy into a Panasonic tape recorder, then scripting stuff on my mom’s typewriter, all through junior high and high school, and now college. By age twenty I’d been steadily pumping out the blithering idiocy for over a decade. I suppose if I’d grown up in Hollywood it would have been obvious that this was my calling, but where I was, in the particular family that I was in, it was far from obvious, and making comedy didn’t qualify as a “calling” or a “job” or “work,” much less a career. But college was ending and a choice would have to be made. This awareness of what I’d been actually doing with my time made me curious if I should, I don’t know . . . try?
My interior monologue was the good old midwestern, glass-half-empty view:
“Young man, what are you gonna do with your life?”
“I could maybe be a comedy writer . . . ?”
“A comedy writer!! Help me out here, I can’t see so good. Who do you think you are? Mr. Bill Shakespeare?!” I scowled at these hopes and dreams. It’s how I was brought up—scowling—and coincidentally, it’s one of the keys to writing comedy, being critical/skeptical. Even being mean at times. The world deserves a swift kick in the pants. I believed that then and still do.
But it was ludicrous to imagine going into showbiz. Beyond insane imagining it. Yet what the hell else would I do? Find work in an “office”? Honestly, I wasn’t real sure how you do that, either.
I’d used my college-radio credentials to get an interview with the great Joyce Sloane. Joyce was “den mother” of Second City theater, in Chicago. She had shepherded the lives and creative choices at that legendary comedy theater for decades, and she did it with a personal touch. Like if your mom ran a theater, but also if your mom liked theater and if she merely rolled her eyes at the smell of pot. Joyce was the best and would one day give me my big break. She was so nice on this consequential day (for me) that she gives me an hour of her time.
I sit in her office and pepper her with names, asking her to tell me of paths to greatness: John Belushi, Joe Flaherty, Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Gilda Radner . . . the list is long and I easily kill an hour with it. I want to hear a story that sounded like something I might duplicate; someone coming out of nowhere, trying and failing, and eventually, through dint of toil and sucking, getting somewhere. I’m sure she thinks she’s giving me what I want as she reels off the “legend” versions of each person’s story. The fan-friendly touch-of-magic tall tales. The one I remember specifically was about Joe Flaherty. I loved Joe’s giddy characterizations on SCTV, best of all Guy Caballero and Sammy Maudlin. Go look them up. So, he wasn’t the most famous of the performers on my list, but I figured I might hear a story that might sound like something I could aspire to. Joyce’s version went like so:
“Joe Flaherty? Joe was in Pennsylvania and he packed himself a sack lunch and got on the train to Chicago. He came right to the theater and walked in and said, ‘Give me a chance,’ and we did, and he was wonderful!”
Seriously, she mentions that he’d made himself a sandwich before getting on that train ride. I guess it was a talent sandwich. Where can I get one of them? All the stories she was telling involved the performers’ innate self-confidence and undeniable talent. Success on this renowned Chicago stage was a three-step process at most:
1. Enter Second City theater
2. Ask to be put on the stage
3. Be gifted
“John Belushi? He showed up to the theater one day and said, ‘Put me on that stage right now!’ and I said, ‘You get up there, mister!’ and he was absolutely a riot and just tore the house down!”
“Billy Murray? He was here with his brother Brian and he was making everyone laugh and we said, ‘GET ON THAT STAGE right now, you!’ And he went up there and we all said, ‘Yayyyy!!’ ”
“Wow,” I sputter, sadly, to Joyce as our hour wraps up. She really was one of the greats, the heart of the theater, and like I said, she actually would, one day, give me one of my biggest career breaks, but at this moment, inside, I am dying. “Shit. Okay, I can’t do this. I’m just a regular person, I’m not ‘gifted’ or ‘special’ or ‘worthy.’ ” After all, I’ve been sitting in her office for an hour already and no one has said, “You get up on that stage right now, mister!” I thank Joyce and try to keep my head from falling too far down my chest as I walk out into the February day that has somehow gotten even colder, grayer, more Chicagoey than it already was.
I walk down Wells Street, past the cigar store, past the Zanies comedy club, with headshots of someone named Jay Leno, a stand-up comic who wore a prank oversize chin for yuks. I am pondering my fate and the question of how cold a city should be. Not this cold, I can tell you. I duck inside a bookstore because I like books and there was less wind inside.
I pick around in the “theater books” section, not that I feel comfortable there—at this point I’m years away from feeling comfortable with the “theater,” or calling myself an actor, without giggling in embarrassment. I thumb awkwardly through books on something called “improvisation,” which, as I understood it (and to this day, forty years later, I don’t completely understand it), is related to sketch comedy, because sketch comedy is the thing I love most in this world beyond my brothers and sisters (all six of them).
At this point in my life I am in love with all things labeled “sketch comedy,” Monty Python above all, but also Woody Allen, Steve Martin, and some really obscure stuff. Improvisation seemed a way in to this world of sketch, and to sweeten the pot, improv seemed a swift way in. With improv there’s no need to “hone” skills, but rather, simply learn some “exercises.” A shortcut! I’ll take it . . . Except, nah, I should just give up on this whole thing . . . I ain’t got it. Isn’t that what had just been drilled into my brain? The universe was very clear just now: Stop, go back.
So I’m leafing through two books: Viola Spolin’s hefty tome Improvisation for the Theater and Keith Johnstone’s slimmer, idiosyncratic Impro. I’m leaning toward the shorter, more soulful of the two when into the store ambles a jabbering mound of clothing with a human being inside. He appears to be some kind of down-on-his-luck wizard, muttering incantations. And, actually, I will find out, the man is a WITCH, and he will change the course of my thinking and even my life on this very day.
A WITCH, ladies and gentlemen. He calls himself that with pride!
Copyright © 2022 by Bob Odenkirk. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.