ART IS GOOD
By Sherry Thomas
By Sherry Thomas
It was April 1979. Jimmy Carter was president, the Walkman had just been released, and Trivial Pursuit had just emerged on the scene. The Bee Gees and Gloria Gaynor were topping the charts and on television, people were watching Bill Murray, Dan Ackroyd, John Belushi, Jane Curtin, and the great Gilda Radner on a little show called Saturday Night Live (SNL).
Meanwhile in Evanston, two theater students from Northwestern University were putting on a show called Clowns at NU’s Shanley Hall—the first of many for an edgy improvisational sketch comedy troupe that semi-sarcastically began calling itself the Practical Theatre Company (PTC). (This is what happens when you tell a group of comedians that they need a “practical” name.)
There was Paul Barrosse and Gary Kroeger, along with Paul’s freshman roommate Brad and Brad’s girlfriend Julia—as in Brad Hall and Julia Louis-Dreyfus, two now legendary comedians whose involvement with PTC would soon lead them (along with Barrosse and Kroger and others) to successful careers in Hollywood, including work at SNL.
“I knew Julia before Brad did. She was in The Mee-Ow Show with me. And once we started performing on Howard Street in Evanston, Julia was in that cast,” says Barrosse, explaining that they took what he and Brad called “agitprop” or attack theater and turned into the brand of comedy that PTC became known for: zany characters full of energy, having fun with current events, politics, and the human condition. “It changed all our lives.”
With productions that included new plays, rock and roll events, and a series of successful improvisational comedy revues, the PTC—whose motto was “Art is Good”—gained national recognition when its 1982 improvisational comedy revue at Piper’s Alley, The Golden 50th Anniversary, caught the attention of SNL producers Dick Ebersol and Bob Tischler. Just six weeks into the show’s run, Ebersol and Tischler hired its four stars (Hall, Louis-Dreyfus, Kroeger, and Barrosse) as writers and performers.
Not ready to let go of what they’d built, Hall and Barrosse immediately began to split their time between SNL and their roles as artistic directors of PTC. The company continued to perform at its original 42-seat storefront John Lennon Auditorium in Evanston, but the focus was the 150-seat cabaret in Piper’s Alley where PTC hosted a series of sketch comedy revues that briefly rivaled The Second City, including Megafun, starring Tom Virtue, Richard Kind, Isabella Hoffman, and Barrosse’s eventual spouse, Victoria “Vic” Zielinski.
In honor of the company’s 44th anniversary this month, Barrosse, Zielinski, and Park Ridge native Dana Olsen are pulling out all the stops not just for a PTC anniversary party, but a full-blown residency at Steve & Bea Rashid’s Studio5 performance space in Evanston. From sketch comedy and stand-up shows to film nights and parties hosted and performed by PTC members and guest artists from Chicago and beyond, events will take place almost every weekend from now through July 2.
“That the PTC is returning to Evanston for the 44th Anniversary Season is a thrilling, and righteous thing,” says Hall in a statement released to The North Shore Weekend. “I am, however, superstitious by nature and will thus be unable to celebrate for another 56 years at the 100th anniversary—which will also be held at Studio5 in Evanston, and feature Paul, Vic, Dana, and Steve.”
Louis-Dreyfus also sent her congratulations, saying that PTC changed her life for the better. “Art is definitely good in the hands of the PTC,” she adds. “Happy anniversary!”
“We’re excited. It’s going to be a lot of fun,” says Olsen, a latecomer to the group who left Chicago to write for Laverne & Shirley and Joannie Loves Chachi before writing a variety of hit films, including The ‘Burbs, George of the Jungle, and Inspector Gadget. “We’ve been back together doing PTC holiday shows for about 10 years and we’re always kind of sad at the end when it has to end. It’s nice to have something set up where we can have a longer run.”
While the first two performances of the residency have passed, there are more to go—starting with this weekend’s Practical Radio Theatre on the Air, a comedy revue in an old-time radio show format. “Vic & Paul & Dana” (as they’ve become known in recent shows) will perform with special comedy and musical guests, accompanied by pianist Larry Schanker, PTC’s original musical director.
“We’re also throwing the theater a birthday party on April 15. It will be a concert with some comedy, cake, and hats and harkens back to the kinds of parties we used to throw on Howard Street,” adds Barrosse, whose work beyond PTC and SNL includes writing for The Single Guy TV sitcom and producing many television specials and documentaries. “It’s nice to be back doing these things regularly on stage. We love the audience—especially in Evanston.”
Barrosse says that it was, in part, the pandemic (and more opportunities to write for television remotely) that inspired he and Zielinski (whose daughter Emilia Barrosse also does standup comedy and wrote for Louis-Dreyfus’ Veep) to move from Los Angeles back to Evanston last fall. They now join Olsen for what the group sees at its next chapter.
“What we embrace about Evanston and Chicago is an environment where people are open to experiment, who really know how to understand and relate to comedy. Even though the weather in California is stupendous and we love the mountains, we chose Evanston because we love the community and its richness,” adds Zielinski, who will be taking the lead on PTC’s William Shakespeare birthday celebration on April 23. “I’m a big Shakespeare buff. Paul came up with the idea that we should do a Shakespeare birthday party, so I put together a bunch of fun stuff to whet our Shakespeare comedy appetite—including an R-rated section of the show where we’ll use all the swear words from Shakespeare’s works in the most hilarious and vulgar way!”
Olsen says that Rashid’s Studio5 is like a “club house” for the PTC crew, adding that he looks forward to letting their “imagination run wild” for this residency and future productions.
“We’re bringing a unique brand of entertainment to an underserved part of the audience by doing what we do,” Olsen explains. “We’re not lying about our age here. By now, we know who we are and we’re doing comedy that makes us laugh. We’re pretty self-aware and hoping to provide an entertainment outlet for our generation, and you don’t have to drive downtown to see it. Plus, there’s aces of free parking.”
Olsen’s not talking Baby Boomers, or any other generation that begins with a capital letter. And it’s not about being over a certain age.
The demographic that “Vic & Paul & Dana” are trying to serve is the SNL generation they were born into back in the early `80s and have carried forward in all the work they’ve done since—the fearless ones who treated comedy like punk rock and changed the genre forever.
“I’m talking about ‘70s SNL legends like Gilda Radner. She was absolutely the best … the sweetest, most amazing person,” recalls Olsen. “I also got to work with Dan Ackroyd and Chevy Chase on a couple of things. They were my heroes, man … so you can’t underestimate the impact that show had on the broad comedy landscape, and that’s the kind of comedy we’re going to bring to Evanston.”
All we need now is a disco ball.
Save these dates for a wide range of performances, parties, and other special events to celebrate Practical Theatre Company’s 44th anniversary and residency at Evanston’s Studio5 performing arts center.
Live from Evanston, it’s Saturday night(s)— and a bunch of other days and evenings, now through July—live.
Founding members of the upstart improvisational sketch comedy troupe that hosted its first shows at Northwestern University more than four decades ago are back on the North Shore and inspired to turn Studio5 into Evanston’s own 30 Rockefeller Center.
The PTC@Studio5 residency will feature a variety of shows—including sketch comedy, stand-up, film nights, and parties—hosted and performed by Practical Theatre Company members and guest artists from Chicago’s theatre and music communities. The shows will take place almost every weekend from now through July 2, starting this weekend. The lineup includes:
A comedy revue in an old-time radio show format—with hand-made sound effects and other classic radio craziness! Vic & Paul & Dana perform with special comedy and musical guests, accompanied by pianist Larry Schanker, the Practical Theater Company’s original musical director.
Tickets: $30 for general admission, $40 for cabaret seating
The Practical Theatre Company got its start on April 11, 1979, at Shanley Hall on the campus of Northwestern University with a performance of Clowns, a play about two improvisational comedians written and performed by artistic directors Brad Hall and Paul Barrosse. To celebrate the PTC’s 44th birthday, the company rekindles the joyous spirit of their original parties on Howard Street, with songs and performances by PTC members backed by Steve Rashid & the Studio5 All-Stars. A night of singing, dancing, laughter, and cocktails!
Tickets: $10 for general admission, $15 for cabaret seating
Victoria Zielinski hosts a unique celebration of Shakespeare’s birth with readings from his plays and sonnets—and original comedy sketches inspired by The Bard of Avon. Tom Mula, Richard Henzel, Paul Barrosse, and Dana Olsen will join Victoria onstage to perform selections from the greatest body of literary work in the English language. Come celebrate the 459th birthday of the incomparable Bard of Avon with an evening of classic poetry, drama— and of course, comedy!
Tickets: $20 for general admission, $25 for cabaret seating
The brilliant pianist Larry Schanker plays a live score for three short silent comedies by Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and Harold Lloyd. Hosted and with commentary by Victoria Zielinski, Paul Barrosse, and Dana Olsen.
Tickets: $15 for general admission, $20 for cabaret seating
Hosted by Dana Olsen and Paul Barrosse, the Practical Theater Company presents a night of stand-up comedy featuring Emilia Barrosse (who has written for HBO’s Veep and the truTV sitcom Tacoma FD) with veteran comedy festival performer Josh di Donato and, from Los Angeles, Carla Collins—honored as the 2015 Comedian of The Year by the Southern California Motion Picture Council.
Tickets: $15 for general admission, $20 for cabaret seating
Featuring Victoria Zielinski, Paul Barrosse, Dana Olsen, and Steve Rashid & the Studio5 All-Stars, plus a troupe of talented dancers— this sophisticated adult comedy revue will combine classic PTC sketches with new material and songs for an evening of comedy. Summer has never been funnier.
Tickets: $35 general admission, $50 cabaret seating
Alcoholic beverages are available for purchase at all shows. Studio5 is located at 1938 Dempster Street in Evanston. For more information or to buy tickets, call 847-328-6683 or visit studio5.dance/calendar.