Chicago Tribune, May 10, 2004
Energy higher than expectations at festival
by Chris Jones
It's nearly 1 a.m. on Sunday morning at the Athenaeum Theatre and even the perkiest improv-lover is pooped. On the frenetic mainstage of the Chicago Improv Festival, which has been going now for five solid hours, the garrulous Jeff Garlin is complaining bitterly about all the talentless idiots who keep auditioning for "Curb Your Enthusiasm" and taking up his time.
Not so long ago, Garlin of Morton Grove couldn't even fill the Live Bait or the old Annoyance Theatre with such brilliant but under-appreciated solo riffs as "I Want Someone to Eat Cheese With." But now he has touched the Holy Grail of the improv world. He has a cool TV show. And in the graduate school of improv otherwise known as the City of Chicago, he thus has the right to behave like "American Idol's" Simon Cowell.
Garlin scowls down at the potential pool of improv wannabes waving their hands. "Before you come up here," he warns his two eager submissives, menacingly, "be good."
That weird power dynamic was everywhere this final weekend of the 10-day festival, a peculiarly popular, doubtfully democratic, and cheerfully chaotic blend of the brilliant and talented, the already-made-its and the no-darn-hopers that ran through Sunday at 10 venues mainly around Belmont Avenue.
Not unexpectedly, Garlin's volunteers -- a waitress from the Twisted Spoke and Signor Bud, the Spanish teacher -- were no good at all. Maybe Garlin, a cynic even in those early days, had a premonition.
But then improv, always a risk, is shot through with paradox. No theatrical form requires so much reliance on one's co-performers or so inherently celebrates ensemble. But dream of individual stardom -- even a moment of individual stardom -- and then you need to kill the beast that fed you. Of course, later in your career, you can come back and visit it in Chicago. Maybe it even will gave you a lifetime-achievement award.
One of the deals with the devil that performers on the likes of "MAD-TV" make, of course, is they cannot do on television the material they want to do. That's why they come to the festival. But this is not advertised to the unwary. And thus, on Thursday night, parents could be seen cringing as their Fox-loving teenage boys got to hear the likes of Ike Barinholtz and Josh Myers riffing on matters sexual or musing on the benefits of dating a retarded person. The pair couldn't buy either a laugh or good taste.
At least the rest of their cast saved them later in a sparkling all-cast impov set showcasing the excellence of Ron Pederson, Stephniecq Weir and the incomparable Mo Collins, a brilliant "MAD-TV" denizen with wild eyes and a shaking torso.
In part a generous celebration of community, in part a bunch of rich middle-age TV stars coming back to actually enjoy what they are doing for a change, in part an exposure of wild inequalities of talent, the C.I.F. now is only a media sponsor and a bigger staff away from rivaling the Aspen Comedy Festival. If it got those things, it would probably be ruined for good.
With all these improvisers in town, at least the suggestions from the audience are better than the typical ideas that flow from drunk conventioneers.
When The Groundlings wanted a theme for the act of a pair of bad comedians, they got "Cigarettes for Children:" "That joke was unfiltered." "People say kids shouldn't smoke, but we don't want to raise a bunch of quitters."
Of course, sitting through more than 13 hours of improv-driven this weekend teaches you more than the importance of a good suggestion.
One is the staggering level of hegemony of former Chicago performers on such sketch-comedy shows as "MAD-TV" (dominated by hordes of Second City alumni), "Saturday Night Live" and post-modern comedy series such as "Curb Your Enthusiasm." Another is the high level of current formative experimentation in Chicago as compared with, say, The Groundlings of Los Angeles or anyone from Canada, a country aptly described on Saturday night by host Patrick Brennan as "our enemy to the north."
Even for someone determined to guard against Midwest jingoism, there was no escaping the conclusion that the New York-based Neutrino Project's brilliant concept of the improvised movie (a Friday late-night attraction at the festival) is performed much better by Chicago's FuzzyCo.
And although The Groundlings' Friday night improv set was populated with superb performers -- including original "SNL" cast member Laraine Newman -- it all came with an irritating West Coast chirpiness that rather betrayed the genre's dark Chicago childhood.
Neuman knew better. Presented with a lifetime-achievement award, she borrowed from Francoise Truffaut to note that an early improviser's ambition invariably morphs into "you just want to get there alive."
Notwithstanding that existential musing and a remarkable comic personality, the pioneer Newman was underused by The Groundlings in its long and perky improv set full of bright faces and camera-ready gags. Other people were hungrier for the spotlight.