[Right off the bat, there’s a damnable lie in that headline. This meandering post runs to a hefty 2290 words. So sue me.]
It’s one hell of a lot easier said than done. Not having regrets, that is. The older I get, the more I realize simply surviving this ordeal called life is quite an accomplishment. I mean, doing so without jumping off the roof of a tall building or taking hostages or numbing out with whatever substance catches your fancy.
I’ve had a success or two. Not as many, of course, as I’d imagined I would have back when I was, say, 20 y.o. I’ve had about 7300 disappointments, too. Far, far, far more than I’d imagined I would ever have.
That makes me average.
Do people like Elon Musk or Hillary Clinton look at their own lives in a similar vein? Nah, probably not. In any case, I never aspired to be a success like those two. I didn’t want money (well, not that kind of money). I didn’t want power. I just wanted to be hailed far and wide as a talented, imaginative, creative, innovative, jaw-droppingly funny and interesting artist. That’s all.
From childhood on into my 20s, I could have taken any one of four paths — or even a combination of them. I started out as a kid, 10 or 11, drawing pictures constantly. Airplanes and Apollo rockets and hockey players and constellations and the planet Saturn and the John Hancock Center in Chicago and faces of people I knew and those I’d simply conjured in my head and any and every single thing that caught my eye and looked easy enough to depict in pencil. Then, at about 12 years old, I started writing stories. I wrote about my playmates and teachers and school janitors, turning them into fantasy characters, either forces for good or evil, depending on how much I liked or abhorred them.
One day, the teacher who was in charge of the Lovett Lantern, a little, occasionally-published, mimeographed collection of essays and poems and the like by kids in my grade school, asked us seventh-graders to write articles on How We Would Change the World. Man, I spent some time on that thing. To my great surprise, the teacher selected my piece along with those of about six other kids. Their pieces basically were 100 words long and called for everybody to get along and treat each other nicely. Mine ran several thousand words and delineated a passel of proposed United Nations organizations, combining the resources of the wealthy western nations and focusing on lifting all the underdeveloped nations out of poverty and starvation, and helping warring nations reach peaceful understandings and…, and…, well, I went on and on, as is my wont to this day.
Then, in my freshman year of high school, I went to work in radio, hosting a weekly program on WOPA-AM (now WPNA) in Oak Park, Illinois called Oak Park Schools at Work. I loved radio. I lived for radio. The greatest Christmas gift I ever got was my first transistor radio in 1964. Subsequently, I went to sleep every night, the transistor hidden under the covers, listening to Paul Revere and the Raiders and the Turtles and Aretha Franklin until I drifted off to sleep. More often than not, I’d wake up the next morning with the earplug still firmly in place and the WLS morning news jarring me awake with news about a riot in Watts or some bloody business in a place called Viet Nam.
A fellow named Wayne Osborne was the general manager of WOPA. One day, my co-host and I suffered a case of the giggles as we broadcast live. After we went off the air, Osborn, who wore penny loafers and argyle vests, tore us both new ones. “Goddamn it,” he bellowed, “you acted like stupid kids in there! Don’t you ever do that again! If something’s funny, you let the listeners know what it is — you don’t just sit there tittering like a couple of chimpanzees.” It was the first time someone ever told me I wasn’t expected to be a dumb kid anymore. I never forgot Wayne Osborne for that.
By the way, I also met Terri Hemmert at the radio station. She was a T-shirt and overalls-clad station receptionist and late night DJ for our FM sister station, WGLD. Those call letters would soon be changed to WXRT and Hemmert would become a long-time afternoon DJ for it, the first female drive-time host in Chicago radio history. She would eventually carve out a reputation as a renowned authority on the Beatles. At 14 I thought, Jeez, she looks, acts, and dresses just like a guy. She’s pretty cool. I’d learn later she was a lesbian. I though that was cool, too.
When I hit my late 20s, for some odd reason I decided to take a comedy improvisation course with what was then known as the ImprovOlympic. Soon thereafter, the International Olympic Committee got all bent out of shape and sent the proprietors, Charna Halpern and Del Close, a strongly-worded cease-and-desist letter. I dunno who’s more protective of their brand, the IOC or the Disney people. For chrissakes, it wasn’t as if people would come to CrossCurrents, the ImprovOlympic headquarters on the Near North Side, expecting to see Mary Lou Retton or Mark Spitz. Rather, they’d catch the likes of Mike Myers, Jeff Garlin, Chris Farley, Joel Murray, or Stephen Colbert well before they became famous. Halpern and Close changed the outfit’s name to iO and would earn an international rep as the incubator of countless comedy, television, and movie stars.
I hooked up with a gang that was doing a live improv soap opera called “Doctor’s Hospital” at a saloon with a stage across the street from the iconic Medusa’s dance bar on Sheffield Avenue in 1986. Del himself came in one day to catch our show and everybody was all atwitter. Which of us, my stage mates asked each other before that night’s show, would the great improvisation master innovator tab for stardom?
Me? I didn’t care whom he blessed with his imprimatur. I’d already decided I’d make my way (or not) as a writer. I’d been churning out articles for the Chicago Reader, one of the nation’s leading alternative newsweeklies, since 1983. I was a writer, dammit, and a writer I’d continue to be even though I often — too often — had to come up with some lame excuse for why my rent was late.
And, by the way, my first professional article was on pro-wrestling. Somehow, I’d become hip to TV wrestling back in 1983. Then I heard about the Battle Royal coming to the Horizon arena in suburban Rosemont. I talked my way into a press pass and showed up for the event, the precursor to WrestleMania, featuring every big name in the game. I was shocked to find a completely sold-out arena, the fans screaming and shrieking as if their very spawn were being thrown against the ropes or having a folding chair bashed over their heads. After the match, I went to the Air Host Motel on Mannheim Road, a cheap joint near O’Hare Airport where the wrestlers slept before their flights out of town the next day. Most of them gathered in the dinky motel lounge and I interviewed a few of them as well as the ring announcers. I caught a glimpse of someone I was told was the rising star of wrestling, a fellow named Hulk Hogan. With his bronze skin and flowing blonde hair, he looked like a Norse god passing through the lounge. I caught up to him on the stairway to the second floor. “Mr. Hogan,” I called out, “do you have a minute?” He spun around at the top of the stairs, burned a hole through me with his eyes, and puffed out his chest like somebody playing Hercules in an old Italian sword-and-sandal flick. I stopped dead in my tracks. I had no idea what to say or do, so I simply stood there staring. Hogan then turned around and proceeded, I assume, to a well-earned sleep in his room. He had, after all, emerged victorious over the likes of the Iron Sheik, Andre the Giant, “Nature Boy” Ric Flair, King Kong Bundy, and Rowdy Roddy Piper. No matter, I had plenty of material and the next thing I knew, I’d earned my first paycheck writing. I was hooked.
So, my four potential paths were drawing, radio, writing, and acting.
At the time I dabbled in improv, I thought I would be screwing myself up if I split my focus between that and my writing. So I went all the way with writing and let the comedy bit die on the vine.
This despite the fact that after the aforementioned night’s performance of “Doctor’s Hospital,” Del Close, one of the the geniuses behind the Compass Players, the “Mad Scientist” of The Committee, director at Second City, who hung out with the Merry Pranksters, who rubbed shoulders with Mike Nichols and Elaine May and Belushi and Aykroyd and Bill Murray and Gilda Radner, had been an acting coach for Saturday Night Live, and whose album “How to Speak Hip,” was a 1960s comedy landmark, had tabbed me — me! — as the one among the cast who had the stuff, the goods, the presence. He wanted me to take his advanced course at ImprovOlympic (sorry, IOC, that was its name — you can’t erase history).
Dig: Bob Odenkirk’s new book, Comedy Comedy Comedy Drama: A Memoir, features a passage on the Breaking Bad/Better Call Saul star’s first encounter with Close. Odenkirk was a 20 year-old student with his college newspaper’s press pass at the time and ran into Close at a bookstore in Chicago’s hippie/freak haven, Old Town. By chance Del Close walked into the bookstore while Odenkirk browsed through the Theatre section. Here’s how Odenkirk describes the scene:
[I]nto the store ambled a jabbering mound of clothing with a human being inside. He appeared to be some kind of down-on-his-luck wizard, muttering incantations. And, actually, I would find out, the man was a witch, and he would change the course of my thinking and even my life on that very day.
A witch, ladies and gentlemen. He called himself that with pride!
The woman behind the counter called him Del. “No, Del, that book isn’t in yet.” “Yes, Del, you can use the washroom, but please try to hit the inside of the toilet.” I don’t remember exactly what she said to him, but she kept saying “Del.” Del . . . where did I know that name from? I’d seen it before, maybe twice. In the program for a Second City revue that I’d attended when I was fourteen, six years earlier. Or possibly as one of the final credits on the long scroll at the end of “Saturday Night Live,” where Del Close had briefly worked as an “acting coach.” I did not know what Del Close looked like, and I certainly didn’t know his legendary status as a guru of sketch-comedy performers, because that hadn’t happened yet.
Still, I stepped up to this unkempt, some might say seedy-looking, stranger and said, “Are you Del Close?”
“Can I interview you?” I asked, waving my tape recorder in the air to show I meant business.
“Well, I just quit Second City, again, yesterday, and I just quit cocaine and heroin and ‘Saturday Night Live,’ too, so, fortuitous timing, this is a good moment to look backward, and forward, and… inward.” Then he laughed, which turned into a cough. He was always saying clever things portentously, and coughing. Del was at a juncture and I was, too, and so our junctures junctured.
Our next stop was a bar where Del ordered a Bloody Mary—a blast of nutrition after what he’d been putting in his body the past few years. Then we walked back up the wind tunnel of Wells Street and down an alley to his penurious digs, a smoke-stained one-bedroom, cluttered on the verge of hoarder-level. He talked the whole time. I listened, happily.
The man who made careers, who’d taken one look at John Belushi and knew he’d become a superstar, took a look at me and, if not predicting superstardom, at least presumably said This guy’ll do.
And I just shrugged my shoulders. I followed up, sort of, and took Del’s advanced course for a while. But I had stories to write: There was the profile of Bill Wildt, host of the cable show “Motorsports Unlimited,” featuring scantily clad models wearing towering feathered headdresses lovingly caressing Corvettes or souped-up Ford Falcons, a story on Rob Sherman, the litigious spokesperson for Illinois Atheists, and countless others, the publications of which allowed me to pay the rent on time. Occasionally.
Well, we have to make choices in our lives. Writing for alternative newsweeklies and magazines and newspapers, the freelancer’s life, became unsustainable as the internet slowly but surely killed print. Now everybody can, and does, write. No need to pay them for it, since there’ll always be someone else who wants to do it for free.
I like to joke the reason I chose writing over acting was I preferred to hang out with writers rather than actors. Which was — and is — true. I trust writers more.
Still, writing no longer is a viable career choice. Comedy acting? Dan Aykroyd, I’ve read, is worth some $135 million today, Bill Murray, $120 million. I’m not saying I’d be anywhere near as successful and wealthy as those two. I’d have settled for 1/1000th their financial success — I’d have been able to pay my rent on time every month.
Ditching improv would be the single life decision I’d most regret. That is, if I were prone to regretting and, hell, the whole point of this post is to stress that regret is a waste of time.
Every now and again, I must admit, I do waste time.