Lay of the Improv Land

The improv community in Chicago is large, probably the largest in the world, and like all communities, it has managed to organize itself into some rough hierarchy.

At the top is Second City, or at least parts of it. The very pinnacle is its two revue shows, where twelve people at a time who combine excellent improv skills with having caught the eye of the right people at the right time make a living not performing improv.

Second City’s Touring Company, generally abbreviated to TourCo, operates as a farm team for the big shows. TourCo members do perform improv for a living, although when they ask for audience suggestions they usually get “dildo.” Almost every improvisor wants to join TourCo, but most TourCo members come to hate it.

Three well-established theaters form the next tier. There is iO, owned by Charna Halpern. It was formerly named Improv Olympic before the actual Olympics went nuts with protecting the name. The largest pure improv theater in the city (which is true even though plenty of scripted shows play there too), anyone who’s anyone in the community and a whole bunch of people who aren’t will perform there at some point. Just about every improvisor wants to, at least, with two broad exceptions. First are those who tried to and didn’t get cast; they generally spend far more time than is productive complaining about how it’s all about who you know, or its close variant, who you fuck. Second are those who have been performing there and grew angry about something or other. This is a relatively common occurrence in an environment that has too many performers competing for too little stage time; “pissed at Charna” isn’t in any slang dictionary yet, but the number of people who feel that way could support the entry.

The Annoyance is the next of the troika. It has the reputation as the countercultural, rebel theater, even though there’s plenty of cross-pollination. Its shows are often profane and sometimes legendary. The theater doesn’t, as a rule, have the same runaway success of iO, but its training program is generally considered the best there is.

At the other extreme of this tier is ComedySportz, which is a bit of an anomaly. It’s a franchise of a national chain of improv theaters whose focus is short-form, game-based improv (“Like Whose Line is it Anyway” any improvisor will explain, with a sigh that signifies a tiny bit of their soul has died) rather than long-form art pieces, and as a result is sometimes looked down upon. But it is one of the most selective theaters in town, and its shows are consistently crowd-pleasing, if a bit repetitive and, due to the keep-it-clean policies there, a bit sanitized.

Occupying the next step down are a handful of companies that have managed to rent their own space on a reasonably permanent basis, but as relative newcomers haven’t acquired the reputation of the step above. Foremost among these is the Playground, which used to introduce itself as “the nation’s only not-for-profit improv co-op,” until they realized that that combination of words didn’t mean anything to anyone who wasn’t them. There’s a relatively take-all-comers philosophy to the booking of shows at these theaters, so most improvisors have performed at this level. They don’t necessarily invite everyone back, though, so becoming a regular can carry a certain prestige.

All of the above will be useful background information. This, however, is not their story.

*****

Hey! Another lunch-break post.

If I ever write a novel set in the world of Chicago improv comedy—which is likely, although I have no specific plans to—this would (tentatively, of course) be the prologue. The actual story would focus on people far, far, far, far, far lower on the improv food chain: The people who have been chewed up and pooped out by improv, and who still don’t leave.

In the meantime, it’s a reasonably accurate classification as far as it goes.

Mini Coopergasm, Part II

The thrilling conclusion!

*****

Zena took her place and sat down. It wasn’t so bad, she had to admit. The leather seats were comfortable enough, at least. Nothing jabbing or poking here. And there were a lot of dials. For all she knew, Zena might have been at the wheel of a nuclear reactor.

“Here’s the key,” Chelsea chirped. “You just put it in the ignition and turn.”

Trembling, she did. The machine growled to life.

“Oh, Danny!” Renee moaned. Danny, as Zena had recently learned, was Renee’s current fling, a strapping stud too young for anything long-term but a lot of fun for the time being. The knowledge failed to put Zena’s mind at ease.

Chelsea sensed in Renee’s ecstasy an opportunity to get back into the transaction. “Now this vehicle comes with heated seats standard, and…”

“Heated seats!” Renee shrieked, still at least half in Danny’s clutch.

Zena, for her part, mostly tuned them both out. It had been years since she’d driven, and it required her full attention.

“…so you can feel that you’re doing something good for the earth,” she half-heard Chelsea drone as she put the car into reverse. That is reverse, right? She double checked, and it was. Check her progress in the mirror and—total blackness? No, they just weren’t adjusted. Zena slammed on the brakes, a completely unnecessary maneuver, as the car was traveling below walking speed, but still. She needed to stop to prevent an accident, and that would do it.

“Whoa, cowboy!” Renee shouted, back from her fantasy and annoyed about it. Zena ignored her and carefully adjusted the rear-view and side mirrors, before inching the car backwards once again.

“…accelerate from zero to sixty in…”

But Zena didn’t want to accelerate. She didn’t want to waste time in traffic jams, or parallel park, or negotiate with mechanics about brake lines, or be honked at for not running a yellow light, or run the yellow light out of fear of being honked at and run over a little kid.

“…just $43,995 to buy, or you can lease…”

Forty-four grand? Zena definitely had things she would rather use that money on. But Renee was insistent, and probably right. Maybe she would lease, and she wouldn’t technically be buying a car, at least. Of course, she would have to buy insurance. So, yeah, she was buying a car.

“…and you can see the power for yourself…”

Unless…

Car dealers are insured, right? They must be. With that much inventory, they’d be insane not to be.

Zena was still in the lot, rolling down the aisle of cars on either side without yet having the courage to actually depress the gas pedal. She did now, and spun the steering wheel to the left as she did so.

The airbags—driver and passenger side, and side curtains—worked, even though Chelsea hadn’t bothered to highlight that fact in her pitch. They didn’t need to, really; even with her late burst of speed, Zena wasn’t driving fast enough to injure anyone.

“Maybe driving isn’t the way you want to get noticed,” Renee muttered.

“No,” Zena admitted, concealing her glee.

She agreed to pay $3,000 to cover the dealer’s deductible and not buy a car ever.

It was the best deal she ever made.

True Lincoln Park Tales, #4: The Mini Coopergasm, Part I

Zena’s hand trembled just a bit as she put the key in the ignition.

In her suburban youth, she had ridden in cars. She had obtained and maintained driver’s license, and had been a committed driver out of necessity for several years. But she had never liked automobiles, and once she both lived and worked in an area of Chicago where public transportation is universal if not beloved, she sold her car with great relief.

She found herself at a car dealership now out of peer pressure. Zena had recently been promoted at her job, to a sales position with a cushy base salary, a solid bedrock of loyal customers, and tantalizing shoots of potential future growth. Blessed with an outgoing personality and an eminently trustworthy smile, Zena had clear potential, which was recognized by her boss Renee.

Zena got results in her first two weeks. Good results, even. But not, as Renee said, excellent results. “And excellence,” she declared, “is where you belong.”

“You need to manage your image,” Renee announced. Zena was perfectly good at making sales, she explained, but she needed to do more. She had to make not buying from her inconceivable. And to start, she had to make herself look amazing.

Renee boiled it down thusly: “Everyone wants to be successful. When you roll up at their office in a sweet ride, they know that they can be simply by buying whatever you sell. But they will never know that when you walk up to their office from the train, branded with the aura of bums and urine and failure.”

And with a flourish of girlish excitement, Renee invited herself on a car shopping trip that Zena didn’t realize she was planning.

They had already inspected a BMW and a Lexus, both of which Zena had pronounced “really an excellent car, but just not me.” Further analysis was beyond her. Zena really didn’t like any car, but Renee’s exuberance had the force of a general’s orders, so she resorted to weak indecision as her only glimpse of a way to wiggle out of buying one.

Renee knew just what to do. “I agree completely,” she declared. “Those were fine cars, but you are a woman who needs to stand out from the crowd. This next one, there’s no way you’re not gonna love it.”

“What is the next one?” Zena asked, looking for an opportunity to declare that she really wasn’t a car person after all, and that they might as well just head home. But with a wave of her finger and an exuberantly restrained hum, Renee refused to inform her until they pulled into the next dealership.

Mini Cooper.

“It takes a special kind of person to pull off driving in these cars,” Renee declared. “I sure wish I could. But you, I think, can.”

“I don’t know,” Zena muttered weakly, but Renee dragged her into the salesroom and in front of a heavily made-up and preternaturally perky blonde saleswoman.

“I’m Chelsea, how are you!” she erupted.

“This is Zena, and she’s going to buy one of your cars!” Renee popped. While the tone of her voice had a way to go to match Chelsea’s implausible squeak, it rose noticeably in just one sentence, and probably would overtake Chelsea before the test drive.

Zena, I just love that name. You’re like an African goddess and a warrior princess all in one.”

“She is,” affirmed Renee. “My newest superstar.”

Zena scrunched up her shoulders and tried to make a sound that would make her seem excited. “Eep” is what emerged from her mouth.

Renee pointed at a red car with a white stripe down the middle. “That is the car that you are going to buy.”

“The Model 9822, it’s exceptional.”

“Very nice?” Zena whimpered.

Renee held up an informational brochure dangling from the driver-side window. “It’s turbocharged.”

“I don’t know what that means,” Zena admitted.

“It means more power and higher performance. You—

Renee’s sales instinct took over, and she cut Chelsea off. “You want higher performance. You deserve higher performance. We’re going to take it for a test drive.”

And so Renee steered the trio outside. Luckily she took the exit to the right; to the left was the lot for resales, but as this was her sale now, nothing Chelsea could have done could have turned her around. Chelsea did manage to nudge her away from the 9522s and to an exact replica of the showroom model. She even managed to warn Renee’s hand away from the driver’s door with a perfectly timed throat-clearing.

“Right,” Renee said. “It’s just lust.”

*****

This one, which will be completed tomorrow, was inspired quickly; a woman moaning quite loudly as she drove past the apartment building where I live. I mean, really loudly. (I live on the fourth floor.)

Just kidding—I was exiting the building when I heard her. Still, it was loud, and she was feeling something.

I combined it with some of my experiences with salespeople; I spent a lot of my life working for magazines that are 100% ad-supported, and as a result have had far too much more than my share of… let’s just call them, moments. It’s kind of fun putting three salespeople together, though.

I’m expecting this post to get a lot of hits*. After all, it will be tagged with “orgasm,” even though the true Mini Coopergasm doesn’t happen until part 2. So hey, tune in next time!

*Relative to other posts on this blog. I’m still famous only in the future, rather than the present.

True Lincoln Park Tales #3: Happiness in the Elevator

This one is not exactly based on anyone who I’ve ever seen. The backstory is that a few days ago this appeared in the elevator in my apartment building.

Note

It was underneath an inspirational quote—I think it was from Einstein, but the photo I took of it with my phone came out too blurry to read.

So this, I suppose, is my reaction to being a rat in someone’s metaphysical experiment. (Yes, I had to do a quick Google search for Indian names; the translation of the acronym is purely coincidence.

*******

Charlene knew something was up. Her Building Happiness Index Meter read only 123.

123!

The Building Happiness Index Meter appeared to the untrained eye to be nothing more than a small digital readout showing a tidy three-digit (or, Gaia forbid, two-digit) number. Charlene’s eye had been thoroughly trained, and she knew what a sophisticated device it was. Charlene had named it Bharadwaj after sensing its strong masculine and south Asian energy; the name meant “a lucky bird,” which wasn’t really appropriate, but Bhim is an Indian name meaning “fearful” and that would be much, much worse.

Bharadwaj measured energy patterns and brainwaves and stimuli from the ether, and converted all of those tidbits of data into a single, easy-to-read number that could serve as an instant guide to how happy the building and its inhabitants were. It was powered by Charlene’s will and two AA batteries, and she had only had to replace the batteries twice. That was all the proof Charlene needed that Bharadwaj was something pretty special and legitimate.

123 wasn’t really that bad of a number, but it should have been higher. It had been 129 just an hour earlier. Charlene attributed this to an experiment she had just begun. To inspire joy, she would post an inspirational quote in the elevator each morning.

The first one had gone up just a couple hours earlier. On a bright yellow sheet of paper, she had typed (in that delightful Comic Sans font) “Our greatest glory is not in never falling but in rising every time we fall.—Confucius.”

She’d posted it, and the reading went up by eight points. Now the reading was dropping, and that meant something was wrong.

Charlene dashed to the elevator to check on her experiment.

Gone!

Some nasty, disrespectful, selfish, hateful Philistine had…

No.

Charlene took a deep, meditative breath. She must not judge, or respond in anger to whatever negative emotion had caused this. She returned to her unit and created another copy of her quote. Then, she created a second sign:

“Beloved cohabitators: This is part of an important experiment that I am running, which may very well lead to pure joy for all humanity. Because of that, I must ask you not to remove this sign. Doing so would be horribly inconsiderate, and if you feel that such a thing is appropriate, you may want to examine your own soul for signs of irredeemable darkness. This is the kind of things that people who kill puppies do.

Love, Charlene.”

She posted her quote in the elevator, with the explanatory sign underneath. After a contented glance at her handiwork, she returned to her unit to prepare some herbal tea.

Bharadwaj read 132.

All was well.

True Lincoln Park Tales #2: The Wrong Starbucks

I didn’t like how the first True Lincoln Park Tale came out. So for the future, particularly since part of the purpose of documenting these is to have a record to tap into for future characters, I’m going to handle them like this: working up mildly fictionalized short stories or pastiches about them.

This one is pretty close to what I overheard; a guy was walking down the street behind me, describing his efforts to try to get a job at Starbucks.

The Wrong Starbucks

Kevin wanted to work at Starbucks.

He liked coffee, and he liked people, and he liked mornings. So Starbucks was a perfect job.

He applied, sending resumes to every Starbucks he came across. Nowhere else. He wanted to work at Starbucks and no place else.

No Starbucks hired him, but he did receive a number of calls from managers who were impressed at his credentials and his drive, applying for positions that weren’t open and hadn’t been filled. He spoke to them all, very well. Each manager, no matter how busy, found that he or she truly enjoyed talking to Kevin; he would first politely thank them for calling him personally, and then, with almost preternatural sense, ask about something that just happened to be one of their dearest passions.

None of these conversations ended in less than a half an hour. None ended without a promise on the manager’s part to keep Kevin in mind if anything should open up.

Forty rejections did not faze Kevin. Chicago was home to, what, three hundred Starbucks? He would find a job.

These calls soon took on an even more promising note. Diversey and Halsted was hiring. At least, that was the rumor. No manager could say for certain, but they all seemed to have heard this bit of intelligence through the warm mocha ether.

And for the first time, Kevin resisted. Diversey and Halsted was wrong. He felt it, he knew it, he should not work there.

He even announced the fact to his friends, when they would kindly inquire about his job hunt. They invariably told him that Diversey and Halsted was a great place, and he should give it a try. He ignored them.

But two hundred and fifty-nine Starbucks applications later, Kevin had run out of options. Quivering, he approached the store, entered through it’s artificially clean metal and glass door, and approached the counter.

“May I have a job application, please?”

The barista seemed dazed by this request.

“Yaaaah, ummmm, we filllled that joooob like, to-daaaaay. Annnnd, like, now ahhhhm woooork-ing heeere.”

Kevin left without another word, and walked to his home. He sat in a chair, completely motionless, until he died of thirst six days later.

For Kevin was not himself a terribly bright individual, and though Caribou Coffee was expanding aggressively in the area, he would have a job on his terms or no terms at all.

The Power of Teamwork

This is a fiction, but based fairly closely on a true story. It’s from about a year ago, and if I can’t figure out something to use it in, there’s something wrong with me. I don’t remember what the “Possibility Farm” was called in real life, but the faucets definitely didn’t extend far enough over the washbasins.

The Power of Teamwork

Vibrant.

One could not look at the walls of the Possibility Farm without thinking, “Wow, how vibrant.” The laws of human evolution required it. State and local law may well have required it as well, but nobody really wanted to examine the necessary codes for a law that had never been violated, if such a law even existed.

One vibrant red wall flowed into another vibrant yellow wall, which flowed into a vibrant orange wall, each clinically proven to enhance mood and energy. The fourth wall was even more clinically proven: bright lime green heavily splattered with a slightly violet pink.

The splatter effect had actually been charted on computer and handpainted by undocumented immigrants, because actually throwing a bucket of paint at the wall gave unsatisfactory results. At the Possibility Farm, the walls had to seem creative and fun, rather than the scene of a Muppet’s death by 20-ton anvil.

Wacky free-spiritedness permeated the Possibility Farm. No couch matched any other couch, and one didn’t even have cushions. Every table was littered with kid’s games—Ants in the Pants! Cootie!—and crayons and colored pipe cleaners with unevenly worn fuzz from having been bent and knotted to within an inch of their pipe-cleaning lives. Even the bathrooms were creative, to the point where the faucets only extended to a point five full inches shy of the washbasin.

Major organizations, the kind that have offices with cubicles and secretaries who direct people to the Sixth Floor, spend upwards of $80,000 for one day of creative fun at the Possibility Farm. $90,000 if they want sandwiches.

Rick’s company, a multinational that somehow held money for other people without doing anything with it, as far as Rick could tell, was using the Possibility Farm for a retreat to discuss how the various divisions could better listen to one another. At no point would the prospect of actually listening to one another be raised, for if the various divisions had wanted to do so, they already would have. It did not matter. Creativity and fun mattered, and that was available in crashing abundance.

Karyn with a Y was the specially trained Funcilitator provided by the Possibility Farm to help the company navigate the minefield of improving listening without improving listening. She was the best, and she came with a money-back guarantee: Your creativity unlocked or your money back. How one might go about proving that their creativity had not been unlocked might make for some fascinating judicial theory, but as it happens, such an event had not yet occurred.

Karyn with a Y was running the Farmers through a simple team-building exercise. Divided into groups of six, each group had been given a long, narrow metal rod to hold on the backs of their hands. Then, on the count of three, they simply had to lower the rod to the ground—but each hand had to be touching the rod at all times.

Rick’s group of six was accomplishing this very poorly indeed, and if you wished to believe popular opinion, Rick was to blame. “You have to lower your end,” squealed Jeri, for Rick’s side was listing upward at an alarming angle.

“I can’t,” Rick explained. “I’m providing no support to it as it is. If my end is too high, then your side is too low or the middle is too high.”

“We need to lower this as a team” insisted Lisa.

“Your hand is too high,” Rick snapped. “I am providing no force that is acting on this rod at all. It’s basic physics.” To punctuate his point, Rick pulled his hands away.

Jeri screamed as the rod clanged to the ground.

Oh, my, look at that,” said Kathy with a Y, faux concern dripping from every edgily chopped hair on her edgily coiffed head. “Tell me, what happened here.”

“I think our teamwork needs to be stronger than our physics,” announced Lisa, with a glare at Rick.

Rick attempted to defend himself, but resisting the tide of a properly whipped frenzy was obviously beyond him. Before long, the entire room was chanting “Our teamwork! Is stronger! Than physics!” which, inevitably, emerged as the multinational’s new official motto.

The divisions still don’t listen to each other, but that day remains fondly remembered as the most productive in company history.

True Lincoln Park Tales #1

I live in Chicago’s Lincoln Park neighborhood. I like it, but pretty much only for the convenience of the location. I’m not a heavy bar-goer, but it is close to my job, and it’s close to my improv.

I’m not a fan of, say, the puddles of vomit, complete with chunks of mystery dinner, that dot the sidewalks on Saturday or Sunday mornings. And I’m not a fan of the bar crowds that spill onto the street, or the occasional sounds of drunken all-bar singalongs to Michael Jackson’s “Man in the Mirror” (which, if you didn’t know, sounds poorly when thus rendered). I really don’t love the people at all. But, on the whole, the worst part of it is pretty easy to avoid — I’m a good half block off one of the main streets, which is enough buffer to avoid the drunkenness unless I intentionally go there.

But still, in very small doses the odd frat-boy and Trixie type can be amusing. So, every so often, I’ll share these brief True Lincoln Park Tales. (More like quotes, really, but you know how it goes.)

Today, I came across a group of frat boys. How frat-boy were they? One of them wore a T-shirt proclaiming this the “Day of the Dong.”

Another announces: “You know? I do feel like we’re in Entourage.”