Re-meeting Nicolas DeGrazia

I am a total and complete nervous wreck; and not just in my usual every-day-total-lack-of-self-confidence way. I am about to interview THE Nicolas DeGrazia, Creative Director and co-owner of Bitter Jester Creative, Inc., the Emmy Award-winning digital cinema company. Nic is also the producer and director, and one of the writers and actors of The Comic Thread (TCT), the sketch comedy troupe that won the first-ever Audience Choice Award at the 2012 Chicago Fringe Festival this past September.

I’ve met Nic before. We sat at the same table at an awards dinner about 7 years ago thrown by the Highland Park Chamber of Commerce to honor high school students who exhibited exceptional leadership skills. My daughter Veronica was being honored that night, and Nic and his business partner Dan Kullmanwere videotaping the event. They could not have been nicer when we met them. I know I have nothing to fear, and yet I can’t seem to calm down.

Until my sister Beth called. Usually Beth needs ME to calm HER down, but before she even had a chance to finish saying “Hello,” I jumped through the phone and said, “Oh, my God! You have GOT to help me! I am leaving soon to interview Nicolas DeGrazia, you remember him from the dinner we were at when Veronica received an honor, right?” Not waiting for an answer I continued, “He and I became Facebook friends through a mutual friend and when he saw I was a blogger he asked me to write a blog review of his show ‘The Comic Thread’ sketch comedy this Saturday that we’re going to. He told me to call the theater and ask for a press pass. Me? A press pass? What was I thinking when I agreed to do this? I thought it would be fun. It will be fun! I have nothing to fear, except what I’m going to wear that night? Wait! What am I going to wear today when I re-meet him?”

While I inhaled, Beth took the opportunity to say, “He’s just a person. He poops, too.”

For some reason, the common denominator of pooping really calmed my gut. “You’re right,” I said, as if I hadn’t thought of that, which I hadn’t.

“Even the Queen of England poops,” Beth said.

“I feel much better. Thank you,” I said calmly. “I have to get dressed, now.”

“Okay,” she said. “I’ll talk to you later. You can do this.” What a great much-much-much older sister I have.

Beth was right. Why should I be nervous? I’m not the one going onstage! I’m just writing about it. Hey, I can do that. That’s what I do every day. I write about life, usually mine, and other things I find humorous. I should be able to do this. I shouldn’t be Barney Fife-ing all over the place. But I am. My stomach is in Knotts.

I am almost 52 years old. Well, I will be 52 on Monday. And here I am shaking in my boots. Or should I wear clogs? Or my way-cool Asics running shoes? I want to look professional, but laid-back and casual, and I definitely don’t want to wear anything too matchy-matchy or cutesy-cutesy. So, I decide on jeans, a black Eileen Fisher sweater, black riding boots, my favorite long silver earrings that would look better on me if I had a much longer neck, and blue pinstripe panties for a smidge of professionalism, even if I was the only one who knew I was wearing them.

As I drove the 2 minutes from my house to the Bitter Jester headquarters, all I could think was, “What’s my motivation?”

Nic was adorable and relaxed, acting as if he didn’t have a show to produce in a couple of days and had all the time in the world to chat. He spent 2 ½ hours talking to me. I had no trouble thinking up questions to ask and he answered them all. He also gave me all of the background scoop on the birth of TCT, and invited me to come to as many shows that would be performed by other troupes as I could. He also gave me the names, phone numbers, and e mail address of the other players. I had worried over nothing.

Nic and his friends Matt Birnholz, and Charles Turck began writing and performing sketch comedy in 7th grade which led to a cable TV show that aired through Post-Newsweek Cable in Highland Park in the mid-90’s. Nic was then asked to join the cast of the brand-new skit comedy and improv troupe Super-Natty. Super-Natty performed in the summers for late-night packed houses, first at the former Attic Playhouse in Highwood, IL in 1998, and then at the former Apple Tree Theatre in Highland Park, IL  in 1999 and 2000. Matt and Charles became Super-Natty cast members in 1999.

Eventually Super-Natty morphed into The Comic Thread, co-founded by Nic and Charles along with  Mark Sheahen ( a Super-Natty crew member) and Ben Shearn (a Super-Natty cast member, writer, and co-director). Many other cast members and writers of Super-Natty joined them and they have been doing shows on and off in their free time since 2001. Beginning in early 2010, TCT has enjoyed  touring the country and Canada, performing at festivals and winning awards. Today, TCT can proudly say that it is one of the longest-running sketch comedy troupes in Chicago, and quite possibly, the United States.

I haven’t seen TCT perform yet, so I can’t wait until Saturday to watch the magic happen onstage. I don’t know what to expect, but from what I’ve read and heard about TCT, I have a feeling I had better not drink liquids at all that day, and try to pee before the show so I don’t wet my pants.

And while I don’t know exactly what TCT is, I do, however, know what TCT is not:

TCT is not a group of professional actors, per se. In fact, Matt Birnholz, Charles Turck, and Daphne Scott* are all doctors. Justin Birnholz (Matt’s brother and a former Super-Natty/TCT cast member and current TCT writer) is a DIT (doctor-in-training). Ben Shearn is a writer’s assistant living in L.A. and is not, never was and never will be a doctor. Nurse Nic DeGrazia, who is not a real nurse, is the Creative Director of Bitter Jester Creative (BJC) and told me that Meg Grunewald,** who is “on loan” to TCT from her own all-female Chicago-based comedy sketch troupe “Just the Tip” (is that not the best name you’ve ever heard of for a sketch comedy troupe, or even a restaurant?), is not a nurse or a doctor either, but could totally play one on TV.

None of the core TCT members has been trained. I assume they’re potty/and/or paper-trained, but not trained as actors. Charles, Matt, Mark, Justin, Nic, and his Bitter Jester business partner Daniel Kullman (also a TCT writer) have never been members of Second City or any of the Improv Olympics, or Comedy Sportz, the main staples of the Chicago comedy training scene. As Nic says, “We’re just people who are good at sketch comedy and have honed our craft independent of the ‘mainstream’ of this not-main-stream activity.” I’m not sure I totally get that last quote, but Nic is much more cerebral and funny than I, so I’m going with it.

But, I don’t just  have to “go with it” because Nic (in a nasty little nurse outfit) came to me in a dream last night and with a booming voice said, “Leslie, you should clarify that last paragraph. Tell your reader(s) that basically EVERYONE in the Chicago comedy world does Second City, Improv Olympics, ComedySportz, or a combination of any or all of them. Sketch comedy itself is not really main stream, even in Chicago. So, to be as increasingly successful, as we have been becoming, having avoided that mentality of, ‘Well, if you want to do sketch comedy you have to get trained where everyone gets trained’ means that we’re on the fringe of the fringe itself, in a way.” Then he took his stethoscope and fishnet stockings and vanished.

TCT also doesn’t have a set group of writers and performers. They rotate their cast members and writers, based on who is available and who can travel to festivals to perform at any given time.

The ONE NIGHT ONLY Comic Thread show is this Saturday, January 5th, 2013 at 6 PM at Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont, Chicago.  Call 773/327-5252 for tickets, or get tickets online at: http://bit.ly/TCTSketchfest2013

A few things you should know about TCT:

SNL’s Garrett Morris called TCT “Brilliant”.

The troupe has performed for 14 years in 11 cities, and has sold out its past 3 consecutive appearances at Chicago Sketchfest, and it looks like this Saturday’s performance will continue the trend.

This past August the Shepherd-Express newspaper in Milwaukee referred to TCT’s performance in Milwaukee as the best thing to hit Wisconsin since cheese! Well, no, I said that. What the newspaper really said was, “The most interesting sketch comedy came from Chicago’s The Comic Thread. Even in independent theater, truly surreal and experimental work rarely makes it to the stage. Drawing on the comedy of the unexpected, their work can capture an audience with little more than a chocolate truffle. At one point, they thrust a random audience member into the spotlight and had her perform for a few minutes. None of the group members were onstage and yet they were in total control. Now that’s brilliant sketch comedy.”

www.chicagostagereview.com listed TCT’s upcoming performance at the 2013 Chicago Comedy Sketch Festival as an “Opening of Interest.”

For photos, please click the following link:

http://www.facebook.com/ComicThread/photos

*Daphne Scott received training through the Second City program.

**Meg Grunewald has spent a great deal of time working with the Improv Olympics.

Next blog post:

Interviews with the cast of The Comic Thread.

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