Serious Comedy by The Comic Thread

If I could, I’d buy my tickets to see The Comic Thread at next year’s Chicago Sketch Comedy Festival  today. Having never walked into a theater lobby and being met by a woman dressed as “poop” walking around with a guy dressed up as a lobster who asked me to play with his balls (they were in a bag; Gee, I thought that would help explain the lobster balls, but it really didn’t.), I was unprepared for such a “happening”. My friend Jody, who was with her husband Jeff, was “game” and played with the lobster’s balls. She paid $1 to reach into the bag-o-lobster balls and pulled out a doll head. There were other prizes to be won, such as free tickets to see some of the 169 shows over the 8-day festival, so playing with lobster balls was not such a bad idea.

My husband Richard was keeping our place in line to see the comedy sketch troupe The Comic Thread, which I later found out he didn’t need to do. Because of the groovy press pass I was given by James Juliano of SHOUT Marketing and Media Relations, I can now go to the head of any line of any show during the duration of the festival because my press pass says, “I’m fucking important!”

My eyes wandered from the lobster’s balls when I saw a guy wearing only blue tightie…bluies, a leopard-print cowboy hat, and furry cowboy boots (which happens to be a fantasy of mine, but enough about me). I had no idea what I’ve been missing all these years.

Don’t worry. I’ll get to The Comic Thread’s outstanding sold-out-for-the-4th-year-in-a-row performance in a minute.

I just have to finish telling you about what was happening in the lobby because the magic began the moment Richard and I walked in. There was a girl in a tutu, a very twisted-looking Winnie the Pooh, a guy wearing jeans, a bunny head, and no shirt (another fantasy of mine), and a colonially-dressed guy –George Washington?– (definitely NOT one of my fantasies.)

We were let into the theater and after we had been seated for a few minutes all the characters we had encountered in the lobby ran onto the stage to introduce The Comic Thread, including the Master of Ceremonies, Executive Producer of Sketchfest, Brian Posen. The characters from the lobby quickly exited stage right as the lights dimmed and the audience members sat on the edge of their seats waiting to be entertained.

I’ll tell you right now, I laughed, and if you know me you know that I laugh loudly no matter how hard I’ve tried over the years to bring it down a notch, from the moment the show began until I realized we were walking down the street towards the restaurant and I should probably stop.

The Comic Thread is fucking important! It is completely obvious that Matthew Birnholz, Nicolas DeGrazia, Meg Grunewald, Daphne Scott, and Charles Turck take their comedy very seriously. They are the hardest working comedians in Chicago; maybe even the world! Each one could stand on his or her own, but as an ensemble they are unstoppable.

What makes each of  them such complete comedians is a combination of extraordinary material, obviously honed to the  point of defining who they are, and the way in which they trust each other and work with each other. There was no star. There was no one actor who obviously stole the show, except for, possibly, Charles Turck’s naked behind in the Peter Pan sketch. Don’t remember that from the Peter Pan of your childhood, do you?

Speaking of Charles Turck, his face speaks volumes when he’s not speaking. During The 7th Inning Stretch sketch, the ensemble sang an almost impossible rendition of “Take me out to the Ball Game”, except for Turck who just looked so perplexed it was hard for me not to fixate on his face, especially while my brain was trying desperately to figure out how the rest of the cast was achieving brilliance with a song we all know, or thought we knew.

Meg Grunewald brought Peter Pan to life, reprising the role of Elana Ernst Silverstein; a beloved cast member she had never met who recently passed away. In fact, The Comic Thread dedicated last night’s performance “with love to the enduring memory and friendship of Elana Ernst Silverstein”. Peter Pan was obviously a woman pretending to be a boy and when Daphne Scott’s “Wendy” called her bluff, Peter Pan’s obviously male shadow (played in a very tight-fitting black unitard by Matthew Birnholz)  killed her. Spoiler alert! (That’s for Nicolas DeGrazia who said “spoiler alert” after  revealing the ending  of the movie “The Hobbit”.)

The use of dramatic music, meticulously-placed lighting, and elaborate costumes for the shortest of sketches was unexpected and yet perfect. The Comic Thread, a division of  Emmy Award- wining Bitter Jester Creative, deserves the accolades it gets, and there have been many. To read them and to learn more about Bitter Jester Creative, go to http://www.bitterjester.com.

One last thing that impressed me to the core was the genuine affection they had for each other and for all of the other over 1000 artists performing in the festival. On Facebook there were shout-outs, recommendations, and heart-felt admiration for all of the other comedy sketch troupes participating in the 12th Annual Chicago Sketch Comedy Festival.

While The Comic Thread will not be performing again during Sketchfest, you can still catch other shows today, and from Thursday, January 10th through Sunday, January 13th at Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont, Chicago. Meg Grunewald’s troupe “Just the Tip” will be performing Thursday, January 10th at 9:00 PM.  Call 773/327-5252 or visit their website at http://www.chicagosketchfest.com for more information.

My New Camera Was Smokin’

Back in the ‘70s, my parents gave me a Pentax K1000 camera for 8th grade graduation. It was the coolest thing ever. It was completely non-automatic. You had to manually set everything from aperture to focus.

I fancied myself quite the photographer after getting that camera. I remember taking a photography class during my freshman year in high school and doing an assignment that was supposed to tell a photographic story about who I was. I artfully arranged my toe shoes on my parents’ entryway slate floor, along with my tap and jazz shoes. I took a self-portrait using a mirror. I took photos of my Standard Poodle, Fred. I felt like an artiste. I was ready to move to Santa Fe to live with the Hippies.

The best part about that class was that we got to develop our own photos in a darkroom. I loved the chemical smells and watching blank paper blossom into a black and white masterpiece. I’m sure all of the toxic fumes from those chemicals–that are probably now banned–led me to believe that all of my photos were of professional grade.

The following summer my parents had a party. It was a beautiful evening and I decided to take pictures of their friends and relatives as they milled about in the backyard sipping wine and being fabulous.

I loaded my camera with 400 speed film which was, at that time, the fastest film available. It always took several attempts to load the camera because you had to line up the holes on the sides of the film with the cogs on the loading device of the camera. I chose the lens I wanted to use and attached the flash. It took some time to set up my cherished Pentax K1000, but it was worth it because I was a P.I. T. M. (professional in the making.)

With that camera in my hands I was Victor Skrebneski. I was Irving Penn. I was Annie Leibovitz. I was capturing moments in history. I was so excited and so proud.

I walked over to my Aunt Aldine to show her my new camera. “Oh, that’s nice, Dear,” she said, not even looking at me or the camera in my hands. And then, to my absolute and complete horror, she took her cigarette and snuffed it out in the open camera case. She thought I was bringing her an ashtray.

I mean, there I was, 15 years old, standing there waiting for my Aunt to admire my pride and joy. I was holding it with the attached case open so I wouldn’t lose it. And then with complete ignorance and innocence, my Aunt scarred my prized possession for life.

When I think back to that frozen moment in time, I see myself looking down as if floating above, watching the carnage. I remember exactly what I was wearing. I remember having used empty frozen orange juice cans in my hair the night before so my hair would be straight for the party. I remember the psychedelic headband I wore with my bell-bottom jeans and un-tucked white button down shirt.

I still have the camera and I still use it. And, it still has the cigarette burn in the case, which brings my husband Richard to tears from laughing every single time I show it to him because he thinks it is one of the funniest stories he’s ever heard.

It was sad, but it was hilarious, too, because now, every time I open the disintegrating camera case, I see the burn mark and remember Aunt Aldine in all of her Caftan-wearing glory, flaming red hair and matching flaming red lips as she nonchalantly snuffed out her cigarette in what she thought was an ashtray.

At the time I was mortified. I was stunned. I was angry. But, there was nothing I could do about it. I didn’t say anything to her or to my parents. In fact I just recently told my parents about it and we all laughed at the complete absurdity of the whole scene.

So even though the case is marred, every time I hold that camera in my hands I feel like a true photographer. It’s not at all like my “point-and-shoot-idiot-proof” digital camera that does everything for me. It takes careful balance and thought to take a photograph with my Pentax K1000. I have to remember to set the film speed, and the distance, and many other things to capture what I see in front of me as realistically as I can.

But, the truth is, I can’t take a decent picture with that thing and never could. I’m sure if I spent hours taking pictures and learning about light, color and shadows I could become at least a decent photographer. And if I can’t, I can always blame Aunt Aldine for blowing my dreams up in smoke.