Monday, January 14, 2008



Give it away
Through the Silverlake Conservatory of Music, rock bassist Flea offers musical opportunities to everyone

By Carl Kozlowski
When Michael Balzary was a self-proclaimed "wild child" growing up in LA in the late 1970s, he found much-needed direction and inspiration through the music education programs at Fairfax High School. It was there that he also found his lifelong best friend, Anthony Kiedis, adopted the nickname of "Flea" as his public moniker and started his life's work as rock's premier bassist when the two teamed up to create the mega-selling rock band Red Hot Chili Peppers.
But when Flea, who's now 45, went back to speak to Fairfax High students several years ago, he made a discovery that shocked him.
"They used to have a marching band, orchestra, jazz band and all sorts of student productions to play in, but now they had basically no music program at all, just a volunteer teacher and a few instruments," Flea recalls. "They used to give you the instruments and teach you how to play, and now it was all gone. Then I read a book called "Songs of the Unsung" by Horace Tapscott, a great musician who started a music school in South Central in the '60s. I was really inspired by him and, after reading it, decided to start a school."
Thanks to the fact that the Chili Peppers have sold well over 40 million albums, Flea had the wherewithal to put his intentions into action. He put up the money and oversaw the planning for the Silverlake Conservatory of Music, and even personally knew and enlisted the teachers before it opened in 2001. And for the past three years, he's recruited the Chili Peppers along with some of rock's biggest names — from Patti Smith to Tracy Chapman to this year's special guest, Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam — to perform a fiery fund-raiser called Hullabaloo to raise most of the school's annual budget.
This year's Hullabaloo is being held Saturday night at the Henry Fonda Theatre in Hollywood, offering fans the chance to see one of the best live bands on the planet rock it out in a venue that holds just 1,400 people. The prices range from $250 for regular admission to the show and an open bar and appetizer spread beforehand, to $500 for VIP tickets that entitle buyers to attend an exclusive rooftop after-party at a Hollywood hotspot with a special performance by popular local scenester Mickey Avalon.
All the money goes to a great cause, as the Silverlake Conservatory of Music currently teaches 600 Angelenos of every age and background among the six studios that rotate users all day long, including free lessons for those who can't afford them. Keeping with Flea's old public school tradition, the Conservatory also provides the instruments for the students to use — "that's why we need a fund-raiser," Flea says, laughing.
"We just ask that you take care of the instrument we give you and that you show up on time," says Flea. "I don't know if music programs are coming back to the schools. I would hope that would be a priority in a kid's education, but who knows? Maybe if we get a decent leader in this country."
The Conservatory doesn't just focus on rock music. Emanating from its studio walls on a recent Tuesday afternoon were piano riffs from famous classical pieces, the squawk of a tuba and assorted other jazz instruments. While it may seem surprising, the mix of sounds is totally apropos for a school run by Flea, who also is a proficient trumpet player. He studied the trumpet as well as bass guitar at Fairfax High, but also was heavily influenced by his stepfather, acclaimed jazz musician Walter Urban, Jr.
"I just love music, period," says Flea. "Jazz is one of the most sophisticated forms of music in terms of harmonics, covering the spiritual and emotional as well."
And with that spirit of musical adventure helping guide the Chili Peppers to ever more sophisticated albums and critical acclaim — including a Grammy nomination for Album of the Year for their 2006 double-CD "Stadium Arcadium" — Flea can look toward his own future with excitement, but, more importantly, can see the futures of a new generation of musical talent blossom.
"I was a street kid out of control. Having music was the one thing that was a discipline that was essential to me. It gave me something to do and something to believe in," he explains. "School music programs were everything to me; they gave me a path away from self-destruction and toward giving good energy to the world. There are a lot of kids like me who need this. I just wanna give back. That's the whole thing."


'SNL' alum takes a shot at career reinvention with his Laugh Factory residency

You may think you know Jon Lovitz, but you don't. Maybe you think of him like most people do, as one of the prime performers in the Saturday Night Live renaissance of the late '80s, who played a wide array of deceitful yet ultimately lovable characters, ranging from Mephistopheles himself to Tommy Flanagan the pathological liar to the sonorous-voiced Master Thespian. Or perhaps you recall him for the distinctively paunchy, hilariously nasal characters he portrayed in more than a hundred TV and film roles following his stint with the late-night powerhouse. He's one of those rare performers whose mere appearance signals laughter on the way.
Yet that impression is far too limiting, for Lovitz is also a man who can tell a vivid tale of the harrowing days he spent trapped in New York City after 9/11. He can also amaze you with a candid, impassioned defense of his friend Michael Jackson. (Hell, it's stunning to think of Jon Lovitz and the King of Pop being friends in the first place.) And now, he's making a bold leap by opening up his life onstage, taking a swing at standup-comedy success with a weekly Wednesday-night showcase at the Laugh Factory.
He decided to take this creative turn because, at 46, he was growing tired of playing the same types of roles and had experienced occasional dry spells between films. Eager to shake things up for himself, he approached Laugh Factory owner Jamie Masada last June. Lovitz's initial performance was so enthusiastically received, Masada instantly urged him to work up a full routine.
Lovitz's performance rests squarely on his shoulders, and for a guy who's built a career on playing insecure losers, he steps up to the challenge in surprisingly strong fashion. Veering from topic to topic on a recent Wednesday – politics to bizarre childhood tales to ridiculously overstated complaints about the state of television advertising – he conveyed a childlike spirit that won over two consecutive crowds, no matter how conservative their politics or stringent their morality. But most of all, his appearances are another example that, in showbiz, it's never too late to reinvent yourself.
"I've seen plenty of comics become actors, developing their persona and career and image through standup before signing a TV sitcom or movie deal," says Masada, who has watched literally thousands of the comedy hopefuls who wander through his club's doors. "[Lovitz] has one-in-a-billion timing that has taken him farther in the past six months than I've seen people go in 20 years of trying. I can see him taking this show to Broadway by the time he's finished here." Masada has given Lovitz an unheard-of yearlong commitment. "Like very few people – Jim Carrey, Adam Sandler, and Chris Rock – he can make anyone of any age and any background laugh hard."
Lovitz's journey to the standup world began with what he recalls as an idyllic childhood as the only boy among five kids growing up in Tarzana, where he says his doctor father helped spearhead the construction of the suburb's main hospital. Friends star Lisa Kudrow was a neighborhood friend of his, and Lovitz's father was also the family physician for the Jacksons – as in Michael, Janet, and the rest.
Those experiences helped Lovitz hone a sense of the absurd at a very young age, as well as a fierce loyalty to his friend Michael. One of the funniest bits in his show comes when he recounts the difference between growing up "not a Jew, but Jewish" and the disparities he perceived between his upbringing and that of a macho kid in Texas: "Most boys at 12 go hunting with their fathers, kill a deer, and then learn how to gut them and skin them. I had the same experience with a bagel. My father would come in screaming, 'You're cutting it wrong! Look at all the dough you're wasting!'"
Yet it was around that time, at age 13, that Lovitz saw Woody Allen's classic 1969 film Take the Money and Run and decided he wanted to be just like him.
"I heard his routine and performed that and other Jewish comics like Lenny Bruce's routines in my college dorm, and when I graduated I took comedy workshops on Saturday nights at the Comedy Store," he recalls. "I always wanted to do it but didn't have the guts to take the stage on my own like that, until [fellow SNL alums] Dana Carvey and Dennis Miller told me I should do it, and I heard how much Dana was making at it. Right away, I started hosting shows for [fellow SNL-ers] Kevin Nealon, Victoria Jackson, and Norm MacDonald. I did 10 minutes first; then they asked if I could do 30."
Lovitz was able to work at getting into SNL because of his father's thorough emotional support. Despite his success as a doctor, the senior Lovitz had really wanted to be an opera singer, and so the patriarch encouraged his children to follow their hearts careerwise. Thus, young Jon headed off to UC Irvine to pursue acting – a professor there served as the inspiration for the Master Thespian – and soon afterward began performing with the legendary Groundlings comedy troupe, where SNL producer Lorne Michaels discovered him.
During Lovitz's five-year run on the late-night powerhouse, he recalls upsetting only one celebrity with a stinging impersonation: iconic gay playwright/actor Harvey Fierstein. Lovitz pretended that Fierstein was hosting a talk show from his boudoir, desperately hustling attractive male guests for physical affection while always being thoroughly rebuffed.
"Harvey didn't like it, and he came in to the show to complain about it," says Lovitz. "His point was that he was getting more famous as me than as him. Watching him, I realized I was doing him quite well. He thought I was doing a gay stereotype," laughs the comedian. "But I only played him one time after that. If it hurts someone, it's not worth doing."
That surprisingly gentle philosophy is rare among today's generation of notoriously mean-spirited humorists, but it allows Lovitz to get away with poking extensive fun at all types of politicians and pop culture. Even when the admittedly staunch Democrat calls on the Republicans in the Laugh Factory crowd to raise their hands and "out" themselves, they do it joyfully and wind up laughing harder at his take on Bush than even the Democrats in the house. And when Lovitz fires off his best riff of the show, complaining about celebrities like Bob Dole or Tony Bennett making ads for penile dysfunction medications, it's hard to find an audience member who isn't doubled over with laughter.
At the end of the night, Lovitz surprises the crowd one more time by sitting at a portable keyboard and pounding out jazz-pop tunes he's written. But even these are childishly dirty and absurdly off-kilter in the best way, as they revolve around another unlikely friend of his – squeaky-clean TV dad Bob Saget of Full House fame – and Lovitz's unfounded impression that Saget is gay. As he spells out one incredibly deluded allegation after another in a voice that could lull an infant to sleep, Lovitz tickles the ivories with fast-jazz fury, transformed by the moment into the all-around entertainer he's always dreamed of being. As the audience bursts into a final round of applause, one senses Masada is right: This is career reinvention at its most exciting, and could very well signal the rebirth of a star.



Elevated Laughter
Filipino-American 'Tonight Show'comic JoKoy headlines Asian talent showcase
By Carl Kozlowski

Growing up all around the planet as a military child, JoKoy dreamed of being a standup comic. Watching Eddie Murphy, Robin Williams and Whoopi Goldberg during their 1980s performing heydays, he could barely wait to graduate from high school in order to break off on his own and take the plunge into onstage stardom himself.
Like countless other performers in the entertainment industry, the road to success wasn't fast. But thanks to incredible perseverance, JoKoy (a stage name he took from his childhood nickname) finally landed on "The Tonight Show" in January and achieved one of the most incredible and rare feats that any comic could hope for: a standing ovation on his first appearance.
With his career newly afire from that success, he has found himself in greater demand than ever across the country and landed an appearance on ABC's fellow late-night show "Jimmy Kimmel Live!" this past Monday.
This weekend, the Filipino-American performer takes the stage at the Pasadena Civic Auditorium as the headliner of "Asian Elevation," a show being touted as "the premiere Asian Pacific American talent show," and gives Pasadenans a chance to catch his magic live and in person.
"'The Tonight Show' was amazing, and that was the greatest day of my life. I got that from [performing at the Just for Laughs comedy festival in] Montreal, where the show's talent bookers saw me, liked my routine and wanted to put me on the show," he recalls. "I couldn't wait. Six months later, I was finally on it. And then to have a standing ovation was even more amazing because they told me I was only the third comic ever to receive one on the show."
It is that kind of acclaim that has made JoKoy, who was born on an American military base in Japan but finally settled in Seattle with his family for his high school years, a hero to legions of young Asian-American performers. His presence at "Asian Elevation," which features 10 eclectic acts vying for a $1,000 grand prize, should easily garner him a similar response to his appearance on "The Tonight Show."
The 35-year-old comic started performing in 1995 in Las Vegas, where his family had moved after he graduated from high school. He credits his experiences there, in which he balanced "odd jobs" with nonstop performances at open mikes and eventually rented theaters to produce his own showcase shows all over Sin City, as his true "growing-up years."
In fact, JoKoy is part of a small but die-hard group of Asian-Americans who have braved the standup comedy world amid decades that have seen other minority stars from the aforementioned Murphy to current Latino favorite Carlos Mencia get their moments to shine. He's proud to be in a tradition that includes Pat Morita, Kevin Shea, Edwin San Juan, Dan Gabriel and current "MAD TV" star Bobby Lee, but he feels that the time has come for Asian-American comics to truly kick in the doors to success.
"There's basically a handful of Asian comics out there, and just a handful of funny ones too. I want more. That's my goal, and it just takes time," he says. "Hopefully we're the pioneers to helping others get out there because the more of us, the better. I don't want us to be Asian comics; just be a funny comic, and if you're Asian, you're Asian. I can make anybody laugh, and I want my fans to be every color."
Onstage, JoKoy is able to elicit waves of laughter by talking about anything from bathroom habits to male-female relations to his personal stories of life with his 3-year-old son. But his strongest barbs come in attacking the stereotypes held against his race:
"Being Asian in LA means you get the worst compliments. 'Oh, you're Asian? I love orange chicken,'" he squeals in an excited Caucasian girl's voice. "Don't thank Asians for orange chicken, thank the Mexicans. They know how to cook it."
"Asians are always considered to be bad drivers. I drove here; I've got a car. We build the best cars; you don't think we can drive them? You think an engineer at Lexus is bragging about what he built, but when it comes time to drive, he goes (in thick Asian accent) 'Oh no, I just build car …'?"
Speaking of his inspirations for material and the road he's traveled thus far, JoKoy also notes how amazed he is to be actor/comic Jon Lovitz's official opening act for both Lovitz's weekly Wednesday night shows at West Hollywood's Laugh Factory and for Lovitz's upcoming national comedy tour. But as he notes, sometimes all the timing falls into place.
"They say it takes you 10 years to find your [comedic] voice, and it really came around my ninth or 10th year onstage. I realized I know how to say something and say it funny, and no matter the topic, I can make it funny," he explains. "Some things I say are my point of view — being Asian in America and then about my son also and observational off- the-wall stuff — but it's all delivered the same way. I'm having fun, and people just get it."


Bob Saget is an Old, Dirty Bastard (Who Knew?)

By Carl Kozlowski

As one of the dads on the long-running ABC sitcom Full House, Bob Saget found himself trapped for 9 years in a hell of milquetoast characters and endlessly recycled family crises. Compounding the agony was his other weekly gig as the host of America's Funniest Home Videos, reciting horrible jokes accompanying an endless stream of people falling down and taking hits to the crotch.
Basically, if you asked anyone over age 10 back in the early 90s what they thought of Bob Saget, at best they'd respond that he was lame.
But there was always a much hipper, funnier, and downright dirtier comic just dying to get out. Saget cashed the TV checks but yearned for the day he could perform uncensored again. He was the wicked mind who directed Norm McDonald's cult classic comedy Dirty Work, and in an infamous cameo in the stoner favorite Half Baked, he joked "I suck dick for crack." Star comics with far more hipster cred than Saget could ever dream of possessing gave him props as the most brilliantly dirty mind of them all, but no one in the power suites of Hollywood or the streets of Middle America would ever believe it.
Now the evidence is readily available on movie screens across America. For Bob Saget tops nearly 100 of our greatest comic minds, including George Carlin and Robin Williams, by telling the dirtiest version of the dirtiest joke ever told in the new documentary, The Aristocrats. As the movie's ads trumpet, the film is unrated because it would have received the commercially suicidal rating of NC-17 for having "No violence. No nudity. Unspeakable obscenity!"
And Saget's taking the newfound notoriety all the way to the bank again, performing most Friday nights at L.A.'s top comedy club, The Laugh Factory, to wild response and taking his show on the road to shocked college and theater audiences nationwide.
"I'm actually almost ashamed of how dirty I got. I guess people are talking about it, but then they also talk about the guy who shoots people," jokes Saget, who also just finished an acclaimed off-Broadway run in the new play Privilege. "In two years I'll be G-rated again because so much of what I do is R-rated. I was just in Athens Georgia for 700 people, and they added another show because the line was like a rock concert. Marquee said 'Second Show Added To Full House.' I guess I'll never really escape it."
Saget started his odd career journey at the age of 17, after graduating high school in his native Philadelphia and appearing in his college friends' student movies. He took the train to New York City as often as possible and quickly made a great impression on the standup scene, landing comedy powerhouse Chris Albright as his manager before Albright went on to head comedy programming at HBO.
While Saget's early shows were more innocent than his current nirvana of naughtiness, centering around such gags as having his guitar spew water while he sang "While My Guitar Gently Weeps," he always had a dark sense of humor. That bizarre bent came from numerous family tragedies, as Saget lost two sisters and his dad lost four brothers to untimely deaths.
Saget rode his stage persona to the nine-year run of "Full House" and the massive success of "Home Videos," but for ten years that meant he abandoned live comedy. When the shows ended and Saget realized his directing career wasn't catching fire, he decided to hit the road again.
"It was a real proud moment to say 'I suck dick for coke' in 'Half Baked,'" Saget recalls with more than a trace of sarcasm. "But somehow Harvard decided to honor me as a member of their humor magazine the Harvard Lampoon, a year after they honored [acclaimed playwright] David Mamet! They actually put together a 2 ½ hour show honoring me, and I realized there must be a market for me at colleges again."
As Saget notes, getting back into a good comic rhythm is not as easy as riding a bike. Nonetheless, he poured out effort and soon found his act was better received than ever before, as he decided to say literally anything that came to mind. Sure, it might be a shock to see Danny Tanner from Full House lobbing F-bombs, but after the initial ten seconds of gasps, audiences can't help laughing.
His return to the stage has led to a flurry of other work that never seemed possible during his G-rated Full House days. For instance, Saget lampooned his squeaky-clean image brilliantly in a recent episode of HBO's show Entourage, allowed his house to get driven into for the WB network's Jamie Kennedy Experiment, and just finished an acclaimed dramatic turn on Showtime's series Huff. Best of all was his run in Privilege, which gave him a newfound confidence in his abilities.
"I wish I wasn't so dirty in this movie, but everyone's talking about it. Then again, they talk about you if you shoot a guy," he notes wryly. "I actually don't understand what the big deal is, I haven't changed that much, just gotten older. I'm not X-rated at all, I do no gynecological material. I do sex jokes, some dick jokes and poop comedy. I talk about my kids and relationships, some news stuff. But people that know me, its no big deal because I haven't changed. I just always wanted to make people laugh as much as I could."




The Groundlings have given improv comedy Lisa Kudrow, Pee-wee Herman, and the late, great Phil Hartman. After 30 years, the troupe is still feeding modern comedy

hink of American comedy over the last three decades, and chances are you'll come up with a member of improvisational comedy-theater troupe the Groundlings. After all, the company has launched the careers of top talents from original Saturday Night Live Not Ready for Prime Time Player Laraine Newman to The Critic's Jon Lovitz to Friends' Lisa Kudrow. It's also given us Pee-wee Herman, the SNL cheerleaders played by Will Ferrell and Cheri Oteri, and the incredibly diverse characters of the late, great Phil Hartman.
Add the stellar, Emmy-nominated work of Cheryl Hines on HBO's groundbreaking sitcom Curb Your Enthusiasm, and throw in a dash of Edie McClurg's dead-on depiction of every high school's batty, bitchy secretary in Ferris Bueller's Day Off, and you've got a recipe for comedy that's satisfied the nation's appetite for laughter like no other group in the country. Yet, the Groundlings have also slipped under America's pop-culture radar, never drawing quite the praise and attention of Chicago's and Toronto's equally influential Second City troupes. In fact, they seem to go largely unrecognized outside the heart of the Los Angeles comedy industry.
But on Tuesday night, the Groundlings will get their rightful due. The venerable troupe is celebrating its 30th anniversary at the Henry Fonda Music Box Theater with an all-star, roof-raising fundraiser that's sure to be the comedy event of the year. Things have come a long way since their early days as a hippie comedy collective, where anyone could wander in and learn at a workshop or perform in a show for a mere buck a week – and, even more oddly, as a group started as a way for a boy from the Bible Belt named Gary Austin to reinvent his life and give others the chance to do the same.
"It's funny, looking back, because in the '60s, I was very conservative," recalls Austin, who founded the Groundlings in 1972. Today, at 63, sitting in the troupe's Melrose Avenue home base, he looks like Garry Shandling's slightly older brother. "But when I was a little kid, I always loved performing and getting in front of audiences. There were three things I wanted to do: be an evangelist, be a baseball player, and be a cowboy singer – all things done before crowds of people."
That need for notice stemmed from being raised in the hardscrabble oil fields of Oklahoma and Texas, as his father spent his post-Navy career working for the notorious Halliburton company. Austin remembers stories his mother told him about her own rough childhood in Oilton, Oklahoma – a town built so close to oil derricks that children were covered by the misty black spray while walking to and from school every day.
Austin spent his high-school summers working for Halliburton and his Sundays surrounded by holy-rolling members of the Nazarene church. He came away with a distaste for both that has since sparked him to write the acclaimed solo shows Oil and Church. He escaped to San Francisco State University, "where I was finally introduced to the world at large," and joined a sketch-comedy troupe that served as a fun outlet for his repressed creativity.
But it wasn't until he graduated and landed his first job as a social worker in Watts – "where my first week was right during the [1965] riots" – that he spotted a sign on Sunset Boulevard advertising an appearance by seminal San Francisco improv troupe the Committee and decided to check it out.
"I was blown away by it and knew I had to be a part of it," says Austin, recalling a feeling that countless performers would later have after seeing the Groundlings. "You had to come to a workshop every Saturday afternoon, and there were 50 people taking the class for a buck apiece. Del Close [regarded within comedy as the ultimate improv teacher] took over directing the workshops and reinvented the form there with a game called the Harold.
"But my favorite recollection is the Group Grope, where everybody was lying on the floor, feeling each other up," he continues, cackling. "This was the '60s. Often, the Group Grope got us going, and we'd extend the experience beyond the workshop."
By 1972, the Committee had charted a decade-long run in San Francisco and Los Angeles, and founder Allan Myerson decided to move on. Those who stayed behind, however, wanted to form their own group – and thus, the Groundlings were born.
"I picked the name based on Shakespeare's description in Hamlet of the people who watch plays while sitting on the ground," explains Austin. "It was a name that didn't force us to only do comedy, like [now-defunct competing troupe] Kentucky Fried Theater, because at first we wanted to be open to all types of theater."
Not Ready for Prime Time
Whatever Austin's intentions, the group took off quickly due to its comedic elements and rave reviews from the Los Angeles Times. Although city zoning and parking regulations tied up plans to perform in their own space for years, the doors of far more established venues, like the Improv comedy club, were opened to them, and soon the Groundlings were packing theater seats. A rotating group of 90 students competed for 25 available performing slots in the weekly shows. Stars like Lily Tomlin dropped by regularly to watch, and, one night in 1975, she brought along a young NBC producer named Lorne Michaels.
Michaels was scouting the nation for talent, hoping to create an entertainment revolution of his own with Saturday Night Live. Among the Groundlings, he immediately took a liking to Laraine Newman. A fan of improv ever since she started performing it at Beverly Hills High School at age 15, Newman had also seen the Committee in San Francisco and liked the idea of being able to create her own material with improv, rather than struggling to fit others' demands.
"I was at CalArts for about a minute, when my sister took me to a Gary Austin workshop, and I loved it immediately," recalls Newman. "So many people I came through there with became [members of] the top writing staffs on sitcoms like Cheers and Just Shoot Me. But most importantly, I learned about being in a company and how to deal with the give and take of other people's time on stage. It didn't help fully when I got to SNL, because the stakes were much higher there, but for any show folk, there is a familial feel, whether you're in summer stock or road tours or Broadway."
For Newman, the character creation encouraged by the Groundlings enabled her to come up with such SNL-worthy individuals as Cheri the Stewardess and a Valley girl who was part of The Godfather's group-therapy sessions. It also led to her currently fruitful voiceover career and a recent lifetime achievement award from the Chicago Improv Festival. "The training really holds up, no matter what you do," she says.
Michaels also wanted to hire a Groundling named Archie Hahn and invited Austin to direct the new venture, but both declined – a decision Austin still doesn't regret.
"I believe the Groundlings would have dissolved if I'd gone," Austin says. "I was the only teacher and hadn't trained anybody else how to do it yet. I'm very glad I also didn't have to deal with the drug problems at SNL, because you had actors coming in late and stoned, and they would win any argument in making NBC decide whether they or the director had to go," he says. "The chaos might not have succeeded, and I'd come back home without a theater, because I'd forsaken the same ship I'd asked everyone else to sacrifice for. To sacrifice that for anything would have been a mistake."
Yet Austin did leave in 1979, handing control of the troupe and its school to Tom Maxwell, a fellow Southerner who had come to L.A. years before as a USC graduate film student. That was also the year the Groundlings finally found their footing with the opening of their permanent location on Melrose.
During his time working with Austin, Maxwell had seen a growing need to weed through applicants for spots in the Groundlings school, and over the next decade he created a stratified system that made students' talent levels easier to define and track. But more important, his decade-long reign through the '80s saw the city and the entertainment industry becoming more aware of the Groundlings.
"It's always been a character-driven company, in that we built scenes and shows around characters rather than themes," says Maxwell, speaking from his home in Vermont, where he continues to write several produced sitcom scripts a year. "But in 1984, the Olympic Arts Festival gave us a breakout hit with Phil Hartman's Chick Hazard show; our special show Casual Sex was being made into a movie; and [Groundling member] Paul Reubens was breaking out into his own solo show as Pee-wee Herman at the Roxy."
During this time, amid the "Morning in America" era of shiny happy Reaganness, the shows also lost some of their early political flavor – a factor that continued in the Groundlings' most recent main-stage show, Groundlings' National Park. But, according to Maxwell, "It was never a conscious decision to be more or less political – just, let's work with what's happening organically. If an actor wanted to be political, they could, and if they didn't, that was fine, too."
Phil Hartman Stumbles In
Mainly, the Groundlings served as a home for an ever-changing band of comedy hopefuls. It was a place where a Columbia Pictures accountant, like Julia Sweeney, or a member of A&M Records' publishing staff, like Cheri Oteri, could finally exercise the creative spirits bursting within them. But perhaps the most famous Groundling to date (maybe next to Will Ferrell) was Phil Hartman – a man who literally stumbled across the cast when his then-girlfriend and future fellow performer Jaye P. Morgan took him to see the troupe for his birthday.
Hartman's tragic 1998 death at the hands of his wife, Brynn, has turned his story into a shared legacy of countless Groundlings members. Much like the similarly untimely death of Second City Chicago graduate Chris Farley, Hartman's time with the troupe has taken on mythic proportions.
"I was in the backstage room giving notes to actors when I noticed our 30-seat theater was filled with laughs, and our show hadn't even started yet," Austin recalls. "But I looked, and there was this guy standing on stage. After the show, he and Jaye P. asked how to be Groundlings. We had just started doing auditions to weed people out, but he flew through them, and he soon was writing for the main-stage show."
During his decade-long stretch with the Groundlings, Hartman was best known for creating an improvised detective sketch called "Chick Hazard," in which he would construct and solve a different crime each week based on audience suggestions. But for Austin, Hartman's funniest creation was "Lightman." As Austin talks, he leaps onto the theater's stage to re-create this character.
"Phil comes from backstage and toward the audience, dressed in 27 lit flashlights and a bathing suit, with one more standing on his head," says Austin as he continues his performance. "He would shine them on the audience and then say, in a deep, dramatic voice, 'I am Lightman!' And would shine it on whomever he wanted to interview on the spot in the audience. It wasn't the best sketch he ever did, but it was the most popular."
Edie McClurg was a member of the Groundlings' official first cast from 1975 to 1985, having honed her chops with the Pitschel Players' troupe in San Francisco and as a standup at L.A.'s Comedy Store, where she battled for stage time with the late Shirley Hemphill of What's Happening!! fame. Oddly enough, she had a straight-laced ´´ career before setting foot on a comedy stage: She taught radio classes at the University of Missouri-Kansas City for eight years, then became operations manager and jack of all trades at Kansas City's NPR affiliate.
That officiousness and prim and proper Midwestern viewpoint helped McClurg launch a career of playing stuffy, upright women who wield a sharp tongue when audiences least expect it – particularly in Ferris Bueller and in Planes, Trains and Automobiles as the car-rental checkout clerk who suffers a foul-mouthed tirade from Steve Martin.
"When we started, it was more of a commune, and if you came up with some type of material in the workshop, it would get in the show," recalls McClurg, who sprinkles her conversation with the high-pitched chuckle immortalized in the aforementioned John Hughes films. "Improvisation has been the core of my technique, and when I'm presented with a script, I always fill it in with what I call the noise of life – little comments characters say under their breath – so it's fuller than a character just talking to another character."
While McClurg was one of the earliest Groundlings stars, Jon Lovitz came along in the early '80s as part of the second big wave of talent. In fact, when he was plucked by Lorne Michaels to become the second Groundling on SNL in 1985, Tom Maxwell laughed and said, "We've got one once a decade."
At the time he joined the Groundlings, Lovitz was torn between serious acting dreams and the comedic side his acting teachers kept trying to force him to develop. He had already bounced between New York and L.A., and felt studying with the troupe was a way to give his life and career some direction.
"I remember driving there to the theater the first time and crying, because I was really committing my life to being a comedian, and I was wondering, what if it doesn't work out?" recalls Lovitz. "But I went, and I loved it, and then I met Phil Hartman, and he invited me to understudy his show Chick Hazard: Olympic Trials."
Lovitz's voice trails off for a second.
"Jesus, it's been 20 years," he continues. "But I have a career because of it. When I was doing the show with Phil, Laraine came and saw it, and I wound up hired in '85 on SNL. They kept me for the next year and asked who I worked well with, and I said Phil, so they put him on SNL, too. Then I told Lisa Kudrow, whom I've known as a little sister since she was six, that the Groundlings were the way to go when she asked me how to get into acting. It took her 10 years before she got Friends, but look at her now."
That sense of family – of personal recommendations helping to launch careers and fulfill dreams – crops up time and again when talking to Groundlings alums. For Lovitz, who spoke at the greatest length and with the most passion of anyone interviewed for this story, going through the troupe was the best school experience he had ever known.
"The camaraderie was just great there," he says. "It was like a bunch of class clowns working together. In real school, you get in trouble for goofing off, but here was a school that taught you how to goof off really well. I was a messenger, and we all had day jobs, but people loved it so much that they were paying to be a part of it. I learned how to create characters, how to write and supervise my scenes. I still use everything I learned there."
Learning Her Enthusiasm
Although Hartman was a colleague of Lovitz's, he was a teacher to many others who passed across the Groundlings stage. Julia Sweeney started taking his classes at the Groundlings in 1984, and by 1986 was a member of the Sunday Company – the intermediate performance level that showcases alternative forms of sketch comedy and allows much experimentation en route to berths in the main performance company. After becoming a good friend and mentor to Sweeney, Hartman also gave her a recommendation that inspired Lorne Michaels to hire her for SNL in 1989.
"There's so many memories there, because it's like talking about the home you grew up in," explains Sweeney, who's now preparing to launch her third solo show, Letting Go of God. "It really taught me how people had careers in show business, and that people could cobble together fine livings in showbiz even if they weren't big stars."
It was also where she launched her most famous character, Pat – a drooling, annoying office drone of indeterminate gender, who drove people to squeamish laughter for years both on the Groundlings stage and at SNL. Whether Pat is a male or a female is a question Sweeney has to this day never resolved publicly.
"I was working with somebody as an accountant, who was a guy, who had some of Pat's mannerisms, like drooling and standing too close," Sweeney recalls, chuckling. "Then there was a woman who was annoying, too. I realized I couldn't play the man, so I combined the two."
For Cheri Oteri, who started with the Groundlings in the early '90s as part of a relatively quick journey to stardom on SNL and her own recently announced sitcom deal with ABC, the troupe offered a chance to break out of cubicle hell at A&M's publishing company. She had long been the funny person at the water cooler, with coworkers telling her to get into standup. Although the prospect of standup cowed her, she became immediately intrigued by the moment-to-moment risks of improv.
"I had never done acting or anything like that before," she says. "But then I auditioned, and it was like my world opened up, because I found something that interested me so much and excited me and would be so difficult as well. There were so many people I enjoyed watching there, and I would always run up the back stairs to catch my favorite sketches that other people did." On Friday nights, she would go to the late show by herself after work. "I would learn more than I ever had from watching improv games," she says.
Just as Phil Hartman was the teacher and gateway for so many who entered the Groundlings troupe, Lisa Kudrow was the catalyst and teacher for Cheryl Hines as she set foot in the theater to pursue her dreams. Now an Emmy-nominated star for her turn as Larry David's ever-suffering wife in Curb Your Enthusiasm, the theater and television production graduate from the University of Central Florida was not impressed with the Groundlings the first time she saw them in the early '90s. But she gave them a second chance two years later, after meeting Hartman's sister. Today, she maintains such a strong love for the troupe that she's the only alum to currently sit on the nonprofit theater's board.
"They really encourage you to find out what's funny about you, instead of trying to be funny for someone else. I learned that improvising and giving and taking with your fellow actors was an interesting way to work, and one that turned out to be key to what I do now," says Hines, whose work on Curb depends on improvising lines at a rapid clip. "There was a moment when I was taking a class at the Groundlings when I decided I don't really care what other people think about me. Once I stopped worrying whether someone thought I was funny or not, it really changed my perspective on comedy."
Ultimately, it's that total freedom to say and express oneself in a way that may not be flattering or polite that bonds Groundlings graduates across their numerous creative endeavors. And perhaps it's fitting that the alum who really scored in standup proudly represents brashness in all its glory every time she's onstage: the indefatigably vicious comedian Kathy Griffin.
"I had moved here from Chicago at age 18, after getting my first commercial, and didn't know anybody and assumed that the privileged kids like Emilio Estevez were always going to get the breaks," recalls Griffin. "But I went to see a Groundlings show and walked backstage and met Phil Hartman, who took me around and introduced me to people. Soon I was there and found that the people there, no matter how successful they were getting, couldn't get enough improv. It was actually kind of sick."
Griffin says she misses the political incorrectness of those times the most. "My favorite sketch was, I did a monologue as a black woman watching Rambo and talking to the screen," she says. "It was a really big hit there, got great reviews, and got me a lot of meetings and auditions. But I'd go to a meeting at, say, 20th Century Fox, only to find out an executive wanted me to crack their friends up, and there was no real audition after all. The ironic thing is that I can't even play the woman watching the screen and yelling anymore, because people are just so uptight now. Times have changed." But the Groundlings live on.


Comedy on the Front Lines
While entertaining U.S. troops, two L.A. comics see the war for themselves

It's been a long time since standup comic Butch Bradley bombed on stage. But since 9/11, when the staunch conservative was inspired to do his part in the "war on terror," he has traveled to Iraq and Afghanistan on four different trips to perform for U.S. troops in some of the planet's most heavily bombed areas.
That same sense of comedic derring-do also served fellow comic Sarah Tiana well on her own recent trip to Iraq. A committed antiwar liberal before her journey, she wanted to see for herself just what the situation overseas actually was – and she returned with a new perspective.
Although both L.A.-based comedians traveled separately, with Tiana under the auspices of the organization Comics on Duty and Bradley with the USO and Dog Tag Comedy, they represent a new generation of wartime comics, artists who often put aside their own misgivings about the war to follow in the classic tradition of Bob Hope and the USO, providing American soldiers with laughter in dark times. While their backgrounds and careers have taken distinctly different paths, each has learned that, while war is indeed hell, entertaining the troops is a little slice of heaven.
"One base I performed at had been attacked the day before by 20 terrorists, and, though they killed them quickly, one soldier said he was under such duress that he realized during my show he hadn't laughed in months, and said how good it felt," Bradley recalls. "That's why you go. It's the first thing in my life I did that felt completely good. It's also a reality check. Freedom's not free; there's a cost, and these people know and respect freedom so much that they're over there trying to spread it."
Bradley grew up amid the casinos and comedy clubs of Atlantic City, watching masters like Don Rickles and Rodney Dangerfield from the time he was 11. He credits his "cool mom who worked in the casinos" with letting him get this early comedic education, and he never looked back while launching a performing career that's taken him to headlining status in Vegas and his hometown, numerous appearances on Comedy Central and CBS's The Late Late Show, as well as his overseas adventures.
Tiana, meanwhile, realized just three years ago that comedy was her calling, when friends told her to try it just as she was about to give up her dream of acting. She grew up in the small Southern town of Calhoun, Georgia, where people didn't start comedy careers but did join the military. Her innate curiosity about the world – coupled with the fact that many from her hometown were dodging bullets in a far-off desert –inspired her to sign up to make soldiers laugh.
"I would say I'm pretty liberal, but I don't believe in being partisan," says Tiana, a regular at the Improv and the Comedy Store who's also played colleges nationwide. "I just believe in my heart, and I wanted to go over there and see for myself, not to just be told what to think by either side. That's a big problem in this country: believing everything they read, taking everything they watch on the news at face value."
While Bradley and Tiana were both happy about bringing some relief to the troops, they faced plenty of hardships and frightening moments as well. Bradley notes that Iraq's existing infrastructure has allowed it to make many advances, despite the incessant fighting within its borders, yet he found that Afghanistan remains rife with risk. In fact, a Black Hawk helicopter he was on drew rocket fire that came so close he felt the heat when it passed by.
"I did a show at a base called Salerno, where many of the troops were spending their time assisting the victims of the Pakistani earthquake, but the base had still been attacked 46 times," he says. "At night, there's no lights on at all, because they're afraid of drawing enemy fire." When traveling between bases, he adds, they risked fire whether in the Black Hawks or vehicle convoys in which "being successful means that everyone made it through alive. You're taught to constantly look for cellphones that can set off insurgents' bombs, or for single-driver cars and motorcycles that can easily be suicide bombers."
Being female, Tiana believes she was so protected by her troop guards that she was often distracted from the dangers. While her worst moment came when "a rat peed on me while I was using a computer," she found that being a woman among thousands of men with long-term loneliness was memorable in its own way.
"I've never been asked to pose for so many pictures in my life, and so many of them wanted me to pose holding their guns," she recalls. "So many men said I reminded them of their wife or girlfriend, and so I went out of my way to really give them attention. I'd put on extra perfume, and I'd find they'd rub their shirts against it to keep that scent with them, but at the core I was treated with so much respect for having taken the risk of being there."
Thanks to their armed escorts, Bradley and Tiana were able to see life outside the bases' protective isolation. Along the main highway that U.S. contractors have built through Afghanistan, he started to notice signs of modern life never before seen in the desolate country – such as its first fully operational Exxon station. Now, one might be understandably cynical that Big Oil has already set up shop there, but other signs of progress are unquestionably impressive.
"One of the greatest things is going into Kabul and seeing that women are free to work and wear real clothes of their own choice, instead of being forced to wear burqas and being beaten if they want to act on their own," says Bradley. "That kind of radical society they had with the Taliban was just a masculine society controlling women and children, and using the Koran to get what they want."
Tiana's most powerful experience of the Iraqis' newfound freedoms was being able to visit the ziggurat that stands on the site where it's believed that Abraham – a religious leader jointly respected in the Koran, the Torah, and the Bible – was born. Under Saddam Hussein's rule, all visitors outside of the dictator's inner circle were blocked from going there, but now it hosts thousands of pilgrims a day. She also saw the lush vegetation that returned to regions of Iraq after coalition forces knocked down dams Hussein had created along the Tigris and Euphrates rivers to prevent opposing Muslim factions' basic access to water.
"I've always hated war and the concept of fighting and violence," she says, "but when you go there and see it yourself, you realize that there is real progress being made. Besides, right or wrong, the decisions have been made to be there, and our troops have to be supported, like family. You always support family."


Righteous Hilarity
Upright Citizens Brigade pushes comedy boundaries for the masses~ By CARL KOZLOWSKI ~

It's a packed house at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre, where the crowd is being treated to a hilarious in-depth analysis of R. Kelly's epic song cycle and video "Trapped in the Closet." Onstage, hipster comic luminaries like Patton Oswalt and Paul F. Tompkins are among the panel of "experts" assembled to discuss the symbolic undercurrents of Kelly's ludicrously involved, 15-chorus epic of adultery and revenge.
The audience cheers like rowdy British soccer fans at a World Cup match. Yet the folks behind this UCB production, as always, have a stunning surprise for their fans: The actual amorous midget (Drevon Cooks) who features prominently in the climax of "Closet" comes bursting through the backstage door to take the absurdity to an even higher level.
In the world of the UCB Theatre – founded by the eponymous quartet who achieved cult-hero status with a three-year sketch series on Comedy Central – anything goes, and every show aims to top the one before it. The cover price is low – from free to $8 – because to UCB, it's way more about the funny than about the money.
"I think our comedy is what's different and helps us stand out. If people are talented, we let them do anything they want," says UCB founding member Ian Roberts. "As long as it's funny, we're with them. We're never 'The Man,' telling them what to say or do."
Roberts formed the UCB in Chicago during the early '90s, along with Matt Walsh, Matt Besser, and Amy Poehler. It's a testament to their unique bond that, despite individual successes, the four still work together as tightly as possible, more than a decade after they met amid the Windy City's thriving improv scene.
Mixing together an anarchic combination of adventurously unhinged improvisation and demented characters with an undercurrent that satirizes the cultural fear of our times, the UCB became a nearly instant sensation in Chicago. When close associate Adam McKay was hired as a writer for Saturday Night Live in 1997, he hooked the group up with agents as well, and they all headed off to make their mark in the Big Apple, which had traditionally been averse to improvisational comedy.
As graduates of the ImprovOlympic training center (which has an L.A. base now, known as I.O. West, in Hollywood), their specialty was long-form improv, in which multiple scenarios are built from a single suggested topic, resulting in interweaving scenes that flow in and out of each other for up to an hour at a time. New Yorkers had never seen anything like it, and the combination of a novel art form with super-cheap ticket prices and big-name guest talent quickly made the Brigade a sensation – particularly for a weekly showcase that became known as "Asssscat."
"We felt we were onto something almost from our first show, and it wasn't long before we had long lines wrapped around the block," recalls cofounder Walsh, who has gone on to solo success as a Daily Show correspondent and appears in the forthcoming Comedy Central series Man Bites Dog. "We soon managed to get a Comedy Central pilot through our manager, and the first season of our TV series [also called Upright Citizens Brigade] was built mostly on ideas we took from 'Asssscat' scenes."
Walsh and Roberts are speaking in the backstage "green room" of their theater, following one of the free Sunday-night "Asssscat" shows, which are performed with a rotating array of L.A.'s best improvisers as well as such famous UCB friends as Tim Meadows and Andy Dick. Also in the room is the troupe's seemingly wildest member, Besser, who answers a question about the group's creative inspirations by ripping a long, furious hit off a bong.
If one can even attempt to define the UCB aesthetic without the use of drugs, it would seem they draw their greatest influence from Monty Python. Being on Comedy Central honed their creative abilities to the point where they not only were forced to edit their ideas down to the fast-paced bone, but also managed the brilliant trick of establishing clues to a running joke throughout each season that built to a final episode revolving around and explaining all the clues that had come before.
"We'd play with the reality of our setups and on cutting them down so the fun could begin fast," recalls Walsh. "By the time the third season finished, it was all so complex that Comedy Central decided it was too expensive to continue. We got replaced by British shows about robots and clips from Japanese game shows."
Yet, UCB's forced TV death didn't doom it into a creative dead end. Along with Walsh becoming a star in his own right on Comedy Central, Roberts has gone on to sell several unproduced screenplays. Besser enjoys the most bohemian life of the troupers, creating wicked one-man shows such as Dumbass, in which he discusses a yearlong period when his home phone number was mistakenly listed as the national customer-service line for an array of products, and his attempts to befuddle those who called him.
But it's the fourth member, missing on this night of recollections and revelry, who's made the greatest impact in the mainstream: Amy Poehler, who has achieved solo fame as the cohost of SNL's popular "Weekend Update" segment, as well as with a bevy of movie roles. But she chipped in to purchase the L.A. theater with her cohorts, and she continues to perform there whenever she has a week or the summer off from the New York-based comedy institution.
"We opened the theater here last August, because Besser, Ian, and I were all out here in L.A., and we still wanted a place to play," explains Walsh. "We were doing such crazy shit that we'd be getting kicked out of most other clubs, so we figured we'd own our own space where no one could bother us."
That approach has paid off with a new generation of students packing classes, eager to learn how to replicate the magic UCB long-form style, plus a full slate of shows even weirder than "Trapped in the Closet" proved to be. Among them are "Fucked Up and Illegal Videos," which featured everything from graphic bumfights to a vagina that smoked cigarettes, and "World's Dirtiest Sketch Contest," which is often literally scatological.
"This is a place where people share their ideas with each other and trade ideas rather than just being so competitive they don't watch each others' work and stand off on their own," explains Besser. "We'd rather have twice as many people here for half as much money per person than half as many people for twice the cost. Our demographic skews young, and when we were young we didn't have the money to see a $12 show. It would have prohibited me from seeing us, so that's how I choose the price."
"It's kind of impossible not to try something new at the prices we charge," adds Roberts. "Most shows are $5. How can you not check out something for $5?"
Indeed, when it comes to the UCB, there is no other choice but to go. Go now.


Hot 'Ice'
The Craig Robinson Band must be seen to be believed
By Carl Kozlowski

Think of a night out at a comedy club, and you might think of a bunch of jokesters making wisecracks to appreciative audiences. But no matter how funny the talent, the odds of finding a truly fresh comedy concept are slim these days.
Thankfully, Pasadena's very own Ice House is breaking the mold, on Wednesday nights in particular, by offering an array of fresh voices each week in its special tapings for the Comedy Time Network's cellphone-programming service. Even better, the club is completely reinventing the concept of a comedy headliner by topping the shows with the Craig Robinson Band.
A mix of outrageous, audience-interactive comedy and sonic stylings in the tradition of James Brown and Stevie Wonder, the band surrounds the keyboard-playing Robinson with experienced pros on bass, drums and horns. In his role as the fiery and funny frontman, Robinson builds on not only his decade as a headlining club comic but also his popularity as a cast member of the former FX show "Lucky" and current NBC Emmy Award-winning hit "The Office" to bring the show's energy to a fever pitch. Best of all, the fun costs just $5 (plus a two-drink minimum). There's likely no other club in the country featuring a nationally known comic who also knows how to bring the pain with a mix of raucous original tunes and booty-shakin' R&B.
"I actually had a couple bands before in LA, and there was always dissension because everyone wants to be the head of a band. So this time I decided to grab some musicians, put my name on it and have them play as part of my act," explains Robinson. "I want to get us traveling, and there's talk of having us perform at some major premieres. We create onstage, and want to put the shows on a CD and a DVD and all of that stuff. But most of all, we try to keep it a no-pressure situation."
The band is comprised of two alternating drummers, Asa Watkins and Donald Barrett, whom Robinson describes as "thrilling and amazing to watch"; saxophone player John Valentino, who has played with such luminaries as the late Phyllis Hyman and the Whispers, and loves to milk laughs from the contrast between his near-Shaquille O'Neal stature and his tiny alto sax; fellow comedian Will Walls on bass; and Dave Sampson, who "makes love to your soul with his guitar."
Together, it's the joyous energy they share onstage that brings the laughs, as Robinson leads sing-alongs of classic tunes before pulling lyrical switcheroos that turn songs in a humorously dirty or bizarre direction and the audience bursts into laughter at having been fooled. Or Robinson will improvise what sounds like a classic romantic plea for men in the audience to repeat after him to their ladies, and winds up taking things in an outrageously naughty direction. Valentino's constant attempts to jokingly woo women in the audience as he plays take it to another level as well, with the drummers adding to the mix of musical mirth by constantly mugging as they play.
For his part, Chicago native Robinson, a "30ish" single guy, began performing comedy by hosting shows and attending open mic nights during his college years at Illinois State University. But his most memorable early experience — when, he claims, "Comedy chose me" — came when he had rubber chickens thrown at him during one of his first shows in his hometown.
"I was always kind of funny, but then I did this open mic in Chicago called Hecklers Heaven. There were three people in the audience who got chickens, and three others got scorecards, and if you had all three chickens thrown at you, you had to get off the stage," Robinson recalls. "For the first three minutes nobody could bother you, but you were onstage for eight minutes total, so they could be ruthless for five. That first week I just told jokes, got a low score and jumped offstage when two chickens hit me. But I returned the next week with my keyboard, I got a whole lot of love but no chickens, and that was all she wrote."
Robinson taped HBO's "Def Comedy Jam," which aired in 1997, and by 1998 he was headlining shows all over the country and in places as diverse as Acapulco, Sydney and Amsterdam. He quickly discovered that "silliness and music are universal." He moved to Los Angeles in 1999 and since then has amassed appearances on ABC's "Jimmy Kimmel Live!" and HBO's "Real Time With Bill Maher."
"Moving to LA provided more opportunities to get into television and film and be seen by power people," says Robinson. "Chicago had that home vibe, but I had to turn LA into my home. There are a lot more places to perform and a lot more opportunities to make something happen with your career."


Vintage Vocalist
Tom Kenny finds his inspiration as the voice of "Spongebob Squarepants" in the retro cool of his '60s childhood
By Carl Kozlowski

Tom Kenny opens the lid of his vintage 1955 Seeburg V200 jukebox and slides a rare 45 rpm record into a slot. A second later, the box is blasting out a tune called "King Kong" by a long-forgotten singer named Big T Tyler who sounds like Little Richard on speed, and Kenny is off and running with a fierce air guitar solo, duckwalking back and forth across the hardwood floor of his spacious Studio City kitchen.

He may be 44, but Kenny is still just a big kid inside. While that might pose a problem for some men, maintaining that youthful spirit has been the key to his entire career as the voice of one of the most famous characters in American kid culture today: Spongebob Squarepants.

Yes, Kenny is living the strange yet lucrative life of being one of the most versatile voices in the cartoon world, portraying the joyful talking yellow sponge as his main gig while picking up plenty of guest role work ranging from an evil robot in "Transformers" to women in "Rocko's Modern Life." It's a living that affords him the opportunity to collect the kinds of things he loved as a kid, as his office space is filled with dozens of volumes of vintage comic books ranging from superheroes to "Lil' Abner" and he even has actual original comic strip drawings from the artists behind "Popeye" and "Dick Tracy."

Yet he also enjoys the fact that he hasn't had to sacrifice his privacy the way that on-camera stars do and the fact his wife Jill Talley not only loves what he does for a living, but is also a voice actress herself.
All in all, he's got the life he dreamed of ever since he was a kid growing up in Syracuse, New York with a best friend who turned out to be famous as well – Bobcat Goldthwait. And with a little luck, it's a career he can ride for a long time to come.

"There's a real prejudice that exists about age in Hollywood, but for me, it's the best job in showbiz because it all centers on your sound rather than how young you look. I get just enough recognition that it's an ego stroke, but it's both a rabid cult following and relative anonymity in one," says Kenny. "It's great because even though I'm 44, I'm often the spring chicken in the room when I show up for a job among the other voice actors."

Kenny grew up as one of five children of an accountant and a housewife who "were a little puzzled by my creativity and were wondering why I was acting like this." Nonetheless, they allowed him to follow his dreams and by the time he was a sophomore in high school, he and Bobcat were talking their way into running weeknight comedy shows at bars across Syracuse.

Despite getting onstage at an unusually early age, he hadn't yet made the move into his eventual specialty in voiceovers. Kenny had never been the class clown, instead finding his niche in making a select group of friends laugh. But in his final years of high school, he started to realize that creating laughter was his destiny.

"I didn't always have the skill, but I definitely had the desire and fantasy. Then I saw the cachet of that and that it was this skill not everybody had. It was as good as being able to throw a football really far," recalls Kenny. "It's that phase when you're a teenager discovering what you're into and I was lucky I had likeminded people. When you meet those few people in high school that are into the same weird things that you are, it changes your life."

Living in a university town like Syracuse gave Kenny a surprising array of cultural opportunities. Spending his teen years there during the late 1970s and early '80s meant he was able to see Steve Martin perform at the height of his standup popularity, to witness Andy Kaufman at his creative peak, and to hear classic "Looney Tunes" animators like Bob Clampett give talks in town.

Rather than going to college himself, Kenny played in a local rock band called The Tearjerkers for two years before leaving to pursue standup in Boston at age 20 – a move that started what he calls "the longest year off to find oneself in history." Eventually he moved to San Francisco with two friends and created a sketch group, because he found Boston's comedy scene was dominated by "jocks" and San Francisco afforded the opportunity to "explore weirdass ideas."

"We moved from Boston to San Francisco because it seemed more hospitable to the kind of weirdass comedy we were doing. One thing that was eye opening to me comedy wise was that I moved there from college and had this dumb kid fantasy that there's revival movie houses and a book store on every corner and the comedy clubs were all intellectual," Kenny recalls. "But no, alpha male comics who were bullies ruled the roost in Boston. In retrospect I can see why they were great, but at the time it rankled me because my friends and I were into weirder, more challenging kinds of stuff. It was much harder to do that than AIDS jokes. Jocks weren't supposed to be doing comedy – jocks had the locker room, I had the club, so I was like get out of here. San Fran is definitely more welcoming of oddball things."

Eventually, he broke off and worked the standup circuit for a decade, earning spots on Pat Sajak's and Conan O'Brien's talk shows.

"I had met club owners through the group, and so I called and asked for my own stage time. I started making a living at standup really fast – making a living at it, like wow, they're paying me money for doing this. Standup was so huge then, that all you had to do was not be terrible to make a living at it," he says. "And you do all right because there were so many gigs – every fish restaurant and bowling alley had a comedy night. If you're a young single guy with an affordable apartment, it was great: $200, $500, couple thou a week. Sure beats the Army for training in life."

However, he never really felt he even knew how to do standup. He hated the club owners, who often discouraged performers from doing new material, and couldn't see himself honing his act into a set 50-minute routine that would never change, either, like many of the road veterans he encountered.

"The way some people could deconstruct it and break it down – write a joke and distill it down like Stephen Wright, distill a joke to its barest essence, I never got the hang of that because it wasn't my passion," he explains. "But I made a good living at it all through the '80s and into the '90s. I did a sketch show on Fox called "the Edge" and I knew Janeane, Sarah and David Cross from standup."

And it was through those connections that he landed the gig that would change his life in more ways than one: a spot in the cast of HBO's groundbreaking sketch comedy series "Mr. Show." He lasted through three of the series' four seasons, having built a concurrent voiceover career that finally took too much time for him to remain in the cast – yet he found a lasting connection to the series through the fact he met his wife Talley on a prior sketch series called "The Edge" and then worked with her throughout "Mr. Show."

"Comedically our tastes are very similar, we laugh at the same things so it makes writing together and improvising together easy, and we pretty much agree on what makes something funny," says Talley. "He's great with the kids because he's a kid at heart, and he never stops working even when he's home. He does funny voices and he does the laundry. He's a Renaissance man, but what makes him great is he's humble."

One thing that doesn't hold an appeal for Kenny is the world of current sitcoms. He grew up on the glory days of '60s television, when he loved shows that had a rather unique twist on daily life.

"I was spoiled by my sitcoms. They were about people with horrible secrets: 'My wife is a witch and no one must find out!' 'I talk to a horse and no one must find out!' 'The guy posing as my uncle is a Martian and no one must find out!'" he says, laughing. "I always fantasized there was a support group for these people where they could open up to each other. I don't know what that says sociologically about the times they came out. We also had shows about outcasts who weren't normal, but they they're the normal ones, like the people on 'Green Acres' who thought Eddie Albert was crazy. Or that the Addams Family was normal. Sorry, after that, 'Friends' ain't doing it for me."

Instead, he finds plenty of creativity in his work on "Spongebob" and other cartoons, which he feels have taken on the mantle of creativity that sitcoms once had.

"I wouldn't say my creative inspiration is on autopilot, and I always read the storyboards very religiously. The creative process is really, corny as it sounds, just like playing – getting into it and being as true to the vibe of each show, whatever that might be," he says. "I was a giant evil robot on 'Transformers' the other day, so getting immersed and playing with the other actors is another big thing. That's the main thing, it's like any acting I guess – the freer and looser in the moment you are, the better your performance will be and the more you'll work."

And so it is that he and Jill have made a life for themselves and son Mack, 9, and daughter Nora, 4, in a spacious two-story home filled with framed posters of such forgotten drive-in classics as "I Walked With A Zombie" and "Running Wild." But it's in two framed pictures in his kitchen, drawings that his grandfather doodled back in 1918, that it becomes obvious Kenny places family above all the trappings of fame.

"I love living in Studio City, it's the greatest, the best. The schools are good, and most of my work at Nickelodeon, Cartoon Network and commercials is within 15 minutes of my house," says Kenny. "You want a little bit of "Leave It to Beaver" in your life, you wanna keep the helicopters and shootouts of L.A. to a minimum. We've got our little slice of life, mid-Americaness, but get on the 101 for three exits and you're in freaky Hollywood and we take the kids to the Ripley's museum, the Chinese, the Egyptian. I like that you're sort of cocooning without realy having to cocoon. So we've stayed, dug in and put a bunch of roots and improvements to the house because we figured, let's make a good life for ourselves."


Un-split Personality: With Alternadad, Neal Pollack Gets Real
By Carl Kozlowski
Even celebrities with the wildest lives usually wind up becoming parents; for Neal Pollack, that time came four years ago. But the story behind Pollack's life being turned upside down by domesticity isn't completely rooted in reality, for Neal Pollack has been living two lives for the past decade.
Confused? So was Pollack. The real Neal Pollack is a writer with a wife and a kid who released a hilarious memoir called Alternadad in January. But for years, he also had a false literary persona named "Neal Pollack" who pretended to be a Forrest Gump-style presence throughout the rock music and literary history of the 20th century.
The fake Pollack was named Rolling Stone's "Hot Writer of 2000" for authoring "The Neal Pollack Anthology of American Literature," in which he imitated macho writers like Norman Mailer and Ernest Hemingway while detailing his fake adventures across the globe. He also wrote a book called "Never Mind the Pollacks" in which he shared debauched moments with rock royalty, then toured the country with a punk band called the Neal Pollack Invasion, which blasted its way through book events in an attempt to break the staid atmosphere of readings. But eventually he grew weary of juggling it all, and now he's trying to maintain his cockeyed view of the world while discovering the pleasures of being a dad.
"I had an eight-city tour for Alternadad, and I'll just say it was a lot different than the past. A lot of my events were 'family shows' with kids' bands and dance troupes for kids, and my readings tended to be shorter," explains Pollack. "This is a book about family and trying to create a slightly off-kilter family culture so I wanted to provide a concrete example of it."Indeed, his main L.A. bookstore appearance, at the indie store Skylight Books in the hipster enclave of Los Feliz, was punctuated by a special appearance by his son, Eli, and a gaggle of his preschool-aged friends, crawling and running through the room while at times pretending to be cats.
All the potential distraction, however, only added to the hilarity of his tales – which include an outrageous business trip to Amsterdam, the debate he had with his wife over circumcising their son, and the time a baby Elijah redecorated his bedroom with his own turds.
Just as that night revealed the dad behind the writer persona, writing Alternadad forced Pollack to reveal his true self, rather than the character, and to dig deeper for his humor than he had in the pop-culture realm where he became famous. And in a world where alternative-culture fans are trying to raise kids who can think for themselves and learn more from their teachers than from a television, Pollack's work is, in its own way, a primer on how to pull it off.
"Hipster parents have always been around, and now an entire generation has reproduced and there's a debate over whether to give up your pre-parent identity when you have a kid. There's an unwillingness to give in to mainstream kiddie culture, so parents are playing movies, TV and music that they like to their kids, and it's a very mild cultural rebellion," says Pollack. "For me, that's very exciting — for people to forge their own way — and it's as simple as playing music I like for him and not buying kiddie records. It's about paying attention to what your kid is interested in and being aware of other things he'd have fun doing."
Pollack grew up in Phoenix and got into writing via "cute little stories and made my own comic books" as a boy before becoming a teen correspondent for the Phoenix Gazette. He really launched his career as a reporter in Chicago, where he was a star writer for the weekly Chicago Reader throughout most of the '90s before branching into the acclaimed national publication McSweeney's in the late '90s. Meanwhile, he was also performing his pieces at spoken word venues throughout Chicago, creating and polishing the stage presence that would become key to his later success – and eventually those McSweeney's articles would form the heart of his "Anthology."
"The pieces I was writing were in the first person so it didn't occur to me to not name the character after myself since it was a parody of first person ego. In print I committed to him completely, but in public I never really did," Pollack recalls. "In public I was mostly myself which might have confused some people, and maybe confused me a little bit. I wasn't a really good actor so I wasn't prepared to play a parody of Norman Mailer and Gore Vidal in public. I'm not Sasha Baron Cohen, and I don't have the ability to transform myself."
Intriguingly, Pollack did actually release a vinyl album with the Neal Pollack Invasion, and he also released a record with Chicago rock favorites Jon Langford and Pine Valley Cosmonauts in conjunction with the "Anthology." Yet nonetheless, he eventually felt that playing in character had run its course and dropped his fa├žade, now noting that "if I had to do it all over again I would have promoted it with characters, and me clearly as the author, not as a twist on myself."
Neal's wife Regina was with him through all the changes, as he met her during his McSweeney's phase. And when it came time to pack up the rock gear and settle down, the two got married. But while marriage didn't seem like a big switch after a long and happy cohabitation, the arrival of Elijah signaled a whole new lifestyle.
"Having a kid has rearranged my day basically. Before I had a kid, having fun was my first priority and now it's my second," says Pollack. "I'm getting up earlier in the morning, have more responsibilities and have a new best friend, but I don't know if it's changed me all that much. It brought me back to a more genuine version of myself, and I think that's been for the better."
Neal Pollack's Alternadad is available in bookstores everywhere. Read his hilarious blogs at


Back on Track
By Carl Kozlowski
Imagine spending a decade in a rock band without seeing a glimmer of commercial success, despite fighting your way out of the indie world and onto a major record label. Then suddenly your lead songwriter crafts a tune that's nothing like anything else in your oeuvre and it becomes a smash hit that's so influential it earns your band a Grammy and a personal visit to the White House with President Clinton.
Suddenly, you're riding a wave: two straight platinum albums put you in the club of million-selling superstars, your lead singer is shacked up with movie star Winona Ryder, and you're voted Best Live Band in America in Rolling Stone polls. You think all those years of hard work have paid off with good times that may never end.
But then they do, thanks to an album that spends an embarrassing single week on the charts and which gets zero airplay. You and your band mates get the alarming feeling that it's time to check out and live the "real life" everyone else around you has been stuck with all along: kids, marriage, running other businesses.
To top it all off, your bass player – whom you've been great friends with since high school – finds out he has throat cancer.
For most bands, dealing with these ups and downs would mean the end. But Soul Asylum isn't most bands, and in the face of such overwhelming adversity, its members regrouped to honor their bass player Karl Mueller's dying wishes and record another CD in the hopes of showing they still had "it" – a fact they proved in July when they returned with their first CD in eight years, The Silver Lining (Pick this up!), and managed to sell it to the same big label they had in their heyday.
Nearly 25 years after their formation, Soul Asylum embody the spirit of so many of their best lyrics: a never-say-die attitude that finds strength amid the weakest moments of life.
"We needed a break from it all, because we were sick of the road. We wanted a two-year break and it extended to four years," says guitarist Dan Murphy, recalling the dark period that started in 1998 with the belly flop of its last CD, Candy From A Stranger. "Then Karl got sick, and we dealt with that too, recording around his illness and his chemotherapy needs. We managed to finish it before he died, but that's a heavy toll to deal with. Before you know it, eight years went by."
One key element of Murphy's ability to bounce back with lead singer, guitarist and songwriter Dave Pirner was the fact that even at their peak, Soul Asylum was never known for egos and drug rehab. Aside from Pirner's two-year relationship with Winona Ryder, they never really adopted any traditional rock star traits, so when the time came to slow the ride down, they were able to get off safely.
Murphy started an art gallery in the band's native Minneapolis and devoted himself to being dad to his now 16-year-old son. He also recorded a CD with alt-rock supergroup Golden Smog.
Pirner felt drawn to explore another part of the US and wound up jamming with jazz musicians in New Orleans, releasing a little-known solo album in 2001 that reflected his new city's laid-back energy, and having a young son of his own. (He also had to flee that city when Hurricane Katrina hit, though he's returned to find that his own home was unscathed.)
And Mueller faced off against cancer in a strenuous battle that he ultimately lost a year ago. Before he passed, the band had taken out a $60,000 bank loan and vowed to record on their home turf in Minnesota with John Fields and Steve Hodge, producers they chose themselves after enduring an insanely long and bloated recording process on their last big-label CD, Candy.
The resulting release of The Silver Lining underscored how much respect the band had garnered years before, as The Tonight Show hosted a live performance of their new single "Stand Up and Be Strong" the night before its release. And with a mix of tunes that some critics have termed the best since their breakthrough 1992 CD Grave Dancers Union, Murphy says he and the band feel the new set has plenty of worthy songs to tour behind.
"We started as a college band on an indie label, and then our seventh record broke it for us, but in the school we come out of, having a hit record ruins your credibility in a way," says Murphy. "We found that people were not happy, and were kind of fleeting. The kind of music we helped create was college rock, and it turned into grunge. We were seen as a band with a pop song on the radio and people not thinking it was cool."
That pop song was "Runaway Train," a midtempo acoustic song with haunting lyrics about a teen living a harsh life in the streets. It became a worldwide hit, won the band a Grammy for Best Rock Song, and even today remains a staple of many radio stations -- all despite the fact it was an almost total anomaly for a band that had built a reputation on rapid-fire rock and blistering live performances.
The song's video had the biggest impact. Rather than focusing on the band performing the song, it was filled with stark, milk carton-style images of actual runaways above their names and the dates in which they were reported missing. The results seemed positive, as the band received an invitation to meet President Clinton at the White House after several of the video's youths were reunited with their families. But Murphy recalls even the best of intentions can go awry.
"Some weren't the best scenarios. I met a fireman on the East Coast whose daughter was in the end of the video, and he'd been in a bitter custody battle with his wife over her," Murphy said. "It turned out the girl hadn't run away, but was killed and buried in her backyard by her mother. Then on tour, another girl told us laughingly 'You ruined my life' because she saw herself on the video at her boyfriend's house and it led to her being forced back into a bad home situation."
Even as the band rebounds from its own travails, Murphy noted that lead singer Dave Pirner is still involved in helping the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children and that the band performs benefits for the Jacob Wetterling Foundation, which helps missing and sexually exploited teens and children. While he hopes that most of the kids who reunited with their families have overcome their issues and developed into "twenty-somethings who are OK and contributing to society," he has come to realize that happy endings often can come about only through hard work.
"My recognition was that there's a reason that young kids run away, mostly because of abuse. There were some happy results from it, but you have to resolve the situation that caused an 11- or 13-year-old to think the harsh world is better than their home," said Murphy. "I don't think people are genetically wired to leave a loving home situation, but rather a harsh abusive situation. You have to fix that dysfunctional situation before you can truly say everything's OK."
These days, having overcome their own array of dysfunctional situations, the band appears to have rediscovered the sheer joy of playing music for fun, rather than as the force driving the treadmill of touring and recording. Judging from a jovial, high-energy performance at the Los Angeles Tower Records store and a fiery show at the world-famous Troubadour club on the new CD's release date of July 11, they're fully recharged.
The CD itself opens with a furious five-song volley of tunes that mix Pirner's defiant lyrics with Murphy's often-astounding guitar licks, a potent combo familiar to anyone who's heard band classics like "Somebody to Shove" and "Just Like Anyone." While the ballads on this CD pale somewhat in comparison to tunes like "Train," at least their presence is limited as the band makes leaps away from the sentimental glop that formed much of "Candy From A Stranger."
Driven by the furious beats of Michael Bland, who served a long run with fellow Minneapolis native Prince, Murphy and Pirner play with a sense of purpose that seemed to go missing at several shows I'd seen them perform during the wilderness years. Bland could easily be the best drummer they've ever had, and Pirner and Murphy are eagerly awaiting Tommy Stinson, who played with fellow Minneapolis legends The Replacements and recorded a couple of the new CD's tunes. Stinson is currently on the road as a member of Guns n'Roses.
But even with a potentially strong lineup, Murphy notes that losing Mueller has affected him on both an emotional and musical level.
"To be totally frank with you, it's all weird to me. I'm used to Karl and Dave as the core of the band, and there's a connection you expect. The band sounds great; it's a little emotional for me and Dave but it's in the Soul Asylum tradition for sure," Murphy muses. "Karl was a founding member and a really dear friend of mine and was my ears into punk rock. Back in 1978, he went to England and saw The Damned and The Cure and said there's this whole other kind of music out there that got me out of Aerosmithland. I miss him dearly, we had so many shared experiences. We never assumed [his cancer] to be life threatening."
Will rock fans and radio station programmers still care about them, no matter how good the music is? Judging from Murphy's everyman demeanor, it doesn't matter if they reach the heights of "Runaway Train." They'll be happy if they can make a living through the band again, and regain the acclaim they enjoyed prior to Candy.
"I think this CD is tuneful and I consider it a continuation, but it's fuller and more realized, more fun to play live and somewhat political, but not something to read as a treatise," Murphy says, referring to songs like "Lately," a galloping, catchy rocker that tells the story of a man who's watching his best friend's marriage unravel due to his extended tours of duty in Iraq. "I'm cautiously optimistic... This record is fine to play but this business is tough, we've been through a lot of shit with the band, but we've made it through the other side. It's time to see what's next."


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Church and State:"Josh Lyman" Talks God and GovernmentBy Carl Kozlowski
Bradley Whitford has endured some head-spinning events on the national and global political stage over the last seven years. He's seen the switch from the high-rolling Clinton years to the war-torn Bush era, experienced the horrors of 9/11, and protested the war in Iraq.
Yet despite all the political drama he's seen in the real world, Whitford has experienced plenty more as part of his day job. It's not typical office politics that he has to deal with. As an Emmy-winning actor on NBC's The West Wing, he has found a place in the homes of tens of millions of Americans as Josh Lyman, advisor to Josiah Bartlet, perhaps America's greatest fictional president ever.
In May, Whitford's run with the series will come to an end, as NBC has announced its cancellation. The current season has largely focused on the race to find Bartlet's successor, setting up a logical end to the show that has won more Emmys than any other program in TV history.
"This show has exceeded my wildest expectations because it's been about something that has been increasingly urgent since 9/11; people -- wherever they are on the political spectrum -- believe government matters," says Whitford. "The show has gone through an interesting shift, because we began during the Clinton presidency and were considered sort of the moderate, ethically pure fantasy of the Clinton administration. I actually don't think the country has swung as far to the right as people say, but it became sort of the alternate, pathetically inadequate fantasy government for people of a different political persuasion than, say, Karl Rove."
Whitford was born and raised in Madison, Wisconsin -- an experience which he looks back on fondly and considers as the inspiration for his decision to settle in the small city of Pasadena, CA rather than in the typical Hollywood star environs of Malibu or the Hollywood Hills. He and his wife of 14 years, actress Jane Kaczmarek of Malcolm in the Middle, have chosen to raise their three children in San Marino because they felt it is a more natural place for them to grow up.
"We were living in Hollywood and we started going to All Saints Church, and through that discovered some of the schools. I grew up in Madison, which is the size of Pasadena," explains Whitford. "It felt more Midwestern, and it was more about raising kids out here rather than the creepy Hollywood scene you get on the West side of L.A. "
Indeed, All Saints Church, an Episcopal stronghold that proudly touts its reputation as the most progressive/liberal church in America, has been a major influence on Whitford's life as he navigates the trenches of Hollywood. He was glad to hear the church's leadership take outspoken stands on controversial issues, and he makes a strong defense of its presence at the center of a recent nationally famous firestorm with the IRS over the church's tax-free status -- a battle that came about because the IRS claims that the church's rector crossed the bounds of political propriety in a pre-election sermon in 2004.
"It's absurd that they should be investigated. We live in this time where the definition of being religious means you adhere to dogma. It has nothing to do with executing values anymore, and my feeling about All Saints is that it is all about executing values, values that I believe in," says Whitford, who was raised as a Quaker. "They are much less concerned with dogma than executing the great universal values of love and forgiveness. It's very upsetting to me as a political junkie that it's a great virtue to name yourself a Christian, a tremendous political advantage that gives you a moral standing, and then we don't hold these people to actual standards."
When considering the parallels and differences between the real Bush or Clinton presidencies and that of the Bartlet administration, Whitford notes that sometimes the real world is stranger than fiction.
"I think that one of the eternal questions is, is God a really wonderful writer, or is He the worst writer?" says Whitford, laughing. "If we did an election on the show where what happened in 2000 happened, and the candidate's brother happened to be governor of the deciding state -- it would be just unbelievable. Our show tears things not from headlines but from Page 28. [Show creator] Aaron Sorkin really shied away from feeling that the show was a response to what was happening."
In fact, Whitford says he's always been surprised that neither critics nor the show's fans have considered the show in the way he does: as a "backstage comedy about the amount of time politicians spend creating the perfect moment to present their ideas… which makes [politics] show business and that's sad." He points out that nearly everywhere he goes, people ask him if the show's president, Martin Sheen, or Whitford himself will consider running for office. In reality, Whitford's already lined up his next job: a plum role in a new Aaron Sorkin-penned series, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, in which he'll star with Matthew Perry of Friends fame.
But now that West Wing is going off the air after seven hectic seasons, Whitford is looking forward to spending some time with his family. Coincidentally, Kaczmareks' own seven-year run on Malcolm is coming to an end, with its final episode airing the same night as Whitford's. And even stranger still, Whitford has won an Emmy for his role while Kaczmarek has earned the good-natured nickname of "Susan Lucci of prime-time" for the fact that she has been nominated six straight seasons without a win.
"It's been an extraordinarily bizarre thing. We were picked up the same week for our pilots and now we're ending together," muses Whitford. "And the trajectory of the shows from starting to their peaks to their passing on has been identical. Now I just want to shake my Etch A Sketch for a while and spend time with my children."


Killing Them Loudly: Margaret Cho, Comedy Assassin, Has A New Book And DVD
By Carl Kozlowski
Margaret Cho has identified with society's outsiders from the time she was a child. Embracing the unexpected came naturally while growing up amid hordes of hippies in San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury district, walking to school past stoners, burnouts, junkies and drag queens, and she's transformed those experiences into one of the most unique worldviews in comedy
Although she started with material that focused on her experiences with a hysterically befuddled immigrant mother and her experiences as a bisexual, Cho has become an ever more daring and expansive performer at each step of her career. She has also managed to pull off a feat no comedian has accomplished since the early-80s heyday of Richard Pryor by releasing a string of concert films to theaters nationwide rather than being relegated to cable specials and cheapo video releases.
Now, with her new book, I Have Chosen to Stay and Fight, and the accompanying DVD release of her latest concert movie, Assassin (Pick this up!..), Cho has taken direct aim at her most political targets yet: the Bush administration and all who would seek to roll back the civil rights advances of the past 40 years. Shot in a theater just three blocks from the White House, Assassin is as likely to induce gasps as guffaws as Cho says the things millions of disgruntled Americans are too scared to say.
"I think I've always been political, but it's grown the last couple of years because of the whole idea of representing a voice that has remained unheard and speaking for an audience that has been left out by most entertainment -- such as gay audiences and women, Asian Americans, and people of color in general," explains Cho. "I think it's all pretty funny. The message is there, but the comedy is more important to me anyway. I always want to be a better entertainer, but I don't always want to be a politician. If people are looking at the message more than they're looking at the material, that's their own problem."
Despite the unshakable strength with which she holds her life philosophies, Cho has undergone some major changes in the decade since she boomed onto the American scene. In her first book, I'm the One That I Want, and its attendant comedy tour and film, she shared the exhilarating high of being the first Asian actor to star in her own sitcom but also the devastating lows of ABC making it embarrassingly ethnic while ordering her to lose a drastic amount of weight or lose her contract. Cho lost 30 pounds in two weeks, but wound up in an emergency room with kidney failure.
But despite proudly espousing her right to be any weight she chose in that film and tour, Cho has noticeably slimmed down in the past year or so. She has also gotten married, a move that stirred confusion among some who fear that she might be selling out her outsider fan base.
"I don't feel uncomfortable saying 'us' when discussing the gay community, because I feel that it's all part of one big outsider community that I'll never leave. I absolutely feel that I'm a part of the gay community," says Cho. "The weight loss, though, was a conscious choice that I made just for me because I started belly dancing and that brought in a lot of different feelings for me physically, and dancing really improved my life and also changed the way that I was because I'd never had a physical activity that I enjoyed. Becoming a belly dancer was something I chose, because it's a hobby that ties in with a culture that celebrates women."
Furthermore, she sees the criticism from the gay community as rooted in a problem as old as the human race.
"It's weird that today, nobody would question the motives of white students marching with MLK in Mississippi, but today, someone working with a cause that's not explicitly about them is defined as an oddity," she says. "I always knew that the gay community was where I belonged, and I was always friends with lots of gay boys in the community. It was natural to land in the middle of the gay community because I never was apart from it, never went away from it. I don't care if people look at it badly."
To those who wonder if her marriage to writer/artist Al Ridenour has made her sell out in some way, she has admitted publicly that the union is "not a committed, traditional one." Nonetheless, Cho is an ardent supporter of gay marriage rights and has performed at many benefits for the cause.
"I think the fight for gay marriage will be state by state for awhile, I'm hoping that there isn't a federal ban because it would be unfortunate," says Cho. "People hang onto homophobia so hard. They give up sexism and racism but this is the one thing that's very difficult to educate away. I hope our government will be able to see through our own bigotry to some day allow gay marriage to exist."
Despite her frustrations with the nation's political scene, Cho is happier these days than she has been in a long time. She's even daring to make another foray into the world of network sitcoms, this time signing with Fox to produce a sitcom based on her impersonation of her mother, and she's also watching Fox News with amusement.
"It's a really interesting time because there's a real day of reckoning for the conservatives now. It's interesting to watch the Fox News channel and see how they're trying to minimize the damage and act like the Democrats are throwing a temper tantrum," says Cho. "It would be funny if it weren't so detrimental to the American public. It's hard not to gloat at the same time, but it's sad because our leaders are endangering national security just to get one over on each other. It's incredible, the depth of corruption. The crime here ultimately is they're not thinking of the American people enough, and that's clear in the war, after Katrina, everything going on in the last couple years, and it's intense.
"But I'm hopeful because there's a lot of enthusiasm for people to change things, and that energy is all over the place and it's really exciting. It seems to be really coming from young people, too, and for that I'm really hopeful because that means our future will be better than today."