www.tidewaterreview.com/entertainment/movies/ct-mov-0222-chicago-closeup-20130222,0,2227080.column

tidewaterreview.com

Second City vets making it behind scenes

Nina Metz

Chicago Closeup

5:28 PM EST, February 21, 2013

Advertisement

Second City has been smart enough over the years to let its impressive roster of alumni speak for itself. Old photos of recognizable faces may line the lobby, but you'll never see one of the theater's shows advertised under a banner touting, "From the producers who brought you Bill Murray and Tina Fey before they were famous."

But audiences and performers seek out Second City's two stages (as well as improv and sketch shows at iO, The Annoyance and ComedySportz) for this very reason: the implied promise of seeing — or becoming — performers on their way to stardom.

There is also a flip side. Chicago has been a consistent, high-profile feeder for "Saturday Night Live" (this year's new cast members included), but what happens to those who aren't hired on "SNL"? The perception among audiences, I fear, is that these performers fade into obscurity.

There are a lot of ways to build a career, though. The lower-profile (though arguably just as influential) outcome for many is work as writers. Some of the best sitcoms on television right now employ Second City veterans. Former mainstagers and Chicago natives Brad Morris and Emily Wilson — last seen together in Second City's "Taming of the Flu" in 2010 — recently joined the writing staff of "Cougar Town" (9 p.m. Tuesdays) which moved to TBS after three seasons on ABC.

You could sense a Chicago influence in an episode this month that had actress Christa Miller working on a food truck and barking insults at the customers. "That definitely was inspired by The Wiener Circle," Wilson told me. "These are really defined characters and so unique that it's actually really easy to write for characters that we're not playing."

But a certain amount of ego recalibration has to occur when a person with acting ambitions takes an off-camera job. Brian Gallivan, who performed on the Second City mainstage from 2004-07, writes for ABC's "Happy Endings" (a show created by Chicago native David Caspe). Gallivan told me that when he first moved to Los Angeles people would ask: "'Which do you prefer, acting or writing? What do you want to do?'"

"I've always wanted to do both," he said, "but I think you have this idea in your head of, 'If I get a writing job, I'll just be trapped in that writing job and I'll never get to act.' And then after a couple years here you're like, 'Oh my God, get me a writing job! I just want to be working!' And it's hard to get a writing job, even, so I wish I had pursued both full force as soon as I got here."

Gallivan (who created the very funny "Sassy Gay Friend" Web series a few years ago) is also juggling work on a new single-camera comedy he developed for CBS about a sports-obsessed Boston clan, loosely inspired by his own family. Oscar nominee Jacki Weaver ("Silver Linings Playbook") has been cast as the mom; Jake Lacy (who currently plays one of the new hires on "The Office") will step into the role based on Gallivan.

I asked if there was a part of him that wished he were starring instead. "At first I definitely wanted to play this guy. I would describe him in the pitch as 'This character Ronny, he's as tall and as gay as Brian Gallivan.' But the idea evolved into him being in his late 20s and I am not in my late 20s. I also think it will be easier to make a show about my family if I'm not in it. I'll probably cram myself in there as a recurring character, but it doesn't seem like this is my only chance to get on television. I'd rather write and produce it." They'll shoot the pilot next month, and if it's picked up he will bid adieu to "Happy Endings."

It took four lean years in LA before Gallivan pursued writing jobs in earnest. For Morris and Wilson (who are work partners but married to other people) that process began much sooner. Morris moved to the West Coast first; they started writing together long distance as a way to stay in touch. Wilson (along with her husband, iO performer Brian Wilson) arrived in LA less than a year ago.

They wrote and starred in a handful of comedic shorts (including "Special Needs," a twisted riff on sexual turn-ons that got into the 2011 South by Southwest film festival and is available online). "Then we wrote a pilot together that Sony optioned," Wilson said. "It didn't sell, but that was sort of prompting us into that world of TV writing."

"Cougar Town" creator Bill Lawrence (whose past shows include "Scrubs") told me their Second City experience was a selling point because they had "proven their mettle onstage in Chicago, where you get immediate feedback to what you've written or what you're improvising, (and) as staff writers they came very hardened, in a good way, and ready to jump in," he said. "My advice usually to 21-year-olds who are in their first job is to hang back and get the lay of the land for three or four months and see how things work. These guys, I had them just jump right in."

All sitcom writing is a collaborative process. But writers tend have certain episodes assigned to them, and Morris and Wilson will have sole writing credit on an upcoming episode titled "You Tell Me," set to air March 12. They have also found their way into small roles on the show and star in a series of improvised backstage Web videos for TBS called "Brad & Emily," playing insufferable versions of themselves. "We thought it would be fun to highlight how cool (the actors) are and how stupid we are," Wilson said. Per Morris: "Emily convinced me to wear Hawaiian shirts in every one of these videos, and it makes me look even hackier than I am in real life."

"I loved it when you got together with Ross on 'Friends,'" Wilson deadpans in the Courteney Cox installment. (The videos can be found on YouTube.) The sharpest segment is with Dan Byrd (Cox's son on the show) whom they obnoxiously mistake for a production assistant. "Would you pop over to Starbucks for me? I'll give you money," Wilson says, her voice dripping with faux concern. "Do you make anything? I don't know how that works with PAs." Morris then offers his car for the errand: "It's the '84 Sentra, it's on the third floor of the lot. It's got a little bit of a rust hole."

Morris and Wilson were hired on "Cougar Town" as a package deal, which isn't unusual. "From Bill's (Lawrence's) perspective and from TBS' perspective, the reason that you see teams a lot on TV is because they're getting two writers for the price of one," Morris told me. "Especially early on, when you're a staff writer, you're splitting that salary."

Both are still pursuing acting jobs. Morris was on his way to auditions for pilot season when we spoke. He is a deft performer who has a nice way with small details. You always get the sense with him that there is a barely checked rage just below the surface. And when you watch Wilson at work, all red hair and tart rejoinders, she generates an acerbic Lucille Ball energy. You would think walking into auditions with Second City credits would give them a leg up. But it's complicated.

"There are thousands of people out here who put Second City on their resume who really just took a couple of classes," Morris said. And a few classes is worlds apart from writing and performing eight shows a week for several years, either on the mainstage or the e.t.c. stage (the only sketch comedy jobs in town that pay a living wage, by the way). It's the difference between attending the School at Steppenwolf and actually performing in a Steppenwolf production.

"A casting person isn't going to know the difference, so you're constantly proving yourself when you come out here," Morris said. "It's really hard to go from being the big fish in the small pond in Chicago to a nobody who has to start all over again in Los Angeles. And it's definitely hard to do it when you're 35. You're not going to read a lot of books that tell you to move to LA when you're 35 to start your career."

If no acting jobs turn up this pilot season, Lawrence says he wants them back. "I've already told those guys, it's totally up to them. The only way they wouldn't return is if either one of them were to suddenly star in a TV show." TBS has yet to make it official, but Lawrence assured me there will indeed be another season of "Cougar Town."

"Hey, pump up Brad and Emily," he said before we hung up. "They're talented. And they're nice people."

"Cougar Town" airs 9 p.m. Tuesdays on TBS; the episode written by Brad Morris and Emily Wilson airs March 12. "Happy Endings" will return from hiatus March 29 with back-to-back episodes airing 7-8 p.m. Fridays on ABC. Brian Gallivan's scripted episode ("She Got Game Night") is expected to run in mid-April.

Fund a film

Chicago-based filmmaker Shawn Convey is raising money on Kickstarter for a documentary called "Wild," about a group of ex-soldiers in Bosnia who belong to a motorcycle club working to save a herd of wild horses. Convey, who lived in Bosnia for five years, says he was granted extraordinary access to the club, and his film has attracted the interest of international broadcasters and sales agents. He's hoping to raise $24,000 by Sunday and is only about halfway there. The trailer is worth a look, beginning with a wonderfully startling image of a horse breathing on the camera lens, leaving behind a layer of fog. Go to kickstarter.com and search using Convey's name.

Trailer stories

In this coming-of-ager set in Southern Illinois, a 13-year-old girl is abandoned in a trailer home by her flighty mother and left to fend for herself until her salty grandmother and a nurturing school teacher (played by Glencoe native Lili Taylor) step in. "Future Weather" has its Chicago premiere this week at the Siskel. Each screening will be followed by a discussion with director Jenny Deller. Go to siskelfilmcenter.org.

In your face

The Chicago Cinema Society presents a kung fu triple feature this weekend that includes the granddaddy of them all, 1978's "The 36th Chamber of Shaolin," along with 1979's "The Kid With the Golden Arm" and the Chicago premiere of 2012's "Cold Steel." For those who treasure the nondigital 35 mm experience, programmer Neil Calderone say this might just be "your last chance to ever be able to see these films in the manner film was meant to be viewed: light passing through celluloid onto the silver screen." Friday at the Portage Theater. Go to chicagocinemasociety.org.

nmetz@tribune.com

@ninametznews