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Monday, September 12, 2005

Conflicts of Interest and Interesting Conflicts Pt. 2

Now here's what I'd call a conflict of interest: On Saturday, August 27, ImprovOlympic (now called simply I.O., owing to a strongly-worded letter from the U.S. Olympic Committee's lawyers), held a 25th anniversary show in Chicago starring Mike Myers, Andy Richter, Amy Poehler, and other improv leading lights. How'd it go? Depends who you ask. Here's Chris Jones in the Chicago Tribune:
At Saturday night's disastrous 25th anniversary show for ImprovOlympic, the free-wheeling, uber-casual, intensely creative atmosphere of Chicago improv ran slap up against the perfectly reasonable expectations of people attending a big 3,500-seat downtown venue, ponying up as much as $75 a ticket, and expecting that someone, somewhere might have thought for a moment or two about their needs.
The problem, Jones wrote, was "a jaw-dropping lack of technical planning and a sound failure of catastrophic proportions."

The Chicago Daily Herald agreed:
[A] collective cringe gripped the audience as I.O. Theater alumni struggled with faulty body mics during the star- studded 25th anniversary salute to the scrappy Chicago improv theater founded by Charna Halpern and indelibly imprinted by the late master, Del Close.

Sans sound, the evening sputtered and stalled.
But New York Times freelancer David Bernstein had a sunnier take on the proceedings:
It seemed like a bad joke.

The 3,500-seat Chicago Theater was packed for the 25th anniversary reunion show of ImprovOlympic last Saturday, an event that had brought together an all-star array of comedians including Mike Myers, Andy Dick, Andy Richter, Mo Collins and Tim Meadows.

And then the microphones went dead.

Fortunately, Mr. Myers, who spent eight months in the late 1980's at ImprovOlympic, the theater school and performance space here, and the other alumni on hand applied what they had learned at their beloved alma mater: they improvised.

The show was delayed about an hour, and the performers -- who included the ''Saturday Night Live'' repertory players Amy Poehler, Rachel Dratch and Horatio Sanz, and the Upright Citizens Brigade comedy troupe -- had to resort to handheld microphones. (With mixed success; not everyone could hear their routines easily.) Still, the show still got plenty of laughs.
Granted, the Tribune and Daily Herald pieces were reviews, whereas Bernstein's was a story about I.O. pegged to the event, including plenty of backstage cigarette-sneaking with Rachel Dratch. But he did gloss over what other observers described as nearly fatal sound problems.

And I guess Bernstein was too busy hanging backstage to notice, as Jones did, the throngs who demanded their money back: "At intermission in the lobby, it was an ugly scene. 'You guys are starting to yell and scream now,' improvised the harassed Scott Shiller, a theater official in the firing line. 'I need you to step away from me.'"

So what could explain the different takes? I don't know, but some guy named Jacob, who wrote about the New York Times story on the ImprovChicago message boards (scroll down to find the post), has an idea:
Dave, the reporter, also took classes at I.O.C. and performed some before his current gig at NYT. Hats off to him for getting to do the piece. Hats off to NYT for sending someone who might know a thing or two about improv and what we do to cover the story. Tribune probably just thought we were friends of the mayor and we all know how much they love the mayor.
Because I don't believe anything I read on the Internets and because I have a daunting deadline approaching and desperately require distraction from certain unpleasant and inevitable realities, I called Bernstein to confirm that he did, in fact, take classes at I.O. and performed there two years ago while he was in journalism school at Medill. "I basically got kicked off the team," he said, when school took up too much of his time.

"I wasn't writing a review," Bernstein told me. "I was writing a feature on the theater itself. It was in my lede that the show had problems. If I wrote that it was the worst show in the world, people would have said it was because I got cut."

Fair enough. Which is a pretty good reason why he shouldn't be writing about the ImprovOlympic.