I know what you're thinking.
"Boy, I sure do love Chicago and its many entertainment options. But I'm just not completely satisfied. I mean, why can't someone put together a variety show starring occasionally-random-yet-always-entertaining guests interviewed by a true Chicago personality?"
I felt that way once, too. Indeed, my boyhood dream was once to see Lupe Fiasco, Svengoolie, Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Tom Skilling, Karen Lewis, Ron Kittle, Rhymefest, Cookie Monster, and members of the national touring company of "The Lion King" sharing a stage with Rick Kogan and his compatriots from the Tribune.
Fortunately, my dream came true when I was hired as a writer, director and musical director for "Chicago Live!" Maintaining multiple roles in one show can be challenging, which is where the fine art of balancing a mid-afternoon adult beverage while pretending to be responsible comes into play. It works for Pat Sajack, right?
Here's a breakdown of what I do in a given episode:
• As a writer for the Second City portion of the show, I contribute jokes to our signature Comedy Desk segment. Writing topical jokes seems easy, but it's actually one of the most challenging and ultimately rewarding parts of the job. The jokes are never tested live until the show is taped, and on occasion, a joke that seems like a sure thing on paper can land with a thud when tried out in front of a live audience. We have an official comedy-business term for when a joke doesn't land, called "It's The Audience's Fault."
• As a director, it's my job to place the guest interviews, Second City segments and Rick Kogan's hallmark Almanac piece in a logical running order. Sometimes there are crucial, life-or-death challenges that come into play, like where to stash Cookie Monster so we don't see the puppeteer. (Breaking the news to Kogan that Cookie Monster wasn't real was one of the more difficult days I've had in the business.) For the most part, directing is an excuse to hob-nob and take photos with the celebrities who appear each week (did somebody say Holland Taylor?), and also to bug Tribune music writer Greg Kot about why he didn't like the latest Paul McCartney album.
• The final part of my job is to musically direct, which is probably my favorite role; and also where I make the kind of sweet cash that's fast vaulting me into the 1%. From the piano, I work as an improviser, scoring the show, playing musical references (I tend to fit the 1990's "NBA on NBC" theme into every show) and providing musical energy bumps at the beginning and end of segments. Depending on what the show needs that particular night, it's my job to make the music sound like it fits. There's no sheet music, no score, and on many nights, no plan whatsoever. It's what makes the job so much fun and so unique. On occasion, I'll also slip in a song from the last Paul McCartney album, just to make Greg Kot seethe. You know why? Because he's PAUL FREAKING McCARTNEY. So back off, jack.
As a native Chicagoan, who grew up on the mean streets of the Near North Side (mad props to the Cardinal's mansion), I feel lucky to be part of such a diverse production each week. And a new season at the brand-spanking-new UP Comedy Club in Pipers Alley will only add to the fun. With the possible exception of the American Girl Place, it's pretty clear that nothing says "Chicago" more than "Chicago Live!"
-- T.J. Shanoff, "Chicago Live!" director, music director and writerCopyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun