July 6, 2011

After 25 years, Off-Off Campus comics reunite at Ida Noyes Hall.

We are not making this up, though these students do: The collegiate comics in Off-Off Campus have been winging it improv-style for 25 years at the University of Chicago. Saturday, June 4, alumni from every phase of the group’s existence—including those just a few days shy of graduation—united for a comedy show, held at the Cloister Club in Ida Noyes Hall as part of the University's Alumni Weekend.

“We got responses from about 40 of our alumni out of 180, and I’m pretty pleased with that,” said Ben Mizel, Off-Off Campus’ production manager, who graduates this June with a bachelor’s in English.

Mizel, 22, belongs to the 22nd generation of Off-Off Campus players. About 200 students have taken part since the group took root in 1986, and Mizel looked forward to meeting his predecessors in particular because “I’d be curious to learn how Off-Off Campus has changed over the last 25 years. But the training regimen is still the same. It’s very intense.”

So was the corny wordplay, as evidenced in a sketch depicting the most infamous witch trial of the 17th Century. The Salem With Trial, perhaps? Nope: the trial of Hansel and Gretel. “Counsel, this is starting sound like a fairy tale,” the judge roared. To which the defense attorney replied: “Yes! A very ... grim tale.”

Over two hours and two acts, players from each generation reunited with their classmates to present classic sketch bits from Off-Off Campus’ history. Talk about serious fun; the energy in the Cloister Club, filled to capacity with about 150 people, crackled as though charged with a Higher Power of Pun. And no wonder: The Hyde Park campus is considered the birthplace of improv comedy itself.

Origins of improv

About a decade after UChicago hosted the world’s first self-sustained nuclear reaction, a brilliant blast of another sort followed in the early 1950s, when UChicago students honed nascent improv techniques at The Hi-Hat Bar (later renamed The Compass). Members of that group, the Compass Players, went on in 1959 to form The Second City, which remains unparalleled as a wellspring of comedy talent.

Among those Second City pioneers was Bernie Sahlins, who graduated from UChicago in 1943. Acting on an invitation from University Theater students, including then University Theater Director Steve Schroer, in the 1980s, Sahlins went back to his alma mater to show the kids how it’s done. That gave birth to Off-Off Campus in 1986, which has been produced by TAPS/UT and student-run ever since.

“I like to think we still have a relationship with Bernie and Second City,” Mizel said. Indeed, he’s being modest. Sahlins dove knee-deep into the yucky stuff with the current crop of university comics when he approached them with a novel idea in the winter of 2009.

“Bernie came up to us and pitched us a show, which is really daunting when the master of Second City comes up and does that,” said Graham Rosby, 21, a graduating linguistics major and past production manager of Off-Off Campus. “To top it off, it was a sketch show about Shakespeare.”

“Iam Legend” (as in iambic pentameter, the Bard’s meter of choice) bowed in the winter quarter of 2011, thanks to Sahlin’s professorial tutelage. “The coolest thing was the opportunity to work with a living legend, but have him treat us like peers,” Rosby recalled. “One afternoon he invited us to his home, made us coffee and gave us snacks, then had us run through the whole show. He told us what he liked, what he didn’t like; it was amazing to get that kind of involvement and feedback from him.”

Sahlins was giving students the same tough love that has marked the group since its inception. Those who make the cut for Off-Off Campus and train for a revue find themselves in the comedic equivalent of boot camp. Rehearsals run five nights a week, three hours a night. That’s a grueling schedule for a full-time comic, let alone a student juggling a full load of courses and campus activities. Come show time, it’s off to University Church, where the players perform for audiences that top out at 150.

Comedy for life

Despite the demand Off-Off Campus places on its members, you’ll hear students past and present repeat a similar refrain: “It’s one of the things that kept me sane at the school,” says Michael Guido, 22, graduating this June having studied biology. “You can only take so much studying without a release.”

Guido, who also directed the recent revue “Leave it to Bieber,” had never done comedy before he saw Off-Off Campus during a freshman orientation. Before that show was over, he was hooked and signed up to audition. It was much the same for An Dinh, 37, a member of the fifth generation who graduated in 1993. Today he’s a family medicine physician in Salt Lake City.

“My freshman year I was just blown away by the show put on by [fourth generation members] Edmund O’Brien and Scott Shudy,” Dinh recalled. “They were the big men on campus and just had everyone in the palm of their hands.”

From Big Man on Campus, O’Brien went on to become a comedy kingpin in his own right. He’s written for “You Don’t Know Jack” and currently teaches improv and writing at Second City’s famed Training Center.

“I came here thinking that I’d become an academic, and my parents thought it was safe bet that I wouldn’t go into acting like my older siblings,” O’Brien recalled. “But there’s something about improv where it’s like a crack cocaine high. When you get the laughs, you just want to get them again and again.”

Or get the girl. O’Brien married a fellow Off-Off Campus member, fifth generation Dana Allande O’Brien, as did Dinh. But for the latter, the ending was something straight out of the movies—literally. His wife Elena Tuskenis (sixth generation) came out as a lesbian after seven years of marriage. Drawing on their show-biz training from Off-Off Campus, the two parlayed what might’ve appeared a tragedy into a redeeming documentary, Single Tracks. The film won a bronze medal at the 2008 Park City Film & Music Festival.

“We played ourselves and wrote it and produced it,” Dinh said. “It was a very painful experience for us both, but the thing that anchored us was humor. We were brought to each other because we had this great sense of humor, and humor was what allowed us to heal.” Both have since remarried and Tuskenis is a chief resident in the University of Chicago hospital system.

Meanwhile, Off-Off Campus continues to inspire its grads to keep the laughs going long after that last collegiate curtain. For his own part, Mizel has enjoyed it so much that he wants to make a serious go of comedy post-college. If so, he’d be in great company with O’Brien and scores of others. Off-Off Campus has launched the comedic careers of Tami Sagher (a writer for “30 Rock” and a Second City mainstage alum) and Tony Award winner Greg Kotis (writer of Urinetown the Musical). David Auburn, who wrote the Pulitzer Prize-winning drama Proof, was also a member.

“I’ve been telling people I want to go into comedy writing and give it a shot,” Mizel says. “If there were any doubts about that, they dissipated with the show I did this past winter. It was too much fun. You’re surrounded by people you love and you’re laughing all the time. You’re so proud of what you do and afterwards there’s not a better feeling in the world.”

By Louis R. Carlozo

On Saturday, June 4, alumni from every phase of the group’s existence—including those just a few days shy of graduation—united for a comedy show, held at the Cloister Club in Ida Noyes Hall. (Photo courtesy of Alumni Relations & Development)