Chicago Actors Create Laughs In a TV Void;
'Exit' to Nowhere
BY ERNEST TUCKER
September 21, 1995,
'Exit 57'9:30 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, 7 p.m. TuesdaysComedy Central cable channelSix Chicago improvisers have a secret. It is one they share with an intimate audience of, say, a quarter million or so cable households who tune in to Comedy Central. But no one appears certain who is watching or how much they are laughing.
Into this void flows the second batch of "Exit 57" shows, created by former Second City troupers Amy Sedaris, Jodi Lennon, Stephen Colbert, Mitch Rouse and Paul Dinello, along with Annoyance Theater founder and Second City director Mick Napier
."No one can really figure it out," Dinello said recently while in town with some of his fellow players.
Part of the confusion may come because, as he noted, "we never sat down and said this is our concept. We just hoped one would find it."
"Exit 57" is an unusual fork in the entertainment highway. It is not "Generation X" humor, since several of the players are in their 30s. There are no real recurring characters (yet). Even the show's publicists have a hard time labeling the show; a recent press release trumpeted the series "critics choose to ignore." Still, "Exit 57" just received three CableACE nominations, including best comedy on cable.
The five creators and Napier, who was brought to New York this year to help focus the show, have little or no contact with anyone who is producing the series. Using the improv processes that helped them build successful revues at Second City Northwest in Rolling Meadows and other venues, the Exiteers have created a quirky neverland (vaguely called "Quad Cities") with sketches such as "Trudy and Eddy -- The White Trash Couple" and a surgeon who juggles body parts during an operation for the amusement of fellow physicians. There are no contemporary references, no Weekend Updates, no Clinton impersonators.
The humor comes from the group's own cohesion. "We try to amuse ourselves," Colbert said.
Unlike the highly publicized attempt to rebuild NBC's stagnant "Saturday Night Live" by combining talents from around the country, "Exit 57" originated more like a family reunion. Dinello and Colbert, for example, met in the late '80s as part of Second City's National Touring Company. They hated one another. Long weeks on the road, however, taught them something else.
"I found out he could goof around," said Chicago native Dinello of Colbert, a Northwestern University theater graduate from the South.
"And I discovered Paul could read," Colbert joked.
Lennon and Napier also worked together on Annoyance projects.
Napier, who directed many of the actors at Northwest, said all of them have learned about translating improv-style comedy to TV.
"For one thing, when you do an improv show (here), you test a scene out 20 or more times before a live audience," Napier said. Not so in a New York TV studio. Although "Exit 57" is taped in front of a live audience, the performers get only two takes. All agree that what works for a live theater audience often gets lost when a TV camera limits what viewers see.
"Sometimes, things seem slow when you watch them. You want to hurry up," Colbert said.
Finally, there is the frenzy of cranking out television, which requires dozens of tech people and crew buzzing around. All the actors are into other acting jobs, and none is holding any breath over the future of "Exit 57."
But regardless of what critics or ratings say, the "Exit 57" crew is remaining true to one thing: They amuse themselves. And they hope others join in, too.