Comedy jury has daunting job

Eight improv pros are walking past walls of floor-to-ceiling head shots, peering at the pictures, recognizing faces, occasionally putting a shot on the wall labeled “YES!” A comedy troupe rehearsing a difficult script? Not exactly.

Instead, explains TV producer Thea Flaum, the mission was to pour over more than 900 head shots and resumes of comedy hopefuls from all over the U.S. and Canada. While cameras rolled at WTTW studios late last month, the group hunkered down to determine the first round of eliminations for “Comedy Tonight.”

The comedy/reality program is being co-produced by Thea Flaum Productions and WTTW National Productions. The result will be an 11-part series aired nationally on PBS later this year (See Archives, 1/6/03).

Ads placed in the “The Chicago Reader,” “The Onion” and the “L.A. Weekly,” kindled the hopes of aspiring improv actors from coast to coast who responded by sending resumes and head shots to a Chicago post office box. In mid-January, a hand-picked group of consultants was charged with the daunting task of turning nearly a thousand possibilities into just one hundred.

The jury included Tim Kazurinsky and Denise DeClue, longtime writing partners and co-executive producers and creators of the series, along with Thea Flaum. They were joined by Second City vets Joyce Sloane and Kelly Leonard, Tom Chidester from Comedy Sportz, Improv Olympic’s Noah Gregoropoulos, and Mark Sutton and Mick Napier from Annoyance Productions. Napier will direct the series.

“We want to give a fair shake to everybody,” says Flaum, “without an unfair advantage to candidates already in Chicago, or well known to our consultants. So right now we’re making a lot of phone calls to New York and LA to get first-hand knowledge of the people we don’t know who have interesting resumes.” Some of those resources include the Upright Citizen’s Brigade in New York, and the Groundlings and Improv Olympic West in LA, as well as improve groups in other cities.

The next step, she says, will be to invite the chosen 100 to Chicago for a week of auditions. From there, the group will be winnowed down to 20, then to 12, and finally to just six, as they go through the process of creating a show. And, like “Survivor” or “American Idol,” the whole process will be taped for later broadcast.

In the meantime, improv-stars-in-the-rough have their fingers crossed. Web-based bulletin boards like Toronto’s are frequented by hungry hopefuls eager for any scrap of news. At this moment, says Flaum, her “panel of comedy consultants” is still in the research stage, and she won’t speculate on the exact date the announcement will be made.?Joan Tortorici Ruppert