Comedian Paul Thomas Warms Up January

Most New Year’s resolutions are unappealing, but this year I can’t resist. Fighter-trainer Kurt Grasa (oops, don’t look up what his last name means in Spanish) promises to make me “an all-around whole participant on this planet” in five minutes a day with his just released “Mixed Life Arts” program. His methods are somewhat unusual. I may need a gun permit and a pre-cut avocado. But his sincerity, his fit 6’5” frame, his expert bobbing and weaving … Hey, wait a minute. Who is this guy?

Kurt Grasa is the latest incarnation of the brilliant comedy mind of Paul Thomas. Paul may not actually be a “fighter-trainer,” but he could be called a comedy decathlete. His career includes stand-up, sketch, comedy-rock, filmmaking, one-man shows, web series, network debuts (this past fall on NBC’s Chicago Fire), acting, directing and producing. He lives and works in Chicago and is a major reason comedy fans are lucky to live here, even in January and especially in January when he participates in the world-renowned Chicago Sketch Comedy Festival. The Chicago festival, the largest sketch fest in the United States, runs from January 8-18 at Stage 773 on 1225 W. Belmont.   http://chicagosketchfest.com

His show “The Paul Thomas Effort” will debut at the Sketchfest on January 9 at 7 p.m. His talented cast includes Jeff Madden, Anjee Oliver, Meaghan Strickland and Chad Briggs. It’s interesting that Paul calls his show “the effort” because he makes comedy look easy even though it couldn’t possibly be. When it comes to sketch, he is known for fearlessly creating unforgettable characters who you would swear are real even as they are steeped in life’s absurdities. The “Paul Thomas Effort” travels to San Francisco next month.

Paul’s performance career began in 1999 when he left a corporate position at ESPN to study comedy in Chicago. Within three days of his arrival, he was enrolled in Second City’s improv and writing programs and went on to complete the Conservatory training. During that time, he wrote and performed his own sketch show at the WNEP Theater (now the Playground).

Soon after, he formed the “The Defiant Thomas Brothers” with brother-in-comedy-but-otherwise-unrelated Seth Thomas. They brought down the house from Edinburgh to Aspen with their updated version of Abbott and Costello’s “Who’s On First,” swapping baseball players for drug dealer street names. They won the prestigious U.S. Comedy Arts Festival’s “Best Sketch” award in Aspen in 2005.

Since then, Paul has won multiple awards for his solo and ensemble comedy and films and performed all over the United States and internationally. His characters range from Dan Peff, the socially awkward host of the cooking show “Good Drinking,” to a hapless pedophile (not what you think), to a Confederate soldier cohabiting with his Union enemy for a reality show, to a magnetic rocker god and every gradation of warped and lovable personality in between. They are all so uncannily convincing you will swear each must be the real Paul Thomas.

A note on the rocker god persona: he is the front man of outstanding, unparalleled parody rock band Lola Balatro. The band will be breaking a long hiatus to appear on “The Paul Thomas Effort.” Ladies and perhaps gentlemen, get your running shoes. You’ll want to chase their limo (or Honda or Subaru or however they depart) down Belmont. Not kidding.   You can see them here:  http://www.bigheadpaul.com/the-band.html

This past fall, Paul formed Hardtryer Entertainment with veteran filmmaker Chad Wilson after many years of collaboration. Chad is responsible for the high production value of Paul’s much lauded film and video work. Hardtryer is based in Chicago. The two use a treasure trove of Chicago locations and comedians. You can spend a very enjoyable time viewing their work here:  http://www.hardtryer.com/

Paul kindly took time out of a busy rehearsal schedule to reveal the meaning behind his show’s title, and other secrets of his life in comedy. He may not actually be able to make me fitter. But he does make me happy to be in Chicago in January which is just as impressive. Following is an edited transcript of our conversation.

Q: Why “The Paul Thomas Effort”?

A: I realized with my solo shows that if you have a very specific name for a show, you can’t change [the content] too much. I wanted something a little more malleable. Also, this is not a solo show. I bring in other people for sketches. It’s more of a variety show.

At first I thought, I’m just going to call it ‘The Paul Thomas Show.’ It’s nondescript and I have a tendency to try to be too clever. But I had “The Paul Thomas Effort” in the back of my mind.

Since I have so many web sites, I google everything. Sometime in the last year, I found some guy in Minneapolis with a country music sports radio show called “The Paul Thomas Show.” So I was like, “Okay, this forces me to do ’The Paul Thomas Effort.’” You could come up with something like “the Project” or “the Experience,” but “Effort” is just a little bit weirder. Plus, it coincides with the Hardtryer name. I like the idea of making it sound kind of sad, too, like “Nice effort, buddy!” versus “Yeah, I’m putting forth a lot of effort!”

Q: How long does it take to put together the show?

A: It’s on a rolling basis. I work on it throughout the year.

Q: How do you come up with the characters?

A: I think most people who do sketch and improv would tell you the same thing. Characters are based on someone they’ve observed, a relative, a teacher. All comedians absorb their surroundings whether they think they are or not.

I was recently returning home and was at the airport. It was all Spanish speakers, so an American is going to stick out. Well, there was one guy and he was shouting, “I’m going to be at THE BAR … JANICE!” He said it like five times and the little cadence of his voice cracked me up. That’s not something I’d just sit down and write, have a guy yell, “I’ll be at THE BAR.” That’s not funny on paper. But the way he kept saying it to get her attention just cracked me up. That’s one of those things you store in the back of your head. It’s so simple, but it’s a character right there. If you can mimic that and add a couple of layers to it, it can take off.

Q: How do you add those layers?

A: I do that consciously because if you have something that’s just a one-joke, you know, someone has a catch-phrase or something like that, it can get tired pretty quickly. So the conscious thing is to have a scene that’s about something, a good character on top of that and then an interesting premise told in an interesting way. If you have a couple of those at least, you have a compelling scene that people will watch. But if you have all three of those things, you have a solid scene.

Q: I think it’s amazing how in a few moments you’re able to convey the psychology behind someone’s actions.

A: I don’t think about it that much. It’s probably my M.O. I like characters to be more grounded. It’s somebody that you could meet on the street and then pushed out just far enough. I don’t love playing cartoonish stuff.

Q: So what is the key for someone who wants to write a character? How do you know everything about them, how they move, what they think, how they’ll react? How do you give them depth? What is the key to writing such effective characters?

A: As a performer, and again a thing most will tell you, if you’re in a groove you can feel it. If you’re in a groove of inhabiting someone, for example, if you imitate a family member you kind of know and I think we’ve all done that, performers or not, when you’re imitating somebody you know when you have it even if you don’t know why. You can feel it, like, “Yes, that’s what they do.”

I also think it’s just being a mimic. I subscribe to that. I’m a pretty good mimic. When I’m mimicking another person, as long as I feel like I’m in a groove, it’s fine. But if I’m doing a character and it feels unnatural to me, the audience will see that. And I think that’s true for any actor. If you’re not comfortable or if you feel like you’re pretending, then people will sense it.

And that happened with [the web series] Ped Crossing. There are some takes where you’re watching it and it seems out of character. And I probably knew in the moment that it wasn’t a good take. And that, I guess, maybe just comes from a lot of experience.

Also, if you’re doing a solo show, you have to have variety. Nobody wants to see a talking head. If you’re starting a brand new scene every three minutes, just for the audience’s sake, they have to be pretty different from each other. That need necessitates me really finding the nooks and crannies of the character.

Q: Since your characters are so different, how do you make those split-second transitions from one character to the next on stage?

A: I don’t know if that’s too hard for anybody. I think [the opposite is true], that it would be hard if your characters are really close to each other or only slightly different. You could get caught blending one into another. If I have an hour-long show with fifteen, sixteen characters, I might have two that are a little more similar to each other. I’m not going to put them close to each other in the running order. I’ll space them out.

Q: So is it ever difficult to make that transition in front of the audience?

A: No, especially when you try to have a seven-second turnover. For example, in my solo show, I wore the same plain outfit. I wasn’t using glasses or wigs or anything. Honestly, it’s fun. It’s also a treat for the audience for the lights to go down and come back up to see that transformation. It’s a challenge, but it’s not super hard because you’re motivated to do it. You’re really digging in to make sure that one character is as clearly different from the one before as possible.

Q: Of all your characters, do you have a favorite or one who is most like you?

A: I don’t. I’m not a person who on stage plays characters close to myself which, to me, is a weakness. But Dan Peff is close to my heart.

Q: So what if somebody wanted to put together a sketch show – where do you start?

A: For someone starting out, be balanced. Start a group. Put up a show. Chicago is the best place for that. It’s not rocket science. You rent a theater. You write a show. If you have only thirty minutes of scenes, find somebody else. Do the thirty minute slot. Your friends will come. Then, you know, lather, rinse, repeat. But put ‘em up.

When people start out, they usually know what they want to do. It’s just figuring out how to go about it. That’s where classes come in. They’re handy on the sketch side. You can really use the guidance part of it. From my own experience, go through Second City even if it just forces you to write a sketch once a week. You’ll find out where your voice is, too.

Q: How do you know when you have a strong enough voice to do a solo show?

A: Just jump in. What’s the worst that can happen? You can get a crappy review from a blog. But who cares? They came out to your show. Be happy about that and learn from it. I always tell people starting out that you can get a great review from one place and a terrible one from the other. If three places start to say the same thing, that’s when you can pay attention -- whether it’s good or bad.

But otherwise, people who want to do it just have to do it. I treat it like stand-up where you have to go and really work for the precision and put the time in and not just write the show and try to put it up the next day. But at some point you have to put up some stuff with a sketch show. Know that you won’t necessarily have the opportunity to do the repetitions like a stand-up does at open mics.

Q: So what do you do in place of open mics to work out your material?

A: In ’07, Matt Barbera and I started “Happy Hour” at the Playground Theater. It was 6 o’clock Thursdays and there were four of us and we’d rotate. Maybe a couple of people off the street would come. But it wasn’t about that. It was about working pieces out and getting repetitions on them, even if there was nobody there except the other three people.

Q: Do you think that Chicago is an especially good place for being able to do this?

A: Absolutely. I’m definitely long-in-the-tooth for being in town. Most people I started with way back when who are still pursuing that career have long since gone. It’s the film aspect that has kept me here, being able to do it on the cheap, being able to get locations. In L.A., you pull out a camera and somebody is going to ask you where your permit is.

Q: How did you and Chad decide on the name “Hardtryer”?

A: If you grew up in Wisconsin in the ‘80s and ‘90s playing basketball, you heard about [University of Wisconsin coach] Dick Bennett. He’s legendary. But once after a game they lost he said, “Our guys try hard. We’ve got a lot of hard-tryers.” And my roommates and I, we just attached to that because it was a pretty ridiculous thing to say. So when it came time for the L.L.C., we needed a name and I threw it out there. And like “the Effort”, I hope it sounds a little more pathetic than, “Yeah, we try hard.”

Paul Thomas

Paul Thomas

Q: How do find your locations?

A: Chad has a catalog in his head. Another good thing about Chicago is that people are friendlier about letting you use their place even if you have to throw them a couple of bucks. But the location has to be right. Just because your friend has a restaurant doesn’t mean it’s the best one for the look. We won’t shoot if we don’t have the right location. Not that we haven’t done some last-minute ones. But you start to get in the mode where if you see an interesting place you think, “I’m going to use that sometime.” And sometimes you see a cool location and you think, “We have this location, let’s write something around it.”

Q: How do you cast your films?

A: Often from personal relationship. Also people I may barely know, but I’ve seen them perform. As with locations, I won’t cast people just because they’re friends. They have to be right for the part. With comedy, casting is often the majority of directing. If you get the wrong person, you really have to work hard to get what you want.

Q: What else would you like people to know?

A: Check out live comedy, not just me, in Chicago. There’s so much. There are great, cheap shows every night of the week. Stand-up or sketch or improv. Don’t wait until somebody is famous to go. One of the great things about having so much comedy available online is that it brings people back to wanting a live experience.

An example is Chicago Underground Comedy. Five bucks every Tuesday night at Beat Kitchen. Drop-in guests from out of town who have been on Letterman and Conan. Those are great shows.

Q: One last question: if there were any question you would like people to ask you, what would it be?

A: “How much money can I invest in your movie?”

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