Thank you, Pat Tomasulo, for being a disruptor. A “disruptor” in today’s lingo is an innovator who figures out a new way to do an old thing by creating a product that improves lives and makes people happier. It’s the term that vaults to the front of my mind when I think about Pat and his new, excellent, Chicago-centric late night comedy show, Man of the People.
Pat is a WGN morning news and sports anchor who in his almost non-existent free time, also managed to become a headlining stand-up comedian. He debuted Man of the People in January. It airs on WGN-TV on Saturdays at 10:00 p.m.
One of the things Pat disrupted was my sacred routine. Every weeknight I cram all the late night comedy talk shows onto my DVR and watch them first thing in the a.m. Then Man of the People appeared and suddenly those shows from the coasts felt less shiny. I realized what I’d been missing.
Man of the People is immediate and relatable. Pat has the pulse of what makes Chicago Chicago. He brings the energy of an August lightning storm to his witty, on-point rants, and to his celebrations which highlight local people and landmarks in ways we haven’t seen before.
During his first show, he dragged a life-size statue of himself to the Mayor’s office and when Mayor Emanuel rejected the gift, heaved the hulking bronze likeness around the city, startling passers-by. Pat has handed the stage over to Chicagoans who traumatically lost out on Bozo tickets as kids, and encouraged the city’s comedians to roast him for being “another” white male late night host. But clearly, he is not just “another.” He also declared war on PBS Chicago Tonight stalwart Phil Ponce, theorizing that in TV, greatness only emerges through rivalry (“Leno had Letterman”). Then there are Pat’s person-on-the-street interviews. His combination of Chicago-style chops-busting and genuine interest inspires interviewees to let their guard down and reveal their most hilarious, honest inner voice.
On a recent morning, Pat kindly gave up his 6:30 a.m. break to speak with me by phone about his life in TV, Man of the People, plus a few things you might not guess, like his and his wife’s fight to find a cure for a debilitating medical condition that impacts their lives on a daily basis.
Teme: When did the comedy bug first bite you?
Pat: I've done comedic pieces since I’ve been in television. I began doing a ton more when I came to WGN, so that was about twelve years ago. I started stand-up about nine years ago.
My goal was always to do something comedic on TV. I always had an interest in doing stand-up, but I never knew how to get into it. I was lucky enough to end up in Chicago. The comedy scene here grew a ton in the last ten years. I got into it at just the right time.
MAN OF THE PEOPLE
Teme: How did Man of the People come about?
Pat: It was an idea that had been kicked around for a few years. I was debating for a long time whether to make the move to one of the coasts. At the end of 2016, my contract at WGN was up and I had other possibilities.
My wife and I had a decision to make. Chicago is home. I like what I get to do here and I like the creative freedom. So it was start over somewhere else or stay here and create a show, and that was the overwhelming favorite choice. We wanted to stay here. We started planning for Man of the People at the beginning of 2017 when I agreed to my contract.
Teme: Why “Man of the People”?
Pat: I always like dealing with regular people. I think there's a lot of funny just from regular characters that you meet on the street.
Our mandate was to be opinionated and smart without being political and alienating half the audience. I've always been a fan of late night TV, but I'm not all that interested in watching celebrities play Password. I'm not interested in hearing another twenty-minute desk piece about Donald Trump. I think a lot of people are not interested and the pendulum is going to swing the other way and people will just want funny.
WHAT MAKES PAT’S INTERVIEWS SO GOOD?
Teme: You have a knack for connecting with people and making them feel at ease. What is your secret?
Pat: I think the secret is spending your formative years as an Italian kid in New Jersey where breaking balls is … well, something you need to be able to do. Also, when I seem like I'm getting annoyed at people during interviews, I make myself the moron in the piece. I think I have the ability to jab people and disarm them without offending them.
That's not to say I've never gone too far. You just don't see that part on TV. It's also about picking your marks. You've got to have the ability to know who can take it and who can’t.
Teme: When you pick somebody for an on-the-street interview, what makes you want to talk to them?
Pat: I’m looking for people with strong opinions and people who are relatable. People who are naturally funny without trying to be funny. People who are characters. I don't want somebody who's opinionated like talk-radio-host-opinionated. I want somebody who has a point of view that just naturally comes out. Funny without trying and funny without forcing it on you.
Teme: So how do you spot them?
Pat: A lot of times they fall into your lap. People see a camera and they want to be on TV, so you'll have people who come right up to you and start talking. You can tell within seconds by the way they look or the way they talk or just the way they approach you.
There's a certain confidence that a person has if they just walk right up to a camera guy. I would've never done it before I was in TV, but some people will walk up to you and say, "What are you doing? Let me be on TV. What is this stupid thing?" Or, "Hi, I'll talk to you for a few minutes." If it doesn't work out, it doesn't work out, but there's something interesting about somebody who's willing to do that.
Teme: What was your most memorable interview so far?
Pat: I just interviewed a crazy Austrian guy who was all over the place. It was the most captivating batshit insane interview I've encountered in quite some time. But I can’t narrow it down to just one. Nothing shocks me, but there have been a number that have left me happily surprised.
Teme: What are your favorite Man of the People moments so far?
Pat: I really enjoyed doing the Bozo piece. I also liked when we crafted a segment for a woman who called in to complain about our show.
Teme: That was very funny!
Pat: I also liked doing the shoot with the cabbies. The older woman from Poland, Donna, was just an absolute sweetheart of a lady. That was really fun.
One of the segments I'm most proud of was where I got to include a lot of other Chicago comics. They roasted me for being another white male straight late night host. I really enjoyed doing that piece.
Teme: Where do you think this feud with Phil Ponce is going? How concerned should he be?
Pat: Phil Ponce should be very concerned. I want that in print right now. I'm coming for that pretty boy. His days of running roughshod over the Chicago media landscape are over. I tell his kid [WGN’s Dan Ponce] every day when I see him, "You tell your old man I'm coming for him." We have some ideas of how we want to escalate the feud with Mr. Ponce.
Teme: What is a behind-the-scenes thing at Man of the People that the audience might not guess?
Pat: One thing is that we're doing a weekly late night show with a staff that's about a tenth the size of other weekly late night shows. It's four adults in one office working their butts off. It's a grind, lest anybody think it's all fun and games making a late night show. It's a lot of work.
Teme: With everything you do, what is your advice for time management and keeping the creative flow going?
Pat: I would say give me any advice you have! I'm still trying to figure out what works. I would say try to be as organized as possible. We have a very small staff, and I'm still doing the morning show and my wife and I do a big comedy fundraiser every year that's coming up on May 5th.
I try to keep almost a military-like schedule which I know is probably not conducive to the comedian's lifestyle. But for me, the only way I can get things done is if I have everything scheduled in the most efficient way possible.
It's the same approach I took to stand-up. I couldn't be out there every single night of the week, so I would try and load up on Saturday nights and do four shows or try to get four to five shows in over a weekend. It was all about knowing exactly what bits I wanted to do that night and hitting every spot that I could.
I take the same approach with the projects that I'm juggling now. You've got to be very structured. That's not everybody's process, but I have to have total structure to make sure I'm getting things done.
Teme: When you have free time, where is your favorite place to be in Chicago?
Pat: My favorite spot is on the cushion furthest to the left on my couch with my wife next to me and the dog next to her watching something on TV until I pass out at 10:00. That's spot number one.
Spot number two would be in a movie theater where I could just sit comfortably and perhaps fall asleep or watch a film, and then I like to eat. Any of our multitude of favorite Italian places is pretty much it, but that's about the extent of my social life right now.
Teme: What is something about you that fans might be surprised to know?
Pat: I'm an animal lover. If they saw how lovable I am with my dog, they might think a lot differently of me.
Teme: What kind of dog do you have?
Pat: She's a mutt. She's a lab mix of some sort. She's a maniac. If she were to escape the leash, she'd probably run to Indiana.
Teme: What's her name?
Pat: Her name is Penelope.
Teme: I love that! Yes, me too. My dog is my daily 24/7 companion.
THE FIGHT TO CURE TRIGEMINAL NEURALGIA
Teme: I also wanted to learn more about the "Laugh Your Face Off" fundraiser that you and your wife Amy organize to fund trigeminal neuralgia research. I know that this year it's on May 5th at the Park West. What else should people know?
Pat: Trigeminal neuralgia is a disorder of the fifth cranial nerve. It’s incredibly painful. There are three branches of the nerve, one in the forehead, one in the jaw, one in the cheek. Some people will only have one branch of the nerve impacted, some will have two branches and some have all three.
My wife Amy has had trigeminal neuralgia since 2001. It's just a completely awful, debilitating and life-changing illness. Doctors classify it literally as the worst pain known to mankind. It's a very misunderstood disease. It's a very invisible disease. It's not something that people can see on you like a broken arm. It's a very isolating illness.
There are not a lot of great treatments and that's why we started the fundraiser. We work with a group that I'm a trustee for based out of Florida. We’re an all-volunteer group and we independently fund our own research projects. We seek out scientists and experts who have an interest in research that will hopefully lead to a cure. Right now we are funding six independent research projects. Another one that we funded has been picked up by NIH.
Every dime that we raise through "Laugh Your Face Off" goes directly to research. All costs for the event are covered privately. We've raised about $630,000 with the event so far and hopefully this year we go over a million total.
Teme: When you say that trigeminal neuralgia is isolating, is that because of the pain or the lack of understanding?
Pat: It's both. For my wife specifically, the triggers for the facial pain are any sensation whatsoever. Triggers can be touching her face, wind, cold, brushing her teeth, putting on makeup, using a blow dryer. There's a lot that you cannot do. When you're in the midst of one of these attacks of facial pain, there's absolutely nothing you can do other than weather that attack.
Teme: That sounds so hard. How long do attacks last or is it always different?
Pat: It's always different. Everybody's situation is different. There's typical trigeminal neuralgia and atypical trigeminal neuralgia.
Typical is when people have pretty much normal days and then they'll get an attack, which can last minutes or seconds. They may have them for a few days in a row, and then they could feel fine for a week or two before they have them again.
There's atypical, which my wife has, where she has a baseline level of pain all the time and then multiple times throughout the day she'll get numerous attacks.
Teme: How close is more effective treatment?
Pat: My hope is that we're within a few years of an effective treatment for some. There's not going to be a silver bullet that's going to help everybody. It's such a complex disease. We're going to need to find a number of different therapies and cures.
Teme: I used to think that NIH funds all serious diseases. I was surprised to find out that’s not true.
Pat: Right. We have NIH reps that come to our biannual gathering of our scientists and I hear from them that their budgets have been slashed. That's why groups like ours are so important now.
HIS KIND OF TOWN
Teme: What have you learned about Chicago and Chicagoans from your work?
Pat: Chicago is a very blue collar town. When I first came to the station twelve years ago, the overriding thing I was told was, "Don't try too hard. Chicagoans are not accepting of people from outside Chicago, and if you're not from Chicago, they don't really want to hear from you."
My feeling from day one was that's bullshit. Chicago is the third biggest city in the country. If somebody's good it will be recognized and that's been the case. Certainly being from Chicago and being born here is something that’s important, but Chicagoans are very accepting of people who adapt to Chicago and who adopt it as their hometown. They are just good people here. Chicagoans have an appreciation for good comedy. They're great audiences. They're smart audiences.
Watch Man of the People on Saturdays at 10:00 p.m. on WGN-TV (Channel 9)
Or go to the show! Man of the People tapes on Friday afternoons and tickets are free.
Man of the People is also available on YouTube.
More information about "Laugh Your Face Off" here.
Here are more of the videos Pat mentions above and another of my favorites. There are so many great moments in this show. Follow the YouTube link for more and watch (or DVR) on Saturday nights!
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