A New Year's Eve cancellation won't stop Dana Olsen

A New Year's Eve cancellation won't stop Dana Olsen
Dana Olsen, Paul Barrosse, Victoria Zielinski, Steve Rashid/Photo by Bradford Rogne Photography

NOTE: I’d hoped for years to speak with prolific comedy writer and comedian Dana Olsen. Flash forward to 2021! Dana, Paul Barrosse and Victoria Zielinski were set for the world premiere of Vic & Paul & Dana’s Post-Pandemic Revue at Studio5 in Evanston, December 28-31. Alas, Covid took a toll and the show is cancelled … for now! They will return. In the meantime, please enjoy this interview written just before we learned the bad news.

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Last February, as the nation wondered whether to feel hope or despair, three comedians decided to go with hope. On secret Zoom calls between Chicago and L.A., Dana Olsen, Victoria Zielinski and Paul Barrosse hatched a plan. This week they’ll reveal the results when Vic & Paul & Dana’s Post-Pandemic Revue has its world premiere at Studio5 in Evanston. You’ll have just five opportunities to attend, from Wednesday, December 28-Sunday, January 2, including a special New Year’s Eve edition. All safety precautions are in place and seating is limited. Advance purchase is recommended. 

Dana, Victoria and Paul met as students at Northwestern University. Remarkably, all three launched successful comedy careers while they were still students. Before he even graduated, Dana had an offer to join the writers room at television’s top-rated Laverne & Shirley. Meanwhile, Paul and Victoria were part of Chicago’s Practical Theatre Company which Paul and roommate Brad Hall co-founded in their junior year. As Dana flew west, Paul, Victoria and company were wowing Chicago audiences at the Practical Theatre’s new space at Second City. Soon after, Paul would fly east to his new digs at Saturday Night Live.

After Laverne & Shirley, Dana kept the momentum going with independent and freelance projects. He penned the iconic comedy The ‘Burbs with Tom Hanks, Disney’s George of the Jungle and Inspector Gadget movies, and created Nickelodeon’s hit series Henry Danger. He has written for Gilda Radner, Dan Aykroyd, John Candy and Chevy Chase, just to name a few.

Dana lived in L.A. for sixteen years, returning to Chicago in 1996 so he could raise his children in the Midwest. But he, Victoria and Paul never lost touch. Their new show, Vic & Paul & Dana’s Post-Pandemic Revue will bring welcome laughter to topics “from marriage to quarantine to cancel culture, conspiracy, climate change, Olympian gods, William Shakespeare, Rod McKuen, and Looney Tunes.” The show will also include music by Emmy Award winner and fellow Northwestern alum Steve Rashid.

During two phone conversations, Dana, Victoria and Paul, kindly gave me a behind-the-scenes look at how they arrived at this moment. Please read on for my conversation with Dana. Then please turn to my call with Victoria and Paul here.

MEETING VICTORIA AND PAUL

Teme: How did you first get together with Victoria and Paul?

Dana: Paul and I were classmates. We did three Mee-Ow shows together, which is the campus improvisational revue. Steve began graduate school a year after we matriculated. Then I moved out to L.A. right after I graduated. Paul started Practical Theatre in Evanston, and eventually bumped into Steve. Steve became musical director of a bunch of Practical shows.   

Teme: Did you all hit it off right away?

Dana: Paul and I certainly did. The Mee-Ow Show was the most fun that either one of us had while we were in school. I think I can speak for Paul, too. It defined both of us. When we reconnected about ten years ago all our kids were grown. They had done a show called the Vic & Paul Show that I saw. Then I connected with them, and it became the three of us.

LAUNCHING AN EXTREMELY COOL COMEDY CAREER

Teme: I hear that your comedy roots actually go back to high school!

Dana: I did a little stand-up and wrote for the variety show when I was in high school and then did some stand-up around town. I did a little bit when I was in college, but I never took my stand-up career too seriously. I never even memorized my routine. I actually used to tape my notes to the mic stand. I was going to move out to L.A. after I graduated and take a shot at being a stand-up. But then I got hired for Laverne & Shirley right out of school by Garry Marshall.

Teme: That’s such a cool story. How did it come about?

Dana: He was a visiting artist at Northwestern. We did a comedy scene for him from the Mee-Ow Show. He really liked it. He was generous with his time and talked to us afterwards. I was a junior that year. I wrote a spec for Laverne & Shirley and I went out to visit a friend in California that summer. I called him up and said, “Hey, I’m in town. Can I come in and see you?” And he goes, “Yeah, absolutely.”

So I went to his office at Paramount. He had three of the top shows in the country on the air at the time, with Happy Days, Mork & Mindy, and Laverne & Shirley. I gave him the spec script, and he said, “If you’re planning on moving out here after you graduate, give me a call. I’ll see what I can do for you.”

He did another visiting professorship the following year and said that he liked my script. Then his assistant called me literally a week before I graduated, and said, “Hey, we’ve got a spot for you on Laverne & Shirley.” I graduated on Saturday. I was in L.A. on Monday.

Without Garry Marshall, I don’t know, I’m selling vacuum cleaner parts in Muncie, Indiana is what I’d be doing. I spent two seasons on Laverne & Shirley. It was a period comedy. They’d moved it forward to the Sixties for the season I came aboard and they would also do physical comedy, all of which was fun to write.

Then I got hired to do a script for a feature that David Steinberg was directing with the SCTV guys at Universal. It was [John] Candy, Joe Flaherty and Gene Levy. I helped David with that script. It ended up being a pretty horrible movie called Going Berserk. But the SCTV guys were hotter than pistols at that point. I got to work with them and I got to work with David, who was a really nice guy.

I ended up not going back to Laverne & Shirley. It only lasted another season. I ended up freelancing feature scripts pretty much exclusively. Although the movie I wrote, The ‘Burbs actually started life as a pilot at CBS. I got the rights back and I expanded it into a feature.

Teme: What inspired The ‘Burbs?

Dana:  I grew up in Park Ridge and was always fascinated with the creepier aspect of what’s hidden behind the door in the suburbs. There’s always a weird house on the block that has a bad legend attached to it. Originally, the script was called “Bay Window” as a nod to Rear Window, which is my favorite Hitchcock picture. But they didn’t call it “Bay Window” because the marketing department decided it would make people think it was a movie about San Francisco.

Teme: What was it like to work with Tom Hanks?

Dana: He’s the best. Classy and generous, and always said nice things. We had a lot of great people in that movie. Carrie Fisher was terrific. I liked her tremendously. I got a huge kick out of Bruce Dern, he was a great guy. It was a really fun experience.

Teme: Do you have a favorite story from those early days?

Dana: When I got out to L.A., what I knew about television writing was what I’d learned from The Dick Van Dyke Show and it wasn’t exactly like that. At Laverne & Shirley we shared the same building as Happy Days. Happy Days had a consulting writer named Harry Crane, who was in his seventies, wrote for the Marx brothers and gave Garry a break back in the day. We had a guy named Milt Josefsberg on our staff, who had written for Jack Benny for years. So Harry Crane was like the “Milt” of the Happy Days staff.

So one day, one of the younger writers on the staff was having a hard time, saying, “Man, I don’t know if I could do this anymore. It’s insipid. I hate what I’m doing. It’s driving me crazy.” Harry Crane takes a cigar out of his mouth and goes, “Yeah, you know what I do when I feel like that, kid? I put my paycheck on the front seat of my Mercedes, and drive home, singing ‘Zip-a-dee-doo-dah, zip-a-dee-ay!’”

Teme: I love the premise of Henry Danger of an everyday kid becoming a sidekick to a superhero. Even as an adult, it’s very fun to think about. I’d love to hear more about it!

Dana: Henry Danger existed in a lot of different forms before it finally landed at Nick. For a while, I thought maybe I’ll write it as a graphic novel. I pitched it as a feature a couple of times. Ultimately, I reconnected with Dan Schneider, who I’d known from years before. I went to see him at Nick and I pitched him this idea thinking he’d humor me, but he really liked it. Next thing you know, he goes, “We got a pilot deal. Let’s write the pilot!” Dan had monster juice at Nickelodeon, so he was able to get it on the air.

Teme: Of all the characters that you’ve written, is there one that resonates with you the most?

Dana: There’s a lot of stuff that I’ve written that never got produced that I’m so sorry didn’t happen. But George of the Jungle was a great experience. I really enjoyed working with Disney. They were very engaged and really terrific. George was such a great character. When they told me, “Here’s all the Jay Ward George of the Jungle cartoons! We own it, you can use whatever you want,” I was like, “Oh, my God, it’s like opening up a treasure trove!” I’ve always been a sucker for jungle movies. I always loved Tarzan. There’s nothing more fun to write than a dim-witted, good-hearted hero. I liked the Tom Hanks character, Ray Peterson, in The ‘Burbs, too.

Teme: What is your favorite career memory so far?

Dana: The first time I saw my name onscreen was pretty cool. I was not even a year out of college, and I got my credit on a Laverne & Shirley episode. I still have the page from TV Guide that listed it. The first time I saw my name on the big screen was for a movie called It Came From Hollywood. It featured clips from the shlockiest movies ever made. I got a “Written By” credit.” We did interstitials with Gilda Radner, so I worked with her and with [John] Candy and Dan Aykroyd.

Teme: Another of my heroes! Gilda Radner!

Dana: Oh, she was just the dearest thing. She was absolutely delightful, just the sweetest lady. I was writing her lines to do over the footage that they were cutting together. I remember before she went into the booth, she reached into her purse, and brought out a little perfume bottle that had vodka in it. She said, “This just helps me get over my nerves when I’m in the booth.” She took a little sip of vodka before she got behind the mic and did her lines. She was the greatest.

 WHAT MAKES CHICAGO COMEDY SPECIAL?

Teme: Do you think there’s something about Chicago comedy and comedians that is distinctive?

Dana: I definitely do. There is a “keeping it real”, wry sort of thing. After Vic and Paul flew in from L.A., they got to my house and we had some food for them and a glass of wine before they had to run off the studio and do something with Steve. Victoria said, “Oh my God. I love being in Chicago so much. We were at the car rental counter having a hilarious conversation with people standing in line. They were giving Paul a hard time about his Northwestern hat.”  In Chicago, people engage with you. People are so much more accessible here. That wouldn’t happen in L.A. In L.A., everybody’s on their way to somewhere else.

HOW TO THRIVE IN HARD TIMES

Teme: What are you doing to stay sane during the pandemic?

Dana: I closed up my office and moved home. I’m always writing something. I used to almost always have a feature script in development, but the last couple of years, the movie business has changed so drastically I don’t even understand it anymore. Plus, I’m an old guy now, so I may have aged out of that game. I have a long-term project that I’ve been working on for a while that would be a comedic adventure story for a younger audience.

Our [Post-Pandemic Revue] show has pretty much taken up all of my time for the last year and has been keeping me engaged. It’s pretty much all I want to do. And it’s about as hard as I want to work at this point. My wife has been working at home too. She was like, “You know what? I’m tired of working in corporate.” So she’s going back to graduate school and getting another master’s degree at Northwestern. The pandemic forced a lot of changes, good things, I think. Happened to be a coincidence that I was the age that I am when all this happened, but it is what it is.

Teme: I heard you say in another interview that during writers strikes, you were able to stay productive and focus on independent projects. I feel like you don’t let yourself get sucked into uncertainty and chaos, which is something I really have to fight. How do you resist bad news and stay focused?

Dana: They had a saying at Practical Theatre, “crank it into art”, meaning take all the bad shit that’s happened to you, and crank it into art. One really nice thing about writing comedy for a living is that you have an outlet. [The news] has been one thing after another. It’s an insane treasure trove of comedic material. You can take all this crazy that’s happening and try looking at it with a sense of humor. And that helps.

VIC & PAUL & DANA’S POST-PANDEMIC REVUE

Teme: Of course, I want to ask you about the Post-Pandemic Revue! I’d love to hear anything you can tell me.

Dana: We’re pretty topical. One of the things that was foremost in our minds, especially being writers and creatives, was cancel culture. That’s been a big target that’s really made us laugh a lot. We’re doing a thing about Rod McKuen. I don’t know how he popped up. We just all started laughing about Rod McKuen, and we’re like, “Okay, does anybody remember Rod McKuen? Well, maybe the people that are coming to our show do.”

We wrote a bunch of music. Steve has written a couple of hilarious songs. We’ve got a lot of different tones. We’ve got some wacky stuff. We have a little dose of lowbrow, which we always like to do. But we try to keep the ideas bold and challenging. There’s classic sketch format stuff. It’s amazing what the three of us can get away with.

Teme: How would you describe the dynamic between you, Paul and Victoria?

Dana: We’re family. Sometimes Paul and I are goofs and Vic is like a modulating force on us. Other times, many times, she is the strength in the sketch, and we’re satelliting around her. Other times, we like to pretend that we’re much more serious than we are. We are real serious about what we’re doing, about having a good time, and trying to include the audience as a conspirator in what we’re doing.

But I don’t think of myself as an actor. I’m more of a personality. I wasn’t a theater major at school. I was a film major, so I was always very self-conscious about my acting chops. So I do exactly what they tell you not to do onstage, and that is give the audience a wink to let them know that I’m not taking myself too seriously and I’m in on the joke.

Paul is all about total, utter and complete commitment, and he always has been. Whatever character he’s doing, he is doing it to the “nth” degree. Victoria is probably the smartest one of all of us, which creates a whole other dimension.

Dana Olsen, Paul Barrosse, Victoria Zielinski, Steve Rashid/Photo by Bradford Rogne Photography

 Teme: What makes the Post-Pandemic Revue a must-see show right now?

Dana: We know we’ve got a really funny show that people can relate to, and it’s good to put a comedic spin on the crazy stuff that’s swirling around everyone. For heaven’s sakes, how can you not be funny, locked in your house for two years? There’s a lot of crazy, bad stuff too. Laughing at those things seems to be less and less permissible and we’re hip to that, but you’re allowed to laugh at this shit. If you don’t, you won’t have closure.

Studio5 is such a warm and inviting performance space. Steve and Béa do a great job with it. It’s really comfortable and very responsible in terms of the situation now. It feels so good to be in there. Oh my God, doesn’t it feel like it’s just been a decade, since we’ve all been in lockdown? People are just dying to get out and see other human beings, and do stuff that we used to do!

Teme: As three comedians collaborating, do you ever disagree? And if so, how do you resolve it?               

Dana: We have disagreements all the time. We all have super strong opinions. Generally, the resolution is, what’s the funniest idea? We spend a lot of time together, so there are frustrations, but everybody’s allowed to blow up if they need to. But it doesn’t last long. We argue points and we each have our own ego. We can get very, very passionate about what we’re doing and what we believe. But ultimately, everything is there to serve the funny idea.

LOOKING FORWARD

Teme: When you, Victoria and Paul started writing the show last February, did you have a degree of optimism that it would go forward?

Dana: No, it’s all been questions. I mean, who the hell knew what was going to happen tomorrow? Plus, they’re in L.A., and I’m in Chicago, so we rehearsed on Zoom. In the summertime, we started meeting twice a week and just reading over the sketches over and over and over and over again, and then redoing them, and retooling them, and punching them up.

But no, back in February we didn’t know where we were going to be in ten months. But we figured, “Look, if it turns out that for whatever reason we can’t do the show, at least we’ve written a new one.” The important thing to us was to write all new material. And we did.  It was daunting, when you’ve got to fill two hours, and you got nothing back in February.

Teme: That is exactly the perspective, I think, that is critical to getting through these times. Looking to the future, finding what’s funny, and staying open to the possibilities! What are your hopes for 2022?

Dana: We would like to find a way to create a more permanent home for our show, and to do it more than once a year. That’s what we’re hoping, that we can find a way.

Teme: Great news! Absolutely anything else that we should add?

Dana: I hope that everyone who can come to the show enjoys it as much as we enjoy doing it.

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Vic & Paul & Dana’s Post-Pandemic Revue is at Studio5 from Wednesday, December 29, 2021-Sunday, January 2, 2022, including New Year’s Eve. Seats are limited! Tickets and all details here. UPDATE: Cancelled (for now).

Interview with Victoria Zielinski and Paul Barrosse here.

More information about Paul, Victoria and Dana here.

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