Vic, Paul and Dana have a crucial message for our impossible times: It’s time to get out of the house, gather in a safe, comfortable cabaret and laugh like crazy! The three comedians, more formally known as Victoria Zielinski, Paul Barrosse and Dana Olsen know what they’re talking about. Together and separately, they have created some of the most memorable and influential comedy in American entertainment history.
Their new show Vic & Paul & Dana’s Post-Pandemic Revue has its world premiere this week at Evanston’s Studio5, including a special New Year’s Eve Edition. They describe the show as a combination of sketch and vaudeville. They find the funny in “everything from marriage to quarantine to cancel culture, conspiracy, climate change, Olympian gods, William Shakespeare, Rod McKuen, and Looney Tunes.” Also expect music from Emmy Award winner Steve Rashid, Rockin’ Ronny Crawford on drums,
Vic, Paul, and Dana met at Northwestern University in 1977. In his junior year, Paul founded the Practical Theatre Company with roommate Brad Hall. They were joined by Dana and fellow students Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Rush Pearson, Gary Kroeger and Brad Hall. Soon after, Victoria (who married Paul), Richard Kind, Isabella Hoffmann and Megan Mullally joined the company.
Shortly after graduation, they were discovered by Sheldon Patinkin. The Second City guru was so impressed that he and Second City owner Bernie Sahlins offered a space in Piper’s Alley solely for them. Today that stage is Second City’s e.t.c. Theater. The Practical Theatre quickly became known for fusing music, physical comedy and astute social commentary. One day, on the recommendation of Tim Kazurinsky, Saturday Night Live producers flew in to see them. The execs wasted no time and snapped up Paul, Brad Hall, Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Gary Kroeger the very next day.
Meanwhile, Victoria was earning a reputation as a serious actor. She would go on to law school and two prestigious Chicago law firms. At night she performed with the Practical Theatre where she created a popular comedic feature “Free Legal Advice.”
Dana Olsen was not at the Practical Theatre when SNL came calling –for a very good reason. Garry Marshall, creator of television’s top three shows at the time, invited him to join the Laverne & Shirley writers room immediately after graduation. Dana soon became known for creating works like The ‘Burbs with Tom Hanks, Walt Disney Pictures’ George of the Jungle, and Nickelodeon’s Henry Danger.
I spoke with Victoria and Paul last week and with Dana a few days later.
Victoria and Paul are like the very best of Nichols & May updated for 2022. Dana gave me some behind-the-scenes insight into his extraordinary career. There’s also intel about Vic & Paul & Dana’s Post-Pandemic Revue, but most of it is top secret. You just have to go! Please read on for these delightful conversations: Paul and Victoria’s below and Dana’s is here.
CHICAGO VERSUS L.A.
Teme: I’m very excited about your shows at Studio5! But why come to Chicago in December and January?
Victoria: Everybody asks us, “Why are you leaving California to go to Chicago? It’s the worst time of the year!” And we say, “We love Chicago!” Our heart is always in Evanston, Chicago and the North Shore because that’s where we lived so happily for so many years. Paul is from Cleveland. I’m from Chicago, so the weather doesn’t scare us. In fact, we’re thinking of retiring in Chicago.
Teme: That says a lot! Chicago has a lot going for it.
Victoria: Like cultural vibrancy and a sense of community that doesn’t exist here [in L.A.]. We’ve done the L.A. thing for thirty years. We raised our kids in L.A. It was glorious. Well, it wasn’t all glorious. We had our heartbreak and disappointment, but it was beautiful in a way. And now we’re ready to return.
We’re used to the Chicago comedy audience. The Chicago audience is smart, responsive, and understands where the joke is. Chicago gets comedy, which is why it thrives and grows there. We come back to Chicago to do our show because of the audience. It’s as rewarding as it gets.
NEW YEAR’S EVE
Victoria: Dana, Paul, and I wanted to write a new show. We want to write everything new, no retrospective, not bringing out the old-
Victoria: We wanted to be a bit on a high wire, and for the last six months, at least-
Paul: Longer than that.
Victoria: We’ve been meeting via Zoom two or three nights a week and developing the sketches that will form the basis of this show.
Paul: We’ve gotten together in person. We took a trip to Chicago-
Victoria: -in the summer-
Paul: -and worked there, read a few things for some friends, and then we brought in Dana and Steve Rashid, our musical director, and his wife, Béa, who is our choreographer. God bless her-
Victoria: -that poor woman had to teach us choreography.
Paul: So we had them come out to L.A. and we workshopped for a few days, and then brought some friends into our garage, just like Andy Hardy and Judy Garland, and performed the material for them. Soon we’ll be in Chicago and starting to actually-
Victoria: -deal with the technical aspects, the sound cues, the musical cues, the lighting cues, the props, whatever de minimis costumes we do for the show. I’ve got to adjust my meds to understand why the hell I’ve done this. But Dana and I were talking last night and saying, “This is why we live.”
Paul: This is it. This is what we love to do the most.
SECRETS ABOUT THE SHOW (OR AS MUCH AS THEY WOULD TELL ME)
Teme: How has this pandemic been? What did you do to keep sane?
Paul: Part of what we did was write this show. But what it really taught us is that we were allowed to just spend time with ourselves. Things slowed down and we were able to understand what was important to us and to sort out all the noise and distill it down.
Victoria: Paul and I decided many years ago, our kids are out of the goddamn house, either we’re going to be fat-
Paul: That was 2010.
Victoria: Either we’re going to be fat old people who sit on whatever laurels-
Paul: And talk about what we did-
Victoria: Or we’re going to sit at the kitchen table and we’re going to write a show for ourselves. It wasn’t like anyone was banging down the door to write a show for us and we wouldn’t have liked it if they did. The opening number of that first show [in 2010] was “We’re finally out of the house.” We’d been in the house –“
Paul: “And now our children are grown-“
Victoria: “… and we’re out on our own.” We did a whole bunch of stuff about being empty nesters and the sex and politics involved with that whole period. Well, what’s hilarious is that this [Post-Pandemic] show begins with, “We’re finally out of the house”-
Paul: -but “we’re finally out of the house because-“
Victoria: “We’re totally back.”
Paul: “Not completely relaxed, but we’re totally out of the house.”
Victoria: It’s a new number. Don’t give anything away, but we’re going to open with-
Paul: No! No! Don’t talk about the opening! She gave that away in a previous interview and I reprimanded her. She’s trying to do it again.
Victoria: But Teme needs to –
Paul: No, you must not!
Teme: I’m dying to know! But okay, I won’t ask for more details.
Paul: We have a bang-up entrance. That’s all I’m going to say.
Victoria: It’s really funny! Call me later!
STANDING UP TO HARD TIMES
Teme: How do you keep your creative spirit alive in these hard times?
Victoria: That’s really a good question because it was not a happy year. I was teaching via Zoom. I teach English at a private independent school and it was painful. Worse than that, our children are in the prime of their creative lives and they were thwarted. That was really hard to watch. Our daughter Eva B. Ross is a singer-songwriter. She was on her way to Ireland to tour and that got canceled. Emilia is a comedian and writer, and her work was canceled.
Paul: She just wrapped up a season –
Victoria: -as a writer on Veep–
Paul: And then Tacoma F.D.
Victoria: I felt their pain. It was awful. They did their best to march through it. Whatever phase of your life you’re in, you felt, “I’m missing it.” But it was better to be in your sixties than to be in your mid-twenties. There was a lot of depressive heartbreak. I’m not going to lie. It was fucking terrible. And not to mention other people sick, and then the Trump thing. Paul and I, at one point, got in our car and drove to Tulsa.
Paul: Right. We drove to Tulsa for the big rally on-
Victoria: – Juneteenth. We couldn’t take it anymore. I said, if Trump is going to do a rally in Tulsa on Juneteenth, I’m going to be there with a protest sign. I cannot allow that to happen. All our friends thought we were nuts because everybody was in quarantine, but we did it and we aren’t sorry.
A NEW SHOW IS BORN
Paul: When we realized there would be a chance to actually do a show at the end of this year, we committed ourselves right away. I made my bones over the years in writing for television, but I define myself as a comedian. The thing that Victoria and I love to do most is to perform comedy on stage. There’s nothing better than that.
Victoria: There’s a difference to doing it at our phase of life than at the beginning. We have no aspirations other than to entertain and connect and delight and process our sense of what’s going on politically and socially. There’s something so liberating about having that as our only objective. We want it to be funny, and to really have it be tight. We believe our script is now in its eighteenth version.
Paul: Our thing is when you have an idea, you improvise it, you record it, you transcribe it, it becomes a script, and then you sharpen it and sharpen it and sharpen it. Then you memorize it to the point where now you can go out on stage and you know it. Then you can have fun and respond to what the audience is giving you because you’re confident that you can get from point A to point B.
Victoria: It’s counterintuitive because, yes, everything begins as an improvisation but in the end, it’s a very carefully crafted comedic sketch that because it’s so carefully crafted, will allow us to break the fourth wall or go on digressive tangents that might involve the audience.
Paul: In this show, we play with the convention of classic improvisational and sketch revues. That’s the part that excites us a lot because we don’t know how the audience will respond to those moments when we break the fourth wall. That’s going to be most fun about this show.
Victoria: Ohhhh, you can give that away, but I can’t give away the opening.
Paul: You can’t give away our big opening visual!
Teme: How did you decide on the topics that you wanted to cover? Because, oh boy, this year has given us a lot of material!
Victoria: Oh god, I know.
Paul: Well, we brainstormed a big list. Then we whittled it down. One of the topics is how we deal with cancel culture as baby boomers.
Victoria: We’re reckoning with what it means to be politically correct in an entirely new environment. One of the first sketches in the show is a conversation between individuals in the mathematics department at a university.
Paul: We’ll give away this one joke. The joke is what does one plus one equal?
Victoria: Two. But the question is, “What if one plus one identifies as three?” We take concepts that are powerful in humanities and play with what happens when we introduce them into mathematics and science.
Teme: That reminds me of the Practical Theatre Company! Wasn’t one of its founding principles to “change the scientific method”?
Paul: That’s right. We always said we would change popular culture and scientific method.
Victoria: Exactly! That is precisely what we were thinking. Then we play on conspiracy theorists. We have a song and dance number designed to resonate with the idea of putting on your tie and tails. Instead we’re putting on our tinfoil hat as conspiracy theorists and we’re going to take that on with music by-
Paul: -Steve Rashid, our musical director.
Victoria: Oh, brilliant Steve Rashid.
Paul: And Dana Olsen is so funny. Victoria and I knew Dana back at Northwestern. So this is a relationship that goes back forty years.
Victoria: It’s so cool to be this age and collaborating with these two assholes in a way that is just as funny and dynamic and remarkable as it always was. Now we’re three old people fighting over these jokes.
Paul: We are in our early sixties and we are still coming out on stage and delivering improvisational comedy sketches.
Victoria: And I don’t know who the hell was doing that. I remember when Imogene Coca and Sid Caesar came to the Briar Street Theater in 1989. I remember looking up at Imogene Coca and she noticed me and threw me her bow.
Victoria: I still have it!
Paul: You need to put it in your hair when you’re being-
Victoria: No, I don’t want to lose it. Oh my god, it was one of my happiest moments.
Paul: By the way, Sid Caesar hosted SNL when I was there. And I suggested that he’d be the host.
Victoria: Oh, aren’t you wonderful.
Paul: I did. I suggested at the very beginning, when we all got together for the very first show that season and Dick Ebersol (the executive producer) asked who would be a good host. And I, of course, steeped in Your Show of Shows suggested Sid Caesar. And Dick said, “No, he’s washed up.” Well, three months later, Sid came out with his book, Where Have I Been?, and then we got back from Christmas vacation and Dick Ebersol said, “I’ve got this idea. We’re going to have Sid Caesar.” And I, like an idiot, because I’m 24, think [whispers], “That was my idea!”
Victoria: You should’ve just shut up and said, “What a brilliant idea.”
Paul: Exactly. I should have said, “Dick, what a fabulous idea. Moving on.”
TEAMING UP WITH DANA OLSEN
Teme: How did you reconnect with Dana after Northwestern?
Paul: We kept in touch with Dana, but after we did the Vic & Paul Show–
Victoria: He came to see us.
Paul: We decided a two person show is one thing, but a three person show is another and who better to do a three person show with than Dana? Because Dana is a great joke writer.
Paul: Right out of college, he was hired by Garry Marshall to work on Laverne & Shirley. He is a great gag man. He’s just a very funny guy.
Victoria: He’s a physical contrast to us because he’s kind of a patrician-
Paul: Blonde and he’s a few inches taller.
Victoria: And we’re two dark swarthy midgets and it’s a funny contrast.
Paul: So we brought him in and we connected immediately, as I knew we would. It’s just been a great relationship.
Victoria: Also, Paul and I are both kind of hotheaded Southern Europeans and he’s kind of a reserved Nord. We engage him and make him go further than he would.
Paul: We poke the bear.
Teme: What are your writing sessions like? Do you ever disagree and if so, how do you resolve it?
Victoria: Oh! We had a big fight, Dana and I, when we were in the garage sessions for “Camp Comedy.” What the hell was his-
Paul: I forget what it was, but you objected to something and-
Victoria: I said “I don’t think so. I don’t like this.” I don’t pretend to be the central writer. I’m dealing with two guys who are really fine writers, but I am going to say I have a sense of what the fuck is funny and what isn’t and I’ll say what I think, and I’m respectful, but I’m not going to prostrate myself.
Paul: But Dana had gone out that day and-
Victoria: -he’d gotten hot.
Paul: -on a hike up in the Hollywood Hills around the Hollywood sign. And frankly-
Victoria: -he was tired. And when I suggested that this joke wasn’t working in a particular way and that there might be a better way around, Mr. Heatstroke, he-
Victoria: And we kind of left it. And then there was this wonderful moment where he came in and he said, “I don’t know what the heck is wrong with me. I apologize.”
Paul: He did very, very good. And for a Nordic man to have to actually confess to having an emotional life at all …
Victoria: He’d connected with his anger and his rage. So many of the [show’s] sketches allow us all to investigate those things in our lives. And in his case, his divorce. I think he’d be the first to say his divorce in midlife was a really important thing. And we, of course, have several sketches which go directly to that. So it’s really achingly funny.
Teme: Your show sounds very authentic and real life. That is just the best comedy.
Paul: Well, that’s where it has to come from or it doesn’t really resonate. It has to be something that you’ve lived, it has to be something that you feel and-
Victoria: -something that is true. When we were working with Bernie Sahlins, Paul and I worked with The Committee. Then we went and lived with clowns, Els Comediants, in Spain for about six weeks with Bernie Sahlins and some other folks from Second City. I remember we were sitting in Barcelona –
Paul: In Canet De Mar-
Victoria: And Joan Font [Els Comediants co-founder and director] said, “It’s all a story of love. Every comedy, every tragedy is a story of love.” I think that’s right. It was so profound. And we were, of course, very high at the time, but it made sense even when we came down.
That idea that it’s all ultimately a story of love and how it goes wrong, how it goes right … We’re deeply mindful of that in every sketch that we do. There’s something about our connection that is funny and tragic and powerful. We hope that people resonate as we describe what we’re going through now in this stage of our life.
Paul: We’re not just going for a joke. We’re going for a truth because if it’s funny and it’s true, then you really get a great response.
Teme: It’s transcendent. I feel like people then go home with a more profound understanding of life. Plus they’ve just had that deep connection with you on the stage and laughing with the rest of the audience. It’s a spiritual experience, I think.
Victoria: That’s exactly what we’re hoping for. Now it’s up to us to deliver. We’re mindful of how big a job we have to do. I’m really looking forward to it and there’s a little bit of me that fears it.
Paul: Of course. It’s always nice to be a little bit on edge
HOW TO MAKE LIFELONG FRIENDS
Teme: What are the keys to building enduring relationships in friendship and marriage and comedy that are so successful?
Victoria: Oh my god, I’m so glad that you’re linking into that. These are connections that we formed in our youth really. We’re so blessed.
Paul: I first worked with Dana on stage in 1977.
Victoria: There’s a certain trust that you have with a cast that you’ve been improvising with for forty years … is that math right?
Paul: Well, it’s …
Victoria: Okay, for a hundred years. And we’re still as nervous and as nauseated by the fear of what we’re about to do as we were when we were twenty-five and twenty-six.
Paul: That’s Victoria’s perspective.
Victoria: Okay, well, that’s my creative process.
Teme: I understand one-hundred percent. I thought I was the only one.
Victoria: Thank you. I mean, it’s going to be okay. But maybe it’s not and that’s also exciting. You know you’re doing something right when you’re so excited that you’re nauseated. It means you’re out of your box. That’s the one thing I’ve tried to teach my children and that Paul and I have really tried to live. Never get comfortable in the box. We hope we can convey that to our audience. I think that people from every phase of life can learn from that: “If that old lady can jump out of her box, so can I.”
ONE LAST SECRET
Victoria: We will also reckon with the invention of the Whoopee cushion.
Paul: Because that’s critical.
Victoria: Because it’s critical and it’s important. We never take ourselves too seriously.
UPDATE 12/28/21: Unfortunately, Vic & Paul & Dana’s Dec. 29-Jan. 2 engagement is cancelled, but WILL RETURN at a later date TBA.
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.
Interview with Dana Olsen coming soon!
Paul’s blog “Paul’s Voyage of Discovery & Etc.” has more information about Paul, Victoria and Dana and The Practical Theatre Company here.
Previous interview with Paul Barrosse about The Practical Theatre Company is here.