Paul Barrosse calls it “intellectual vaudeville.”
Victoria Zielinski says “it was irreverent and everybody needed it.”
And Dana Olsen says of his two colleagues in comedy, “our friendship was always focused on making each other laugh.”
Barrosse and Zielinski (husband and wife for more than 30 years) and Olsen are alumni of Northwestern University and of Chicago’s Practical Theater Company, a 1980s sketch comedy troupe which launched not only their own behind-the-scenes careers in big time showbiz, but also gave on-camera stars such as Saturday Night Live performers Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Brad Hall their first big breaks.
Barrosse, Zielinski, and Olsen, after subsequent entertainment careers in Hollywood, have all moved back to Evanston, where it all began for them. And on New Year’s weekend and the weekend after that, they’ll be perfoming “Vic and Paul and Dana’s Post-Pandemic Revue” at Studio5 on Dempster Street.
Practical Theater itself started with a meow … or rather, a “Mee-Ow.”
Barrosse, Zielinski, and Olsen were all students at Northwestern University in the late 1970s and early 80s, when they and several others got together for a take-off on NU’s long-running “Waa-Mu” student production.
The parody was called “Mee-Ow,” and the improv company originally named itself “Attack Theater,” as in “take no comedic prisoners and attack everyone in politics.”
Barrosse says when the group started to become more popular, and added a board of directors, one of the suits suggested that the actors “be more practical” with their name.
Hence, says Barrosse, the Practical Theater Company was born in 1979, and he was one of the co-founders.
In the 1980s, Practical Theater almost became First Banana in Chicago, ahead of Second City, although at the outset, things were rocky.
“Our motto,” Barrosse says, “was if there were as many people in the audience as there were on stage [usually four or five], the show must go on!”
Things did get better. Much better.
But as with many successful artists, more success in entertainment means moving to The Coast … east (New York) or west (Hollywood).
Barrosse, Brad Hall, Louis-Dreyfus, and Gary Kroeger (the entire Practical Theater cast at that time) were all hired by Saturday Night Live for the 1982 season.
Barrosse became Practical again one year later, returning to Chicago for comedy with the troupe he helped found. Zielinski also became a cast regular.
Practical became impractical as the 1980s closed out, so the pair ended up in Los Angeles for long careers in writing and producing TV shows. Barrosse was nominated for two Prime Time Emmy Awards, one nomination shared with Zielinski.
As for Olsen, he was hired almost immediately after NU graduation as a writer for the TV sitcom “Laverne and Shirley” in 1980. He also wrote a number of other hit movies and TV shows, such as “The ‘Burbs” with Tom Hanks, “George of the Jungle,” “Inspector Gadget” for Disney, and “Henry Danger” for Nickelodeon.
But the glitz of Tinseltown eventually wore out for all three, and a return to Evanston, where it all began, played out in recent years.
“The kids were out of the house,” says Barrosse. “We had to ask ourselves are we soccer parents or are we comedians.”
The answer was obvious.
In 2011, he and Zielinski went back on the Chicago stage with a show that was “more Nichols and May” than SNL. Olsen has joined them too.
“We want to do more performing, and we feel really comfortable here,” Zielinski says.
Practical Theater has done some Evanston shows since the stars/writers all came back, although the last two years saw Covid-related cancellations.
But now, as Barrosse said in the early days of Practical, “the show must go on,” and there will likely be a lot more people in the audience this time than on stage.
Barrosse, Zielinski and Olsen all have warm feelings and good memories about their days at Northwestern.
“The cool thing about going to NU” at the time, Olsen says, “is it was the heyday of the first great cast of Saturday Night Live.”
Comedy clubs were everywhere. And if you couldn’t find one, you created your own. One of Practical Theater’s venues was the 42-seat, storefront John Lennon Auditorium, on Howard Street.
Evanston was mostly dry in those days, but Barrosse notes that the other side of Howard Street is in Chicago, “where you could drink.”
Promotional material for the upcoming Evanston show says it will mix music, variety, and comedy, “stirring in everything from marriage to cancel culture, whoopee cushions, conspiracy theories, Greek Gods, William Shakespeare and more.”
Plus, as Zielinski says, at Studio5 there is also “plenty of free parking.”
Performances are Dec. 29-31, and Jan. 4, 5, and 7. Ticket and showtime information is available online.