Whirled News Tonight: 10 Years of Fun

Whirled News Tonight celebrates 10 years of non-stop improv performances this week. For a year we did Fridays AND Saturdays at 8pm. We did a sketch show. We have hosted a presidential election night party/show three times. We’ve had meetings, deals, and almost-deals with MTV, NBC/Universal and more. In our second year the idea of us moving to New York to anchor a new theater was floated… the uncertainty and weird “promises” lead to our ironic chant of “We are definitely going.”WNT_Logo

Over the past ten years our cast has been married seven times (do two cast members marrying each other count as two separate marriages?) and produced seven children. We’ve rushed each other to the hospital. We’ve rushed to each other’s side during emergencies. We’ve hugged each other during depression and during joy. We mock each other’s typos and sartorial choices. We laugh at each other’s puns and roll eyes at who is the nerdiest. We do corporate gigs and call the group that does it the “Away Team” and someone is designated the “Away Team Leader.” We’ve done the show in so many different states of the Union a list would not do it justice, but one of my favorites is when we went to South Carolina for a week and we all staying in a hostel with bunk beds. That was hilarious.

In early 2008, a listing for “Whirled News Tonight” was created on Wikipedia but was soon removed following a brief discussion by site administrators who were split on the importance of such an entry. Several weeks later, author and columnist Nicholson Baker mentioned the Whirled News Tonight deletion in his article “The Charms of Wikipedia” which appeared in The New York Review of Books. The Whirled News Tonight Wikipedia page was soon reinstated. I’m pretty confident we’re the only improv group to have appeared in the New York Review of Books.

For a long while, for the second act I put slips of paper with the cast names into a “nazi” helmet we found in the green room. The audience would pick two names and they would do the second act (30+ minutes) by themselves! It was a risky, fun improv show, but it was weird for the rest of the IMG_0664cast to just sit and watch the second act. Now, everyone plays the second act and we really interact with the audience. I like it a lot, but sometimes I miss the wonderful combinations and edgy stuff we’d get from the 2, 3 or 4 person second act. One of my favorites was a 4 person second act that was about 4 students graduating from the academy. They were nervous about their futures and what they were going to do for the rest of their lives, how would they eventually be remembered? We eventually discover their last names… Kirk, Spock, Scotty and Rodriquez.  It was great improv and hilarious Star Trek deconstruction.


Ten years ago: the iTunes online Music Store opens. America invades Iraq. The Human Genome is mapped. SARS plagues China. President Bush announces “Mission Accomplished” and we never spoke about the Middle East again. Siegfried & Roy attacked by their own tigers. Arnold Schwarzenegger elected Governor of California. Saddam Hussein captured. Also, the movies School of Rock, Love Actually and Finding Nemo came out.

I had the idea for an improvisational long-form based on the news (which is called “newspeak”, btw) and I started watching shows and teams looking for smart, fun improvisers. The first cast was Shane Wilson, Steve Waltien, Eddie Pina, Matt Young, Marla Caceres, Alex Eilhauer, John Glynn, Jordan Klepper, Sarah Haskins, Arnie Niekamp. After a few months, Arnie had to move to another state and he was replaced by Padraic Connelly. Then Arnie came back and rejoined the cast.

Along the way Sarah Wonak joined us for some time.

Megan O’Neill joined the cast and then Adal Rifai.IMG_0292

We had some amazing people sit in with us too along the way (in no order whatsoever): Jen Malinsky, Tim Soszko, Sara Wolfson, Kate Lambert, Patrick Stonelake, Patrick Rowland, Rob White, Brett Lyons, Jeff Griggs, Michael Johnson, Sean Kelley, Laura Personick, Poonam Patel, Blythe Haaga, Christine Tawfik, Michael Lehrer, Tom Blandford, Matt Holland, James Whittington, Mike Enriquez, Becca Barish, Mark Piebenger, Erica May, Neal Dandade,

Brooke Breit joined us as a cast member and then left to have a baby. She had the baby and ended up on the Second City etc stage.  Which is how things work over there, kids. Weird, huh?

Our regular cast is now Shane, Eddie, Matt, Marla, Alex, Megan, John, Arnie, Pad, Adal with regular understudies Rob White, Brett Lyons, and Sean Kelley. Scott Brady has done the lights, set up the stage, kept the records and been a great friend for the past ten years. He’s been to more WNT shows than I have.

Out of ten regular performers, eight (8!) are founding members. Ten years of improvising on the iO stage. All of them were on regular teams at some time, but along the way they decided to stay with Whirled News as their teams faded or quit. And I could not be more honored that they have done so.


IMG_1119The show frequently surprises me still… either with a reference or a connection that I didn’t’ see coming. But my true secret delight is when (and this is surprisingly often) they do a scene that speaks truth to, and of, Power. That there comes a scene that is pure satire and reveals a hidden motivation behind the politics, the disasters, the scandals; this is the real reason that this show exists. How lucky, how fortunate, how blessed am I to be able to whisper (and I do), “That’s it. That’s why we do this.” And then I laugh because it’s also fucking hilarious.

So to my friends, the improvisers of Whirled News Tonight, I say thank you. Thank you for being some of the smartest, funniest, most capable people I know. Thank you for being in an improv show on Saturday nights when you could be doing so many other things with your abilities. Thank you for braving Wrigleyville traffic for a decade. Thank you for putting up with my hare-brained schemes and plans. Thank you for being logical when I need it and thank you for being silly when I think I don’t need it. Thanks for being my friends.


As for what the future and a new building may hold for Whirled News Tonight? All I know is that We are Definitely Going.



September 11th

I am always reflective at this time of year. It’s Fall and it’s the anniversary of the attacks on September 11. Without being maudlin or didactic here are some of my memories of that time:

I woke up and turned on the news. As I wandered from room to room, I thought it was a trailer for 9-11-picture-2a movie. (The first plane had struck the first tower.) It was only after arriving at work downtown (next to the Chicago Stock Exchange) that I learned the truth. Then the second plane hit. And they evacuated downtown Chicago.

I was on the phone with my father (a few blocks from the World Trade Center) when the first building collapsed. He said they were being evacuated and then said nevermind, they couldn’t see out of the doors… they were covered in debris and dust.

My friend Sean was a firefighter in New York. He and his company raced downtown to assist. In the chaos they all lost track of each other and Sean was missing for a few days. We all feared the worst. Overcome with worry and responsibility, Sean was sleeping on the street in short bursts and returning to the Ground Zero every day for a week before someone made him go home.

In the 80s, my father worked on the sixtieth floor of the Trade Center. In 1986, the 200th anniversary of the Statue of Liberty, we went up to the 80th floor to watch the fireworks. We were ABOVE the fireworks.. it was an unique point of view.

09-23-01WebtoonI had a one-man show called “Nerdography: the Story of a Nerd.” It was a parallel of my life as a nerd and the story of nerds in America. It was a relatively frivolous show filled with great nerdery. I did two shows and then 9/11 happened. I didn’t want to the do the show anymore. That weekend, 5 people came to see the show. They wanted, needed to get out of the house. The show goes on. That’s our job. (“But, Doctor, I AM Pagaliacci.”)

The tech manager for the show had a day job with Goldman Sachs. On September 11th, around midnight he called me very drunk. He told me that Goldman had offered him a promotion and a move to NY. He decided to stay in Chicago with his girlfriend (they had just moved in together) and he had promised to do tech for me. If he had taken the job he would have been at the 7:30am meeting in the Tower.

My roommate, John Mulhern and I went checked in on Erica Reid and Sara (“Scoot”) Champagne. They had just moved to Chicago and were bewildered. Hell, we all were. The four of us sat around and talked.

Later that night, I just wandered over to iO. The classes had been cancelled, but a group of people had begun to congregate. The next thing we knew there were board games all over the place and the bar was opened up. We, quite inappropriately, played a great game of RISK. To me, that community, that impromptu sense of family is what boardgame night at iO represents. That’s why I fight for it. That’s why I get pissed when it gets dislodged.

11ggdarcycjpg-91f4a60968b64189I had a blog at the time. And I began to collect and reprint editorial cartoons about 9/11. Within a week I was inundated with e-mails from people around the country saying thank you and expressing their own sorrow. I didn’t make the cartoons and people knew that, but I was someone they could talk to. It was very weird.

I have written a very short play about a real-life incident that occurred in the Towers on that day. It makes me cry, but I don’t like it. I don’t feel like I’m doing the people or the occasion justice. I wish I were a better writer.

I wonder, in the alternate universe where Al Gore was president…. How different would the world be now?

The first shows at iO were tentative and strange. People were just happy to get out of the house and see something fun and funny.

I moved to Illinois in 1993. I have this weird guilt for not being there for New York.

This year, on 9/11, I will teach six hours of improvisation followed by a meeting for an upcoming Halloween show. My annual sadness will, hopefully be allayed. I am reminded of a poem from my high school poetry magazine… written from the perspective of the Sun…. it says, “go ahead, drop the bomb. I still go on.”