Cusack Puts Chicago on the Laugh Track
 


Tribune Television Writer
January 3, 2001

Friday is "tape night" for dozens of situation comedies around the Los Angeles area. The sights on this particular sound stage are no different, except that it is on the West Side of Chicago -- not the West Side of Los Angeles.

And that's just where the star of "The Joan Cusack Show" (working title) wants it to be, even if it does make a little history in the process as the first network television sitcom to be taped entirely in Chicago.

Nearly 300 people are being "warmed up" by a comedian while sitting on bleachers overlooking several sets.

A production crew of roughly 50 scurries among the sets, which include mockups of a combination kitchen-living room, a bedroom and a lounge with a corresponding hallway.

Soon, the stage is quieted for the first taped scene of the night, in which actor Kyle Chandler walks over to the "kitchen" to prepare some coffee.

"Hey, Joanie, you're out of coffee filters," he calls to North Side resident Joan Cusack.

"Use the cupcake paper," Cusack calls back, the audience tittering at the thought.

"Well," Chandler says, "I guess we're going to have very small cups of coffee this morning."

Director Michael Lembeck stops the scene soon after to give small notes to the actors. After Cusack takes a short stretch to calm herself, Lembeck shoots another take of the scene:

"You're not going to wear that shirt when you meet my sister for the first time," Cusack says to Chandler, her boyfriend in this new romantic comedy.

He responds dryly: "Apparently not."

Lembeck calls for a cut, is satisfied with the progress, and announces production is "moving on" to tape the next scene. The warm-up comic triumphantly echoes Lembeck's words, and the bleachers crowd applauds as if sharing in a victory.

Cusack, who was nominated for Oscars for "Working Girl" and "In & Out," was adamant about getting her new ABC sitcom (a romantic ensemble comedy in which she plays a Chicago high school teacher) shot entirely on location here. She said she wouldn't have made "The Joan Cusack Show" if it had been shot in Los Angeles because "it would have been really hard on my family."

Several dramatic series have been filmed here, at least in part, from "Chicago Story" in the early 1980s, to "The Untouchables" in the early '90s, to "Early Edition," which wrapped production earlier this year after four seasons on CBS. (Most, like "ER," shoot some exteriors here and do the principal photography elsewhere.) And nationally syndicated reality shows with Jenny Jones, Jerry Springer and Judge Greg Mathis are situated here. Not to mention Oprah.

But Illinois Film Office director Ron Ver Kuilen says this is the first time a sitcom has ever taped in its entirety anywhere besides New York and Los Angeles. "They haven't even really gone into Canada yet," he added of the country Hollywood has moved a lot of its production to because of cheaper costs -- a sharp contrast to the cost of producing in Chicago.

"It was a lifestyle choice," said Cusack. "I guess my goal now is to have a meaningful life."

Cusack's definition of a "meaningful life" is living on the North Side with attorney husband Richard Burke and their two small children.

"When I started having kids, I just wanted that structure for them and for me, and just to have my family life be a real priority," Cusack said days after the Friday taping.

For an actor, having the stability required for a family with small children often means working on a sitcom, which has fairly flexible hours, weekends off, and several months of down time during the spring and summer.

Cusack, born in New York but raised in Evanston, has a career heavy on movies, including "Addams Family Values," "Runaway Bride" and "Grosse Pointe Blank," one of several films she has made with actor brother John Cusack.

And although she was a member of NBC's "Saturday Night Live" from 1985 to '86, she never thought about doing comedies on television "until I realized that I wanted to have a family life. That was important to me."

About five years ago, Cusack began exploring the possibilities of sitcom work.

"When I first started trying to do it," she said, "it was a time when they were looking for comedic female people to star in shows." This was partly because longtime ABC comedy "Roseanne" had just gone off the air, and CBS' "Murphy Brown" was on its way out.

"Because I had that comedy background, they thought, oh, this could be a good bet," said Cusack, who has been acting ever since attending the Piven Theatre Workshop in Evanston at the age of 7.

"My stipulation was that it be in Chicago," she said, "which narrowed down who could be involved and who would be willing to move."

One of the producers Cusack had discussions with was James L. Brooks, who directed her in "Broadcast News."

"I talked about that I was thinking of doing a show, and he said to me, `Well, there is serendipity to these things, Joan.' And at the time it wasn't what I had wanted to hear."

However, serendipity has played a huge part in the making of "The Joan Cusack Show." Brooks, whose television production credits range from "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" to "The Simpsons," is executive producing Cusack's show, which has an order for 13 episodes.

The series was created by former National Public Radio essayist Gwen Macsai, who not only was born in Chicago but also was two years ahead of Cusack when both attended Evanston Township High School. Macsai graduated with Cusack's sister Ann, also an actress.

This is Macsai's first television writing experience, and like Cusack, she is glad it is happening in Chicago, because she also has family -- a husband and three kids -- she didn't want to uproot.

"Thank God. I'm so grateful for that," Macsai said. "I mean, if it were in L.A. I don't know if I could do it."

It is almost like the show being shot here was fated to be. Co-star Chandler starred as future-altering hero Gary Hobson on "Early Edition."

Executive producer David Richardson and Lembeck, who is directing several episodes, both have children attending college in Chicago.

According to Ver Kuilen, shooting a sitcom episode can run from $800,000 to $1.2 million. Richardson wouldn't say how much is being spent to make an episode of Cusack's show, although he did admit filming outside either of the coasts in the United States "certainly makes it more expensive" because of the production facilities and manpower needed.

A recent Crain's Chicago Business story reported about $20 million has been budgeted in startup and production costs. Ver Kuilen said Illinois will make $10 million from the series taping here.

Chicago Studio City, the production facility where the show is taped, had to be fitted to be "audience receptive," Richardson said. Ver Kuilen said sets had to be made. Personnel, including several members of the show's ensemble, were flown in and housed, and some cameramen here had to be trained to shoot in the three-camera format required by a sitcom.

Brooks isn't in Chicago overseeing production, but he is still active via the Internet. He watches the episode taping through a Web camera feed, and then he relays suggestions to those on the set on how to make scenes better.

Producers haven't had a problem finding talent for in front of the camera. Richardson said mostly every actor outside the regular cast has come from Chicago's vast acting pool, which he considers "an untapped source of great talent and unfamiliar faces. So it's not the same people that you see week after week."

Everyone involved says the public reception has been positive.

"People are so supportive and warm and open and interested," Cusack said.

One of those fascinated was 26-year-old Michelle Dooley of Lincoln Park, who attended the making of the show's fourth episode.

"I think it's great. So before, we thought we only have Oprah, and now we can come see this, too."

 
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