Sidetrack To Sparta


Tuesday July 10th, 2012 – Sparta, WI

   My brain told me to stay home and get some much needed work done and/or rest, but my heart told me to instead ride in a car for four hours to a small town in Wisconsin to visit someone I’ve not seen in person in years. As per usual, the heart won. I’ve made more than plenty of mistakes with my brain over the years, but never one when I listened to my heart. It was the right choice.

Jim Wiggins is a comedian originally from Chicago, and has been going through some horrific struggles of late. He’s had cancer and chemotherapy twice, and has been spending time in Sparta, WI with his son’s family as he’s been healing. Jim is one of the warmest souls I’ve ever crossed paths with, and is absolutely beloved by all who know him. He’s a true legend, onstage and off.

Jim is billed as ‘The Last Hippie in America’, and was friends with George Carlin. He’s got an incredible big booming baritone voice that makes James Earl Jones sound like Pee Wee Herman, and a heart even deeper. He ran a comedy club in Palatine, IL in the ‘80s called “Dirty Nellie’s”.

I would drive down from Milwaukee and Jim would always make sure I got stage time. He’s a giver just like I am, and a kinder soul I’ve never run across. When I heard he had cancer it hit me hard as it did everyone who knows him, but he never complained once and kept us all laughing.

Jim is the epitome of a comedy road warrior. He plays anywhere that has a stage, and I haven’t met ANYONE in all my years that loves being a comedian more than Jim Wiggins. He lives and breathes it all the time, and I can only hope I’ll be doing the same at age 70. He’s like a little kid.

Bill Gorgo used to be his roommate for a while after Jim’s wife died years ago. He also lost his oldest son in an accident. How horrible that is. I think we must be related somehow, because one hand grenade after the next keeps falling out of the sky but Jim has managed to dodge them all.

Bill mentioned that Jim had been having some pain of late, and I suggested we take a ride up to Sparta to cheer him up in person. He agreed it would be good for all of us, and today was the day we went. A day of work or sleep blends in and is forgotten. A day like this will stand out forever.

I know how good it felt when people came to see me in the hospital last year, and Jim has been such a supporter of all comedians for so long that out of duty I felt I had to go. He’s true comedy royalty, and I wanted to not only pay respect but hear some of his best classic road stories again.

When we pulled into his yard his eyes lit up and he came outside and gave us each a hug and a kiss. I don’t let men kiss me as a rule, but that’s Jim Wiggins and everyone expects it. I told him how thankful I was for that stage time all those years ago, and he asked how my diabetes was.

I told him it wasn’t important, and that we were there to hear about him. And we were. Bill and Jim have a much deeper history, so they caught up for a while and then we went into his massive back yard to shoot guns and talk about comedy and life. We were laughing so much we couldn’t keep the guns pointed in a straight line, so eventually we put them down and focused on talking.

Actually, it was a lot more listening. Jim likes to talk, but he has a lot to say. He’s been around the block more than once, and has had a colorful life to say the least. He’s a straight shooter and doesn’t mince words – a man after my own heart. I wasn’t always close to him, but when we did cross paths it was always positive. I’m glad I took the time to come up and visit him face to face.

He told us about his early adventures in comedy and working with George Carlin. He told how George would help him out in one way or another, and then say “Pay it forward to young comics in the future.” That’s the same thing my mentor C. Cardell Willis said to me, and I never forgot.

Jim didn’t forget it either. He’s always been kind to newbies starting out, and I’m seeing how it all comes back around. George Carlin was as big as big gets. He knew the secret and then passed the baton to guys like Jim Wiggins to pass on to guys like Bill Gorgo and me. Now it’s our turn.

Bill and I love to teach our comedy classes at Zanies and wherever else we can find that will let us. We’ve been thinking of ways to come up with a deeper study of the basics of the business for newbies in the future to learn even better than we did. Guys like Jim Wiggins can certainly help.

We’ve all got decades of practical experience that can really help someone starting out but only if they choose to listen. As for me, I looked for any advice I could get when I started. I would’ve been thrilled to learn at the feet of a Jim Wiggins. I learned just by listening to his stories today.

I haven’t shot guns in years, and it was really fun to do it today. The mood couldn’t have been more perfect, and it just added to the specialness of the moment. The scenery was picturesque in Jim’s back yard, which coincidentally butts up against the rear border of U.S. Army Fort McCoy.

I’m not a huge gun guy, but I don’t hate them. They can be fun to shoot off once in a while. It’s a male bonding thing, like smoking cigars. In the right setting it adds atmosphere, and that’s how it worked today. If I don’t touch another gun in ten years, my life won’t be any worse off for it.

After guns and conversation Jim took us into Sparta for dinner at one of THE best Italian joints I have ever been to called Angelini’s. The guy who owns it is named Anthony from Italy by way of Chicago. He married a woman from Sparta and the people in town don’t realize what a world class establishment they have. It was worth the trip for the great food alone. www.angelinis.com.

I’m not supposed to eat pasta or bread with my diabetes friendly diet, but I couldn’t help try at least a sample of all the dishes that were brought out for the table. I had a little of this and a little of that, and at the end of the night we had trouble walking to our car. It was a meal for the ages.

We went back to Jim’s house and I met his son and his wife and their kids, and it was a treat to be part of this whole scenario. There’s love in that house, and it comes from Jim. He thanked the both of us for coming about ten times, and I knew he meant it. Making his day better made mine.

Bill and I are on the right track with what we’re doing with our classes. Including Jim Wiggins is a win/win for everyone involved. This was a wonderful trip. I’m glad I listened to my heart.

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