It’s All A Game


Tuesday May 6th, 2014 – Niles, IL

One concept I wish I would have grasped a lot sooner in show business – and life itself – is that it’s all a game. As wise as my grandfather was and as many lasting lessons as he taught, I don’t recall that one ever being on his list. If he said it I didn’t hear it, and I know I would have remembered.

Truth and fairness are not the determining factors for most of us, even though we’re taught that if we work hard and keep our noses clean spectacular things will happen. After a lot of lost years hoping that was the case, I am rapidly losing faith. I’m sorry, but this world is run by imbeciles.

Every once in a while someone with legitimate talent, morals and a giving heart slips through a crack somewhere and gets a nice run in the sun – but I have to think even that person knows it’s a fluke and against the odds. It just is. I wish this world were run fairly for all, but it never was.

My grandfather was a perfect example. There was not a more straight up spirit that ever walked this planet. Gramps cared about others and fought hard for what he thought was right. He treated people how he wanted to be treated, and worked hard at a job he really wasn’t fond of but it was what he had to do to support his family like he imagined an ideal husband and father would do.

He toiled and slaved at his job for the City of Milwaukee, and it came time to hand out a major promotion from within to supervisor. Gramps was totally qualified to do that job, but he lost out to another guy in his office that was a better ass kisser. I remember it crushed him at the time.

The reason this came up today is that my friend Marc Schultz organized one of his semiannual entertainer lunches. Everyone from magicians to circus acts to musicians to comedians shows up, and they’re always a lot of fun. Marc is a great guy, and I don’t know of anyone that doesn’t like him. He’s very laid back, and again treats entertainers like people and not farm animals. It’s rare.

The big lunch is held in November, but he’s been having a smaller one in spring of late. It’s at a Chinese restaurant with a private room, and we all hang out and tell war stories. This particular installment was well represented by a stellar lineup of Chicago’s finest comedy talent including Larry Reeb, Tim Walkoe, Bill Gorgo, Skip Griparis and me. That’s quite the local all star team.

Other than Bill, the rest of us have worked at Zanies regularly for decades. Skip does musical comedy vignettes, impressions and original songs and is one of the most talented human beings I have ever met. He is world class great at what he does, as are Larry, Tim and Bill at the craft of standup. And I would like to think I’ve got a few marshmallows to bring to the camp fire too.

Between all of us, NOBODY is lighting the world on fire. We’re all getting by at best, but that is as far as it goes. I have huge respect for all those guys, but like Gramps none of them – or me – chose to play the game correctly. We thought just being good at what we do would handle it.

HA! There’s the killer mistake we all made. None of us chose to move to Los Angeles and stay there, and right or wrong that’s where “big time showbiz” happens. Eventually, anybody that hits pay dirt in show business on a big time will have business to do in Los Angeles. That’s how it is.

The fact is, Larry and Tim and Bill and Skip and I happen to like living where we do. It doesn’t appeal to us to play any stupid games, and that’s why we’re where we are. Talent doesn’t matter and rarely does. It’s nice if one has it, but not necessary. All that counts is how to play the game.

This is where it gets dangerous, because unfortunately this is the truth. Nobody wants to hear the truth – especially those in charge. They know everything I just said is on the money, but it’s the 2000 pound elephant in the room. It needs to be ignored, and I have never been good at that.

It’s also easy to get in a mental rut and let bitterness take over. That’s not good either, and it’s easy to do. I have seen quite a few people on a lot of levels rant and rave, and I admit I’ve been known to do it myself. I’m doing it now, but I’m trying to separate bitterness from actual facts.

Here’s an actual fact that needs to be digested by everyone that gets into the entertainment biz on any level: only a precious few ever really “make it” on a big time level, and luck is definitely one of the main ingredients. Hard work is another. Talent does have a place in the mix but there are a lot of talented people so it ends up being a given. Very very rarely is talent that important.

The whole “right place, right time” factor really does exist. It’s huge actually, and very few get themselves in that position either. Bill Gorgo is an example. He is a naturally funny person with an exceptional talent for not only writing jokes but punching up existing ones. He’s also a funny act, and probably could have acted had he chosen that route. He’s very likeable and looks good.

Unfortunately, he didn’t get started in standup comedy until he was 40 years old. He operated a trucking company his father started, and he was the only son so when his father passed it was the thing he felt he had to do. Was he “wrong”? Of course not – in life anyway. But in show business he didn’t play the game. Could he have worked at it part time? That’s hard to say, but I doubt it.

Also, he had a wife and daughter to support and he happens to be Italian and being close to his family is important to him. He helped care for his mother for years, and I respect him greatly for all of that. He did a commendable job in his life choices, but for show business he hurt himself.

He came up the comedy ranks in Chicago at a great time, but had a glass ceiling and was never going to move to L.A. like his and my generation of comedians did. Many of those people are on as solid of footing as there can be in the entertainment jungle. People like Mark Roberts and John Riggi may not be household names, but they have both played the game correctly and won big.

One would think they would automatically reach back and grab all the talented ones they could from their past, but it rarely works that way. Once in a while it may, but it’s not the rule. Chicago might as well be Uranus, and out of sight truly is out of mind. They have their own community.

This is just how the game works, and even though a few exceptions slip through once in a blue moon it’s pretty much a standard blueprint. If one wants to truly hit the big time, one has to get connected with those that make the decisions – and that’s traditionally where the trouble starts.

Who’s to really say what’s “good” in entertainment? Sports is easy to judge. If somebody can perform physically, they’re hired – even if they’re a detestable human being. Acting and comedy and music have a lot more grey area, and a lot of it is who gets the push from the source of power.

Another sad reality is that one is either really big or really small – no in between. I think all of us at the lunch today assumed we could be local stars in Chicago and live with that. Even that did not happen, and here we all are not getting any younger and left to fend for ourselves to eke out a living WAY out of the spotlight. We play the game or don’t, and each choice comes with a price. Is it too late to choose again? Maybe, and likely. The trick is to have a plan in place and work it.

Just like Monopoly, show business - and life itself - is a game. There are rules involved, and the winners learn them early.

Just like Monopoly, show business – and life itself – is a game. There are rules involved, and the winners learn to master them early.

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