And Then There's Joan...

Archives for 2001 - Page 1

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February 22, 2001
Chicago Sun-Times

by Phil Rosenthal, Television Critic

"What About Joan"--sans question mark, a la "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire"--has become the official title of Joan Cusack's Chicago-based ABC sitcom set to debut March 27 at 8:30 p.m. on WLS-Channel 7. We still think "The Sam Wilson Show" is a better name. No one listened.

February 20, 2001
Chicago Sun-Times

by Phil Rosenthal, Television Critic

It's apparently a lot harder to name a TV show than one might think.

That's the upshot of our "Name That Show" request for suggestions of what to name Joan Cusack's new Chicago-based sitcom.

With the debut only five weeks away from tonight, ABC has been floating the empty balloon "What About Joan" as a title on its Web site, but no official word has come.

"Joan," "Cusack" and "The Joan Cusack Show," supposedly were dismissed because of how similarly titled star vehicles for Bette Midler, Michael Richards, Geena Davis and Steven Weber struggled this season. Producers flirted with "Sweet Home, Chicago," if only because they could appropriate the song, but it didn't quite convey the series.

Whatever they call it, this sitcom about relationships--based on the work of Evanston essayist Gwen Macsai (Lipshtick)--stars Cusack as a high school teacher named Joan Gallagher. Her boyfriend, Jake, is played by "Early Edition" alum Kyle Chandler.

Our call for titles got hundreds of responses from readers aged 11 to 93 and from all around the country. One was postmarked in Jakarta, Indonesia. A guy with time on his hands sent in more than 200 title suggestions. Not one, but two readers, took the occasion of this contest to criticize how Joan and other members of the Cusack family pronounce the word "Chicago." A few were actors looking for work on the series.

Way too many entries just nicked the headline of my original column--"Because She's Worth It"--or some awkward phrase from the text, such as "Flyover Country," "Imperfect Intimacies" or, most popular of all, "Friends and Lovers."

But because "Paul Sand in Friends and Lovers" already was the name of a short-lived 1974-75 comedy from James L. Brooks, who happens to also be an executive producer of the Cusack show, we'll figure that's not really a option.

"Trying to name a sitcom I have never seen struck me as a Dada-esque pursuit, but I decided to give it a shot nonetheless," wrote reader William T. Garver of DeKalb, who suggested "My Kind of Town."

"Why not call it `The Joan Cusack Show.' I know this isn't very original or exciting, but it is simple and tells people exactly what they're getting. Most people don't have the time or inclination to seek out a particular show. You've got to make it easy for them to find you."

That said, here are some of your suggestions . . .



"Joan in Chicago"
B. Diaz, Chicago

"In the Loop"
Dian R. Voigt, Chicago

"Chicago Lessons"
Lismarie Donoghue, Chicago

"Chicago High"
Pam Grimes, Oak Park

N. Jayne Hasselroth, Batavia

"Homeroom Chicago"
Patti Neri, Melrose Park

"The Windy City"
Karen De Bias, Carpentersville

"Windy City Whimsy"
Mike Oakes, Chicago

"Life in the Windy City"
Kimberly Scanlon, Des Plaines

"Living in Chicago"
Karen Ann Morabito, Chicago

"Love, Chicago Style"
Lucille and Linda Hodorowicz

"Relationships, Chicago Style"
Carol Allaway, Karen Nelson
and Chris Kozerski, Chicago

Larry Gillreath, Arlington Heights

"Shy Town"
Jim Demetris, Lansing

"Lake Shore Drive"
Barry Stark, West Chicago

"The View From Lakeview"
Barbara Bernacchi, Chicago

"Along the Lake"
M.A. O'Rourke, Chicago

"Joan on the Lake"
Dina Facklis, Chicago

"Lake Effect Show"
Mary Karlson, Chicago

"The Third Coast"
David Lunnar, Hollywood, Calif.



"Chicago on Track"
Ermalene R. Smith, Chicago

"The Red Line"
Laurie Hottinger, Chicago

"The Blue Line"
Guido Pozo, Chicago

"Life Between L's"
Sharon Hill, Findlay, Ohio



"All That Joan"
Angela Soriano, Chicago

"Welcome Back Cusack"
David Kreiman, Glenview

"Cusack Central"
Elaine Thigpen, Chicago

Linda Fisher, Mount Prospect

"Chicago's Own Joan"
Carole J. Peterson, Crestwood

"The Wacky World of Joanie"
Angie Vanaria, Chicago

"Joanie's World"
Karen Cole, Chicago

"Life in Joan's World"
Nancy Meeks, Lombard

"For the Love of Joan"
Jan Johnson, Channahon

"The Joan Zone"
Mike Poch, Chicago

"Darling Joan"
Catherine Barozyk, Harwood Heights

"I Love Joan"
Chris Huston, Karen Gerbig, Chicago

"Just Joan!"
Christine Krupa, Chicago

"Joan Who?!?"
V.J. Shigihara, Chicago

"Oh Joan"
Mary Norowski, Chicago

"Joan & Company"
Joseph Lang, New Lenox

"Cusack and Friends"
Marilyn Campbell, Chicago

"Love Joan"
Valerie B. Lufrano, Chicago

"Joan's Jones"
Brett Terbush, Elmhurst

Richard Tanis, Glenview

"The Joan Show"
Raymond Torres, Chicago

"That Dere Joan"
Frank Bonilla, Riverside

"Joan, Joan, Joan"
Charles Chamberlin, Lansing



"Class Mates"
James Dunlop, Oak Park

"Class Act"
Donald Pierini, Prospect Heights

"Class of Her Own"
Sharon Hardey, North Aurora

"In a Class by Herself"
Adrianne Thomas Hayward, Evanston

"Don't Forget Your Homework"
Richard Kerr, Chicago

M. Burke, Watervliet, N.Y.

"Educatin' Joan"
Dolores Noworolnik, Chicago

"School Days"
Nancy L. Florian, West Chicago

"School Daze"
Irv Yormark, Chicago

"School's Out"
Ruby Stephens, Chicago

"Lesson Plans"
Bonnie Dickel Hoffman, Golden Valley, Minn.

"Live & Learn"
Jean Lachat, Chicago

Monica Erb, Joliet

"Teachers' Lounge"
Marilyn Mellin, Chicago

"Teacher's Pet"
Roger B. Wilson, Des Plaines

"Teachers Don't Pet"
Eric Stigler, Skokie



"Cooler by the Lake"
James Reyes, Chicago

"That's Life"
Nadine Robin, Homewood

"Get a Life"
Kathleen Skinner, Wayne

"Say Everything"
S. Daniels, Chicago

"Our Miss Joan"
Alan Wulff, Wheaton

"Joan's Addiction"
Sonja Tudor, Calumet City

"Is That Your Final Answer?"
Ramona Giambalvo, Chicago



"Sweet Joan, Chicago"
Jane Lambric, Chicago

"Love Is All Around"
Ken Gordon, Mount Prospect

"Everyone Knows It's Windy"
Joyce Ryband, Chicago



"Double Take: Joan & Jake"
June Packer, Chicago

Patti Duboe, Buffalo Grove

"Gallagher Rules"
Susan Orich, Lansing



"Wild Onion"
Jerry Liliedahl, Evanston

Texie Washington, Chicago

"A to Q-Z"
Ruth Ann De Marchis, Carol Stream

"Idiot Box Anonymous"
Joyce Dunn, Chicago

"Mid Electric West"
George W. Cross, Chicago

"Joan & Kyle@Chicago.Com-edy"
Adeline G. Zivin, Chicago

"Cusack's Sizzling Chicago Tales"
Arthur J. Hernandez, Chicago



"The Sam Wilson Show"
Sam Wilson, Chicago

January 15, 2001
Chicago Sun-Times

by Phil Rosenthal, Television Critic

PASADENA, Calif.--There is a scene in what will be the first episode of Joan Cusack's new ABC sitcom that justifies it being shot on a soundstage on Chicago's West Side rather than in West Los Angeles.

Her character, a high-strung high schoolteacher named Joan Gallagher, shows up late for a dinner with her curiously stable boyfriend, Jake (Kyle Chandler of "Early Edition"). And, in a mere 13 seconds, she goes from workday drab to date-night glam.

At the table. Hilariously. Like no one else could.

The laughs have nothing to do with Chicago, which might as well be 2,000 miles away, and everything to do with Cusack, who simply wouldn't do a TV series that required her to begin and end each day apart from her husband, her kids and her hometown.

"Those are so important to me," said Cusack, a two-time Oscar nominee and "Saturday Night Live" alum whose still untitled series will make its debut March 27 at 8:30 p.m. on WLS-Channel 7. "They're huge. They're the ability to have a life and work--and that's hard in this business."

For years, networks have wanted Cusack to do a TV series. She would nod her head, sign the holding deals and eventually let them lapse without shooting a single scene. "It was hard to get people to go to Chicago," said Cusack, who would leave town for the occasional film role but not for the possible seven-year commitment of a TV series. "There's so much serendipity to these things."

It was, in fact, a conspiracy of coincidences that brought her to this show and this show to her in Chicago.

Hollywood power player James L. Brooks, whose TV and movie career runs from "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" and "The Simpsons" to "Terms of Endearment" and "As Good As It Gets," wanted to do a comedy based on the wry essays of Evanston's Gwen Macsai that dealt with how female friends relate to one another and to the men in their lives.

Cusack was available, and Macsai's voice was not so different from her own. Like Macsai, Cusack went to Evanston Township High. Both women were pregnant when they first met last year. They hit it off.

But Cusack's steadfast refusal to move might well have had Brooks speed-dialing Janeane Garofalo's agent if it weren't for executive producer David Richardson, who had a son accepted at DePaul, and director Michael Lembeck, whose own son was at an area college. They were game to establish a base camp in what Hollywood execs consider "flyover country" between the coasts.

Suddenly Chicago seemed a destination of destiny.

"I can't get over the fact that people changed their lives and relocated to Chicago," Brooks said. "It makes everything fresh. I think when the network [brass] has to go on a plane instead of a car to come see the show, it sort of changes everything. . . . There's something raw about it.

"The pressure becomes more our pressure, just because you are this band out there in the middle of someplace where nobody has done a show before. But there's something great about that. It's not like the same experience of doing a show here in [Southern California]."

Cusack, like the local crew, seems to be making adjustments over the course of ABC's initial order of 13 episodes. She sometimes seems to project to the studio audience rather than dialing it down for the cameras and our living rooms.

But when she's at the top of her game--"I've never worked with somebody as physically gifted as Joan in comedy. . . . That's where she just rips," Brooks said--it's clear why all this has been worth the trouble.

"I pinch myself," Cusack said. "It is truly my dream come true, being able to do this show. It is something I've wanted to do for so long, and yeah, there's some pressure in it. . . . It's an ensemble show in a lot of ways because it's about relationships and how people are with each other, [but] you're in a lot of scenes."

And if she's going to lie awake worrying about how all of this will play in prime time, it might as well be in her own bed.


Name that show

They've flirted with "The Joan Cusack Show," "Joan," and "Joanie," but each seemed too close to "The Geena Davis Show" and "Bette." They considered "Sweet Home Chicago," if only to use the song as a theme, but it had nothing to do with the show.

"I Married Joan," "Joanie Loves Chachi" and "The ABC Afterschool Special" all have been used before.

With only 10 weeks till its premiere, the ABC comedy remains untitled, and this is something of a problem.

"I pitched `Kyle,' but they didn't go for it," said Kyle Chandler, the former "Early Edition" star who plays Jake, the boyfriend of high-school teacher Joan Gallagher (Cusack) in this series about the imperfect intimacies of friends and lovers.

"I'm always terrible at titles," Oscar- and Emmy Award-winning executive producer James L. Brooks said. "We're at ground zero on [this one], and now, when we finally come up with a title, it's going to be insipid and you'll say, `They never did solve it.' '

So why don't we give Brooks, Cusack and company a hand? They're under no obligation to take our suggestions. But you never know. We might strike gold. At the very least, some of them will wind up in the newspaper.

"Sure," Brooks said. "Why not?"

Send your title, along with your name, address, age and phone number to: NAME THAT SHOW, c/o TV critic Phil Rosenthal, 401 N. Wabash, Chicago, Ill. 60611.

January 14, 2001
Chicago Sun-Times

by Mike Thomas, Staff Reporter

It has been said that self-immolation is less painful than watching the taping of a television show, particularly a bad television show. Flubbed lines, forgotten lines, rewritten lines--it all means one thing: retakes. And multiple retakes, particularly if you're outside the inner circle that's filming or directing or acting, really, well, bite.

That said, "The Joan Cusack Show" (that's its title--for now), taped weekly right here in Sweet Home Chicago (that's its theme song--for now) and starring one of our town's favorite Academy Award nominees, does not bite at all. In fact, even in raw form, it's quite entertaining.

Why? Two words: minimal retakes. Of course, there's also the decisive directing, the skillful acting, the pithy writing and the dedicated crew. These kids are pros. But we'll get to them later.

First, let us examine closely, much more closely than is actually necessary, this beast called Live Studio Audience. You were probably exposed to it early on in your TV-watching life. This, for example: " `Happy Days' is filmed before a live studio audience." You can hear Tom Bosley's voice now.

There is much love in the grandstands at tapings of the "Cusack Show," whose audiences are peopled with parents and spouses and friends and siblings, and also scores of fans, many of them native Chicagoans, who come to cheer their hometown girl.

Most of these folks, ticket holders all, are corralled into a large tent outside the front entrance of Chicago Studio City, a cavernous, otherwise unremarkable structure located on a stark industrial plot near the Eisenhower Expy. on the Far West Side. For those lucky enough to make "the list" (i.e. family, friends, and, yes, press-- indoors, but we use the same lovely Port-a-Johns), the waiting--there's much waiting in TV Land--takes place in a long, dimly lit corridor behind the stage area.

We're all loading up on caffeine and gabbing about whatever while pricking our ears for an official word from the sassy woman with the official-looking headset, through which she receives frequent commands, status reports and possibly Steve Dahl's radio show. She's the Pied Piper, and when she says, "Move," we move, following her dutifully to our seats in an elevated area facing the set.

On the way, nearly every one of us snags a bottle of water (natural spring) and a white-butcher-paper-wrapped 6-inch hoagie stuffed with turkey, ham or cheese and all the fixin's, only one per person, please, purchased in bulk by Columbia Tri-Star, which owns the show. Not surprisingly, most of us devour our grub within minutes. For one, free food always tastes better. Also, we know there will be no other sustenance for hours, save, perhaps, for surreptitious noshing of trail mix and tic-tacs.

Though it's probably imprudent to nosh during taping, especially if the noshing involves crumpling and crinkling and crunching, as the mikes suspended above our chairs pick up every sound, or so we're told. In other words, and this is merely hypothetical, if you attend one of these events--and they are events--and you happen to think the gaffer is the most hideous dude you've ever seen and you say so to the person next to you, the sound man, who hears all, will tell the gaffer and the gaffer will be deeply hurt and sulk for days. That, or he'll burn down your tool shed. Only kidding. (You're fully insured, though, right?)

When the audience has settled, the usually zany comedian who's been hired to entertain and, often, playfully humiliate us before takes and between takes and after takes starts in with his shtick. Sometimes it is witty shtick, sometimes it is lame shtick. But no matter what kind of shtick it is, he--it's a male-dominated profession--will invariably remind the flock to "laugh hard, they like that."

And most of us do laugh hard, some a bit too hard, especially if there is an autographed script or a T-shirt in the kitty for "the one who laughs the hardest." Still, even without free merchandise, the vast majority of chuckles are genuine and loud.

And it's a good thing, too, because if this puppy weren't funny, it would be agonizing. Three hours, the average time it takes to get enough editable footage for a 22-minute sitcom, is a long spell to sit like a human veal in the tightly packed peanut gallery. But at the "Cusack Show," time generally flies, so much so that you're hardly aware of any deep-vein thrombosis that might be worming its way toward your heart.

In general, tapings unfold much like a play, each scene shot in chronological succession. Most often, it's two takes followed by the declaration: "Moving on!" Ecstasy. The ensemble has worked together for mere months, and already they're grooving in fine synchronization like Magic's Lakers, like Sinatra's Pack, like Puffy's Posse.

Cusack, around whom much of the action revolves, is the queen of comic angst, and she is capable of conveying it merely by cocking an eyebrow or biting a thumb. Quite often, though, her emotional innards spill out more animatedly, as they do in the third episode when she, wrecked on martinis, Riverdances on her friend's coffee table.

Her character, Joan Gallagher, is a high school teacher with a new boyfriend (played by "Early Edition's" Kyle Chandler) and oceans of angst. Fortunately for her, she has some swell gal pals on whom to lean. And they, in turn, lean right back. This wacky symbiosis, in tandem with Cusack's trademark manic energy, drives the plot lines and inspires many laughs.

When he's on the set, as he was for the first two tapings, some of the most pronounced laughs belong to the show's best-known executive producer, Jim Brooks, a k a James L. Brooks of "The Simpsons" and "Taxi" and "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" fame, whose tenor honk will occasionally rise above all other sounds in the room. It is an infectious honk (though he insists otherwise), and when you hear it, whether or not your funny bone has actually been tickled, you've no choice but to follow suit.

During the pilot show in early October--the network bought 13 episodes flat out, so "pilot" is merely a technical term in this case--Cusack's parents sat front and center. A couple of times, her obviously proud father, actor and director Dick Cusack, got her attention by pumping his fist in the air as if to proclaim, "That's my girl!" Soon thereafter, the warmup comic got the elder Cusack's attention by invading his personal space and meowing, "Do I make you horny, baby?" Much chortling ensued.

Midway through the evening, the very same comic, who'd positioned himself mere inches away from front-row spectators, balanced an 8-foot ladder on his chin while juggling plastic bowling pins. Even the cast and crew paused to watch. It was, after all, very neat.

Slated to premiere in March as a mid-season replacement on ABC, the "Cusack Show," given the right time slot and some high-profile buzz, could sprout wings, soar like Icarus. Then again, shortly after takeoff Icarus plummeted to earth and died.

The point is, as always in television (excepting shows by Aaron Spelling), success is largely unpredictable and failure often unavoidable. Though if, when the program finally debuts, viewers in living rooms across America are even half as thrilled as the ones at the tapings, Cusack and Company will surely do Chicago proud. Not that they haven't already.



The rest of the cast:

Kyle Chandler ("Early Edition," "Homefront"): Jake

Donna Murphy ("The King and I," "Passion"): Ruby

Jessica Hecht ("Friends," "The Single Guy"): Betsy

Wallace Langham ("Veronica's Closet," "The Larry Sanders Show"): Mark

Kellie Williams ("Family Matters"): Alice

Executive Producers: James L. Brooks ("The Simpsons," "The Mary Tyler Moore Show," "Taxi"); Richard Sakai ("The Simpsons," "Taxi," "The Tracy Ullman Show"); David Richardson ("The Simpsons," "The John Larroquette Show," "Malcolm in the Middle")

Director: Michael Lembeck ("Friends," "Mad About You")

Tickets: Call (773) 473-8224 (sold out for remainder of the 2000-01 season)

Location: Chicago Studio City, 5660 W. Taylor

January 14, 2001
Chicago Sun-Times

by Mike Thomas, Staff Reporter

Chin hair. Gwen Macsai has chin hair. Really. She even wrote about it in her book Lipshtick (Harper Collins), on which Joan Cusack's new locally filmed sitcom is loosely based. Chapter one, page three, third paragraph: "I have chin hair." It may be the first time such a thing has been so unabashedly admitted, certainly mass-published, by a woman.

Bold? Perhaps. Funny? Of course. And it's not alone in its nakedness. In fact, it's not even that naked. No, feminine facial foliage, it turns out, is but a minor blip among the many comical, self-critical, highly embarrassing truths dissected in this smart collection of essays that matter-of-factly examines, by way of Macsai's life, girlhood.

Sometimes it is girlhood in the most literal sense, as in the essay titled wherein she admits, "I remember everything . . . the name of every teacher I had, the combination of my fourth-grade locker. . . ." More often it is GIRLHOOD in the solidarity-tinged "We are together, we are one, we are sistahs" sense. And virtually nothing escapes Macsai's well-timed pith, including male genitalia, the art of seduction and much other grin-inducing, unflinchingly honest material.

But, then, such creative candor has long been Macsai's strong suit. During her many years with National Public Radio in Chicago; Washington, D.C., and Minneapolis, she laid bare her soul in award-winning radio essays. Then, one day, a bigwig, the biggest of wigs, heard the piece "For the Record," in which she campily discussed her record collection.

The bigwig was impressed, so impressed that soon thereafter he optioned works of hers to use as the basis for a sitcom he'd been knocking around. He wasn't sure what kind of sitcom, but it didn't really matter. He'd think of something. He always did.

The bigwig in question, Jim Brooks, is one of the most successful writers-directors-producers of all time, having bettered the often bleak world of television with "The Simpsons," "Taxi" and "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" and numerous other masterworks. And the sitcom he'd once merely pondered eventually became something very real, "The Joan Cusack Show," starring Macsai's fellow Evanston Township High School grad.

When Macsai began work on Lipshtick in 1997, she was "freaked out" about the number of words she had to produce. It doesn't take much writing, she explains, to fill seven minutes of radio airtime. Still, she pushed on, even rented an office near her home, where every day from 9 a.m. till 2 p.m. she turned psychoses and neuroses and humiliating memories into stylish prose. Three years later (the book was put on hold a while), she finally finished. And when Brooks saw what further hilarity she'd wrought, sitcom talk intensified, and, well, the rest is herstory.

As a member of the "Cusack Show" writing team, Macsai noodles and rewrites and rewrites some more with her fellow scribes nearly every waking hour. Or so it seems. Scripting network television, in her hometown no less, is a fabulous gig, she admits (though sans the use of "fabulous" or "gig"), but it is monumentally consuming.

Her three kids, all under age 5 (including an infant), crave/demand much motherly attention. Also, there is a very nice man named Paul Goren, Macsai's husband and good-natured subject of some of Lipshtick's funniest chapters (gay strippers, beige suits), who, like any husband, probably wouldn't mind a bit more face-time himself. Nonetheless, he is extraordinarily supportive, even showing up on Friday nights for tapings, despite having a demanding work schedule of his own.

"It probably doesn't hurt that this is a lucrative field," Macsai quips. She quips a lot. It's a gift.

In response to the recent deluge of success and responsibility, Macsai has become an accomplished multitasker, often performing three, four, even five activities at once. She can, for instance, simultaneously clean her desk, pump breast milk and carry on a sincere phone interview. It is highly commendable, this juggling, though one can't help but wonder if she'd trade said pumping for bill-paying or dust-busting were the interview in person.

While it is often overwhelming and always exhausting, Macsai says her new career is, above all, hugely rewarding. After nearly five years of wrangling and writing and casting, her musings have spawned something far beyond what she'd once envisioned for them, what she still envisions for them, though now more wistfully than hopefully.

"I would love to bring my pieces onstage and do them live in a one-woman show," she says. Then the pragmatist emerges. "But not in this lifetime. No way."

Lipshtick will be released in paperback Feb. 9.

January 12, 2001


LOS ANGELES ( - ABC Co-Chairmen Stu Bloomberg and Lloyd Braun announced plans Friday to stagger the premiere dates for three new midseason series, "My Job," "My Wife and Kids" and the untitled Joan Cusack Project, to reporters at the Television Critics Association Winter Press Tour in Pasadena, CA. [earlydues note: Could that sentence have been *more* convoluted???] The staggered launch of the new shows will allow ABC to air new episodes of favorite shows without interruption. The setup is similar to what the network did with "NYPD Blue" last season when, after a late launch, the series ran new episodes without repeats for the duration of the season.

"By staggering the premieres of our mid-season shows, we'll be able to commit 100 percent of our promotional efforts to every launch," said Bloomberg. "And we'll also be able to ensure that several of our regular series -- such as 'Gideon's Crossing,' 'NYPD Blue,' 'Once and Again' and 'The Geena Davis Show' -- will be able to complete their season runs without repeat episodes."

<snip non-related info>

The still-untitled Joan Cusack Project is slated to debut Tuesday, March 27 [2001] at 9:30 p.m. [Eastern], also for six weeks. The half-hour comedy, starring two-time Oscar-nominated actress Joan Cusack ("In & Out" ) and Kyle Chandler ("Early Edition"), will replace "The Geena Davis Show" during its six-week hiatus.

January 3, 2001
Chicago Tribune

by Allan Johnson

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."

"The Joan Cusack Show" is being taped at Chicago Studio City, 5660 W. Taylor St. Call 773-473-8224 for tickets.


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