Last week, Chicago’s notables gathered at the Shakespeare Theatre to celebrate the life (and death) of Second City founder Bernard Sahlins. Actors flew in from Hollywood to laud their mentor and friends told funny stories. And I have a couple of my own that I don’t think anyone has heard before.
In 1981, Bernie had an idea for a sitcom that NBC was interested in called “2 +1”. It would feature two actors from his Second City troupe (Tim Kazurinsky and Mary Gross) as a happily married couple who take in Tim’s wayward friend (George Wendt). He wanted to shoot and produce it in Chicago so he called me to see whether I could make a pilot “on video” to save money.
Not knowing better, I calculated up all the costs of recruiting my friends and told him it would cost $5,000. He balked. “What if we shoot it over a weekend?” he asked, and I had to explain that weekends usually meant overtime.
“How many cameras do I get?” he asked.
“One,” I said. “Can I see the script?”
“We’re working on it,” he said.
We shot the pilot the next weekend in the home of Denise DeClue, who wrote the script with Kazurinsky. Over the course of 48 hours, we all but destroyed her house, setting up kitchen scenes, and dining room table scenes, and even a pizza delivery scene at the front door (by Danny Breen).
As we raced through the set-ups, Bernie would walk around cheerleading. “Can you believe it?” he’d ask. “We’re making television in Chicago. Isn’t this fun?”
When it was all over, Jim Morrissette, now the tech guru at Kartemquin films, offered to string together the best takes into a show. As good as it was, Bernie insisted that real TV needed a laugh track. So we sent the whole project over to Editel, then the top post-production house in Chicago, and paid twice as much as the whole production budget for 8 hours of laugh track insertion.
NBC loved the show, and hated the laugh track. But Fred Silverman, the head of NBC programming, told Bernie that it was a great showcase for his Second City talent. Within months, Kazurinsky, Wendt and Gross were recruited to join Saturday Night Live. Danny Breen, the pizza deliveryman, also left the Chicago cast for a new career in LA on “Not Necessarily The News.”
“2 + 1” has lived on in the memory of all who participated because Bernie convinced us that we really could make television in Chicago. Like many other ventures in his long history in comedy, he shot for the stars – and fell short – and had fun in the process.
I ran into Bernie a few years later at O’Hare airport and we shared a cab back to the city. I’d just finished editing another pilot that another producer in town was making. I told him that I didn’t think it had much chance of succeeding.
“Where’d he get his OPM?” Bernie asked.
“What’s that?” I wondered.
“Other People’s Money,” he said.
“I think he paid for it himself,” I told Bernie.
“He self-financed?” Bernie exclaimed. “Why, we ought to kick him out of the producer’s union.”
That’s the Bernie I will always cherish and fondly remember.