Evanston RoundTable, Dec. 4, 2014
Sometimes the life of a comedian is anything but funny. Take the schedule of Evanston resident Tim Kazurinsky, comedian, actor, writer and four-season veteran of Saturday Night Live. For the better part of the last year he has been living out of a suitcase, traveling around the country in the musical “Wicked.” Since replacing John Davidson in the role of the Wizard of Oz last February, he has performed in Pittsburgh; Appleton, Wis.; Nashville; Richmond, Va.; Omaha; Sacramento; Tulsa; Salt Lake City; San Jose, Calif.; Albuquerque; Las Vegas and San Diego. The tour is scheduled to end March 15 in Los Angeles.
Aside from a major speaking role, he sings two songs and dances. “I’m not a singer and I’m not a dancer,” says Mr. Kazursinky. “So it really has been a stretch. But I’m enjoying it.”
Good thing, because with his performance schedule of eight shows a week, he’s got precious little time to get home to Evanston to see his wife, Marcia, and their adult son, who works in Evanston. (Their daughter lives in New Zealand.)
Despite the show’s “wicked” schedule, and a lengthy career working in TV, film and stage performance and writing, he’s ever the trouper.
“I’ve gotta say, I’m the luckiest guy in show biz,” he said last January, just before joining the “Wicked” tour. “The thing about show business is that it’s like a giant trip to the circus. I’ve had a blast. And I’ve had a chance to do it all – including come back to the town I love [Chicago] to raise my family.”
The road to Chicago – and Evanston – has been bumpy and circuitous, with stops at Second City in Chicago and TV’s “Saturday Night Live.” Mr. Kazurinsky was born in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, but grew up in Australia, where his father, an American serviceman and World War II veteran, met his mother while serving in the military. Tim was the youngest of five kids. Both his parents were heavy drinkers. “We were very poor,” he said. “We lived in government housing in the slums of Sydney.”
The stress of poverty and dealing with alcoholic parents led to an ulcer by the time he was 14. A doctor urged him to leave home. A week after his 16th birthday he flew to America and moved in with two aunts who lived in Johnstown.
“My vision of America came from ‘Leave It To Beaver’ and ‘The Donna Reed Show,’” he recalled. “But Johnstown was a depressed mining and mill town. I had never seen snow before, never experienced cold like this before. I thought, ‘This is horrible. What have I done?’”
Nevertheless, he made friends, edited his high school newspaper, then took classes and played sports at the local college. Within two years he had a job at the Johnstown newspaper. “The editor said, ‘Can you type?’ I said yeah and proceeded to bang out 28 stories in short order, so he made me a reporter. Only in America,” Mr. Kazurinsky said, adding a quote from Duke Ellington: “I don’t need inspiration, I need a deadline.”
In 1968 he followed his sister to Chicago and took take a job at the Pickle Barrel restaurant at Howard and Western, which his brother-in-law managed. The city was in the thick of Vietnam War protests, and the civil rights and women’s rights movements were well underway as well. “Chicago was the center of the universe,” he said. “It changed my life.” Although he was born a Roman Catholic, working at the Pickle Barrel with its loyal Jewish clientele imbued him with a Jewish outlook and sense of humor (dark) that he strongly identified with. “I felt like I had finally found my tribe,” he said.
After taking classes at Wright Junior College, he left Chicago to enroll at the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana, and from there went to work in 1971 as a copywriter at a St. Louis department store. This prepared him for his next – and arguably most critical – move, back to Chicago, to work as a copywriter at Leo Burnett, the ad agency. “I liked it there,” he recalled. “We had a bunch of creative, talented and problem-solving people.”
His career, however, was hampered by one thing: anxiety around client meetings – in effect, stage fright. “I had a fear of presentations,” he said.
To address the problem he signed up for improv classes at the famed Second City acting company, which, in 1976, was still a young and lean organization. “There was one teacher with 16 people. That was it. Today there are thousands of students. It’s one of the largest theatrical institutions in the world.”
“At first it was intimidating,” he admitted. “I fumbled my way through classes.” But gradually he grew to love acting. His first gig, with comedian George Wendt, was a revue called “Prime Ribbing Very Rare” at the Chateau Louise in West Dundee. It ran for six months in 1977 and, despite “an 80% pay cut” from his ad agency job, he was hooked. From there he worked his way up to Second City main stage, appearing with Jim Belushi, Mary Gross and other soon-to-be famous comedians. Belushi’s brother John mentioned him to “Saturday Night Live” producer Dick Ebersol, and before long, an invitation materialized to go to New York to work on the show.
Thus it was, after only four years acting and writing, that Mr. Kazurinsky found himself on television’s most popular comedy broadcast, with an average weekly share of total viewership of more than 20%. During his four seasons on “SNL,” he appeared with Eddie Murphy, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Joe Piscopo, Robin Duke, Christine Ebersole and other icons of the youth culture.
His favorite character was Havnagootime Vishnuuerheer, a Hindu “Enlightened Master” he developed and played who answered “The Great Unanswered Questions of the Universe.” Typical question: how come tornados only hit trailer parks? Another regular skit was “I Married a Monkey,” a soap opera parody in which Mr. Kazurinsky played Madge the Chimp’s husband. Once, at a Saturday afternoon dress rehearsal, Madge “went ape” and got Mr. Kazurinsky in a vice-like headlock. “I felt like a hazel nut in a nutcracker,” he said. That night, Mr. Kazurinsky was relieved to learn, Madge had been shot up with drugs and was “heavily sedated, practically catatonic.”
One of his favorite colleagues was Eddie Murphy, who was, amazingly, only 19 when he first appeared on the show in 1980. “No one knew he was that young: he was like a savant,” Mr. Kazurinsky said.
Despite the excitement of starring on live national TV, Mr. Kazurinsky became increasingly disillusioned with the show, in part because of its “crushing” schedule – “we were working 80-hour weeks the whole time” – and in 1984 left after a dispute with the producer.
It was, he figured, a good time to go. Other cast members, including Mr. Murphy, were also departing, and he had just gotten married, to Marcia, a fellow actor he met in New York.
During his highly varied post-SNL career, he has written scripts, such as “About Last Night,” and appeared in dozens of movies, perhaps most memorably as Officer Carl Sweetchuck, a role he successfully expanded in the second, third and fourth “Police Academy” movies.
One unusual gig was being invited, with his old pal George Wendt, to Vienna to perform Second City-type material at an English-speaking theater. The prior show had included two Americans who had been warned repeatedly about their inappropriate offstage high-jinks. Despite their promises of good behavior, “We couldn’t have been less mature ourselves,” recalled Mr. Wendt. “We were juvenile, infantile, puerile and naughty. We got thrown out of a hotel and two restaurants. It couldn’t have been more fun.”
Mr. Wendt is effusive in praise of his former acting partner. “He’s a wonderful family man and a hilarious person. He does so much charity work: he’s the go-to comedy writer for a lot of people.”
Just before Mr. Kazurinsky left to take on the Wizard role in “Wicked,” he played one of the four main characters in “Old Jews Telling Jokes,” a role that was informed, he said, by the clientele at the Pickle Barrel all those years before.
The road production of “Wicked,” he said, is “quite the machine – the mechanics, the machinery, the lights. It’s like jumping into Patton’s Third Army. The biggest hardship is being away from home.”
He moved to Evanston in 1990 from an apartment in Chicago. “I didn’t want to leave but we needed a better place to raise the kids. When we looked at the suburbs I thought: ‘Yikes: grown-ups! Republicans! Who are these people?’ Then we found a place in Evanston and fell in love with it. In all the cities I’ve visited on tour, I haven’t found anything like Evanston.”
Despite the challenges, he insists he is “the luckiest man in the world. I go out every night and get laughs. It gives me great pleasure. I enjoy making people happy.”