Chicago: Free to Laugh
They're an odd couple: the blocky, charismatic, contrary black man and the angular, nervous, libertarian white man. Aaron Freeman's comedy is highly intelligent and very physical. Rob Kolson's comedy is highly intelligent and very musical. Together, they wrote and star in Do the White Thing, Chicago's longest-running revue, a revue in which one skit ends with Mikhail Gorbachev on his knees before a giant portrait of Milton Friedman.
Freeman and Kolson met six years ago at a Chicago nightclub where Freeman, now 34, was performing his celebrated brand of standup political comedy and singing song parodies sans accompaniment. Kolson—who is a thesis shy of a doctorate, has taught economics at the University of Chicago's Graduate School of Business, and spent four years as an investment banker ("without a single indictment")—offered his abilities as a self-taught piano virtuoso and music arranger. An act was born.
When Chicago's Organic Theater asked Freeman, 38, to work up a show and Freeman asked Kolson to be a part of it, Kolson at first declined: "I was too busy being president of a whey company up in Wisconsin." But when Freeman pressed, Kolson agreed, and they spent the next six weeks working together almost nonstop. "I was ready to quit that job anyway," rationalizes Kolson. Do the White Thing opened in the Organic Theater's experimental Greenhouse annex in November 1989 and readily, steadily won audiences, moving a few months later to the main stage.
Aaron: I'm an IRS auditor.
I'm gonna give you trouble, just you wait and see.
Rob: He's from the Internal Revenue Service,
And he's gonna seize your property.
Aaron: Unless I get a small fee.
Rob: And if you did absolutely nothing wrong, babe,
Aaron: Well, that don't matter to me. That's because I'm a federal government bureaucrat, babe.
I'm gonna roll all over you.
Rob: He's a federal government bureaucrat, baby.
He's gonna roll all over you.
Aaron: I'm gonna make you blue.
Rob: He's a surly civil servant.
Aaron: You better watch what you do.
"The idea with this show was to write a revue that was structured like a play," says Freeman. Certain bits are the same from show to show, starting with the opening: Freeman and Kolson meet on a street corner while attempting to hail cabs. Freeman gets passed up because he's black; Kolson, because he's traveling with a spinet piano. They introduce themselves to each other and the audience. Freeman: "I'm a political satirist. I make fun of politicians." Kolson: "I'm a financial satirist. I make fun of the people who own them."
Newspaper boxes with the day's Chicago Tribune and Sun-Times provide the grist for a regular improvisational feature. Freeman and Kolson also improvise a song, using audience suggestions. "Sometimes it really comes together, with harmonies and everything," observes Kolson, "and then everyone thinks we wrote it ahead of time."
Other skits, most of them evolving to stay current, include Saddam Hussein's attempt to escape retribution by hiding out inside the ego of Jesse Jackson; "West Bank Story"; German reunification; and Mikhail Gorbachev's conversion to the concept of the free-market economy. Freeman and Kolson bring the local, national, and international news into the show, explaining—without appearing to do so—which politician is which for the benefit of those who generally confine their newspaper reading to the sports section.
Songs are a part of almost every sketch, whether delivered by Kolson, smirking behind his piano or guitar, or by Freeman in his typically over-the-top, death-or-glory style. They exploit all styles, from Broadway ("Give me a world where the markets are free/And the government stays away from me/And everyone believes in private property/That's libertarianism!") to the blues, and from country and western ("Don't really care if she cooks/Don't give a damn about her looks/Don't even care if she's funny/I just care she knows money!") to the more pretentious sort of rock. The songs may be solos or duets, but they're always boffo—and behind the yucks always lurks a serious point.
The emotional high point of the production is Freeman's re-enactment of his brother Julius's death from lung cancer, the source of the revue's title. Julius, doped on morphine, is ready to go to the place where the colors all converge to make white light—"Do the white thing!"—but returns to say farewell to his daughter. It's a touching tribute to a brother—and it took some courage to put it into a comedy revue.
But Courage is Freeman's middle name in actual fact, and he and Kolson aren't lacking in chutzpah. The show has included AIDS jokes, and a leitmotif turns the name of a prominent Cook County politician into a sexual dysfunction. The authors/stars confess to some surprise that Do the White Thing has been such a hit.
"Isn't it amazing that a show has been running for 15 months that uses the word libertarian at least 10 times?" asks Kolson in a February interview. "And Milton Friedman appears as a deus ex machina. People must think we're crazy!"
In fact, says Kolson, "People tend to interpret the show as close to their own perspective. It appeals to all spectrums." "Actually, people say, 'He's not really a libertarian, is he?'" growls Freeman.
Freeman isn't. His objections seem to turn on one thing: In a completely free market system, individuais could be turned away from private establishments because of race, something he calls "evil," and he characterizes libertarians as "anarchists with credit cards."
Yet Freeman came up with Gorbachev's line, "Democracy is the horse we will ride with freedom and capitalism right alongside." "And I said, 'General audience—maybe it's a little strong,'" recalls Kolson. "And then Aaron got into an argument with our director—who is a socialist and a defender of the Soviet Union and wanted to take that line out about what horrible things socialism had done to that country. It was too wonderful for words.
Rob: I'm an FDA researcher.
I like to play with rats and mice.
Aaron: He's an FDA researcher,
And he's gonna give you some advice.
Rob: Diet soda's not nice.
Aaron: So you know what he'll do if you keep on drinkin' it, girl.
Rob: I'm gonna put you on ice.
That's 'cause I'm a federal government bureaucrat.
I'm gonna roll all over you.
Aaron: Yeah, he's a federal government bureaucrat.
He's gonna roll all over you.
Rob: I'm gonna make you stew.
Aaron: He's a surly civil servant.
Rob: You better watch what you do.
Now two-thirds of the way through what its authors/stars expect to be a 30-month run, Do the White Thing recently moved to Chicago's Steppenwolf Theater—at 200 seats, a somewhat more intimate venue than the 300-perch Organic.
"This is now the second-longest running show in Chicago," says Kolson. "Second only to Shear Madness," adds Freeman. Shear Madness, he explains matter-of-factly, is "the longest-running play in Chicago history…first performed by Jean-Baptiste Pointe du Sable in the late 18th century."
"The greatest thing about this is that we've got a show here that's been running for 15 months, and it's right in the middle of its run; the last couple of months have been the highest box office ever—it's a hit, it's a big hit, and it talks about libertarianism," says Kolson. "We don't market it that way—God forbid we should say it's political satire. God forbid we should say it's intellectual. We say it's "funny."
"We don't say it's 'smart'!" stresses Freeman. "We tell people who like it, 'Please, please, do not tell anybody that it's smart! '"
"…because people who are not intellectual enjoy it too," continues Kolson. "…people who don't know who Milton Friedman is, which is about 90 percent of the audience," interrupts Freeman.
"People come to the show because they've heard it's funny," Kolson goes on. "People have told me that they're not fans of political satire, but they really liked the show, because they're fans of comedy. We don't want to eliminate anyone from our potential audience."
And they haven't. After all, says Freeman, "I never said I was anticapitalist!"
Aaron: Hey,I'm a defense department purchasing agent.
I waste billions every day.
Rob: I'm a health and human services administrator.
I waste billions every day.
Both: But really that's OK.
'Cause ya know it just ain't our money,
So we can spend it any old way.
We're peevish paper pushers.
Aaron: We've got a lotta gall.
Rob: We make tens of thousands every year.
Both: And we do nothing of value at all.
Because we're federal government bureaucrats, momma.
Bryan Miller is a Chicago-based freelance writer.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Chicago: Free to Laugh".