The DNAinfo archives brought to you by WNYC.
Read the press release here.

The Playground Theater's New Classes Start With Rule No. 1: Don't Be a Perv

By Mark Konkol | February 17, 2016 5:34am
 Improviser Sarah Dell'Amico (right) had her hands full with this group of nervous, awkward and sometimes accidentally funny comedy students at The Playground Theater's
Improviser Sarah Dell'Amico (right) had her hands full with this group of nervous, awkward and sometimes accidentally funny comedy students at The Playground Theater's "Improvisers Resource and Training Center" inaugural comedy class.
View Full Caption
DNAinfo/ Mark Konkol

LAKEVIEW — Over the weekend, I was part of Chicago comedy history. Well, sort of.

It all started a few weeks back. I decided to bully a notorious bully from childhood — Scott Knittle is his name.

The guy gets laughs by being especially loud and obnoxious after a few too many beers, and he's always wondered if he was actually funny or just too tipsy to care. Many have argued the latter.

So I called Knittle chicken, so to speak, signed us up for an improv comedy class at The Playground Theater and dared the big bully to show up or be ridiculed on Facebook.

On Saturday, Ol' Scotty sat in the front row pretending not to be terrified. I was strangely proud of the old bully who made it his life’s work to terrify his brother and me when we were growing up.

That’s when a sandy-haired improviser with face for TV, Bill Meincke (he’s the son of retired ABC7 reporter Paul Meincke, by the way), said our small group was indeed the first class at The Playground’s newly launched “Improvisers Resource and Training Center.”

He turned things over to our teacher, Sarah Dell’Amico, who introduced herself as former teenage drug dealer for the Latin Kings of South Florida.

Dell’Amico didn’t throw any gang signs or sport a teardrop face tattoo, so it was hard to tell if she was kidding about that. After a while, though, one thing was clear, she’s pretty hilarious.

Dell’Amico’s introduction to funny began with a serious topic that’s been in the news recently — trouble with subtle sexual harassment in Chicago’s improv comedy scene.

Sometimes the harassment manifests on stage as a “playful and funny” grab here or there — but to the lady on the receiving end, it's neither playful nor funny. In other cases, it’s a “rape joke,” which isn’t funny and should be an oxymoron. And too often, funny ladies face the persistent unwanted sexual advances by funny men who should know better.

Dell’Amico offered universally good advice that improvisers and non-funny people should all heed, including: "Respect each other” and “If you feel uncomfortable, say something ... and we can talk about it.”

Just before moving on to the teaching part of comedy class, Dell’Amico said, “And let’s not bring any knives to class, OK.”

I'm not sure what that's all about, but the knife ban definitely got her point across. And we all laughed, possibly to hide our fear.

Together, The Playground’s first students were a little nervous and very awkward. In our best moments, though, we were actually funny ... for a bunch of mostly rookies. Or at least that’s what our supportive teacher told us. I either believe her or am smart enough to not argue with a former employee of the South Florida branch of the Latin Kings.

Knittle, the former bully of my youth, seemed to be having a great time as we “played some games,” as the improvisers say, and learned our first lessons in comedy the Chicago Way. (If you want to know what that means, sign up for a class yourself.)

The Playground's first training-center session really was a historic day for the little theater company that former Mayor Richard M. Daley's code enforcement goons once shooed away from its original Lincoln Avenue location across from the bar where I worked in 2002.

That's where I first met The Playground’s president Matt Barbera, who helped move the theater to its current digs at 3209 N. Halsted St. and cement its place in Chicago’s comedy universe.

For years, the tiny black box theater that could has been an important place for comedians, some who have gone on to pretty amazing things, to get stage time to hone their craft. The new training center, well, it aims to expand on that funny foundation.

“And now we are taking all those on stage lessons and bringing them to our students. We have been lucky enough to work with every level of performer at the PG from first-timers to those that you see on TV and in movies,” Barbera said.

“In improv you learn from your scene partners to build a bigger funnier world. At The PG we've learned from our performers to build a more personal and fun training center. It cements our place as a great starting ground for comedy.”

And The Playground training center isn’t just for newbies and bullies from the old neighborhood who get threatened with Facebook shaming.

These days, according to published reports, it seems some veteran improvisers could stand to learn thing or two about the current state of funny business.

It starts with Rule No. 1: Try not to be a perv.

To learn more, check out theplaygroundtheater.com

For more neighborhood news, listen to DNAinfo Radio here: